New York City, August 1955
The child fell, pulled to the earth by gravity at the rate predicted by Newton, velocity increasing 32 feet per second, each second he fell. Leo Ransom looked up at the baby’s sharp, shrill cries of terror. The little body seemed almost to float; even so, some part of him calculated the rate of the fall. Before entering the ministry, Leo taught piano at the Julliard School, focusing almost entirely on Bach’s music, especially his mathematically precise techniques of ornamentation. Leo loved calculations and numbers.
Leo lurched forward, stretching his arms up toward the tiny body, but it seemed to gather speed, rushing past him to the sidewalk. It landed at his feet. God have mercy. He froze, then crossed himself as lifeblood spread around him and upon him like scattered light. Stunned, newly ordained, uncertain, he looked up in disbelief, craning his neck, and saw two boys peering down from the roof of the fourteen-storied building. When they spotted Leo, the heads disappeared.
Leo blinked, not sure what he had seen. Cars and buses ground to a halt, and for a moment an eerie silence settled around him. Then Leo heard feet pounding on the pavement, and the street came to life. The ground seemed to shift beneath him, but he willed himself to hold steady.
Suddenly the door of the building burst open, slamming against the dirty brick wall; and a small boy, not more than eight years old, exploded onto the street. Tears streaked through the grime on his face, and his breath came in great gasps as he halted and stood rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on the little body lying on the sidewalk.
Later, each time Leo recalled this moment, he pictured a tableau, like an old sepia portrait—a closed circle containing himself, the boy, and the dead child—suspended, flat, and still.
The boy tore his eyes from the body and stared at Leo. He remained quiet, even after a woman in the distance began to scream.
Police and ambulances converged on the scene. Leo reported having seen two children peering over the low brick ledge on the roof when he looked up at the sound of the baby’s screams.
“Are you certain?” the policeman asked.
Leo sat on the ground now, cradling the rigid boy who had burst from the building. One hand cupped the boy’s head against his chest. “Yes,” he said. The boy was gangly, with long bones for such a young child, unmoving as Leo rocked with him back and forth. His clothes were worn, slightly oversized, but almost subconsciously Leo noted that the shirt and pants were carefully darned in several places.
Leo glanced up, and the policeman gave him a questioning look. He pressed the child closer to his chest and nodded to confirm his words. “I’m absolutely certain.”
“What’s your name, Father?”
“Ransom,” he replied. “Leo Ransom.” He glanced at the child in his arms, then at the small body still lying on the sidewalk, now covered with a white cloth, surrounded by medics, policemen, and a man in a rumpled business suit who seemed to be in charge.
“You know the...ah...the baby?” the policeman asked.
“No.” Leo shook his head. “I was just passing by.” His voice broke. He swallowed and went on. “The screams...I heard...”
“He’s almost three years old,” whispered a small voice. The policeman slid his eyes to the boy.
Over the child’s shoulder Leo saw the small body being lifted onto a stretcher. Gently, he placed a hand at the side of the boy’s face to block his view of the frantic scene.
“How do you know that, son?”
The child hesitated, then raised his head and stared at the policeman. When he finally spoke, his tone was strange, tight and flat. His fists were clenched, ridged tendons stretched the length of his forearms. A tiger coiled to spring, Leo thought.
“He’s Sam. He’s my brother.”
The policeman watched the boy for a moment.
“What’s your name?”
“Little Guy.” The policeman sucked air, then blew out his cheeks as he pulled a small notebook from the breast pocket of his short-sleeved blue shirt. “Okay. We’ll come back to that.” He stooped down to eye level with the boy.
“Were you on the roof?” he asked in a low voice.
The boy nodded, mute.
The policeman thought about that a moment. “Then how did you get down here so fast?” he finally asked.
The boy’s chest rose and fell. An ugly flush crept up his neck and along the sides of his face, and his eyes filled again with tears. He seemed to gasp the answer. “I ran.”
The policeman’s gaze swept up the fourteen-storied building, then he looked back at the child in disbelief. “You ran down all of those stairs in that short time?”
The boy nodded once again, and a small sob escaped. He stared at the policeman and shuddered.
The boy looked away. After a moment he said, in that same strange, flat tone, “I thought that...maybe...I could catch him.”
Months later Little Guy sat beside his mother on a long wooden bench in a small courtroom. The ceiling was high, but the stark white walls seemed to close around him. On the other side of him was Father Ransom. Father Leo, he remembered. Little Guy caught his mother’s eye and managed a weak smile.
