The Escape Artist
A novel by
The cloud was back.
Not in the sky. The evening sky over Boulder was a vivid violet-blue, broken only by a jagged line of gold as the sun fell behind the Rockies. Yet, as Susanna made her way through the cemetery, Tyler in her arms, she felt the cloud over her shoulder, keeping pace with her.
She had endured the cloud’s dark shadow once before, eleven months earlier, when Tyler was born with a damaged heart. It had pained her own heart, seeing her son suffer, knowing she might lose him. She’d suffered along with him, spending day after day in the intensive care nursery, touching his tiny hands through the restricting holes in the side of his plastic bassinet. Talking to him. Singing to him. He was stoic, her little baby. She saw the determination in his face, the fight. He was not a quitter. He had not inherited her propensity for giving up. She hoped she’d learned a thing or two from his bravery.
Tyler’s heart was healthy now. “Nearly good as new,” the surgeon had said. It was the best heart she could imagine. Her son had a gentle, affectionate nature and a laugh that, until recently, had brought tears to her eyes each time she heard it. With all he’d been through, the fact that he could laugh with such abandon renewed her faith.
And Tyler had learned patience. Even while being carried around the cemetery for the past hour, he had not once protested the seemingly fruitless journey. He hung onto her with one arm around her neck, clutching his stuffed monkey, his eyes looking ahead as Susanna moved among the headstones, stopping to read each one. Not names; she didn’t care about names. But she read every date, particularly those on the smaller headstones. It was those small stones that merited her scrutiny. The sort of stone the parents of an infant might select.
Tyler’s downy blond hair brushed lightly against her chin. Soon, he’d be able to walk. She wanted to savor this last month or so, when he still could not explore the world without her.
Tyler finally made a sound of impatience, a whimper, a “Mom, aren’t we through here yet?” sort of sound. With a sigh, she leaned over to set him down in the grass, and he crawled to the nearest headstone and hoisted himself up by it, dancing up and down as if he heard a tune inside his head.
She stood up and stretched, her hands pressed against the small of her back, and the warm breeze wrapped her long skirt around her legs. For the first time since arriving at the cemetery, she let herself look toward the foothills above Chautauqua Park and realized she could see Linc’s house from here. It was nearly in the shadow of the mountains now. A faint wash of fading sunlight lit up one side of the house and gilded the huge satellite dish in his yard, and she felt tears fill her eyes. She wished she could tell Linc her plan, but that wouldn’t be fair to him. Not that the plan itself was fair. She was going to keep her child, but in the process she would lose the man who had been her strength and support for the past two years. For far, far longer than that, if she were honest with herself. How she would get by without him, she didn’t know. This was the first major decision she’d made in years without consulting him. She was not the sort of person who did things entirely on her own, without the advice of friends. She’d never possessed that sort of courage. But she would have to find it now. If she did indeed lose custody of Tyler to Jim and Peggy, she would have to put her plan in action and in so doing never see Linc Sebastian again.
It was so dark by the time she found the small, cold marker that she could barely read the words carved into the stone. August 16, 1968-September 14, 1968. Perfect. She read the name. Kimberly Stratton.
Susanna sank to her knees near the marker and pulled a small notepad from her purse. She copied the information onto the pad and started to get to her feet again, but something held her down.
Why did this baby die? Less than a month old. She thought of Tyler as a newborn, wounded and fighting. How had that mother felt, losing her baby before she’d even gotten a chance to know her? And who was Susanna to take this baby’s name? This baby’s life? She felt suddenly weighed down with responsibility. She leaned forward, resting her hand on the cool grass above the grave. “I’ll try to do right by you,” she said. “I’ll try to be worthy of having your name.”
She thought she felt something, a current of warmth spreading up her arm, into her chest, but Tyler crashed into her from behind, shaking her from her imagined communion with the child whose name she was stealing.
She gathered Tyler and his monkey into her arms and stood up slowly. The cloud settled around her shoulders again, but she dismissed it with a shake of her head. She had escaped from that cloud once before. She would escape from it again.
Susanna got to her feet as Judge Browning entered the courtroom and took his seat behind the bench. When she sat down again, she was barely breathing. The judge looked like Santa Claus, his full beard snowy beneath his ruddy cheeks, but he had shown no inclination toward jolliness these past few days. He was not, in any way, a benevolent presence.
