Masks of Morality

By T.L. Mumley All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Chapter 9


After the call from her lawyer Phil van Wagner, Anna threw herself into her business. Working often from eight in the morning until eight at night, she got more done than she had in months.

She only stopped to babysit Jared with help from her neighbor Carol who took turns with her. Jared and Carol’s daughter Jordan played together while Anna worked in between relieving her generous friend of her time and devotion.

During this time, she had three messages from van Wagner about the case, and two from the local police. There was also one from her ex-husband Pierre.

She had called none of them back. Why was she hesitating?

She had dreams of Josh going through the same nightmare as Brandon, crying to the police that he didn’t mean to do it, wasn’t drunk, the roads were bad, he couldn’t see the child…then the authorities dragging him off to prison. Josh screaming, “My child Jared needs me! Please don’t take me to prison!”

Then that image fades out, and her daughters would appear, alive and well—arms reaching out for love, a monster taking her girls away from her. She woke each night dripping in sweat.

“Are you sure the night sweats aren’t from menopause?” Carol joked, trying to lighten the mood when Anna told her about the dreams.

One evening after dinner and a glass of wine to bolster her courage, she listened to her messages, picked up the phone, and dialed Phil’s number. It was after hours so she was hoping to get his voicemail—ease into it. Maybe she could buy some time before she had to talk to him. No such luck, he picked up on the first ring.

“Hi Anna, I’m glad you called. I was about to try you again. You’re a hard person to reach.”

“I know,” Anna sighed. “Sorry, Phil. It’s been…crazy busy the last week ….”

“Sure. No worries. It happens. Hey, listen. Good news on the case. Forensics found the paint transfer on the skateboard to be an exact match with the Garths’ 2001 blue Honda Civic. The police have also talked to several witnesses, including your neighbor Lois again. The defense has a chance of winning this on reasonable doubt, but we are shaping up to have a damn strong case too.”

“Several witnesses? Who else do you have other than my neighbor?” Anna asked.

Phil hesitated, then spoke slowly. “Well, …your ex-husband has been working with the police—told me he wants to get this guy. He’s pushing for finding the defendant guilty of an entire spiraling effect on your family. Not just for the vehicular homicide, but also tearing your marriage apart and causing your oldest daughter to take her life. We…he brought forth witne—”

What?” Anna’s head shot up. “How can anyone prove Garth guilty of all that? My marriage fell apart because we couldn’t handle losing our daughters! My oldest daughter committed suicide because she fell into a deep depression because she lost her baby sister, added to the stress of early motherhood!”

“Exactly…think about what you just said. Listen, the defendant fled the scene of the crime. Law says at least five years of prison and the penalties arising out of vehicular manslaughter. Plus, some criminal cases can include fines, the defendant can be subject to a civil lawsuit—”

“A civil lawsuit? I never filed for one!”

“But you still can,” van Wagner insisted. “You do want a monetary award for your pain and suffering, don’t you?”

“No! It will never bring my girls back or mend my broken marriage. All it would do is cause suffering for—”

“Anna, the payment for damages could be at least ten million. Rethink this—”

“Ten million!? That’s…a lot! I’d never want the Garth’s to have to pay that to us. And wait, you said something about witnesses? My ex-husband brought forth witnesses? What witnesses?”

“I was getting to that. Pierre provided three witnesses…friends of yours, who can testify to your marriage as strong as any before this accident. And the police found two witnesses from Cassidy’s school—her best friends will testify Cassidy was a happy, socially outgoing, award-winning artist at the top of her class before the accident.”

“Why did you get Cassidy’s friends involved? God, it’s such an intrusion onto her spirit. “Why did you pull our friends into this? This isn’t even about Cassidy! It’s about Bianca’s death!”

“It’s about your entire family Anna. Pierre’s right. Your entire family has been torn apart. The police went to Cassidy’s schools and spoke to her former teachers. They found out who her closest friends were and interviewed them. This all happened within four days of the case being reopened. The police went to both girls’ schools. They have strong testimony about Cassidy that will help our case, and that Bianca was a fabulous skateboarder, very controlled, and always wore a helmet.”

