JULY 4–LABOR DAY WEEKEND
Feeling the gun against the nape of her neck, Joan Bowden froze.
Her consciousness narrowed to the weapon she could not see: her vision barely registered the cramped living room, the images on her television, the President and his fiancée, opening the Fourth of July gala beneath the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument. She could feel John's rage through the cold metal on her skin, smell the liquor on his breath.
"Why?" she whispered.
"You wanted him."
He spoke in a dull, emphatic monotone. Who? she wanted to ask. But she was too afraid; with a panic akin to madness, she mentally scanned the faces from the company cookout they had attended hours before. Perhaps Gary, they had talked for a time.
Desperate, she answered, "I don't want anyone."
She felt his hand twitch. "You don't want me. You have contempt for me."
Abruptly, his tone had changed to a higher pitch, paranoid and accusatory, the prelude to the near hysteria which issued from some unfathomable recess of his brain. Two nights before, she had awakened, drenched with sweat, from the nightmare of her own death.
Who would care for Marie?
Moments before, their daughter had sat at the kitchen table, a portrait of dark-haired intensity as she whispered to the doll for whom she daily set a place. Afraid to move, Joan strained to see the kitchen from the corner of her eye. John's remaining discipline was to wait until Marie had vanished; lately their daughter seemed to have developed a preternatural sense of impending violence which warned her to take flight. A silent minuet of abuse, binding daughter to father.
Marie and her doll were gone.
"Please," Joan begged.
The cords of her neck throbbed with tension. The next moment could be fateful: she had learned that protest enraged him, passivity insulted him.
Slowly, the barrel traced a line to the base of her neck, then pulled away.
Joan's head bowed. Her body shivered with a spasm of escaping breath.
She heard him move from behind the chair, felt him staring down at her. Fearful not to look at him, she forced herself to meet his gaze.
With an open palm, he slapped her.
Her head snapped back, skull ringing. She felt blood trickling from her lower lip.
John placed the gun to her mouth.
Her husband. The joyful face from her wedding album, now darkeyed and implacable, the 49ers T-shirt betraying the paunch on his toothin frame.
Smiling grimly, John Bowden pulled the trigger.
Recoiling, Joan cried out at the hollow metallic click. The sounds seemed to work a chemical change in him, a psychic wound which widened his eyes. His mouth opened, as if to speak; then he turned, staggering, and reeled toward their bedroom.
Slumping forward, Joan covered her face.
Soon he would pass out. She would be safe then; in the morning, before he left, she would endure his silence, the aftershock of his brutality and shame.
At least Marie knew only the silence.
Queasy, Joan stumbled to the bathroom in the darkened hallway, a painful throbbing in her jaw. She stared in the mirror at her drawn face, not quite believing the woman she had become. Blood trickled from her swollen lip.
She dabbed with tissue until it stopped. For another moment Joan stared at herself. Then, quietly, she walked to her daughter's bedroom.
Marie's door was closed. With painstaking care, her mother turned the knob, opening a crack to peer through.
Cross-legged, Marie bent over the china doll which once had been her grandmother's. Joan felt a spurt of relief; the child had not seen them, did not see her now. Watching, Joan was seized by a desperate love.
With slow deliberation, Marie raised her hand and slapped the vacant china face.
Gently, the child cradled the doll in her arms. "I won't do that again," she promised. "As long as you're good."
Tears welling, Joan backed away. She went to the kitchen sink and vomited.
She stayed there for minutes, hands braced against the sink. At last she turned on the faucet. Watching her sickness swirl down the drain, Joan faced what she must do.
Glancing over her shoulder, she searched for the slip of paper with his telephone number, hidden in her leather-bound book of recipes. Call me, he had urged. No matter the hour.
She must not wake her husband.
Lifting the kitchen telephone from its cradle, Joan crept back to the living room, praying for courage. On the television, a graceful arc of fireworks rose above the obelisk.
President Kerry Francis Kilcannon and hi fiancée, Lara Costello, watched as a red flare rose above the Mall, bursting into a galaxy of falling stars which framed the Washington Monument.
