He is Our Son by Marie Shield


 

Jill bends over the sofa and nuzzles Steve’s neck. “Ready to go when you are, Sweetie. Let’s try to get there before the after church crowd.”

“Hmmm.” He pulls her down beside him. “Watch this with me, Babe. I caught the tail end of it a minute ago. It’s supposed to run again right after the commercials.”

“Police believe dozens of people watched a 15-year-old girl get beaten and gang-raped outside Lakeview High School homecoming dance without reporting it. We take you live to Nancy Nguyen at the scene.”

The reporter is standing in front of a concrete bench with dark stains on it. The wind picks up, blowing Nguyen’s hair across her face, empty paper cups around her feet. The camera moves down the sidewalk showing a broken bottle of Bacardi and a litter of beer cans.

“Our Lakeview? Did they give the girl’s name yet?” Jill asks.

“They probably won’t release it. She’s a minor.”

“Did you hear Zack and Heather come home last night?”

Steve shakes his head.

Jill races up the stairs and knocks on Heather’s door.  She pounds on it until her daughter cracks it open.

“Mom.” Heather gave her best teenage eyeroll.  “What’s wrong with you?”

“Thank god. There was a…an incident at the dance. We were asleep when you got home last night.”

Jill reaches out to hug her. Heather bats her arm aside, “Later, Mom.  Love you too.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to make sure you’re okay…”

Heather smiles, rolls her eyes and pushes on the door until Jill backs away

Steve mutes the television as she sits down beside him.

“They’re fine. I feel like a shit.” Jill sighs. “This morning I was thinking I can’t wait for them to leave home and take their laundry with them.”

“The District Attorney announced three arrests have been made. One of the men is a twenty-three year old and allegedly a gang member; the other two are juveniles attending Lakeview High School, but may be tried as adults. It’s still unknown how many men and boys participated in the rape and beating; or if this incident is related to the growing gang activity in the area.” The television news switches to another commercial break.

“We might as well go get the groceries,” Steve says. “They’re just repeating what they’ve already said.”

“Girls are so vulnerable. Heather’s friends are all boy crazy. I hope it wasn’t one of them.” Jill says. “How many boys Zack’s age would cancel his own plans to take his kid-sister to a high school dance? I just love him for doing it.”

They’re both quiet on the drive to the store.

Jill’s parents were Christmas and Easter Catholics, but sent her to Catholic girl’s schools. The religion didn’t stick but the morals, values and guilt did.

Jill has suggested Catholic or some other private school for Zack and Heather on more than one occasion. Steve’s adamantly opposed to any kind of religious education and firmly supports the public school system.

Moving Heather to Catholic or any other school for her last two years of high school isn’t an answer.  

They say hello to Heather’s math teacher, the neighbors who live two doors down from them, the store manager, and chat with their favorite checker while she scans their groceries.

As they pull into their driveway, Jill says, “Sort of odd not one person mentioned what happened last night.”

Steve shrugs. “Yeah, now that you mention it. But then… neither did we.”

He drops a case of water on the kitchen counter. “That’s the last of it,” he says. “Sounds like the kids are up.”

Jill turns off the radio

“What’s wrong, Honey?” Steve puts his arm around her shoulder, she’s trembling.

“They found the girl. Her parents called her cell phone when she didn’t come home after the dance. When she didn’t answer, her father went looking for her. They said he found her a few feet from where she was raped. She’s in the hospital…not critical but…Oh, God, Steve. It could have been Heather and we didn’t even wait up for her.”

“Hey, take it easy,” he says. “Zack wouldn’t let anything happen to Heather. You’re overreacting.” He clears his throat. “They’re coming down.”

“We’re gonna go get a Big Mac, I’m starving.” Heather says. “There’s never anything to eat in this house.” She opens the freezer, takes out a half gallon of Butter Pecan and gets a tablespoon. “So, who had a wreck last night?”

“Well, good morning to you, too,” Jill says.

“Get a bowl,” Steve says. “Your mom just spent three-hundred bucks on groceries. There’s plenty to eat. What wreck? Who said there was a wreck?”

“Mom said there was an accident.” She eats the ice cream directly from the carton.

“Incident, not accident.” Jill says. “They haven’t released her name. A sophomore girl was attacked at the dance last night.”

“Attacked? You mean like…killed?” 

“I’m going. You coming?” Zack jangles his car keys, moves toward the door. “Come on. Let’s go.” The muscles in his jaw twitch.

“Hold on a minute, Zack,” Jill says.

Zack starts to walk out of the kitchen. Steve steps in front of him. “Don’t walk out of the room when your mother’s talking to you. What do you know about this? Were you there?”

“Of course he wasn’t there,” Jill says.

 Heather rolls her eyes and looks disgusted. “I bet she already did it with half the boys at Lakeview.”

Jill wants to slap her. “You were there. You know what happened?”

“Everybody does by now. It’s all over the net.”

“Where on the net? Show me,” Steve says.

“Yuck, Dad. Don’t be a perve,” Heather says. “I’m not going to look at that with you.”

Jill starts upstairs, gripping the banister as if she might fall without support. As she throws Heather’s bedroom door open, she realizes her daughter has followed her.

“How come you’re going in my room without asking?” Heather’s face is a defiant grimace, but her voice is small.

“This is my house, Heather. And don’t you use that tone of voice with me, Missy.”

“Ha. You’re only a believer in respecting other people’s privacy when it’s your stuff.”

“I am just about to slap the holy shit out of you.” Jill shoves Heather into the room.

“What’s wrong with you, Mom?” Heather whines.

Heather’s computer is on, the screen asleep. Jill pauses, afraid of what she might see, then taps the mouse and a video of boys in tuxedos, girls in evening dresses, a few boys and girls in street clothes. Some of the girls look young enough to be in grade school, some of the boys far past their teens.