He shuffled the papers on his desk, seemingly unaware of the tension in the room as everyone awaited the decision he’d promised to deliver that afternoon. When he glanced up, Susanna could suddenly see the courtroom through his eyes, and if she hadn’t already guessed his decision, she did then. For a week now, he’d looked out from his bench at the cast of characters in front of him. At the table on his left sat a small, wiry-haired attorney, Ann Prescott, and Susanna, the anxious, pale, overworked, poorly paid, divorced woman who was her client. The client who had spent the month after the breakup of her marriage in a psychiatric ward, threatening to kill herself—and her unborn baby. Ann had brought in the psychiatrist from the hospital to testify that Susanna was well now, that she was a good mother. But that ploy had backfired, only serving to remind everyone of Susanna’s stint as a psychiatric patient.
At the table on Judge Browning’s right sat a dapper, silver- haired attorney and his client, James Miller, an attorney himself and Susanna’s ex-husband. Handsome, sharply dressed without overdoing it, sincerity in his blue eyes. When he answered questions on the witness stand, he would turn and look at the judge, something Ann had encouraged Susanna to do herself. She hadn’t been able to, though. She’d felt frozen on the witness stand, unable to take her eyes off her interrogator for even a second.
Seated directly behind Jim was his wife. Not any wife, but Peggy Myerson, yet another attorney. She was also beautifully dressed. Her smooth dark hair swept her shoulders. It was obvious that she was in love with her husband. She’d lean forward to touch his shoulder, to whisper to him. Right now she was smiling confidently at him as though they both knew these five days had been only a formality. They’d known they would win from the start.
Susanna couldn’t look at Peggy for long. She always felt small and simple around her. Peggy was a woman with whom she could never hope to compete.
And what else did the judge see in this courtroom? Susanna closed her eyes against the images forming in her head. Behind Jim and his lawyer and Peggy, Judge Browning would see Peggy’s older brother Ron, the surgeon who had saved Tyler’s life, and Peggy’s parents, who had been there during every single moment of the hearing. And behind them sat Jim’s sister and mother, women who had once been Susanna’s friends and confidantes. All of them were perched on the edges of their seats, waiting anxiously to hear the fate of the little boy they already thought of as theirs.
Seated several rows behind Susanna, the judge would see only one person: Linc Sebastian, a man known to the community as a convicted murderer turned disc jockey. Linc was the host of a weekly nationally syndicated radio program, and he was something of a cult figure. One of Boulders folk heroes. He’d taken out his earring for this week in court, even though Susanna had told him not to bother. Who was he trying to kid? His blond hair still brushed his collar, and one look at him told you he had chosen a lifestyle somewhere outside the norm. “A man with a questionable past,” Jim’s lawyer had said in describing him, and no one could honestly argue with that assessment.
Judge Browning cleared his throat, and Susanna wrapped her arms across her chest to wait out the inevitable. Her stomach ached, and she was glad she had not tried to eat lunch.
The judge lifted a single sheet of paper from his desk as though he might read from it, but instead, his Santa Claus eyes moved from person to person in the courtroom as he began to speak.
“This court awards custody of Tyler James Miller to his father, James Miller,” he said simply.
Susanna heard Peggy’s squeal of joy and Jim’s laughter. She tightened her grip on her arms until her fingers turned white. She heard someone on the other side of the room whisper the word “congratulations” to Jim.
“Susanna Miller will be allowed visitation every other weekend and one night each week,” the judge continued. “And she is forbidden to have any member of the opposite sex spend the night during those times she has visitation with her son.”
Her cheeks burned as if the judge had slapped her. He stood up and left the courtroom, and Susanna became vaguely aware of Ann Prescott’s hand on her arm.
“They simply had too much in their favor, Susanna,” Ann said. “I’m sorry.”
Susanna pulled her arm away. In those horrible moments when she’d imagined this scene, she’d sobbed. But there were no tears now, only a numbness, a disbelief. They were going to take her baby away from her.
“Let me go see what the plans are,” Ann said, and Susanna could not even acknowledge her as she left the table.