Streaks of flinty light filtered through dirty windows high up in the courtroom, near the ceiling. The room was packed with spectators, reporters, some friends of Little Guy’s mother and a few people who seemed to know the two boys, Jesse Reardon and Malo Sanchez, the killers, sitting at a long table in front of the room, to the left, just inside a low, wooden railing. Another long table inside the railing on the right was piled high with books and papers. Two men dressed in dark suits sat at this second table, drumming their fingers, making notes with pencils on a tablet before them as they talked. Little Guy had seen them all before.
Father Leo had remained with Little Guy through the long ordeal of staring spectators, questioning policemen, ambulance drivers, and doctors on that day . . . the day that Sam died. When his mother arrived at the hospital, Father Leo had explained…passing by…Sam…the boys…Little Guy. He’d prayed with Mother, stayed with them.
Sitting in the courtroom, Little Guy struggled to forget that day, but pictures flashed into his mind, then disappeared and reappeared like pop-ups in a haunted house . . . people crowding, pressing, crying. The wailing ambulance—one for Sam, one for him. Father Leo’s black suit with the thin white circle around his neck. His mother’s heaving sobs, leaning on Father Leo. Some things were sharp and clear, faces looking down at him with pity and, just behind, a white sheet covering Sam—it was soaked in blood—and a nurse who brought hot chocolate.
Finally, after a long wait, Father Leo had bundled Little Guy and his mother into a taxi and took them home. Little Guy shuddered, hating to think of it even now—walking into the apartment in the late afternoon when light turns dull and gray. Without Sam the rooms were empty, damp, and cold. Father Leo stayed with him until he’d fallen asleep.
Now in the courtroom Little Guy felt ice blades slice through his stomach and shuddered. His mother slipped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. Little Guy looked up at Mother, then at Father Leo. Since that day, the day that Sam had died, Father Leo visited his mother and him several times a week, bringing treats for him and, once, flowers for his mother. After the flowers his mother began taking him to Father Leo’s church on Sunday mornings. It was the Apostolic Church, Father Leo said. God’s house.
There was a big gold cross inside the church, up at the front under a window with colored glass, and the cross gleamed in the light on sunny days. Sometimes Father Leo played the piano just for Mother and him after everyone had left and the place was empty, dark, and cool. Church wasn’t so bad, Little Guy decided. Besides, he liked having someone to call “father.” His own had been gone for years—just disappeared one day. He’d been sitting on the stoop in front of the apartment house, down near the sidewalk, when his father had come hurrying out the front door with a small brown suitcase in his hand. When he’d spotted Little Guy, he’d given a large sigh; and even though his father had grinned down at him, Little Guy remembered how cold he’d felt at the sound of that sigh.
His father sat down next to Little Guy on the stoop, fished a silver dollar from his pocket, and flipped it from one finger to the next, over and under, like he was thinking hard. Then with another sigh he’d handed it to Little Guy. Little Guy still had that dollar.
He’d held the coin in the flat of his hand, examining it. “What’s this for?” he’d asked.
“Won it at the races,” his father said with a strange, sad smile. “It’s yours to keep. Remember this son,” he’d added as he pushed himself up from the step. “There’s not a lot in life that you can count on. But that dollar coin there—it’s got real silver in it. That’s something real enough—you can always count on that. I’d give you more, but your mama took the rest, and that’s all I’ve got today.” He’d chucked Little Guy underneath his chin and smiled again, tipped his hat to the back of his head, turned, and walked away. Little Guy had watched until his father rounded the corner and he couldn’t see him any more.
Every day for weeks and weeks Little Guy had waited on the stoop for his father to come home. Finally one day he’d understood. His father wasn’t coming back. He’d wrapped the silver dollar in some tissue paper then and put it into a small brown box that he tucked at the back of his underwear drawer; right next to the round, white “I like Ike” button.
And now Father Leo came to visit. Little Guy wondered if he’d ever stay—take his father’s place. He banished thoughts of his own father, angry thoughts. Sometimes Father Leo sat with his mother in the kitchen for hours, just like a real father might. They spoke in low, serious tones over cups of coffee; and he noticed that sometimes the tips of their fingers touched across the table while they talked, just lightly, as if resting there. When occasionally the talk came around to Sam and God, he’d listened, trying to understand. Once he’d asked Father Leo where God was. “Why can’t I see him?”
“He’s invisible,” Father Leo had said after a moment.
The boy thought this was probably a trick, but he kept the thought to himself. Father Leo had patted his arm and smiled.
This courtroom reminded him of Father Leo’s church, Little Guy mused as he looked around. Except the church was dark, and this room was bright. Both places were closed in, though, with a funny, musty odor. An old, stale smell. Both places reminded him of Sam. But Sam was dead.
