I don’t even bother to click into the news alert. Instead, I get up from my desk and close my laptop, the Ativan fog lifting me across my office and into my car. I float weightlessly down the road, through town, through my neighborhood, through my front door, and eventually find myself on the couch, my head sinking deep into the cushions as my eyes bore into the ceiling above.
And that’s where I remain for the rest of the weekend.
It’s Monday morning now and the house still smells like chemically produced lemon from the cleaner I used to wipe down the wine-soaked kitchen counters on Saturday morning. My surroundings feel clean, but I do not. I haven’t showered since my return from Cypress Cemetery, and I can still see the dirt from Aubrey’s earring wedged beneath my fingernails. My roots are damp with grease; when I run my fingers through my hair, the strands remain stuck in one spot instead of cascading across my forehead the way they usually do. I need to shower before work, but I can’t find the motivation.
What you’re experiencing is akin to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Chloe. Feelings of anxiety persisting despite the absence of any immediate danger.
Of course, it’s easier to dole out advice than to actually take it. I feel like a hypocrite, an imposter, reciting the words I would say to a patient while willfully ignoring them when the recipient is myself. My phone vibrates beside me, sending it fluttering across the marble island. I glance at the display: One new text message from Daniel. I swipe at the screen and scan the paragraph before me.
Good morning, sweetheart. I’m headed into the opening session now—will be unavailable most of the day. Make it a good one. I miss you.
My fingers touch the screen, Daniel’s words lifting the heaviness from my shoulders just slightly. This effect he has on me, I can’t explain it. It’s as
if he knows what I’m doing at this very moment; the way I’m slipping underwater, too tired to even look for a branch to cling to, and he’s the hand that juts out from the trees, grabbing my shirt and yanking me back to land, back to safety, just in time.
I text him back and place my phone on the counter, turning on the coffee maker before walking into the bathroom and twisting the knob in the shower. I step into the hot water, the violent spray feeling like needles against my naked body. I let it burn me for a while, pelting my skin raw. I try not to think about Aubrey, about her body found in the cemetery. I try not to think about her skin, scratched and dirty and covered in maggots swarming eagerly around a meal. I try not to think about who might have found her—maybe it was that cop, all nasally and winded as he walked her earring back to the safety of his locked cruiser. Or maybe it was khaki-cargo-pants, leapfrogging into a ditch or a particularly dense patch of crabgrass, the scream getting caught in her throat, instead coming out like a deep, wet choke.
Instead, I think about Daniel. I think about what he’s doing right now
—walking into a cold auditorium in New Orleans, probably clutching a Styrofoam cup of complimentary coffee as he scans the crowd for an empty chair, a lanyard with his name dangling around his neck. He’s having no problem meeting people, I imagine. Daniel can talk to anyone. After all, he managed to turn an emotionally guarded stranger he met in a hospital lobby into his fiancée within a matter of months.
I had initiated our first date, though. I’ll give myself that. After all, it was his business card that was pushed into the pages of my book that day. I had his number, but he didn’t have mine. I vaguely remember slipping the book back into the box that was resting on top of my car before loading it into the back seat and driving away, watching him disappear into Baton Rouge General in my rearview. I remember thinking he was nice, handsome. His card said Pharmaceutical Sales, which explained why he was there. It also made me wonder if that’s why he was flirting with me—I could be just another client to him. Another paycheck.
I never forgot about the card; I always knew it was there, calling to me quietly from the corner. I left it there for as long as I could, leaving that box
of books still untouched until, three weeks later, it was the last one left. I remember pulling stacks out by their spines, dusty and cracking, and slipping them into their spots on the bookshelf until finally, there was only one left. I peered down into the empty box, Bird Girl staring back at me with her cold, bronze eyes. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I bent over and picked it up, turned it to its side. I ran my fingers along the edge of the pages, fingering the gap where his business card still rested. I stuck my thumb inside and flipped it open, once again staring at his name.
I picked up the card and tapped it between my fingers, thinking. His number stared back at me, a silent dare. I understood my brother’s aversion to dating, to getting too close to anyone. On the one hand, my father had taught me that it’s entirely possible to love someone without ever really knowing them, and that thought kept me up at night. Every time I found myself getting interested in a man, I couldn’t help but wonder—what are they hiding? What aren’t they telling me? Which closet are their skeletons lurking in, buried in the dark? Like that box in the back of my father’s, I was terrified of finding them, of learning their true essence.
But on the other hand, Lena had taught me that it’s also possible to love someone and lose them for no reason at all. To find a perfectly good person and wake up one morning to learn that they’re gone without a trace, either by force or by will. What if I did find someone, someone good, and he was taken from me, too?
Wouldn’t it just be easier to go through life alone?
