What’s a girl to do when her imprisoned brother begs her to delve into their father’s sixteen-year-old murder conviction? How about peel back the lies, upend the fairy tales, and roil the populace of Lavitte—a sweet apple of a town with a wormy, festering core? That’s what Allison Fennimore chooses. Despite her infamous surname and people’s wilted memories, this jaded cynic of a daughter sinks her teeth in and refuses to let go. She can practically taste the bitterness of that long-ago, twisted night when two teenagers died, linked to her father by bad luck and a few strands of rope.
Ignoring the dense local atmosphere where image trumps substance and lies become legend, Allison stirs the pot. The more layers she discards, the more elusive the truth becomes. And when a key source of information turns up dead, the dark edges of resentment coil in around her like a slowly tightening noose. As revelations get ugly, Allison may wish she’d never ventured toward the forbidden fruit of truth.
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Sixteen years since my last trip to this park and not a tree had changed. Even the sidewalk jutted up in the same angry crevices that had worn out my childhood bicycle tires. Maybe the concrete walkway had reached its breaking point decades ago and decided to fight back, forcing the persistent roots down into the darkness to tangle amongst themselves. Determined to hold its own, the sidewalk put on a daily show for the humans above, pretending that everything below was peachy keen, thank you very much. Nothing to see here, folks. No seedy underbelly thrashing beneath. The citizens of Lavitte, North Carolina, kindly returned the favor. They traveled over the façade every day, smiling and waving and warning kids on training wheels to watch out for the bumps. They jogged over the fractured surface to the beat of their music, pretending that life offered up wishes and dreams, rainbows and sprinkles. No need to stick fingers into the cracks or peel back the surface to examine the source of the sour rumblings beneath. But everybody knew they were there.
If the old physics truism held, that every action was met with an equal and opposite reaction, then what kind of forces jumped back and forth between the man and the sidewalk on Maple Street sixteen years ago? Did the sidewalk absorb his depravity when he grabbed a young girl off her bike on that sweltering August evening, projecting it to the gnarled roots below, or did the evildoer absorb the pretense from the sly footpath that life was nothing but a grand cabaret?
Probably the latter. Seemed to be the choice of most everyone in Lavitte.
“Ding Ding!” A little girl, so Gerber perfect she looked like a hologram, rang her bicycle bell at me. “Excuse me, Lady.”
“Mattie,” her mom said, “it’s ‘excuse me, Ma’am’.”
Thanks, but I’ll take lady over ma’am any day. Christ, I was only a few years older than the mom. Still, I couldn’t fault the teaching of proper manners in good ol’ Lavitte. Manners were our foundation, our sidewalk. Until they were discarded altogether and replaced with rage.
“Sorry about that,” the mom said to me, her mineral powder make-up and bright denim jeans mirrored by every other mother at the park. “She’s still wobbly. Just got her training wheels off. I didn’t think she was ready, but you know how dads are, always ready to push ‘em out of the nest a little earlier than we are.”
I looked around, desperate for her to be talking to anyone other than me, but her reflective lenses aimed squarely at mine whenever she wasn’t scanning the area for her Mashed Peas model.
“Which one is yours?” she said.
It took me longer than it should have to realize she thought I was a card-carrying mom. The hesitation alone almost gave her enough pause to walk away. By the time I put it together, my answer sounded forced and plaintive. “I don’t have one. Or two for that matter. I’m not a mom.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Her eyes strayed to the ground before she lifted her slim face back up, a plastered smile concealing her grief. For what? The possibility that my ovaries lacked viable eggs? The presumed melancholy thump of my heart over not having a vulnerable child to screw up for the next eighteen years? If anything, she should be sorry if I did have a kid. But I couldn’t afford to alienate anyone on my first day back, so I played nice. Besides, odds were I knew this chick in some capacity or other. It’s not that Lavitte wasn’t big enough for two big guns; it’s that Lavitte wasn’t big enough for any two people to remain strangers. If you didn’t know a person directly, you sho’ly knew their cousin.
“I grew up here and used to play in this park,” I said with more saccharine sweetness than my mother’s Sweet Sunday Sugar Fudge, the name of which had always distressed me with its redundancy. “I’m back to, uh,”—uh oh, hadn’t worked out an excuse for being back in town yet, but as it turned out, I hardly needed one.
