TRIAL, DAY 10
Dr. Noah Alderman watched the jurors as they filed into the courtroom with their verdict, which would either set him free or convict him of first-degree murder. None of them met his eye, which was a bad sign.
Noah masked his emotions. It almost didn’t matter what the jury did to him. He’d already lost everything he loved. His wife, Maggie, and son, Caleb. His partnership in a thriving medical practice. His house. His contented life as a suburban dad, running errands on Saturday mornings with Caleb. They’d make the rounds to the box
stores and garden center for whatever Maggie needed. Potting soil, deer repellent, mulch. Noah never bought enough mulch and always had to go back. He actually missed mulch.
The jurors seated themselves while the foreman handed the verdict slip to the courtroom deputy. Noah would finally know his fate, one way or the other. It had been hanging over his head every minute of the trial and the almost seven months prior, in jail at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. He’d done what the inmates called “smooth time,” becoming a jailhouse doc, examining swollen gums, arthritic wrists, and stubborn MRSA infections. He’d kept his head down and hidden his emotions. Pretty soon, he was hiding them from himself, like now.
Judge Gardner accepted the verdict slip, causing a rustling in a gallery packed with spectators and reporters since the horrific crime and its unlikely defendant had drawn media attention. Judge Gardner put on his glasses and read the verdict slip silently. His lined face betrayed no reaction.
Noah felt his lawyer, Thomas Owusu, shifting next to him. Thomas had put on a solid defense and been a friend as well as a lawyer. But Noah’s best friend was his wife, Maggie. Or at least, she had been. Before.
Noah turned around to see if she’d come to hear the verdict. The spectators reacted instantly, recoiling. They hated him. He knew why.
He scanned the pews, looking for Maggie. He didn’t see her, so he turned back. He didn’t blame her for not coming, of course. He wished he could tell her that he was sorry, but she wouldn’t believe him. Not anymore.
“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Gardner took off his reading glasses and set the verdict slip aside.
Noah rose, on weak knees. The courtroom fell dead silent. He could almost hear his heart thunder. He was about to know. Guilty
or innocent. Prison or freedom. If they convicted him, he could be sentenced to death.
Noah wished he could run time backwards, undo every decision until this moment. He’d made so many mistakes. His life had exploded like a strip of firecrackers at a barbecue, igniting the patio furniture and spreading to the house until everything was blazing out of control, engulfed in a massive fireball.
His entire world, destroyed.
It had all started with Anna.
“Anna, is it really you?” Maggie felt like shouting for joy. She couldn’t believe it was really happening. She’d prayed she’d hear from Anna someday. It was her last thought every night, though she kept it to herself, a secret heartache.
“Yes, it’s me. Uh, hi —”
“Oh my God, I’m so happy you called!” Maggie felt tears spring to her eyes. She grabbed a napkin from the drawer and wiped them, but the floodgates were open. It was a dream come true. She couldn’t wait to tell Noah. He was in the backyard with Caleb, planting rosebushes.
“I hoped you’d be happy I called.”
“Of course, of course I would be! Wow, it’s so great!”
Maggie’s throat thickened, and her nose started to bubble, which she hated.
She was Queen of the Snotty Cry, which was even uglier than the Ugly Cry.
“I know it’s kinda random, to call out of the blue.”
“It’s not, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing! You’re my daughter! You can call me anytime!” Maggie held the napkin to her eyes. She hadn’t seen Anna since she was an infant, only six months old. That was seventeen years ago, the darkest time in Maggie’s life, when she’d entered the hospital. It started coming back to her, a dark counterpoint to her elation.
I can’t sleep even though I’m exhausted.
“Uh, Mom, I wasn’t even sure what to call you. Is Mom okay?”
“Yes, Mom is okay! Mom is more than okay.” Maggie wanted to jump up and down but held it together. She had just been called Mom. She never dreamed she’d hear Anna call her Mom. She’d never been called Mom before, by anyone. Caleb called her Mag.
“Good, great. I hope it’s okay I called on a holiday.”
“It’s fine!” Maggie dabbed at her nose, trying not to make weird noises into the phone. “So, Happy Easter!”
“To you, too.”
“What did you do for the holiday? Are you at your dad’s?” Maggie kept her tone light, even though she hated her ex, Florian. She knew he was behind Anna’s decision never to see Maggie, estranging mother and daughter permanently.