She turned to find Linc standing next to her. She stood up and barely noticed the red in his eyes before he drew her into an embrace. It was a quick hug, nothing more than that, as if he didn’t want to make a public display of the fact that he was that close to her. “I’m so sorry, Susie,” he said.
She opened her mouth, but no words came out and she sank into her seat again. Linc sat down next to her, holding her icy hand in his warm one. She knew he thought of himself as a major factor in her losing custody of Tyler, but she doubted her relationship with him had made that much difference. As Ann said, Jim and Peggy had too much in their favor.
They had the combined income of two attorneys, which was far more than she could ever hope to achieve as a secretary in a bank. They lived in a big, elegant house in a beautiful neighborhood. Wonderland, the area was called. How could the judge deprive a child of living in a neighborhood called Wonderland? Never mind that Susanna had selected that house. Never mind that the week after she and Jim had moved into it, she’d come home early from a conference to find Jim sharing their bed with Peggy. So Susanna was in the little rental apartment, while Jim and Peggy sprawled out in “their” five bedroom house and erected an elaborate swing set in the back yard for “their” son.
It had been her word against Jim’s regarding the abortion, and Jim had scoffed at her accusation from his seat on the witness stand. “I’m pro-life,” Jim had said, his blue eyes flashing in a self-righteous fervor. “I would never suggest that any woman have an abortion, let alone a woman carrying my own child.”
She’d been too ashamed to admit to any of her friends, other than Linc, that Jim had wanted her to get an abortion when she’d told him she was pregnant with Tyler. Linc, who knew the truth, did not testify. Ann thought it would “invite too many questions we don’t want to deal with” if he did, and so Jim’s only challenger was Susanna herself. And no one seemed to pay much attention to anything she had to say. But she would be damned if she’d turn her son over to a man who had wanted him aborted and a woman who’d sleep with another woman’s husband.
Ann returned and stood on the opposite side of the table from Linc and Susanna. “They said you can keep him tonight,” she said. “They’ll be by to pick him up tomorrow around two. Is that okay?”
Susanna looked helplessly at her attorney. “What choice do I have?” she asked.
Ann shook her head. “None, Susanna. I’m sorry.”
“Come on,” Linc tugged at her shoulder. “Let’s get Tyler and enjoy tonight with him,” he said.
She was dimly aware of the festive atmosphere on the other side of the courtroom as she left with Linc, and she turned her head away from the celebration. She didn’t want to see their joy.
Linc held her hand in the car, letting go of her only when he shifted gears or needed two hands to turn the steering wheel. She sensed him looking at her from time to time, but kept her own eyes on the road. The silence between them felt unfamiliar.
Linc turned off the main road onto Susanna’s street with its row of apartment buildings and parked in front of Tyler’s day-care center.
“Would you mind very much getting him?” she asked. She couldn’t bear Margaret Draper’s questions today. Margaret would be outraged to hear Susanna was losing Tyler, and Susanna had enough rage of her own to deal with.
“Sure.” Linc got out of the car, and she watched him walk up the sidewalk to the building. He had on gray pants, a pinstriped shirt. He’d worn a tie today, too. Every day this week. He’d tried hard, but he only looked as if he’d accidentally put on another man’s clothes in the morning. His effort touched her, though. It made her love him more than she already did, and that only made what she had to do harder.
She saw Margaret open the door to the center and step back to let Linc inside. He would be telling Margaret now, Susanna thought, and she hoped he could keep Margaret from coming out to the car to offer her sympathy. She didn’t want to talk. She only wanted to get home with her son.
After a minute, Linc emerged from the apartment, Tyler in his arms, and the legs of the little boy’s stuffed monkey flopped up and down in rhythm with Linc’s stride. Susanna got out of the car and met them on the sidewalk, hungry to get her son into her own arms. Tyler was puffy-eyed and a little grumpy.
She knew that look, that mood. “He was in the middle of his nap, huh?” she asked.
“Right.” Linc opened the back door of his car to put Tyler into the car seat, but she hugged the little boy tighter.
“It’s only a block,” she said. “I’ll hold him.”
Linc opened her door, and she settled into the passenger seat with Tyler and his monkey on her lap. Tyler curled against her contentedly, and the warmth of him against her body thawed the tears that had been frozen inside of her. They spilled over her cheeks.
Linc got in behind the steering wheel and saw that she was crying.