For this rarity, an evening alone, they had left the annual party for staffers and retreated to the porch on the second floor of the White House. Spread across their table was a white linen cloth, a picnic of cheese and fruit, and a bottle of light chardonnay which cooled in a silver cylinder, a gift from the President of France. Lara took Kerry's hand.
"When I was six," she told him, "our father took us to the fireworks at Crissy Field. I remember holding his hand, watching all those explosions above the Golden Gate Bridge. That's my last memory of being with him."
Turning from the fireworks, Kerry studied the sculpted face, intense dark eyes, high cheekbones, pale skin framed by jet-black hair, which, to her bemusement, had helped Lara rise from a semianonymous political reporter for the New York Times to celebrity as a television journalist. Like many women, Kerry supposed, her self-concept had been fixed in adolescence: then she had not thought of herself as beautiful though she surely was, but as the perfect student, the dutiful oldest daughter who must help her mother and sisters. It was the dutiful daughter who had achieved success, driven to make Inez Costello proud, to free her younger sisters from the struggle caused by their father's desertion. Even at thirty-two, Kerry knew, her family still defined her.
"What I was hoping you'd remember," he said, "is the scene from To Catch a Thief. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco, watching fireworks from her hotel room."
Lara faced him with an amused, appraising look. "I remember that they lay down on the couch, and then the camera panned away. The fireworks were a metaphor."
"Uh-huh. Very 1950s."
Leaning forward, Lara kissed him, a lingering touch of the lips, then rested her cheek against his shoulder. "This is the twenty-first century," she told him. "No metaphors required."
• • •
Afterward, they lay in his canopied bed listening to the last, faint whistling of fireworks. One table lamp still glowed making love, and after, both needed to see the other's face.
Smiling, she lightly mussed his hair. "You're not too bad," she told him. "At least as Presidents go."
As she intended, this elicited the boyish grin which lit his face and crinkled the corners of his eyes. There had been too little lightness in Kerry's life. Even his first success in politics, election to the Senate at age thirty, had been as surrogate for his brother, Senator James Kilcannon, assassinated in San Francisco while running for President. Lara had been nineteen then; she remembered watching the telecast of James's funeral, the haunted look on Kerry's face as he attended to his widowed mother. So that when, as a reporter for the New York Times, she had met him seven years later, the first thing she noticed was not his fine-featured face, incongruously youthful for a potential President, nor his thatch of chestnut hair, nor even the scar at the corner of one eye. It was the startling contradiction presented by the eyes themselves: their green-flecked blue irises, larger than most, gave Lara the sense rare in a white male politician of someone who had seen more sadness than most. Then, she had thought this an illusion, abetted by her memory of the funeral; only later, when Kerry shared the private history he had entrusted to almost no one, did she understand how true it was.
"If so," he answered, "you're free to take it personally. Tongue-tied Catholic boys from Newark don't usually get much practice. Lord knows that Meg and I weren't much good to each other, in any way."
If only, Lara thought, Meg could be dismissed so simply. But her existence affected them still publicly, because Kerry's lack of an annulment had forestalled them from marrying in the Church; privately, because their love affair had begun while Kerry was married. Its secrecy had saved Kerry's chances of becoming President: only after his divorce and the California primary, when Kerry himself had been wounded by a would-be assassin, had they come together in public.
Now she touched the scar the bullet had left, a red welt near his heart. "We've been good to each other," she said. "And very lucky."
To Lara, he seemed to sense the sadness beneath her words, the lingering regrets which shadowed their new life. "Just lucky?" he answered softly. "In public life, we're a miracle. Rather like my career."
This aspect of his worldview that good fortune was an accident was, in Lara's mind, fortified by his certainty that gunfire had made him President: first by killing James, the deserving brother; then by wounding Kerry, causing the wave of sympathy which, last November, had helped elect him by the narrowest of margins, with California tipping the balance. But this had also given him a mission, repeated in speech after speech: "to eradicate gun violence as surely as we ended polio."