But also, a daredevil always out to prove something. Would she be betraying her dead daughter’s spirit if she mentioned this? Isn’t she expected to defend her daughter in the name of justice?

“Anna? You still there?”

“Yes. I’m here. I’m…I don’t know. I’m finding it hard to take in.”

“You said yourself you were eager to get on with this. Why hesitate now?”

She was torn between the guilt of not wishing to punish the boy who had accidently struck her daughter and the pain of losing her family. Was she not expected to demand retribution? Wasn’t that the American way?

“I’m not making it easy for you to do your job, Phil. I apologize. What comes next?”

“Well, Bill Garth is still maintaining his guilt. But he and his wife appeared very nervous when the police went to check out the car, and Mr. Garth is covering something up. Homicide has someone scheduled to go to UCLA and talk with the son.”

“Are they going without any forewarning? He’s just a kid!” Anna cried, suddenly remembering the message from Brandon. The message she ignored.

“I know. I know,” Phil insisted. “But that’s the best way to get a real reaction from him. The element of surprise can make the difference between a rehearsed answer and the truth. There’s a lot a detective can determine from body language and facial expression. We need to get to the bottom of this now.”

After they hung up, Anna sat and thought about how hard this was. Almost all her closest friends had been her daughters’ friends’ parents. Losing her daughters meant losing a circle of friends. Her support system was gone. Her work buddies were art friends, and none of them were parents. They didn’t get it.

The friends she had made through her daughters had continued to contact her for a while after the deaths. They would invite her to events—but Anna had been reluctant to get together with them. It was too painful. Their biggest common interests—her children—had been removed. She couldn’t join in the stories of their kids’ foibles and accomplishments, and they all seemed so hesitant to talk about her loss. But she needed someone to talk with. She needed not to stuff the emotions. And on the rare occasions when those friends did mention her loss, it was all about getting revenge.

Anna understood their anger. They had suffered the loss too. But the desire for revenge disturbed her—she didn’t want to be influenced by that kind of thinking. So, she had gradually let those relationships slip away.

She’d been trying to connect with the new playgroup. These were new friends, far removed from her tragedies, so they didn’t avoid the subject out of fear of upsetting their kids.

She felt a connection with the woman with the only child, a son. The deep love between them so vitally transparent. What a rare connection they had. And her love, passion, and devotion were so amazing.

And…there was something else she had noticed. She seemed to have a visionary quality about her. As if she saw things other people didn’t catch. Caryssa.

Brandon, too, is an only child. Caryssa would be able to identify with him, with his parents, and with Anna’s reluctance to pursue the horrific course of action everybody else involved with the case seemed to want. She’d have a more open, heartfelt viewpoint into the Garths’ situation than anyone else—and into Anna’s own.

She made up her mind. She would call Caryssa today. She needed support. She needed someone who could, without bias, help her clear her thoughts. Help her find the right path. The middle ground. And not just someone in the legal profession with nothing but financial profit and “justice” in mind, or someone with daughters who may over-identify or hold to the notion that daughters need protection from other peoples’ reckless sons.

Anna called Josh to arrange to pick Jared up in the morning. She had plenty of work to do, even though her recent workaholic momentum had propelled her ahead in every facet of her business. She still needed to devise a business plan for the next year and consult her assistant regarding potential investments. But that could wait. She wanted to make sure she spent time with her little grandson every day. That was her top priority.

Next, she dialed Caryssa Flynn’s landline and cell numbers and got voice mail both times. She left messages and then realized that since she would be spending tomorrow with her grandson, she’d better get some more work done after all. God, her mind was so scattered with the trial…

Rather than drive to her office and gallery in the village, she went into her home office to get some paperwork done. Sitting at her desk, she found she had far too much nervous energy to even focus on business. Glancing around the tiny office, she realized why she had an uneasy feeling each time she came in here.

This was exactly where she had been sitting that fatal moment when a car struck and killed her daughter. It was as if the worst omen existed in this very spot. Anna had not moved anything since then. Her desk was in the same place; everything remained as it had been. Including Bianca’s picture, which pierced her soul every time she glanced at it.

