What happens when you do all the right things for all the wrong reasons? As an assistant district attorney in York County, Maine, Nina Frost prosecutes the sort of crimes that tear families apart. She helps clients navigate their way through a nightmare even though the legal system is not always the faultless compass they want and need it to be. She learns that the easiest way to cross this devastating minefield time and time again is to offer compassion, battle fiercely for justice, and keep her emotional distance. …more
t the heart of Perfect Match lie the true emotions of motherhood, with all the contradictions and intensity… It is impossible not be held spellbound by the way she forces us to think, hard, about right and wrong.
Perfect Match explores the conflict between the professional and personal life of an assistant district attorney when she discovers that her son has been molested.
The publisher: Pocket Books 2002; paperback edition published by Washington Square Press, 2003. (Book 9 )
But when Nina and her husband Caleb discover that their five-year-old son Nathaniel has been sexually abused, that distance is impossible to maintain. The world Nina inhabits now seems different from the one she lived in yesterday; the lines between family and professional life are erased; and answers to questions she thought she knew are no longer easy to find. Overcome by anger and desperate for vengeance, Nina ignites a battle that may cause her to lose the very thing she's fighting for.
"Picoult's characters are so compelling that the reader hopes this won't be the last time we meet."
— USA Today
"At the heart of Perfect Match lie the true emotions of motherhood, with all the contradictions and intensity… It is impossible not be held spellbound by the way she forces us to think, hard, about right and wrong."
— The Washington Post
"A spellbinding story."
— The Toronto Sun
Nathaniel wants to disappear. It can’t be that hard; it happens every day to all sorts of things. The rain puddle outside the school is gone by the time the sun is in the middle of the sky. His blue toothbrush vanishes, and is replaced by a red one. The cat next door goes out one night and never comes back. When he thinks about all this, it makes him cry. So he tries to dream of good things
—Men and Christmas and maraschino cherries – but he can’t even make pictures of them in his head. He tries to imagine his birthday party, next May, and all he can see is black.
He wishes he could close his eyes and fall asleep forever, just stay in that place where dreams feel so real. Suddenly he has a thought: Maybe this is the nightmare. Maybe he’ll wake up and everything will be the way it is supposed to be.
From the corner of his eye Nathaniel sees that fat stupid book with all the hands in it. If it wasn’t for that book, if he’d never learned how to talk with his fingers, if he’d stayed quiet, this wouldn’t have happened. Drawn upright, he walks to the table where it rests.
It’s a loose– leaf, the kind of binder with three big teeth. Nathaniel knows how to open one; they have them at home. When the jaw is wide he takes out the first page, the one with a happy smiling man using his hand to say hello. The next page shows a dog, and a cat, and the signs for them. Nathaniel throws both on the floor.
He starts ripping out big chunks of paper, scattering them all around his feet like snow. He stomps on the pages with pictures of food. He tears in half the ones that show a family. He watches himself do this on the magic wall, a mirror on this side but glass out there. And then he looks down, and sees something.
This picture, it’s the one he’s been looking for all along. He grabs the piece of paper so hard it wrinkles in his fist. He runs to the door that leads into Dr. Robichaud’s office, where his mother is waiting. He does it just the way the black– and– white man on the page does.
Pinching together his thumb and his forefinger, Nathaniel drags them across his neck, as if he is cutting his own throat.
He wants to kill himself.
“No, Nathaniel,”I say, shaking my head. “No, baby,no.”Tears are running down his cheeks, and he holds fast to my shirt. When I reach for him he fights me, smoothes a paper over my knee. He jabs his finger at one of the sketches.
“Slowly,”Dr. Robichaud instructs, and Nathaniel turns to her. He draws a line across his windpipe again. He taps together his forefingers. Then he points to himself.
I look down at the paper, at the one sign I do not recognize. Like the other groupings in the ASL book, this one has a heading. RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS. And the motion of Nathaniel’s hands has not been suicidal. He has been tracing an imaginary clerical collar; this is the sign for priest.
Priest. Hurt. Me.
Tumblers click in my mind: Nathaniel mesmerized by the word father – although he has always called Caleb daddy. The children’s book Father Szyszynki brought, which disappeared before we even had a chance to read it at bedtime, and still has not turned up. The fight Nathaniel put up this morning when I told him we were going to church.
And I remember one more thing: a few weeks ago, one Sunday when we’d mustered the effort to go to Mass. That night, when Nathaniel was getting undressed, I noticed he was wearing underwear that wasn’t his. Cheap little Spiderman briefs, instead of the $7.99 miniature boxers I bought at GapKids so that Nathaniel could match his dad. Where are yours? I had asked.
And his answer: At church.
I assumed he’d had an accident at Sunday School, and had received this spare pair from his teacher, who rummaged through the Goodwill bin. I made a mental note to thank Miss Fiore for taking care of it. But I had a wash to do and a child to bathe and a pair of motions to write, and I never did get a chance to speak to the teacher.
Now, I take my son’s shaking hands, and I kiss the fingertips. Now, I have all the time in the world. “Nathaniel,”I say,”I’m listening.”
An hour later, in my own home, Monica carries her mug to the sink.”Is it all right with you if I tell your husband?”
