Chapter no 11

A Flicker in the Dark

The discovery of Aubrey’s earring is not a good one. The sight of it pushed into the graveyard dirt had made my blood run cold, the implications of it draping over the entire search party like a fire blanket, extinguishing the flame that had been pulsing through the cemetery minutes before. Everyone’s shoulders sagged a little more after that, their heads hung a little lower.

And I was left thinking of Lena.

I drove straight to my office after I left Cypress Cemetery; I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take the noises—the screaming cicadas and the crunching of shoes against dead grass, the occasional snorts and spits of the search party, the buzz of a mosquito followed by a rogue slap of the skin in the distance. Khaki-cargo-pants seemed to be under the impression that we were now a team after the police officer walked away with her discovery safely sealed inside an evidence bag. She stood up from her frog-legged squat, hands on hips, and looked at me, expectantly, as if I was supposed to tell her where we should go to find the next clue. I felt like an intruder in that moment, like I shouldn’t have been there. Like I was playing some kind of role in a movie, pretending to be something that I’m just not. So I turned around and walked away without uttering another word. I could feel eyes on my back until the moment I got into my car and drove away, and even then, I still felt like I was being watched.

I park outside my office building and walk frantically up the steps,

inserting my key into the lock, twisting, pushing. I flip on the lights to my empty waiting room and walk into my office, my hands shaking a little bit less with each step that takes me closer to my desk. Now I settle into my chair and exhale, leaning to the side and pulling open my bottom drawer. The mountain of bottles stare back at me, each one pleading to be chosen. I eye them all, chew on the side of my cheek. I pick up one, then another, comparing them side-by-side, before settling on 1 milligram of Ativan. I study the little five-sided pill in my palm, the powdery white, the raised A.

It’s a low dose, I reason. Just enough to cloak my body in a sense of calm. I pop it into my mouth and swallow it dry before pushing the drawer closed with my foot.

I twist in my office chair, thinking, before glancing over to my phone and noticing a blinking red light—one voice mail. I turn on speakerphone and listen to the familiar voice radiate through the room.

Doctor Davis, this is Aaron Jansen with The New York Times. We just spoke on the phone earlier and, uh, I would really appreciate just an hour of your time to talk. We’ll be running this article no matter what, and I’d like to give you the opportunity to say your part. You can call me back directly on this number.

There’s silence next, but I can hear him breathing. Thinking.

I’ll be reaching out to your father, too. I just thought you’d want to know.


I sink lower into my chair. I’ve been actively avoiding my father for the last twenty years, in every sense of the word. Speaking to him, thinking about him, talking about him. It was hard to do at first, right after his arrest. People harassed us, showed up at our house at night screaming obscenities and waving signs as if we, too, partook in the slaying of those innocent young girls. As if we somehow knew and turned a blind eye. They egged our house, slit the tires of my father’s truck still parked in the yard, spray-painted PERVERT on the side in dripping red paint. Someone broke through my mother’s bedroom window one night with a rock, shattering the glass across her body as she slept. It was all over the news, the discovery of Dick Davis as the Breaux Bridge serial killer.

And then there were those words: serial killer. It seemed so official. For some reason, I never thought of my father as a serial killer until I saw it plastered across the newspapers, labeling him as such. It seemed too harsh for my father, a gentle man with a gentle voice. He was the one who taught me how to ride a bike, jogging alongside me with his hands clutching the

handlebars. The first time he let go, I had crashed into a fence, smacking straight into the wooden beam and feeling a searing pain in my cheek. I remember him running up behind me, scooping me in his arms, followed by the warmth of a damp washcloth as he pressed it against the gash beneath my eye. Drying my tears with his shirtsleeve, kissing my tangled hair. Then he fastened my helmet tighter and made me try again. My dad tucked me under the covers at night, wrote his own bedtime stories, shaved his facial hair into cartoon mustaches just to watch me laugh as he emerged from the bathroom, pretending like he didn’t understand why I was wailing into the couch cushions, tears streaming from my cheeks. That man couldn’t be a serial killer. Serial killers didn’t do things like that … did they?

But he was, and they did. He killed those girls. He killed Lena.