“Oh, Sue.” He leaned over to hold her. Tyler, oblivious to his fate, was cradled between their bodies. “It’s not fair,” Linc whispered.
She couldn’t speak. If she spoke she knew she would say too much.
Linc pulled back from her and brushed his hand over her wet cheek.
“I want to stay over tonight,” he said, “but I guess that’s against the rules.”
She tried to pull herself together again, wiping her eyes with the back of her fingers. The judge had unwittingly made this easier for her. She hadn’t been sure how she would keep Linc away tonight. “I know,” she said. “I wish you could stay.”
“I’ll stay till you go to bed.”
“Actually,” she bit her lip, “I think I need to be alone with Tyler tonight.”
Linc looked at her in surprise. It was not like her to cut him out. She usually despised being alone, but that was going to have to change. It was true that Susanna Miller would never cut herself off from the company of others, but tonight Susanna Miller would die.
“Susanna,” Linc said, “I love Tyler. I’d like the chance to be with him tonight. With both of you.”
He’d been there from the moment Tyler drew his first, labored breath. He’d been with her through the entire pregnancy. She’d leaned on him for everything, probably more than she should have. That she would cut him out of her grieving tonight would make no sense to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not feeling well, and—”
“Then let me take care of you.”
“Linc—I can’t explain it.” She thought of letting him come over for a few hours, but that would be impossible. She had too much to do tonight. “I’m going to give Tyler his dinner, tuck him in, tell him a story. Maybe sing him a song. And then crawl into bed.”
“Please, Linc,” she said. “You’re making this harder on me.”
He sat back, defeated. “All right.” He started the car and neither of them spoke as they drove the block to her apartment. She knew he was hurt, but she would have to hurt him now to spare him later.
Linc parked in the small lot by the entrance to her apartment building and walked ahead of her to the front door. He unlocked the security door with his own key and she followed him up the steps and into her apartment. Quietly, they moved around the rooms, Linc changing Tyler’s diaper, Susanna checking her answering machine. There were a few messages from her coworkers at the bank anxious to know the judge’s decision. She would not be returning those calls, and she erased every one of them.
When she came into the living room, Linc was setting Tyler down on the floor next to the basket filled with plastic blocks.
“I could make dinner for you,” Linc suggested, “or would you rather I just—” He gestured toward the door.
She nodded. “I’ll need more from you tomorrow night,” she said, looking down at her son. “That will be my first night without him.”
Linc shoved his hands in his pockets, then knelt down to kiss the top of Tyler’s head. “Bye, Ty,” he said.
She walked with him to the front door, where he stopped and rested his hand on her shoulder. “Are you regretting—I mean, maybe we shouldn’t have continued seeing each other when the whole custody thing came up.”
“I couldn’t have gotten through this without you,” she said. “I don’t regret us being together at all.”
He leaned over to kiss her goodbye, lightly, as if he wasn’t certain how she was feeling about him at that moment, and the reality of what she was about to do washed over her. She closed her arms around him, holding onto him, fighting hard against her tears. This was the last time she would see him.
“You’ve been my best friend for so long,” she whispered.
“And I always will be.”
“No matter what?”
“No matter what.”
She was as close as she’d come to telling him about her decision. She had to get him out the door before the words spilled from her mouth.
“You’ve got to go,” she said. “I love you.”
He looked suddenly alarmed. “You don’t sound like yourself, Susanna.”
She read his thoughts, saw the worry in his eyes. He thought she might do something really crazy. Kill both herself and Tyler. She nearly smiled at his misperception. She was over that now. That sort of depression could not get its grip on her again.
“I’m all right,” she said.
“Do you want me to be with you when Jim and Peggy come for Tyler tomorrow?”
She shook her head. “Tomorrow’s Wednesday. You have to tape your show.”
“The music’s already picked out. It doesn’t matter what time I get around to it.”
“I think I’d better do it alone,” she said.
“Well, if you change your mind, please—”
“I know. Thanks.” She leaned forward to kiss him. “I love you, Linc,” she said.
“I love you, too. And I’m going to call you later tonight to check on you, all right?”
“All right.” She wished he wouldn’t, but she couldn’t possibly tell him not to.
