A Perfect Family House
Kate begged off carpooling that day and cancelled a dentist appointment. She waited until her two oldest, Michael, age six, and Amanda, age four, had been picked up by an obliging neighbor, to be delivered to the grade school and pre-kindergarten. At nine o’clock, she gave Lyssa, her eleven-month-old daughter, a bottle laced with two-milligrams of crushed Xanax, held her over her shoulder smoothing her back until she slept. As she carried her up the stairs, Kate sang softly into the sweet smelling spot on her baby’s neck just below her seashell ear,
“Pack up all your care and woe, here we go, night, night Lyssa. . .”
She placed her in her crib, laying her carefully on her back and then, with just a moment’s hesitation, placed the palm of one hand over the baby’s mouth and held her nose closed with the other. Lyssa squirmed for a second or two and lay still. Kate covered her, brushed a few silky, dark hairs back from her baby’s forehead and walked from the nursery down the back staircase to the kitchen.
Bill saw the young Patrolman, Jason Testa, at the corner of the house, head down, kicking up snow, struggling to keep from losing it. He covered the space between them in long strides.
Not really a question, more of an acknowledgement. The younger man looked up, his face twisted with anguish and began to sob. Bill Ackerman locked his arm around the younger cop’s muscled shoulders and walked him away from the crowd of photographers that gathered like a swarm of wasps. Ackerman tightened his grip while the young man tried to deal with the sight of three body bags containing very small children being carried from the house and gently loaded into waiting vans as though they were still fragile.
“ Babies,” Jason choked out. “I have kids and . . .”
“Jason, I have kids and grandkids too. I know this sucks, but it’s gonna be a long day and I need to be able to count on you,” Bill said quietly, leaning in toward the young cop.
Jason swiped at his face with his gloves. His leather jacket creaked as he straightened his back, popped his neck once and headed toward the house.
Taking the bottle of Xanax from her sweater pocket and drawing the medium-sized marble mortar and pestle across the granite work counter, Kate counted out twelve more tabs. Disconnected and trembling, she crushed these into powder and covered the bowl with plastic wrap. She did two loads of laundry and cleaned the wood floors in the front of the house, trying to keep busy, while she waited for Amanda.
When Sergeant Bill Ackerman first arrived at the scene he was momentarily blinded by all the lights. Powerful floods lit the front of the house like a stage set. Forensic lights, camera flashes, video mounts and the red and blue pulsing interval lights of over a dozen squad cars fought for his attention. He strained to focus against the super bright coronas circling all the different crime scene illumination. Paramedics paced back and forth between their vehicles or sat inside trying to stay warm. The seasoned drivers from the Coroner’s Office stood by their vans, smoked and waited for someone to tell them when they could pack up the bodies.
Sometimes it was easy to be jealous of these new kids who came equipped with six packs instead of paunches. Not tonight. This was the kind of night when more than a few years of seeing the worst that human beings do to each other has taught you to compartmentalize so you can do your job and not become enmeshed in rage, emotional attachments and grief.
Bill had the advantage of working most of his career in a big city and then had come out here to work in a relatively crime free suburb. He’d seen it all. Jason was still new on the job and had not yet learned how to step outside himself and just get on with it.
The State Police and news helicopters hovering above the leafless trees, strafing the adjacent snow filled yards with their searchlights, signaled a tragedy of major proportions.
Pendley was a small college town and the house was located in a tight-knit neighborhood of century old, carefully restored or redone Victorians. It was populated mostly by younger couples with growing children. All lured by its Best Place In The USA To Raise A Family fame. The community was safe, conservative and affluent.
Josh and Kate Quinty decided if they were going to start a family they would need a bigger house. One of the over-large Victorian homes near the private college in the center of town would be perfect.
“I’m thinking a place big enough to have an office and a small conference room,” he told me.