“You’re visiting family, of course.” She proffered a hand, all bird bones and stickiness from the freeze-pops she’d served the kids earlier. “I’m Abby. Abby Westerling. You probably know the name.”
She meant the Westerling part, no doubt. The original Mr. and Mrs. Westerling had owned the big general store in town, then sold the land to some developer and used that money to buy up the half of town they didn’t already own. They had a penchant for naming things after themselves, so Lavitte was saddled with Westerling Medical Center, Westerling Children’s Museum of Lavitte, and Westerling Theater. For all I knew, a raunchy truck would pass by boasting Westerling Trash and Disposal. Why not? Plenty of garbage in Lavitte.
“Yes, I’m familiar,” I said. “You married a Westerling?”
“Unfortunately, not a direct one.” She giggled. “Well, that sounds plain wrong. What I mean is, I married a Westerling cousin. We’re the poor relations.”
The three-carat diamond on her left hand screamed otherwise but might also suggest a desperate cousin, scrambling to keep up with his surname. Earning money by day, throwing darts at his ancestors by night.
“I was a Murphy before that,” she said.
I knew a huge Murphy family in middle school. Nine kids, with several delinquents among the academic standouts. The boys were mostly ugly, the girls auburn-haired and cute. More than a few hated my family. She might be one of them. I didn’t pursue it as she seemed the type to volunteer plenty.
“So, who are you visiting?” she asked.
“My mom still lives here but she might put her house on the market. My dad passed away so I try to come back and see her a little more often.”
Hey, it was almost the truth. More than the local sidewalks offered.
“Sorry about your dad. Your mom must appreciate your visits. What’s your name, by the way?”
I realized I hadn’t introduced myself. Guess it was time to watch the dark shadow crawl over pretty Abby Murphy Westerling’s face as she tried to recall the outcome of the trial. She’d have to sort the truth from distorted childhood memories. Surely, her recollection of events had grown sinister and inconceivable, like a cancer, until it was something best not spoken of, best not acknowledged, treated as folklore. But here it was in the flesh. Or at least its descendant. I could lie. No skin off my back. But I had come here to do exactly the opposite. Might as well start the ball rolling through the dirt, muck, gossip, and disgust, dredging up all the denials until it snowballed into a big pile of rottenness, untenable and best disposed of at the Westerling Dump. The very ball I’d come here to stick a big fork in. Dig in, everybody!
The first name alone gave her a small start as she searched my face for clues. The nose, definitely the same perfect nose as the mother, so elegantly sloped and dimpled at the tip in a way mannequins envied because theirs looked so plastic. The lazy factories that churned out those porcelain-skinned fakes couldn’t be bothered with a dimpled tip as expertly positioned as this one. Abby could see that now. I wished I could wiggle it like Samantha in Bewitched, just to send her running for the hills, the perfect rolling mounds on the west end of town that made the opening scene of The Sound of Music envious. Yes, it was all about envy—from concepts, television shows, and inanimate objects. Because I, personally, was never envied by other humans. At least not after that night.
Abby repeated my name, possibly without realizing it. “Allison.” Quietly it slipped from her lips, like a secret, a whisper of a memory. I took off my sunglasses and wiped them with the thin blue T-shirt I’d thrown on this morning, giving her a glimpse of my eyes. That usually did it for people. The eyes. Because my father’s eyes had been nothing less than mesmerizing, right up until the day he died, when they bulged a bit more than usual. Regular pieces of onyx, his eyes were, shined to brilliance. And they were big. Big as puddles. Disproportionately large for his face. Doe eyes, the ladies used to say. Unexpected, one of the Charlotte newspapers had reported. And I’d inherited them as if they’d been transplanted. At least they fit on my face somehow. Balanced by my full lips, my mother would retort in the old days when I complained I looked like an alien. Nowadays, peering into the endless pools of chocolate liquid swirling deliciously on my face, my mother probably felt sick to her stomach. She never made her Sweet Sunday Sugar Fudge anymore. Who would eat it if she did?
“Allison Fennimore,” I said, my plump lips framing a luminescent smile. “You probably know the name.”
Abby Westerling found a quick, urgent excuse to leave my company. She gathered her Gerber Peas baby, murmured an apology to the other mothers, maybe with a cautioning nod in my direction, and skedaddled. Whatever. Nothing could hurt me now. I was Lavitte’s favorite Teflon Daughter.