Friday, January 16, 2015

Justice for Ethel - Week 2 of 52round2

As soon as I opened the door and saw her face, I knew.  There she stood, black eyes and all, crying on my doorstep.

“Come in this house right now, Ethel,” I said, putting my arms around her and pulling her in out of the cold night air.  “That boy has struck you again, hasn’t he?”

Since she had never been able to look me in the eye whenever I inquired as to the source of her ever-present injuries, I knew my assumption was correct that her psychotic nephew was responsible.  Her troubles with that despicable boy began after he had just turned eleven.

Her sister, Claudette, and brother-in-law, Theodore, had never been blessed with children of their own.  Even after 15 years of marriage, they both still longed for a son or daughter they could share their lives with.  Since Theodore had been very successful with his appliance repair business, Claudette had been fortunate enough to be able to remain in the home full-time.  They hoped the fact that they were financially stable, coupled with their reputations as pillars of their community, would assist them with the adoption process.

They both felt, considering their ages, it would be best for all concerned if they brought a child into their home instead of an infant.  To their surprise, two days after submitting their application to the county, they were notified a ten year old boy was available for permanent placement.  His social worker was anxious to situate him since none of their foster families were willing to provide him with even temporary housing for more than a couple of days.  There were rumors of mutilated pets, physical and verbal assaults on other children within the homes and several incidents of arson in the neighborhood when he was in the vicinity.  No clear evidence of his direct involvement was ever produced, but the circumstantial clues pointing to the boy in all cases was so overwhelming, the fear in the various households was palpable.

His name was Bobby, and Claudette and Theodore adored him the moment they were first introduced.  Ethel had mentioned to me that Claudette believed the boy seemed lost – a wandering soul, out of touch with both time and space.  As far as I was concerned, however, it was nothing quite so romantic.  The boy was simply evil, and found great delight in causing pain and suffering to all he crossed paths with.  But, I digress.

The adoption process became finalized within a couple of weeks, with no home inspections or follow-up visits having occurred.  This was highly unusual, but then, this was a highly unusual case.  The child was given the legal name of Dorning and his meager personal possessions were relocated to a spacious room of his own at his new parents’ elegant home.  It didn’t take long for the disturbing incidents to begin again.

The boy was sullen and secretive, and his teachers made it clear to the Dornings that they were afraid to turn their backs on him, even in the classroom.  Within a few short weeks, he was expelled from school for his violent outbursts and his brutal assaults on his fellow students.  His parents believed he was simply misunderstood and needed to have his energy focused in a more positive direction.  They employed a live-in homeschool teacher to help the boy with his lessons and to help him find, and develop, interests in an attempt to modify his behavior.

The young woman, Charmaine, hired to assist Bobby to find himself, moved in on a Monday.  Five days later, she was dead, supposedly from a fall that resulted in her striking her head on a coffee table.  The autopsy supported that account as told by the child.  She was always such a clumsy one, Bobby had said.  No one else had ever witnessed Charmaine constantly tripping over her own feet, but who would be so uncaring as to question the veracity of a little boy, who was most likely traumatized by the whole affair.  I wish to God someone had.

Theodore was the next to die.  Bobby was with him, helping to change a flat tire on the family car.  The jack slipped, the boy had reported, and the car fell on him.  Why the man had been underneath the vehicle while putting on a new tire was never questioned.

Claudette and Bobby were comfortably provided for following Theodore’s death.  His assets went to his widow, with the provision that in the event of her death, all would be held in trust for the boy until his 18th birthday.  Provision had also been made for his care in the event his parents expired while he was still a minor.  Their will strongly recommended Claudette’s sister, Ethel, become the boy’s guardian and executor of his trust.  When Claudette was found dead in her bed on Bobby’s 11th birthday, apparently from an overdose of sleeping pills dissolved in her nightly cup of cocoa, her passing was attributed to depression over her husband’s untimely demise.  No one suspected anything amiss, even though it appeared she had committed suicide knowing the child she adored would find her cold and stiff that morning.  This is the point in time where Ethel came into the picture.