Just before coming to the courthouse for the first time about one week ago, Father Leo sat with Little Guy at the kitchen table, wearing a grave expression as he told what to expect that day, that Little Guy would see the boys who had dropped Sam from the roof. His brown eyes sloped down at the corners, and bushy brows drew together as he talked while he tapped his fingers on the table like he was playing a piano. Little Guy had tried to smile as if he didn’t care, fixing on those long, thin fingers; but his eyes blurred, and his lip trembled.
“Sam lives with God now,” Father Leo said gently. “He’s in a happier place. God will take care of him.”
An image of Sam’s little body falling from the roof flashed before Little Guy, and he’d turned his eyes to Father Leo. “What if he doesn’t?” he’d asked.
“Doesn’t take care of Sam.”
Father Ransom had smiled and put his hand on Little Guy’s shoulder. “Of course he will, son. God’s with us all the time. He loves us. He’ll take care of Sam.”
Little Guy hesitated as a rush swooped from his head to his feet and turned his stomach upside down. He caught his breath, fighting the nausea as he thought of Sam falling. Why did Sam have to die?
He must have spoken out loud because Father Leo’s hand had tightened on Little Guy’s shoulder for an instant and his smile died. After a moment he said, “God has reasons that we can never understand, Little Guy.” His voice was firm, resolute. “It’s a fact that Sam’s in a happy place now. He’s with God.”
Little Guy dropped his eyes and thought about Father Leo’s words. How could this be true? Sam, dressed in a little blue-and-white playsuit, with his baby-silk hair carefully parted and brushed to one side, lay alone in a box in a graveyard just across the river, outside the city. Little Guy had seen him put there. It occurred to him that Father Leo might be wrong about God and Sam. But he pushed the thought aside. What if Father Leo became angry and left—like his father had left him? What if he stopped visiting, stopped calling Little Guy “son”? So Little Guy tucked the corners of his mouth into a smile and nodded.
The bench was hard, and Little Guy had been sitting still in this courtroom for a long time. He shifted his buttocks, and his mother rubbed his shoulder in an absent manner. He looked up at her, but she stared straight ahead with her lips pressed together. He sighed, then straightened as a door in the back of the room opened, a loud unintelligible announcement was made, and a large man dressed in black robes entered. His mother stood, and Little Guy slid from the bench, shuffling his feet.
A week ago, when he’d first seen this man dressed all in black like Father Leo, Little Guy thought he was a priest.
His mother had shook her head. “This is a judge,” she’d whispered. “He’s here to decide how to punish the boys that dropped Sam from the roof. It’s his job.”
Little Guy stared at the judge and hoped that the killers would be beaten to death. That’s how he thought of Jesse and Malo . . . the killers. Or that they’d be left to starve on an island filled with tigers and poison snakes. Alone.
When the judge took his seat behind a large wooden desk high above everyone else in the room, Little Guy’s mother sat back down, and he followed suit. He reached only to his mother’s shoulder, and he had to tilt his head up to see the judge. This was an important day, Mother had said. When the judge began to speak in a solemn tone, Little Guy waited to hear Sam’s name, but instead the judge used the same old words that Father Leo used in church on Sundays, words like remorse, society, and a long one—redemption. Little Guy’s thoughts began to drift while the judge went on, his voice humming, rising and falling in the distance, settling into a rhythm.
Pictures of that day skittered through Little Guy’s mind, and he squeezed his eyes tight to shut them out. Still they came. Two killers. Malo’s hateful laughter as Jesse held Sam’s little legs, dangling him upside down from the edge of the roof. Even now he could feel Malo’s iron grip twisting his arms behind his back while he struggled, fighting, begging them not to hurt his baby brother. He could hear them laughing when he’d jerked free, moving toward Sam.
Memories struck in flashes now, like bolts of lightning from the past piercing darkness. Images formed, then disappeared. But suddenly in the courtroom Little Guy heard . . . no felt . . . the scream that rose from his bowels that day. Let him go! The words rang through his mind as the agony of that moment—the pain of it—hit him; and he doubled over, dropping his head onto his knees. The courtroom spun. His mother bent toward him, rubbing his back in small, worried circles.
Jesse holding Sam. “Let him go?” Jesse had laughed. Then he’d given Little Guy a long look. “Did you say to let him go?”
Too late he’d realized the mistake. Little Guy groaned, remembering. Shards of light ripped through his mind. He couldn’t breathe as the hateful voice repeated the question. “Did you say to let him go?”