"Speaking of miracles," she asked, "is your meeting with the gun companies still a go?"
"A handful of companies," Kerry amended. "The few brave souls willing to help keep four-year-olds from killing themselves with that new handgun Dad bought for their protection. If you listen to the SSA, tomorrow will be the death knell of gun rights in America." Suddenly, he smiled. "Though in preparing for the meeting, I discovered that it's you who's hell-bent on disarming us."
"You, and your entire profession." Turning, Kerry removed a magazine from the briefing book on his nightstand; as he flipped its pages, Lara saw that it was the monthly publication of the Sons of the Second Amendment, perhaps Washington's most powerful lobby, and that its cover featured a venomous cartoon of Kerry as Adolf Hitler.
" ‘Surveys,' " Kerry read, " ‘have shown that most reporters for the major media live in upper-class homes, head and shoulders above most of us in fly-over country. Many took their education at Ivy League universities where they protested the Vietnam conflict, smoked dope, loved freely, and ingested every ultraliberal cause their professors threw at them.' " Pausing, he said wryly, "Truth to tell, they're onto something. What was wrong with you?"
Lara propped her head up with one hand. "My mother cleaned houses. So I was afraid to lose my scholarship. Besides, I missed the war by twenty years."
"It hardly matters you caught up soon enough. Listen to this: ‘Once they graduated, they faced the prospect of going to work. What better way to earn a fat paycheck and change the world than become a reporter for ABC, or CBS or NBC or CNN or write for the New York Times?'
"That's you," Kerry added, fixing her with a mock-accusatory gaze, and then continued. " ‘Having become gainfully employed, these men and women from Yale and Harvard and Brown and Princeton brought their own biases with them. Many do not know anyone who owns guns. Their only exposure to firearms comes when they report on the carnage left by a deranged shooter going "postal" . . .' "
"How about knowing someone who actually got shot?" Lara interjected. "Does that count?"
"Oh, that? That just means you've lost your objectivity. Like me."
The rueful remark held an undertone of bitterness. This involved far more, Lara knew, than what his opponents claimed anger at his brother's death, or his own near death. Kerry was sick of bloodshed, weary of meeting, year after year, with families who had lost loved ones, of trying to comfort them with the same empty phrases. For him, his failure was both political and deeply personal. And Kerry did not live with failure especially regarding guns well.
"Sooner or later," Lara assured him, "you'll get Congress to pass a decent gun law."
Kerry raised his eyebrows, exchanging bitterness for an irony tinged with good-natured frustration. "Before or after we get married?"
Lara smiled, unfazed. "That I can't tell you. But certainly before I find a job."
This was another blind curve on the road to marriage. Though she was developing a degree of fatalism, the resignation of a would-be First Lady to the limitations of her new life, Lara had always been independent, beholden to no one for support or a sense of who she was. That Kerry understood this did not change what she would lose by marrying him her own identity. Already she had been forced to take leave from NBC: the potential for conflicts of interest, or at least their appearance that a powerful network might profit by employing the President's fiancée also applied to any other segment of the media. A brief flirtation with the presidency of the Red Cross based on her high profile as a television journalist and experience in war zones had floundered on the fear that major donors might want something from President Kilcannon. Other jobs had similar problems, and the best ones, Lara acknowledged, would take away from her public duties and her private time with Kerry. "I'm sorry," she said at last. "I was being a brat. It may not seem so, but you're actually more important to me than running the Red Cross."
Though he knew this, or at least should, to Lara his expression betrayed a certain relief. "Then your fate is sealed, I'm afraid."
"I guess it is," she answered dryly. "I'm a fool for love." Once more he drew her close. "The thing is," he continued, "I'm forty-three. Even if we started tomorrow, by the time our first son or daughter graduates from college I'll be on Social Security. If there's any left."
"Tell that to the Pope."
"Oh, I have. I even mentioned that Meg couldn't stand the thought of children." There was a different tone in his voice, Lara thought; hand gently touching her chin, he raised her face to his. "And, at last, he's heard me."
She felt a tingle of surprise. "The annulment?"