This is not good. Something must change. She started moving things around. Where her strength came from to move the heavy desk and all the file cabinets was beyond her. She felt like a woman possessed. She changed everything she could about her office. She took random piles of papers and tossed them into the recycle bin. If she hadn’t read them by now, she never would.

Next, she got out furniture polish and dusted every piece of furniture. She accidentally knocked the picture of Bianca off the desk, sending it crashing to the floor. The pang of guilt sent her to her knees. “Dear God, is this a message? Is it a reflection of my failure as a mother? Then she glanced at the wall above the desk. There! Both her girls, smiling at her.

She burst into tears. I have to get out of this house. I have to get out now, or I’m going to lose it.

Anna dropped her dust cloth and rushed to her bedroom to grab a jacket. On the way, she passed the girls’ bedroom door. They had shared this room all their lives since their small loft had only two bedrooms. Something stopped her. She paused at the door. Except to retrieve Bianca’s skateboard for the investigation, she had not been inside this room for…how long? She couldn’t even remember.

She leaned against the doorpost. She looked in at the twin beds. The carpet. The little throw rugs. The lamps. The corkboards with all the pictures of lives just beginning. Her heart sank.

Nope. No. She still couldn’t go in. She kept walking making her way out the front door, and the pavement, and the street.

Enough memories. Time to walk. Or run. It didn’t matter.

Time to get away. It would all still be waiting for her when she got back.


Caryssa took Tyler to the park. The minute they got out of the car Tyler took off towards the play structure. Caryssa was surprised to see that this time he didn’t stop there. He kept going, to “hike” the little hill behind it.

In the past, she had been nervous to let him venture off alone like that. But lately, she had been letting him have free reign. After all, he wasn’t a toddler anymore. And she always kept him within eyesight. But still, she worried. Was she getting careless?

She laid her picnic blanket out on the grass and began to set out plates, cutlery, snacks, and drinks. Brenda and the twins were there, and they had promised the kids a picnic. As she set out the last snack dish and surveyed her work, she remembered that her cell phone had been ringing earlier, but she had been driving and hadn’t picked up. When she checked her voice mail, she found a message from Anna requesting a playdate today.

Oh, how nice. Perfect timing. I hope she can join us now. She called Anna back and could hear what sounded like a sigh of relief when she picked up the phone. “Hey, Anna! Great to hear from you! I have been thinking about you and Jared. Are you all right?”

“Oh yeah, sure, I’m okay,” Anna’s tone of voice didn’t sound right. “It’s just that…well…I realized I need time outside my house and work. I’m about to pick Jared up for the day. Any chance we could meet for a playdate?”

“Today?”

“Yes. I need a friend right now and I must get out of Sausalito. I need a break. I could meet you in the East Bay if that helps.”

“Perfect! Amazing timing. I’m at Eucalyptus Park with Tyler right now.”

“Great! It may be close to an hour from now…is that okay? By the time I get Jared and drive over the bridge…”

“No problem. It’s beautiful out and I have a book with me. Brenda and the twins are here and we’re about to have a picnic, if I can get Tyler off the hill he’s hiking. They’ll be leaving for dance and gymnastics soon, so you might miss them. But we’re here. Can’t wait to see you both!”

While waiting for Anna and Jared, Caryssa went to find Tyler. “Tyler, Jared is meeting us here soon, wanted to let you know.” She peered into the trees but couldn’t see him.

“Okay Mom, but right now I’m too far up a tree to come down very fast.”

Then she saw him, more than halfway up a tree. How did the heck he get up there? There are barely any branches! “Be careful! No higher up than that Spider-Man! And don’t climb onto any branches that don’t look safe!” she called.

Yikes. When to let go, when to pull in the reins? She did not feel like spending the afternoon in the emergency room with a child with a broken collarbone or unconscious from a head injury. On the other hand, she loved how Tyler enjoyed nature. He hiked, biked, rode his scooter, skied, climbed trees, and caught little critters. He loved the outdoors. She and Brenda had been talking about just that while their kids were playing.

“Funny how we come to the park and bring all these playthings, plus have the play structures here, yet our kids prefer the trees, hills, sticks, and rocks!” Brenda had joked.