His current position as a hedge fund manager in a city twenty miles from Pendley was a job he could do from home. They were not afraid of a fixer upper. Her salary as CFO of a prominent marketing firm combined with his would allow them to hire excellent contractors.
“It’s important that the work be done to Josh’s strict specifications,” Kate explained to me as she plied me for names of local contractors.
The same exacting traits that allowed him to excel in the business world would define the quality of work done on their home, and I had no doubt that applied to their marriage as well.
My husband and I lived in the same neighborhood they were attracted to and the house they ended up buying was only two blocks from ours. When the enormous, one hundred and twelve year old, four-story home of the first college president came on the market, Kate and Josh quickly made an offer. I helped them negotiate a price for the house which Josh felt they could live with. Josh designed and oversaw the creation of the spaces important to them. Their home was the showpiece of the neighborhood.
When three children arrived within five years, Kate resigned from the firm and concentrated on being a full-time mother. Although they had a succession of au pairs – each one speaking a different language so the children would be multi-lingual – Kate was present every day. She walked their oldest son to and from the private school three short blocks from the house, waved at friends while running through town with the jogging stroller or arranged play dates for the kids in the fourth floor ballroom they had converted to the ultimate children’s playroom/sleep-over area.
Everyone loved Kate. She volunteered for everything, neighborhood picnics, band uniform bake sales, and field trips to the planetarium. She was warm and outgoing, yet still a bit shy when you first met her. We became more friends than Realtor and client. Our kids played together and we tried to have lunch at least twice a month. My husband and I were invited to all their parties including the annual, all day, Sunday before Christmas Open House at which most of the town appeared. Everyone thought of them as the perfect young family. Even me.
Shortly after noon, Kerry Lindahl knocked once on the Quinty’s kitchen door and gave it a push.
“Hi Mom, we’re home,” she called to Kate. Amanda, bundled against the cold and snow, stomped into the room, her furry, pink boots trailing sleet. She yawned and sat down on the floor.
“I’d love to stay and chat,” Kerry smiled, but it’s getting worse out there. I best head on home, okay?”
“No problem,” Kate replied. “Manda Panda here needs some lunch and she looks like she could use a nap. Go slow, Kerry, and thanks again for taking my day.”
“Did you get a chance to sleep some? You look so pale. You know the flu is going around. Maybe you can lay down when this little one goes in for her nap.”
Kate put her arm through Kerry’s and walked her to the door.
“I’ll be fine.” she said. “Be safe and don’t worry. I just put Lyssa down and if I can get this one settled I’ll have an hour or two before Michael gets home.”
“Well, call me if you need me, promise?” Kerry pointed at Kate.
“I promise,” said Kate, closing and locking the door as Kerry hurried through the snow to her car.
During the next few years as my business grew and tasks like room mother, car-pool organizer and costume maker occupied more and more of Kate’s time our lunch dates decreased to once a month and then to whenever we both had a free hour or two.
Each time I saw her she looked thinner and more harried. I had heard rumors that Josh was seen more and more often at night in the local restaurants and bars with a variety of young, attractive women. I was never as close to him as I was to Kate. In my opinion he suffered from typical short man syndrome. Obnoxious, egotistical, knowing whatever there was to know about everything. When we were house hunting, he was definitely the one who was calling the shots. On more than one occasion he talked right over his wife when she was trying to tell me her thoughts about the places we were looking at.
Once in the summer, when I stopped to pick up Kate for lunch and he was there, she laid down specific rules for naps, snacks and playtime while she was out. Josh rolled his eyes mocking her, his way of letting the children know they would be doing things his way when she was gone. I can’t say I was surprised when I heard she’d asked him to leave.
Thoughts about Kate and the children lingered with me through the better part of each day after she asked Josh to move out. According to the people who still socialized with him, Josh seemed happy enough on his own, but why shouldn’t he? His life had changed hardly at all. When he wasn’t working, he raced his vintage Porsche and nurtured his affairs with first one and then another young woman he met at local bars. He stopped at the old house several mornings a week to have breakfast with the kids and continued to undermine Kate’s disciplining of the children, playing the part of the ‘fun’ parent to her more grounded, conservative example, belittling her rules at every opportunity.