Ethel and I had been friends since Kindergarten.  We were inseparable all through school and served as maid of honor at each other’s wedding.  Both our husbands had been killed in separate car accidents by drunk drivers – an odd coincidence that only served to further cement our friendship and parallel lives.  We lived on the same street, served on the same committees, and watched over each other’s lives in general; that is, until that boy came to live with her, and Ethel became a prisoner in her own home.  He was only 11, but tall and very muscular for his age.  He was an intimidating presence, and I knew Ethel feared him.  Still, she felt obligated to provide for him and set up her assets in trust for the boy in case something should happen to her.

Ethel and I didn’t see much of each other after he arrived.  She resigned from her committees, fundraisers and our book club.  Her story was that her nephew needed her full attention, but it was common knowledge in our small town that she was embarrassed by all the bruises visible on her person.  It became more and more difficult to explain why she would be wearing gloves, sweaters, and scarves in the middle of our hot and humid summers.  It was easier for her to simply remain hidden behind closed doors.  Bobby, however, was constantly out and about.  He did not attend any school since being expelled from the county’s system.  Ethel’s rationale was that he had abandonment issues and learned best in a home setting.  She was never contacted for any follow-up on his progress.  It was easier to let it slide.  Right.  Easier.  But, for whom?

I knew he wasn’t doing his studies since he was rarely home.  I would see him at the grocer buying cat food and bananas, and then later at the department store picking out clothes, toys and other personal items for himself and charging it all to Ethel’s accounts.  On the rare occasions when Ethel would be out picking up her mail at the end of her driveway, she always looked so pale and weak.  Since Ethel had never had a pet and was allergic to cats, I couldn’t help wondering if all that cat food and bananas was all that evil boy would permit her to eat.

Years passed with more of the same, and the boy grew both in stature and strength, as well as in capability to inflict suffering.  Beloved pets from the neighborhood either disappeared completely or were discovered horribly mutilated.  Children would cross the street on their way to and from school to avoid walking by Ethel’s house.  They informed their parents they had been warned by the big boy who lived there that there would be dire consequences if they came within as much as fifty feet of his front door.  They didn’t know what dire consequences were, but their parents certainly were familiar with the term.  None of the families ever filed a complaint with the police though.  They just let it slide.

Fast forward to this evening when Ethel rang my doorbell.  After I got her settled on the couch, I brought her some tea and a sandwich.  She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a week.

“If you don’t want to admit that he abuses you, I won’t press you,” I said.  “But, something has to be done, and soon.  You’re not well, you are one giant bruise, and the bigger he gets, the harder he hits.  Talk to me, dear friend.  Please.”

“He will be 18 years old tomorrow,” she said, wiping her tears with a tissue and wincing from the pain as she dabbed the bruises on her face.  “He wants his parents’ money all turned over to him first thing.  He’s going to take me to the bank to sign it over.  It’s just a formality because the money is his now, but he insists I make it official and relinquish my position as executor.  I suggested perhaps beginning with an allowance rather than acquiring all that cash in one lump sum, and that’s when he…I mean, that’s when I…oh, I can’t anymore, Lizbeth.  That’s when he punched me.  I’ll sign it over, I don’t care anymore.  Maybe if he gets his money, he will leave.  Do you think he might leave, Lizbeth?  I’m sorry to bother you with all this, but I’m so upset.  He’s out somewhere and I just needed to talk to you.”

“Never be sorry for coming to me.  I’m here for you now, and always will be.  You can’t help him, no one ever could.  Give him what he wants and there won’t be anything to keep him here any longer.”

“Thank you, dearest.  I’ll be alright now.  That’s true.  He will have no reason to stay.  I have an appointment with my lawyer set up for next week to change my will too.  I’m not going to leave him a cent.  All my money is going to the library fund.  I know I’ve let this go on too long and it’s time to stop being afraid.  Thank you again, my friend.  I should be going now before he gets home.  No sense looking for trouble on this last night.”

As I walked Ethel to the door, a terrible thought popped into my head.

“You didn’t tell Bobby you were going to write him out of your will next week, did you?”  I had to ask.

