A/N: Yes, this story is about Munchausen by Proxy. Yes, it contains crimes against children. You have been warned.
I slowly inched my way to the podium when they called my name. My legs trembled beneath me so much I feared for a split second I wouldn’t make it. I had been coached all afternoon on what to say and how to say it. I had to appear strong and unafraid.
“The defense can smell fear.” Mr. Montgomery, the district attorney, had said. I only half believed he was joking. I wondered how strong I would appear if I fainted from nerves before I even gave my testimony.
“Answer only what you’re asked; don’t volunteer information. Sit up straight and give your answers confidently. If you don’t remember a date or event say, ‘I don’t recall,’ not ‘I don’t remember.’’ “I don’t recall’ means at the moment you’re not sure, but it could come back to you at any time.”
There was so much I was supposed to remember I didn’t think I could. All those medication names and side effects, most of which I couldn’t pronounce even if I read them off a slip of paper. They were kidding themselves if they thought I could “recall” any of this stuff off the top of my head. In truth, I had spent the last three years trying to bury the events of the past.
When I somehow miraculously managed to get to the front of the courtroom on my own two feet, I placed one hand on the bible and the other in the air.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God?”
“I do.” My dry mouth made it sound more like a croak than any intelligible words, but the bailiff seemed satisfied. He led me into what seemed like a box and I took my seat. The microphone was positioned about two feet taller than where I sat, and I struggled not to focus on how many people were waiting on me as I fiddled with it.
“Are you ready?” The judge asked.
“Yes,” I squeaked. I knew I didn’t sound very convincing. “Your honor.” I threw out at the last minute. I could see Mr. Montgomery give me a smile and a thumbs up.
“Please state your name for the record.”
“Eliza Anne Thompson, sir.”
“How old are you, Eliza?”
The lawyers began to talk amongst themselves, before one of them, a tall slender man with brown peppered hair stepped forward from the defense side.
“Are we ready to begin?” The judge asked.
“Yes, your honor.”
“Then you may proceed.”
“Eliza, may I ask how you came to know the defendant, Miss Debrah Marie Martnif?”
“How do you know Miss Martnif?”
“We were next door neighbors.” I replied. Her name ringing in my ears made my stomach do flip flops in revulsion. I briefly surveyed my surroundings wondering if there was a trashcan nearby in case I got sick. I spotted one by my feet to the left of me. I must not be the only one concerned about losing their lunch. I mentally thanked myself for skipping lunch. And breakfast. And the previous night’s dinner.
“How long have you been next door neighbors?”
“Since 1999? And you know that as a fact?”
“What year were you born, Eliza?”
“So you know, for a fact, she lived there for six years before you were even born?”
I bit down on the inside of my lip as I tried to calm myself. I didn’t like the condescending tone in his voice. Mr. Montgomery warned me not to take anything personally.
“Have you seen with your own eyes the deed to the property?”
“How about a renters agreement?”
“Then how do you know for sure when they moved in?”
“My parents told me.” I said, before taking a sip of water from the glass on the podium. It was hard to talk with my mouth and throat so dry. I was trying to sound confident, but my cracking voice gave me away. The defense attorney laughed.
“Oh, your parents told you, did they?”
“And like a good little girl you believe everything your parents tell you?”
“N-no, I mean yes, I mean. . . “
The defense attorney laughed again along with a quarter of the courtroom.
“Oh to be a naive kid again. Well, according to the renters agreement I have here, Miss Debbrah Martnif moved into the house in the summer of ‘97 not ‘99.”
Wow, I was a whopping 2 years off. I struggled to keep a straight face and not let my skepticism show.
“So i’m sorry to burst your bubble of innocence, but your parents aren’t always right.” I looked at him in his fancy suit and tie feeling dumbfounded. I was fifteen. A teenager. Of course I didn’t think my parents were always right. “Which brings me to my point.” He went on pacing back and forth before stopping and looking me dead in the eyes. “If your parents are wrong about this, then I wonder what other preconceived notions your parents filled your head with?”
I sucked in a lung full of air. Mr. Montgomery nodded in my direction. It was now or never.
“That she was a kind and caring woman who was down on her luck.”
“That’s what your parents told you?”
“And was she?”
“I found out what she really was.”
“And what was she, Eliza?”
For the first time since the trial started I gathered all my strength and looked directly at Debbie, sitting with her lawyers. We made eye contact and she smirked up at me.
It was October of 2017, and my parents decided to travel to Europe for a month leaving behind my younger sister and I. To most twelve year olds, this action was on par to high treason. I had begged, pleaded, cried, bit, spat, thrown tantrums and any other attention seeking behavior I could think of. I was never the most well behaved child to begin with, but being told my sister and I would be left in the care of our neighbor Debbie for an entire month had sent me into a destructive tail spin.
