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Just as well, I don't say. Face all those people? Kath then offers me fifteen thousand dollars up front, with another fifteen thousand after the verdict when the book hits the market. Hefty royalties after that. I do need the money. But when Ashlyn Bryant is convicted? You'll be Mercer Hennessey, bestselling author. I promise. That'd be good. More important, though I'll never admit it to Kath, the book might give me a reason to get up in the morning. Or the father. But the mother? This is pure crazy.

In this case, it is. And yes, pure crazy. Kath's in her Back Bay office; I'm in my little suburban study. But I can picture my former editor's expression. It's the same baffled one I see on the TV talk shows and when I fidget in line at the coffee shop.

People asking each other: what kind of monster mother could kill her own two-year-old? The mother is definitely guilty this time. I'd already devoured every newspaper and magazine article and watched every newscast and feature story revealing every heartbreakingly disgusting detail about the missing-then-found little girl, even the online TV stories from the Ohio stations. At first I couldn't stop weeping for that poor dead child. Then more tears as I shared her mother's certain anguish. Easier to fill my brain with someone else's grief, hoping to replace my own.

Not completely successful, but better than emptiness. When Tasha Nicole was finally identified, I actually considered calling Ashlyn, thinking ridiculously I could comfort her by sharing some maternal bond, each of us lost in grief and mourning our treasured baby daughters. Now it turns my stomach to think of it. How she duped me. Duped everyone. After the breaking news of her arrest?

I could have murdered Ashlyn myself. You there? Say yes. It's been long enough.

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You have to get back to work. You have to do something. Do something? I almost yell at her. But she means well, and she'd stuck by me through the days the sun went out and the shadows closed in. Kath understands, as much as anyone can. It's unfair for me to take my grief out on her. Is she right? Is there something I can do? Maybe — for Sophie? And for Dex. Maybe to make up for what happened to them.

To accept that I'm the one who's left alive. I'm not fooling myself; I can never actually accomplish that. But at this moment, I feel Dex. Urging me to do it. To use my words to right a wrong. To strive for justice, like he always did. What's more, he whispers, you could at least honor Sophie's memory. Dex is right. I'll do it. To avenge Baby Boston. And I'll secretly dedicate this book to Sophie. To every little girl unfairly wrenched away from the world.

The more I think about it, the more I know I can do it. I yearn to do it. Physically, mentally, emotionally do it. Maybe I'll burn down the house. I'd actually said that out loud only a few days before Katherine called. Though there was no one to hear me. I'd visualized the flames, too. Visualized the nursery furniture, its pink rosebuds and indulgent ruffles, blackened by flames. The sleek suits Dex wore to court, and Sophie's daisy jammies and her plushy animals, the wedding photos and the toothbrushes and the What would I feel as the Linsdale firefighters battled hellish flames and choking smoke, attempting — yet ultimately failing — to save any evidence the Hennessey family existed?

I wouldn't live to find out. Putting Kath on speaker, I get up from my desk chair and retie the strings of my sweatpants, yanking them tighter. The sweats, black and soft and now grotesquely too big for me, are XL. Not mine. Dex won't be needing them. No matter how many days go by, I'll never get used to that. Trying to gauge whether I'm the crazy one.

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The jury's chosen, all the boring motions out of the way. It's all on camera now. You just dig up the deets on the nutcase mother. This year she began acquiring for Arbor Inc. It's not a Mob hit on a snitch, not some heroin addict's poor abused child, not a gang turf war. The killer is the gorgeous young mother next door. Ashlyn, I mean, even her name is perfect. You can't turn on the TV without seeing that clip of her, all petulant and pouting off to jail. So we'll need you to convey, you know, the secret torment of the seemingly typical suburban family.

Give it the feel of real. The feel of real. Got it. I'm a writer. I'm a storyteller. I take the facts and make them fascinating. This story doesn't need much help in that department. Truman Capote simply imagined half that stuff. Made up dialogue. How else could he write it? But you can do it, Merce, I know you can. I'll email the paperwork. There's no one better for this job. You'll kill it. Sorry, honey. But you know what I mean. You okay? I hang up the phone, looking out my study window, down our — my — flagstone front walk and our — my — quiet neighborhood, still serenely green on a September morning, as if nothing has changed.

As if my Sophie were still alive, and Dex, too.

Read Me: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

Funny what strength there is in purpose. Where do you want it? Katherine must have been pretty confident I'd say yes. By Monday morning, I'd signed for eight cardboard boxes of video equipment, and clutching my coffee, tried to stay out of the way as a phalanx of flannel-shirted guys hauled everything to the study. They unpacked a silver monitor, a silver mouse, two aluminum speakers, and two black routers; then uncoiled orange cables and white cords and plugged it all in, connecting the raw broadcast from the courtroom the same way the TV and radio stations receive it.

