My mother and I ran away after the trial.
We’d gone back to the house and it felt completely wrong: too big, too empty, too booby-trapped with memories.
I used to sit there by the front window when I was a little kid, waiting for Daddy to come home from work. . . . He won’t be coming home now.
We always put our Christmas tree in that corner. Why would we bother putting up a Christmas tree ever again? What would we have to celebrate?
I wandered through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. Mom had sold off all the furniture that was worth anything, so only the mismatched and the broken and the pathetic remained behind: chairs too spindly to actually sit on, lamps that would have been yard-sale rejects, things we’d put down in the basement to fix or give away and then, in happier times, simply forgotten. We’d been eating our meals the past few months at a card table with a bad leg, so I’d gotten into the habit of holding onto my dishes as I ate, for fear that the table would suddenly plunge to the floor and all would be lost. But now even that card
table looked like an ancient artifact, a remnant of a more hopeful life.
Because hadn’t the plunge I was most afraid of just happened? Wasn’t everything lost now? Why had I been foolish enough to think I could save anything by holding on?
Like the furniture, I was just some pathetic broken thing left behind. I’d been powerless to stop anything.
In the kitchen, I bumped into the back wall. I felt so ghostlike and hollow that I was almost baffled at not being able to just walk on through it. Maybe I was more like a different kind of monster: one of those zombies that got trapped in a corner and could never turn around, and so just kept walking endlessly in place, going nowhere.
I made a sound deep in my throat that might have been the start of a chuckle if it’d come from somebody else’s throat, at some other time.
Or the start of hysterics, coming from my throat, then.
“Oh,” Mom said from behind me. “The calendar. That. When . . .”
I’d forgotten about Mom being there. Which was weird, because we’d practically been joined at the hip during the trial: hustled together past the waiting cameras into the federal courthouse each day; sitting side by side in the courtroom’s churchlike wooden pews throughout the testimony, even taking bathroom breaks together because it was easier for the paralegal to sneak us in and out all at once.
I turned around—see, I can do that much! I’m not actually a zombie, after all! But any small burst of triumph I felt disappeared at the sight of Mom.
She was still wearing the conservative gray suit she’d had on in court. The lawyer had given strict instructions about what Mom and I were supposed to wear: Everything had to be bland,
dull colored, unprovocative. Who actually owns clothes like that? On our budget—on what had become of our budget—this meant shopping in secondhand stores in hopes of finding something left over from the 1950s. Hopefully, previously owned by a nun.
“No teenager should have a whole section of her closet devoted to going-to-court clothes,” Mom had said once, standing in the doorway of my room.
But I did.
At fourteen, I was still small boned and flat chested and scrawny. The best I could hope for in those courtroom clothes was that they might make me look Amish. And so that was one of the thoughts that had gotten me through the hours of testimony.
I am not going to get upset about the awful things people are saying about my father. I will just pretend I am a simple Amish girl with nothing on my mind except milking cows and churning butter. And God. Wouldn’t a simple Amish girl think about God? Wouldn’t she be praying with all her simple heart that her father would be cleared of all the charges against him?
She would have, and I did too.
But the jury found my father guilty.
I was still staring at Mom. I realized I was trying to get my eyes to see her differently: in a floral sundress, maybe, her honey-colored hair sculpted perfectly around her smiling face, a pitcher of lemonade and a tray of sugar cookies in her hands as she headed outside to host a pool party or a garden party or yet another of my famous birthday parties. . . . That was my real mother. That was how she was supposed to look, how she was supposed to act.
Except our pool was drained and covered now. We hadn’t used it all summer. We’d stopped the yard service, and the garden was being taken over by kudzu. And my birthday . . . my
birthday had happened during the trial. Mom had tried to celebrate, as much as she could. She’d suggested a special breakfast before court: maybe something from Starbucks, a forbidden luxury now. Or maybe a late dinner after court with a few friends, not the usual huge pack but the really special ones, the ones who had stayed by me.
“No,” I said. And Mom was kind: She let it go. She didn’t make me spell out my reasons.
This birthday could never be anything but awful, and pretending to celebrate would only make things worse. And, anyhow, what makes you think I have any friends who stayed by me?
I didn’t receive a single happy birthday e-mail, card, or call. The closest thing I got to a gift was a lie I allowed myself about why all my friends had ignored my birthday:
That’s just not how teenagers do things. If I still had a cell phone, my friends would be texting me birthday wishes like crazy. If the lawyer hadn’t told me to take down my Facebook page, I’d see a thousand “Happy Birthdays” there. Everybody says happy birthday on Facebook, no matter what. No matter who you’re related to.
Actually, one other person besides Mom did remember: Daddy. He turned around in his defendant’s seat, even though he wasn’t supposed to, and he gave me a big thumbs-up and mouthed the words, Fourteen today! My grown-up girl!
There was more that he expected me to lip read—probably something about how he’d throw me a really huge party after this whole mess was over, after he’d proved he was innocent and he’d won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for being prosecuted unfairly. But I’d looked away, drilling my gaze into the official United States court seal on the wall. Above the words “Northern District of Georgia,” the arrows in the eagle’s claw looked mercilessly sharp.
“It’s next week,” Mom said, bringing me back to our own
kitchen, to the postverdict world, to a real life that simply could not be mine.
“Huh?” I said. I put together everything Mom had said: Oh, the calendar. That. When . . . It’s next week. I couldn’t tell if the problem was that she wasn’t making sense, or that I was incapable of finding sense in anything anymore.