The camera pans to a girl lying across what Jill recognizes as one of the cement benches scattered around the school yard. The top of the girl’s strapless gown is pulled down. She looks barely conscious. A boy in a tux is between her legs, unzipping his pants. Jill’s first reaction is to shield Heather from seeing the screen. But the culpable look on her daughter’s face tells her Heather already knows what’s there.

“Did you take this with your cell?” Jill asks, sure her daughter did, praying she didn’t.

Heather nods and backs away. “Why are you mad at me?” Her lip trembles. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t do anything? Do you see what I’m seeing here?”

Heather nods again.

“What do you see? Tell me. Heather…I want you to tell me what you see.”

“Mom…” Tears roll down Heather’s cheeks. “You’re being a bully.” She wipes her nose on her shirt sleeve.

Jill grabs the back of her daughter’s hair and forces her to face the screen. “Do you know this girl?”

“Not really. She’s in Honors. We have a couple of the same classes.” Heather covers her mouth with her hands. “Please, Mom. Turn it off. I hate this. I’m sorry. Can I go?”

“No. You cannot.” Jill’s voice escalates. “Who is she? What’s her name?”

Jill’s shaking, breathing hard. It shouldn’t, but somehow the fact that the girl is in the program for gifted students makes it worse.

“Her name is Grace Lopez,” Heather mumbles, then louder. “Please stop. I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t do anything. You took these, didn’t you?” Jill shoves her again, vaguely aware Steve has stepped into the room. Heather throws her arms over her head and ducks. 

“Tell me how this is nothing. Why you didn’t call 911? What the hell is wrong with you? You are…Don’t you realize this could have been you?”

Steve grips Jill’s arm, pulling her away, “You’re scaring her, Jill.”

Jill jerks her arm out of his grip. “I don’t care if I’m scaring her. Look at this. What’s the matter with you people?”

“Go on downstairs and wait with your brother.” Steve steers Heather toward the door. “Your mom and I will be down in a minute.”  

“Dad, I swear, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I know, Sweetheart. We need to sit down and talk this out, decide what we need to do. If anything.” He hugs her to his chest and kisses the top of her head.

Jill stares at the computer screen, swallows the bile that fills her mouth and looks up at her husband. “I can’t believe you.” 

“We don’t know what happened, Jill.”

Jill wants to lash out at her husband. She rewinds the video on Heather’s computer until she finds what she’s looking for. The film jumps around as if the person making the video is being jostled; none of the faces of the boys holding the girl down on the bench are in focus. Then, the girl’s face fills the screen, blood streaming from her nose, her open mouth, two broken and one missing tooth. The camera pans up to the face of the boy who has her hair in his fists; holding the terrified girl’s face up to the camera as he roughly penetrates her from behind. Zack.

Steve sits on Heather’s bed. The vitality drains from his face. His skin becomes slack, the laugh wrinkles around his mouth and eyes droop. He looks old.

“No,” he says. “That’s not right.”

“We need to take this to the police, Steve.”

He stands, goes to the window, looks down at the yard. His body is shaking. Jill wonders if he’s crying. He squares his shoulders. “He’s our son. We’re supposed to support him, not crucify him.”

He looks at her as if she’s a stranger who’s just done something vile. He shakes his head and walks out of the room. Jill slides a disc into Heather’s computer and taps the keys to backup the video.

Steve pauses halfway down the stairs. Part of her wants him to come back and talk to her. Part of her hopes he doesn’t.

 Jill takes the disc out and puts it in a case and erases the video on Heather’s computer. Why does she feel the need to save it? She has no answer, but it seems important to have proof, though what it proves is her worst nightmare.

The front door opens, and she hears Steve ask, “Where do you think you’re going?”

Jill steps into the hallway so she can hear what’s happening.

“I need to get out of here, Dad,” Zack says. “Heather says Mom’s freaking. I can’t deal with this tension.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Steve says. “Give me those car keys.”

“You can’t treat me like this. I’m not some little kid anymore. I said, I need to get out of here.”

“Gimme the damn keys,” Steve yells.

Jill moves to the railing where she can see what’s happening in the foyer.

“Fuck it. I’ll walk,” Zack throws the keys at Steve’s feet.

Steve grabs Zack by the front of his letterman jacket and shoves him. “Think you’re a man?” Steve shoves him again. “You little pussy.”

Zack shrugs off the jacket and steps toward Steve with his fists raised. “Don’t do that, Dad. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Jill covers her mouth as Steve slams a fist into Zack’s gut, follows it with a solid punch to the jaw. Zack staggers, bending at the waist and Steve knocks him to the ground. Rolls him onto his back and punches him in the face.

“Are we done here? Or do you want to take it out back.” Steve sounds out of breath. “Or maybe you should get some of your buddies to beat up your old man the way you beat and raped that little girl last night.”

Zack sits up. “Jesus, Dad. I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I – -”

“Get out of my sight. I’ll deal with you later.”

“Can I go then?” Zack reaches for the car keys.

“Hell no.” Steve picks up the keys, goes out the front door slamming it behind him.

Heather’s crying in the door of the living room. “Are you hurt bad, Zack? Should we go to the doctor?”

“Naw. I let him win.”

Jill almost laughs. Sure you did.

Zack walks over to Heather and puts his arm around her. “Don’t worry about it, Sis. Dad’s not going to let anything happen to us.”

“I think Mom showed him the video I took last night.”

“Ah, shit. Show me.”