His engagement to his most recent girlfriend (even though he and Kate had yet to finalize their divorce) coupled with his talk about his fiancé’s interest in a television job offer on the west coast appeared to be the cruelest prompts. The shocking blows that pushed Kate’s constant fear that he would try to take the children from her into terror.
“Hungry, Mama,” said Amanda, rubbing her eyes.
“I know baby girl, but let’s get these boots off first,” said Kate, pulling them off, one in each hand, “and then we’ll hang up your coat and then we’ll wash our hands and then,” Kate tugged on her daughter’s pony tail, “and then I’ll make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How’s that sound?”
“No crust for you, my angel.”
Kate got Amanda seated in her booster seat at the kitchen table, pulled a jar of peanut butter from the pantry and strawberry jam and milk from the refrigerator, closing the door as she and Amanda both said, “Whoosh,” mimicking the sound that the door made as it sealed itself. Her hands shook as she spread peanut butter on one slice of bread. Standing close to the work island she uncovered the bowl of crushed medication and sprinkled a little less than half over the top. She scooped jam onto the peanut butter and smoothed the mixture together, adding the second slice of bread and booking the sandwich neatly. She poured milk from a half gallon plastic jug into a glass, put the sandwich on a paper towel and set Amanda’s lunch on the table in front of her.
“No crust, Mama,” Amanda said, her head resting on her upturned palms.
“Silly Mama, I forgot,” said Kate returning the sandwich to the counter, cutting the crusts off and halving it.
Amanda was tired. She nibbled at the sandwich for what seemed like forever to Kate. Finally she gave up and fell asleep with her head on the table. Kate put her arms around her daughter and plucked her from the booster seat. Her heart was pounding as she carried her up the stairs. She started into the child’s room, papered in latticework and flowers and stopped. She turned and walked down the hall to the master bedroom and placed Amanda on what used to be her father’s side of the bed. Amanda was snoring little cat snores. Kate held the child’s nose and covered her mouth exerting the slightest pressure until Amanda was no longer breathing.
Careful not to look in the tall corner mirror that reflected the bed, she felt as if she might faint as she walked from the room, closed the door and returned to the kitchen.
I was late picking up the boys from soccer practice. The snow was making driving treacherous, there was an accident at the main intersection near the school and even the usual “need for speed” drivers were barely crawling along. My twins, Lucas and Jackson, both yelling “Shotgun!” barreled down the steps from the gym entrance as soon as they saw my car. Michael scuffed after them, head down, plodding through the snow. He’d been quiet and moody since his parents separated, but then he’d always been a cautious little old soul, so the other kids just ignored him as usual.
“Everyone in the back today, seatbelts on,” I ordered. “It’s really slippery.”
The habitual pushing and shoving between the twins started immediately, but Michael crouched in the corner, not saying a word. I pulled out into the line of cars waiting to exit the parking lot. We were less than three blocks from the Quinty’s corner house.
Josh had rented a smaller house right across the street and three doors down. It added exponentially to Kate’s heartache each time he pulled in the driveway late at night with his new girlfriend, both of them getting out and leaning against the car for five minutes or so, her coat falling open to reveal the barely visible baby bump – making out like teenagers – before going inside. Josh said he rented the house so he could be close to his children. The Kate I knew and loved started to disintegrate before my eyes.
We were having lunch one day at the tearoom in town when she said, “You know, Jen, I’m not a very good mother.”
“You? You are the best mother I know,” I answered honestly. “Where did this come from?”
“Joshua says I’m not,” she replied, eyes down, scraping fuzz from the linen tablecloth with her knife.
“Well, he’s wrong, Kate. Absolutely wrong.”