“Yeah, I like it. I remember my siblings and I would play outside all the time. We would play in the woods, skate on the pond, run in the street after the ice cream truck, build forts, ride our bikes everywhere,” Caryssa agreed. “We even witnessed our kittens getting killed by their daddy cat.”

“Oh, how tragic!” Brenda shrieked.

“It was…but it was also a good life lesson. I feel we learned early about life and the inevitability of death. I think it made us stronger. We were in touch with nature. Not perpetually connected to some electronic object like so many of today’s kids. It seems so…so unhealthy.”

“Yeah, more and more people are starting to see that! In fact, I regret our decision to buy a Wii. It is hard enough to get them away from the TV, the internet, their DVD players… what were we thinking? I am beginning to think this overload of technology is a grand mistake, and an expensive one at that!”

Caryssa was once an avid technology evangelist. Hard to imagine that she was among those early Internet adopters now backing away from the technology craze—trying to get back to living in the real world.

She realized Brenda was still talking. “I do think my kids are inside too much, between all the homework they get and the electronic distractions. Between getting ready for all that testing and regular homework, kids don’t have time for exploring the outdoors.

Something wrong with that picture, don’t you think?”

“Taking nature and outdoor play away from children is like taking away oxygen. I believe in the theory that ADHD is more a problem with our society itself than with the child. I can’t help but wonder if some children are mistakenly labeled because of the effects of the artificial environments we impose upon them. And doctors are so quick to throw meds at these kids. Scary, really.”

After a few moments of silent reflection, Brenda added: “I guess you could say when we were kids the woods were our Ritalin!”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. It seems more important to talk to our kids every day, what with all the pressures on them. To let them know we’re here—listen to what they say. They’re under way more stress than they should be. I make a concerted effort every day when I pick Tyler up from school to ask him how his day went and listen actively, ask him questions. But I worry too…when he’s a teenager will he talk to me the way he does now? When I really need to know what is going on?”

“Well geesh, be grateful that he talks to you now about school… trying to pry information out of my kids is like trying to yank thistles from the vegetable garden!”

They were sitting on the blanket, eating grapes, crackers, cheese, patè, olives, hummus, and homemade chicken salad. Looking towards the trees and hills where the children were playing, Caryssa marveled at the fresh beauty and the sound of children’s laughter all around her.

Not long afterward, Brenda and the twins left. Caryssa sat reading her book. Soon Tyler came running out of the woods. She was relieved to see that he hadn’t broken any bones. He waved at her and then headed to the play structure.

Anna and Jared finally arrived. By now, Caryssa had been at the park for two hours and was silently hoping for a quick second playdate. She wished she hadn’t been so quick to agree to meet them. But Anna sounded stressed and needed her.

Breathe, “she sighed... What needs to be done will get done.”

Anna and Jared approached hand-in-hand, as they had the first time she’d met them. My what a beautiful grandma and what a beautiful boy. Caryssa felt a surge of love for them both. She didn’t know why, but these people were special to her. She almost saw a glow surrounding them.

“Hey Tyler,” she yelled. “Here comes Jared! Why don’t you come and say hi? Play a while with him while I talk to Anna, okay?”

Tyler took the slide down and ran over to the blanket. By the time he got there, Anna and Jared were there too.

“Hi Jared, wanna play?”

“Um…” Jared shyly looked into Anna’s face.

“It’s okay honey. Go play with your new friend. I’ll be watching,” Anna reassured him. Jared smiled at his grandma. Then he turned to Tyler. “OK! Let’s go!

What do you like to do in this park?”

Tyler grinned back at him. He liked being the teacher for the younger kids. “Oh. Tons of things! Come on…I’ll show you the play structure!” And the boys ran off together as if they had always been best friends.

For the next forty-five minutes or so Caryssa gave her attention to Anna. She listened intently. She didn’t interject with her own stories. She sensed that was what Anna needed…someone objective to hear her. Someone to really hear her.

Anna sat on the blanket with her legs crossed, and the minute she opened her mouth she simply could not stop. She told Caryssa everything. She held nothing back. Every once in a while, she would notice how much she was talking and feel awkward, but she couldn’t help it. She had to share this. And she trusted Caryssa.