Jill closes her bedroom door and lies down on the bed. How could this have happened? Good kids. They’ve always been good kids. She and Steve have reason to be proud of them. Polite, good grades, popular with teachers and classmates. Anytime they’d been disobedient, broken the rules, been unkind to those less fortunate, it was because ‘everybody’s doing it’. Jill’s response was the same her mother’s had been when she was a child, “I don’t care if everybody does it, you don’t and you won’t as long as you live in this house.” She couldn’t wrap her mind around how they could have committed such heinous amoral acts. What had she missed? Where had she failed?

She hears Zack and Heather talking in Heather’s room. She doesn’t want to know what they’re saying; seriously doubts either of them will question her about what happened to the video.

Zack can’t deal with the tension. Zack can’t deal with the tension. Zack can’t… Because of the anxiety she feels about having her teeth worked on, Jill’s dentist has given her a prescription for Valium to keep her from hyperventilating. That anxiety’s minor compared to what she’s feeling now. She goes into the bathroom, takes one, sits on the edge of the tub until it begins to take effect, then takes another.

Sometime during the night, Heather lies down on the bed with her. “Mom?” she shakes Jill’s shoulder. “Can I sleep with you?”

“Hmmm,” Jill sits up, dizzy and drowsy. “What time is it?”

“I dunno,” Heather says. “Maybe ten-thirty. Dad’s yelling at Zack again. I don’t want him to yell at me too.”

Jill listens, she can hear Steve hollering, but not what he’s saying. “Where are they?”

“Down in the family room,” Heather says.

“Sure, Sweetheart.” She pulls her daughter into bed. Heathers spoons close and wraps Jill’s arm tight around her own small body.

“I love you, mama.” Within moments Heather is purring a soft snore and once again becomes Jill’s angel, her little girl, her baby.

Jill hears the telephone ring. Steve must have answered it. She no longer hears him shouting at Zack. It’s Steve’s way. When he’s upset, he yells, threatens and stomps around with closed fists. It used to frighten Jill, for herself, for her children. But, this is the first time he’s ever laid a hand on any of them. He’s never followed through on his threats. It’s usually over fairly soon and he finds some physical activity, usually going to the gym to play racquet ball or work the bag.

 

Jill’s making coffee when Steve stumbles into the kitchen, hair mussed; wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, bags under his eyes.

“Are you okay?” she asks. Stupid question, clearly he’s not.

“I saw Heather in bed with you. I caught a couple hours on the sofa downstairs,” He reaches for a cup and pours the still brewing coffee. “I talked to Bergstrom last night.”

Steve and Don Bergstrom both started their careers in corporate law. Don found it boring and moved on to criminal defense. The more successful Don became, the more he bragged about getting clients who were guilty off, and the less Jill liked him. The thought of having him defend her son nauseates her. As much as she loathes Don, they couldn’t get a better attorney for Zack to receive a lesser conviction. She doesn’t want her son to go to prison.

“I’m going to grab a shower,” Steve says. “We need to be at the courthouse in about an hour.”

Before Jill can ask why, Heather comes into the kitchen. Steve kisses the top of her head on his way out the door. “Morning, Pumpkin.”

Jill pours herself a cup of coffee. Heather asks if she can have one.

At some point in the last year, Heather started to join her mother for a morning cup of coffee. Sometimes to discuss something troubling her, or to share good news, juicy gossip from school, but mostly just to spend a few minutes alone together.

“Mom?” Heather waits until her mother’s sits at the granite topped breakfast bar with her. “Do you think…am I evil?” Her throat closes on the last word and ‘evil’ comes out a squeak.

Jill presses her lips together, forces herself to look directly at Heather. “I don’t know. Do you think you are?”

“I don’t know either.” Silent tears drip from Heather’s cheeks and chin. 

“Get a tissue, Honey.”

Heather swipes her face with her hands. “Is Zack?”

“What he did is. But I don’t need to tell you that.” Jill can’t read her daughter’s lack of reaction. “Do I?”

“So much stuff goes on you and Dad don’t know about. Lots of girls think it makes them popular to pull a train.”

Jill is horrified her daughter even knows what it is. She doesn’t remember when she first heard of it, but knows she was an adult and it was called a gang-bang. Sometimes things got out of hand and a girl got hurt, but more often not. And what Jill saw on the video was not a train or gang-bang, it was multiple rape and violence.

“Do you think it makes girls popular?”

“No… I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t do it.” Heather fiddles with the clasp on her watch, won’t look at Jill. “Mom, Zack was really drunk.”

“And you? Were you drunk?”

“A little.”

“And you want me to tell you that excuses what you did? What Zack did? If what happened to that girl happened to you, do you think I’d just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘oh, well, they were drunk, so it doesn’t matter how much they hurt my little girl or if they ruined her life.’ Who’s responsible for Zack getting drunk? And who held you down and forced you to drink?”

“I wish it would go away. That it never happened.”

The self-pity in Heather’s voice angers Jill. She stands and tears off a paper towel and hands it to her daughter.

“Please, Mom.” Heather clutches her mother’s arm, sobbing harder. “Please don’t be mad at me. I can’t stand it. Please. Please. Don’t be mad.”

“Are you crying because we found out or because you’re ashamed of what you did? What you did was a terrible thing. You should have gone for help. Instead you stood there and filmed it. I could hear you giggling on the tape, Heather.”

“It wasn’t me. I wish I’d never gone to the stupid prom. None of this would ever have happened.”

Jill is fairly certain it was Heather’s laugh she heard along with other sounds and voices, but rather than accuse her of lying when she’s not positive, she lets it go.

“But it did,” Jill wraps her arm around Heather and pats her back. “We’re going to have to find some way to live with it. I wish I knew how.”

She brushes tears of her own away when she realizes Steve has come into the kitchen.

“Come on you two, crying about it isn’t going to solve anything,” he says. “Go wash your face, Heather. Pull yourself together before you come downstairs.”