“No, I’m at school.”
“Oh.” Maggie felt a pang for her, spending the holiday without family.
“Did they do anything special?”
“No, mostly everyone’s still away for spring break.”
“I see.” Maggie tried to collect her thoughts, sitting down at the kitchen island. Sunlight glistened on the granite counter top, which was white flecked with black and gray. Caleb’s Easter basket of Cadbury eggs and jellybeans sat next to the Sunday paper, and the air still smelled like banana pancakes from breakfast.
I’m losing weight but I’m not dieting.
“So Anna, tell me, how are you? How have you been? Can we catch up on your whole entire life?”
“I don’t know.” Anna chuckled. “If you want to.”
“I do, I’d love to!” Maggie’s heart lifted. “We can try, can’t we?”
“Of course we can! So tell me how you are!” Maggie would give anything to reconnect with Anna. Maggie had fought for shared physical custody, but Florian had enrolled Anna in a fancy French boarding school, and the French courts had ruled against Maggie.
She’d tried to establish visitation, but then Anna herself had written Maggie, saying she didn’t want to see her. Maggie had honored the request, though it had broken her heart.
“I guess I’m fine. My life is . . . fine.” Anna giggled.
“Mine, too! What a coincidence!” Maggie joined her, laughing.
“How’s the new school?”
“Not as fine. And it’s not new.”
“You started there for high school, right?”
Maggie had gotten a notice from Florian two years ago, which was required by the court, telling her that Anna had come Stateside to Congreve, an elite boarding school in Maine. It drove her nuts that Florian had won custody of Anna, only to send her to a school to live. Maggie sensed he didn’t visit Anna much, because what little Maggie could see of Anna’s social media never mentioned Florian, not even on Father’s Day.
Maggie always checked Mother’s Day, too, torturing herself.
“Yes, but that was, like, three years ago. I wanted to come to the U.S. for high school.”
“So what’s Congreve like? I saw on the website, it’s so pretty!”
“There’s not much to tell. It’s school.” Anna fell momentarily silent, and Maggie rushed to keep the conversational ball rolling.
“So you’re only a year from graduation! Tell me, what’s next for you? College?”
“Totally, they’re obsessed here. Congreve is a feeder for the Ivies. My grades are pretty good. I have a 3.7.”
“Wow, I’m so happy for you!” Maggie felt new tears come to her eyes, a mixture of joy and guilt. Anna deserved the brightest future ever.
I hear sounds and voices.
“It’s good, but it’s not, like, valedictorian good.”
“But still! I’m proud of you!”
I feel guilty and ashamed of myself.
“Thanks.” Anna perked up. “I like your letters. It’s so old-fashioned to get a real letter, instead of email.”
“I’m so happy you read them!” Maggie wrote Anna once a month, figuring that one-way communication was better than none at all. She had no choice other than snail mail, since she didn’t have Anna’s email address or cell phone number.
“I’m sorry I didn’t write back. I should have.”
Maggie felt touched. “It’s okay, you didn’t have to.”
“No, totally. It’s rude.”
“It’s not rude, honey!” Maggie heard the honey escape her lips, naturally. “No worries!”
“And thanks for the birthday cards, too.”
“I’m happy to. I celebrate your birthday, in my head. It’s crazy!”
Maggie cringed, hearing herself. Crazy.
I can’t tell my husband how I feel.
“I save the cards.”
“Aww, that’s so nice. That’s really sweet.” Maggie swallowed hard, thinking of Anna’s birthday, March 6. The labor
and delivery had been difficult, an unexpected Cesarean, but Maggie didn’t dwell on that or what came after.
All her life, what she’d wanted most was a baby girl.
“And you know that navy fleece you sent me, last Christmas?”
“Sure, yes! Did you like it? Did it fit?” Maggie always sent up Christmas and birthday gifts. She’d had to guess at the correct size, so she bought medium. Anna’s social media had moody shots of Congreve, but the privacy settings were high and the school’s website said it frowned upon selfies and the like.
“Yes, I wear that fleece all the time. My Housemaster thinks it walks by itself.”