“Of course. I would have told him myself, but… “
My voice trails off.”That’s my job,”she finishes, saving me from speaking the truth: Now that I have forgiven Caleb, I do not know if he will forgive me. I busy myself with the dishes – rinsing our mugs, squeezing dry the tea bags and putting them into the trash. I have specifically tried to focus on Nathaniel since leaving Dr. Robichaud’s office – not only because it is the right thing to do, but because I am a terrible coward at heart. What will Caleb say, do?
Monica’s hand touches my forearm. “You were protecting Nathaniel.”
I look directly at her. No wonder there is a need for social workers; the relationships between people knot so easily, there needs to be a person skilled at working free the threads. Sometimes, though, the only way to extricate a tangle is to cut it out and start fresh. She reads my mind. “Nina. In your shoes, he would reached the same conclusions.”
A knock on the door captures our attention. Patrick lets himself in, nods to Monica. “I’m just on my way out,”she explains. “If you want to reach me later, I’ll be in my office.”
This is directed to both Patrick and me. Patrick will need her, presumably, to be kept abreast of the case. I will need her, presumably, for moral support. As soon as the door closes behind Monica, Patrick steps forward. “Nathaniel?”
“He’s in his room. He’s okay.”A sob hops the length of my throat.”Oh, my God, Patrick. I should have known.
What did I do? What did I do?”
“You did what you had to,”he says simply. I nod, trying to believe him. But Patrick knows it isn’t working. “Hey.”He leads me to one of the stools in the kitchen, sits me down.”Remember when we were kids, and we used to play Clue?”I wipe my nose with my sleeve.”No.”
“That’s because I always trounced you. You’d pick Mr. Mustard every time, no matter what the evidence said.””I must have let you win.”
“Good. Because if you’ve done it before, Nina, it’s not going to be that hard to do it again.”He puts his hands on my shoulders. “Give over. I know this game, Nina, and I’m good at it. If you let me do what I have to, without messing yourself up in the process, we can’t lose.”Suddenly he takes a step away from me, stuffs his hands into his pockets. “And you’ve got other things to work on, now.”
Patrick turns, meets my eye. “Caleb?”
It’s like that old contest: who will blink first?
This time, I can’t bear it; I am the one to look away. “Then go lock him up, Patrick. It’s Father Szyszynski. I know it, and you know it. How many priests have been convicted of doing just this— shit!”I wince, my own mistake hammering back. “I talked to Father Szyszynski about Nathaniel during confession.””You what? What were you thinking?”
“That he was my priest.”Then I glance up. “Wait. He thinks it’s Caleb. That’s what I thought, then. That’s good, right? He doesn’t know that he’s the suspect.”
“What’s important is whether Nathaniel knows it.”
“Isn’t that crystal clear?”
“Unfortunately, it’s not. Apparently, there’s more than one way to interpret the word father. And by the same logic, there’s a whole country full of priests out there.”He looks at me soberly. “You’re the prosecutor. You know this case can’t afford another mistake.”
“God, Patrick, he’s only five. He signed priest. Szyszynski is the only priest he even knows, the only priest who has any contact with him on a regular basis. Go ahead and ask Nathaniel if that’s who he meant.””That’s not going to stand up in court, Nina.”
Suddenly I realize that Patrick has not come only for Nathaniel; he has also come for me. To remind me that while I’m being a mother, I still have to think like a prosecutor now. We cannot name the accuser for Nathaniel; he has to do it himself. Otherwise, there is no chance of a conviction.
My mouth is dry. “He isn’t ready to talk yet.”
Patrick holds out his hand to me. “Then let’s just see what he can tell us today.”
Nathaniel is on the top bunk, sorting his daddy’s old collection of baseball cards into piles. He likes the feel of their frayed edges, and the way they smell gray. His dad says to be careful, that one day these could pay for college, but Nathaniel could care less. Right now he likes touching them, staring at all the funny faces, and thinking that his dad used to do the same thing.
There’s a knock, and his mom comes in with Patrick. Without hesitation, Patrick climbs up the ladder — all six– feet– two inches of him squashing into the small space between ceiling and mattress. It makes Nathaniel smile a little. “Hey, Weed.”Patrick thumps the bed with a fist. “This is comfy. Gotta get me one of these.”He sits up, pretends to crack his head on the ceiling. “What do you think? Should I ask your mom to buy me a bed like this too?”
Nathaniel shakes his head and hands Patrick a card. “Is this for me?”Patrick asks, then reads the name and smiles broadly. “Mike Schmidt rookie. I’m sure your dad will be thrilled you’ve been so generous.”He tucks it into his pocket, and takes out a pad and pen at the same time. “Nathaniel, you think it would be all right if I asked you some questions?”
Well. He is tired of questions. He is tired, period. But Patrick climbed all the way up here. Nathaniel jerks his head, yes. Patrick touches the boy’s knee, slowly, so slowly that it doesn’t even make Nathaniel jump, although these days everything does. “Will you tell me the truth, Weed?”he asks softly.
Slower this time, Nathaniel nods.
“Did your daddy hurt you?”
Nathaniel looks at Patrick, then at his mother, and emphatically shakes his head. He feels something open up in his chest, making it easier to breathe.
