Tuesday, May 10
My friend Caroline Reese lives in a hotel about five miles outside of town. It’s a huge Victorian resort called the Ballentine. The first time I saw it, the Ballentine looked like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, all covered in vines and thorns. Parts of the roof had caved in, and the interior was scorched. But where everyone else saw a ruin, Caroline’s mother saw possibility. She bought the Ballentine and started the slow process of restoring it. The hotel reopened to guests two years ago. And this year, the renovations entered their final phase.
Caroline has taken advantage of the last of the construction chaos to commandeer a room in the north wing. She set up her espresso machine and dragged in some comfortable chairs. The space is eventually going to be repainted, so last month I decided to add some color to the walls. I painted bookcases full of leather volumes, curtains to frame the windows, and a ring of quotes about coffee just above the chair rail.
When Caroline’s mother saw what I had done to her hotel, I expected her to tell me to paint over it. Which she did. But she also hired me to paint a mural in a room down the hall from Caroline’s lair.
The mural room is huge. You can see where a chandelier used to hang and the remnants of crown molding. One wall clearly held a mural at some point. But the paint was so damaged by the fire that I couldn’t make out the image. Another wall holds floor to ceiling windows. The last two make up one enormous canvas.
Mrs. Reese wants the whole north wing to house the children’s activities, like it did before the fire. So she asked me for a child-friendly mural. Standing there that first day, the images were already taking shape in my mind. Rapunzel’s tower would stand in the center, with Hogwarts off in the distance. Peter, from The Snowy Day, would need snowbanks to trek through, and Winnie-the-Pooh would want a honey tree.
I’ve spent the last two weeks planning and prepping the walls. And today after school, I finally got to add the first touches of color to my enormous canvas. I started with the night sky above Big Ben. Once it’s dry, I’ll be able to add the tiny figures of Peter Pan, Tinkerbell and the Darling siblings flying off towards Never Land.
“You were smart to keep Harry Potter away from Peter Pan and Wendy,” Caroline said when she came into the room, her hands full of drinks. “A midair collision would have been unfortunate.”
“I thought so.”
I climbed down off the ladder, and Caroline handed me the metal water bottle with “Aly” painted on the side. She kept the mug of espresso for herself.
“Thanks,” I said.
She nodded and then closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of the espresso before she took her first, slow sip.
I just watched this ceremony. “Most people drink espresso from small cups.”
Caroline opened her eyes. “Most people lack dedication.”
I smiled at her.
“Have you decided what to put in the corner?” she asked.
“What about the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “The witch tries to eat them.”
“You don’t have to show that part.”
If my foster mother, Mrs. Miller, were telling the story, Hansel and Gretel would have been walking happily through the woods and met a kind old woman who fed them candy without any ulterior motives.
“A gingerbread house would be fun to make.”
Caroline’s eyes gleamed. “And you could cover the roof with espresso beans.”
“You have a problem.”
“I have many,” Caroline said. “But I am not addicted. Coffee and I are in a committed relationship.”
“Does Dylan know about this?”
“Dylan is very open-minded.”
“I guess he would have to be, if he’s willing to share you with a caffeinated beverage,” I said seconds before my phone rang.
It was Mrs. Miller calling in a tight voice. Her tone wasn’t that strange. It’s the same voice she uses when something has spilled and she’s trying to keep up her smile.
I hung up the phone and looked at Caroline. “I have to go.”
“What does she want now?”
“I don’t know. She just told me to come back to the house.”
“But we haven’t had time to hide Luke’s car yet.”
I hugged her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I left the mural room, ducking under a heavy piece of plastic and maneuvering around work crews to reach the back parking lot. I’m not allowed to drive any of the Millers’ cars, and Caroline is grounded from driving for two weeks. Which left our friend Luke as my only way of getting to the hotel with paint supplies. He couldn’t drive me himself – he was helping his dad today. But he loaned me his car. So I drove carefully down off Caroline’s mountain and into town.
