Long Bright River

The PPD, nationally embarrassed, is denying that they have a widespread problem. But I know differently, and Kacey knows differently, and the women of Kensington know differently. So I called Lauren Spright, and told her that I wanted to give her some information on condition of anonymity. The story was on public radio the next day. Police sexual assault is not uncommon in Kensington, the reporter began, and I turned the radio off. I didn’t want to hear.

Some days, I still wake up with the sick feeling that I’ve done something terribly wrong. I worry I’ve sold out the people who’ve protected me all these years, who’ve always had my back—sometimes literally.

I think of the many honorable people who work for the organization. Truman was in the PPD. Mike DiPaolo still is. Davis Nguyen. Gloria Peters. Even Denise Chambers, who recently phoned me personally to apologize.

Then there are the Laffertys, the evil ones. They’re few and far between, but everybody’s met one.

The hardest cases, I think—perhaps the most dangerous ones—are the friends of the Laffertys’. People like Sergeant Ahearn, who has possibly known for years about what goes on in Kensington. Maybe he even participates himself—who knows. And he’ll never be fired, never be questioned, never even be disciplined. He’ll go on with his daily routine, showing up for work, casually abusing his power in ways that will have lasting effects on individuals and communities, on the whole city of Philadelphia, for years.

It’s the Ahearns of the world who scare me.

* * *

I still don’t have a job. I probably could have gotten a lawyer and sued the PPD, given all that happened, but I don’t have the inclination.

Instead, I live on unemployment. I work at my uncle Rich’s car dealership in Frankford, doing paperwork and answering phones, being paid under the table, all cash. With a more regular schedule, I have found a regular babysitter, someone I trust, to watch Thomas two days a week now. Mondays and Wednesdays, I bring Thomas with me to Rich’s. And Fridays, Mrs. Mahon watches him.

The system isn’t perfect, but it’s working for now. Next year, Thomas will go to kindergarten, and everything will change again. Maybe I’ll sign up for classes at the community college. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get a degree. Be a history teacher, like Ms. Powell. Maybe.

When I get it, I tell myself, I’ll frame it, and then send a copy to Gee.

On a Tuesday morning in the middle of April, I open all the windows in my apartment. A rainstorm has just come through, and the air outside has that plump spring smell, wet grass and new earth. A pot of coffee is on in the kitchen. Thomas’s new babysitter is due to arrive soon. He’s in his room now, playing with his Legos. I’ve taken the day off work at the car dealership.

* * *

The babysitter arrives, and I say goodbye to Thomas, and then I go downstairs and ring Mrs. Mahon’s doorbell.

—Ready? I say, when she opens the door.

The two of us get into my car. We drive toward Wilmington.

* * *

The outing has been long anticipated.

The seeds of it were planted one day back in January, when I had both Kacey and Mrs. Mahon over for dinner. That first dinner turned into a weekly one. Now, every Sunday, we put Thomas to bed and then we watch TV, the three of us, something silly, whatever new comedy is on demand. Kacey likes comedies. Other times we watch a murder show—the term Kacey still uses, despite recent events—a show that is almost always about a missing woman, who was almost always murdered by her abusive husband or boyfriend. The host narrates the whole thing with alarming calm. That would be the last time the Millers would see their daughter.

—He did it, Kacey usually says, about the husband. He definitely did it, my God, look at him.

Sometimes, the victims are poor. Other times they are rich women, blond and impeccable, with husbands who are doctors or lawyers.

The rich women look, to me, like grown-up versions of the girls at The Nutcracker, the one time Kacey and I ever went, decades ago. All those blond girls with their hair in buns. All of them wearing different-colored dresses, like rare birds, like the dancers themselves. All of them loved.

* * *

Each Sunday dinner, Kacey has made the two of us swear that we’ll visit her in the hospital when her daughter is born.

—I want visitors, she says. I’m afraid no one will come. Will you visit me, both of you?

We will, we tell her.

* * *

Today, Mrs. Mahon and I turn into the parking lot of the hospital.