Mom lifted one shaking hand and pointed at a single square on the calendar on the wall: Tuesday, August 4. Way back at the beginning of the year, Mom had drawn a lacy border around that date and written in her frothy, exuberant script: “Becca’s first day of high school! Hurray!”
Tuesday, August 4, was next week.
Even though I’d completely forgotten about it, high school was one week—no, five days—away.
I backed away from the calendar.
“Mom, I can’t,” I said, my voice clotted with shame. “I can’t do it. Everybody will know.”
She looked at me, looked deep. And I think she had to have seen the truth in what I was saying, or at least my rock-solid conviction: I really couldn’t. I couldn’t climb the stairs of Belpre High School. I couldn’t walk those marbled hallways that had seemed so shiny and exciting and promise filled back during eighth-grade visit day, back before my father was arrested. I couldn’t fold my body into those gleaming wooden desks and sit there and learn anything about English or science or math while I was assaulted with stares and whispers and behind-my-back gossip: “Don’t you know who that is? Don’t you know what her father did?” I couldn’t go to cheerleading tryouts or football games or homecoming dances. With all the crimes that the jury had convicted my father of, they’d actually left one out: He also stole high school from me.
And Mom knew this. I could see it in her eyes, as she was seeing it in mine.
“Then . . . don’t,” Mom said, as if she were just now figuring this out. As if it were easy. “You don’t have to go to Belpre. You can go somewhere else. Somewhere nobody knows about your daddy.”
I let out a bitter laugh, twisted and mean.
“Mom, it was on the news,” I said. “Everybody knows everywhere.”
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—it was like I could feel the news spreading, right that moment. The news of the verdict would be on TV newscasts and radio talk shows and Internet websites. I could practically hear the words whispering past me, the invisible waves streaming through me, a poison, an epidemic, a plague. It would be on Facebook already, that mix of gloating disguised as sympathy (Did y’all hear Becca’s daddy’s going to prison? Can you imagine what it’d be like to be her?) and the comments that were nothing but pure meanness (They should have the death penalty for people like him. . . . And what about Becca? Don’t you think she and her mom knew all along what he was doing?).
“I don’t mean around here,” Mom said. She was starting to get a wild look in her eye. She ran her hand over her head, knocking against the severe barrette that had clenched her hair back into its prim court-appropriate bun. The barrette hung half-in, half-out. “We could move. We could go far away, where nobody knows anything about us. We could start fresh.”
“Mom, it was on the national news, remember?” I reminded her. “It was on CNN. It was in The New York Times. There’s nowhere we can go to get away from this.” I looked down at my sacklike dress. “Unless you want to go live with the Amish. Or in Antarctica.”
Mom yanked out a kitchen drawer and pulled out the tray of silverware. It was like she was preparing to pack already.
“Mom?” I said doubtfully.
Mom pulled out the next drawer and added a stack of dish towels on top of the silverware. She was getting ready to pack.
“Everybody’s heard about your father and what he did,” she said. “Everybody saw pictures of him. But not pictures of us. Not so much. Not as many. That’s why we always hid our faces, going in and out of court.”
She started to laugh, a little manically.
“Really, who’s going to remember your name? Or mine?” She flailed her arms wildly. “Our last name is Jones! Jones! There are a million Joneses! Even the IRS can’t keep track of them all!”
This had been a major factor in Daddy’s trial, because some other Roger Jones’s tax records had gotten mixed up with his. The lawyer had thought it would be a way for Daddy to get off scot-free. He’d been wrong, but Mom seemed to have forgotten this.
She moved on to yanking open the cabinet where we kept our plates.
“It’s perfect!” she cried. “Why didn’t I think of this sooner? We don’t have to get fake, new, anonymous-sounding names to go into hiding because we already have anonymous-sounding names. We’ll just go where nobody knows us, and we’ll be fine!”
She pulled down a stack of plates and began counting mugs. If I didn’t do something soon, she’d have the whole kitchen in boxes.
“Mom, what about . . . ,” I began. I really wanted to say, “What about our friends? How could we leave them?” But I couldn’t force the words out. Not after nobody had wished me happy birthday. Not after all the casseroles and the drop-by visitors had stopped showing up on our doorstep about the time it became clear that this wasn’t just “one huge awful governmental mistake,” as everyone had wanted to believe.
“What about your job?” I asked instead. “You said you were going to get a job.”
Mom stopped her counting and looked me right in the face.
“Who was ever going to hire a notorious criminal’s wife?” she asked.
I heard an echo in her words, something she would never say but I knew was there: And who would ever give a criminal’s daughter a fair shake in high school? Who would ever pick her as a cheerleader, who would ever give her the lead in the school play, who would even save her a seat in the school cafeteria?
Mom put her arm around my shoulder and hugged me close.
“But everything will be fine, as long as nobody knows who we are,” she said. “It’ll be like . . . like our own private witness protection program.”
“Witness” sounded like such a pure, innocent word. Like some poor unsuspecting bystander who had just accidentally ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone who deserved protection, who deserved to be kept safe from crimes and criminals and everything else that was ugly and evil in this world.
I was standing there in my stripped-bare house, having just spent the past three weeks hearing that everything I thought I knew about my father and my family and my safe, happy, cozy childhood was wrong. It was like my life had been picked over by vultures—my memories of the past were ruined and my dreams for the future were ruined and everyone and everything I’d ever cared about was ruined. I was standing there in a baglike dress that might as well have been sackcloth and ashes.
And Mom was saying we could walk away from all that. We could start over again, clean and fresh and new.
And maybe she could. But the purity, the innocence of that word “witness” hovered just out of reach for me. I couldn’t claim it for myself.
How could I, when I’d been the reason for my father’s crimes?