Chapter no 15

A Flicker in the Dark

I step into my lobby, the quiet stillness amplifying the sound of my own breath. Detective Thomas and Officer Doyle have left. Melissa’s purse is gone, her computer black. The TV is still blaring, Lacey’s face haunting the room with her invisible presence.

I lied to Officer Doyle. We have met before—in Cypress Cemetery, as he lifted the earring of a dead girl out of my palm. I also lied about having appointments today. Melissa cleared them—I explicitly asked her to—and now it’s nine fifteen on a Monday morning, and I have nothing to do but sit in an empty office and let the darkness of my own thoughts devour me whole before regurgitating my bones.

But I know I can’t do that. Not again.

I hold my phone in my palm, thinking about who I can talk to, who I can call. Cooper is out of the question—he would worry too much. Ask me questions that I don’t want to answer, jump to conclusions that I’m actively trying to avoid. He would look at me with concern, his eyes flickering to my desk drawer and back up again, silently wondering what kind of remedies I have in there, hidden in the dark. What kind of twisted thoughts they’re creating, swirling in my mind. No, I need calm, rational. Reassuring. My next thought is Daniel, but he’s at a conference. I can’t bother him with this. It’s not that he would be too busy to listen to me— that’s the opposite of the problem. It’s that he would drop everything and rush to my aid, and I can’t let him do that. I can’t drag him into this. Besides, what is this, anyway? It’s nothing more than my own memories, my own unresolved demons, bubbling to the surface. There’s nothing he could do to fix the problem, nothing he could say to me that hasn’t been said before. That’s not what I need right now. I just need someone to listen.

My head jerks up. Suddenly, I know where I need to go.

I grab my purse and keys, locking my office door before jumping back in my car and heading south. Within minutes, I’m pulling past a sign that reads Riverside Assisted Living, a familiar collection of pollen-colored

buildings looming in the distance. I always assumed the color choice was meant to mirror sunshine, happiness, feel-good things like that. At one point, I actually believed it, convincing myself that a paint color could artificially lift the mood of the residents trapped inside. But the once-bright yellow is faded now, the siding perpetually discolored with the merciless effects of weather and age, missing blinds turning the windows into gap-toothed grins, weeds peeking through the sidewalk cracks like they, too, are struggling to escape. I approach the buildings now and I no longer see sunshine gleaming back in my direction, the color of warmth and energy and cheer. Instead, I see neglect, like a stained bedsheet or the yellowing of forgotten teeth.

If I were a patient, I already know what I’d say to myself.

You’re projecting, Chloe. Is it possible that you sense neglect in these buildings because you feel as if you’ve neglected someone inside?

Yes, yes. I know the answer is yes, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I swerve into a parking spot near the entrance and slam my door a little too hard before walking through the automatic entryway and arriving in the lobby.

“Well, hello there, Chloe!”

I turn toward the front desk and smile at the woman waving in my direction. She’s big, busty, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, her patterned scrubs faded and soft. I wave back before leaning my arms against the counter.

“Hey, Martha. How are you today?”

“Oh, not bad, not bad. You here to see your mama?” “Yes, ma’am.” I smile.

“It’s been a while,” she says as she pulls out the guest book and pushes it in my direction. There’s judgment in her tone, but I try to ignore it; instead, I look down at the book. The page is fresh and I write my name in the top spot, noticing the date in the upper right-hand corner—Monday, June 3. I swallow hard, trying to ignore the pinch in my chest.

“I know,” I say at last. “I’ve been busy, but that’s no excuse. I should have come sooner.”

“The wedding’s comin’ up now, isn’t it?”

“Next month,” I say. “Can you believe it?”

“Good for you, honey. Good for you. I know your mama’s happy for you.”

I smile again, grateful for the lie. I’d like to think my mom is happy for me, but the truth is, it’s impossible to tell.

“Go ahead,” she says, pulling the book back into her lap. “You know the way. A nurse should be in there with her.”

“Thanks, Martha.”

