As if Sharon Kerpelman were even on speaking terms with courtesy.
"I guess," Cynthia said, "that if you don't know what it is, I don't either."
"Yes. Well. How have you been?" Sharon asked, as if reading from a script. Maybe she had finally gotten a copy of Dale Carnegie, which she sorely needed. But Sharon, being Sharon, would go straight past the part about winning friends and skip ahead to trying to influence people.
"Why, just fine," Cynthia drawled. Not that Sharon would ever notice anything as subtle as a tone. "But I'm driving and I don't like to talk on the Beltway unless it's urgent. So-"
"This is-well, not urgent, but important."
"Yes?" Spit it out, Sharon.
"Alice Manning is coming home Thursday."
"For a visit?"
"For . . . ever. She's being released."
"How can that be?"
"She's eighteen now. After all, it will be seven years in July-"
"I think I remember," Cynthia said, "when it happened."
The headset was suddenly tight on her temples, squeezing so hard she felt as if those soon-to-be-rigid muscles behind her eyes might fly out of her head. How unfair. How unfair. The juvenile lament was her instinctive retort whenever this subject came up. Her father, who usually snapped at such idiocy, who had devoted his professional and personal life to establishing Solomon-like standards of fairness, had agreed with her. "Yes, it is," he said on that not-long-enough-ago day when the deal had been struck. "We have bent the law as far as we can, but we can't go further without breaking it. They are children in the eyes of the law."
"And in the eyes of God?" she had asked her father.
"I suppose they are children still. For God has to shoulder responsibility for all of us, even the monsters among us."
Today, her rage found its outlet in childlike cruelty. "Was Alice the fat one or the crazy one?" She could never forget their names, or their faces, yet she always had trouble matching them up. It was a kind of selective dyslexia, like her tendency to confuse surnames such as Thomas and Thompson, Murray and Murphy. Cynthia thought of the two as grotesque Siamese twins, connected at the waist, tripping over their four legs as they came down her street, up her porch, into her life.
Sharon's voice was prim, intended to be a reproof, as if Cynthia could ever be shamed on this topic. "Alice was the one with blond hair, worn straight back with a band. Here's a tip: think Alice in Wonderland."
"As a mnemonic device, I mean. Or Ronnie-Aran, if you prefer, as in Isle of Aran, for she had dark hair and light eyes. The look they sometimes call Black Irish." An embarrassed laugh. "I mean, I don't call it Black Irish, but you hear that sometimes, among people of a certain generation-I mean-"
"I know what you mean." Sharon had said so much worse to Cynthia, so blithely and unknowingly, that it was hilarious she would fret over this minor gaffe. The last time they had spoken, in a chance meeting outside a shopping mall, Cynthia had yearned to box her ears. But Judge Poole's daughters didn't fight with their fists.
"Anyway, I just wanted you to know. So if you saw her. Alice, I mean."
Everything made sense now. Her eyesight was getting better because she needed to see. Come to think of it, her hearing was sharper, too, so intense that the softest sound jarred her from her dreamless sleep. She didn't exercise, it seemed idiotic now, going around and around on a treadmill or a stair-stepper, yet she had never been stronger, leaner, had more stamina. Maybe she should write a book, The Black Coffee and Cigarette Diet: How to Mourn Your Way to a Better Body. Good line, she would save that one up, throw it out to her sister, Sylvia, the next time they talked. Sylvia was the one person in Cynthia's life who didn't flinch at her sarcasm.
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