I remember the way he watched her that day at the festival, his eyes tracing her fifteen-year-old body like a wolf eying a dying animal. I’ll always credit that moment as the beginning of it all. Sometimes, I blame myself—she was talking to me, after all. She was holding up her shirt for me, showing off her belly-button ring for me. Had I not been there, would my father have seen her like that? Would he have thought of her like that? She came over a few times that summer, stopping by to give me some old hand-me-down clothes or used CDs, and every time my father walked into my bedroom and saw her there, lying belly-side down on the hardwood floor, her legs kicking freely in the air and her ass busting out of her ripped-up denim shorts, he stopped. Stared. Cleared his throat, then walked away.

His trial was televised; I know because I watched. My mother wouldn’t let us at first, Cooper and me, kicking us out of the room when we wandered in to find her crouched on the floor, her nose practically touching the screen. This isn’t for children’s eyes, she would say. Go outside and play, get some fresh air. She was acting like it was nothing more than a rated-R movie, like our father wasn’t on TV being tried for murder.

But then one day, even that changed.

The doorbell had been jarring, I remember, the way it had reverberated through our perpetually silent house, vibrating off the grandfather clock, creating a tinny buzzing that made my arm hair bristle. We had all stopped what we were doing and stared at the door. Nobody visited us anymore—

and the ones who did had abandoned polite formalities like that long ago. They came by screaming, throwing things—or even worse, without making a single sound. For a while, we had been finding foreign footprints littered throughout our property, left behind by some stranger slinking across our yard at night, peeking through windows with a sick fascination. It made me feel like we were a collection of curiosities preserved behind a museum glass case, something haunted and strange. I remember the day I caught him, finally, walking up that dirt pathway and seeing the back of his head as he peered inside, thinking no one was home. I remember pushing up my sleeves, charging at him blind with nothing but adrenaline and anger forcing me forward.

“WHO ARE YOU?” I had screamed, my little fists balled up by my sides. I was so sick of our lives being put on display. Of people treating us like we weren’t human, weren’t real. He had swung around then, stared at me with wide eyes and hands raised, like he hadn’t even considered the fact that people still lived here. Turned out, he was just a kid, too. Barely even older than me.

“Nobody,” he had stammered. “I’m—I’m nobody.”

We had become so used to it—to intruders and prowlers and threatening phone calls—that when we heard the bell politely ring that morning, we were almost more afraid to know who was behind that thick slab of cedar, patiently waiting for us to invite them inside.

“Mom,” I had said, my eyes drifting from the door to her. She was sitting at the kitchen table, her hands woven between her thinning hair. “Are you gonna get that?”

She had looked at me, confused, as if my voice were something foreign, the words no longer intelligible. Every day, her appearance seemed to change. Wrinkles etching themselves deeper into her sagging skin, dark shadows smeared beneath her eyes, bloodshot and worn. Finally, she stood up wordlessly and peered out the small, circular window. The creak of the hinges; her soft, startled voice.

“Oh, Theo. Hi. Come in.”

Theodore Gates—my father’s defense attorney. I watched as he walked into our house with his slow, lumbering footsteps. I remember his

shiny briefcase, the thick, gold band stretched across his wedding finger. He had smiled at me, sympathetic, but I had grimaced back. I didn’t understand how he could sleep at night, defending what my father had done.

“Can I get you some coffee?”

“Sure, Mona. Yeah, that would be great.”

My mother stumbled around the kitchen, clanking the ceramic mug against the tile counter. That coffee had been sitting in the pot for three straight days and I watched as she poured it, absentmindedly spinning a spoon in circles even though she hadn’t poured in any creamer to mix. Then she handed it to Mr. Gates. He took a small sip, clearing his throat, before placing it back down on the table and sliding it away with his pinkie.

“Listen, Mona. I have some news. I wanted you to hear it from me first.”

She was silent, staring out the small window situated above our kitchen sink, tinted green with mildew.

“I got your husband a plea deal. A good one. He’s going to take it.”

She had snapped her head up then, as though his words had clipped a rubber band that had been stretched tight down the back of her neck.

“Louisiana has the death penalty,” he said. “We cannot risk that.” “Kids, upstairs.”

