“A Mother’s Lie” by Jo Crow
Dense red clay was pushing between the teeth. Pond mist drifted across the manicured lawns, wisping through the dark eye sockets. Parts of the cranium were shaded a vile yellow-brown where decomposing leaves clung to its surface like bile expressed from a liver. The jawbone was separated from the skull, its curved row of teeth pointing skyward to greet the rising sun.
Two feet away, closer to the oak tree, other bones were piled haphazardly: a pelvis, high iliac crests and subpubic angle. A femur, caked with dirt, jammed into his empty skull. Sunlight decorated the brittle bones in long, lazy strips and darkened hairline fractures till they blended with the shed behind them.
It was peaceful here, mostly. The pond no longer bubbled, its aerator decayed by time; weed-clogged flowerbeds no longer bloomed—hands that once worked the land long ago dismissed. Fog blanketed the area, as if drawn by silence. Once, a startled shriek woke the morning doves and set them all into flight.
It was the first time in ten years the mammoth magnificence of the Blue Ridge Mountains had scrutinized these bones; the first song in a decade the morning doves chorused to them from their high perch.
A clatter split apart the dawn; the skull toppled over as it was struck with another bone.
In a clearing, tucked safely behind the McNair estate, someone was whistling as they worked at the earth. The notes were disjointed and haphazard, like they were an afterthought. They pierced the stillness and, overhead, one of the morning doves spooked and took flight, rustling leaves as it rose through the mist.
A shovel struck the wet ground, digging up clay and mulch, tossing it onto the growing mound to their left. The whistling stopped, mid note, and a contemplative hum took its place.
Light glinted on the silvery band in the exposed clay—the digger pocketed it—the shovel struck the ground again; this time, it clinked as it hit something solid.
A hand dusted off decayed vegetative matter and wrested the bone from its tomb. Launching it into the air, it flew in a smooth arc, and crashed into the skull like a bowling pin, scattering the remains across the grass. With a grunt of satisfaction, the digger rose and started to refill the hole from the clay mound.
When it was filled and smoothed, and the sod was replaced over the disrupted ground, the digger lifted the shovel and strolled into the woods, one hand tucked in a pocket as they whistled a cheery tune lost to the morning fog.
* * *
For two days the bones rested on the grass by the shed, until they were placed, carefully, into forensic evidence bags in a flurry of urgent activity: flashing police cameras, and gawking, small-town rookie officers who’d never seen their like before.
* * *
Silence blanketed the McNair estate once more, and the looming, distant mountains stood watch over a town that had seen too little so long ago, and now knew too much.
“In 2007, on the night of June 19th, my parents, Richard and Glenda McNair, went missing from our family home on the outskirts of Hickory Hills, North Carolina.” My lips drew thin as my throat clenched, knotting in a way that threatened to bring tears. “The last traces of them were found in a shed on land behind the main house, where forensic testing confirmed the blood recovered at the scene was a match with both my mother and father. The awful details of the case gained national attention, but despite widespread interest and extensive investigation, Richard and Glenda McNair simply disappeared; I never saw them again after that night.”
I let my shoulders slump, and dropped the stoic, distant look from my face. The sorrow welling in my chest manifested instead, dragging at my lips. Talking about their disappearance was still a struggle. No matter where I ran, or what I did to occupy my mind, my parents were always there. I had never stopped worrying over what had become of them, wondering why they left me.
Revisiting memories, here, in this place, only made that pain more real.
“It was good, but not great,” Samuel said, scratching his chin. His eyes were set on the small screen jutting off the side of the stationary camera. “I’m thinking it’ll be more effective to move you off to the side of their graves instead of between them. More artistic. Leaves the eye to wander and the viewer to wonder. The delivery of your lines was crisp, but the second half a little foggier than the first. Keep in mind you need to maintain the same tone of voice throughout the introduction.”
“Yes, Mr. Lowery.” It was the last thing I wanted to say, but I was bound by obligation.
“We’re at risk of losing the dynamic light from sunrise. If we’re going to stick to our production schedule, we need to get moving. Get her into position, people. Heidi, touch up her makeup. The camera is picking up the smudges at the corners of her eyes and they’re not doing us any favors.