“Did somebody else hurt you?”
“Do you know who it was?”
Patrick’s gaze is locked with Nathaniel’s. He won’t let him turn away, no matter how badly Nathaniel wants to. “Was it a boy or a girl?”Nathaniel is trying to remember – how is it said again? He looks at his mother, but Patrick shakes his head, and he knows that, now, it is all up to him. Tentatively, his hand comes up to his head. He touches his brow, as if there is a baseball cap there.
“Boy,”he hears his mother translate.
“Was it a grown– up, or a kid?” Nathaniel blinks at him. He cannot sign those words.
“Well, was he big like me, or little like you?”Nathaniel’s hand hovers between his own body, and Patrick’s. Then falls, deliberately, in the middle.
That makes Patrick grin. “Okay, it was a medium guy, and it was someone you know?”
“Can you tell me who?”
Nathaniel feels his whole face tighten, muscles bunching. He squeezes his eyes shut. Please please please, he thinks. Let me.”Patrick,”his mother says, and she takes a step forward, but Patrick holds out a hand and she stops.
“Nathaniel, if I brought you a bunch of pictures – ”
He points to the baseball cards. “– like these – do you think you could show me who this person was?”
Nathaniel’s hands flutter over the piles, bumblebees choosing a place to light. He looks from one card to the other. He cannot read, he cannot speak, but he knows that Rollie Fingers has a handlebar moustache, Al Hrabrosky looked like a grizzly bear. Once something sticks in his head, it stays there; it’s just a matter of getting it back out again. Nathaniel looks up at Patrick; and he nods. This, this he can do.
Nathaniel lies on the lower bunk while I read him a book before bedtime. Suddenly, he jacknifes upright and fairly flies across the room, to the doorway where Caleb stands. “You’re home,”I say, the obvious, but he doesn’t hear. He is lost in this moment.
Seeing them together, I want to kick myself again. How could I have ever believed that Caleb was at fault? The room is suddenly too small to hold all three of us. I back out of it, closing the door behind me. Downstairs, I wash the silverware that sits on the drying rack, already clean. I pick Nathaniel’s toys up from the floor. I sit down on the living room couch; then, restless, stand up and arrange the cushions.
“He’s asleep.”Caleb’s voice cuts to the quick. I turn, my arms crossed over my chest. Does that look too defensive? I settle them at my sides, instead.”I’m… I’m glad you’re home.”
His face gives nothing away. Coming out of the shadows, Caleb walks toward me. He stops two feet away, but there might as well be a universe between us.
I know every line of his face. The one that was carved the first year of our marriage, by laughing so often. The one that was born of worries the year he left the contracting the company, to go into business for himself. The one that developed from focusing hard on Nathaniel as he took his first steps, said his first word. My throat closes tight as a vise, and all the apologies sit bitter in my stomach. We had been naive enough to believe that we were invincible; that we could run blind through the hairpin turns of life at treacherous speeds and never crash. “Oh Caleb,”I say finally, through the tears,”these things, they weren’t supposed to happen to us.”
Then he is crying too, and we cling to each other, fitting our pain into each other’s hollows and breaks. “He did this. He did this to our baby.”Caleb holds my face in his hands. “We’re going to get through it. We’re going to make Nathaniel get better.”But his sentences turn up at the ends, like small animals begging. “There are three of us in this, Nina,”he whispers. “And we’re all in it together.”
“Together,”I repeat, and press my open mouth against his neck.
“Caleb, I’m so sorry.”
I am, no, I am – ”
He cuts me off with a kiss. The action arrests me; it is not what I have been expecting. But then I grab him by the collar of his shirt and kiss him back. I kiss him from the bottom of my soul, I kiss him until he can taste the copper edge of sorrow. Together. We undress each other with brutality, ripping fabric and popping buttons that roll under the couch like secrets. This is the anger overflowing: anger that this has happened to our son, that we cannot turn back time. For the first time in days I can get rid of the rage, I pour it into Caleb, only to realize that he is doing the same to me. We scratch, we bite, but then Caleb lays me down with the softest touch. Our eyes lock when he moves inside me, neither one of us would dare to blink. My body remembers: this is what it is to be filled by love, instead of despair.
“Do you – ”I breathe.
“Yes.”He doesn’t have to hear the rest. I close my eyes, and this time, these tears are a relief. Finally, someone knows exactly how I feel.
I’ve driven to St. Anne’s. I pull into the parking lot and get out of my car, avoiding the front walk to tiptoe, instead, around to the back of the building. The rectory is here, attached to the main body of the church. My sneakers leave prints in the frost, the trail of an invisible man.
If I climb onto the ridge of a drainage well, I can see into the window. This is Father Szyszynski’s personal apartment, the living room. A cup of tea sits, the bag still draining, on a side table. A book – Tom Clancy – is cracked open on the couch. All around are gifts he’s received from parishioners: a handmade afghan, a wooden Bible stand, a framed drawing by a child. All of these people believed him, too; I have not been the only sucker.