I turn around and face the interior of the lobby; there are three hallways, all jutting out in different directions. The hallway to my left leads to the cafeteria and kitchen, where residents are served from vats of various mass-produced meals at the same time every day—woks full of watery scrambled eggs, spaghetti with meat sauce, poppy-seed chicken casseroles served with wilted lettuce drowning in salty salad dressing. The one in the middle leads to the living room, a wide-open area with televisions and board games and surprisingly comfortable lounge chairs that I have fallen asleep in more than once. I take the hallway to the right—the hallway littered with bedrooms, hallway number three—and walk down the endless stretch of marbled linoleum until I reach room 424.

“Knock, knock,” I say, tapping on the partially cracked-open door. “Mom?”

“Come in, come in! We’re just getting cleaned up in here.”

I peek into the bedroom and catch a glimpse of my mother for the first time in a month. As always, she looks the same, but different. The same as she has looked for the last twenty years, but different from the way my mind still chooses to remember her—young, beautiful, full of life. Colorful sundresses that grazed her tanned knees, her long, wavy hair clipped back at the sides, her cheeks flushed from the summer heat. Now I see her pale, frail legs peeking out from behind the opening of a robe as she perches in her wheelchair, expressionless. The nurse is brushing her hair, now cut to her shoulders, as she stares out a window overlooking the parking lot.

“Hey, Mom,” I say, moving closer. I sit on the side of the bed and smile. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, honey,” the nurse says. This one is new—I don’t recognize her. She seems to sense that and continues talking. “My name’s Sheryl. Your mama and I have been getting close over these last few weeks, haven’t we, Mona?”

She taps my mother’s shoulder and smiles, brushes a few more times before placing the comb on her bedside table and wheeling her around to face me. My mother’s face still comes as a shock, even after all these years. She isn’t disfigured or anything; she isn’t maimed beyond recognition. But she is differentThe little things that made her her have changed—her once perfectly manicured eyebrows are overgrown, giving her face a more masculine appearance. Her skin is waxy and devoid of all makeup, her hair washed with cheap store-brand shampoo that leaves the ends wiry and wild.

And her neck. That long, thick scar that still rests across her neck.

“I’ll leave y’all to it,” Sheryl says, walking toward the door. “If you need anything, just holler.”

“Thank you.”

I’m alone with my mother now, her eyes boring into mine, and those feelings of neglect come raging back. Mom was placed in a home in Breaux Bridge after her suicide attempt. We were still too young to care for her ourselves—at twelve and fifteen, we were sent to live with an aunt on the outskirts of town—but the plan was to take her out when we could. Care for her when we could. Then Cooper turned eighteen, and it was clear that she couldn’t go with him; he couldn’t stay put for long enough. Couldn’t sit still. She needed routine. Clean, simple routine. So we decided to move her to Baton Rouge when I got into LSU, and I would take over after I finished college … but then we came up with excuses for that, too. How would I get my PhD caring for a dependent and disabled mother? How would I ever meet someone, date someone, get married—although I had been doing a pretty good job of sabotaging my chances of that without her help, anyway. So we kept her here, in Riverside, still telling ourselves it was temporary. After graduation. After we had enough savings. After I opened my own practice. The years stretched on, and we quieted our guilt by visiting every weekend. Then we started taking turns, Cooper and I, going every other week, rushing through each visit, checking our phones because we

crammed it between other obligations. Now we mostly visit when the nurses call and ask us to. They’re good people, but I’m sure they talk about us when we’re not around. Judge us for abandoning our mother, leaving her fate in the hands of strangers.

But what they don’t understand is that she abandoned us, too.

“Sorry I haven’t come to visit in a while,” I say, my eyes searching her face for any sign of movement, any sign of life. “The wedding’s in July, so we’ve got a lot of last-minute planning to do.”

The silence between us stretches out, lazy, though I’m used to it by now. Talking to myself. I know she won’t respond.

“I promise I’ll bring Daniel by to meet you soon,” I say. “You’d like him. He’s a really good guy.”

She blinks a few times, taps her finger against her armrest. My eyes dart over to her hand. Staring, I ask again.