She looked at Cooper and me, still sitting on the living room rug, my finger picking at the burnt hole from where my father’s pipe had landed. We obeyed, standing up and skulking silently past the kitchen and up the stairs. But when we reached our bedroom doors, we closed them, loudly, before tiptoeing back toward the bannister, taking a seat on the top step. And then we listened.

“You can’t possibly think they’d give him death,” she had said, her voice a whisper. “There’s barely any evidence. No murder weapon, no bodies.”

“There is evidence,” he had said. “You know that. You’ve seen it.”

She sighed, the kitchen chair screeching as she pulled it back and took a seat herself.

“But you think that’s enough for … death? I mean, we’re talking the

death penalty, Theo. That’s irreversible. They can’t be sure, beyond a

reasonable doubt—”

“We’re talking six murdered girls, Mona. Six. Physical evidence found inside your home, eyewitness testimony confirming that Dick had been in contact with at least half of ’em in the days prior to their disappearance. And there are stories now, Mona. I’m sure you’ve heard them. About Lena not being the first one.”

“Those stories are total speculation,” she said. “There is no evidence to suggest that he was responsible for that other girl.”

“That other girl has a name,” he spat. “You should say it out loud.

Tara King.”

“Tara King,” I had whispered, curious as to how it would feel on my lips. I had never heard of a Tara King before. Cooper’s hand shot out to the side, slapping my arm.

“Chloe.” My name hissed through his teeth. “Shut up.”

The kitchen was silent—my brother and I held our breath, waiting for my mother to appear at the base of the stairs. But instead, she kept talking. She must not have heard.

“Tara King was a runaway,” she said at last. “She told her parents she was leaving. She left a note almost a year before any of this started. It doesn’t fit the pattern.”

“That doesn’t matter, Mona. She’s still missing. Nobody has heard from her, and the jury is seething. They’re thinking with their emotions on this one.”

She was silent, refusing to respond. I couldn’t see into the room, but I could picture it—her, sitting there, her arms crossed tightly. Her gaze somewhere far away, and getting farther. We were losing my mother, and we were losing her fast.

“It’s tough, you know. With a case this sensationalized,” Theo said. “His face already plastered across the television. People have made up their minds, no matter what we argue.”

“So you want him to give up.”

“No, I want him to live. Plead guilty, and the death penalty is off the table. It’s our only option.”

The house was quiet—so quiet, I started to worry that they would be able to hear our breath, low and slow, as we sat just out of sight.

“Unless you have anything else I can work with,” he added. “Anything at all you haven’t told me.”

I held my breath again, straining to hear against the deafening silence.

My heart pulsing in my forehead, my eyes.

“No,” she said at last, defeat in her voice. “No, I don’t. You know everything.”

“Right,” Theo said, sighing. “That’s what I thought. And Mona—”

I pictured my mother staring up at him then, tears in her eyes. All her fight gone.

“As a part of the deal, he’s agreed to take the police to the bodies.” The silence returned again, but this time, we were all left speechless.

Because when Theodore Gates walked out of our house that day, in an instant, everything changed. My father was no longer presumed guilty; he was guilty. He was admitting it, not only to the jury, but also to us. And slowly, my mother stopped trying. Stopped caring. The days went by and her eyes turned dull, like they had morphed into glass. She stopped leaving the house, then her room, then her bed, and Cooper and I were left pressing our own noses to the screen. He pled guilty, and when his sentencing finally aired, we watched the entire thing.

“Why did you do it, Mr. Davis? Why did you kill those girls?”

I watched my father look down at his lap, away from the judge. The room was silent, a collective held breath hanging heavy in the air. He seemed to be considering the question, really thinking about it, chewing it over in his mind as if it were the first time he had ever really stopped to consider the word why.

“I have a darkness inside of me,” he said at last. “A darkness that comes out at night.”

I looked at Coop, searching his face for some kind of explanation, but he just kept staring at the TV, mesmerized. I turned back.

“What kind of darkness?” the judge asked.