“Oh, no, of course not,” she tried to smile.  “I called Sid when Bobby was out of the house.  He’s out of town this week on business, but his secretary told me she could type up a new will for me and have him look it over when he returns.  Then, I could come in and just sign it next week.”

Good.  No sense looking for trouble indeed.

Ethel was dead the next day by lunchtime – another hit-the-head-on-a-coffee-table accident.  Considering Ethel’s age, no autopsy was performed, although it was my understanding that was the law.  The doctor felt it best, however, to simply let it slide since older folks get clumsy at times.  Clara, her attorney’s secretary and friend, although not a close one, attended Ethel’s funeral and made certain that everyone in attendance knew that she was the last person to speak to Ethel before she died.  To clarify, she didn’t actually speak directly to Ethel, but to her answering machine.  It seems she had left a message that the rewrite of Ethel’s will, removing her nephew, would be ready sooner than originally anticipated since the attorney had returned a few days early from his business trip.  She stated that she often wondered if poor Ethel had been lying dead on her living room floor as her message was being left, but that wasn’t the case.  I knew for a fact that Ethel’s fate was sealed not when the message was left, but when it had been heard.

Within a month, Bobby had it all:  His parents’ money, Ethel’s house, and the cash from the life insurance her husband had left her.  He spent and partied and spent and partied some more.  Ethel’s front yard was littered with beer bottles and newspapers tossed there by the delivery boy and never retrieved.  It made my heart ache to see what he had done to my friend’s home that she had taken so much pride in.

Before he trashed the entire place, I took it upon myself to gather a few trinkets Ethel had promised to me years before.  From a financial perspective, they were worthless, but priceless in the friendship department.  She had wanted me to have her cheerleading sweater from high school, her two pom-poms, an award certificate for most improved handwriting she had received in second grade, and several other personal treasures.

We had given each other keys to our respective houses, as friends do who watch over each other are prone to do.  I went over early one morning and let myself in.  If I had rung the bell, that nasty boy wouldn’t have admitted me, so I decided to avoid any unnecessary confrontations.  He had partied heavily with some thugs from the next county the night before, so I knew he would be out cold, as they say.  I can be quiet as a mouse, as most of us elders can, and I entered unnoticed and made my way up the three stories to the attic.

When I opened the door, the air was so thick, it was suffocating.  I opened the large window at the far end to air it out a bit so I could search for the promised items in relative comfort.  Ethel had her attic fully carpeted when she and Jack had bought the house, so it was easy to move around and not disturb anyone on the levels below.  I found the box with my name written on the front on a shelf, but darned if it didn’t slip out of my hands and fall down with a loud thud, the carpeted floor notwithstanding.  As I moved it next to the open window to get a better view of the contents, I heard stomping on the stairs.  Oh my, I thought.  I hope I didn’t wake the young man of the house.  Apparently I had though, because the door was flung open and in Bobby came, cursing all the way.

“What are you doing in here, you old bitch?  How’d you get in anyway?  I’ll get you for sneaking around in my house!”

He charged at me and I stepped away from the window.  I decided to give him a few minutes to calm down and then make an attempt to reason with him.  He lost his footing a few feet from the window when he tripped over that section of carpet that had come loose and bunched up.  Years ago, when Ethel was showing me how she had arranged her attic, I had slipped on that part of the rug too.  She had said she planned to get that tacked down someday.  I guess she forgot.  Before I could grab for him, he fell right out of that window and landed on the neighbor’s cement driveway face down.  It made quite the mess, don’t you know.  I attributed the distance in the air he’d achieved to the fact that he’d had a running start.

The Sheriff, the doctor and I were the only ones in attendance at his funeral.  I arranged for a nice ceremony, for Ethel’s sake.  She had such a good heart, she would have wanted him to have a respectable and dignified burial.  The Sheriff remarked how odd the circumstances of his death were in that he didn’t fall straight down.  I, of course, piped in with what a clumsy fellow he’s been all his life, since he was a boy – always tripping, always falling down.  I said that one certainly could not expect a routine outcome when someone with that affliction was involved.  He agreed with me, as did the doctor, and as was our way, we all decided to simply let it slide.  Oh yeah.

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