“And what the hell is going on with her shoes? The red clay makes it look like she just waded through a puddle of blood. Get that cleaned up, or switch the shoes, or do something. If we’re going to hook the viewer, we can’t leave her looking like she just traipsed through a slaughterhouse.”
“Yes, Mr. Lowery,” Heidi chirped.
As an assistant guided me from my position between the memorial stones to stand off to the side at an angle, Heidi balanced her makeup palette on her arm and wielded a beauty blender. She touched the sponge against the palette, feather-light, then went to work. As the sponge dabbed away imperfections at the corners of my eyes, I recited the same thing I’d been telling myself since I returned.
I’m doing it for him.
The thought was a small comfort, but seeing James nested in the director’s chair, fast asleep, drove the feeling home. I wasn’t going to let another setback stop me now. I had good reasons for agreeing to be a part of this documentary, and no matter how hard it was coming back, I was going to see it through.
“You’re looking great,” Heidi whispered as she traded the beauty blender for an aerosol can of setting spray. I closed my eyes as she spritzed it on my face. “You’re going to look fabulous, movie-star gorgeous. The natural light is really bringing out your inner beauty. You’re glowing.”
“Only because of the highlights you applied,” I murmured, but I smiled anyway. “It’s your work.”
Heidi waved dismissively as she stepped back. “Give yourself a little credit, honey. I can put a client in great makeup, but it takes the right kind of person to pull it off. Are you sure you’ve never acted before? There are some people Samuel uses who are just… well. When I say it takes the right kind of person, I know what I’m talking about. Not even Hollywood-level makeup can save a performance dead in the water, but you’re a natural actress, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I murmured, biting down on the inside of my lip. “I guess. Sometimes, life forces you to pretend you’re something you’re not, doesn’t it?”
“Quiet on set. We’re about to start shooting again.” Samuel had moved to a different stationary camera, hovering behind it as he made his adjustments and framed the shot. I stood a little straighter, bracing for another take. “Clara, are you good to go?”
“I am, Mr. Lowery.”
“No, you’re not. Look at those goddamn shoes! Heidi, I told you—” He bunched his lips and narrowed his eyes, looking over his shoulder toward the lane. The area was cordoned off by traffic barricades and further reinforced by the cluster of production vehicles parked along the road, but they didn’t do much to stop the crowd who’d breached the area on foot.
Twenty strong and leering, they started to call out cutting words.
Faces I’d known in the past, but whose ugly sneers made them strangers to me now: Mr. Wexler had taught me history in the tenth grade. He glared at me like he’d never once sat at my side and patiently re-explained the impact of the Civil War on the industry and economy of the nation; Jill Fields, who’d run the bakery I’d worked at for a summer when I was sixteen, spat at me.
The hateful jeering had started again.
James began to stir; I rushed to his side, hoping he’d look up with dewy wonder in his eyes, then go back to sleep, as he always did. I didn’t want him exposed to the ugliness in Hickory Hills.
“Mama?” his voice was bleary.
“Go back to sleep, baby.” I dropped to my knees by the director’s chair. “You’re safe here.”
His eyes searched mine for meaning. He was too young to understand what was going on, or what it meant for us as a family, but he knew he could trust my word.
“For the love of—” Samuel planted a palm across his eyes and shook his head. “Where the hell is that security? We’ve got a documentary to shoot here, and I do not want our schedule disrupted. We’re losing light; I don’t want to wait until the next clear summer morning to take advantage of it again. Clara, get back on set. Heidi, make sure you get out those mud stains on the knees of her pants. I can still see them. And someone had better get these people away before today turns into a total wash.”
“Time to cut your losses,” a voice announced; it was closer than any of the others.
A tall man was crossing the site, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders broad with confidence. There was more gray in his hair now, and his face bore deeper wrinkles, but there was no mistaking who crossed the graveyard to approach me.
“Filming’s over for today, folks. I need to borrow your star.”
“Christ.” Samuel stepped back sharply from the camera, frustration flaming his cheeks. “And who the hell are you to tell me that?”
“Detective Tony Elkins.” The man took out his badge. He came to a stop several feet from where I crouched beside James. “You’ll have to excuse Miss McNair. She’s been out of town for a long, long time, and our reunion is long overdue.”