So that’s what I had done, for years. I had been alone. I went through high school in a kind of daze. After Cooper graduated and I was on my own, I started getting jumped in the gymnasium, tough boys trying to prove their disdain for violence against women by taking a switchblade to my forearm, carving zigzags in my skin. This is for your father, they’d spit, the irony lost. I remember walking home, the blood dripping from my fingers like melted wax from a candlestick, a little dotted line snaking through town like a treasure map. X marks the spot. I remember telling myself that as long as I got into college, I could get out of Breaux Bridge. I could get away from it all.
And that’s what I did.
I dated boys at LSU, but it was mostly superficial; drunken hookups in the back of a crowded bar, sneaking into a frat house bedroom, leaving the door cracked to make sure I could still hear the muffled noise of the party going on outside. The shitty music vibrating through the walls, the laughter of girls in packs echoing down the hallway, their open-faced palms slapping the door. Their whispers and their glares when we emerged from the bedroom, hair rumpled, zippers down. The slurring words of the boy I had zeroed in on hours earlier, the target of my meticulous checklist that minimized all risk of him getting too attached or killing me in the darkened corners of his bedroom. He was never too tall, never too muscular. If he got on top of me, I could easily push him off. He had friends (I couldn’t risk an angry loner), but he also wasn’t the life of the party (I couldn’t risk an entitled blowhard, either. A guy who views the body of a female as nothing more than his own plaything). He was always just the right amount of drunk
—not too drunk to get it up, but just drunk enough to be unsteady on his
feet, his eyes glassed over. And I was just the right amount of drunk, too— tingly and confident and numb, my inhibitions lowered just enough to let him kiss my neck without pulling away, but not enough to lose my alertness, my coordination, my sense of danger. Maybe he wouldn’t remember my face in the morning; certainly he wouldn’t remember my name.
And that’s the way I liked it: anonymity, the kind of thing I was never granted in childhood. The luxury of closeness—the beating of another heart against my chest, the trembling of fingers intertwined with mine—without the possibility of getting hurt. My only semi-serious relationship didn’t end well; I wasn’t ready to date. I wasn’t ready to fully trust another person. But again, I did it to feel normal. I did it to drown out the solitude, the physical presence of another body tricking my own into feeling less alone.
Somehow, it did the opposite.
After graduation, the hospital had given me friends, coworkers, a community I could surround myself with during the daytime hours before retreating home at night and settling into my isolated routine. And it had worked, for a while, but ever since I’d launched my own business, I had
found myself completely alone. All day and all night. On the day I held Daniel’s card again, I hadn’t spoken to another human being in weeks, outside of the occasional text message from Coop or Shannon or Mom’s place calling to remind me to come visit. I knew that would change once clients started trickling through the doors, but that wasn’t the same. Besides, they were supposed to be talking to me for support, not the other way around.
Daniel’s business card was hot in my hands. I remember walking over to my desk and taking a seat, leaning back in the chair. I picked up my phone and dialed, the ringing on the other end dragging on for so long I almost hung up. Then suddenly, a voice.
“This is Daniel.”
I was quiet on the line, my breath caught in my throat. He waited a few seconds before trying again.
“Daniel,” I said finally. “This is Chloe Davis.”
The silence on the other end made my stomach lurch.
“We met a few weeks ago,” I reminded him, cringing. “In the hospital.”
“Doctor Chloe Davis,” he responded. I could hear the smile stretching across his lips. “I was starting to think you weren’t going to call.”
“I’ve been unpacking,” I said, my heart rate slowing. “I … lost your card, but I just found it, at the bottom of my last box.”
“So, you’re all moved in?”
“Just about,” I said, looking around the cluttered office.
“Well, that’s cause for celebration. Do you want to grab a drink?”
I had never been one to agree to drinks with a stranger; every real date I had ever been on had been set up by mutual friends, a well-intentioned favor I knew was mostly motivated by the awkwardness that ensued when I was the only one in a group that showed up alone. I hesitated, almost made up an excuse as to why I was busy. But instead, as if my lips were moving in opposition to the brain that controlled them, I heard myself agree. Had I not been so starved for conversation that day, for any kind of human interaction, that phone call probably would have been the end of it.
But it wasn’t.
An hour later, I was sitting at the bar at the River Room, swirling a glass of wine in my hand. Daniel was on the barstool next to me, his eyes studying my silhouette.
“What?” I had asked, self-consciously tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Do I have food in my teeth or something?”
“No,” he laughed, shaking his head. “No, it’s just … I can’t believe I’m sitting here. With you.”
I had eyed him then, trying to judge his comment. Was he flirting with me, or was it something more sinister? I had Googled Daniel Briggs before our date—of course I had—and this was the moment I was going to find out if he had done the same. Searching Daniel’s name had yielded nothing more than a Facebook page with assorted pictures of him. Holding a whiskey at various rooftop bars. One hand clutching a golf club while the other clasped a sweating beer. Sitting cross-legged on a couch while holding a baby the caption identified as his best friend’s son. I had found his LinkedIn profile, confirming his profession in pharmaceutical sales. He was mentioned in a newspaper article from 2015 printing his finishing time for the Louisiana Marathon: four hours and nineteen minutes. It was all very average, innocent, almost boring, even. Exactly what I wanted.
