Excerpt from The Hiding Place
What do you remember from that day, Janet?
Janet remembered the heat. The way it shimmered in waves in the distance, making the edges of the trees, the cars in the parking lot blurry and indistinct. Wherever she stepped, the grass crackled or the dirt puffed. The heat rose through the ground and scorched her feet, even through the soles of her cheap plastic shoes.
She was seven years old and in charge of her baby brother for the first time ever.
Janet watched Justin. She thought of him as a dumb four year old, a silly kid with a bowl of blonde hair and a goofy smile. He sat with the other kids in the sandbox, scooping piles of sand into mounds with his hands, then smoothing them over again. Back and forth like that. Sand up, sand down. Dumb and pointless. Something little kids would do. She watched him. Carefully.
But no, that wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all…
Justin wasn’t silly. And he didn’t smile all the time. He was a quiet kid. A loner. He sat in the sandbox alone that day. And he didn’t smile much. Not much at all. No one in her family smiled much, not when she looked back on her childhood…or even her life now.
What did she remember from that day? What did she really remember? It was so hard to—
Michael showed up.
She remembered that.
Michael showed up, her seven-year-old playmate, the boy from the neighborhood and kindergarten. Their parents were friends. They played together all the time. Her boyfriend, she liked to think and giggle to herself, although they never touched each other. Never hugged or kissed or held hands. They were too young for that, too young for a lot of things.
But Michael showed up wearing denim shorts with a belt like a long rope and sneakers with holes in them. His hair hung in his face, and he brushed it out of his eyes constantly. He lived on the other side of the park. And so Michael called her name, and when he did her heart jumped and she turned away from the sandbox and the swings and the other kids. And she followed Michael wherever he went. Across the playground, over the baseball diamond, over by the trees. She followed him.
And is that all she did? Run across the playground?
It was enough. She let Justin out of her sight. Dad was at work and Mom was at home, and Mom let them go to the playground alone that day for the first time ever, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. The park was near the school and the church and the other kids would be there, other kids they knew and even some parents. And all Mom said on that day when they left the house was, “Janet, don’t let Justin out of your sight. He’s a little boy…”
But she did. She let Justin out of her sight.
Did she see the man?
Janet can’t say anymore. She’s seen his face so many times. At the trial. In the newspaper. The mugshot. His face stoic, his eyes round, the whites prominent. His full lips, his black face. Not really a man. Now when she looks at the face, she sees a kid. Seventeen when he was arrested, but tried as an adult. He would have looked like an adult back then, that hot day in the park…
But she doesn’t know if she saw him.
Other people did. Adults and kids. He was in the park, talking to kids at the sandbox and the swings. He carried Justin on his shoulders, according to some of the witnesses. He paid special attention to her brother, they said. Walked around with him. Talked to him. Carried him on his shoulders.
For years, Janet thought she saw that, thought she remembered that. The young black man with the afro and the dirty clothes carrying her brother on his shoulders. Justin’s blonde head up high, almost as high as the top of the swing set. Justin parading around like a champion. Being tricked by this man. And then being taken away.
But she doesn’t really remember that, does she?
She thought there was a dog. A puppy. It ran through the park, and Justin ran after it.
Is that what happened? Is that how Justin got away?
What do you remember from the park that day, Janet?
She can’t be sure anymore. Not after twenty-five years.
She isn’t sure she saw the man that day. But she wishes she had. She wishes she knew.
And she only wishes she had kept her eye on Justin, like she was supposed to.
She didn’t see the man and she didn’t see Justin.
And when it was time to go home, when her mom came to the park to collect them, Justin was gone and the adults were hysterical and the police were there.
And Justin was gone. Long gone.
Chapter One: Twenty-Five Years Later
Janet hid the morning paper from her father. She saw it when she came downstairs, and even though she knew it was coming—knew for close to a week that an interview with her brother’s murderer would be on the front page—the sight of it, the sight of his face, hit her with the force of a slap. And then she thought of her dad. His anger, his roiling emotions at the mere mention of Dante Williamson. She folded the front page in half, with Williamson’s face inside the fold, and slipped it beneath a chair cushion.
Janet heard water running in the bathroom down the hall, then her father’s feet on the hardwood. She broke her own rule. When she moved back in with her father, after he lost his job, she made a silent vow not to be his household servant. She wouldn’t become some version of a substitute wife to him—cooking, cleaning, laundry. But on certain days, she made an exception. She took out eggs, cracked them into a skillet and watched them sizzle. Summer hours at work left her just enough time to do it—and it might take the old man’s mind off his troubles.
“Where is it?”
Janet turned. Her father, Bill Manning, filled the entrance to the kitchen. He was still tall—over six feet—but since being laid off he had gained about twenty pounds, mostly in the stomach and the face. He’d been out of work for nearly two years, ever since the recession hit and his company “went in a different direction,” which meant laying off anyone over the age of fifty.
Janet recognized the foolishness of trying to hide the paper. She pointed to the chair. Bill picked it up and sat down. Janet put the eggs in front of him.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t wait on me,” he said.
“I felt like it.”
“You felt sorry for me,” he said.
Janet didn’t answer, but there was some truth in what her father said. Years ago, he lost his son and then his wife. He lost his job, and Janet moved in to help make sure he didn’t lose the house. Her father might be reserved and distant—difficult even—but she never outgrew the desire to protect and help him. And that desire only became stronger as her father grew older. He was sixty-two and starting to look his age.
