Authors: Anne McAneny
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and events are either drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2013 by Anne McAneny
All rights reserved.
Published by Farrington Press 2013
Cover design by Rita Toews
For Ellen Canepa
and Patty Canning
It was then that I began to look into the seams of your doctrine. I wanted only to pick at a single knot; but when I had got that undone, the whole thing raveled out.
– Henrik Ibsen
Sixteen years since my last trip to this park and not a tree had changed. Even the sidewalk jutted up in the same angry crevices that had worn out my childhood bicycle tires. Maybe the concrete walkway had reached its breaking point decades ago and decided to fight back, forcing the persistent roots down into the darkness to tangle amongst themselves. Determined to hold its own, the sidewalk put on a daily show for the humans above, pretending that everything below was peachy keen, thank you very much. Nothing to see here, folks. No seedy underbelly thrashing beneath. The citizens of Lavitte, North Carolina, kindly returned the favor. They traveled over the façade every day, smiling and waving and warning kids on training wheels to watch out for the bumps. They jogged over the fractured surface to the beat of their music, pretending that life offered up wishes and dreams, rainbows and sprinkles. No need to stick fingers into the cracks or peel back the surface to examine the source of the sour rumblings beneath. But everybody knew they were there.
If the old physics truism held, that every action was met with an equal and opposite reaction, then what kind of forces jumped back and forth between the man and the sidewalk on Maple Street sixteen years ago? Did the sidewalk absorb his depravity when he grabbed a young girl off her bike on that sweltering August evening, projecting it to the gnarled roots below, or did the evildoer absorb the pretense from the sly footpath that life was nothing but a grand cabaret?
Probably the latter. Seemed to be the choice of most everyone in Lavitte.
“Ding Ding!” A little girl, so Gerber perfect she looked like a hologram, rang her bicycle bell at me. “Excuse me, Lady.”
“Mattie,” her mom said, “it’s ‘excuse me,
Thanks, but I’ll take
any day. Christ, I was only a few years older than the mom. Still, I couldn’t fault the teaching of proper manners in good ol’ Lavitte. Manners were our foundation, our sidewalk. Until they were discarded altogether and replaced with rage.
“Sorry about that,” the mom said to me
, her mineral powder make-up and bright denim jeans mirrored by every other mother at the park. “She’s still wobbly. Just got her training wheels off. I didn’t think she was ready, but you know how dads are, always ready to push ‘em out of the nest a little earlier than we are.”
I looked around, desperate for her to be talking to
anyone other than me, but her reflective lenses aimed squarely at mine whenever she wasn’t scanning the area for her Mashed Peas model.
“Which one is yours?” she said.
It took me longer than it should have to realize she thought I was a card-carrying mom. The hesitation alone almost gave her enough pause to walk away. By the time I put it together, my answer sounded forced and plaintive. “I don’t have one. Or two for that matter. I’m not a mom.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Her eyes strayed to the ground before she lifted her slim face back up, a plastered smile concealing her grief. For what? The possibility that my ovaries lacked viable eggs? The presumed melancholy thump of my heart over not having a vulnerable child to screw up for the next eighteen years? If anything, she should be sorry if I did have a kid. But I couldn’t afford to alienate anyone on my first day back, so I played nice. Besides, odds were I knew this chick in some capacity or other. It’s not that Lavitte wasn’t big enough for two big guns; it’s that Lavitte wasn’t big enough for any two people to remain strangers. If you didn’t know a person directly, you
sho’ly knew their cousin
“I grew up here and used to play in this park,” I
said with more saccharine sweetness than my mother’s Sweet Sunday Sugar Fudge, the name of which had always distressed me with its redundancy. “I’m back to, uh,”—uh oh, hadn’t worked out an excuse for being back in town yet, but as it turned out, I hardly needed one.
“You’re visiting family, of course.” She proffered a hand, all bird bones and stickiness from the freeze-pops she’d served the kids earlier. “I’m Abby. Abby Westerling. You probably know the name.”