He waits until Heather leaves the room. “For god’s sake, Jill, this isn’t about you. You’re supposed to set the example.”

“I need some time.”

“There isn’t any time. I talked to Bergstrom last night.”

“So you said.”

“He called me back this morning. We’re meeting him at the district attorney’s office. Zack will give the D.A. the names of the other boys in exchange for keeping his name out of it.”

“You’re cutting a deal to get him off?”

Steve looks at her for a long moment. “What did you expect we’d do?” Jill shakes her head and looks away. He hollers. “Get a move on, Heather. Let’s go.”

“I don’t want her involved in this. Not in any way.”

“I don’t think that’s going to work. She’ll need to corroborate Zack’s story.”

“She’s not going with you, Steve. And neither am I.”

Heather comes to the top of the stairs and asks if she has time to wash her hair.

“You have plenty of time, Honey,” Jill raises her voice and says. “Go ahead and wash your hair.”

Is it contempt or hatred Jill sees in Steve’s eyes? Either way she can’t bear it. She turns her back on him. A moment later she hears him muttering something to Zack. The front door closes, the car doors slam and they’re gone. She’s been holding her breath since Steve walked out of the kitchen.

 

The district attorney suggests Zack enlist in the military and leave well before the trials start. Zack and Steve stop at the Marine recruitment center on the way home from the D.A.’s office. Zack will leave for Parris Island, most likely within the next six weeks.

Steve scarcely looks at Jill. Hasn’t spoken to her since she said, “You’d rather see your son killed in some foreign country for whatever stupid reason we’re there, than have him face the consequence of what he did.”

“Look. You haven’t done a damn thing to help. I can tell you the D.A. made no bones about how bad it looked to the judge that Zack’s own mother didn’t show up for the hearing. You damn near queered the whole deal.” 

Heather goes back to school. Steve and Jill back to work, though everyday life is nothing like it was before. Heather comes straight home from school, does her homework, helps around the house and watches television. Her shiny brown hair has become greasy and lank. She develops a severe case of acne with boils that have had to be lanced on more than one occasion.

Steve tries to initiate sex. Jill doesn’t want him to touch her.  She’s too angry, too upset. She makes excuses.

“Not tonight, I took a valium.”

She lies for two weeks and tells him she’s having her period. Her periods are always regular and last three or four days. When Steve brings it up, she tells him her cycle is messed up due to the stress she’s under. He finally gets pissed.

“You’re pulling that damn passive-aggressive shit. You’re angry with me. Don’t have the guts to tell me.” He stands and jerks his pillow off the bed. “God damn you, Jill. Don’t you know I need you? I need to know we’re going to be all right. Right now I’m feeling the chances of that happening are slim to none.”

The next Saturday Steve leaves the house early to play eighteen holes of golf. Jill’s waiting for him when he gets back. 

“We need to talk. I don’t think I can do this without your support, Steve. You act as if nothing happened and I can’t even look anyone in the eye.”

“Oh, we’re all aware of how tough this has been on you. We’re sick of watching you feel sorry for yourself.”

Jill hands him a glass of wine. “Exactly why we need to talk. It’s not self-pity.”

“Where do you get off taking the moral high ground anyway?” Steve leans against the kitchen counter. “Don’t you remember how you were when we were in college? Like the night you and your sorority sisters buzzed fraternity row mooning us?”

“Hardly the same, Steve. A glimpse of my bare ass isn’t going to destroy anyone’s life.”

“Not the point. You do things when you’re in high school and college that you’d just as soon forget when you get older. Remember the tailgate parties where everyone got so damn drunk, half the time they couldn’t tell which team had the ball. I’ll bet you’d like to forget the time you threw up in that woman’s potato salad.”

“And the point of reminding me of that humiliating moment would be?”

“Oh for god’s sake. I’m saying you and I both know you were one hell of a lot wilder than either Zack or Heather.”

Steve had always been serious. Part of the reason she married him was because she felt safe with him. She believed he would take care of her financially, emotionally and physically if he had to. 

Jill slides her arm through his. “Honey, this isn’t the way I want things to be. I don’t feel like we’re on the same side anymore and I hate it.”

He starts to pull away, then covers her hand with his own and pulls her closer.

“I know we’ve got problems. I played with Bill Rutger today.” Bill is a surgeon Steve frequently plays golf with. “I told him Heather’s been a mess since that girl from her school got raped. He says it sounds like a case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or Survivor Guilt. He gave me the name of a buddy of his, a psychiatrist. He works a lot with vets and kids who’ve had some kind of trauma in their lives. I thought I’d give the shrink a call Monday.”

“This is exactly what I mean, Steve.” She wraps her arms around his neck, her cheek next to his. “Thank you. I’m so worried about her and don’t have a clue what to do. Did you tell him she saw it?”

Steve pulls away from her again. “No. We aren’t going to tell anyone either of them were any part of it. Is that clear?”

“What if Heather tells the doctor?”

“That’s confidential information, he can’t disclose it.” He starts to pour another glass of wine, then slams the bottle on the countertop. Jill’s surprised it doesn’t break. “This is all bullshit, Jill. Unless you run your lips, nobody else is going to know. We’re putting it behind us.”

When her tongue becomes dry, Jill realizes she’s been staring at Steve with her mouth open. “Your son raped a girl. He violated her. He hurt her.”

“You didn’t even bother to go to the deposition so you don’t know what happened. You’re assuming the worst.” He holds his hand up when she starts to respond. “Never mind, Jill. This conversation is over.”