What I am waiting for, exactly, I don’t know. But as I stand there I remember the day before Nathaniel had stopped speaking, the last time we had all gone to Mass. There had been a reception for the two clergymen who’d come to visit, a banner hung from the serving table wishing them a safe journey home. I remember that the flavored coffee that morning was Hazelnut. That there were no powdered sugar donuts left, though Nathaniel had wanted one. I remember talking to a couple I had not seen in several months, and noticing that the other children were following Father Szyszynski downstairs for his weekly storytime. “Go, Nathaniel,”I’d said. He had been hiding behind me, clinging to my legs. I fairly pushed him into joining the others.
I pushed him into it.
I stand here on the drainage ditch for over an hour, until the priest comes into his living room. He sits down on the couch and picks up his tea and he reads. He doesn’t know I’m watching him. He doesn’t realize that I can slide into his life, just as surreptitiously as he has slid into mine. · · · · · ·
As Patrick has promised, there are ten photos – each the size of a baseball card, each with a different”priest”portrayed on the front. Caleb examines one. “The San Diego Pedophiles,”he murmurs.”All that’s missing are the stats.”
Nathaniel and I come into the room, holding hands. “Well,”I say brightly. “Look who’s here.”
Patrick gets to his feet. “Hiya, Weed. Remember when I talked to you the other day?”Nathaniel nods. “Will you talk to me today, too?”He is already curious about the photos; I can feel it in the way he’s tugging toward the couch. Patrick pats the cushion beside him, and Nathaniel immediately climbs up. Caleb and I sit on either side of them, in two overstuffed chairs. How formal we look, I think.
“I brought some pictures for you, just like I said I would.”Patrick takes the rest from the manila envelope and arranges them on the coffee table, as if he is going to play solitaire. He looks at me, and then at Caleb – a silent warning that now, this is his show. “You remember telling me that someone hurt you, Weed?”
“And you said you knew who it was?”
Another nod, this one longer in coming.
“I want to show you some pictures, and if one of these people is the one who hurt you, I want you to point to it. But if the person who hurt you isn’t in one of the pictures, you just shake your head no, so I know he’s not there.”
Patrick has phrased this perfectly – an open, legally valid invitation to make a disclosure; a question that does not lead Nathaniel to believe there’s a right answer.
Even though there is.
We all watch Nathaniel’s eyes, dark and boundless, moving from one face to another. He is sitting on his hands. His feet don’t quite reach the floor.
“Do you understand what I need you to do, Nathaniel?”Patrick asks. Nathaniel nods. One hand creeps out from beneath a thigh. I want him to be able to do this, oh, I want it so badly it aches, so that this case will be set into motion. And just as badly, for the same reasons, I want Nathaniel to fail.
His hand floats over each card in succession, a dragonfly hovering over a stream. It lights, but doesn’t settle. His finger brushes Szyszynski’s face, moves on. With my eyes, I try to will him back.”Patrick,”I blurt out. “Ask him if he recognizes anyone.”Patrick smiles tightly. Through his teeth, he says,”Nina, you know I can’t do that.”Then, to Nathaniel:”What do you think,
Weed? Do you see the person who hurt you?”
Nathaniel’s finger dips like a metronome, traces the edge of Szyszynski’s card. He hesitates there, then begins to move the other cards. We all wait, wondering what he is trying to tell us. But he slides one photo up, and another, until he has two columns. He connects them with a diagonal. All this deliberation, and it turns out he is only making the letter N.
“He touched the card. The right one,”I insist. “That ID’s good enough.”
“It’s not.”Patrick shakes his head.
“Nathaniel, try again.”I reach over and mess the pictures up.”Show me which one.”
Nathaniel, angry that I’ve ruined his work, shoves at the cards so that half of them fly off the table. He buries his face on his bent knees and refuses to look at me.
“That was useful,”Patrick mutters.
“I didn’t see you doing anything to help!”
“Nathaniel.”Caleb reaches across me to touch our son’s leg. “You did great. Don’t listen to your mother.”
“That’s lovely, Caleb.”
“I didn’t mean it like that and you know it.”
My cheeks are burning. “Oh, really?”
Ill at ease, Patrick begins to stuff the pictures back into the envelope. “I think we ought to talk about this somewhere else,”Caleb says pointedly.
Nathaniel’s hands come up to cover his ears. He burrows sideways, between the sofa pillows and Patrick’s leg. “Now look what you’ve done to him,”I say.
The mad in the room is all the colors of fire, and it presses down on him, so that Nathaniel has to make himself small enough to fit in the cracks of the cushions. There is something hard in Patrick’s pocket where he’s pressed up tight to it. His pants smell like maple syrup and November. His mother, she’s crying again, and his dad is yelling at her. Nathaniel can remember when just waking up in the morning used to make them happy. Now, it seems that no matter what he does, it’s wrong. He knows this is true: what happened happened because of him. And now that he’s dirty and different, his own parents do not know what to do with him.
He wishes he could make them smile again. He wishes he had the answers. He knows they are there, but they’re dammed up in his throat, behind the Thing He Is Not Supposed to Tell.
