The Witness

By: Nora Roberts


The barb in the arrow of childhood suffering is this:

its intense loneliness; its intense ignorance.

OLIVE SCHREINER





1


June 2000

ELIZABETH FITCH’S SHORT-LIVED TEENAGE REBELLION BEGAN with L’Oréal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID. It ended in blood.

For nearly the whole of her sixteen years, eight months and twenty-one days she’d dutifully followed her mother’s directives. Dr. Susan L. Fitch issued directives, not orders. Elizabeth had adhered to the schedules her mother created, ate the meals designed by her mother’s nutritionist and prepared by her mother’s cook, wore the clothes selected by her mother’s personal shopper.

Dr. Susan L. Fitch dressed conservatively, as suited—in her opinion—her position as chief of surgery of Chicago’s Silva Memorial Hospital. She expected, and directed, her daughter to do the same.

Elizabeth studied diligently, accepting and excelling in the academic programs her mother outlined. In the fall, she’d return to Harvard in pursuit of her medical degree. So she could become a doctor, like her mother—a surgeon, like her mother.

Elizabeth—never Liz or Lizzie or Beth—spoke fluent Spanish, French, Italian, passable Russian and rudimentary Japanese. She played both piano and violin. She’d traveled to Europe, to Africa. She could name all the bones, nerves and muscles in the human body and play Chopin’s Piano Concerto—both Nos. 1 and 2, by rote.

She’d never been on a date or kissed a boy. She’d never roamed the mall with a pack of girls, attended a slumber party or giggled with friends over pizza or hot fudge sundaes.

She was, at sixteen years, eight months and twenty-one days, a product of her mother’s meticulous and detailed agenda.

That was about to change.

She watched her mother pack. Susan, her rich brown hair already coiled in her signature French twist, neatly hung another suit in the organized garment bag, then checked off the printout with each day of the week’s medical conference broken into subgroups. The printout included a spreadsheet listing every event, appointment, meeting and meal, scheduled with the selected outfit, with shoes, bag and accessories.

Designer suits; Italian shoes, of course, Elizabeth thought. One must wear good cuts, good cloth. But not one rich or bright color among the blacks, grays, taupes. She wondered how her mother could be so beautiful and deliberately wear the dull.

After two accelerated semesters of college, Elizabeth thought she’d begun—maybe—to develop her own fashion sense. She had, in fact, bought jeans and a hoodie and some chunky-heeled boots in Cambridge.

With cash, so the receipt wouldn’t show up on her credit card bill, in case her mother or their accountant checked and questioned the items, which were currently hidden in her room.

She’d felt like a different person wearing them, so different she’d walked straight into a McDonald’s and ordered her first Big Mac with large fries and a chocolate shake.

The pleasure had been so huge, she’d had to go into the bathroom, close herself in a stall and cry a little.

The seeds of the rebellion had been planted that day, she supposed, or maybe they’d always been there, dormant, and the fat and salt had awakened them.

But she could feel them, actually feel them, sprouting in her belly now.

“Your plans changed, Mother. It doesn’t follow that mine have to change with them.”

Susan took a moment to precisely place a shoe bag in the Pullman, tucking it just so with her beautiful and clever surgeon’s hands, the nails perfectly manicured. A French manicure, as always—no color there, either.

“Elizabeth.” Her voice was as polished and calm as her wardrobe. “It took considerable effort to reschedule and have you admitted to the summer program this term. You’ll complete the requirements for your admission into Harvard Medical School a full semester ahead of schedule.”

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