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Plea of insanity, p.29
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       Plea of Insanity, p.29

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Leave the past in the past. For all of us.

  Julia’s eyes fell on the happy picture of her aunt and her mom hamming it up in front of the Hamilton House, a catering hall in Bayridge, Brooklyn, the day of hermom’s high-school graduation, both dressed in white patent leather boots and psychedelic mini-dresses. It was two years before her mom had met her father. ‘I’ve been thinking about what happened with,’ she said, taking a deep breath, ‘… my family.’

  Aunt Nora stopped wiping and watched her carefully for a long moment, then headed over to the refrigerator. ‘I could make you a sandwich. I made Jimmy meatballs last night. I have some semolina. How about a sandwich?’

  ‘I found him.’

  Nora hesitated, her head still in the fridge. But she said nothing.

  ‘Andrew. He’s in a mental hospital, Aunt Nora. In New York City. It’s a hospital for the criminally insane. He’s been there for fourteen years now.’

  ‘He might as well be dead,’ Nora said quietly, closing the refrigerator door.

  ‘Aunt Nora …’

  ‘You have no business looking for him. He’s a murderer.’

  ‘I got a copy of the court file yesterday from New York. He has schizophrenia, Aunt Nora. He’s sick.’

  ‘Call it what you want to,’ Nora snapped, her blue eyes suddenly igniting with anger. ‘Go ahead, give it a label! To me, he’s the devil. What he did to your mother, to your father. He’s a monster, a—’ A choked sob cut the rest of her words off, and Nora turned away to face the cabinets. Her aunt was such an incredibly strong person; it was hard to be the one doing this to her after all she and Uncle Jimmy had done, after all they’d sacrificed. But then Nora slapped her hands hard against the counter and the anger was back. ‘You have no place looking for him now,’ she hissed, her back still to Julia. ‘None. You owe it to your mother to stop this craziness right now and move on with your life. Let him rot with his. I hope they never let him out. They should’ve executed him. They should’ve given him the goddamned death penalty. That’s who it’s there for. Animals like him.’

  ‘He’s my brother. My brother …’

  ‘And she was your mother!’ Nora shouted, spinning around. ‘And she was my sister! My baby sister! You and Jimmy and your forgiveness…’ Her cranberry-red lips folded in on each other, as she fought hard to hold back the words. ‘It’s so easy to forgive when you’re the one who wasn’t home that night, Julia! Don’t you kid yourself, little one. If you’d been there, warm in your pretty pink bed, he would’ve dragged you out, too. He would’ve carved you up, gutted you like a pumpkin. He would’ve taken that knife and butchered you, too, while you begged him on your knees for your life!’

  The blond-haired, blue-eyed reporter tried hard to hold back her smirk of excitement. Battered yellow crime-scene tape still blocked access to the front door of the blue and white colonial behind her, the faded plastic Santa stood alone on the brown lawn. The white patches of snow had all melted away. ‘… the Long Island woman, and her husband, Joseph Cirto, were found brutally slain inside their home early last Sunday morning,’ she said with the charged inflection of a seasoned professional. ‘Nassau County police today released Mrs Cirto’s desperate nine-one-one call, which recorded the final moments of her life. Their son, eighteen-year-old Andrew Cirto, has been arrested and charged in the killings, which shocked this small town of West Hempstead, only days before Christmas.’

  The audiotape crackled to life then, as the transcription ran under a montage of still family photos of Momma, Daddy and a smiling Andrew at his high-school graduation. Then came the footage of the black body bags making their way to the waiting ambulance.

  ‘Police and fire. What’s your emergeny?’

  ‘Help us.’

  ‘I’m going to help you, honey. I need you to stay on the line and tell me exactly what’s happened.’

  I think he’s coming back.’

  ‘Who’s coming? Are you hurt? What’s your name?’

  I think he’s coming back.’

  ‘Who’s that? Has someone been hurt? Do you need an ambulance?’