From then on I tried to keep a much closer watch on my friend. I touched base with her every day, either stopping in or calling. I arranged for us to shop or lunch or work out together at the gym. Kate was like me, she tended to isolate when she got down, so I kept trying to lure her from the house. Sometimes it worked. I think she came with me because she lived in fear that Josh would learn how depressed she really was, afraid he might try to take the children from her. Any suggestion I made that she get some help, talk to a professional, made her stiffen in panic.
“No, please, no, Jen. If he even found out about the Xanax I take to sleep, he would find some way to use that against me.”
When we finally pulled within sight of the Quinty’s four story, immaculately redesigned Victorian manse, I loosened my grip on the steering wheel slightly. I pulled left into the oncoming lane so I wouldn’t have to brave the unplowed driveway – it would be just my luck to get stuck while backing out. Michael opened the car door, mumbled “Thanks Mrs. Corey” and was heading toward the kitchen door when I buzzed the window down and yelled to him, “Tell your Mom I’ll call her later, okay?” He kept going but I was sure he heard me so I moved back onto the right side of the street and slid toward our house, two short blocks away.
As I skidded to a halt at the stop sign at the end of the first block, I sat for a few seconds and thought, I should have gone in if even for a minute or two just to give Kate a hug and see how she is doing today. I could still go around the block and run in, but the boys saw me hesitate and chanted “We’re starving! C’mon Mom,” so I drove the last block, pulled into the garage and was soon lost in an evening of dinner, homework, baths, a phone discussion with my out-of-town husband about his day and at last, my own quick preparations for bed. I learned later that Michael had remained alive for approximately seventy minutes after I dropped him off.
Sullen, thought Kate as Michael came through the back door. He looks just like his father when he pulls that expression out of his pocket and plasters it across his face.
“What’s up buddy?”
Kate knew to wait for Michael to sort out what to tell her and what to keep to himself.
“Coach made some of us run laps after practice.”
Kate looked at his skinny little frame and wondered, laps for six and a half years olds?
“Why did you have to run laps?”
“He said we were lazy players.”
Leaving it for now, Kate asked, “Are you hungry? How about some peanut butter and jelly?”
“Well, first there should be a thank you and a please in there somewhere, and second, there are no more pizzas left.”
Michael, still standing at the door, kicked one of Amanda’s pink Uggs from the boot mat to a spot beneath the table.
“There’s never anything I like to eat here. Never.”
“Okay, Michael. Hang up your coat and we’ll come up with something else.”
A few minutes later, now sitting at the table, bouncing the heel of his sneaker against the leg of his chair, Michael demanded, “A banana and chocolate milk.”
He knew the chocolate milk was usually reserved for a treat and knew he didn’t deserve a treat, so he was surprised when his mother took the milk and chocolate syrup from the fridge. He watched as she poured a healthy glob of chocolate in a tall glass, added the milk and stirred it together.
“Wash your hands, please.”
While her son was in the small powder room in the hallway, Kate gently fingered the rest of the powdered Xanax into the milk.
When he was once again seated at the table, she grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl on the counter and placed the fruit and milk in front of him. He gripped the tall glass with both hands, took a big gulp, and set it down.
“This tastes wrong, Mom.”
“Wrong, Michael? How does it taste wrong? You mean like the milk is spoiled?”
Michael pushed the glass across the table.
Kate opened the frig, made a pretense of smelling the milk and said, “Nope, it’s fine.”
Then she retrieved the glass, took it to the counter and with her back to her son, added a tablespoon of sugar and more chocolate syrup. The pills are bitter, she mused. Returning the drink to her son, she suddenly felt the shock of exhaustion she’d been closeting all day. Her hands were shaking and she had the mother of all headaches.
“Listen, Mikes, your sisters are not feeling well. They’re sleeping and I’m not feeling so hot myself. I think we might be getting the flu, so drink up and you and I are going to take a rest as well.”
“I’m not tired and I have homework.” He finished the milk in two gulps.