She told her new friend all about what was going on with the case— the witnesses the police and Pierre had whipped up, how Pierre was aiming to bury Brandon Garth with the weight of what had happened to their family, the possible ten million quoted as her “right.” Bill Garth still taking the heat for his son.

“I…I sense that you don’t agree with all this? It sounds to me like you would love to walk away,” Caryssa said when Anna finally fell silent.

“Yes! Thank you for getting that!” Anna responded. “I don’t want to hurt Brandon and his family. It happened so long ago. And it was clearly an accident! Nobody is at fault. It all seems like…I don’t know…like negative energy. I know firsthand what it’s like to have your life come crashing down. Why cause such calamity for yet another family? I don’t want to be responsible for something like that. And you know what? Yes…justice…blah blah. But really. How’s ten million dollars in my bank account going to make any of this better? I don’t know what Pierre is thinking. What we long for is to have our daughters restored to us. That’s not going to happen this side of heaven. So the rest of it?” She put her head in her hands. After a long silence, she said “The rest of it? I wish it would go away.”

The two women sat for a while. Then Caryssa broke the silence. “Do you want some unsolicited advice?” she asked, laying her hand on Anna’s arm.

“I guess so…” Anna said. “No. Really. I do. That’s why I came to see you. I’m just…lost in all this. So, if you have some words of wisdom,

Caryssa, I’d be so grateful to hear them.”

“You need to do what your gut tells you. Easier said than done, I imagine once you get caught up in our legal system. It tends to work against the good side of our humanity. But Anna, do what your heart, soul, and conscience tell you to do. Follow your best self on this. At least…that’s what I would want to do if I were in your position.”

“My heart, soul, and conscience are telling me not to repay a kid evil for something that was not evil. It was an accident. I don’t believe in revenge. I learned that the hard way when my dad lost his life in the Vietnam War. He was eaten up with the desire for revenge against an enemy only existing within government-imposed beliefs, and it killed him. I don’t even believe in repaying anyone evil for real evil…it would need to be true self-defense!”

How refreshing to hear someone share her point of view---in a society imposing negative social norms. With the horror of war as “service” and the death penalty as “justice.” Horrific injustices to our own people. No wonder there’s such corruption in our legal system.

“I agree with you, Anna,” Caryssa kept her voice soft. “I think you know what to do. And I’m here to support you. You call me any time you need backup, okay?”

“Okay,” Anna said, wiping the tears that had begun to pool in her eyes. “Okay. Thank you, dear friend.”

As she and Tyler left the park, Caryssa realized that she recognized in Anna the same peaceful and harmonious nature she had strived for over the past decade. A formidable task having grown up in the Northeast, with its blunt confrontation. She had learned that true mindfulness cannot be practiced while holding onto harsh cultural norms. She had made lots of progress, but she knew she would be working on this for the rest of her life. She was happy to have found a soul mate in Anna, who seemed to be traveling the same path.

As she pulled into her driveway, Caryssa vowed to try to see these two as much as her busy schedule allowed. Anna’s easygoing selflessness was just the antidote needed in this crazy world. Positive energy. Despite the tragedy she had been through—worse than anything Caryssa had experienced—this woman seemed to have only love, compassion, and understanding for others.

If there were more Anna’s in the world, what peace we would have! She was a calming balm and bounty to the soul. Caryssa felt light-headed, almost giddy—to have discovered this wonderful new friend.

“Come on, little man, race you to the front door!”

“No fair, Mommy! I’m strapped in!”

Caryssa laughed as she slid out of the driver’s seat, closed the door, and opened the door to the back where her boy was sitting in his car seat. “I know, honey! Aren’t we all! But I have a feeling we’re going to keep getting freer, the more we wake up and pay attention!”

Tyler laughed. “You’re crazy Mommy! Now get me out of here. And then when we’re both on the ground? Then the race will begin. And you know I’ll beat you!”

“Indeed! Caryssa reached in to unhook him. “We’ll both be on the ground. That is exactly where we need to be.”


Tired from a long week at school and an extended playdate, Tyler was easy to get down that evening. After one book, his eyelids drooped, and his angelic face softened into sleep.

