A Good Mother
by Madeleine Berard
IT WAS THE FIFTIES, when women had just about as many rights as a dog. I didn’t go to work, never went to university. My greatest accomplishments at the time were my book club, marrying a psychologist, and of course, Ruth.
Even now, thirty years later, I still think about her. Every time a young blonde girl walks into the convenience store I cashier at, I almost always think it’s her. Until, of course, the child swings around, and I see its mouth: slightly too thin, eyes too small, heels still upright and kicking; my eyes fall back on the scanner in shame and regret.
She was ten when it happened. Her eyes had just fluttered open, taking in the raw truth of our world for the first time, finding all the opportunities that hide themselves around corners and under brick.
Ruth is my daughter. She was cute, with her skinny legs, round cheeks, and golden head of hair. Marcus and I had put her in a few beauty pageants when she was six, before her symptoms started to surface. There were a couple weeks when I was considering putting her back in. Maybe she would have averted tragedy. You would never think a girl as bright and pretty as her would have that diagnosis.
Ruth had a sharp mind. And I don’t mean smart. Although it’s true that she was the brightest in her class, something darker segregated that child from the rest. A pedestal, perhaps, on which she stood higher than everyone. Lack of empathy. Marcus noticed it before I did. She was always in first place, but alone and isolated, the spotlight always shining on her.
I guess the best place to start would be Monday, June 3rd, 1953. The last day her friend Timmy was seen alive. It was the start of summer heat, the sun shining down upon our brows. I had arrived at Ruth’s daycare to pick her up when I ran into Timmy’s mother, Tammy. Tammy and I were close. With our kids stomping around the playground behind the building, the two of us talked for fifteen minutes, twenty at most, about our upcoming book club meeting. It was my turn to host, and I bragged to Tammy about the spread I was fixing up: a batch of my chew chocolate chip cookies, a recipe passed down from my mother to me, as well as a sea salt caramel variant of my double fudge brownies—which, I reminded Tammy, were the first items sold out at the school’s most recent bake sale.
Bake sales. Playground gossip. Little after-school gatherings. These were the times of peace, it seemed. The times of happiness. Little did I know that that happiness would end with a pill bottle disguised as a candy dispenser.
I don’t think I took my eyes off Tammy that entire time. Then the silence alerted me that something was wrong. Our kids were not on the playground anymore.
Impulsive behavior. The daycare was a small old building near a forest that stretched across the town. It was common for kids to play in it, but they were prohibited to go past a certain point. I knew Ruth. (Or at least I thought I did.) I saw her as the perfect daughter. A good kid. If I called, she’d come running.
“Ruth!” I yelled into the abyss as we were about to leave.
I waited a few seconds. Then a minute. After two, not hearing the cracking of dry branches or her panting response, I called again. This time louder.
Tammy looked at me, concerned, then back to the woods. “Timmy?” She tried matching the power of my voice, but a slight pang of fear heightened her tone.
At that, the leaves parted, and a pale figure sprinted out and into my arms. I recognized those blonde locks. They were the same ones I’d always stared down upon, and the ones I’ll never get to look up to as I grow old and curled in a recliner chair.
“Ruth!” My hands rested on her head, a hint of both surprise and slight relief in my voice. “You scared me for a second.” I tried shaking off the tension with an awkward chuckle.
Tammy tapped Ruth’s arm, and I instinctively tightened my grip around her.
“Was Timmy in there with you?” she asked, anxiety seething from under her false smile.
Little Ruth, who’s face had been buried in my blouse the whole time, finally turned to meet Tammy’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “He was with me, but I don’t know where he went.”
Tammy’s face fell. She didn’t bother listening to the rest of her story. Into the brambles she immediately rushed. I heard her call his name four, maybe five times, before fading into the dark atmosphere of twisted evergreens.
Ruth tugged on my skirt, her blue orbs staring up at me. “I wanna go home.”
“Don’t you want to see if your friend’s okay?”
She considers my question for a moment. Then said, “I’m scared, Mommy. I wanna go home.”
I thought it would be rude if Mrs. Hannings came back and we had disappeared. “What if she needs our help?” I asked Ruth. Although the trees block most of the western sky, the blue orange color tells me the sun is beginning to set. “How far did you guys go? Past the river?”
“Not the river, Mommy. Just to the old fire pit.”
Her voice was clear and concise. Ruth had never lied to me, as far as I was aware.
“Well,” I said, “he couldn’t have just disappeared. If we can’t find him before dark, they’ll get the police to finish the job.”
The girl nodded. “Will he be okay?”
Lying for personal gain. Those large saucers stared at me with the kind of innocence you only see on an angel’s face. A pang of guilt struck my heart. I didn’t want to lie to her, but she was only ten, naive to the horrors of the real world.
“Of course he’ll be okay, Sweetie.”
I stared into the woods. I hadn’t been in them since I was fourteen, when I broke my ankle tripping on a stump. “You’re right. We should head home. They’ll find him soon enough, and I need to prepare supper before your father gets back from work.”
Like I said, it was the Fifties.
Ruth retracted her arms but kept her hand in mine. “We’re leaving, Mrs. Hannings!” she called out. And with that, we walked toward the parking lot, leaving the last of the sun and our faith behind.