People say Jill is like her mother, but she knows she doesn’t have the intuition her mom had or her unconditional love. This is the first time her love has ever been tested, and she wishes her mother was still alive to guide her. On more than one occasion Jill had tested her mother’s love. She’d been hateful towards her parents before she entered her teens, she’d acted out, stealing, staying out overnight and finally getting pregnant and having an abortion when she was a high school sophomore. Through it all she never doubted her mother’s love and forgiveness.

It’s not only that she doesn’t wants Zack to be angry with her when he leaves, she wants to find some reason, some understanding of how he could have done what he did. How could the child she loves so fervently, the young man she’s so proud of, become someone she doesn’t recognize?  Jill kicks off her shoes and curls up on the bed.

The bedroom light flicks on, flicks off. Doors slam. Television’s on, off. A horn honks. A dog barks. She can’t sleep.

Steve’s in the kitchen opening another bottle of Merlot. He glances at her “Want one?”

“Sure. Did the kids go somewhere?”

“They went to catch a movie.” Steve picks up the wine glasses and the bottle and takes them into the living room.

They rarely sit in here unless they have company or during the holidays when the Christmas decorations are up. It’s always cooler than the rest of the house.

“How about a fire?” Jill asks. “I picked up some presto logs last week.”

He looks annoyed but opens the damper and lights a presto log.

“I’m glad you’re still here.” Jill says. “I’d like to try to finish our talk. I don’t want Zack to leave angry with me.”

 “Look, I’ve had to wrestle with my own demons. Really give serious thought about my role as a father. And I’ve decided my responsibility is to protect my son. Help him avoid shit that would ruin his life.”

“I keep thinking ‘what if’ that happened to Heather? What if a stranger got off without any consequences? He’s not a child anymore, Steve, he’s an adult.”

“Yes, he’s an adult who could go to prison if he got convicted. Somehow you don’t seem to realize his chances of surviving the military are one hell of a lot better than surviving prison. Zack’s our son. You talk about this as if he instigated the whole thing.”

 “So, you don’t think he’s guilty of anything?”

“I didn’t say that. He’s sorry about what he did. For the rest of his life he’ll have to live with it. I think that’s punishment enough. Maybe this incident will make him a better man and a stronger person in the long run.”

“I don’t think I can agree with you.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t, Jill. I’ve already talked to the kids about this, I don’t want them to think it’s their fault or what happened is the reason we’re getting a divorce.”

Jill stares at him. An old lawyer trick he uses in court and used to work with her. Asking questions, making statements, or throwing out a new piece of evidence, which baffles and confuses the witness?

“What? What are you talking about? That’s not true. We’ve never talked about getting a divorce. We were happy before…” The volume and tone of Jill’s voice continues to rise until she’s shrieking. “Why are you taking this out on me? He brutally raped an honor student.” Her voice drops, she looks away. “I keep telling myself that shouldn’t matter, but what if that girl can’t ever fulfill her potential because of what our son did?”

Steve refills her wine. “Take it easy. I wish I could have found a way to break this to you easier. We all still love you…”

“Then why are you doing this? Why do you want a divorce if you love me?”

“We do love you. We just can’t live with you.”

“Stop it. Stop it. Stop with the we, we, we.  My kids aren’t divorcing me. You are.” Jill’s voice has escalated again. She pauses, waits for Steve to defend himself, defend his position. When he doesn’t, she goes on more calmly. “Can we keep this about you and me? Heather and Zack are a separate issue and I can’t deal with everything at once.”

“If you raise your voice to me one more time, this conversation is over,” his voice is composed.

“What makes you think you want a divorce?”

“I don’t know when or how it happened, only that it’s been this way for more than a few years. This business just brought it to a head. We stopped talking to each other unless it’s some decision we have to make about to buy or not to buy, something about your job or mine or something about the kids. Those aren’t real conversations. In the past week I’ve realized I don’t even know you anymore.”

“I don’t agree with you. None of that’s true.”

Steve smiles. Shrugs.

“Oh…my. I guess I don’t get to decide for you, do I?” Jill laughs a little. “Would you agree to a separation? Maybe some counseling before you file?”

“I wish I’d come up with a better way to tell you. I’m willing to get counseling, but I doubt it will help.”

She smiles, the way a child smiles to please a parent. Then she begins to cry. Soft hiccupping sobs. “I’m sorry, it’s seems like just hours ago I discovered I’m a failure as a mother and today…,” she tries to stop crying, to pull herself together. “Today I find I’m a failure as a wife too.”

Steve moves to put his arms around her, checks himself and sits back on the sofa. “You’re not a failure as a mother or as a wife. I didn’t mean to imply that. You’ve been a wonderful mother. You still are. You’re everything any man could ask for in a wife. We just…you must know it too. We’ve grown apart. How often do we make love? Never. Even before we had this problem it was only once or twice a month and even then it was just another chore.”

“Did you really find it necessary to say that? Just so we’re clear, it’s never ever been a chore for me. I love you and until just this moment I believed you loved me too. Forget about counseling.” She gets up and goes into the bathroom and closes the door. She hates to cry in front of anyone, especially Steve. But no tears flow. She has an urge to cut her hair, cut it all off and understands this symbolic act of grief and loss. Her pain is beyond tears.

Steve is still sitting on the sofa. He looks up when she comes out of the bathroom. “I don’t think I can talk about Zack or…” she waves her hand in front of her face, a vague gesture. “Okay?”

He nods.

 

Heather parks in the driveway. Hands the car keys to her father when she comes in. “It’s freezing out. Glad you made a fire.” She kisses Jill on the cheek. “How you doing, Mom?”

“Where’s Zack?” Jill asks.

“He decided to stay and workout. We checked the Hilton and the Best Western over on Vermont, but they were both booked, so we got you a suite at the Marriott Suites on Champion. Is that okay, Dad? The rooms are really nice and they gave you a weekly rate of $480.”