The restrained anger on Samuel’s face convinced me I’d be hearing about the incident—the interruption—later on, but, if I was honest, we wouldn’t have got much else done regardless of Detective Elkins’s presence. Now that the local residents had tracked us down, I knew they wouldn’t leave us alone. It was going to be exactly as before.
“We’re taking a break, people,” Samuel announced, his voice rising over the cries of the townsfolk and the general hubbub on set. “Back in fifteen with battle plans for the rest of the day. Appreciate the downtime now because it’s not going to stay this way forever. You, detective. What did you say your name was again?”
“Elkins.” Detective Elkins’s face hardened. “While I appreciate you relinquishing your leading lady, I’m afraid my business here today isn’t with you. We’ll be taking our leave.”
Detective Elkins placed a hand on my shoulder and made a move to lead me away from the set, but Samuel threw up his hands to stop him.
“Hold on now. Hear me out.”
“I’d rather not.”
“What would you say to a featured spot in the documentary? We’re putting together a follow-up to reignite interest in the case on its ten-year anniversary. You’ve got the right kind of face to be in front of a camera, and some testimony from someone directly involved in the case should—”
“Forget it.” Detective Elkins pushed me forward, firm, but not unkindly. “I’ve got one job to do, and I’m not going be distracted by a money-grab capitalizing on the misfortune of others.”
“But you were there on the night of the disappearance, weren’t you?” Samuel asked. “Detective Tony Elkins, newly minted into his position and eager to prove himself, only to come face-to-face with a case no one could solve. You know more about the investigation than anyone.”
“And it’s going to stay that way.” Detective Elkins continued to guide me forward. I almost tripped over my own feet, but caught myself before I could fall. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. Hollywood isn’t the place for me.” He leaned closer and spoke against the back of my ear so that only I could hear it. “And it sure as hell isn’t the place for you, either, McNair. If you think you can blind me with dazzling lights, you’re more deluded than I originally thought.”
We left Samuel behind. When we were out of earshot, Detective Elkins brought me to a stop. From where I stood, I could still see James. As long as I could keep my eyes on him, I knew he’d be okay.
Keeping James’s location in my peripheral vision, I looked up into Detective Elkins’s dark eyes and braced myself for what was to come. I found no sympathy on the detective’s face, but it didn’t surprise me. I’d always known he’d be coming to find me, though I hadn’t anticipated it would be so soon.
“What is this about, detective?” I asked. There was no chance James was going to fall asleep now, so I stepped around to block him from Detective Elkins’s line of sight.
“There’s been a development.” Elkins’s eyes hardened, the darkness in his gaze solidifying into coals. “Remains were discovered on the McNair estate—on your land, Miss McNair. I’m going to need you to come with me to answer some questions.”
My lips parted, but I held my jaw firm by sheer force of will. I hadn’t spoken to my mother for close to a decade; they had vanished overnight. Gone in the morning. Their graves were empty markers that represented what everyone in town thought they already knew had happened to them. Back then, the grounds had been searched, no corner left unturned. It couldn’t be them. For their remains to appear now…
“How do you know they have got anything to do with me?” I asked, steeling myself for whatever was to come.
“Because I don’t need forensics to tell me the bones we found are old.” The lines in the corners of his mouth tightened. “Around ten years, I reckon. And I don’t need any DNA testing to tell me what I can see with my own eyes. The skeletons are missing parts of their fingers, McNair. Fractured at the exact point of the digits we found. But you’d remember all the details, wouldn’t you? Every splintered bone?”
My stomach churned. Nothing I’d said back then had convinced him I was innocent, that he should keep looking for my parents, that it was nothing to do with me. Nausea struck so hard and so fast I suffered whiplash, and all I could do was cover my mouth with my hands as the memories flooded back. Talking to the camera had been hard, but talking to the same detective who’d been on the case? The one I’d stood behind in the shed as he’d examined the severed fingers? It was too much.
“We’ll talk at the station.” I looked away from Detective Elkins to glance at James who was watching me closely. James was my grounding force. The last thing I wanted was for him to see me suffering. I needed to be strong. “I’ll meet you there.”
“No. You’re coming with me.”