She meant the Westerling part, no doubt. The original Mr. and Mrs. Westerling had owned the big general store in town, then sold the land to some developer and used that money to buy up the half of town they didn’t already own. They had a penchant for naming things after themselves, so Lavitte was saddled with Westerling Medical Center, Westerling Children’s Museum of Lavitte, and Westerling Theater. For all I knew, a raunchy truck would pass by boasting Westerling Trash and Disposal. Why not? Plenty of garbage in Lavitte.
“Yes, I’m familiar,” I said. “You married a Westerling?”
“Unfortunately, not a direct one.” She giggled. “Well, that sounds plain wrong. What I mean is, I married a Westerling cousin. We’re the poor relations.”
The three-carat diamond on her left hand s
creamed otherwise but might also suggest a desperate cousin, scrambling to keep up with his surname. Earning money by day, throwing darts at his ancestors by night.
“I was a Murphy before that,” she
I knew a huge Murphy family in middle school. Nine kids, with several delinquents among the academic standouts. The boys were mostly ugly, the girls auburn-haired and cute. More than a few hated my family. She might be one of them. I didn’t pursue it as she seemed the type to volunteer plenty.
“So, who are you visiting?” she asked.
“My mom still lives here but
she might put her house on the market. My dad passed away so I try to come back and see her a little more often.”
Hey, it was almost the truth. More than the local sidewalks offered.
“Sorry about your dad. Your mom must appreciate your visits. What’s your name, by the way?”
I realized I hadn’t introduced myself. Guess it was time to watch the
dark shadow crawl over pretty Abby Murphy Westerling’s face as she tried to recall the outcome of the trial. She’d have to sort the truth from distorted childhood memories. Surely, her recollection of events had grown sinister and inconceivable, like a cancer, until it was something best not spoken of, best not acknowledged, treated as folklore. But here it was in the flesh. Or at least its descendant. I could lie. No skin off my back. But I had come here to do exactly the opposite. Might as well start the ball rolling through the dirt, muck, gossip, and disgust, dredging up all the denials until it snowballed into a big pile of rottenness, untenable and best disposed of at the Westerling Dump. The very ball I’d come here to stick a big fork in. Dig in, everybody!
The first name alone gave her a small start as she searched my face for clues. The nose, definitely the same perfect nose as the mother, so elegantly sloped and dimpled at the tip in a way mannequins envied because theirs looked so plastic. The lazy factories that churned out those porcelain-skinned fakes couldn’t be bothered with a dimpled tip as expertly positioned as this one. Abby could see that now. I wished I could wiggle it like Samantha in
, just to send her running for the hills, the perfect rolling mounds on the west end of town that made the opening scene of
The Sound of Music
envious. Yes, it was all about envy—from concepts, television shows, and inanimate objects. Because I, personally, was never envied by other humans. At least not after that night.
Abby repeated my name, possibly without realizing it. “Allison.” Quietly it slipped from her lips, like a secr
et, a whisper of a memory. I took off my sunglasses and wiped them with the thin blue T-shirt I’d thrown on this morning, giving her a glimpse of my eyes. That usually did it for people. The eyes. Because my father’s eyes had been nothing less than mesmerizing, right up until the day he died, when they bulged a bit more than usual. Regular pieces of onyx, his eyes were, shined to brilliance. And they were big. Big as puddles. Disproportionately large for his face.
, the ladies used to say.
, one of the Charlotte newspapers had reported. And I’d inherited them as if they’d been transplanted. At least they fit on my face somehow. Balanced by my full lips, my mother would retort in the old days when I complained I looked like an alien. Nowadays, peering into the endless pools of chocolate liquid swirling deliciously on my face, my mother probably felt sick to her stomach. She never made her Sweet Sunday Sugar Fudge anymore. Who would eat it if she did?
“Allison Fennimore,” I said, my plump lips framing a luminescent smile. “You probably know the name.”