My father shook his head, letting a single tear erupt from his eye and drip down his cheek. The room was so quiet, I could have sworn I heard the

flick as it landed on the table.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I don’t know. It’s so strong, I couldn’t fight it. I tried, for a long time. A long, long time. But I couldn’t fight it anymore.”

“And you’re telling me that this darkness is what forced you to kill those girls?”

“Yes.” He nodded. Tears were streaming down his face then, snot dripping from his nostrils. “Yes, it did. It’s like a shadow. A giant shadow always hovering in the corner of the room. Every room. I tried to stay out of it, I tried to stay in the light, but I couldn’t do it anymore. It drew me in, it swallowed me whole. Sometimes I think it might be the devil himself.”

I realized in that moment that I had never seen my father cry before. In my twelve years spent living under his roof, never once had he shed a tear in my presence. Watching your parents cry should be a painful experience, uncomfortable even. One time, after my aunt had passed away, I had barged into my parent’s bedroom and caught my mother crying in bed. When she lifted her head, there was the imprint of a face on her pillow, her tears, snot and spit marking the very spots where her features had been, like some kind of funhouse smiley face stained into the fabric. It was a jarring scene— otherworldly, almost, her splotchy skin and her reddened nose and the self-conscious way she tried to push back the wet hair stuck to the side of her cheek and smile at me, pretending that everything was okay. I remember standing in the doorframe, stunned, before slowly backing up and shutting it closed without uttering a single word. But watching my father sob on national television—watching his tears pool in the crease above his lip before staining the notepad positioned on the table below him—I felt nothing but disgust.

His emotion seemed authentic, I thought, but his explanation felt

forced, scripted. Like he was reading from a screenplay, acting out the role of the serial killer confessing to his sins. He was looking for sympathy, I realized. He was casting the fault in every direction but his own. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done; he was sorry he got caught. And the fact that he was blaming this fictional thing for his actions—this devil that lurked in the corners, forcing his hands to squeeze their necks—sent a shot of

inexplicable anger through my body. I remember balling my hands into fists, my fingernails drawing blood from my palms.

“Fucking coward,” I spit. Cooper looked at me, shocked at my language, my rage.

And that was the last time I saw my father. His face on my television screen, describing the invisible monster that made him strangle those girls and bury their bodies in the woods behind our ten-acre lot. He made good on his promise to take the police there. I remember hearing the slam of the cruiser doors, refusing to even glance out the window as he led a team of detectives into the trees. They found some remnants of the girls—hairs, clothing fibers—but no bodies. An animal must have gotten to them first, a gator or a coyote or some other hidden creature of the swamp desperate for a meal. But I knew it was the truth because I had seen him one night—a dark figure, emerging from the trees, covered in dirt. A shovel slung across his shoulder as he slumped back to our house, oblivious to me watching from behind my bedroom window. The idea of him burying a body before returning home and kissing me goodnight had made me want to crawl out of my skin and live somewhere else. Somewhere far away.

I sigh, the Ativan making my limbs tingle. The day I turned off that

television screen was the day I decided that my father was dead. He isn’t, of course. The plea deal made sure of that. Instead, he’s serving six consecutive life sentences in Louisiana State Penitentiary without the possibility of parole. But to me, he is dead. And I like it that way. But suddenly, it’s getting harder and harder to believe my lie. Harder and harder to forget. Maybe it’s the wedding, the thought of him not walking me down the aisle. Maybe it’s the anniversary—twenty years—and Aaron Jansen forcing me to acknowledge this horrible milestone I never wanted to be a part of.

Or maybe it’s Aubrey Gravino. Another fifteen-year-old girl gone too soon.

I look back at my desk and my eyes land on my laptop. I open the lid, the screen glowing to life, and launch a new browser window, my fingers hovering over the keys. Then I start to type.

First, I Google Aaron Jansen, New York Times. Pages of articles fill the screen. I jump to one, then another. Then another. It’s becoming clear now that this man makes his living writing about the murder and misfortune of others. A headless body found in the bushes of Central Park, a string of missing women across the Highway of Tears. I click over to his bio. His headshot is small, circular, black-and-white. He’s one of those people whose face and voice don’t match up, like it was stitched on as an afterthought, two sizes too big. His voice is deep, masculine, but his image is far from it. He looks skinny, wears brown, tortoiseshell glasses that don’t actually look prescription. They look like blue-blockers—glasses made for people who wish they had glasses.