But if he had Googled me, he would have found more. So much more. “So,” he said. “Doctor Chloe Davis, tell me about yourself.”
“You know, you don’t have to call me that all the time. Doctor Chloe Davis. So formal.”
He smiled, took a sip from his whiskey. “What should I call you, then?”
“Chloe,” I said, looking at him. “Just Chloe.”
“All right, Just Chloe—” I smacked his arm with the back of my hand, laughing. He smiled back. “Really, though, tell me about yourself. I’m sitting here having drinks with a stranger; the least you could do is assure me that you’re not dangerous.”
I felt the goose bumps prickle across my skin, lifting the hair on my arms.
“I’m from Louisiana,” I said, testing the waters. He didn’t flinch. “Not Baton Rouge, a small town about an hour from here.”
“Baton Rouge born and raised,” he said, tilting his drink toward his chest. “What made you move here?”
“School,” I said. “I got my PhD from LSU.” “Impressive.”
“Any possessive older brothers I should know about?”
My chest lurched again; all of these comments could be innocent flirtation, but they could also be perceived as a man trying to coax a truth out of me that he had already learned for himself. All of my other bad first dates came flooding back to me, the moment I had realized that the person I was making small talk with already knew everything there was to know. Some of them had asked me outright—“You’re Dick Davis’s daughter, aren’t you?”—their eyes hungry for information, while others waited impatiently, tapping their fingers against the table while I spoke about other things, as if admitting that I shared DNA with a serial killer was something I should be eager to reveal.
“How’d you know?” I asked, trying to keep the tone light. “Is it that obvious?”
Daniel shrugged. “No,” he said, turning back toward the bar. “It’s just that I had a little sister once, and I know I was. I knew every guy who ever looked at her. Shit, if you were her, I’d probably be lurking in the corner of this bar right now.”
He hadn’t Googled me, I would learn on a later date. My paranoia about his line of questioning was just that—paranoia. He had never even heard about Breaux Bridge and Dick Davis and all those missing girls. He was only seventeen when it happened; he didn’t really watch the news. I imagine his mother tried to shield it from him the same way mine had tried to shield it from me. I had told him the story one night as we lay sprawled across my living room couch; I don’t know what made me choose that particular moment. I suppose I had realized that, at some point, I had to come clean. That my truth, my history, would be the make-or-break moment that determined our life together, our future—or lack thereof.
So I just started talking, watching as his forehead wrinkled deeper with every passing minute, every gruesome detail. And I told him everything: about Lena and the festival and the way I had watched my father get arrested in our living room, those words he had uttered before being whisked away into the night. I had told him what I had seen through my bedroom window—my father, that shovel—and the fact that my childhood home was still sitting there, empty. Abandoned in Breaux Bridge, the memories of my youth twisted into a real-life haunted house, a ghost story, the place kids ran past with their breath held tight for fear of summoning the spirits that surely haunted its walls. I had told him about my father in prison. His plea deal and consecutive life sentences. The fact that I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in almost twenty years. I had gotten completely lost in that moment, letting the memories spill from me like the rancid innards of a gutted fish. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to get them out, how they were poisoning me from the inside.
When I was done, Daniel was silent. I picked at a fraying thread on the
“I just thought you needed to know,” I had said, my head downcast. “If we’re gonna be, you know, dating or something. And I completely understand if this is too much. If it freaks you out, trust me, I get it—”
I felt his hands on my cheeks then, gently pushing my head higher, forcing me to meet his gaze.
“Chloe,” he said, softly. “It’s not too much. I love you.”
Daniel then went on to tell me that he understood my pain; not in the artificial way friends and family claim to know what you’re going through, but really understood it. He had lost his sister when he was seventeen; she had gone missing, too, the same year as the Breaux Bridge girls. For one horrifying second, my father’s face flashed through my mind. Had he killed outside of town? Had he traveled an hour away into Baton Rouge and murdered here, too? I thought briefly of Tara King, the other missing girl who was not like the rest. The break in the pattern. The one that didn’t fit— still a mystery, decades later. And although Daniel shook his head, he provided little explanation other than her name. Sophie. She was thirteen.
“What happened?” I finally asked, my voice a distant whisper. I had been praying for a resolution, for concrete evidence that my father couldn’t have possibly been involved. But I never got it.
“We don’t really know,” he had said. “That’s the worst part. She was at a friend’s house one night and was walking home in the dark. It was only a few blocks; she did it all the time. And nothing bad had ever happened, until that night.”
