Oh, sure, I heard the little one crying. And the middle one, too. Only one I never heard was the older one, the boy. They ain’t lived here long—maybe a month or so. I never saw much of them. Oh, once in a while, I’d pass the boy on the steps. He never had much to say. No, never saw the mother bring men home. Never saw her much at all, though—don’t know when she came or went. Heard her sometimes, though. God knows she was loud enough, screaming at them kids the way she done. No, don’t know what she was doin’ to ’em to make ’em cry like that. No, never saw no social worker come around. Don’t know if the kids went to school.
Did I what? No, never called nobody about it. Wasn’t none of my business, what went on over there. Hey, I got troubles of my own. . . .
Mara Douglas rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers, an unconscious gesture she made when steeped in thought or deeply upset. Reading through the notes she’d taken while interviewing the elderly, toothless, across-the-hall neighbor of the Feehan family, she was at once immersed in the children’s situation and sick to her stomach. The refrain was all too familiar. The neighbors heard, the neighbors turned a deaf ear rather than get involved. It was none of their business what a woman did to her children, none of their business if the kids had fallen through all the cracks. In neighborhoods as poor as this, all the tenants seemed to live in their own hell. Who could worry about someone else’s?
Mara rested her elbow on the edge of the dining room table, her chin in the palm of her hand, and marveled how a child could survive such neglect and abuse and so often still defend the parent who had inflicted the physical and emotional pain.
Time after time, case after case, she’d seen the bond between parent and child tested, stretched to the very limit. Sometimes even years of the worst kind of abuse and neglect failed to fray that connection.
She turned her attention back to the case she was working on now. The mother’s rights were being challenged by the paternal grandparents, who’d had custody of the three children—ages four, seven, and nine—for the past seven months. Mara was the court-appointed advocate for the children, the one who would speak on their behalf at all legal proceedings, the one whose primary interest—whose only interest—was the best interests of the children.
As their champion, Mara spent many hours reviewing the files provided by the social workers from the county Children and Youth Services department and medical reports from their physicians, and still more hours interviewing the social workers themselves, along with neighbors and teachers, emergency room personnel, family members, and family friends. All in an effort to determine what was best for the children, where their needs—all their needs—might best be met, and by whom.
Mara approached every case as a sacred trust, an opportunity to stand for that child as she would stand for her own. Tomorrow she would do exactly that, when she presented her report and her testimony to the judge who would determine whether Kelly Feehan’s parental rights should be terminated and custody of her three children awarded to their deceased father’s parents. It probably wouldn’t be too tough a call.
Kelly, an admitted prostitute and heroin addict, had watched her world begin to close in on her after her fifth arrest for solicitation. Her nine-year-old had stayed home from school to take care of his siblings until Kelly could make bail. Unfortunately for Kelly, her former in-laws, who had been searching for the children for months while their mother had moved them from one low-rent dive to another, had finally tracked them down. The Feehans had called the police. Their next move had been to take temporary custody of the children, who were found bruised, battered, and badly malnourished.
Over time, it became apparent that Kelly wasn’t doing much to rehabilitate herself. She’d shown up high on two of her last three visitation days, and the grandparents had promptly filed a petition to terminate Kelly’s parental rights permanently. Total termination of parental rights was a drastic step, one never made lightly nor without a certain amount of angst and soul searching.
Mara knew all too well the torment of losing a child.
In the end, of course, the decision would rest in the hands of Judge McKettrick, whom Mara knew from experience was always reluctant to sever a parent’s rights when the parent contested as vehemently as Kelly Feehan had. Much would depend on the in- formation brought to the court in the morning. The responsibility to present everything fairly, without judgment or embellishment, was one that Mara took very seriously.
With the flick of her finger, the screen of Mara’s laptop went blank, then filled with the image of a newborn snuggled up against a shoulder covered by a yellow and white hospital gown. The infant’s hair was little more than pale fuzz, the eyes closed in slumber, the perfect rosebud mouth puckered just so.
Another flick of a finger, and the image was gone.
Mara’s throat constricted with the pain of remembrance, the memories of the joy that had filled her every time she’d held that tiny body against her own. Abruptly she pushed back from the table and walked to the door.
“Spike,” she called, and from the living room came the unmistakable sound of a little dog tail thumping on hard wood. “It’s time to go for a walk.”
Spike knew walk, but not time, which was just as well, since it was past one in the morning. But once the thorn of memory began to throb, Mara had to work it out of her system. Her conditioned response to emotional pain was physical. Any kind of sustained movement would do—a walk, a run, a bike ride, a trip to the gym. Anything that got her on her feet was acceptable, as long as it got her moving through the pain so that she could get past it for a while.
Mara pursued exhaustion where others might have chosen a bottle or a needle or a handful of pills, though there’d been times in the past when she’d considered those, too.
By day, Mara’s neighborhood in a suburban Philadelphia college town was normally quiet, but at night, it was as silent as a tomb. She walked briskly, the soles of her walking shoes padding softly on the sidewalk, the occasional streetlamp lighting her way, Spike’s little Jack Russell legs keeping pace. Four blocks down, four blocks over, and back again. That’s what it usually took to clear her head. Tonight she made the loop in record time. She still had work to do, and an appointment in court at nine the next morning.
The evening’s storm had passed through earlier, and now a full moon hung overhead and cast shadows behind her as she made her way back up the brick walk to her front door. She’d let Spike off the leash at the end of their drive and now stood watching as the dog sniffed at something in the grass.
“Spike,” she whispered loudly, and the dog looked up, wagging his tail enthusiastically. “Come on, buddy. Time to go in.”
With obvious reluctance, Spike left whatever it was he’d found on the lawn and followed his mistress to the front steps. Mara unlocked the front door, but did not go immediately inside. She crossed her arms and stared up at the night sky for a long moment, thinking of her own child, wondering once again where in this vast world she was at that exact moment, and who, if anyone, was standing for her.
On the television screen, the earnest five o’clock news anchor droned on and on, his delivery as flat as his crew cut. Mara turned the volume down to answer the ringing phone.
“What’s for dinner?” Mara’s sister, Anne Marie, dispensed with a greeting and cut to the chase.
“I was just asking myself that very thing.” Mara grinned, delighted to hear Annie’s voice.
“How ’bout a little Chinese?”
“I’m on my way.”
“What time will you be here?”
“Thirty minutes, give or take. I’m just leaving the airport. If you call in an order at that little place on Dover Drive, I’ll swing past and pick it up.”
“Perfect. What do you want?”
“Okay. See you soon.”
Pleased with the unexpected prospect of Annie’s company, Mara found herself whistling while she hunted up the menu. She called in the order, then set about clearing the kitchen table of all the mail that had accumulated over the past several weeks while she had worked on the Feehan case. That case having been heard just that morning, Mara could pack up the materials she’d reviewed and return them to the courthouse in the morning. She wondered where Kelly Feehan had gone that night to drown her sorrows, her parental rights having been severed by Judge McKettrick until such time as Kelly successfully completed a rehabilitation program and obtained legitimate employment, at which time she could file for visitation rights. The odds that Kelly would follow through were slim to none, but the option was there. It had been the best the judge could do for all involved.
Excerpted from Dead Wrong by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2004 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.