'Flying Shoes,' Chapter One

Mary Byrd Thornton knew that breaking things was not a good, adult response to getting sudden, scary news about a terrible thing in the past, a thing buried with the dead and kicked to the curb of consciousness; but that was what she’d done anyway.

She’d been unloading the dishwasher, killing time until school let out and half-listening to NPR. The IRA had broken a truce and bombed London, unwanted rape babies—“enfants mauvais souvenir,” NPR called them—from the massacres in Rwanda over the past two years were abandoned and dying, some scientist was predicting global chaos, calling it Y2K—planes would be falling from the sky and subway trains colliding in the year 2000. Basically it was the usual news; what she and her brothers called every new day’s headlines: More Dead Everywhere. It always seemed like the world was a kitchen full of leaking gas just waiting for the careless match.

Even though it was February and the windows were closed against the cold, damp day, Mary Byrd could hear the knucklehead frat boys over on the next street, hollering and floating around in their hot tub like beer-sodden dumplings in a testosterone stew.

The phone had gone off—more an electronic alarm than a ring that she’d never gotten used to. Answering with one hand and turning off the radio with the other, Mary Byrd received the startling but somehow, she realized, not unexpected news that the unsolved case of her nine-year-old stepbrother’s murder, on Mother’s Day, 1966, was being reopened.

The call was from a detective in Richmond—what was his odd name? The voice was calm and polite, but strict, like a school teacher dealing with a balky problem child. He suggested—strongly—that she not discuss the unwelcome news outside her family until he’d had a chance to meet with them all. And the sooner the better for that, he said.

“In fact, if you can get up here in the next couple days that would be great. What’s happening is that we think we have some new information and we feel we can now go after, and try to convict, the suspect. If we . . .”

“Think?” Mary Byrd interrupted. “What do you mean? Like what new information?” She asked the question not feeling she wanted an answer.

“What I was going to say is that if we can get your family to look at some things, make an ID, we believe we’ve got this thing nailed.” Mary Byrd felt gooseflesh tightening on her arms. “What things?” Was he talking about her little green teen-aged diary, which had been confiscated and never returned? “Is it Ned Tuttle?” she asked. Tuttle, the creepy guy down the street who was the only suspect. She hated to say his name.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Thornton,” the detective said. “I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest, or in the interest of working the case, for us to talk about details over the phone. But it is pretty . . . I’d say critical, actually, for you and your family to meet with me up here very soon if at all possible. There’s a lot that needs to be discussed. I’m hoping that a meeting Monday morning will suit everybody. That gives you a little time, anyway.”