“Excuse me,” Jill turns to Steve. “I’d like to talk to you when you have a minute.”

Heather watches her mother walk out of the room and up the stairs. “You didn’t tell her, Dad? That’s pretty lame.”

“I told her. Except the part about Zack and I moving out.”

Heather rolls her eyes.

 

Life moves forward in sound bytes, sometimes incredibly fast, sometimes agonizingly slow. The rape trial is over quickly. Only two Hispanic gang members are found guilty and sentenced to prison. Don Bergstrom defends the boys whose parents can afford his fee. When Grace Lopez is called to the stand, he destroys her; getting her so confused she contradicts herself and appears to be lying. 

Jill’s friends no longer call and it feels as if co-workers and acquaintances stare and stop talking whenever she enters a room. She’s aware it could well be her guilt and imagination working overtime.

Before the divorce becomes final, Jill accepts a promotion with her company’s office near Aspen, Colorado. She and the children love to ski. She wishes she no longer cared what Steve likes.

The divorce is amicable. Steve agrees to give her half of the equity they have in the house when it sells.  For the most part their savings and investments have always been separate. Jill agrees to pay child support for Heather who wants to stay with Steve and graduate with her friends.

 

Jill sits in her car in front of the Lopez house. She has no idea what she’s going to say, only that she needs to say something, let them know she’s sorry, before she leaves for Colorado.

She knows Grace’s parents were in court every day of the trial and watched Bergstrom humiliate their daughter on the stand. Jill didn’t attend the hearings and refused to watch the news reports. Still, she heard about it from Steve. Though after the second time she walked out of the room while he was telling her what had happened in court on a particular day, he said little more. Her refusal to listen or talk about it increased the tension between them.

The Lopez modest house is pale yellow, with white trim and gray shingled roof with a separate garage. She’d guess three bedrooms and maybe two baths. The yard is evenly trimmed, box hedges in front, perfectly squared. On the white railed porch in front is a glider, two plastic lawn chairs, a table big enough to seat four. Hanging baskets of red geraniums on both sides and partially along the front. These are proud people, proud of their home, and no doubt proud of their daughter.

They are obviously home, a light is on in what must be the kitchen and she can hear a Spanish radio station being played softly from somewhere behind the house.

She takes a deep breath, opens the car door, goes quickly up the sidewalk and rings the doorbell. A moment later a woman who looks to be in her thirties, although there is some gray in her long black hair, opens the door. She’s dressed in black jeans and a black blouse.

“¿Hola, Senora Lopez?” Jill says. “Hablo español pequeño y no comprendo bien.

 ¿Habla inglés?”  

“We speak English,” the woman says.

“I’m Heather Campbell’s mother. Grace and she were in some of the same classes.”

“Come in. Please, come in.” Mrs. Lopez voice is soft and gracious.

Jill follows her into the living room where a shriveled white haired woman sits in a Shaker chair in the corner of the room. She’s wearing an old fashioned black dress and holding a black rosary in her hands.

“My grandmother.” Mrs. Lopez turns to the old woman. “Esto es la madre de uno de los amigos de Gracia, la abuela.”

The old woman nods once at Jill. She has no teeth. Mrs. Lopez motions Jill to sit on the sofa, “Please, sit with us. You want coffee? Maybe a soda?”

“No, thank you.” Jill sits, pauses for a moment and says. “I just wanted to stop by and tell you how sorry I am about what happened to your Grace. How is she doing?”

Mrs. Lopez crosses the room to a long low table. Except for the video, Jill had never seen Grace, yet she knows beyond doubt, the beautiful girl with a wide smile in the picture frame is Grace. There are votive candles on either side of the photograph. Mrs. Lopez picks up the only other item on the table, a thin photo album, and brings it to Jill. Jill opens it. More photos of Grace, as a baby, her first communion, eighth grade graduation, and other pictures of her with her family. She turns a page and sees the first of the newspaper articles about the rape. Subsequent articles about the trial, though few of either. On the last two pages, is another longer news article and an obituary.

She reads the news article about an unknown girl who jumped off the Washington Bridge to the freeway below and was run over by a tanker, an apparent suicide. Jill heard the report on the car radio on her way to work one morning, but never connected it to Grace. Involved in the divorce, her own grief, dividing up household items between herself and Steve, packing and getting ready to move, she paid little attention to anything else.

The date on the obituary is approximately a month after the trials concluded. It ends with the family’s wish that rather than flowers, donations be made to the rape crisis center.

Jill reaches to embrace Mrs. Lopez, who returns the embrace and pats Jill on the back as if it were Jill’s sorrow and not her own.

“What can I do?” Jill asks. “There must be something I can do for you.”

“Pray with us for the soul of our daughter.”

“I don’t have a rosary…do you have an extra?”

Mrs. Lopez nods. “I get it. Mi esposo will pray with us.” 

Jill smiles at the old woman in the corner. The woman closes her eyes a moment. When she opens them Jill wonders if the old woman is a seer and knows who she is, the mother of a boy who destroyed her great-granddaughter’s life.

Mrs. Lopez returns with her husband. He’s wearing jeans and a plaid shirt; he takes off his straw cowboy hat and hangs it on a coat rack by the door. “This is Gracie’s papa, Juan.” She hands Jill a rosary of blue plastic beads. Jill wonders if it was Grace’s.

Juan wraps his arm around Jill. “Dios le bendice, Senora.” His ropey muscles tell Jill the man labors hard at whatever he does for a living.

Mrs. Lopez lights five candles, the other three remain dark. They kneel in front of the shrine, the old woman stays in her chair. Jill blesses herself with the crucifix, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. She stumbles on the first words of The Apostles Creed, listens for a moment and they come back to her.

