“I asked her today if she ever thought about what had happened when we were kids, and she—she just gave me a strange look. Like she didn’t know what I was talking about. I added, ‘with Jeremiah,’ and she said nothing happened to think about and changed the subject.”
Alia wasn’t surprised. Mary Ellen was frail; pretending her childhood had been ideal was far preferable than acknowledging the ugly truth. The older Wallace girl was nearly ten years older than Mary Ellen and, according to Jimmy, not the least bit frail, but she lived in denial, too.
“Mary Ellen went to boarding school when you moved out, didn’t she?”
Landry shifted onto his back and pulled her onto her other side so her head rested on his shoulder. “I couldn’t just leave her there.” He waited through another rumble of thunder before continuing. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew talking to Camilla wouldn’t accomplish anything, and the old man had already warned me that no one would believe me. He was a Jackson, a distinguished naval officer, a well-loved, respected member of the community, and I was a snot-nosed kid. He couldn’t have cared less if I disappeared. But he never would have let Mary Ellen go with me.”
“What did Miss Viola say?” Had the old lady wanted to call the cops? Maybe for Landry, it would have been a case of he said/Jeremiah said, but Miss Viola had been a better-loved, more-respected member of the community, plus she would have had that sweet-old-lady thing going for her. Her credibility surely would have surpassed Jeremiah’s.
He wrapped a strand of her hair around his fingers, let it uncurl, then did it again. “She wanted to go to the authorities, but I was convinced they wouldn’t believe me. All she knew was what I’d told her; she’d never actually seen anything. And Jeremiah’s parents bought him out of trouble all the time when he was a teenager. He knew how much to offer and who to offer it to. And if the cops didn’t believe me, he’d never let me see Mary Ellen again. He would punish us both.”
“So Miss Viola helped you move out and...?”
“She bluffed Jeremiah, made him think that her visit was just out of courtesy, just a warning. She told him that she knew all about their little group and that the chief of police himself—her husband’s best friend—would know about it come Monday, and God help him and his band of perverts then, because no man in the city would. She said the only thing that would stop her from telling the chief was if Mary Ellen went off to boarding school that very weekend. She’d pulled strings with the school her own daughter had gone to and got Mary Ellen accepted on Saturday, and on Sunday she was on the plane.” He smiled faintly. “Money talks. A lot of money talks a lot.”
Alia wondered just how big a donation a one-day admission policy required. She had a few friends who’d gone to exclusive boarding schools like Mary Ellen’s, and their parents had submitted their applications before the ink on their birth certificates was dry. There were probably Fulsom family wings, endowments and scholarships still feeding off that initial donation.
“It must have been a relief for Mary Ellen to escape the abuse.”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” He gave her a wry look. “She hated it. Hated leaving home and her friends and Mom and Miss Viola and me. Hated the weather, the activities, the classes. She even hated the food. Said her Louisiana-bred stomach couldn’t tolerate it.” His voice turned hollow. “She blamed me. She insisted she could have handled things at home, but I never gave her a chance. She hated it so much that she was sick the first six months she was there.”
Now she insisted there had been nothing at home to handle. Alia could sympathize. Intellectually, she could sort of understand, but realistically she didn’t get it. Landry and Miss Viola had offered her a way out of a nightmare. Sure, she’d been homesick; of course, she’d felt as if she’d lost everything and everyone of importance to her. But to make herself sick, then to put the details of that nightmare out of her mind as if it had never happened...
“Did you see her during that time?”
Landry shrugged. “A few times. We didn’t talk like we used to. Things were getting better by her senior year, but she got upset all over again that I wouldn’t go to her graduation. Miss Viola offered to pay my way, but our parents were going. It would have been the first time I’d seen Jeremiah since I moved out. I couldn’t do it.” He sucked in a loud breath. “I was a coward. I was praying I’d never see him again as long as I lived.”