Abby Westerling found a quick, urgent excuse to leave my company. She gathered her Gerber Peas baby, murmured an apology to the other mothers, maybe with a cautioning nod in my direction, and skedaddled. Whatever. Nothing could hurt me now. I was Lavitte’s favorite Teflon Daughter.
I pulled into the two-car, detached garage of my childhood home, wondering why I’d driven to the park in the first place. It was only a mile away and the exercise would have done me good. Being out of the city was already costing me a good thirty blocks a day of serious hoofing.
The brakes on my mother’s Buick squealed as I pressed them so I added
to the mental list of things I needed to accomplish before returning home. Ironic that my mother had to pay to get her car serviced.
“Car brakes,” I repeated three times to myself in an effort to remember the task long enough to write it down
in the kitchen. Hopefully my mom hadn’t thrown out the list I’d started this morning, which included
Leak in Basement
Stuck Shower Door
60-Watt Bulbs for Back Porch
. The types of things the man of the house might do, especially if he was good with his hands. Like a mechanic.
As I walked towards the house, I tried to
envision the structure the way a buyer would: two-story colonial with a basement; lots of windows for sunlight; fresh marigold paint; flowered patio; stone walkway; cute and homey; cursed. I sighed. Maybe it had been long enough that it would finally sell.
Couldn’t believe my mother had stayed here all these years, like a wound begging for salt. Even if she’d been forced to take a loss, she could have started over again in a town where the Fennimore name was less notorious, where images of little Shelby Anderson didn’t crop up like a fated
internet search the moment people heard Artie Fennimore’s name. Or pictures of Bobby Kettrick’s golden mug, with the too-white teeth and the square jaw that looked like it came from anywhere but Lavitte. Hell, there might be dozens of Arthur Fennimores, or even Mrs. Fennimores, out and about in the country whose names conjured wildflowers, delectable soufflés, or just plain joy in people’s minds. Imagine that. An old children’s game of word association popped into my head. You say horsey, I say ride. You say Fennimore, I say joy. Ha! Too far-fetched even for me.
I entered through the back door into the kitchen, staring at the list I’d made. What was it I wanted to put on there? Something to do with the house? With transportation? Oh yes, the brakes. I wrote it down.
. This was how my mind worked lately. In circles. Between my brother going to mandatory rehab, my mother dabbling in dementia, and the recent airing of
Big Crimes, Small Towns
on cable, I felt trapped on a mental merry-go-round, the gears grinding against the bones of my inner ear, the music stuck in a dissonant minor chord. In the old days, Lavitte residents would have jotted
, but nowadays they simply wrote
“You’re home already,
honey?” my mother said. “Did school get out early?” She shuffled into the kitchen as if her legs didn’t have the energy to lift her feet. Odd the way the dementia came escorted by physical weakness. As if the mind told the body to match the message. Other times, she was her old self and walked with a smooth gait that looked youthful compared to her sixty years, as if her hips contained springs and her feet could negotiate clouds.
“Hey, Mom, it’s me, Allison. I’m here visiting from New York, where I live. I’m all grown up.”
If only. I guided her to one of the wooden chairs I’d always found too heavy for the kitchen, more suitable for a dining room, perhaps. But the dining room had been forever cluttered with my mother’s projects—ranging from a novel she’d started a dozen times to a collection of wreaths for the Christmas Bazaar to the infamous scrapbooking attempt during which she’d hot-glued half a dozen photos to her fingers before giving up. Oh well, it was never boring and a few of her projects had turned out okay, like the pressed flowers, the knitted hats we never wore or needed, and the intricate jewelry she’d beaded for years after my father’s death. It had kept her busy and, most of all, alone—away from the judgment of so-called friends.
“You didn’t get in trouble with the principal, did you, Allison? You’re usually so good.”
Yes, that was Allison Fennimore. Sweet girl. Teacher’s pet. Good listener. Hell, any 15-year-old who could sit quietly though a day of testimony in which her father was called
a sociopathic slaughterer out for revenge over the theft of a few screwdrivers
had no choice but to be a good listener. But good and a quarter’ll get you a cup of coffee. Lousy coffee at that.