Strike one.

He’s wearing a fitted, checkerboard, button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, a thin knit tie hanging limp against his scrawny chest.

Strike two.

I scan the article, looking for a strike three. For another reason to dismiss this Aaron Jansen as just another journalist prick looking to exploit my family. I’ve had these interview requests before, lots of them. I’ve heard the whole I want to hear your side of the story. And I’d believed them. I’d let them in. I’d told them my side of the story, only to read the article in horror days later as they painted my family as some kind of accomplice to my father’s crimes. As they blamed my mother for the affairs that were discovered in the wake of the investigation; for cheating on my father and leaving him emotionally vulnerable and angry at women. They blamed her for allowing the girls into our home, too distracted by her suitors to notice my father eyeing them, sneaking out at night, and coming home with dirt on his clothes. Some of the articles even suggested she knew about it—she knew about the darkness in my dad and simply turned a blind eye. Maybe that’s what drove her to cheat: his pedophilia, his rage. And it was the guilt that drove her mad, the guilt about her role in it all that made her recoil into herself and abandon her children when they needed her most.

And the children. Let’s not even get started on the children. Cooper,

the golden boy, who my father supposedly envied. He saw the way girls looked at him, with his boyish good looks and wrestler biceps and

charmingly lopsided grin. Cooper kept porn in the house, like any normal teenaged boy, but my father had found it, thanks to me. Maybe that’s what caused the darkness to creep in from the corners; maybe flipping through those magazines unleashed something in him he had been suppressing for years. A latent violence.

And then there was me, Chloe, the pubescent daughter who had started wearing makeup and shaving her legs and hiking up her shirt to show her belly button the way Lena had done that day at the festival. And I walked around like that, around my house. Around my dad.

It had been classic victim blaming. My father, another middle-aged white man with a meanness he couldn’t explain. He offered no concrete explanations, no valid reason why. He offered only the darkness. And surely, that couldn’t be possible—people refused to believe that otherwise average white men murder without a reason why. And so we became the reason: the neglect of his wife, the taunting of his son, the budding promiscuity of his daughter. It was all too much for his fragile ego, and eventually, he snapped.

I still remember those questions, those questions I had been asked years ago. My answers that were twisted and printed and archived on the internet to be summoned across computer screens for the rest of time.

“Why do you think your father did this?”

I remember tapping my pen against my nameplate, still shiny and scratchless; that interview had taken place during my first year at Baton Rouge General. It was supposed to be one of those feel-good stories they run on Sunday mornings: The daughter of Richard Davis had turned into a psychologist, channeling her childhood trauma to help other young, troubled souls.

“I don’t know,” I had said finally. “Sometimes these things don’t have a clear answer. He obviously had a need for dominance, for control, that I didn’t see when I was a child.”

“Should your mother have seen it?” I stopped, stared.

“It wasn’t my mother’s job to notice every red flag that my father exhibited,” I said. “Oftentimes, there are no blatant warning signs until it’s

too late. Just look at Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader. They had girlfriends and wives, families at home completely oblivious to what they were doing at night. My mother wasn’t responsible for him, for his actions. She had her own life.”

“It certainly sounds like she had her own life. It came out during the sentencing that your mother had been involved in several extramarital affairs.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Clearly she wasn’t perfect, but nobody is…” “One specifically with Bert Rhodes, Lena’s father.”

I was silent, that mental image of Bert Rhodes’s unraveling still fresh in my mind.

“Did she neglect your father, emotionally? Was she planning on leaving him?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, she didn’t neglect him. They were happy—or, I thought they were happy. They seemed happy—”

“Did she neglect you, too? After the sentencing, she tried to kill herself. With two young children still under the age of eighteen, still dependent on her.”

I knew in that moment that the story had already been written; nothing I could have said would have swayed the narrative. Worse, they were using my words—my words as a psychologist, my words as his daughterto reinforce their blind notion. To prove their point.

I click out of the Times’s website and open up a new window, but before I can start typing, a breaking news alert chirps across the screen.


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