  ‘… please … no, no, no, no … he’s back now, he’s back … oh God, don’t … don’t hurt him …’

  ‘Ma’am, hold the line. Don’t hang up, I’m dispatching units right now.’

  ‘… is there anyone listening?… can anyone … come?… oh, no … please …’

  Julia felt like she was going to be sick. The room began to spin. She put her hands over her ears. More than once she’d wished she had been in that house that night. She’d wished she had died. It would be so much easier.

  ‘You – she gave birth to you, Julia. You were her everything. Her everything! The little girl Irene always dreamed of. Do you remember her at all? Anything you wanted, anything at all, Reenie would see you had. She loved you more than anyone could love a baby!’

  ‘She was a great momma, Aunt Nora. I do remember … I never forget … I never forgot,’ Julia cried as the words stumbled out. ‘How could you say that?’

  Nora turned away.

  ‘And I miss her.’ She grabbed her aunt’s shoulder, trying to get her to listen. ‘So much that it hurts. It physically hurts. Oh God, so much. Sometimes it feels like – it just feels like my chest – and my head – like they’re going to explode.’

  Nora shrugged off her touch. ‘And for you to betray her now …’

  ‘I’m not betraying her.’ Julia ran her hands through her hair, trying to pull her thoughts back together. They were starting to get jumbled with her emotions and things were not making sense like they should – like they did when she’d rehearsed them. The conversation was laced with static, like a bad cellphone connection. ‘I lost everyone that night, not just Momma. I lost Daddy, too. And I lost Andy. My whole family!’

  Her aunt looked as if Julia had sucker-punched her in the gut. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Julia! He was the one who took your family from you! Don’t you see that? Can’t you get it?’

  ‘He was sick, Aunt Nora. I remember him being sick when he came home early from college.’ Maybe she could make Nora understand. ‘Momma said he was tired and stressed, that it was all the pressure from a new school, but he was a different person than when he left.’

  ‘Why’s Andy eating in his room again?’ Julia asked softly as she watched her mom at the kitchen counter, making up a dinner plate of chicken and mashed potatoes – her brother’s favorite.

  ‘Andrew’s had a difficult couple of weeks. So we have to baby him a little,’ her mom answered softly while she cut the chicken into bite-size pieces. She looked so tired. So incredibly tired. Like the mother of a newborn.

  ‘Is he ever going back to college?’

  ‘I’m sure.’

  ‘When?’

  Her mom sighed. ‘I don’t know, Julia. Soon. Someday. I don’t know.’

  Julia thought for a moment. Andy’d only been gone a few weeks to UNC Charlotte before he’d suddenly shown up back home. Maybe he’d lost his scholarship! ‘Did he get kicked off the baseball team? Is that why he’s back?’ she asked.

  Her dad suddenly slammed his hand hard on the kitchen table, and all noise abruptly stopped. ‘You need to eat your own supper and stop worrying about where everybody else eats theirs,’ he said flatly.

  ‘And now I know what it was,’ Julia said softly. ‘This case I’m working has made me see the signs – they were all there, even before he went to North Carolina. He wasn’t right; he was distant and cold and not there sometimes. We used to be so close – he was never just a brother. We were friends, Aunt Nora – but then he just, he just went somewhere. He was in his room all the time. And he wouldn’t let me in. He wouldn’t let me come in …’

  Nora stayed quiet. She stared at Julia as if she were a stranger, speaking an odd foreign language.

  ‘Maybe … maybe it wasn’t his fault. Maybe he had no choice. Because it’s a sickness,’ she stammered, trying to explain it to herself as well as her aunt. ‘In his brain,
eating it away like acid, and maybe it wasn’t his fault …’

  Nora finally spoke, her voice cold and detached. ‘You’re right, little one. It wasn’t all Andrew’s fault. As much as I hate your brother for what he’s done, you go ahead and place the blame where it really belongs. On who it really belongs. But he’s not here anymore, either, so I don’t see much point in that.’