Now my study is a snake pit of multicolored wires and power strips. I'm hooked up for a front row seat at the Baby Boston trial. Fine, I'll record it on my iPad. Crude, but the tablet's adequate for quote checking or review. The trial starts in ninety minutes. After the guys leave, I swoop up all the bubble wrap and Styrofoam packing they'd strewn around, and drag it through the dining room and down to the basement. They'd told me to keep the packaging for when the trial's over.

Snap on the light. The basement is the burial ground for my other life. Whenever I can't bear to look at something, but can't bear to throw it away, that's where I stash it. Sophie's first crib, the same white wicker one Dex used. His mother presented it to us, tears in her eyes.

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  • Sophie in arms, we'd accepted it, all enthusiastic. When she left, Dex lugged the deathtrap fire hazard into the basement, trumpeting how it was a father's job to protect his family. Gramma's gold-rimmed wedding china was my mom's contribution. Mom's will's, at least. Most of Dex's mom's tea set is here, too. There's the album of our wedding, which Aunt Someone told me — incorrectly — would be the best day of my life, a windswept October in Nantucket, where we'd all shivered in blankets, rushed out to 'Sconset beach, then, gasping in the cold, thrown them off to get one gorgeous moonlit photo of me barefoot in white tulle, laughing in Dex's arms.

    It wasn't the best day, because every day was better and better, until Sophie, another best.

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    I dump the boxes at the bottom of the steps. Click the string that turns off the basement light. Turn off that part of my life, too. I tramp up the darkened stairs, through the dining room and into the kitchen. I don't need a Psych textbook to explain transference. But now Ashlyn Bryant is no longer an emotionally problematic and potentially unhealthy distraction. She's my job. I slam some bread in the toaster, make coffee, then wait, because the toaster is cranky, then tote it all to my desk.

    I am on it. I am going to be me again. Back in the study, sitting in my desk chair. I jiggle the silver mouse and crank up the volume. The monitor screen stays opaque. Like my life? I have a purpose again.

    The little girl whose body washed up on the beach at Castle Island. And the murder trial of her mother.

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    That woman's been held in a cell for the past year, and deservedly so. With many more years to come, if all goes as it should. She'd killed her daughter, and then for at least a month, lied to everyone about it. Actually pretended Tasha was somewhere else. Why we came here.

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    I sat up and the duvet fell away, exposing my breasts. A true workday. He pressed his lips to my forehead, another brief, dry kiss—a peck, now I understood what that was—and left again, stopping in the doorway. Of course I understand you have to go work. I just thought we were going to spend the day together. I thought this might be a problem, and I apologize. He was going to say that I should go back to Copenhagen. Just tell me how to get to a restaurant or a coffee shop or something.

    There is only one key. And I need it. One must have a key to enter. I am behind. I have not been productive for several weeks, with life in Copenhagen being what it is. Then why had he brought me? It has been such an event, meeting you. I have felt happy, powerful even, for the first time in so long.

    For the first time ever, perhaps.


    It seems so natural to have you here with me. Almost as if it has always been this way. He had many layers. I had to be patient to have what I wanted, to be here with him. Everyone always said relationships were hard work. I saw myself working, although I hardly knew what that work could be. All it meant was that I must leave home, my most beloved place. But in my fantasy I did not leave my home empty. I had within it a lover who waited for me.

    A special woman occupied by her own affairs. Keeping the home fires bright, as they say in your country. And now I have subjected you to it. I am sorry. I will not work today but find a way to make another key. Of course you should not be trapped here. He lifted an eyebrow. The light from the window made his eyes translucent. It felt simple, as if I held the fantasy itself in my hand, a blind cephalopod in need of my protection.

    This was a kind of bravery I could manage. Before I could answer he covered my mouth with his and kissed me until my assent was a moan. Then he rose. So you can find the Internet. I thanked him, eyeing the latch that held screen and keyboard closed. No, of course not, you are much more intelligent than I.

    I am so lucky! Until this evening! He beamed at me from the threshold. I blushed and blew a kiss, which he caught. Then the front door shut hard. I lay quite still, trying to recapture the sleepiness I had felt in my first waking moments. Maybe I would feel better if I let the day get a little older, curled up under the covers and induced a nice dream. Underneath the light was pink and thick.

    Then I became frantically hot. The tang of my sweat lodged in my nose. I had last shaved the day before graduation. I fingered the fuzzy hair that had grown in the ten days since and then held my hands under my nose. My sweat was vinegar sharp. Three sticky dried lines demarcated the creases between the rolls of my stomach.