“Would you like to meet him?”

She taps her finger again, gently, and I smile.

I found our mother sprawled across the floor of her bedroom closet shortly after Dad was sentenced—the closet where I found that box. That box that sealed his fate. The poetic symbolism was not lost on me, even at twelve. She had tried to hang herself using one of his leather belts until the wooden beam snapped, sending her crashing to the ground. By the time I had found her, her face was purple, her eyes bulging, her legs twitching. I remember screaming for Cooper, screaming for him to say something, to do something. I remember him standing in the hallway, stunned, motionless. DO SOMETHING! I screamed again, and I had watched him blink, shake his head, then run into the closet and attempt to perform CPR. At some point, it dawned on me to call 9-1-1, so I did. And we were able to save some of her, just not all of her.

She was in a coma for a month; Cooper and I weren’t old enough to make any medical decisions, so that decision rested on our father, from prison. He didn’t want to pull the plug. He wasn’t able to come visit her, but her condition was made clear—she would never be able to walk again, talk again, do anything on her own again. But still, he refused to give up on her. That poetic symbolism wasn’t lost on me, either—that he spent his days

outside of a cell taking lives, but once he was incarcerated, he was apparently determined to save them. We watched for weeks on end as our mother lay motionless in a hospital bed, her chest rising and falling with the help of a machine, until one morning, she made a movement on her own— her eyes fluttered open.

She never regained movement. She never regained speech. She had suffered from anoxia—a severe lack of oxygen to the brain—which left her in what the doctors called a minimally conscious state. They used words like extensive and irreversible. She’s not all there, but she’s not gone, either. The depths of her understanding are still murky; some days, when I find myself rambling on about my life or Cooper’s, about all the things we’ve seen and done in the years since she decided we were no longer important enough to stay alive for, I can see a flicker in her eyes that tells me that she hears me. She understands what I’m staying. She’s sorry.

Then other times, when I look into her inky black pupils, nothing stares back but my own reflection.

Today is a good day. She hears me. She understands. She can’t communicate verbally, but she can move her fingers. I’ve learned through the years that a tap means something—her version of a head nod, I think, a subtle indication that she’s following along.

Or maybe that’s just my own wishful thinking. Maybe it means nothing at all.

I look at my mother, a living, breathing embodiment of the pain my father has caused. If I’m being honest with myself, that’s the real reason I’ve left her here for all these years. It’s a big responsibility, yes, caring for a person with a disability as severe as hers—but I could do it if I really wanted to. I have the money to hire help, maybe even get a live-in nurse. The truth is, I don’t want to. I can’t imagine looking into her eyes every day and being forced to relive the moment we found her over and over and over again. I can’t imagine allowing the memories to come flooding into my home, the one place I’ve tried so hard to maintain some semblance of normalcy. I abandoned my mother because it’s easier this way. Just like I abandoned our childhood home, refusing to dig through our belongings and

relive the horrors that took place there, instead just letting it sit and rot, as if refusing to acknowledge its existence would somehow make it less real.

“I’ll bring him by before the wedding,” I say, actually meaning it this time. I want Daniel to meet my mother, and I want my mother to meet him. I rest my hand on her leg; it’s so frail I almost recoil, twenty years of immobility deteriorating the muscles and leaving nothing but skin and bone. But I force myself to hold it there, squeezing her gently. “But actually, Mom, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. That’s not why I’m here.”

I look down at my lap, knowing full well that once the words escape my lips, I can’t reel them back in, swallow them back down. They’ll be trapped inside the mind of my mother—a locked box with a missing key. And once they’re in there, she won’t be able to get them out. She won’t be able to talk about it, verbalize it, get it off her chest the way that I can—the way that I am, right here, right now. Suddenly, it feels incredibly selfish. But I can’t help myself. I say it anyway.

“There are more missing girls. Dead girls. Here in Baton Rouge.” I think I see her eyes widen, but then again, I could be wishing.

“They found the body of a fifteen-year-old in Cypress Cemetery on Saturday. I was there, with the search party. They found her earring. Then this morning, another one was reported missing. Another fifteen-year-old. And this time, I know her. She’s a patient of mine.”