Trinity, New Hampshire is a small town, barely the size of a Boston neighborhood. Instead of high-rises, we’re surrounded by mountains and forests and the occasional field of cows. Most of the homes here are old farmhouses with wide porches and steeply pitched rooves. When it snows, the whole place looks like a Norman Rockwell Christmas card.
I parked Luke’s car outside his house and walked the three blocks to the Millers’. A dark blue sedan with Massachusetts plates was parked out front. The car belongs to Mrs. Peters, my social worker. So when I walked into the living room, I was expecting her. It was the man who surprised me. He had graying hair and wore a wrinkled suit.
“Hello, Alyson,” Mrs. Peters said. “Do you remember Mr. Raleigh, from the District Attorney’s office?”
My body froze. But my thoughts started crashing into each other.
Mr. Raleigh promising me that they were going to put Rick in jail.
Mr. Raleigh asking me questions I didn’t want to answer in front of cameras I didn’t want to see.
Mr. Raleigh telling me that the case had been dropped. “I’m sorry, Alyson. We don’t have enough evidence to take this to trial.”
My word hadn’t been enough.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Raleigh said, as if we were standing in his office, instead of my foster parents’ living room.
The Millers were sitting tight mouthed on the love seat. There was an empty chair next to Mr. Raleigh and a place on the couch next to Mrs. Peters. I chose the couch. Mrs. Peters reached over and patted my hand as I sat down.
The Miller girls, Hattie and Gabby, are eight and six, and were nowhere to be seen. They were probably upstairs watching a princess movie. Mrs. Miller is always careful to keep them segregated from the messy parts of my life. I think she would ban messes of every kind if she could.
“Richard Wallace has been arrested, again,” Mr. Raleigh said.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, not with Mr. Raleigh sitting there in the room with me. But it still took me a few seconds to manage a logical question. “For my case?”
“No. But we’re going to need you to testify.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about another case.”
“We know. But we’re trying to establish that Richard Wallace’s actions toward this girl were part of a pattern of behavior. Your experiences with him can help.”
He wanted me to testify. And not just in depositions this time. He wanted me to go to court. To be cross-examined.
Mr. Raleigh leaned toward me. “I know that we’re asking a lot. But if we add your testimony to that of other witnesses, we won’t have to put the victim on the stand.”
He let those words sink in. If I testify, she won’t have to.
If the world was fair, I would never have to see Rick ever again. But if the world was fair, this never would have happened to her in the first place.
In the end, Mr. Raleigh didn’t have to use the subpoena I saw in his briefcase. I agreed to testify, the way he knew I would. And he gave me a schedule instead. The trial starts in less than two months. My first deposition is a week from Monday.
Across the room, my foster parents had cornered Mrs. Peters.
“We can’t keep taking Alyson to Boston for depositions,” Mr. Miller said.
“What are we supposed to tell our children?” Mrs. Miller said.
Mrs. Peters’ expression was hard as she looked at my foster parents. “When the court gave you permission to take Alyson out of state, one of the conditions was that you would bring her back for all court-required activities. Testifying in a trial certainly meets that criteria.” Her eyes moved from one Miller to the other. “As to what to tell your children, I would suggest the truth.”
As if that was ever going to happen.
The Millers haven’t even told their girls that I have HIV. Mrs. Miller always shoos them out of the room before she watches me take my pills. I don’t know how she explains the fact that she won’t let me touch anything sharp and makes me wash my hands three times before she lets me help in the kitchen. Maybe they just think I’m clumsy and dirty.
Clumsy I can live with.
Dirty is harder.
Before they left, I asked Mr. Raleigh, “What is the girl’s name?”
“I’m sorry, Alyson. I can’t tell you the victim’s name. We have to protect her privacy.”
I understand that. I do. But I also wonder how much our privacy leaves us isolated. This other girl could live next door to me, and I would never know. This isn’t something people talk about. But that’s what they want from me. They want me to talk about it, to tell the story.