  Julia felt her chest suck in, as if someone had taken all the oxygen from the air and she was waiting for it to be put back in before she inhaled the poison she knew would kill her. ‘What are you talking about?’ she finally managed. But down deep the bells had begun to ring, the alarms had sounded. She knew the answer, but she willed her aunt not to speak the words. Please, please, please, I don’t want to know this …

  Nora looked at her for a long moment. The anger that had fired her eyes bright blue was gone now, and she looked unbelievably sad and tired. ‘Your father, Julia,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t you see now, little one? It was your father who brought this crazy sickness, like you call it, into your house, who gave this to his own son. Your father had it, too.’

  60

  It all started to make sense. The pieces of her childhood that had never seemed to fit before now began to slide deliberately into place, like hidden walls in an old house that led to a labyrinth of caves and secrets; each wall opened another and then another, forcing her to plunge further and further into the darkness of the unknown. Once she stepped inside the maze, she knew it would be impossible to turn back. The best she could hope for would be to find her way out once again, or else end up hopelessly lost, forever trapped in the new reality she’d created for herself.

  For the first thirteen years of her life, her mother had obviously done her very best to create the illusion of a normal family life. For the last fifteen, Nora and Jimmy had tried hard to keep up the charade. To protect her, they’d simply pretended that the past had never happened. And Julia had let them. Partly because she had no choice. Partly because it was much less painful – a new house, a new name, a new identity and no questions to be answered. She’d taken the name Valenciano so she wouldn’t be teased or ostracized at her new school, on the remote chance some parent figured out the familial connection from the newspapers and told their kid, ‘That new girl in class has a psycho brother who killed their parents! Stay away from her!’ The second they’d returned home from the funerals, her aunt had taken down all pictures of her brother and thrown them away. Then she went into her room and cried. When she finally came out, days later, the ‘subject’ was never spoken of again. She was the niece from upstate whose parents had been killed in a terrible car crash. Andrew had never even existed.

  Julia sat down at the kitchen table, her head in her lap. The pieces kept snapping and clicking into place. ‘When?’ she asked.

  ‘I’ve said enough. You were raised right, is all. Reenie was a saint. She did the work of both parents.’

  ‘When, Aunt Nora? When?’

  Nora turned away again, her lips pursed tight.

  Up until the night of the murders, her family had seemed as average as the Musemeci family and their twelve kids down the block. But normal is always a relative term – it depends on who’s doing the judging and who your competition is. Through the crime victims she’d dealt with, she’d learned some hard truths, one of which was when you’re in a dysfunctional family, it’s hard to see it the way others do, because to you, it’s just life. And it’s the only life you’ve ever known. A battered woman thinks all men beat, a sexually abused child accepts a father slipping into her bed at night. It’s only when you get out, and examine your life from the outside looking back in, do you see it for what it really is – sick and different.

  It was as though someone had suddenly placed a silk screen over all of her memories, allowing her to see behind the scenes, while the actors changed places and clothes and the sets moved. She remembered the time she was sent with Andy to live at her Nana’s tree farm up in Hunter Mountain. She couldn’t have been more than six, Andy must have been ten. She didn’t know exactly how long they were gone, but they had to sign up for school there. Momma told them Daddy had broken his arm climbing a painting ladder in the living room and needed to recuperate, but when they finally got home, nothing in the house had been painted, and her father didn’t have a cast. And his arm sure looked fine from a distance. But, then again, they were never allowed too close to him after that, because … why? She couldn’t remember. Even for months after they’d been back, she couldn’t remember seeing Daddy much outside of his room. When she did, he was always in pajamas. Soft, blue-striped pants and a white undershirt. Everyday.

  Was that the break? Was it the first one? Did he get better? Why could she not see it all before? Why was it all so clear now?

  Her mother began to work a lot after that – waitressing, or at the Pearl Paint store as a sales clerk – but Julia couldn’t remember a time after the farm when they were left alone again with their father. There was always Mrs Musemeci’s, or friends’ houses, or, on occasion, they would go to the restaurant with their mom and sit outside on the steps that led to the parking lot reading comics or playing handball until she got off. Funny how she never thought that odd until this very moment.