I’d lost the reputation overnight, of course. Because a good girl couldn’t possibly come from a man who shot people in cold blood or yanked young girls off their bicycles. The same man who couldn’t even get up the nerve to do whatever it was he wanted to do to the girl in the first place, who killed without rhyme, reason or remorse. Of course, who could show remorse for something they denied doing? To show remorse was to show guilt. And my father never felt guilty about anything
, at least not that I knew of. Arthur “Artie” Fennimore was famous for putting it all in God’s hands and believing that if God was at the wheel, then He knew what He was doing and there must be a gold-plated and indisputable reason for it. If Artie Fennimore took his fist to his wife on the occasional, drunken Saturday night, that was God’s fist. God must have been trying to teach Justine Fennimore a thing or two about pleasing her man. If God every so often felt the need to withhold affection from a socially awkward young girl, He might as well use Artie Fennimore to do His bidding.
Always seemed like an excuse to me.
“Everything’s okay, Mom,” I said. “No call from the principal coming your way. Can I make you some tea?”
honey, I think I’ll just rest. I’m so tired. Must be that time of the month.”
My mother hadn’t had a time of the month for eight years, but if she wanted an excuse for a good nap, let her enjoy it. If anyone deserved an altered state of consciousness, it was Justine Fennimore. She shuffled off towards the spare room I’d converted to a bedroom so she wouldn’t have to manage the stairs as often. She turned back to me and tilted her beautiful face, framed by dark hair that had been styled in the same, short coif since her twenties.
Her lips parted to say something but then a slow shock crescendoed on her face as she rejoined reality. Not a fun place to be.
“Kevin,” she said, the two syllables of my brother’s name carrying enough weight that it made her shoulders slump.
“Yes, Mom, Kevin should call today. Around three.” Precisely three, because that was Kevin’s allotted time for his five-minute phone call.
I waited for my mother to lapse into concerns about Kevin getting off the school bus at three, hoping for her sake that she was still in Dementiaville, but no such reprieve today. Clarity had come and she knew full well why he would call at three. It must break her heart, at least what was left of it.
“I’ve got to go out again, Mom, but Selena’s in the sunroom if you need anything.”
Selena, a tall, muscular, Guatemalan woman I had hired as my mom’s caretaker, made out like a bandit. Twenty bucks an hour to make sure her charge didn’t wander off or do anything dangerous. Not sure how Selena accomplished these responsibilities while napping on the couch most afternoons
, but so far so good. Whenever I walked in on her, she swore she wasn’t asleep, but instead suffered from a bad case of dry eye syndrome and needed to minimize her corneal exposure to air. After explaining this the first time, she’d tried to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I’ll be back in time for Kevin’s call
,” I said.
I could have told my mom where I was headed, but it would have ripped out another piece of her soul and forced it through the shredder. That’s how it had been for me when I got the call from Kevin a few weeks ago. My landline phone, silent for months at a time, had rung early in the morning, throwing me for a dreaded loop. My friends knew I worked until 3:00 a.m. and they were forbidden to call before noon...
Twenty Days Earlier***
“Allison, it’s Kevin.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t someone calling to report a death or an arrest for murder—distinct and precedented possibilities in the Fennimore family. “Kevin? Thought you could only use the phone—”
“Look, I don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “Cashing in a favor to call this early.”
“Cash me in a favor and don’t tell me what you had to do for your favor.”
“Can you get in here tomorrow?” Kevin asked. “I need you to do something for me. It’s big.”
I sat upright, not an easy accomplishment on my cheap mattress, the understuffed one that Aunt Jeannine had thrown my way when she moved in with her stepdaughter. It somehow held itself together with no apparent seams.
“Is it legal?” I asked, realizing too late that eager ears were probably monitoring the call and would perk up at the mention of skirting the law.
“I want to reopen the case,” Kevin said. “You know, against Dad.”
I laughed and s
lumped back. “Kevin, please. You get a few sober months under your belt and you suddenly have time for deep reflection? Oh, I know what’s going on here. What’s the title?”