Kerry grinned. "Yes. That."
Astonished, Lara pulled back to look at him. "When?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was in Pittsburgh." There was new light in his eyes, and he spoke more softly. "This just seemed like a better time and place."
Knowing how much he wanted this, Lara felt the depth of her love for him. This moment was the last threshold, she knew, before she entered the hall of mirrors which was the Presidency, the omnipresent, often merciless scrutiny which could change lives and warp marriages until even the most private act assumed a public significance. Briefly, she thought of her abortion, felt the familiar stab of fear. Then she thought of Kerry, and imagined their children.
"Is Labor Day too soon?" she asked, and kissed him.
Later, they turned to the practical. It began with her wistful comment, "Let's run away. Or at least have a private wedding maybe at the Inn at Little Washington."
"Besieged by the media?" Kerry asked. "With helicopters circling? We'd look like Madonna except that the public would hate us for it."
"Of course," she answered dryly. "How could I forget our stockholders?" She emitted a brief sigh. "I was thinking about us, of all people. And my family. You and I may be public people, but they're not used to this."
Quietly, Kerry pondered that. Her family, as he had learned, was as complex as most, their relations more fraught than many. But these realities lived beneath a surface which, for image-makers, was the stuff of dreams. For Kerry, there was no one left; two months before, quite suddenly, he had lost his beloved mother. But Lara had two sisters, a niece, and a handsome mother who, collectively, would be catnip for any Democratic media consultant worth his fees the Hispanic cleaning woman who had raised three bright and attractive daughters, seen them through college, and who with the two youngest girls would now watch the oldest become the new First Lady. And though Kerry did not say this, Lara knew that his advisors would envision uses for her family beyond attending their wedding.
"I won't have them exploited," she said. "How many Presidential relatives begin by thinking it's all so wonderful, then find out too late their lives will never be the same."
She saw resistance in his face, the wish to believe despite all he knew that this time would be different. "That sounds a little dire," he answered. "For my part, I'll never let my people turn the Costello family into reality TV."
Faintly, Lara smiled. "Then you might begin with Clayton." At this mention of Kerry's Chief of Staff, his closest friend and protector, Kerry smiled back. "Clayton? If he wants to be Best Man, he'll remember which one of us is President." Pausing, he assured her, "Seriously, I worry about them, too."
"I know you do."
The telephone rang.
Distractedly, Kerry picked it up. "It's midnight on the Fourth of July," he wryly told the operator. "Are we at war?"
Pausing, Kerry listened. His eyes grew hooded, his face sober. "Put her through," he ordered. "Who is it?" Lara murmured.
Covering the telephone, Kerry met her gaze. "Your sister Joan. For me."
Kerry had begun to fear for Lara's s ister the previous November.
Until then, he had not met her family. Returning to California to thank supporters for his narrow victory, Kerry asked Lara to invite them for dinner at his favorite San Francisco steakhouse, Alfred's and Lara's mother, Inez; her youngest sister, Mary; and Joan, her husband, John, and their six-year-old daughter, Marie. But the dinner, while a great success with Inez and Mary, was marred for Lara by the absence of the Bowden family. Joan had food poisoning, she had told Lara that morning; they would all meet Kerry on his next trip out.
At dinner's end, Kerry and Lara dropped off Inez and Mary, and the black limousine, shepherded by Kerry's Secret Service detail, headed for their hotel. "I liked them," Kerry told her. "Very much. Your mother's a lot like mine was, but feistier and less reserved."
Lara was quiet. "Mom was embarrassed," she said at length. "All that chattering about Joan, she thinks Joan's lying."
In the darkness of the limousine, Kerry could not read her face. "Why?"
"Aside from being too ‘sick' to meet my future husband, the President-elect, or see me for the first time in almost a year? So sick that John and Marie didn't come without her?" Lara turned to him. "This wasn't about bad fish. In the ladies' room, Mary admitted that they hardly see her now."
This touched a nerve in Kerry. "Is it the husband?" he asked.
Lara did not answer. "I'm going to see her, Kerry. Before we leave."