The child was born yesterday. She still doesn’t have a name.

Our father has told us she’s in the NICU for now, until her condition is better assessed.

Kacey can see her as much as she wants. She’s been cooperative with the doctors. Everyone knew, going in, to monitor the baby for signs of withdrawal.

Mrs. Mahon looks at me, before we get out of the car. She puts a hand on my hand. Holds it there firmly.

—Now this will be hard for you, she says. It will make you think of Thomas, and remember the pain he was in. You’re going to be mad at Kacey all over again.

I nod.

—But she’s doing her best, says Mrs. Mahon. Just think: She’s doing her best.

* * *

There is one memory I have of my mother that I’ve never shared with Kacey. When I was small it felt too precious: speaking it aloud, I feared, might make it disappear.

In this memory, I can’t see my mother’s face. All I can recall of her is a sweet voice talking to me while I took a bath. We were playing a game. Someone had given us plastic eggs one Easter, and I was allowed to take them into the tub with me. They were yellow and orange and blue and green, and they were split down the middle into two halves. I could take them apart and put them back together again so they didn’t match: yellow with blue, green with orange. Everything out of order. Oh no oh no, my mother would cry, teasing me. Put them back together again! And for some reason, this was the funniest thing in the world to me. Silly, my mother would call me. The last time I was ever called anything so young-sounding. I remember the smell of my mother, and the smell of the soap, like flowers in sunlight.

When I was younger, I used to think it was this single memory that saved me from Kacey’s fate, that made me the way I am and Kacey the way she is. The sound of my mother’s voice, which I can still hear, and its gentleness, which I always took to be evidence of her love for me. The knowledge that there was once a person in the world who loved me more than anything. In some ways, I still think this is true.

* * *

In the hospital, Mrs. Mahon and I are given visitor badges. We ring a small bell, and we’re admitted into the ward. We’re following a nurse named Renee S.

We see Kacey, first, at the end of a hallway. She’s out of bed already. Our father is standing next to her. The two of them are looking through a glass window at what I presume is the NICU.

—Visitors, says Renee S., brightly.

Kacey turns.

—You came, she says.

* * *

Renee swipes her badge through a reader and opens the door. A doctor greets us quickly on her way out.

Inside the NICU, it’s dark and quiet. White noise is on in the background.

There are two basin sinks to the right of the door and a sign over them instructing us to wash our hands.

We comply, all of us. While Kacey is scrubbing, I look around. The room has a central aisle that divides two rows of plexiglass bassinets, four on either side. Machines and monitors flash steadily but silently. At the opposite end of the room there is another nurses’ station, slightly removed, lit more fully.

There are two nurses in the room, both at work: one diapering a baby, another entering something on a computer that sits on a rolling, waist-high stand. An older woman, a volunteer or a grandparent, sits near us in a rocking chair, moving slowly, a newborn in her arms. She smiles at us but says nothing.

Which one of these babies, I wonder, is Kacey’s?

My sister turns off the water. Then she turns around and walks across the room to one of the bassinets.

Baby Fitzpatrick, says a name tag at the head of it.

* * *

Inside is a baby girl. She is sleeping, her eyes closed and swollen from the work of being born. Her eyelids flutter a little, and she turns her perfect face from left to right.

All four of us stand around her, looking in.

—Here she is, Kacey says.

—Here she is, I repeat.

—I don’t know what to call her, Kacey says.

She looks up at me, plaintively. She says, I just keep thinking, That’s what she’ll be called for the rest of her life. And it stops me.

The room is very quiet, all of the sounds in it faraway, as if underwater. And then, from behind, there comes a high-pitched cry, a wail of pain.

Thomas, I think, reflexively.

All of us turn toward it. The cry comes again.

It’s a sound I’ll never forget: the newborn cry of my son. How many times a night did it drag me from sleep? Even in his waking hours I would flinch, in anticipation, every time his small brow furrowed.

I glance at Kacey and see that she’s a statue, unmoving, eyes fixed.

—Are you all right? I whisper, and she nods.

* * *