The white light flashed. He saw himself tearing down the narrow stairs, dark and dirty . . . slipping on a concrete landing wet with something sticky, the smell of sweat and something else, something sickening as he was chased by the mocking words.
Did you say to let him go?
His mother pulled him upright, slipped her arm around him, and held him fast against her. She was soft and warm. Little Guy forced his eyes open with a deep, shuddering breath and stared at the backs of the two boys that killed Sam. A woman sat with them. Cold fear crawled through him as he watched her. He’d seen her before; she’d made him sit in the big chair next to the judge while she asked questions. Her smile was tight, and her eyes were hard. When she’d walked over to him, stalking, he’d shrunk from her. Jesse and Malo had watched him, and he glimpsed Malo whispering something to Jesse, who snickered.
From the chair he’d searched the crowd behind the railing for his mother. His eyes blurred as he found her, sitting there with Father Leo, and Malo had laughed again. When the woman began asking questions in sharp staccato bursts, Little Guy’s heart pounded; and he shifted in the chair, moving closer to the judge. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he found he couldn’t answer.
“The judge will protect you, son,” Father Leo had told him. “That’s what he’s here for. He’s a good man.”
At Little Guy’s frightened look, Father Ransom had patted his shoulder. “I promise, son.” That was one week ago, and he’d held on to those words, repeating them to himself in the dark just before he fell asleep each night. He had thought of Father Leo’s promise each day as he woke and looked to the empty bed across the room he’d shared with Sam.
Then yesterday, the day had come. Father Leo had promised, and the promise gave him courage to go into the courtroom and to walk up to the chair all by himself. He had relaxed a bit when he saw that the chair was near the judge.
But he was surprised.
“Up there on the roof,” the lady had begun in a quiet voice. “What did you do when you saw that your little brother was in danger?”
Flashing lights blinded him. He couldn’t breathe.
“Little Guy?” Her voice was lower this time. “Little Guy?”
He looked up at her, not understanding.
“I asked, What did you do when you saw Sam in danger on the roof?” She moved toward him, and her voice turned to steel. “Did you try to help your baby brother, Little Guy?” She waited. “Little Guy?”
His tongue was thick; he couldn’t speak. Against his will the pictures came again. A flash of light . . . white sunshine . . . hot up on that roof. Sam crying, crying.
Her voice came from far away. Did you say to let him go?
Himself lurching away from Malo with a surge of strength. Reaching for Sam. Grabbing, pushing, fists flying, punching. And then . . . Jesse’s round eyes gaping at him. And Jesse’s empty hands.
He gasped. The room whirled.
From far away Little Guy heard the judge’s stern voice. “Answer the questions young man.”
The judge’s words came to him in a stream of pulsing beats, low and ominous like far-off drums. Confused, he couldn’t think . . . didn’t want to think . . . to remember any more. Twisting around to look up at the judge: “I tried to catch him; tried to catch him.” His voice broke, and tears ran down his cheeks. “It wasn’t my fault. I tried to catch him,” he cried.
A man helped him down from the chair, carried him from the room, sobbing. Everything turned black. When he awoke, his mother was by his side. And Father Leo.
“It’s all right, my boy,” Father Leo whispered. “The judge will see they’re punished—Jesse and Malo. It’s their fault, not yours.” Little Guy gave him a close look, wanting to believe.
“I promise, Little Guy.”
Suddenly his mother tensed beside him. The memories disappeared, and he looked up. The judge had stopped talking and was putting on his glasses, tucking them carefully behind each ear. Then he picked up a piece of paper that lay on the desk before him, cleared his throat, and began to read aloud.
“The defense has presented evidence in this case raising a valid question: which one of the three boys was the proximate cause of the child’s death. Or to put it another way, which boy actually caused the child to fall.” The judge glanced with a frown over the top of his glasses at the two men before him in dark business suits, then at the crowd behind the railing.
“It seems the actions of the child’s older brother may have contributed somehow to the tragedy,” he went on. His mother’s arm around him tightened, and she drew in her breath. “The extent of his responsibility for the child’s death is undetermined, and in fact,” the judge took off his eyeglasses and wiped them carefully, then settled them back upon the bridge of his nose, “we will probably never know what really happened on that rooftop.”
Jesse seated at the table just in front of the judge, turned to scan the rows of spectators behind him. His eyes swept past Little Guy and his mother with disinterest, then assuming a bored look, he jammed his hands into his pockets, slid down in his chair, and gazed out the windows.