Joan and her family lived in a bungalow in the Crocker-Amazon district, houses snug together along the rise and fall of urban hillocks sectioned by the grid of city blocks. Though modest in size, the house was freshly painted, the drawn curtains frilly and neatly pressed, and the front porch brightened by pots of multihued geraniums. The door bore the label of a security service; rather than a doorbell, the button Lara pressed was for an intercom.
Lara waited for some minutes. When her sister's voice came through the intercom, it sounded disembodied. "Who is it?"
Once more there was silence. "I'm sorry, Lara." The delayed response, wan and uninviting, made Lara edgy. "I really don't feel well."
"Food poisoning's not contagious." To her chagrin, Lara recognized her own tone as that of the oldest sister, prodding the others to rise and shine. "Please," she implored, "I've missed you. I can't leave without at least seeing you."
Joan did not answer. Then, at length, the door cracked open. For a moment, Lara saw only half of her sister's face.
"I'm so glad you're home," Lara said.
Joan hesitated, then opened the door wider.
Her right eye was swollen shut. The neatly applied eyeliner and curled lashes of Joan's unblemished eye only deepened her sister's horror.
"Oh, Joanie." The words issued from Lara's throat in a low rush. "My God . . ."
"It's not what you're thinking," Joan protested. "I fell in the shower. I got faint from the food poisoning, and slipped."
Pushing the door open, Lara stepped inside, then closed it behind them. She placed both hands on Joan's shoulders.
"I'm not a fool, Joanie. I've seen this before, remember?"
Her sister seemed to flinch at Lara's touch. "So you say. I was three when he left." Lara stepped back, arms falling to her sides. Her sister's face was plumper, Lara saw, but its stubborn defensive cast was the same. The well-kept living room, too, was much as Lara recalled&151;the polished wooden floor; a spotless oriental rug; immaculate white furniture; a shelf of neatly spaced family photographs. Spotting a formal portrait of Marie, dark and pretty, Lara paused to study it. More calmly, she asked, "Does Mom know?"
"She doesn't want to know." Brief resentment crossed Joan's face; at whom, Lara was not sure. "She likes John. You're the only one who thinks it's great for children not to have a father. That's what I remember; not having one."
"Then I envy you, Joanie. I remember him quite well."
"Don't patronize me, dammit." Joan's speech became staccato. "Everything worked out for you: great looks, perfect grades, famous friends, a multimillion-dollar contract oh, don't think for a minute Mom didn't tell us about that. And now you're marrying the goddammed President-elect of the United States."
"All I need do for you to resent me," Lara shot back, "is exist." Fighting her own anger, she finished, "I'm marrying a man who treats me with respect. You deserve that, too."
Joan stood straighter. "We have a good life," she insisted. "He's good to Marie. It's not that often, or that bad."
"How often does it have to be, Joanie? How bad does it have to get?" Joan's voice rose. "That's so easy for you to say. What does your life have to do with mine?"
"I'm your sister, and I care about you. We're not competing." Lara paused, speaking more quietly, "Don't take a beating on my account. Or Marie's."
Abruptly, Joan turned from her. "Please leave, Lara. This is my home. I didn't invite you here."
Gazing at her sister's back, Lara felt frustration turn to helplessness, then a piercing regret. Briefly, she touched her sister's shoulder.
Joan remained frozen, back still turned to Lara. After a moment, Lara let herself out.
"I'm worse than useless to her," Lara said sadly. "Proving me wrong is one more reason for her to stay."
In the thin November sunlight of midmorning, she and Kerry walked through a narrow valley in Marin County, headed toward a bluegrey ocean which flooded an inlet between jagged cliffs. Both craved exercise, escape from people and stifling rooms; on the road they scheduled an hour, when they could, to walk and talk and breathe fresh air. At a respectful distance, Secret Service agents walked in front and back of them; others watched above them, along steep hills, green from recent rains. As they continued, hands jammed in their pockets against the cold, Kerry gave her a searching look. "She resents you that much?"
