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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 countertop, 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?”
“Vegetarian’s great!” 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.
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