I nodded, imagining Sophie walking alone down an old abandoned road. I had no idea what she looked like, so her face was blacked out. It was just a body. A girl’s body. Lena’s body.
My skin is scalding now, an unnatural bright red as my toes find their way to the bath mat. I wrap myself in a towel and walk into my closet, my fingers flipping between a handful of button-up blouses before selecting a hanger at random and hooking it on the doorknob. I drop my towel and start to dress, remembering Daniel’s words. I love you. I had no idea how starved I had been for those words; how glaringly absent they had been from my life up until that moment. When Daniel had said them only a month into our courtship, for a fleeting second I had racked my brain to try to remember the last time I had heard them, the last time they had been uttered to me and me alone.
I couldn’t remember.
I walk into the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee into my to-go mug, scratching my fingers through my still-damp hair, trying to dry the strands. You would think that strange coincidence between Daniel and me would have wedged distance between us—my father was a taker, and his sister had been taken—but it did the opposite. It brought us closer, gave us an unspoken bond. It made Daniel possessive of me, almost, but in a good way. A caring way. The same way Cooper is possessive, I suppose— because they both understand the inherent danger of existing as a woman. Because they both understand death, and how quickly it can take you. How unfairly it can claim possession over its next victim.
And they both understand me. They understand why I am the way that
I walk toward the door with my coffee in one hand and purse in the other, stepping outside into the humid morning air. It’s amazing what a single text message from Daniel can do to me—how thinking about him can alter my entire mood, my outlook on life. I feel invigorated, as if the shower water had washed not only the dirt from my nails but the memories that had come with it; for the first time since seeing Aubrey Gravino’s picture on my TV screen, that sense of impending dread that has been hovering over me has all but evaporated.
I’m starting to feel normal. I’m starting to feel safe.
I get into my car and crank the engine; the drive to work is automatic. I keep the radio off, knowing I’ll be too tempted to flip to the news and listen to the grisly details of Aubrey’s recovered body. I don’t need to know that. I don’t want to know that. I imagine it’s front-page news; avoiding it will be impossible. But for now, I want to stay clean. I pull into my office and swing open the front door, the light from inside indicating that my receptionist has already arrived. I walk into the lobby and turn toward the center of the room, expecting to see the regular venti Starbucks cup perched on top of her desk, hear her singsong voice greeting me hello.
But that’s not the scene before me.
“Melissa,” I say, stopping abruptly. She’s standing in the middle of the office, her cheeks patchy and red. She’s been crying. “Is everything okay?”
She shakes her head no, buries her face into her hands. I hear a sniffle before she starts wailing into her palms, the tears dripping to the ground from between her fingers.
“It’s so awful,” she says, shaking her head over and over again. “Did you see the news?”
I exhale, relax slightly. She’s talking about Aubrey’s body. For a second, I’m irritated. I don’t want to talk about this right now. I want to move on; I want to forget. I keep walking, pushing toward my closed office door.
“I did,” I say, inserting my keys into the lock. “You’re right, it’s awful.
But at least her parents have some closure now.”
She lifts her head from her hands and stares at me, her face confused.
“Her body,” I clarify. “At least they found it. That’s not always the case.”
Melissa knows about my father, my history. She knows about the Breaux Bridge girls and how those parents weren’t lucky enough to get their bodies back. If murder was judged on a sliding scale, presumed dead would be the furthest to the end. There’s nothing worse than a lack of answers, a lack of closure. A lack of certainty despite all the evidence pointing squarely in the face of the horrible reality you know in your heart to be true—but without a body, can’t possibly prove. There’s always that shred of doubt, that sliver of hope. But false hope is worse than no hope at all.
Melissa sniffs again. “What—what are you talking about?”
“Aubrey Gravino,” I say, my tone harsher than I intend it to be. “They found her body on Saturday in Cypress Cemetery.”
“I’m not talking about Aubrey,” she says slowly.
I turn toward her, my face the one twisted now. My key is still stuck in the lock, but I haven’t turned it yet. Instead, my arm hangs limp in the air. She walks to the coffee table and grabs a black remote, pointing it to the television mounted on the wall. I usually keep the TV off during office hours, but now she turns it on, the black screen coming alive to reveal another bright red headline:
BREAKING: SECOND BATON ROUGE GIRL GOES MISSING
Above the marquee of scrolling information is the face of another teen girl. I take in her features—sandy blonde hair obscuring her blue eyes and white lashes; muted freckles cascading across her pale, porcelain skin. I’m mesmerized by her perfectly clear complexion—her skin looks like a doll’s, untouchable—when the air exits my lungs and my arm falls to my side.
I recognize her now. I know this girl.
“I’m talking about Lacey,” she says, a tear gliding down her cheek as she stares into the eyes of the girl who sat in this very lobby three days ago. “Lacey Deckler is missing.”