“Society has failed these two boys. They’re victims as well.” The judge’s voice grew loud and stern. Little Guy saw him nod toward the killers. “They’ve never had an opportunity to learn the difference between right and wrong. No one has ever taught them how to behave. No one has looked out for them or cared for them.” His voice rose. “Not their teachers, not welfare workers, not friends, not family . . . no one.” The judge paused for an instant and scowled over the silent room.
“Therefore, given all the circumstances, I cannot in good conscience grant the state’s motion to try these boys as adults under a charge of first-degree murder.” He fixed his eyes on the two men in dark suits. “They will be tried as juveniles, and the court proposes to the prosecution that a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, would be more appropriate for consideration.”
At a cry from his mother, Little Guy’s head swiveled. Her mouth contorted, twisting as she stared up at the judge, and tears spilled. Father Leo reached for her hand and, folding it between his two, patted it. People around them began to rise, talking in hushed whispers as they picked up coats and bags and hats, preparing to leave.
Little Guy’s stomach roiled with fear. His eyes snapped to the judge, who was removing his glasses, wiping them with a corner of his full, black sleeve. Little Guy watched as he looked up and laughed at something one of the men in dark suits said. The man said something to the woman, and she smiled, too.
Father Leo bent toward Little Guy’s mother. “There’s a trial yet to go through, Rebecca,” he whispered. “You must be brave. It will turn out right in the end.”
“No!” Her painful cry shot through the room, piercing Little Guy. The judge looked up and frowned. Little Guy’s eyes shifted from Father Leo to his mother, to the killers, and then to the woman with them. The woman who had tormented him yesterday. She wore a bright smile now.
Father Leo stroked Mother’s hand again.
“It won’t be all right, Leo,” he heard his mother say as she released Little Guy from her grip. “The judge doesn’t care about Sam, or Little Guy, or me.” With her knuckles she rubbed the tears from her eyes. Little Guy stared at his mother. Until Sam died, he’d never seen her cry.
“You know as well as I do those two thugs will be back on the street in a few years.” She spat the words. “They’re old enough to murder my baby,” suddenly her voice broke, “but not for real prison.” A bitter laugh was cut short by a sob. “Think of it! Manslaughter! Why, they’ll be free in a couple of years.” She paused, swallowing; her hands flew up, and she lunged forward, hiding her face. “I should never have left my boys alone to wander the streets.” Little Guy saw her shoulders heave.
“Rebecca,” Father Leo said, bending over her. “You’re not to blame! Think clearly. You had no choice. You were working.”
She moaned. “I can’t bear this. I just cannot bear it.”
Little Guy turned her words over in his mind. She couldn’t be right. His eyes slid back to the judge. What had happened? The judge glanced at his watch and rose, still chuckling, and in that instant Little Guy understood. There would be no beating; there would be no island prison with tigers and snakes for Sam’s killers. Little Guy gave Father Leo a sideways glance; Father Leo had promised the judge was a good man.
His mother’s voice broke through her son’s building rage. “How can this be? It’s insane.” She turned to Leo and collapsed against him, sobbing. “You’re a priest! How could your God let this happen?”
Little Guy fixed his eyes on the back of his mother’s head; looked at the coils of red-gold hair that stuck to the nape of her neck in the heat, looked at Father Leo’s hand smoothing those curls while she wept.
“And, worst of all,” he heard her gulp as she lifted her head and looked up at the priest, “Did I hear right? Did the judge say that…that…Little Guy might have been part to blame?” Her voice rose to a shrill pitch, and her hands curled into fists at her side. “Did he say that my boy might have caused Sam to fall?”
Little Guy froze. What did she say?
He gripped the edge of the hard wooden bench and turned, staring at the woman still standing next to Jesse and Malo at the table in front of the room, and the question she’d asked came back to him. Did you try to help your baby brother?
His heart began to race. A sheen of sweat glazed his neck and arms as his heart pounded in his chest. In rapid succession it beat . . . no no . . . no no . . . no no . . . That wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. He wouldn’t think of that.
Did you try to help your baby brother, Little Guy?
Suddenly, with a roaring in his ears, fury surged through Little Guy, a powerful force that struck him as he turned his gaze to the judge. The torrent of hate flowed from him like a vaporous cloud, engulfing the judge, Jesse and Malo, and the woman with them, and the awful accusation. The merciful cloud filled Little Guy as well, swelling within him, shrouding the ugly pictures in his mind. He lifted his chin, gasping for air as he fought for control.
He would not let them see him cry. He would not think of that day. He would not cry. The words ran through his mind: It’s not my fault it’s not my fault it’s not my fault.
Jesse turned, and Little Guy’s eyes locked with his. He saw a blurred, sneering grin; then Jesse’s mouth formed the words that would haunt him all his life: You said to let him go.