"I'd forgotten quite how much. Perhaps I was hoping we'd outgrown it." Lara gazed ahead of them at the glint of distant waves. "Some working-class mothers might have knocked me down a peg, reminded me that I was nothing special. But Mom held me up as their example.
"They had to excel, like me. They had to go to college, like me, even if they couldn't get into Stanford, or win a scholarship." Pausing, Lara added with irony, "So I made things worse by paying their way."
This elicited, in Kerry, a faint smile. "Half the time," he told her, "I loathed my brother. Jamie was so damned good at everything—so untouchable, it seemed. He was entirely self-invented, I realize now, and very much alone. But then he was the last person on earth I'd ever feel compassion for. Or listen to."
Quiet, Lara moved closer, so that their arms brushed. At times she felt such relief at all they shared, a blessed release from the sense of solitude she had lived with for so long, that it overwhelmed her ability to tell him. "It's that," she finally said, "and more. Joan became the domestic one—helping Mom cook and clean, keeping track of things, not complaining. That was her value, the thing she was better at than me or Mary. When John Bowden came along, and wanted to enshrine her as the princess of a perfect household all her own, she was more than ready."
"What did you think of him?"
"Eager to please—a little too eager, I thought. He virtually courted our mother, as if to prove how helpful and considerate he was. I remember her telling Joanie not to let him get away." Lara's tone became soft. "Then they got married, and I moved to Washington for the Times. Marie was born about the time I met you. They were the ideal family, Joanie claimed."
Listening, Kerry heard more than the words themselves: that Lara felt she had been too caught up in her own career, and Kerry, to see the warning signs. "And then you went to Kosovo," he said. "How could you have known?"
This tacit reference to their own estrangement caused Lara to take his hand. "I do now, don't I."
They walked in silence until they reached the beach, a grey-brown skein of sand strewn with driftwood. A redwood log stripped of bark had washed up near the lapping waves; after Lara sat, wind rustling her hair, Kerry did the same. "When I started prosecuting domestic violence cases," he said at length, "I began to see this depressing, endless cycle. Kids who witness abuse and then grow up to be abusive—or abused. In time, Marie could become Joan."
"So how do I help them?"
"Someone should do something. But you may not be the one."
Turning, Kerry faced her. "If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to Joan myself."
At once, Lara felt resistant. "This is my family. I know them. I'm not going to dump our problems on you."
"They're about to be our family." Kerry looked at her intently. "You already know about my own. Too often people treat this as a family matter, something private, and it just gets worse. We've both seen way too much of that."
Still Lara hesitated. Softly, Kerry asked, "What if he kills her, Lara?"
The next morning, Kerry Kilcannon went to the Bowdens' home.
That this proved difficult reminded Kerry of the new strictures on his movement. Slipping the press was hard in itself; worse, Kerry was forced to wait in a nondescript Secret Service van while two agents introduced themselves to a startled Joan Bowden and asked permission to search the house. Kerry's only consolation was the certainty that her husband was not home; at his absolute insistence, the agents assigned to guard him agreed to wait outside.
When she opened the door, her swollen eye was no more than a slit. Kerry tried not to react to her disfigurement.
"I'm Kerry," he said.
Joan glanced past him as though worried he might be seen. Then she gave him a small, rueful smile. "I know who you are."
Kerry tilted his head. "May I come in?"
"All right," she said reluctantly, and then added with more courtesy,
He stepped inside, hands in the pockets of his overcoat. The room was bright and orderly. But the visceral feeling he had on entering a home where abuse had occurred made the violence feel near at hand.
He turned to Joan. Whereas Lara resembled her mother—slender, with a certain tensile delicacy—Joan was rounder, with snub, placidseeming features altered, on this day, by a wary, guarded look. "I've felt funny," Kerry told her, "having an almost-wife whose family I'd never met."
As Joan smiled, a polite movement of the lips, she seemed to study him. "It was strange for us, too. You and Lara came as a surprise."
Though he felt the irony of his own evasion, Kerry gave his accustomed response. "It even surprised me," he answered. "When I got shot, Lara awakened to my virtues. A hard way to get the girl."