“I figured, Maine, right? It’s cold.” Maggie wondered who Anna’s Housemaster was and what her dorm was like, her classes, her friends. It felt so awful being shut out of her daughter’s life. It was like having a limb amputated, but one nobody knew about. Maggie looked complete on the outside, but inside, she knew different. I never thought I would feel this way.
“Also, congratulations on getting remarried.”
“Thank you.” Maggie assumed Anna knew from her letters. She didn’t know if Anna felt uncomfortable about Maggie’s remarrying, but it didn’t sound that way. “Noah is a great guy, a pediatric allergist. I work part-time in his office, I do the billing, and I have a stepson, Caleb, who’s ten.”
“It sounds great.”
“It is,” Maggie said, meaning it. She was so happy with Noah, who was loving, brilliant, and reliable. He’d been a single father since the death of his first wife four years ago, from ovarian cancer. Maggie had met him at the gym, and they’d fallen in love and married two years ago. And Maggie adored Caleb, a bright ten-year-old who was
on the shy side, owing to a speech disorder called apraxia.
“Caleb’s supercute and — uh-oh. I just busted myself.” Anna groaned. “I stalk you on Facebook.”
“Ha! I stalk you, too!” Maggie laughed, delighted. She had thought about sending Anna a Friend Request so many times, but she didn’t know what Anna had told her friends about her mother.
My baby would be better off without me.
Anna cleared her throat. “Anyway, I should get to the point. I was wondering if you wanted to, like, maybe, see each other? I mean, for dinner or something? Either
here or in Pennsylvania?”
“I would love that!” Maggie dabbed her eyes. It was more than she could have hoped for. “I’ll come see you, to make it easier! Anytime, anywhere, you name it!”
“Um, okay, how about Friday dinner?”
“This week?” Maggie jumped to her feet, excited. “Yes, totally! I’m so excited!”
“Cool!” Anna sounded pleased. “I didn’t know if you would want to. Dad said you wouldn’t.”
“Of course I would!” Maggie resisted the urge to trash Florian. She was trying to be better, not bitter, like her old therapist had said. It wouldn’t get her anywhere anyway, so late in the game. Florian had cheated her of her own child, exploiting her illness to his advantage.
I have thoughts of harming myself.
“I’m glad I asked, you know? And I kind of want to know, like, what happened. With you.”
“Of course.” Maggie flushed. Her shame was always there, beneath the surface of her skin, like its very own layer of flesh. “Anna, I’ll tell you anything you want to know. You must have lots of questions and you deserve answers from me.”
“Okay. There’s a place in town that’s vegetarian, is that all right?”
Maggie felt her spirits soar. “Anna, I give you so much credit for making this call. It couldn’t have been easy. You’re very brave.”
“Aw, thanks. I’ll text you the address of the restaurant. Okay, bye, Mom.”
Mom. Maggie’s heart melted again. “Bye, honey.”
I have thoughts of harming my baby.
Maggie ended the call, jumped to her feet, and cheered. “Noah!” she yelled, running for the back door.
Trial Day 9
Noah waited alone in the bull pen, a secured detention area of room-like cells on the bottom floor of the courthouse. The jury had been deliberating for two days, and it was eating him alive. Thomas had assumed the deliberations would take a day at most and hung with him from time to time, which Noah appreciated, not knowing how much longer he’d be in civilized company. Maybe not for the rest of his life. If he got convicted, he wasn’t going back to the smooth time at Montgomery County Correctional Facility. He’d be doing hard time in a maximum-security facility like Graterford. Assuming he didn’t get the death penalty.
Noah tried not to think about that now. He had to be hopeful. He didn’t know which way the jury would go. They could find him innocent. It happened. People walked every day. He couldn’t control what the jury did, so he was trying to get to a place of acceptance, a favorite phrase from the overworked MSW at the jail, who did med checks and ran group therapy sessions. Noah had been given a coping toolkit to help him come to a place of acceptance. Problem was, the tools weren’t working now.
Suddenly the door opened, and a deputy admitted Thomas, filling the small room with his massive frame. He was six-foot-five and built like the linebacker he used to be at Cheney, and his presence and personality commanded attention in any courtroom. Right now his big features — round eyes, large nose, and oversized grin — were alive with animation, and he clapped his meaty hands together. “Great news, dude!”
“What?” Noah shifted on the metal bench bolted to the wall.
