Masks of Morality

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Chapter 11

Somebody in the corner near them asked the group if they could keep their voices and kids quiet. Some people were trying to watch the Warriors game.

Of course, sports distractions are more critical than a family’s life. But the group understood – they were in a public place. They toned it down.

“Well, I think we need to change the subject, Warriors game or not. We’re all getting a bit hot under the collar.”

“I agree, Stan,” Caryssa said. She turned to Brenda and laid a calming hand on her forearm. “I know how you feel, girlfriend. I feel the same way. But remember. One day your kids will be sixteen and driving. This was not an adult that hit the child and fled the scene. And we don’t know if this kid was driving above the speed limit. We’ve all seen bikers and skateboarders take crazy risks out there. As Stan said a while ago, there’s too much we don’t know yet. So we can’t judge. Let it go.”

After the group finished their coffee and conversation, they went to get the kids from school, run errands, and do whatever other projects they had going on the side.

Caryssa had twenty minutes before the 11:40 pick-up at school, so she stopped by her house on the way, to take care of a few things. Walking through her kitchen, she noticed her message machine was blinking.

She pressed the button, and Anna’s soft, poised voice with its distinguished French accent came over the machine. “Caryssa, this is Anna. I am going to be in your area again tomorrow, and wanted to know if you would like to meet for a playdate again. Jared has been asking for Tyler, and I thought maybe you’d like them to play together.”

Caryssa had the feeling there was more to Anna’s request, some unspoken need to talk. She felt some type of mysterious connection with Anna. They seemed to share some innate understanding of the unknown, still to be discovered. She loved being around Anna’s positive energy. In a world of self-serving greed and anger, it was so refreshing to hear this woman talk. To experience her loving perspective.

She made a mental note to call Anna back, finished her tasks, and rushed out the door.

At pickup, the usual bunch of parents was hanging together by the fence while the children played for a bit. From across the street came Stan’s cheerful voice. “Hey you guys, it’s another beautiful day in sunny California! Anyone interested in meeting us at the rock climbing structure at the park?”

Caryssa had been planning on spending the next two hours helping Tyler with his homework, but what a beautiful day. There’s always later…Parks make life better!

“Count me in,” she yelled. “See you guys there!”

At the park, Tyler wanted to ride his scooter. So Caryssa took his scooter and helmet out of the back of her SUV. He rode for a few minutes, then joined the other children climbing the rock wall. As usual, Tyler passed all the others and got to the highest point of the structure within seconds. For a kid who can be shy, he had no fear when it came to climbing!

“Oh my gosh Caryssa, look how high up Tyler is!” Stan exclaimed.

Caryssa was purposely trying to look the other way, perpetually tormented over when to let Tyler go. If anyone ever tried to say she was overprotective, let them see her allow her child to do this.

“I know, boy I know. He has been a climber since before he turned one. This is nothing compared to what he does with his dad going rock climbing. According to George, he is up there some fifty feet climbing cliffs! Honestly. I don’t even dare look. Even on the play structures. He’s such a daredevil.”

“Ah…according to George…so I take it you don’t go with them?”

“Are you kidding?! Oh no, I purposely don’t go, on account of trying to save myself an early demise from a heart attack! Their rock climbing adventures are when I use up some nervous energy going out for a hike or bike while praying he remains safe.”

“Well, it’s a good thing he has a helmet on … did you put a ground rule down?” asked Laura.

“I wish I could say I did. He happened to have it on while riding his scooter around. But yeah, he needs a helmet when he’s climbing high. Thanks for the reminder, Laura,” Caryssa responded.

A man who looked to be in his early thirties was trying to get his little girl to leave the park. “Come on pumpkin, Daddy has to get to work now! Mommy will pick you up in a little while from the day care.”

“No Daddy! I don’t want to go to day care! Nobody loves me there! I want to stay and play with you!” she cried.

“But pumpkin, Daddy has to go to work. I can’t hang around the park all day with you!”