She shut the door quickly behind him and immediately went into action. She fed Tyler and got him into bed, read him a story. Then she positioned herself in front of the bathroom mirror, scissors in hand.
She had worn her blond hair long all her life. Very long. She probably could have selected a more flattering style, but she’d loved the way people stared at her hair, the way they wanted to touch it. She knew it made her look far younger than twenty-nine.
Her hand shook as she raised the scissors, and it shook as she placed them down on the sink again. Not yet. She’d do everything else she had to do first. But she got the bottle of dye she’d been saving for weeks from her bathroom cabinet. Copper Glow, the color was called. It was an auburn shade, and the woman on the package smiled coyly from beneath her deep, coppery bangs. Susanna read and reread the directions. She’d never dyed her hair before. She was a true blond. A pale blond. Her features belonged with blond hair. Nearly invisible eyebrows and eyelashes. Delicate white skin. Pale blue eyes that Tyler had inherited. She looked in the mirror and tried to imagine her face with darker hair. It wasn’t going to work. Her disappearing eyebrows would be a giveaway. No one with auburn hair would have such pale eyebrows. It said right on the package not to use the dye on eyebrows, but she was already breaking more rules than she could count. She would break that one as well.
She walked into her bedroom and reached between the mattress and box spring of her bed, pulling out a large, thick envelope. It held the copy of Kimberly Stratton’s birth certificate she’d sent for, using the information from the headstone in the cemetery. The envelope also held nearly eight thousand dollars she’d withdrawn from her savings account, as well as the copies of Tyler’s medical records she’d requested. The money was in hundreds and twenties, and she divided it up, slipping some of the bills into her purse, some into her duffel bag, and some into Tyler’s diaper bag. She left a thousand on her dresser to put in her pocket the following morning.
She made several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for herself and put them in a bag, along with some bananas, baby oatmeal, formula, crackers, and juice boxes. Then she carefully packed a few sets of clothing for Tyler and herself in the duffel bag. She did not let herself think about all the things she was leaving behind. It would do no good to dwell on losses. She would have her son. Her priorities were very clear.
She had done everything but cut and dye her hair by the time Linc called at eleven-thirty. She sat on the edge of her bed feeling wired and restless, but she tried instead to sound tired on the phone, yawning loudly, muffling her voice. She hated this dishonesty with the person who knew her better than anyone else.
“Are you getting depressed again?” Linc asked. There was anxiety behind the question.
“No, really, I’m fine. Just wiped out from this whole fiasco.” She looked at herself in her dresser mirror and pulled her hair away from her face, trying to imagine how she would look with her new identity. She would be a different person in the morning. A stronger person. More independent. Gutsy and self-reliant. She would have to be.
Linc was talking quietly, completely unsuspecting, probably picturing his sweet, blond girlfriend on the other end of the phone line, and suddenly, she could stand it no longer.
“Is it too late for me to request a certain song for your show Sunday night?”
“No. What would you like to hear?”
“‘Suzanne.'” It was one of her favorite songs, and Linc often sang it to her along with a dozen other songs that incorporated some variation of her name.
“I should have guessed,” Linc said. “Whose version?”
“The original.” She didn’t really care what version he played, but she knew that was Linc’s favorite.
“Leonard Cohen,” he said. “Okay.”
“Please make a note to do it.”
“I won’t forget.”
“I’m serious, Linc. I want you to write it down. Do you have a pen?”
“Uh—hang on. Yeah, I’ve got one.”
“Write down, ‘Susanna wants to hear me play “Suzanne” for her on Sunday night.'”
“How about we spend Sunday night listening to it together?”
“Please just write it down. Word for word.”
She heard him sigh.
“Okay,” he said. “I never knew you were so demanding.”
“Now tape it to your bathroom mirror.”
Linc laughed. “What’s with you, Suze?”
“Nothing’s with me. Just promise me you’ll tape it to the mirror in your bathroom before you go to bed tonight, okay?”
“If you say so.”
She drew the conversation to a quick close, afraid she might be tempted to give him even grander hints. Then she returned to her own bathroom. She read the directions on the dye through once more. This was it.
She focused on her image in the mirror as she raised the scissors to her hair, and with the first cut, high and deep, she knew there was no turning back. She was going to kill Susanna Miller. She was bringing Kimberly Stratton back to life.