His mother throws up her hands and walks toward the fireplace, her back to everyone. She’s pretending no one can see, but she’s crying hard now. His father and Patrick are trying hard not to look at each other, their eyes bouncing like a Superball off everything in the tiny room. When his voice returns, it reminds Nathaniel of the time his mother’s car would not start last winter. She turned the key and the engine groaned, whining and whining before it kicked to life. Nathaniel feels that same thing now, in his belly. That kindling, that croak, the tiniest bubble rising up his windpipe. It chokes him; it makes his chest swell. The name that gets shoved out is feeble, thin as gruel, not nearly the thick and porous block that has absorbed all his words these past weeks. In fact, now that it sits on his tongue, bitter pill, it is hard to believe something this tiny has filled all the space inside him.
Nathaniel worries no one will hear him, since so many angry words are flying like kites in the room. So he comes up on his knees, presses himself along Patrick’s side, cups his hand to the big man’s ear. And he speaks, he speaks.
Patrick feels the warm weight of Nathaniel on his left side. And no wonder; Patrick himself is ducking from the comments Caleb and Nina are winging at each other; Nathaniel has to be faring just as poorly. He slides an arm around the child. “It’s okay, Weed,”he murmurs.
But then he feels Nathaniel’s fingers brush the hair at his nape. A sound slips into his ear. It’s not much more than a puff of breath, but Patrick has been waiting. He squeezes Nathaniel once more, because of what he’s done. Then he turns to interrupt Caleb and Nina. “Who the hell,”
Patrick asks,”is Father Gwen?”
The logical time to search the church is during Mass, when Father Szyszynski – a.k.a. Father Glen, to the children like Nathaniel who cannot pronounce his last name – is otherwise occupied. Patrick cannot remember the last time he went on a hunt for evidence wearing a coat and tie, but he wants to blend in with the crowd. He smiles at strangers while they all file into the church before 9 AM; and when they turn into the main nave of the church he walks in the opposite direction, down a staircase. Patrick doesn’t have a warrant, but then this is a public space, and he does not need one. Still, he moves quietly through the hallway, reluctant to draw attention to himself. He passes a classroom where small children sit wriggling like fish at even smaller tables and chairs. If he were a priest, where would he stash the Goodwill Box?
Nina has told him about the Sunday Nathaniel came home with a different pair of underwear on beneath his clothes. It might mean nothing. But then again, it might. And Patrick’s job is to overturn all the stones so that when he goes to back Szyszynski into a corner, he has all the ammunition he needs to do it.
The Goodwill Box is not next to the water fountain or the restrooms. It’s not in Szyszynksi’s office, a richly paneled vestibule stacked with wall– to– wall religious texts. He tries a couple of locked doors in the hallway, rattling them to see if they’ll give way.
“Can I help you?”
The Sunday school teacher, a woman who has the look of a mother about her, stands a few feet behind Patrick. “Oh, I’m sorry,”he says. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your class.”
He tries to summon all his charm, but this is a woman who is probably used to white lies, to hands caught in the cookie jar. Patrick continues, thinking on his feet. “Actually, my two year old just soaked through his jeans during Father Szyszynski’s sermon… and I hear there’s a Goodwill Box somewhere around here?”
The teacher smiles in sympathy. “Water into wine gets them every time,”she says. She leads Patrick into the classroom, where fifteen tiny faces turn to assess him, and hands him a big blue Rubbermaid box. “I have no idea what’s inside, but good luck.”
Minutes later Patrick is hidden in the boiler room, the first place he finds where he won’t readily be disturbed. He is knee deep in old clothing. There are dresses that must be a good thirty years old, shoes with worn soles, toddler’s snow pants. He counts seven pairs of underwear – three of which are pink, with little Barbie faces on them. Lining the remaining four up on the floor, he takes a cell phone from his pocket and dials Nina.
“What do they look like?”he says when she answers.
“What’s that humming? Where are you?”
“In the boiler room of St. Anne’s,”Patrick whispers.
“Today? Now? You’re kidding.”
Impatient, Patrick pokes at the briefs with one gloved finger. “Okay,
I’ve got a pair with robots, one with trucks, and two that are plain white with blue trim. Does anything sound familiar?”
“No. These were boxers. They had baseball mitts on them.”
How she remembers this, he can’t imagine. Patrick couldn’t even tell you what pair of shorts he has on today. “There’s nothing here that matches, Nina.”
“It’s got to be there.”
“If he kept them, which we don’t know he did, they could very well be in his private quarters. Hidden.”
“Like a trophy,”Nina says, and the sadness in her voice makes Patrick ache.
“If they’re there, we’ll get them with a warrant,”he promises. He doesn’t say what he is thinking: that the underwear alone will not really prove anything. There are a thousand ways to explain away that kind of evidence; he has most likely heard them all.
“Have you talked to – ”
“You’ll call me, won’t you? After?”
“What do you think?”Patrick says, and hangs up. He bends down to fork all the spilled clothing back into the bin, and notices something bright in an alcove behind the boiler. Working his big body into a pretzel, he stretches out a hand – but cannot grab it. Patrick looks around the custodial closet, finds a fireplace poker, and slides it behind the bulk of the boiler to the small hollow. He snags a corner of it – paper, maybe? – and manages to drag it within his arm’s reach.
Baseball mitts. 100% cotton. Gap, size XXS.
He pulls a brown paper bag from his pocket. With his gloved fingers, he turns the underwear over in his hand. On the left rear, slightly off center, there is a stiff stain.