Kate felt herself tense up. She pushed her hands into her sweater pocket, gripping the prescription bottle with her right hand.
“Upstairs. Now, Michael.”
Her son kicked Amanda’s boot that lay under the table back toward the kitchen door.
“Now!” Kate felt the first little stabs of impatience. Why was he behaving this way?
Michael stood up, grabbed his backpack and slumped through the hallway to the foot of the staircase. Kate gave him a shove to start him up the stairs.
“What’s wrong, Mom. Why are you acting this way?” He was edging toward tears. She could hear them in his voice.
“Hush, Michael.” Don’t wake your sisters.”
He stopped at the door to his room.
“Maybe we should call Dad if everybody’s sick.”
Kate froze. “No!” We’ll be fine. We just all need to rest,” she said, putting her hands on her son’s shoulders and marching him toward his bed.
“I told you I’m not tired, Mom,” Michael whined.
God, why was he making this so hard? Kate’s stomach felt like something was scratching to get out. She put her arm around her son trying to summon the patience to calm him. He had to be getting sleepy.
“C’mon, Mikes, just lay down for a little while.”
Crawling onto his bed, her son lay down on his side, his face turned to the wall. Kate sat down next to him and rubbed soft, small circles into his back, whispering, “There you go, there you go.”
She didn’t wait long enough and when she tried to roll him over on his back, he slapped her hand away. Kate didn’t think she could generate the energy to start all over again with him. It was too late. She grabbed him by the shoulders. Michael struggled to roll farther away from her. She snatched the pillow from under his head. Her son pulled hard, trying to get it back.
When he finally let go, he was yelling, “No! No!” and crying, “Mom, Mom, stop it!”
Kate took the pillow in both hands and pushed it down hard over his slim, wild-eyed, child’s face. He twisted his body, kicked his feet and clawed at her hands with his fingers. She saw that he had bitten his nails almost to the cuticles, and the thought crossed her mind that she should try to find out what was bothering him to the point where he would do such a thing. At last he was still. She left the pillow on his head. Looking at him was unthinkable. She dropped to the floor in exhaustion.
Kate crawled on her hands and knees into the master bedroom. First, keeping her head down and averting her eyes so as not to look directly at the bed, she reached into her pocket, opened the bottle of pills and swallowed those that remained, drinking from a glass of water on the nightstand. Next, she eased a family portrait from the top drawer. She slammed the picture against the corner of the nightstand until the glass broke and used a piece to carve a crude X from corner to corner on the face of the photograph. She lay down on the plush carpet and began slicing at her wrists with a another piece of broken glass.
It was still dark when Kate opened her eyes. She was confused and seemed to be sliding in and out of unconsciousness. She reached for the phone by the bedside. Squinting through the pain in her arms, she pushed 911.
A voice said something Kate couldn’t understand, but she replied, “I killed my children and tried to kill myself, but it didn’t work.”
“You did what?” said the voice on the phone.
“My husband didn’t want us anymore,” Kate murmured. She dropped the phone and either slept or passed out.
I heard the phone ringing and the helicopters at the same time, but it was the annoying sound of the rotor blades – whap, whap, whap – and the floodlights whipping in and out of the windows that woke me. I looked at the clock. Four–thirty. The cordless handset fell on the floor as I grabbed for it. I could hear a voice saying, “Jen, are you awake? Did you hear what happened?”
I left the caller on the floor, grabbed my robe, tied it around me and slid into my slippers, running down the stairs for the front door. My slippers were flipping fresh snow up the backs of my legs as I ran the two blocks. Each footfall was a word. Please. God. No. Please. God.
As I reached the side of the corner house, I saw an older, bulky, bald cop comforting a younger officer, arm around his shoulder, standing in the snow by the screened porch. My legs failed me as I reached the front of the house, lit by huge klieg lights, and fenced by yellow tape. The whole street was lined with squad cars and ambulances as they brought the small bodies out.