The other parents cringed slightly as well, as he picked up his cute little girl and carried her screaming to the car, all the while yelling at her to stop crying. “Kids are still at the park playing Daddy, I want to stay and play!” the little girl screamed over her father’s angry voice.

“Daddy has a job to go to! Some people have no job to go to! You should be glad I can put a roof over our heads! Now get in the car! Now!”

“Wow,” Stan joked. “We have no ‘job’ to go to, we must be a pack of park bums!”

“Oh no, not park bums! We better all throw our children into daycare every day while someone else gets paid to do the job of watching over them,” Caryssa laughed. Nothing wrong with daycare, of course, Tyler had been in preschool since twenty-two months old.

“Yeah, he made sure we would hear it, seeing his little girl wanted to play with our kids in the sand,” Laura said. “What’s next for her, boarding school?”

“Well,” Caryssa said, interjecting a note of balance into the conversation. “I know how he feels. It is a conflict. And you know, like with Bianca’s accidental death, we don’t know what is going on in this dad’s mind today, or his life. For all we know he could be this close to missing a mortgage payment. So let’s not judge on appearances.”

The others nodded. “And anyway,” Caryssa continued, “I do miss earning a paycheck. I’m happy I might be working part time soon, even though it will amount to petty cash on the side once in a while. I want to contribute to my family’s financial security. I just don’t want to do it working for corporations destroying our society and environment, or in a way making my family suffer, or deprive Tyler of his Mommy. And at least for now I am super grateful I don’t have to make such choice. Lots of people in this world don’t have the luxury. And it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the system.”

“Especially since we don’t have free college tuition or health care like many other nations,” Stan chimed. “Our nation’s investments are all screwed up.”

Caryssa remembered she had been planning on reviewing her portfolio and making sure all her investments were both building cash for Tyler’s college and supporting green and conscious businesses. She made a mental note to check in with her financial advisor when she got home.

When she and Tyler got home from the park, Caryssa got him started on the part of his homework he could do himself, and went straight to her home office, dialed her financial advisor’s number, and left him a message to please call her back. Then she gathered her financial reports and went back out to the kitchen. She sat with Tyler as he worked on the sheets his kindergarten teacher had sent home with him, copying the alphabet and numbers with his jumbo pencil.

After a few minutes, her phone rang.

“Hello, this is Caryssa.”

“Hi Caryssa, this is Jed Blankenship. From Blankenship Investment Services. Did you leave me a voice mail? How can I help you?”

“Oh. Hi, Jed. Thanks for getting back to me so soon!”

“Of course. You are an important client and we want to be sure we are meeting your needs. How can I help you today?”

Caryssa spread her financial reports out in front of her. “I know my tiny portfolio is doing well. But…well…I’m invested in a lot of companies I simply don’t believe in. I left it up to you to choose because you are the financial analyst and the expert on the market. But now I’m looking at my reports and I’m appalled. Am I investing in oil? Dirty energy! I want to invest in clean energy. And I’m seeing Monsanto, Yum Brands, and Halliburton on the list. These are socially and environmentally corrupt giants. I don’t want my money supporting them. They make their money from human suffering.”

Jed took a deep breath. Another upset progressive client to placate. This seemed to be happening to him more and more every day. How do these morally conscious people expect to survive?

“I understand Mrs. Flynn. Believe me, I do. These are the tradeoffs we have to make in order to make money for our clients…and right now? Those stocks are where the money is. I’m investing wisely for you, so you can send your boy to college and so you will have enough money for your golden years. Maybe someday the money will be in socially responsible companies. But for right now? You told us your goal was to grow your portfolio. Your portfolio is growing. Would you like me to change your investments? If so I can’t guarantee you’ll get the results you’ve been getting with us. But of course, it’s your decision.”