In the custodial closet, directly beneath the altar where Father Szyszynski is at that moment reading scripture aloud, Patrick bows his head and prays that in a situation as unfortunate as this one, there might be a shred of pure luck.
A memory: I am searching all over the house for my car keys, because I am already late to drop Nathaniel at school and go to work. Nathaniel is dressed in his coat and boots, waiting for me.”Think!”I say aloud, and then turn to Nathaniel.”Have you seen my keys?”
“They’re under there,”he answers.
“Under where?”A giggle erupts from deep inside him. “I made you say underwear.”
When I laugh along with him, I forget what I’ve been looking for.
Two hours later, Patrick enters St. Anne’s again. This time, it is empty. Candles flicker, casting shadows; dust motes dance in the slices of light thrown by the stained glass windows. Patrick immediately heads downstairs to Father Szyszynski’s office. The door is wide open, the priest sits at his desk. For a moment, Patrick enjoys the feeling of voyeurism.
Then he knocks, twice, firmly.
Glen Szyszynski glances up, smiling. “Can I help you?”
Let’s hope so, Patrick thinks, and he walks inside.
In an effort to improve the revenues on slow Sunday nights, Tequila Mockingbird has established the Jimmy Buffet Key Largo Karaoke Night, an all– you– can– eat burgerfest paired with singing. When Patrick and I walk into the bar, our senses are assaulted: a string of lights in the shape of palm trees adorn the bar; a crepe– paper parrot hangs from the ceiling; a girl with too much makeup and too little skirt is butchering”The Wind Beneath My Wings.”Stuyvesant sees us come in and grins. “You two never come in on a Sunday.”.
Patrick looks at some poor waitress, shivering in a bikini as she serves a table. “And now we know why.”
Stuyv sets two napkins down in front of us. “The first margarita is on the house,”he offers.
“Thanks, but we need something a little less… “
Stuyvesant shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
After he turns away to get our drinks and burgers, I feel Patrick’s eyes on me. He is ready to talk, but I’m not, not just yet. Once the words are hanging there in the open air, there is no taking back what is going to happen.
I look at the singer, clutching the mike like a magic wand. She has absolutely no voice to speak of, but here she is, belting out her off– key rendition of a song that’s crappy to begin with. “What makes people do things like that?”I say absently.
“What makes people do any of the things they do?”Patrick lifts his drink, bares his teeth after he takes a sip. There is a smattering of applause as the woman gets down from the makeshift stage, probably because she’s done. “I hear that karaoke’s some kind of self– discovery deal. Like yoga, you know? You go up there and you muster the courage to do something you never in a million years thought you could do, and when it’s over, you’re a better person because of it.”
“Yeah, and the rest of the audience needs Excedrin.
Give me hot coals to walk over, any day. Oh, that’s right, I’ve already done that.”To my embarrassment, tears come to my eyes; to hide this, I take a great gulp of my whiskey. “Do you know when I talked to him, he told me to think about forgiveness? Can you believe he had the nerve to say that to me, Patrick?”
“He wouldn’t admit anything,”Patrick answers softly.
“He looked at me like he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Like when I told him about the underwear, and the semen stain, it was a shock.”
“Patrick,”I say, lifting my gaze to his,”what am I going to do?”
“If Nathaniel testifies – ”
I shake my head. “I’m not going to be the one who does that to him.”
“Then wait a while, until he’s stronger.”
“He is never going to be strong enough for that. Am I supposed to wait until his mind has managed to erase it… and then make him sit on a witness stand and bring it all back again? Tell me, Patrick, how is that in Nathaniel’s best interests?”
Patrick is quiet for a moment. He knows this system like I do; he knows I’m right. “Maybe once the semen comes back as a match, the priest’s lawyer can talk to him and work out some kind of deal.”
“A deal,”I repeat. “Nathaniel’s childhood is being traded for a deal.”
Without saying a word, Patrick lifts my whiskey glass and hands it to me. I take a tentative sip. Then a larger one, even though my throat bursts into flame. “This… is horrible,”I wheeze, coughing.
“Then why did you order it?”
“Because you always do. And I don’t feel like being myself tonight.”
Patrick grins. “Maybe you should just have your usual white wine, then, and go up and sing for us.”
As if he has cued it, the woman who assists the karaoke machine man approaches us, holding out a binder. Her bleached hair hangs into her face, and she is wearing pantyhose with her tropical sarong miniskirt.
“Hons,”she says to us. “You want to do a duet?”
Patrick shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, come on. There are some cute songs here for couples like you.
‘Summer Lovin’, remember that one from Grease? Or how about that one Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt do?”
I am not here; this is not happening. A woman is not pressuring me into singing karaoke when I have come to discuss putting my son’s rapist in jail. “Go away,”I say succinctly.
She glances down at my hamburger, untouched.
“Maybe you can get a side of manners with that,”she says, and twitches back to her ponytailed partner on the stage.
When she’s gone, the weight of Patrick’s eyes rests heavy on me.
“Clearly, there’s something.”
He takes a deep breath, lets it out. “You may not ever forgive
Szyszynski, Nina, but you won’t be able to move past this… to help Nathaniel move past this… until you stop cursing him.”
I drain the rest of my liquor. “I will curse him, Patrick, until the day he dies.”
