Home Front (Page 8)

Home Front(8)
Author: Kristin Hannah

* * *

The room in the King County jail was dank and dreary. There was no CSI two-way mirror on the wall; instead, there was a pair of green, banged-up light fixtures hanging above a desk that had been marked up through years of use and a small metal trash can in the corner. Nothing that could be used as a weapon. The table legs were bolted to the concrete floor.

Michael sat in the chair across the table from his new client, Keith Keller, who was young, with short blond hair and the kind of build that hinted at either steroids or obsessive weight lifting. His cheekbones were sharp and his lips looked like he’d been biting at them.

The wall clock kept a steady record of the minutes that passed in silence.

Well, not silence.

Keith sat as still as a stone, his gray eyes strangely—disturbingly—blank.

They’d been sitting here alone, the two of them, for over thirty-five minutes. Keith hadn’t said a word, but the kid breathed loudly, a rattling, phlegmy kind of breathing.

Michael glanced at the clock, again—1:21—and then down at the paperwork on the wooden table in front of him. All he had so far was the arrest report, and it wasn’t nearly enough upon which to base a defense. According to the police, Keith had gone on a rampage, shooting up everything until his neighbors called for help. When the police arrived, Keith barricaded himself in his house for hours. At some point in all of this, he’d—allegedly—shot his wife in the head. The report indicated that he’d threatened to kill himself before the SWAT team captured him.

It didn’t make sense. Keller was twenty-four and a half years old, with an unblemished record. Unlike most of Michael’s clients, Keller had never been arrested for anything before this, not even shoplifting as a teen. He’d graduated from high school, joined the Marines, and been honorably discharged. Then he’d gotten a job. He had no known gang affiliations, no history of drug abuse.

“I need to understand what happened, Keith.”

Keith stared at the same spot on the wall that had held his attention for three-quarters of the last hour.

And that awful, shuddering breathing.

Michael sighed and looked at his watch. If the kid didn’t want to help himself, that was his business. Michael had to leave right now or he’d miss the ferry—and the start of the track meet. “Fine, Keith. I’m going to ask the court for a psych eval on you. You won’t be competent to stand trial if you can’t participate in your own defense. Would you rather be in a psychiatric hospital than the jail? It’s your choice.”

Still, nothing.

He waited another moment, hoping for a response. Getting nothing from his client, he stood up and gathered his files. “I’m on your side, Keith. Remember that.”

Putting his papers in his briefcase, he closed it up, grabbed the handle, and went toward the door. He was just about to push the button for the guard when Keith spoke.

“Why bother? I’m guilty.”

Michael stopped. Of all the things the kid could have said, that was probably the least productive. A criminal defense attorney didn’t actually want to know that—it limited the defenses he could offer. He turned around slowly, expected to see Keith looking at him, but the kid was staring at his own fingers, as if the secret to immortality lay in the dirty nail beds. “When you say guilty…”

“I shot her in the head.” His voice broke on that. He looked up. Michael had grown used to grief, and he saw it in the young man’s eyes. “Why would you be on my side?”

Shit.

Now he had to explain the attorney-client relationship and the idea of American jurisprudence, the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing. He looked down at his watch. 1:37. There was no way he was going to make the start of the track meet, but he could be late, couldn’t he?

He went back to the desk and sat down, pulling a pad and paper out of his briefcase. “Let me explain how this works…”

* * *

At 2:20, Jolene pulled up in front of her mother-in-law’s gardening shop, the Green Thumb, and led Lulu inside.

A bell tinkled gaily overhead. The small, narrow shop—once an old-fashioned drugstore, complete with a soda fountain—was a treasure trove for gardeners. Michael’s mother, Mila, had opened the shop ten years ago—just for fun—but in the months since Theo’s death, it had become her sanctuary. Like her son, Mila had a strong work ethic, and lately she spent long hours here.

“Yia Yia!” Lulu yelled, yanking free. She charged forward with her usual enthusiasm. “Where are you?”

Mila pushed through the shimmering glass-bead curtain of the back room. “Do I hear my granddaughter?”

“I’m here, Yia Yia!” Lulu squealed.

Mila wore her usual work outfit: a thigh-length tee shirt, a green canvas apron (designed to camouflage her weight), and jeans tucked into orange rubber boots. Heavy makeup accentuated the dramatic beauty of her face—arching jet-black eyebrows, sparkling brown eyes, and full lips that smiled easily. She looked as Greek as she sounded, and she spoiled her grandkids as much as she’d spoiled her son. She had also become the mother Jolene always wanted.

As a young mother, Jolene had spent hours hunkered down in the rich black dirt with her mother-in-law beside her. At first she’d thought she was learning about weeds and the importance of a solid root system and levels of sunlight needed for growth; in time, she’d realized that her mother-in-law was teaching her about life and love and family. When it had come time for Jolene and Michael to purchase a home in which to raise their own family, she had never questioned the location. This town had become “home” for Jolene the moment Mila first hugged her and whispered, “You’re the one for him, but you know that, don’t you?”