When they finish, Mrs. Lopez says, “You stay for supper maybe? Meet Gracie’s brother?”

“No. Thank you. I can’t. I need to get home to my family.” Jill looks to the corner where the old woman sits. Thankfully the grandmother’s eyes remain closed.

She kisses Grace’s father on the cheek and says, “God be with you.” Turns to Mrs. Lopez, fighting to hold her emotion in check, and says, “Thank you for letting me share your prayers and your grief. Not a day in my life…” she chokes up, “will go by that I don’t think of your daughter.”

Mrs. Lopez takes her hand and they walk to Jill’s car together. “And your Heather, how is she?”

“Better. She was upset about what happened to Grace.” Jill wants to say more, wants to believe her daughter genuinely cared about Grace, but can’t bring herself to lie to this woman.

They hold each other again briefly, kiss cheeks. Jill drives away. Aimlessly.

She passes a church, drives around the block and parks in the empty parking lot behind it.

“Why? Oh, God, why?” she bangs her hands against the steering wheel, “I hate him, Hate him,” over and over until she exhausts her anger. Hate the sin, and not the sinner. Had her mother said that, or had she heard it in school or church? Maybe she’d read it somewhere. It doesn’t matter; it came from somewhere and comforts her now. She only wishes she had someone to blame beside the people she loves most. 

She wonders if The Church still believes suicide is a mortal sin, if that’s why they pray for her soul. She hopes they pray believing Grace is still in Purgatory, waiting for God to judge her innocent.

Jill sees Heather at least once a month, more frequently during ski season.  Zack has visited a few times since he mustered out of the marines. Zack calls her ‘mother’ now. Jill believes he does it to put emotional distance between them. No longer a boy, a man now. He still has his looks and his charm, but he’s more somber.  He stayed with Steve and Heather until he finished college, now has his own apartment, works in Steve’s office and is attending law school.

He heads for the slopes as soon as he gets up, hangs around the lodge until night skiing and doesn’t come home until late. Jill rarely sees or talks to him; when she does he’s polite and civil. Nothing is ever discussed about homecoming night with either of her children. She can’t tell them or anyone else about her visit to the Lopez house; it would somehow trivialize it.

Zack’s been engaged to a young woman named Ingrid for the past two years. Jill hasn’t met his fiancé. Tonight is the rehearsal dinner, and it doesn’t seem right to Jill that it will also be her first meeting with Ingrid. Heather picks her up at the airport and offers to take her to lunch.

“It’s a gorgeous day, let’s have lunch outside,” Jill suggests.

Heather squeezes her mother’s hand. “I hope you like Ingrid. I’d like all of us to spend part of the holidays with you this year, so you can get to know each other better.”

Before Jill can respond the hostess shows them to a table with a good view of the Marina and adjusts the patio heater. “Warm enough?” she asks.

“Perfect,” Heather says. “Would you like that?”

“It’s fine.”

“No. I meant would you like all of us to spend Christmas with you?”

“Of course I would.”

“You seem distracted. Something on your mind, Mom?”

“I’m wondering…” Jill’s face feels flushed. “Wondering what Ingrid’s like. Why I haven’t met her?”

“Oh, Mom,” Heather reaches for her mother’s hand and squeezes it. “Zack always comes up with some excuse for you two not to meet. I think he’s afraid she’ll see him through your eyes. Ingrid’s beautiful. Inside and out. She’ll love you, and you’re gonna love her too.”

Heather’s comment ‘through your eyes’, so unexpected, feels like a physical blow, but why wouldn’t she expect it? Part of her still loves Zack with a fierce mother love; different than any other kind of love. She’s proud of his accomplishments and often plays scenes from his childhood in her mind in the same way she does with her daughter. Part of her can never forget, forgive nor understand what he did. She sits back while the waitress serves their dinner salads, and then asks, “Does she know?”

“Know?”

“About Zack? About the girl he raped?”

“What are you talking about, Mom? Zack never raped anybody.”

Jill stares at her daughter. “I met her family. She committed suicide after the trial.”

“That’s awful.” Heather grimaces. “I thought I’d met all of Zack’s girlfriends.”

She presses her lips together. Looks out over the ocean. She finally shakes her head. “That’s terrible. The really awful thing about suicide is there’s no changing your mind. People who try and don’t succeed are always happy they failed.”

Jill pushes her salad around on the plate, finally takes a bite and chews for a long time. “True.” She doesn’t want to do anything to tarnish this wedding, or Zack’s marriage. This isn’t the time for discussing the past. Perhaps there will never be a right time. “I’d like to go shopping after lunch. See if I can find a pair of shoes for tomorrow. The ones I brought hurt my feet.”

It appears everyone came to the rehearsal dinner early for cocktails. As she stops to pick up her name tag, she spots her ex-husband walking rapidly in her direction. Steve’s eyes are full of suppressed rage.

He grips Jill’s arm and pushes her toward the bank of elevators.

“Where are we going?” She jerks out of his grasp.

“Up to my room. I have a few things I need to say to you…privately.”

It crosses Jill’s mind that although they are splitting the cost of the wedding, including hotel rooms, Steve is in a luxury suite, and she’s in a regular room with a view of the parking lot.

“Nice room,” she says, rubbing her arm.

“What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?”

“What are you talking about? Quit barking at me. I don’t have to put up with your crap.”

“I want to know why you pick the eve of our son’s wedding to bring up an incident that everyone but you has put behind us.”

“An incident? Do you think it’s fair for Zack to marry that young woman without telling her he raped a girl?”

“You’re the only one…there’s no proof Zack was even there.”

“We know. Zack and Heather know. That girl certainly did.  Her parents know.”

“Know just exactly what?”