A new singer fills in the space that has fallen between the two of us.
A heavyweight woman with hair that touches her ass, she sways her considerable hips as the riff begins playing on the karaoke machine.
You keep playing when you shouldn’t be playing…
You keep thinking you just can’t get burned…
“What is she doing up there?”I murmur.
“Yeah… she’s actually good.”
We both look away from the stage, and our eyes meet. “Nina,”
Patrick says,”you’re not the only one hurting. When I see you like this… well, it kills me.”He looks down at his drink, stirs it once. “I wish – ”
“I wish too. But I could wish till the world stops turning, and it wouldn’t change a thing, Patrick.”
These boots were made for walking… And walking’s what they’ll do… One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
Patrick laces his fingers with mine on the table. He looks at me, hard, as if he is going to be quizzed on the details of my face. Then, with what seems to be a great effort, he turns away. “The truth is there shouldn’t be any justice for people like him. Fuckers like that, they ought to be shot.”
Clasped together, our hands look like a heart. Patrick squeezes, I squeeze back. It is all the communication we need, this pulse between us, my reply.
Thomas LaCroix is two inches shorter than I am, and going bald. It makes no difference whatsoever, of course, but I find myself shooting glances at Wally during this meeting, wondering why he could not find the most perfect specimen of a prosecutor; one polished on the outside as well as the inside, so that no jury could possibly find fault.
“We’re turning this entirely over to Tom,” my boss says. “You know we support you and Caleb, we’re a hundred percent behind you… but we don’t want there to be any problems on appeal. And if we’re in the courtroom, it might look like we’re stacking the decks against this guy.”
“I understand, Wally,”I say. “No offense taken.”
“Well!”Wally stands, having done his job here for the day. “We’ll all be waiting to hear what transpires.”
He pats my shoulder as he exits. When he leaves, it is just the three of us left – Caleb, myself, and Thomas LaCroix. Like a good prosecutor – like me – he jumps right into business. “They’re not going to arraign him until after lunch because of all the publicity,”Tom says. “Did you see the media when you came in?”
See it? We had to run the gauntlet. If I hadn’t known a service entrance into the court, I never would have gotten Nathaniel inside.
“Anyway, I’ve already talked to the bailiffs. They’re going to clear the other prisoners off the docket before they bring in Szyszynski.”He checks his watch. “We’re scheduled for one o’clock right now, so you’ve got some time.”
I flatten my hands on the table. “You will not be putting my son on the stand,”I announce.
“Nina, you know this is just an arraignment. A rubber stamp process. Let’s just – ”
“I want you to know this, and to know it now. Nathaniel isn’t going to be testifying.”
He sighs. “I’ve done this for fifteen years. And we’re just going to have to see what comes to pass. Right now, you know better than I do right now what the evidence is. You certainly know better than I do how Nathaniel is faring. But you also know there are some pieces of the puzzle we’re waiting on – like the lab reports, and your son’s recovery. Six months from now, a year from now… Nathaniel might be doing a whole lot better, and taking the stand might not be as much of a hardship.”
“He is five years old. In those fifteen years, Tom, how many cases with a five– year– old witness ended up with a perp in jail for life?”Not a single one, and he knows it. “Then we’ll wait,”Tom says. “We have some time, and the defendant is going to want time too, you know that.”
“You can’t hold him in jail forever.”
“I’m going to ask for $150,000 bail. And I doubt the Catholic Church will post it for him.”He smiles at me.
“He’s not going anywhere, Nina.”I feel Caleb’s hand steal into my lap, and I grab onto it. I think he is supporting me, at first, but then he squeezes my fingers nearly to the point of pain. “Nina,”he says pleasantly,”maybe we should just let Mr. LaCroix do his job right now.”
“It’s my job too,”I point out. “I put children on the stand every day, and I watch them fall apart, and then I watch the abusers walk. How can you ask me to forget that, when we’re talking about Nathaniel?”
“Exactly – we’re talking about Nathaniel. And today he needs a mother more than he needs a mother who is a prosecutor. We need to look at this in steps, and today that step is keeping Szyszynski locked up,”Tom says. “Let’s just focus, and once we clear this hurdle, we can decide what to do next.”
I stare into my lap, where I’ve nervously pleated my skirt into a thousand wrinkles. “I know what you’re saying.”
Lifting my gaze, I smile slightly. “You’re saying the same thing I do, to victims, when I really don’t know if I have any chance of securing a conviction.”
To his credit, Tom nods.”You’re right. But I’m not trying to con you. We never know which cases are going to work out, which cases are going to take a plea, which kids will make a turnaround, which kids will heal to the point where a year from now, they’re able to contribute in a way they can’t that first day.”
I get to my feet. “But you said it yourself, Tom.
Today I’m not supposed give a damn about those other kids. Today I just care about my own.”I walk to the door before Caleb even has risen from his seat. “One o’clock,”I say, and it is a warning.
Caleb doesn’t catch up to her until they are in the lobby, and then, he has to pull her aside to a small nook, where reporters will not find them.
“What was that all about?” “I’m protecting Nathaniel.”Nina crosses her arms, daring him to say otherwise.