That all happened thirty years ago.
Thirty years to the day, in fact, and I’m still the only one who knows what really happened to poor Timmy.
A search party found him late Monday night, after extending the covered territory to the border of Smithshire, the neighboring town. His C.O.D. was classified as drowning, though there were signs of head trauma, too, most likely due to jagged rocks of the shallow water, the coroner had said.
Despite news of the tragedy—and the fact that Tammy, for obvious reasons, would no longer be able to attend—I decided to proceed with our book club meeting that Saturday. It was my turn to host, and nothing was more important those days than keeping up appearances. That entire week I had purposefully kept my ears away from the rumor mill buzzing about town. Perhaps I’d already known the truth about Ruth, and just wasn’t ready to face it.
God, I remember that day like it was yesterday.
My feet moved swiftly to and from the guest room, setting down a spread of sweets across the coffee table, adjusting the ribbon-wrapped basket of blueberry muffins and the placement of my antique tea kettle, the caramel brownies, the chocolate chip cookies. Normally I didn’t go to such lengths just for a couple of old friends; these goods were a result of my relentless paranoia that was keeping me awake. I had baked all night, slipping in and out of a standing coma; dazed, and probably in denial. Many treats came out imperfect. The ones I deemed impeccable were now displayed flawlessly on the coffee table. Whether they were actually edible, I couldn’t say.
The doorbell rang, and I walked across the guest room, practicing a smile before opening the door. Susan, a plump, round mother with a short bob of honey-colored ringlets stood in front, a book tucked beneath her arm. Beside her was Jillian, a much taller, more angular woman with hair dark as night, wearing a red cloak and stern expression.
“Come in, come in,” I said, waving them into the warmth of my house. The oven-baked spread wafted by my nose, and suddenly my stomach growled; I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten.
“Mmm!” Susan remarked. “Margaret, how’d you manage to make so much in such little time?”
Don’t be deceived by their sweet scent, I thought; they’re not made with love, but fear. I tucked a piece of my ivory-colored hair behind my ear. “Oh, I’ve just been feeling productive this morning.”
Susan grabbed a strawberry shortcake biscuit from the coffee table and plopped onto the velvet loveseat. “I can’t wait to tell you my theory on what Fernando was referring to on page one-thirty-two. You recall how he mentioned he went to see his sister last spring? Well, only sixteen pages later, he told a different story. So I’m conflicted whether this is an editing mistake or…”
“Actually,” Jillian interrupted, “I have something more urgent to discuss.”
She pulled a manila envelope out of her black leather bag, and the room went quiet. We instantly knew that whatever was in that envelope concerned Timmy’s death. It was all anyone had talked about that week. Leave it to Jillian and her gossip-glossed mind to bring it up at my book club. I felt my heart stop as she slipped a grainy, gruesome photograph from the folder and dropped it on the coffee table.
“Oh. My. God.” The phrase was drawn-out and dramatized, ending with Susan averting her eyes with a hand clapped over her mouth. My jaw hung open in absolute shock, but I could not bring myself to look away.
Laid before us were the discovered remains of Timmy Hannings. His skin was white as milk up to his chest, which looked to be covered in monogram bruises that trailed all the way to his cheek. Staring up at the camera were two deep, bloodied sockets where eyes should have been.
“Jesus, Jillian! That poor boy… Who did this?” I begged for comfort.
“They don’t know yet,” she said, in a suddenly soft voice. She swept the images back towards her and into her purse, watching my expression. Susan had left the living room to vomit. “They don’t think anyone did. Jim’s theory is that Ruth was running back to the daycare, and Timmy, trying to keep up, accidentally fell into Goldberg’s Creek.”
“That’s a two-foot creek! How did he…” I trailed off. The more I thought of the photo, the more unnerved I was. “Somebody must have done this, Jill.”
She shook her head. “They say he tripped and hit his head on a rock.”
“Impossible. Let me see that picture again.”
Jillian grudgingly complied, pulling the eight-by-ten out of the envelope and handing it to me. Knees shaky, I fell down into the seat of my husband’s recliner. Something about the shape of the boy’s bruises struck me as familiar. Their almost perfect half-moon shape, the kind I’d seen on Ruth before.
My breathing halted then, and a voice began echoing in my head.
Symptoms may include: Lack of empathy…
To my horror, everything started to connect.
I jumped up from the chair and headed toward the entrance. Susan, from the guest bathroom, tried calling after me, to no avail.
Lying for personal gain…
I made a beeline to the foyer closet, ears ringing. The door swung open in my haste, little girls’ shoes littering the bottom. My hands trembled as I reached for a white slip with a one-inch heel. Part of me wished that I had just been making this up—that Marcus, a psychologist, hadn’t warned me about Ruth’s behavior months ago—the red flags, the potential for a diagnosis no mother wants to hear about—that this was all a false memory conjured by a sleep-deprived brain.
But the proof was right there, in my hand, pointing straight at me as I turned the shoe over in my hand. Hostile and homicidal tendencies. The tip of the heel showed a half-moon, still stained red.
I did what any good mother would do.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