Joan appraised him. Then, belatedly, she motioned him to an overstuffed chair, and sat on the couch across from him. Kerry resolved to be direct. "Lara loves you," he said simply. "And now she worries for you."
Curtly, Joan nodded, as if confirming her own suspicion. "So she asked you to come."
"No—I asked." Kerry looked at Joan intently. "I used to prosecute domestic violence cases. I've seen too many ‘family secrets' go wrong, too many people damaged. Especially children."
That there was more to this Kerry did not say. But the purple swelling of her eye stirred all of the emotions his father had left roiling inside a frightened boy of six or seven—a hatred of bullies; a sympathy for victims; the sense of guilt that he could not protect his mother; the angry need to sublimate this powerlessness through action. Nervously, Joan glanced at the door, as if Kerry's presence would summon her husband.
"I'll be all right," she insisted.
"You won't be. And neither will Marie." He paused, choosing his words with care. "I know you're watching out for her. But in the end it's not enough. When he harms you, he harms Marie."
Joan hesitated. Kerry watched her decide how much to say, how far to trust this man—at once so familiar, a constant presence on the screen or in the newspaper, a subject of relentless curiosity among her friends— yet a stranger in her living room.
"It's not John's fault," she said.
"Perhaps not," Kerry answered. "But it's his responsibility. And yours."
Joan kneaded her dress, a nervous gesture which seemed intended to gain time. "John's life growing up was hard," she said at last. "I don't think his father beat him, or his mother—it was more like John was terrorized. If he violated a rule, no matter how small, his dad would lock him in his room—maybe for a weekend, with no escape except for bathroom breaks. And sometimes not for that." She gave a helpless shrug. "It's like John goes back there—like someone throws a switch which sets him off. Afterward he's so sorry I almost feel for him."
To Kerry, this sounded like the Stockholm Syndrome—where a captive begins identifying with her captor. Like John Bowden, the boy, must have done.
"Except now John's the father," Kerry told her. "The only difference is that he's violent. And that he abuses his wife instead of his child."
Stubbornly, Joan shook her head. "He doesn't want to be like that. When I first met him, he wasn't at all."
"How was he then?"
"Wonderful." The word seemed to fortify her; a look akin to nostalgia flickered in her eyes. "He was so responsible, so sure of himself, so determined to take care of me. He was unlike any boy I'd met—considerate, hardworking, and never drank a drop of alcohol. He was wonderful with my family, especially our mom. And I was the center of his world."
This was all too familiar, Kerry thought. "What about friends?"
"We didn't have that many—there really wasn't time." Her voice trailed off—the impact, Kerry guessed, of illusion crashing into reality. After a time, she added in a chastened tone, "He just wanted to be with me, he said. Sometimes he'd get jealous of other men, really for no reason. But he said it was because he loved me so completely he'd gotten too afraid of losing me."
As she paused, shoulders curled inward, Kerry felt certain she had never talked about this before. "And that felt right to you?" he asked.
She seemed to parse her memories—or, perhaps, to decide whether to respond. In a monotone, she answered, "Every day he sent flowers, or left notes on my front porch. I could hardly believe anyone loving me like that."
Though perhaps Kerry imagined it, the last phrase seemed to carry a faint shudder. Quickly, Joan glanced at the door again.
"When did he first hit you?" Kerry asked.
"When I was pregnant with Marie." Pausing, Joan briefly closed her eyes. "We were in bed, listening to an oldies station. Then they started playing ‘The Way You Look Tonight . . .' "
The first few bars made Joan smile—at seven months pregnant, it was hard to imagine herself in Lara's white prom dress, altered through her mother's best efforts. Then she felt John staring at her.
"This song reminds you of him."
The accusation so startled her that at first Joan hardly remembered who "he" was. "God, John—that was high school. I couldn't say if he's still alive."
She could, of course—Mary had seen him at Stonestown Mall, with his new wife. In an accusatory tone, John said, "You're lying, Joanie. That was ‘your song,' remember?"