Caryssa looked more closely at her statement. She saw her portfolio had nearly doubled over the past year. “Okay, Jed. I see your point. You have grown our portfolio and it looks super healthy. But my values have changed. I also want to promote sustainable living. Please remove the stocks I mentioned. And replace them with the best green stocks you can find worth investing in. I don’t care about the ROI. Well. Wait. Of course, I do care about the ROI. But I’m not willing to sell out my son’s future or my soul to get it. I need to be able to sleep at night.”

“Sure. I’ll do some research, make some changes, and update your data. You’ll be able to see it within twenty-four hours. Will that work for you, Mrs. Flynn?”

“It will. And thanks, Jed, for your cooperation.”

“How are you on doing your homework?” she asked Tyler after hanging up the phone. “Need any help?”

“Nope, Mom, thanks anyway! I GOT this! But sit with me, okay?”

“Always, my dear sweet little man. Whatever you need. But Mommy needs to make another phone call. Let me know if it breaks your concentration and I’ll go out on the patio.”

Tyler was so involved with his penmanship lesson he didn’t even answer. He was going to get this right. He leaned on one elbow with his head in his hand, focused on the paper and on the fat pencil in his little fingers. He could do this. He knew he could.

Caryssa left him to his work and dialed Anna’s number. She answered on the second ring.

“Oh Caryssa, thank you so much for calling back. I know you might think it strange I am calling since we just met last week. But I…well…Jared has asked for Tyler, but I also wanted to talk to you. Could we meet for a play date tomorrow? I can come to your place if that works. Or the park? Your choice.”

“That would work great…why don’t you come to my place? We can have tea and chat. I’ll make sure Tyler gets all his homework done today so he can play with Jared tomorrow.”

Anna came over the next afternoon. Tyler quickly took the younger Jared under his wing, showing him around his room and exhibiting his vast array of toys.

Over a cup of jasmine tea with home-made scones, Anna poured her heart out to Caryssa. “I feel like I need to tell you about my father. I feel it has much to do with my ambiguity over how to handle Bianca’s case,” she began.

Caryssa listened without saying a word as Anna spoke of her father’s horror in the war, how she and her mom had begged him not to go back the last time he came home, how he went back for imposed upon illusive retribution and was killed.

Caryssa took Anna’s hand. “Don’t torture yourself about revenge because your dad’s heritage demands it. Whatever tradition of vengeance they had in the old days, it should be long ago and far away. You can hold yourself to a higher standard.”

“I am not so sure about that…my lawyer, all the newspapers, my ex-husband…everyone seems to say justice must be served. I’m expected to want the death of my precious little girl avenged. As if it will preserve her memory better.”

Caryssa remained silent. She had the feeling Anna did not expect an answer. She needed loving attention, somebody to listen.

Anna glanced at her in appreciation and continued. “But it wouldn’t be justice, would it? It would be…revenge. A vengeful concept of justice at best. A young man would be sent to prison rather than finishing medical school. And yet another good family would be torn apart. None of it would bring my little girl back.”

Caryssa opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. She felt the presence of her angel. The message was clear. “Silence!”

But the silence remained for a longer period than Caryssa felt comfortable with. Was this her queue to speak? Offer some profound advice on a topic she has no experience with? Where was the angel when she needed her?

Anna saved her just in time. “Thank you so much for listening to me Caryssa. Exactly what I needed. So many others tell me how I should feel, what I should do. They come up with some type of solution as if they know. But this is something with no easy resolution.”

“I could not even imagine what you are going through Anna. So I wouldn’t presume to offer you any more advice,” Caryssa said, leaning forward and laying her hand on her friend’s arm. “And I’m truly honored you’re sharing this with me.”

“You know, I wonder…I thought of you because, well, because you have only one child, one son. Like Bill and Nancy Garth. They just have Brandon. They are very protective of him, and should be as good and loving parents…”

Caryssa instantly felt a newfound respect for the Garths. Doing whatever they could to protect their son. Not succumbing to the crushing pressure of a flawed justice system.

While Caryssa was having her private thoughts, Anna was having her own. Why do I feel so close to this woman, when I could never feel close to friends growing up?