Caryssa stood over his bed, looking at her sleeping beauty, and prayed. She always prayed for her child to be safe, happy, and healthy, and she prayed for the world, her family, her Dad, her friends. And, when she remembered, added something for herself. Even that prayer always came back to her child. She only prayed that she would stay around long enough to be there for him, never for anything for herself. What else did she need?

When did I stop praying for myself? Right around the time I became more concerned with my child and his world than for anything I need?

Life takes on new meaning. If she were to die tomorrow, it would not be herself she would worry about on her deathbed. It would be her child, who needs her guidance and love.

She gently touched his fine hair, as she so often did when he was sleeping. George appeared at her side and together they stood looking at him, this beautiful child who had changed both their lives.

She heard the familiar sounds of trains and sirens far off in the background while they lived tucked up in the serene, safe haven of the hills. Earlier, walking through her living room, she had glanced out at the big city across the bay. She could see all the magnificent lights shining brightly beyond the calm dark water.

There was a time she hadn’t been able to get enough of the big city. San Francisco, with its beautiful rolling hills, wonderful restaurants, cultural diversity. Now “The City”—as locals called it—seemed too busy and too dangerous. She realized she needed this safe distance, this gap in time and space. To manufacture for herself some perimeter that would protect her family from what she heard about each day.

Caryssa was always happy to see Tyler’s stuffed SpongeBob assume his place at the foot of his bed at night. She took comfort in SpongeBob’s vigilance—as well as Tyler’s Bear, a squeaky teddy bear head attached to the corner of a soft blanket. It had been his “lovey” since infancy. And if he still has it at age ten, twelve, thirty, just as well.

She looked at him, clutching Bear in his right hand, close to his heart. She kissed his forehead again, then glanced at the Band-Aid on his elbow. He had taken a fall on his bike earlier in the day, and she had nursed his boo-boo until he stopped crying. She gently kissed his booboo now, then turned and went into her own bedroom for the night.

While getting ready for bed, she glanced out the bedroom window at the vast view of the San Francisco skyline and the bay. The same amazing view she saw from their living room, family room, backyard and kitchen. Life in the clouds sure feels surreal. Do I live in a fantasy world, a fortress in the air, apart from reality?

She had once asked George this question. She felt so far removed from any physical harm, yet her mind took her places too hard to handle at times, like a moth to a flame. Never scared for herself, but so concerned for her child’s future…all the children’s futures due to her nation’s appalling political actions.

George had said “No Caryssa, you are too in touch with reality. That’s the scary part for you. Those who remain apathetic may appear calmer outwardly. But remember, you can’t change what you can’t control. You need to let go for your own sake sometimes. Do something for yourself. You care more about others than anyone I’ve ever known.”

After kissing George goodnight and turning off the light, Caryssa fell into a deep sleep. She dreamed of being on vacation with her family. They were all there, George and Tyler, her parents and her five siblings. And others. Grandma and Grandpa Chevalier, George’s sisters, her cousins, her large and varied circles of friends, a whole cluster of people she loved.

They were sailing across the ocean, the steward serving cool tropical drinks. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky and the fragrance of exotic flowers wafted across the water. Beside her lay her enchanting child, his blue-green eyes gazing at her. Her child, happy and contented, radiating sweetness.

He jumped into the ship’s salt water pool, squeals of laughter floating through the tropical breeze. They passed islands, deserted, haunting, and beautiful. The air pure. Across the ocean was America…seemingly a world away. The islands and sea through this stretch of the voyage remained pristine because humankind had not yet had time to destroy the beauty.

Suddenly, the ship struck a mine and started to sink. She heard explosions, people screaming, and the deck pitched wildly. Her comfortable couch was now the metal deck of a barge. The water was rising…rising. She grabbed Tyler to protect him. Her pillow became a coil of tarred rope, the sweet smell of flowers became fumes from a nearby coal factory. What had been a golden sun in the clear blue sky was now a pale shadow barely visible through the poisonous sulfurous clouds from the chimneystacks. Nobody could breathe.

Caryssa awoke with a start. These dreams had become common since she had become a mom and her strong awareness of how humankind was destroying the planet.

But what good does losing sleep over it do, she thought, turning over and closing her eyes. George is right. She can’t change the world by worrying about it.

She fell back to sleep quickly, with one last prayer: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”

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