It was so unfair: years ago she had trusted him with a harmless scrap of memory, never imagining the ways in which he might harbor this inside him. "I'd forgotten . . ."
With sudden fury, John slapped her across the face.
She rolled away from him, stunned, eyes welling with startled tears. Rising, she took two stagger-steps, head ringing, and rested her hands against the white wicker bassinet he had brought home to surprise her.
His eyes were damp as well. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry."
The next morning he sent flowers.
"But he couldn't stop being jealous, until it was about any man I met or even might meet." Averting her gaze, Joan touched her discolored cheek. "Of the fifty-year-old mailman, because we spoke Spanish together. A twenty-year-old teacher's aide at Marie's preschool. Some man I talked to at a party. When I would see friends or family without him. Even when I mentioned maybe getting a part-time job. When he began drinking, it got worse."
Yes, Kerry thought—it would. "When did that start?" he asked.
"About a year ago. With problems at work, I think." Still Joan looked down. "He was very insecure about his boss. The first time John came home like that, there'd been some reprimand. After I put Marie to bed, John hit me."
"And the drinking just kept on."
"Yes." Joan's words took on a despairing rhythm. "He'd drink, and hit me, and apologize; drink and hit me and apologize; drink and hit me . . ."
Abruptly, her voice caught. "Drink and hit you harder." Kerry's voice was soft. "Like the more he hit you, the more he needed to."
She gazed up at him, lips parted in surprise. After a time, a tear escaped her swollen eye.
More evenly, Kerry asked, "And this time?"
She would not answer. "Marie was in her room," she finally said. "He always waits for her to sleep."
Already, Joan was exhausted, Kerry saw. Rising from the chair, he walked to the shelf with the formal picture of Marie. Studying it, Kerry was struck by a thought he knew better than to express—Joan's six-yearold was a replica of Lara.
Turning, he asked, "Who do you talk to, Joan?"
She shook her head. "No one."
"Why not your mother? Or Mary?"
"I suppose I'm ashamed." She gazed at the rug, voice low and despairing. "Once, when I drove my mother to the grocery store, John hid a tape recorder beneath the car seat. Even if I'd told her, she couldn't comprehend it. John's so responsible, so good to her. He sends her flowers on Mother's Day."
For a moment, Kerry fell as silent as she, absorbing the fissures beneath the surface of a well-intended family, the way in which silence served their differing needs, their disparate denials and illusions. "Is that all he does?" Kerry asked.
Once more, Joan averted her eyes. "John controls the money. He says he'll never let me take Marie." She paused, throat working. "Last week he bought a gun."
Kerry felt an instant hyperalertness. "Has he threatened you with it?"
A brief shake of the head. "No. But he says if I ever leave him, he'll kill himself."
Crossing the room, Kerry sat beside her, taking both her hands. "Joan," he said, "I'm scared for you. Much more than when I came here."
So was she, her eyes betrayed. He felt her fingers slowly curl around his. "Why?"
"Because he's getting worse. And now he has a gun." Kerry paused, marshalling the words to reach her. "Look at him. Maybe his childhood explains him. But it's the adult who keeps choosing to be violent. And if he needs a reason to hurt you, he'll find one.
"Then look at you. Look at your reasons for staying—economic insecurity; fear of shame before your family; fear of Marie not having a father; fear of not having Marie." Clasping her fingers, Kerry gazed at her until her eyes met his. "You're scared for you—all the time now. And your only way out is to help John stop, or stop him yourself. Which could mean taking him to court."
Joan paled. "I can't," she protested. "I could never put Marie through that."
Kerry gave Joan time to hear herself. "Can you put Marie through this?" he asked.
Joan's face was a study in confusion—by turns fearful, irresolute, resistant, and imploring. He searched within himself for the words to reach her and realized, against his bone-deep instinct to seal off the past, that they could not be the words of an observer.
"I'm going to tell you something," he said, "that only three people know who are still alive—my mother, my closest friend, and Lara. It's about me. But it's also about Marie."
Excerpted from BALANCE OF POWER © Copyright 2003 by Richard North Patterson. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.