She seems shaky and unsteady, not at all herself. Maybe it is just the truth of this day. God knows, Caleb isn’t faring all that well either.
“We ought to go tell Monica that there’s a delay.”But Nina is busy putting on her coat. “Can you do it?”she asks. “I need to run to the office.”
“Now?”Alfred, and the superior court building, is only fifteen minutes away. But still.
“It’s something I have to give to Thomas,” she explains. Caleb shrugs. He watches Nina walk out the front steps. The flashes of several cameras strike her like bullets, freezing her in time as she jogs down the steps. Caleb sees her brush off a reporter with no more effort than she would use to wave away a fly.
He wants to run after her, hold Nina until that wall around her cracks and all the pain spills out. He wants to tell her that she doesn’t have to be so strong around him, because they are in this together. He wants to take her downstairs to the bright room with alphabet squares on the floor, sit with their son between them. All she has to do is take off those focused blinders; then she will see that she isn’t alone.
Caleb goes so far as to open the glass door, to stick his head outside. By now she is a dot, far across the parking lot. Her name hovers on his lips, but then there is an explosion that blinds him – a newspaper photographer, again. Backing inside, he tries to shake the double vision, but it is a long time before he can see clearly; and so he never witnesses Nina’s car leaving the courthouse lot, turning in the opposite direction of her office.
I hurry through the front door of the court, around the line of people waiting to go through the metal detector. “Hey, Mike,”I say breathlessly, slipping behind the familiar bailiff, who just nods. Our courtroom is to the left; I open the double doors and walk inside.
It is filled with reporters and cameramen, all lined up in the back rows like the bad kids on the rear seats of a bus. This is a big story for York County, Maine. This is a big story for any place.
I walk to the front, where Patrick and Caleb are sitting. They have left a seat on the aisle for me. For a moment I fight my natural inclination – to continue through the gate, and sit at the prosecutor’s table with Thomas LaCroix. That is why we”pass the bar” – we are allowed, by virtue of that test, to work in the front of the courtroom.
I don’t know the defense attorney. Probably someone from Portland. Someone the diocese keeps on retainer for things like this. There is a cameraman set up to the right of the defense table, his head bent close to the machine in preparation.
Patrick notices me first. “Hey,”he says. “You all right?”
As I expect, Caleb is angry. “Where have you been? I’ve tried – ”
Whatever he is about to say is interrupted as a bailiff speaks. “The Honorable Judge Jeremiah Bartlett presiding.”
The judge, of course, I know. He signed the restraining order against Caleb. He instructs us to sit down, and I try, but my body has gone stiff as a board and the seat does not fit me. My eyes take in everything and nothing all at once.
“Are we set for the arraignment on State vs. Szyszynski?”the judge asks.
Thomas rises smoothly. “Yes, Your Honor.”
At the defense table, the other attorney stands. “I’m representing Father Szyszynksi, and we’re ready, Your Honor.”
I have seen this a thousand times before; one bailiff moves forward toward the bench. He does this to protect the judge. After all, the people brought in as defendants are criminals. Anything could happen. The door to the holding cell opens, and the priest is led out. His hands are cuffed in front of him. Beside me, I feel Caleb forget to take his next breath. I hold my purse on my lap, a death grip. The second bailiff leads the priest to the defense table, the inside seat, because he will have to stand up in front of the judge to enter his plea. He is close enough, now, that I could spit at him. I could whisper, and he might hear me.
I tell myself to be patient.
My eyes go to the judge, then to the bailiffs. They are the ones I am worried about. They stand behind the priest, make sure he sits down. Move back. Move back move back move back.
I slide my hand into my purse, past the familiar, to the heat that leaps into my hand. The bailiff takes a step away – this defendant, scum of the earth, still has the right to privacy with his own attorney. There are words moving around the courtroom like small insects, distractions I do not really notice.
The minute I stand up, I’ve jumped off the cliff. The world goes by in a haze of color and light, my weight accelerates, head– over– heels. Then I think, Falling is the first step in learning how to fly. In two steps, I am across the aisle of the courtroom. In a breath, I hold the gun up to the priest’s head. I pull the trigger four times. The bailiff grabs my arm but I won’t let go of the weapon. I can’t, until I know that I’ve done it. There is blood spreading, and screams, and then I’m falling again, forward, past the bar, where I am supposed to be.
“Did I get him? Is he dead?”
They slam me onto the ground, and when I open my eyes, I can see him. The priest lies with half his head missing, just a few feet away. I let go of the gun.
The weight on me takes familiar shape, and then I hear Patrick my ear. “Nina, stop. Stop fighting.”His voice brings me back. I see the defense attorney, hiding under the stenographer’s table. The press, their cameras flashing like a field of fireflies. The judge, pushing the panic button on his desk and yelling to clear the courtroom. And Caleb, white as snow, wondering who I am.
“Who’s got cuffs?”Patrick asks. A bailiff hands him a pair from his belt, and Patrick secures my hands behind me. He lifts me up and bustles me toward the same door through which the priest entered. His body is unyielding, his chin firm against my ear. “Nina,” he whispers to me.
“What did you do?”
Once, not long ago, standing in my own home, I had asked Patrick this same question. Now I give his own answer back to him. “I did what I had to,”I say, and I let myself believe it.