“I met them. They’ll never forget and she’ll never have a wedding like this or any other kind. She committed suicide…”

“You met them? Are you insane?” he yells. “They could still file a civil suit.” He steps toward her. She steps back and he stops. “Who besides them knows?”

“You don’t care? She killed herself, Steve.”

“I’m sorry about that. But I care a whole lot more about our own kids. I’m going to have to send Heather to the hypnotherapist again. Do you have any idea how much you upset her?”

“A hypnotherapist? Did he really make her forget what happened?”

“She. The hypnotherapist is a woman. I don’t know how it works, she uses triggers.” Steve takes a deep breath. “Look. All I’m asking is for you to not spoil this wedding. Can you let it go? What do you get out of bringing up something so damn painful? What’s the pay-off, Jill?”

“We don’t need this conversation. You might want to start treating me more politely so our grandchildren won’t know what an asshole you can be.” Jill crosses her arms, looks at the floor. “I know you love Zack and Heather as much as I do. I’m not going to spoil this wedding, not going to do anything to hurt our children. You have no right to accuse me of anything, and no right to speak to me the way you just have. If you can’t be civil, stay away from me.”

“Jill,” Steve shakes his head. “I haven’t gotten over it either. I keep thinking someday Zack is going to have to pay for what he did and I won’t be able to protect him. I guess I’m taking out my fears on you. It won’t happen again.”

The wedding itself is for close friends and family members, but over three-hundred people have been invited to the reception. The best man announces the entrance of the newly married couple. After their first dance, the band begins to play Sunrise, Sunset and the band leader calls for Ingrid and her father to begin the Father/Daughter dance.  Then he invites Zack to honor his mother by joining his wife and her father on the dance floor.

Zack crosses the dance floor and holds out his hand. “Mother? That’s our cue. Look at me and smile,” he says. “You’re supposed to be enjoying this.”

“I am enjoying it. Truly. It’s a beautiful wedding. And I like Ingrid, she’s a lovely girl.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.” Zack raises an eyebrow and laughs. “Truly.”

Jill compliments him on his dancing. He tells her he took lessons and has been practicing everyday for the past six weeks. Then he pulls her closer, smiling broadly. “Dad told me about your conversation. You wouldn’t want to hurt such a lovely girl, would you? I wonder, in your little handbook of vice and virtue, which sin is worse, a boy who used poor judgment or a mother who tries to destroy her son’s life.”

She moves her hand from the back of his neck places it on his cheek. “Ingrid will never hear about it from me. I just think you’re taking a risk to keep it from her. I’d never do anything to hurt you. I love you, Zachary”

He leads her back to her table, kisses her cheek, “Thank you. You look pretty, Mother.”

Jill’s seated with Steve’s parents and sisters along with their husbands and children. Most of his family lives in Chicago and she doesn’t know any of them well. She debates whether she should do the proper thing and at least tell the bride and groom good bye, but she seriously doubts she’ll be missed. She excuses herself and books the next flight back to Colorado.

The house is cold when Jill gets home. She’s glad she ordered two cords of wood last month and split some kindling.

There are still boxes she never unpacked, most contain old tax and business records, photos, and cards and crafts Heather and Zack made for her when they were small.

She changes into heavy sweatpants and a sweater and hauls in three boxes that most likely will contain what she’s looking for. The first box she opens has the video Heather took homecoming night. Jill boots up her computer and slides it into the disc drive. Boys outnumber girls five to one. Some of the girls look to be as young as ten or twelve. It’s disturbing but not why Jill wanted to see the disc again. She forwards it to where she sees Zack. In the first scene he is laughing, scuffling, adding Jim Beam to a can of Coors, trying to get one of the girls to drink with him, and herding her toward a darker corner. Jill fast forwards. There he is. Taking the girl she knows as Grace from behind and holding her face up for the camera.

She removes the disc and turns off her computer. More than anything Jill wishes her memory was wrong. Flawed.  She turns the CD over and over, finally sets it aside and reaches inside the box.

Zack’s first grade school photo, his two front teeth missing. Big grin. Big cowlick. A shoebox with pictures of Zack in his soccer uniform, skinny legs and arms, childish determination emanates from the photos. She takes the lid off another box labeled Heather. Christening dress, first shoes, and a shoebox labeled first year. On top are photos of the day they brought Heather home from the hospital. Zack touching her hair, bending down to kiss her cheek and Jill’s favorite; Heather’s tiny hand wrapped around Zack’s finger and the look of awe on his face.

She picks up the CD, tries to snap it in half, not a chance. She gets the kitchen scissors, cuts it into pieces and throws them into the fireplace. They bubble, warp and melt.

 

Marie Shield is a Santa Barbara Writers Conference award winner, and her new short fiction, “Not All Mothers Are Created Equal” earned a reading at The Federal Bar, Noho’s premiere neighborhood bar, restaurant and event venue May 2012, presented by spoken word artist Sally Shore and a stellar cast including Deborah Geffner (All That Jazz; Grey’s Anatomy), Emmy award winner Barbara Keegan (NCIS Los Angeles) and Karen Teliha (Parks and Recreation).  Over thirty five of her short stories have won awards and/or been published in print and online in The McGuffin. Timber Creek Review, Houston Literary Review, West Side Story, Linnet’s Wings, Stymie Magazine, The Delmarva Review, The Feathered Flounder and others.




  • Rmfranks2006

    ABSOLUTE WONDERFUL.  I couldn’t put it down.  Well done, a truly heart wrenching  story.Bob Franks

  • Paul1189

    Absolutely amazing. Just a great, wonderful, exciting read. Well drawn characters and a story to die for.

  • Ewanlawrie

    Very fine, visceral writing. Better than Shriver’s Kevin at showing the complexities of familial ties, obligation and love.