Then it occurred to her. While she had been so busy trying to assuage her mother’s grief, she had closed off all friendships. A pattern still continued through her adult life. Even though she had a large circle of friends growing up and all through university in Paris, she had never learned to be close to anyone. She was too afraid of losing love.

“I’d like to ask you a hypothetical question” Anna paused, taking a sip of tea and a deep breath. “I know this will be hard to answer…but I want you to put yourself in the Garths’ place. Same situation, but imagine Tyler was sixteen, and he was driving.”

“I…wait a minute…are they now saying they know for sure it was the son driving, not the father?”

Anna didn’t say a word for several minutes, which seemed like an eternity to Caryssa. Finally, Anna responded, her voice faltering.

“Actually, I haven’t told the police this yet…or my lawyer. But it was the son.”

“What…what happened?”

“I had a call from Brandon Garth. He told me his dad is covering for him, he was the one driving the Honda that day. He cried on the phone, wants to meet with me. He is at this moment on an airplane from LAX to SFO, arriving at six tonight.”

“Oh Lord! Have you agreed to meet with him?”

“Why of course! Caryssa, I believe him. I believe this kid!” Anna burst into tears. Caryssa reached over the table and gathered her in an awkward but heartfelt hug. Anna cried until she had no more tears left, and then straightened up, wiped her face with her napkin, blew her nose, and regained her composure.

Caryssa waited until she could see Anna was ready to talk some more. Then she offered what she thought was a supportive comment. “Well, if he said he was driving, I am sure he was.”

This set Anna off again. “No! That’s not what I mean!” she cried. “I asked him why he didn’t stop. He said he did stop, and he saw nothing but a skateboard. He had looked along the side of the road to see if he had hit somebody. There was nobody there. And the sound had seemed more like a pop than a thud. So he thought he must have just hit a skateboard on the side of the street. So he left.”

Anna’s story at the park flashed through Caryssa’s mind. Bianca’s body was found five feet from the curb, on the other side of a juniper bush.

Anna went on. “Brandon told me after he read the paper, he realized he must have hit the girl. But he was frightened. He was only sixteen. He said he was not driving above the speed limit, in fact, was going much slower because it was foggy and drizzling. He also said the papers had the story all wrong … they said a witness saw the car drive away fast without stopping.”

Anna did not mention what the police and coroner reports had said after the accident. That a car going as slow as five miles per hour can cause internal bleeding and kill a person on impact. Bianca had a skull fracture and internal bleeding to the brain. It was not known whether this was from hitting the ground or the car’s impact. What was known was the skateboard hit the car and sent Bianca flying five feet to land beyond a juniper bush, near several jagged rocks. Traces of blood had been found on one of the rocks.

“Do you still want me to answer the hypothetical question, now that I know about his call?” asked Caryssa.

“Absolutely! If you wouldn’t mind.”

“If this happened to Tyler, and he was now a top medical student at UCLA, great kid, whole life ahead of him, never a menace to society? I would do whatever it took to protect his innocent soul. This is not a case of an adult drinking, driving recklessly, and hitting a child. This is a child hitting a child.”

The two women sat silently with their thoughts for a few moments.

Finally, Anna spoke. “Brandon said the cops were at his school the day he called me. That must be what prompted him to get in touch. Can you imagine the cops sneaking up on the kid at his school, no forewarning, interrogating him!?”

“Unbelievable. Would make me livid. What’s going on with the case now?”

“They have been working on jury selection, which could take forever. They’ve already seen over two hundred potential jurors and they still don’t have a complete jury. They want the perfect representation. Both prosecution and defense want plenty of parents in there so they can hit their hearts with their spin.”

“Did I hear correctly this might even be televised?”

“Yes, this guy Garth is high profile. Have you not read any of the articles in the papers this week?”

“Afraid not. I read so many environmental journals, internet research, nonfiction about politics, Tyler’s school papers I have no time left over. And when I do, trust me, its novels over the newspaper. As a matter of fact, I’m trying my hand at writing one. In any case, I can’t stand reading those twisted lies in the news.”