“Hello, Lucy Louida,” Mila said, swinging her granddaughter up into her strong arms and setting her on the counter by the cash register.

“Hi, Yia Yia,” Lulu said, grinning. “You want to play patty-cake?”

“Not now, kardia mou.”

Jolene came up behind her mother-in-law and hugged her tightly. For as long as she lived, the scent of Shalimar perfume would remind her of this woman.

Mila leaned back into the embrace. Her dyed black hair—piled up à la an aging Jersey girl—tickled Jolene’s cheek. Then she clapped her plump hands together. “Now it is time to watch my granddaughter run like the wind. I’m ready to go.” Mila gave some instructions to the older man who was her assistant manager, and in no time they were headed to the middle school, where, finally, the sun had brushed the clouds away.

The track was a hive of activity; all around them, students and teachers and parents were readying the track and football field for the events. The opposing team was huddled at the opposite end of the field. Betsy was with her team beneath the goalposts, dressed in her blue and gold sweats. At their arrival, she looked up, waved, and ran up to them.

Betsy grinned. “Hi, Yia Yia.”

Jolene smiled down at her daughter, who for just a second looked proud that they were here to watch her run. She felt a little catch in her throat. This was such a big moment for her daughter; the first school athletic event. Jolene leaned forward and kissed Betsy.

“Oh. My. God.” Betsy gasped and stumbled back, her eyes huge.

“Sorry,” Jolene said, trying not to smile. “No one saw.”

Mila laughed. “The horror. The horror. Your father used to hate it when I kissed him in public also. I did not care about his horror, either. I told him he was lucky to have a mother who loved him.”

“Right,” Betsy said. She glanced over at the team, and bit her lower lip nervously.

Jolene moved forward. “You’re ready for this, Bets.”

Betsy looked up, and in that instant Jolene saw her little girl again, the one who’d loved digging in the sand and capturing caterpillars. “I’m going to lose. Just so you know. I might even fall.”

“You are not going to fall, Betsy. Life is like an apple. You have to take a big bite to get all the flavor.”

“Yeah,” Betsy said, looking miserable. “Whatever that means.”

“It means good luck,” Mila said.

“We’ll go up into the stands to watch,” Jolene said.

“Where’s Dad?” Betsy asked.

“He’ll be here,” Jolene said. “The ferry is just landing now. Good luck, baby.”

Jolene slung Lulu onto her hip and carried her over to the stands. There were probably forty people in the bleachers, mostly moms and kids. They climbed up to a seat in the middle and sat down. About five minutes later, Tami showed up, a little out of breath and red-faced.

“Did I miss anything?” she said, sliding to sit next to Jolene.

“Nope.”

At exactly three thirty, a gun went off and the first event started—the boys’ mile run.

Lulu screamed at the sound. She lurched to her feet and ran back and forth in the bleachers, yelling, “Look at me, Mommy!”

“Where is Michael?” Mila asked worriedly. “I reminded him yesterday.”

“I’m sure he’s on his way,” Jolene answered. “He better be.”

Tami shot her an are-you-worried look.

Jolene nodded.

The mile race finished. Then they called the girls’ mile.

Jolene fished her phone out of her purse and dialed Michael’s cell phone. It went straight to voice mail. She tapped her foot nervously.

Come on, Michael … get here on time …

At 4:10, they called Betsy’s event—the hundred-meter dash. Runners, take your spots …

Jolene’s phone rang. It was Michael. She picked up fast. “If you’re in the parking lot, you need to run. They just called her race.”

“I’m at the jail,” he said. “My client—”

“So you’ll miss it,” she said sharply.

Below, on the track, Betsy approached the starting line. She bent over, placed her palms on the track, fit her feet into the blocks.

“Damn it, Jo—”

The starting gun went off. Jolene said, “I gotta go,” and hung up on him. Getting to her feet, she cheered for Betsy, who was running hard, pumping her arms and legs, giving it her all. Pride washed through Jolene, brought tears to her eyes. “Go, Betsy, go!”

Betsy was the second one across the finish line. Afterward, she bent over, breathing hard, and then she looked up into the stands. She was beaming, her smile triumphant as she looked up at her family.

Slowly, her smile faded. She saw that Michael wasn’t there.

Then she ran off to be with her team.

Jolene sank slowly back onto the bleacher seat. She knew what it was like to need a parent’s attention and be denied, how much that hurt. She had never wanted her children to know that pain. She knew she was overreacting—it was just a track meet, after all—but it was the start. How long would Betsy remember this, be wounded by it? And how easily could Michael have made a different choice?

There was another race—the 220—and Betsy gave it her all, but her sense of triumph was gone; so was her smile. She came in fourth. After that, the races went on and on, and Lulu kept running back and forth in the bleachers, but the three adults just sat there.