I took a small step back, my eyes widening as his message sank in. Coming with him? I’d rather have cut off my own fingers than sit in the back of his police cruiser while he paraded me through town like a prize pony. Every hateful face assuming my guilt proven, ready to watch me fall. Hickory Hills held the keys to my future. I needed to stay, and riding in the back of Detective Elkins’s cruiser wouldn’t make it easy.
But there was no room for argument in Detective Elkins’s voice. If I didn’t comply, he’d keep pushing until he got his way. I knew my rights, but I also knew how hard the detective could make my life if he chose to. Picking my battles was just as important as winning the war, and I was too emotionally exhausted to expend energy on a fight I knew I wouldn’t win.
I drew a deep breath and trusted fate. “Then you’re going to have to wait. I need to make sure someone can take care of my son before I go anywhere.”
Detective Elkins looked over my shoulder at James, then locked eyes with me. When he spoke, his tone was measured. “Don’t keep me waiting long, McNair.”
“I don’t plan to.”
There was at least one soul I could still trust—a pillar of strength in my time of need. As the protesters cussed at me from afar and Detective Elkins stared me down with venomous disapproval, I scooped James into my arms and paced across the graveyard to make a call that was long overdue.
“Hello?” A familiar female voice chirped in my ear when the call connected. The sound parted the darkness in my soul like the beam of a lighthouse breaking through heavy fog.
“Hey, Amanda, it’s Clara.” I closed my eyes and prayed Amanda’s private Facebook message to me had been sincere. “I know this is sudden, but you did say I could call on you if I needed anything. I need to ask you a huge favor…”
* * *
I watched Amanda Harwood duck around the traffic barricades and jog to my side. Her blond hair was swept up into a messy ponytail, fastened high atop her head. It swished back and forth with every rapid step she took, marking her progress like a metronome. Ten years had aged her face in subtle ways, but time had been kind to my once best friend. She was still as breathtakingly pretty as when we were teenagers.
“Clara!” Amanda gasped when she was within comfortable speaking distance. She swept me into her arms in the next second and held me tight, and I circled my arms around her, letting my head rest on her shoulder. The ocean breeze Amanda had been so fond of when we were teenagers had been replaced with a scent far more mature and sophisticated; it suited her—complex, yet playful.
Her embrace brought down my tension. We hadn’t done a good job at keeping in touch over the years, but my subconscious instantly ushered her back into my life as the sister I’d never had.
Between true friends, time and distance mean nothing at all. She was older, and she held herself with the pride of a woman instead of the uncertainty of a girl but, to me, she was still Amanda.
From the way she held me, it was clear she felt the same.
“You have no idea how much I missed you,” I whispered into her ear.
Detective Elkins watched us, and so did Samuel. While Detective Elkins was watching me, Samuel was eating up Amanda. The blatant interest made me uncomfortable, so I closed my eyes and focused on Amanda’s caring embrace.
“I’m so sorry to call you like this, but… things have sort of come up, and I need some help.”
“No, I totally understand.” Amanda released me, keeping hold of my arms. She ran her thumbs in soothing arcs, stroking my skin. “God, it’s good to see you. I didn’t think we’d ever meet again.”
“I wasn’t sure we would, either.”
“This isn’t teatime, ladies,” Detective Elkins barked from where he stood. “McNair, now your babysitter’s here, you need to come with me. If your plan is to chit-chat until the morgue closes, it’s not going to work. It’s time to go.”
Amanda took a step back, dropping my arms; her wide eyes searching my gaze for answers. “Morgue? Clara, what’s going on?”
I took in a grounding breath and prepared myself to share what I’d just learned. “Bones have been found on the McNair estate. The police think they might be my parents.”
Amanda covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head slowly in disbelief. When the shock lessened, she glared at Detective Elkins, then looked back at me. “Don’t let him get to you, honey, no matter what’s happened. He’s doing his best to tear you down, like always, but you need to stay strong.”
“And you can keep trying down at the morgue.” Detective Elkins stepped forward, wedging himself between us.
The intrusion raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and I balled my fists instinctively. Who was he to make demands like that while I was going through such a hard time?