“Exactly. I can’t believe half the stuff they say about me. Your novel, even if it’s entirely made up, will have more truth in it than anything you see in the paper. In one piece they said I am a struggling art studio owner looking for a quick cash fix at expense of an aspiring young med student. In another, I am referred to as a rich Sausalito art entrepreneur. And what they say about Brandon is worse. The poor little rich boy finally getting what’s coming to him. I honestly don’t know where they get this stuff. It’s as if instead of actually reporting, they sit at their desks and create fictions. But the readers don’t know that.”

Caryssa nodded. “Yup, that’s why I pretty much ignore it. It isn’t news. It’s what you said, exactly. It’s fiction. And you’re right, there’s going to be a lot of truth in my novel, I have this vision of telling a story nobody can stop reading till the end. But, you know, getting back to the case? I don’t understand how the prosecution can have sufficient witnesses … wasn’t there just the one woman with Alzheimer’s?”

“Yes. Lois Wright. She doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. She’s just a bit flighty. Drinks too much. Artsy fartsy type. I plan to visit her and get a feel for her myself. I’ve not yet met her in person. It’s been too painful hearing details she may have seen. But anyway, they have plenty of witnesses, both Bianca’s and Cassidy’s friends.”

“Cassidy’s? Why? The case isn’t about her.”

“I agree. But according to the plaintiff team, the case is about my entire family. They are pushing for huge payout against the Garth boy for the bigger loss. All the repercussions of Bianca’s death. It’s a bit absurd. But I have to tell you, Phil van Wagner is a shark. That man has not lost a case in over ten years. They say he’s magic with the jurors, which frightens me on behalf of that young man Brandon Garth and his parents.”

The more Caryssa got to know Anna, the more she liked her. To be grieving so deeply for the loss of her family, yet compassionate enough to feel for the boy responsible for the accident that had killed her daughter. Human decency, unheard of in the world, in America.

Was he responsible? Caryssa remembered Anna’s words in the park when she told them the sad story. Bianca was a known dare-devil on her skateboard, always taking big risks.

“You know how much a parent loves a child, that gut-wrenching, jump in front of a truck to save your little one, constant worry over their safety, health, and well-being, sacrificing every fiber of your being love?” Anna was saying.

Tyler, Caryssa thought. What could she say? He’d once been a part of her. She’d heard his heart beating inside her at twelve weeks, she’d felt his movements within her the last five months of her pregnancy. After his birth, she had taken one look at him and couldn’t believe anything more beautiful could exist in the world.

That feeling hadn’t changed, although she wasn’t a perfect mother. Nobody could take on such a challenge and be perfect. Parenthood is not as painless as working for a business or even running one, as difficult as that can be. Or merely having responsibility for a pet. It’s far deeper, far more risks involved, with far more to win and lose.

Anna’s voice brought her back from her reverie to the conversation. “I feel like a ping pong ball. I get bounced over to one side of the table, and I feel like, okay, I am going to get revenge on the person responsible for hitting my daughter with his car. She would still be here today if he had not driven my street that day. My entire family would still be intact.”

Caryssa waited for Anna to continue.

“But then I get bounced onto the other side of the table and feel like, wait a minute, couldn’t anyone have hit her in such poor visibility on my narrow winding street? If not Brandon, then the next car to come along? This is Bianca we’re talking about. More guts on a skateboard than anyone and willfully defiant that day. I can’t discredit my own daughter’s quirks in this. There are too many questions still open.”

Caryssa nodded. “I’m sure the prosecution team will have a field day with the fact Brandon didn’t call the whole thing in to the police when it happened. Not to mention five years went by with him still not saying anything.”

“But, Caryssa, a moment ago you said you’d do whatever it took to protect your son’s innocent soul if something like this ever happened to him when he is old enough to drive.”