“Of what?” Kevin said, his patience with me often a surprise.
“The book you’re writing about Dad. Going with
The Fennimore Fiend
? No, too reticent. I’ve always been partial to
“Stop screwing around,” Kevin said. “Although those titles aren’t bad.”
“What’s this about then? Seeking closure?” My tone mocked him for even considering the concept. Children of convicted murderers, guilty or innocent, had no relationship with such psychological bullshit.
“This is the longest I’ve been sober,
Allie. Give me a chance.”
“A chance to what? Open old wounds? Make
Mom miserable? Step into the insanity of claustrophobic Lavitte? No thanks.”
“Something’s rolling around in my head
,” he said.
“Teachers used to call that your brain.”
“You’re going to Lavitte, anyway, right?”
“To put Mom’s house on the market. Not to reminisce about Bobby Kettrick.”
Kevin sighed. I could picture him now. Callused hands, dark chocolate hair, and a scruffy growth on his face that the women loved. At least women who also enjoyed leather jackets, flea-bitten mattresses, and cheap, imported beer. But above the stubble, the same full, crooked lips as mine, the scar on his left cheekbone from the playground seesaw, and the vibrant olive eyes—when his brain wasn’t swimming in alcohol.
“I need you to talk to some people,” he said. “I got it all coordinated. You wouldn’t believe how the stars are aligned.”
“Please don’t go all
on me, Kev. Besides, Dad is dead. What does it matter?”
The confluence of discussing
my dad’s case while staring at the bland piece of art on my wall called
actually made me tremble. I forced myself to close my eyes and fight the impulse to slam the phone as loudly as I could in my brother’s ear. He was supposed to be the mellow one, the cool, distant guy who didn’t talk about the case, the one who let me know it was okay to gloss over it.
“I gotta go,” Kevin said. “Favor’s up. Come by tomorrow. It’s your day off anyway.”
“I’ve played this record too many times,” I said, tugging at a piece of hair with my hand. “Only scratches left. Sorry you wasted your favor.”
I reached the heavy phone receiver out towards its cradle. Slowly. Part of me didn’t want to disconnect from the
bizarre fantasy that I could storm into Lavitte, rip through its healed skin, and reveal the infection still lingering there. But most of me wanted to move forward, away from a past with tentacles so tangled in my soul that to completely disconnect might be to die.
“Tomorrow at nine!” Kevin shouted just before I let the phone drop into its nest. A brother who knew me too well, as if he sensed the phone was distant from my ear. I hung up. Now I’d never get back to sleep. I lurched from the comfort of my mattress and yanked the blinds
up. Dust flew out from between the neglected slats and made me cough. I brushed it away but it hung in the air like tear gas. I staggered back to bed and curled into myself like a kinked hair, knotted up on the inside, my eyes wide and wondering.
Reopen my dad’s case? What the hell was he thinking? Where was he when the case was still fresh, when the people and places weren’t covered in denial and grime, the events untainted by their infamy? I knew where. Drunk in some godforsaken rented room, or sobbing it out with some
tattooed hooker, always trying to forget. Maybe if Kevin could avoid prison after rehab, he could put his off-the-charts I.Q. to better use than trying to steer around a Subaru driven by a blotto, 17-year-old, lacrosse star. The young athlete had entered the New Jersey Turnpike going the wrong way on the same night that Kevin had decided to pay me a visit in New York City. Kevin had tried his damndest to avoid the kid, but Kevin was a Fennimore; we never landed on the lucky side of the rainbow. According to the skid marks, Kevin had managed a masterful swerve followed by a NASCAR-worthy spinout, but he who doesn’t die in that pathetic scenario loses. Kevin’s blood alcohol level tested on the edge of New Jersey’s stringent legal limit. At least they’d gone easy on him and put him in mandatory rehab first. With good behavior and positive counselor reports, he might get a lighter sentence, but he still needed to pay the price for killing a teenager while under the influence. Hardly a first in our family.