  Julia tried hard to remember her dad, the handsome man with a quirky temper who took her sometimes to fly kites at the Chestnut Street playground. Who got crazy mad when a single pencil went missing from the holder on his desk, but belly-laughed when Peanut the dog ran away. Then there was the time he bought her an ice cream off the Mister Softee truck when she didn’t even know he was outside. Or when he let her steer his new car as she sat in his lap and rode around the block more times than she could count. The memories were there, but they were different. Her mother was like a continuous stream of good memories, assembled into a person. Her father was a person who she had a few good memories of.

  ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ she said softly, the tears still falling, even though she would have sworn there were no more left to shed. ‘Why didn’t I know about Andy?’

  ‘Because she didn’t want you to know,’ Nora replied quietly, pulling another paper towel off the roll and handing it to her. ‘We didn’t want you to know. There was no sense. You were only a kid. It was for your own good, Julia. You’ve got to know that.’

  ‘But why?’ Julia pleaded, looking up. But then she just as quickly answered the question herself. The last piece had slid into its place, the final wall had opened into the darkness. She looked back down at her lap. ‘Because everyone thought I might get it, too,’ she said softly.

  61

  The genetic link can’t be ignored. With each family member afflicted with the disease, the risk factor for fellow family members does go up.

  She heard Dr Barakat’s words play over and over and over again in her head, with the same inflection and reflective pause as when he had said them in his office last week. She saw herself in that room, admiring his faux-painting and rich leather chairs, never once thinking he was talking about her.

  And the risk is cumulative. So if Mom, Sis and Grandma have schizophrenia, Junior is at least twenty-six times more likely to develop the disease than, say, you or me.

  Than, say, you or me.

  We’re different, was what he meant. We don’t have mental illnesses like the defendants do. We wouldn’t get that dirty disease.

  And in the courtroom just two days ago, casually discussing the cause-and-effect relationship of schizophrenia with the experts, she’d been right there on center stage, with all eyes on her, asking the dramatic, breathless questions and secretly relieved to be part of the club. The Majority Club. A part of the Than, Say, You Or Me crowd. At that moment she was an intellectual, able to discuss and examine the clinical causes and frightening symptoms from an objective perspective in a courtroom full of other intellectual professionals. Now that was all gone. She was a percentage now – a statistic waiting to be realized. And just the word alone suddenly sound
ed repulsive and dirty and terrifying. Schizophrenia. Schizo.

  She wiped the tears with the back of her hand, but it was useless. It was like an unending stream that she had not been able to shut off for two days. Maybe something was broken, she thought. Maybe the crying would never end.

  Rain poured off her windshield in heavy sheets, whipped around by the gusty wind. Even with headlights, it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the car, and traffic on 95 had slowed to a stop-and-go crawl. She probably should’ve called the airport before she’d left her apartment to see if her flight had been delayed or cancelled, but she hadn’t. After finding a seat on the last JetBlue flight of the day, she’d quickly thrown some clothes into a duffel bag and hurried to drop Moose at the kennel before they closed. She had to keep packing, moving, going, hurrying – or else risk stopping to think. And right now, she knew that was just too dangerous. Because she didn’t really know what she was going to do when she got off that plane in New York. And with too much thinking, she might not go. There were still stacks and stacks of memories inside her head that she couldn’t bring herself to drag out and examine just yet. The ones that she knew now might never have even existed the way she once thought they did.

  It was like the shock of suddenly finding out Santa wasn’t real, without ever having once questioned his existence. One small fact had changed everything. It had even changed history. Only it wasn’t just Santa she’d found out didn’t exist today. Or the Easter Bunny. It was her whole life. She turned the music up on the radio, hoping someone could sing loud enough or strong enough to stop the thoughts that kept running through her head while she waited for the traffic to inch forward in the driving rain. She wondered if the voices did come for her, would she know they weren’t real? Would she know the difference between a DJ on the radio and a phantom?

 
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