“It’s like I said, Clara. Keep strong. You’ve got this.” Amanda acted as though Detective Elkins wasn’t there, stepping around him so she could make eye contact with me. In the early morning light, the greens of her irises were muted, gray. They matched the distant peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, shadowed by forests and only now kissed by sunrise. She held my hand, and I felt the rage dissipate. “I know firsthand the pain you’re feeling right now, but that means I also know that no matter how bad life gets, you can get through it as long as you let love into your heart. You’ve got this, Clara.”
“Touching, ladies.” Detective Elkins trudged toward me, his arms crossed loosely over his chest. “But touching isn’t doing anyone any favors. McNair and I have serious business to attend to, and the sooner we get to it, the better.”
I glanced at Detective Elkins.
Amanda offered me a reassuring smile and patted my arm. “I don’t know how much trouble you’re in,” she whispered, “but I know you’re going to see this thing through. I believe in you.”
“Before I go, there are some things you need to know about James.” I looked to the director’s chair. During the wait, James had fallen back asleep. Early morning sunlight bathed his short hair and turned it rich brown. Shadows cast from the bridge of his nose darkened half of his face. He slept so soundly that, for a minute, it was easy to believe nothing was wrong. “There’s a chance while he’s with you he’ll lose control of the muscles of his face, or have problems moving his eyes. He might be sick to his stomach. For the last month he’s been on an upswing, but it could come back at any time. I just want you to know if his condition worsens it’s not your fault.”
Sympathy clouded Amanda’s face. “Clara… I remember reading your posts on Facebook about James’s health, but I had no idea—”
“It’s okay.” There was so much more I wanted to tell her, but with Detective Elkins hovering nearby and Samuel eying Amanda like she was the sugar his sweet tooth needed, I couldn’t. That conversation would have to wait. “He’s why I’m here; he’s the reason I found the courage to come back. He’s a fighter, and I’m going to fight for him, too. I just need you to know if something happens, we’re aware, and there’s nothing we—or you—can do, except ride it out until it passes. Not right now. All I ask is you let him sleep when he needs it, and make sure he stays hydrated. He needs foods with high caloric content, but without trans fats. Peanut butter—spread real thin— soft cheese, mashed avocado and milk—”
“Avocado?” Amanda interrupted. “Will mash bananas be okay? It’s just the cost—”
“Sure,” I hurried on, embarrassed I didn’t consider her situation wouldn’t have improved since we were kids. “The doctors want him to graze throughout the day if at all possible. I understand if you can’t stick too close to the routine, since it’s so last minute, but—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he has what he needs,” Amanda promised. Understanding lay thick between us. Our friendship still ran deep. “But at the same time, I want to make sure I’m taking care of you, too. If you need anything at all, call me up and let me know, okay? I’ll be there for you as soon as I can.”
I gave them one last look, letting the sight of my son asleep on the director’s chair crystallize in my memory before I stepped toward him and set a hand on his shoulder. He stirred from his sleep and looked up at me with heavily lidded eyes. “Mama?”
“Hey, baby,” I whispered, “I’ve got to go take care of some business, so I’m going to leave you with my best friend in the whole world, Amanda. Do you think you can be good for her?”
I lifted James from the chair and took him over to meet Amanda. She curled her fingers in a wave and winked at him, and James yawned and nestled against my chest. “Okay.”
“We’re going to have fun.” Amanda came a little closer, her smile easy and her eyes softened with affection. “Okay, bud?”
James said nothing, but he didn’t argue when I held him out to Amanda and she took him into her arms. Seconds later, he’d fallen back to sleep. I knew everything was going to be okay.
“I’ll follow you in my car,” I told Detective Elkins. I refused to be dependent on him—I didn’t trust anyone in this town to want to do me any favors.
“If you run, I will find you.”
“I know.” I stood taller, refusing to let him get to me. Even though everything that could go wrong was going wrong, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I needed to do. I would make this documentary, no matter what. “I’m not running, detective.” The sooner I came face-to-face with my past, the sooner I could prove my innocence.
“We have that in common, then.” Detective Elkins nodded his chin toward the line of parked production cars. Mine was parked there, and I assumed his was, too. “Let’s get going. I’m not interested in wasting anymore time.”
“Neither am I.”