“Jesus,” he said. He folded the paper, snapping the pages into place with a flick of his wrists, and leaned close to read the story. “Not even at the top…”
Janet knew what the story said. Her brother had disappeared twenty-five years ago that week, and the local paper was running a series of stories to commemorate the anniversary. The first one detailed the life of Dante Williamson, the man convicted of killing her brother. Paroled three years earlier, slowly adjusting to life back on the outside, working part-time at a church on the east side of Dove Point…
While her dad read the article and cursed under his breath, Janet turned to the sink. She ran a rag over some dishes from the night before. “Today’s our day, remember?” she said. “The reporter is coming over at two. I’m leaving work early—”
The paper rustled and fell to the floor. When Janet turned, her dad was cutting into his eggs, shoveling them toward his mouth with machine-like quickness. He paused long enough to ask a question. “Do you know what I think of all this?” he asked.
“I can guess.”
He pointed to the floor where the paper rested, the article about Dante Williamson facing up. “This article—it’s like they want me to feel sorry for this guy. It reads like he got some kind of a bum rap because he went to jail for twenty-two years for killing a kid—”
“Did you read the whole story?” Janet asked.
Her dad kept chewing. “I already lived it.”
Janet leaned back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest. “He still says he’s innocent,” Janet said.
Her father’s eyes moved back and forth, giving him the look of a caged animal. His cheeks flushed. “So?” Her dad looked down at his plate. He pushed the remains of the egg around, making a runny, yellow smear. He didn’t look back up.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. He dropped his fork. “He’s just wants sympathy from people. Probably living on welfare.”
Janet took hold of the belt of her robe. She worked it in her hands, fingering it, using it almost like rosary beads. “If it makes you feel any better, I don’t really want to tell my story to the reporter either,” she said.
“I know the story. Williamson killed my boy. That’s it.” He pushed away his plate and rose to his feet. The first year after being laid off, her dad dressed just like he did when he went to work—a shirt and tie. Neatly pressed pants. The past year had seen a change. He no longer dressed first thing in the morning and went entire days without shaving. He stopped reading the classifieds a few months earlier. “What time’s that reporter coming over?” he asked.
“I just said. Two o’clock. So, are you going to talk to her?”
He left his dirty dishes on the table. “I’ve got nothing to say to any of them,” he said. “Nothing at all.”
Ashleigh sent Kevin a text: Where R U?
She waited near the swings, the sun high overhead, prickling the back of her neck. It was just 8:30 and already hot. Ashleigh scuffed her sneakers in the dirt and checked her phone.
No response yet.
Where was he?
She watched the little kids scream and play. They ran around like monkeys, their mouths open, their hair flying. They never tired or stopped. Ashleigh felt something swell in her throat, an emotion she couldn’t identify. She took a deep breath, like she needed to cry, but she swallowed back against it, choking it down. She turned away. She couldn’t watch the kids anymore. They looked so vulnerable, so fragile, like little glass creatures.
This is the park, she thought. This is where it happened.
Kevin came out of the trees. She recognized his loping gait, his broad shoulders. He wore his work uniform—black pants and a goofy McDonald’s smock. He’d decided to grow his afro out over the summer, and it made him seem even taller. Ashleigh took another deep breath, collected herself before Kevin arrived.
“Hey, girl,” he said.
“Thanks for writing back.”
“I got called in.” He pointed at his shirt. “I have to be there at ten.”
Kevin shrugged, casual as could be. “I have to earn my keep.”
“Let’s get going then. These kids bug the shit out of me.”
They didn’t talk much. Ashleigh imagined the parents on the playground—the ones who always came to watch their kids, whether they knew what happened there twenty-five years ago or not—noticed the two of them: a tall black boy and a short white girl, walking side by side. She’d known Kevin for three years, ever since the first day of junior high when they sat next to each other in history class. At first she thought he was dumb, maybe even retarded. He was so big, so quiet. Then she noticed the jokes he cracked at the teacher’s expense, his voice so low only she could hear.
“What’s your plan?” he asked.
They came out into the neighborhood that bordered the park. It was opposite where she lived with her mom and grandfather, and a little nicer too. She supposed it was upper middle class as opposed to simply middle class. Bigger houses, nicer cars. A neighborhood where no one got laid off.
They walked past older homes with nice yards. Retirees lived there, old people who spent their days digging in their gardens and sweeping their walks. If a piece of trash ended up in the yard, they’d probably call the police.
“I don’t have one yet,” Ashleigh said.
“You usually have a plan for everything.”
“I don’t for this.”
They reached Hamilton Avenue, a major road dotted with strip malls and gas stations.
Kevin said, “So you’re just going to go up to this dude and say, ‘Hey, what do you know about my dead uncle?’”
Ashleigh looked down the road. She saw the bus.
“If I go with you…” Kevin sounded uncertain. “I’m going to be late for work. I’ll get written up.”
“Then don’t go,” she said. “Make hamburgers for strangers.”
“My dad says if I don’t have a job this summer, he’s going to kick me out of the house.”
“I’ll go alone. The guy’s probably not dangerous.”
“You know how my dad is,” Kevin said. “He’s old school. He worked his way through college so he thinks I need to earn my keep.”
The bus pulled up, air brakes exhaling. The diesel stunk, burned Ashleigh’s eyes. When the door rattled open, she didn’t even look at Kevin. She just climbed on and dropped her coins into the slot where they rattled like loose teeth. She moved down the aisle and took a seat, staring out the window and watching the traffic go by.
She picked up movement at the front of the bus, something in her peripheral vision.
“Hey,” the bus driver called.
It was Kevin. He ignored the driver and walked right back to Ashleigh’s seat.
She looked up into Kevin’s face. A cute face, she had to admit. Beautiful eyes. A little puppyish.
“What?” she said, trying to sound mad.
“You really want to do this?” he asked.
“Come on, goddamnit,” someone yelled from the back of the bus.
“I have one problem,” Kevin said to her.
“Can I borrow fifty cents?” he asked, smiling.
She reached into her pocket and handed him the coins.