“Lovely Linda is very nervous. Ask me why. Answer? Because I crushed that closing.” Thomas grinned broadly, his chest expanding, and he opened his arms to reveal a wingspan that strained the seams of his tailored charcoal suit.
“What’s up?” Noah felt a tingle of hope. Lovely Linda was what Thomas called the Assistant District Attorney, Linda Swain-Pettit. Thomas had nicknames for everybody
in the courtroom, including the jurors.
“She’s worried the jury’s been out this long. She wants to make a deal.”
“No deal. I said already.” Noah didn’t know what he’d expected. The cavalry?
“No, this time, you’ll listen. I got her to sweeten the pot.” Thomas sat down next to him. His grin vanished, and he turned to Noah, his eyes narrowing with intensity, like a microscope focusing.
“Wait.” Thomas held up his palm. “You’re charged with murder of the first degree. You’re looking at life without, or death. That’s possible.”
“I know that.” Noah had gotten used to the lingo. Life without meant life without possibility of parole, or LWOP.
“But if you plead guilty to third-degree murder, she’s offering twenty years.”
Thomas’s eyes flared in disbelief. “Noah. I got her down from forty years, the max.”
“No.” Noah didn’t even have to think about it. He knew how he felt.
“Noah, you’re not listening. Sure, I gave a great closing, but don’t lose your damn mind. The fact that they’re still out doesn’t mean they’re going your way. Maybe somebody doesn’t want to go back to work. It’s snowing, maybe somebody doesn’t want to go home and shovel. You don’t know. You can’t risk it. Take the deal.”
“She destroyed you on the stand. It was like watching a major-league hitter swing at your head. I couldn’t believe you even stood up after that. I wanted to send you a stretcher.”
“Still, no.” Noah had underestimated how hard it would be to be cross-examined by an experienced prosecutor. He’d thought he could just tell his story.
“It’s like you have a death wish. Do you have a death wish, Noah?”
“No,” Noah answered, but the truth was yes, or at least, maybe.
“Noah.” Thomas took a deep breath, inflating his barrel chest, trying to calm himself down. “I’m begging you to take this deal.”
“Why not? Because of the plea? Who cares? Like I told you, whether you’re guilty or innocent doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is whether Linda convinced the jury you did it, and I assure you, she did that.”
“Still.” Noah had heard Thomas’s lecture before. “Thomas, on a firing squad, they always put blanks in one of the guns. And you know the reason? So that everybody on the firing squad can sleep at night, saying to themselves, ‘There’s a chance I didn’t do it.’ ”
“So what’s your point?”
“If I plead guilty, Maggie will never be able to sleep again. It will ruin her life. I can’t do it to her.”
“But you’ve got to think of yourself now. She’s not thinking of you. You have to be thinking of you.”
“I couldn’t sleep at night knowing what I’d done to her.”
“They’re going to convict you, man!”
“But at least she can say to herself, somewhere, that I didn’t do it. She’ll never have heard from me that I did it. The same goes for Caleb. I can’t
do it to him, either. He already gets bullied.”
“But what if it means you get out sooner? Caleb’s only how old now?”
“What makes you think he’ll want to see me, after I plead guilty to murder?”
“He might not want to see you anyway!” Thomas threw up his heavy arms.
“Pleading guilty ensures it. If I plead guilty, well, I explained it. I just won’t do it.”
“It’s your life.”
“Mine isn’t the only life to consider. I have to think of Maggie and Caleb.”
“You’re being noble.”
“I’m being a husband and a father.”
“Exactly why I’m single,” Thomas snorted. “Noah, you’re going against my express legal advice. What would you think of a patient who did that?”
“My patients are eight years old. If a mom or dad didn’t take my advice, I’d figure they’d had their reasons.” Noah encouraged his parents to get second opinions. He understood it himself. Caleb had been late to babble as a baby and as he reached a year and a half, he’d shown difficulty repeating words like mommy and daddy. Noah had suspected he had childhood apraxia of speech, which was hard to identify in preschool children.
The pediatrician had disagreed, but Noah had been right.
“If this came up on appeal, I’d be considered negligent.”
“You’re not. I’m not appealing anything. Thank you for trying. I appreciate it.”
“Damn, you’re tough!” Thomas folded his arms.