I had nothing against the woman, she was an icon in our neighborhood and her fundraisers had even been featured several times on the local news. People revered her for her struggles and her strength to get through them. They held her up to almost god status. If she asked you to jump, you asked, “how high?” If she said she needed her gutters cleaned, men formed a team and emptied those gutters, along with washing her car, mowing her lawn, trimming the trees, planting flowers, and fixing a leak in the roof. There were no ulterior motives either. Yes, she was a widow, but she wasn’t Miss America or anything. People just genuinely wanted to help.
When the family first moved in, years before I was even born, There was Debbie, her husband Paul, and her two sons, Jackson and James. I never knew Jackson, who was a good nine years older than me, but I’m told he was really sick for a long time. I don’t know the name of the illness he had, but it left him permanently bound in a wheelchair. As he got older, the disease progressed faster until it left him practically a vegetable. When he died at the age of nineteen, I vaguely remember bringing them a casserole with my family. I don’t know why my mother felt the need to rub salt in their wounds by presenting them with her cooking, but it’s tradition I guess.
James on the other hand, was only a year older than me and had been my closest friend at one time. We’d spend the summers over at each other’s houses and play in his large backyard in the trees. We’d pretend to get lost in the jungle and made up our own secret and primitive language to communicate with the “locals”, Aka the neighbors cat and the occasional grasshopper. We’d click our tongues together to signal whether the path up ahead was safe, or dangerous. One click for yes, and two for no. Sometime’s the indigionous wild tribes we’d stumble across meant us harm and we’d tap out a secret rhythm, that sounded suspiciously like the theme song to “What’s New Scooby Doo” on the nearest object to signal to our comrades behind us to back away slowly as we did the same.
When it was time for lunch, Debbie would call us back with a wild howl like a wolf and James and I would traverse the wild jungle once again in search of substance. We’d drag ourselves to the picnic table, telling tales of how we barely escaped with our lives from the invisible army of tribesmen along the back wall with their spears still clutched in their hands. We’d tell Debbie how we hadn’t eaten for days and how we thought we’d never see civilization again. I had really enjoyed my afternoons over there. It was amazing that even while caring for Jackson full time, Debbie always had time to indulge us in our little made up games and make us lunch.
Bad luck seemed to curse that family though. After Jackson had died when I was around seven or eight, it had only taken two years for Paul to follow suit. He had suffered a heart attack and gone peacefully in his sleep. This is when James’ behaviour towards me had started to change. He was no longer the happy kid I remembered him to be. He grew cynical and criticized all of my ideas. I’d often come home in tears and soon we grew apart.
By the time I was ten I had heard the terrible news. James had begun showing symptoms of the same disease that had taken his older brother. My parents commented on how terrible it must be for Debbie. She had already lost a child and her husband, now the only surviving relative looked as if he might suffer the same slow and painful death. The neighborhood had rallied together to raise funds for her for James treatment when it looked like she might be evicted. There were bake sales, yardsales, car washes, movie nights, anything anyone could come up with to help the struggling broken family. Together they had managed to raise her $15,000. That’s when she ended up on the news. No matter what travesty happened though, she always managed to keep her head up and a smile on her face. That’s why so many people seemed to admire her and I was one of them.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Debbie, but rather I don’t know how to explain it. Something didn’t feel right. The issue had never been Debbie at all that made me dread my stay. It was seeing James. No longer the fun spirited boy I once knew, but a prisoner to a disease I couldn’t possibly understand. My heart broke for him on the occasions I’d see him in his adult stroller getting loaded into the minivan her church had given her to help transport him. No longer able to climb the trees he once loved, instead he just sat there staring off into the distance.
I begged my mom one more time to let me stay anywhere else as we pulled our belongings out the front door.
“I don’t want to hear it.” my mom said. “We’re paying her twice the amount of anyone else to watch you.”
“Why? I don’t even want to go there!”
“Because she could really use the money, and we need a babysitter. It’s a win win.”
“Why not just give her money and let me stay somewhere else?”
“Because sometimes adults don’t want things just handed to them.” she explained. “Sometimes it feels better to earn an income than it does getting it for free.” I scrunched up my face in confusion.
“I love getting things for free.”
“You’re a kid. It’s different as an adult.”
“Free stuff!” my little sister Lily chimed in. She was only four.
“Ugh, why is Lily’s bag so heavy?” I groaned as I hoisted it up the curb. “Are you sure you’re not just leaving us there and running away forever?”
“Oops, you caught me.”