Silence settles over the room, and for the first time since I was twelve, I yearn for my mother’s voice. I desperately need her practical yet protective words to drape over my shoulders like a blanket in winter, keeping me safe. Keeping me warm.

This is serious, honey, but just be careful. Be vigilant.

“It feels familiar,” I say, gazing out the window. “Something about it all just feels … I don’t know. The same. It’s like I’m having déjà vu. The police came to speak with me, at my office, and it reminded me of…”

I stop, look at my mother, wonder if she, too, can still remember our conversation in Sheriff Dooley’s office. The humid air, the Post-it Notes flicking in the breeze, the wooden box resting on my lap.

“Entire conversations are bubbling back to the surface,” I say. “Like I’m having the exact same ones all over again. But then I think about the

last time I felt this way…”

I stop again, remembering that this memory is one my mother certainly doesn’t share. She doesn’t know about the last time, the time in college when the memories came flooding back again, memories so realistic that I couldn’t separate the past from the present, the then from the now. The real from the imagined.

“With the anniversary coming up, I know I’m probably just being paranoid,” I say. “You know, more than usual, I mean.”

I laugh, lifting my arm from her leg to stifle the noise. My hand brushes up against my cheek and I feel wetness, a tear, running down my face. I hadn’t realized I was crying.

“Anyway, I just needed to say it out loud, I guess. Say it to someone to help me hear how stupid it sounds.” I wipe the tear from my cheek and rub my hand against my pants. “God, I’m glad I came to you before I said it to anyone else. I don’t know what I’m so worried about. Dad’s in prison. It’s not like he can be involved or anything.”

My mother stares at me, her eyes filled with questions I know she wants to ask. I glance down at her hand, at the imperceptible twitch of her fingers.

“I’m back!”

My body jumps as I twist around to face the voice behind me. It’s Sheryl, standing in the doorframe. I lift my hand to my chest and exhale.

“Didn’t mean to scare you, baby,” she laughs. “Y’all havin’ a good time?”

“Yes,” I say, nodding. I glance back at my mother. “Yes, it’s nice catching up.”

“You’re just getting all kinds of visitors this week, aren’tcha, Mona?” I smile, relieved to hear that Cooper made good on his promise to


“When did my brother swing by?”

“No, not your brother,” Sheryl says. She walks behind my mother and

puts her hands on the back of her wheelchair, her foot releasing the brake on her wheels. “It was another man. A family friend, he said he was.”

I look at her, my eyebrows furrowed.

“What other man?”

“Kind of trendy looking, not from around here. Said he was visiting from the city?”

Something in my chest squeezes.

“Brown hair?” I ask. “Tortoiseshell glasses?”

Sheryl snaps before pointing her finger at me. “That’s the one!” I stand up, grabbing my purse from the bed.

“I have to go,” I say, walking briskly over to my mom and hugging her around the neck. “I’m sorry, Mom. For … everything.”

I run out her open door and down the long hallway, the anger in my chest building with every strike of the heel. How dare he? How dare he? I reach the front desk and slam into the counter, panting. I have an idea who this mystery visitor may be, but I need to know for sure.

“Martha, I need to see the guest book.”

“You already signed it, sweetie. Remember, when you came in?” “No, I need to see past visitors. From this weekend.”

“I’m not sure I can let you do that, honey—”

“Someone in this building let a man in to see my mother who is not authorizedHe said he’s a family friend, but he is not a friend. He’s dangerous, and I need to know if he was here.”

“Dangerous? Sweetheart, we don’t let people in who aren’t—” “Please,” I say. “Please, just let me look.”

She stares at me for a second before leaning over and grabbing the book from her desk. She slides it across the counter and I whisper a thank you before flipping through old pages filled with signatures. I come across yesterday’s section—the day I spent wasting away on my living room couch

—and skim down the list of names, my heart stopping when I glimpse the one I was desperately hoping not to see.

There, in messy script, is the proof I have been looking for. Aaron Jansen was here.

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