“You need to come to a place of acceptance,” Noah said, without elaborating.
“Noah, great news!” Maggie raced across the dappled lawn to Noah, planting rosebushes along the back fence. She hustled past Caleb, who was taking videos of their tabbycat, Wreck-It Ralph, near the swingset on the other side of the backyard.
“What?” Noah turned, pushing back his hair, a thick sandy-blond thatch glinting silver at the temples. He was forty-three, and she loved the signs of age on him, like the crow’s-feet crinkling the corners of his eyes, which were a seriously intelligent blue, set wide apart. He had a straight nose and a grin that came more easily once he knew you better.
“Guess what?” Maggie reached him, bursting with the news. “Anna called! I’m going up to see her on Friday!”
“Anna called?” Noah’s face lit up. He stuck the shovel in the ground. “My God, that’s wonderful, honey!”
“She wants to see me! Like, I got a shot!”
“That’s awesome! Come here!” Noah scooped Maggie up and swung her around.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Woo-hoo!” Maggie did a little dance, holding on to his hands. “It’s everything!”
“We have to celebrate! How about we go out to dinner? Order a bottle of champagne!”
“On Easter?” Maggie laughed again.
“Oh, right, I forgot!” Noah hugged her close to his sweatshirt, which smelled of peat moss. “Honey, I’m so happy for you. You deserve this, you really do.”
“I hoped it would happen, and it did! I can’t even deal. It’s a miracle, I swear.” Maggie buried her face in his chest, trying not to cry all over again. “I always hoped she’d come around.”
“I know, babe. I’m so glad.” Noah rocked her back and forth slightly, and Maggie let herself be cuddled in the sun, breathing in the comfort of his arms, his familiarity, his husbandness. She loved that Noah was always on the same page as she was, especially about the big things. About the backyard, they had different views. She’d fallen in love with Zephirine Drouhin roses, but he would’ve planted ivy.
“I really want her in my life. I hate that she’s not. And I hate why.” Maggie hid her face, ashamed. The only thing worse than being a bad mother was being an unfit mother, like her. She’d even been adjudicated unfit. She didn’t tell most people that she even had a daughter, to avoid the explanation. Her best friend, Kathy, knew because they had gone through it together, but Maggie hadn’t told her other friends or anyone at the office. She’d told Caleb, but it had been too abstract for him to really understand.
“Honey, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Noah let her go, looking down at her tenderly.
“It’s just awful. Now I have to tell her everything.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. You got sick, is all.”
“But she grew up without a mother. I have to answer for that.”
“You don’t have to answer for anything.” Noah frowned sympathetically.
“Yes, I do.” Maggie felt guilty, despite years of therapy. After Anna’s birth, Maggie had developed postpartum psychosis, an extreme form of postpartum depression. It had begun with sleeplessness, anxiety, and profound feelings of inadequacy as a mother, then progressed to bouts of crying, hearing voices, and intrusive thoughts of hurting herself.
“If you had cancer, you wouldn’t feel that way. You had a mental illness, you got treatment, and you got better.”
“But Anna’s young. She won’t understand. I wouldn’t have, at her age.” Maggie had always thought that postpartum depression was just the baby blues and she’d never even heard of postpartum psychosis. She wouldn’t have believed it was possible if she hadn’t lived through it, and there were so many other women who weren’t as lucky, mothers who committed suicide or drove their car into a lake, with their babies.
“You can deal with it, and so can she.” Noah leaned a forearm on the shovel handle, a lanky, six-footer in a faded gray T-shirt and old jeans. He was in good shape since he never overate, which Maggie couldn’t relate to.
“I hope so.”
“She’ll understand. When you see her, just tell her the truth.”
“That I went to a mental hospital?” Maggie hated the words, then she hated herself for hating the words. Crazy, bonkers, bats—, nuts, psycho. She and her friends used the terms all the time, but she never told them that she qualified. She’d started to wonder if she had postpartum psychosis after she’d taken a quiz in a parenting magazine. I have thoughts of harming myself. She’d checked all twelve boxes. She’d gone to her OB/GYN, and he’d diagnosed and treated her, but she wasn’t improving. It had come to a head one awful night, and she dreaded telling that story to Anna.