“Don’t joke like that!” I had never been one to show affection, hugs and kisses from mom and dad were for little kids, and I prided myself on my tough exterior. Now the sudden fear of being abandoned made me want to hug my mom and even put up with her kisses if it meant not being left here. I had always been a rowdy tom boy, my sister on the other hand was a princess. We were complete opposites. The only conclusion I could come up with was that Lily was adopted and my mother faked her pregnancy.
“It’s the bag of pull ups and diapers that are so heavy.” My mom said while a plastic princess potty was tucked under one arm.
“She’s going to be in diapers until highschool.” I said. There was one thing my sister and I did have in common though. We were stubborn. If there was something we didn’t want to do, we put our foot down and wouldn’t budge. Potty training hadn’t been on Lily’s priority list it seemed, despite already being four.
We had just finally managed to get her into pull ups instead of diapers, but when my mom had commented the other night about how leaving might make her backslide, I was pissed. They already treated me like Lily’s live-in babysitter. This was the fifth time we had managed to get her into pull-ups but it felt like something as simple as a cold, a change in schedule, or a shift in the wind made her regress. Guess who got stuck with 75% of the work when I got home from school. Me. If my mom and dad were leaving knowing full well it was going to make Lily go back to diapers again, they could deal with the consequences. I was done.
“Please behave yourself.” my mom said before she set everything down to ring the doorbell. I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious, I don’t want you giving this poor woman any attitude. She has enough to deal with without your snark.”
Was my mom trying to pick a fight because it sounded to me like she was trying to pick a fight. I was already in a foul mood at being forced to come here and here she was trying to twist the knife.
She quickly plastered on a fake smile as Debbie answered the door, who beckoned us in with an equally cheesy grin. We set all our stuff by the door, three full suitcases, and followed her around the house. It was a little different than I remembered, but not by much. Some of the appliances had been upgraded, there was no longer a bathtub but a walk in shower, and the porch and backyard had ramps. I took a moment to admire the large flat screen television in the living room, that definitely hadn’t been there the last time I had been over.
I remembered sitting with James on the carpet watching cartoons after school on their old bulky Sony television from the 90’s that sat in the hutch. I used to give him a hard time because it still had a VCR connected to it instead of a Dvd player. I didn’t really understand how strapped for cash they were with Jackson’s medical bills. I had only seen his brother a handful of times, despite this place once having been a second home to me. He had been bedridden, and his room had been strictly off limits.
I sat on the leather couch, another new addition, and surveyed my new prison while my mom and Lily stood in the hall talking.
“If she gives you any trouble feel free to smack her.” I heard my mom say. I thought they were talking about Lily, until I heard Debbie’s response.
“I can’t imagine her being any trouble. She was always so well behaved and such a delight to have around.”
My mom let out a bark of laughter.
“That was pre-hormones.” That seemed to be all she needed to explain for Debbie to understand because that’s all my mom had to say about me before rattling off Lily’s schedule. I had almost completely zoned out before I heard my mom say, “Don’t worry about changing diapers, Eliza can take care of all that.” Before I could stop myself, I was on my feet and storming over to set the record straight.
“I am not changing Lily’s diapers!” My mother glared at me, but I held my ground. “What’s the point of hiring a babysitter if you still expect me to do all the work?”
“Eliza!” my mother hissed. “I’m so sorry, Debbie, like I said, if she mouths off, you have my permission to punish her however you think is best. I’m sure it won’t come to that though because her attitude is going to stop. This. Instant. Isn’t it?” She finished her last sentence glaring daggers at me.
“It’s not a problem.” Debbie replied, raising and lowering her hands to try and calm us down. “Of course I don’t expect you to change diapers, sweetie.” She told me. I relaxed almost at once. “She won’t even need pull-ups by the time you pick her up.”
I doubted that, but I appreciated her optimistic demeanor. My mom also looked skeptical.
“We’ve been trying all year, but…” My mom trailed off. There had been talk of getting Lily tested for autism. My mom had said Lily was a little slower than other kids her age, but I had nothing to compare her to. Lily was just Lily to me.
Debbie still insisted she could handle it.
When I watched my mom leave, my insides were a convoluted mess of emotions which fought each other for dominance. I didn’t know whether to celebrate or break down and cry. I was angry, hurt, happy and depressed all at once. I realized I must have been staring at the front door longer than necessary when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“A month will pass in no time, sweetie. You’re going to have so much fun you won’t even notice they’re gone.” She leaned down to whisper in my ear, and my face scrunched in pain and confusion as I felt fingernails digging into my shoulder blades. “Now I know you won’t be giving me any trouble this month, will you?” Her voice was no longer sweet and syrupy. I swallowed and sucked in my breath.
“That’s what I like to hear.” All at once the pain and pressure in my shoulders dissipated, and her voice returned to its normal upbeat and chipper tone. “Now why don’t you be the sweet girl I remember and take your sister outback and play.”