“I did…and I would. I’m playing devil’s advocate here for a moment, thinking through both sides of the case. I’m an analyst, right to the core. When I get a gnarly problem to solve, I go after it until I’ve looked at all angles and create a picture representing the whole problem. You have to get the problem nailed first. And not shy away from the details,” Caryssa explained. Then she smiled. “It’s what made me so good at my tech job back in the day. That’s why they paid me the big bucks.”

“Oh…no,” Anna reassured her. “I didn’t mean to imply you’re being insensitive. Far from it. You are the only person I’ve felt comfortable sharing the ins and outs of all this with. I love how you listen to me, and let me cry, and don’t try to fix it, or worse, tell me how I should feel. Every time I try to make sense of it all I break down. And my mind goes blank. I need you to apply your analytical skills to this!

“And anyway, if anyone is being insensitive it’s me. How can I be so hardened, to not want to go after the person responsible for my daughter’s death? I am more worried about tearing the Garth family apart than I am about my own family torn apart. Has my heart turned to steel over the past five years?”

“No. Not even close. Quite the opposite. You’re being open and compassionate, and I have to say I respect you a lot for that. It couldn’t be easy to put aside the anger about what happened. Woman, you suffered the most difficult losses anyone could possibly suffer, and you’re still thinking of the other person! To me, that’s downright amazing.”

“Thank you. It’s sweet of you to say, and I’ll do my best to take it in. Sometimes I am so hard on myself. I’ve been trying to learn to point my compassion inward, but it seems harder than to give it to others.

“But the truth is I do have anger. Funny thing is, it is not directed toward the Garth boy. For the longest time, I was consumed with anger and with wanting to get the responsible person in trouble. I didn’t have the facts. So I had visions of some drunken asshole hitting my daughter and then taking off at full speed. But time passed. And I adjusted. Life went on. Not a moment passes that I don’t think of both my girls and miss them.

My anger has changed. Now it’s directed at …well … I don’t know…the reporters wanting a story and my lawyer’s team wanting to put the screws to the Garths. Everybody wants to make a buck out of people’s tragedy. It infuriates me. Before it all came back into play, I had this under control. I was starting to feel like the wounds were starting to heal. And now it’s as if…”

Anna couldn’t finish. Her hands were cupped around her now cold tea, and they were trembling.

Caryssa finished her sentence for her. “It’s as if someone is tearing the wounds open and pouring salt in.”

“Yes.”

Caryssa put her tea cup down and gave Anna another hug. Neither woman said anything for a long time.

Anna found herself watching Jared and Tyler play in the living room. It all fell into place for her. She knew where she stood and would not be manipulated out of it. It was a clarity that had been a long time coming, but once she had it she knew it was unshakable.

She stood up.

“Thank you, Caryssa,” she said warmly. “I feel so much better. You really helped. Let me corral my grandson and we’ll leave you to get on with your day.”

After Anna and Jared had left, Caryssa was picking up the kitchen a bit and starting to get dinner on. The newspapers had been thrown onto a chair at the back of the table that morning. As she picked them up, her eyes swept the headlines.

Then she saw it.

Money-hungry artist looking for quick cash fix? Did victim’s parents fail to direct dare-devil skateboarder away from danger zone? Neighbor’s sudden memories bring five-year-old cold case back to life. Fugitive defendant guilty of felony hit and run?”

How can such callous pieces be published in our newspapers? Caryssa tossed the paper onto the table, skimming the headlines. Reporters, hungry for a story, turning family tragedy into a soap opera. Not concerned at all what their lies do to people’s lives. Dear Lord, how did this amazing woman stay so calm and compassionate?

Earlier, at the Golden Gate Grind, Brenda had suggested the gang meet there again in a couple of weeks to watch the opening statements. Caryssa hadn’t been sure that was such a good idea, but after Anna’s visit and seeing those news stories, she decided she would go.

If the case even went to trial. After what she had learned about Anna’s beautiful soul, she had a strong feeling it just might not.

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