“Don’t blame yourself.” Noah put an arm around her. “Your ex took advantage of you because you were in the hospital. He deprived you both of the relationship you could have had.”
“I know. It’s true.” Maggie still needed to hear Noah say it, like a reassuring call-and-response. After she’d been admitted to the hospital, Florian had divorced her and won custody of Anna, asking that Maggie be declared unfit. Maggie had neither the ability nor the money to fight him until a year later, but by then, Florian had sold his start-up, gotten mega-rich, and taken Anna to his parents in Lyon, France, creating a jurisdictional nightmare that defeated her suit.
Florian had deposited Anna with them and started flying around the world, but that didn’t matter to the courts, which was when Maggie learned that money could buy anything, even children.
“Dad, Mag!” Caleb came over with a buttercup on a flimsy green stem, and Wreck-It Ralph trotted after him, his tail high.
“What, honey?” Maggie said, turning to him. Caleb called her Mag because kids with apraxia had trouble pronouncing longer words, to the point where it was hard to understand them. But he got great grades, and his speech was getting clearer after years of practice. He had an IEP and received some services at school, but Maggie took him three times a week to a speech pathologist, who gave them target words to practice at home. They were given ten at a time, and the idea was to use them in normal conversation. Caleb had cut his knee on the playground at school on Wednesday, so this week’s target words were about accidents. They made it a game, like family Mad Libs.
“Ralph likes butter.” Caleb grinned, a smile that lit up his face. His eyes were a warm brown, and he had a cute nose with a smattering of freckles, from his late mother, Karen. His intensity was pure Noah, and it helped him cope with the teasing at school, due to his disorder. Even when his speech was understandable, it could sound halting and robotic, since he had to think about the words before he said them.
“He does?” Maggie smiled. “How do you know?”
Caleb hoisted the wilted buttercup. “I held this under his chin. It turned yellow. I got it on my phone.”
Maggie smiled. “So you figured it out by accident?”
“Good question,” Noah chimed in, with a wink. “It must have been by accident. Was it an accident, Caleb?”
“Yes.” Caleb rolled his eyes, knowing what they were doing.
He paused, thinking, and Maggie knew he was forming his motor plan, rehearsing in his head the way he was going to make the sounds for the word accident. It killed her that talking, which came so naturally to other kids, was something that Caleb had to fight for, every day.
“Caleb, don’t forget your ‘tippy T,’” Maggie said, which was a trick their pathologist taught them, to remind him to put the tip of his tongue behind his upper teeth to form the T sound.
Caleb nodded. “Yes, by ac-ci-dent.”
“Accident! Way to go!” Maggie ruffled Caleb’s reddish-brown hair with long bangs.
“Great job, Caleb! By accident.” Noah grinned down at him. “Say it again. Was it by accident?”
Maggie held her breath. Caleb was supposed to repeat the word three times, which was difficult for kids with apraxia. If he couldn’t, they were supposed to let it go. The pathologist didn’t want them turning every conversation into a drill. They needed to encourage Caleb to talk, not shut him down.
Caleb answered, “It was an ac-di-dent.”
Noah smiled. “Try it again, buddy. Accident.”
Caleb pursed his lips, thinking again. “Acc-di-tent.”
Noah touched his shoulder. “Good enough for now, buddy.”
“It sure is,” Maggie added, but she could see that Caleb was disappointed. “Caleb you don’t have to learn that word. It’s not an emergency.”
“Ha!” Caleb smiled slyly at Maggie, knowing it was another of their target words. “No, stop! That’s too hard.”
“Caleb, it’s an emergency!” Noah grabbed Caleb and gave him a hug. “It’s an emergency! I need a hug!”
Maggie laughed. “Yes, an emergency hug!”
“Dad, no!” Caleb shoved Noah away playfully, and father and son started laughing and wrestling, falling onto the grass as Ralph sprang out of the way.
Maggie watched them with another surge of happiness, feeling lucky in them both. Caleb was more than she ever could have asked for, and she’d treated him as her own since the day she’d met him. She wondered if she’d ever get that close to Anna or if it was too late to make up for lost time.
Maggie felt the sunshine warm her shoulders. It was finally April, after a long Pennsylvania winter. Spring was a time of rebirth, and it was Easter, so it didn’t get any better. Maybe this was a new beginning, for her and Anna.