Chapter no 21

A Flicker in the Dark

After my conversation with Sheriff Dooley, he had given us two options: Stay in the station until they obtained a warrant to arrest my father, or go home, tell no one, and wait.

“How long will it take to obtain the warrant?” my mother had asked.

“Can’t say for certain. Could be hours, could be days. But with this evidence, my guess is we’ll have him before the night is up.”

My mother looked at me as if waiting for an answer. As if I were the one who should be making the decision. Me, age twelve. The smart thing to do, the safe thing to do, would be to stay in the station. She knew it, I knew it, Sheriff Dooley knew it.

“We’ll go home,” she said instead. “My son is at home. I can’t leave Cooper alone with him.”

Sheriff Dooley shifted in his chair.

“We can always go get the boy, bring him here.”

“No.” My mother shook her head. “No, that would look suspicious. If Richard starts to suspect something before you obtain the warrant…”

“We’ll have officers patrolling the neighborhood, undercover. We won’t let him run.”

“He won’t hurt us,” my mother said. “He won’t. He won’t hurt his family.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, but this is a serial murderer we’re talking about. A man suspected of killing six people.”

“If anything happens that makes me think we’re in danger, we’ll leave immediately. I’ll call the police and have one of the officers come to the house.”

And so her decision had been made. We were going home.

I could tell from the look on Sheriff Dooley’s face that he was wondering why—why was she was so adamant about going back to my father? We had just presented him evidence that all but proved that her husband was a serial killer, and still, she wanted to go home. But I wasn’t

wondering; I knew. I knew she would go back because she had always gone back. Even after she brought those men into our home, into her room, she still went back to Dad at the end of every night, cooking him dinner and carrying it over to his chair before ducking silently into her bedroom and closing the door behind her. I glanced over to my mother, to the stubborn expression on her face. Maybe she was having doubts, I thought. Maybe she wanted to see him, one last time. Maybe she wanted to say goodbye in her own subtle way.

Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she just didn’t know how to leave.

Sheriff Dooley sighed in obvious disapproval before getting up from his desk and opening his office door, allowing my mother and me to walk out of the police station in numb, mutual silence. We rode for fifteen minutes without speaking a word, me strapped into the front seat of her used red Corolla, sputtering toward home. There was a hole in the cushion, and I stuck my finger in it, ripping it wider. They made me leave the box at the police station, the box with my father’s trophies. I liked that box, with the chimes and the ballerina twirling to the music. I wondered if we’d ever get it back.

“You did the right thing, sweetie,” my mother said at last. Her voice was comforting, but somehow the words felt hollow. “But we need to act normal now, Chloe. As normal as possible. I know that’s going to be hard, but it won’t be for long.”


“Maybe you can go into your room when we get home, close the door.

I’ll tell Dad you’re not feeling well.” “Okay.”

“He’s not going to hurt us,” she said again, and I didn’t answer. I got the feeling she was speaking to herself that time.

We pulled into the long driveway toward home, that gravel road that I used to run down, my shoes kicking up dust, the shadows from the forest moving in the trees. I wouldn’t have to run anymore, I realized. I wouldn’t have to be scared. But as our house inched closer through the bug-splattered windshield, I had the overwhelming urge to open the door and fling myself

out, scramble into the woods, and hide. It felt safer in there than out here. My breath started to quicken.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said. I started to suck in quick, hollow breaths, and soon I was hyperventilating, my surroundings growing spotty and bright. For a second, I thought I might die right there in the car. “Can I at least tell Cooper?”

“No,” my mother said. She looked at me, the way my chest was rising and falling at an alarming speed. She released the wheel with one hand and turned my face toward hers, rubbing my cheek with her fingers. “Chloe, breathe. Can you breathe for me? Breathe in through your nose.”

I closed my lips and inhaled deep through my nostrils, letting my chest fill with air.

“Now out through your mouth.”

I pursed my lips and pushed it out slowly, feeling my heartbeat slow just slightly.

“Now do it again.”

I did it again. In through the nose, out through the mouth. With each successful breath, my vision started to return, until finally, once our car pulled up to our porch and my mother killed the engine, I found myself breathing normally as I stared at our home looming before us.

“Chloe, we tell no one,” my mother said again. “Not until the police are here. Do you understand?”

I nodded, a tear dripping down my cheek. I turned toward my mother and saw the way she was staring, too. Staring at our house as if it were haunted. And it was then, looking at her hardened features, the feigned confidence masking the terror I could see in the depths of her eyes, that I realized her true intentions. I understood why we were here, why we had come back. It wasn’t because she felt like she had to; we didn’t come back because she was weak. We came back because she wanted to prove to herself that she could stand up to him. She wanted to prove that she could be the strong one, the fearless one, instead of running from her problems the way she had always done. Hiding from them, hiding from him, pretending they didn’t exist.

But now she was afraid. She was just as afraid as I was.

“Let’s go,” she said, opening her door. I did the same, slamming it shut before walking toward the front of the car and staring at our wraparound porch, at the rocking chairs creaking in the breeze, at my favorite magnolia tree casting shade across the hammock my dad had tied to its trunk years ago. We walked inside, the door groaning as we pushed it open. My mother nudged me toward the staircase, and I started toward my bedroom before a voice stopped me mid-step.

“Where have you two been?”

I froze in place, turning my neck to see my father sitting on the living room couch, staring in our direction. He was holding a beer, his fingers ripping at the damp label, a little pile of paper scraps collecting on the television tray. Sunflower seeds scattered across the wood. He was clean, showered, his hair combed back and his face freshly shaven. He seemed put together, dressed in khakis and a button-down, shirt tucked in. But he also seemed tired. Exhausted, even. His skin seemed saggy and his eyes sunken in, like he hadn’t slept in days.

“We got lunch,” my mother said. “Girls trip.” “That sounds nice.”

“But Chloe isn’t feeling well,” she said, looking at me. “I think she might be coming down with something.”

“Sorry to hear that, honey. Come here.”

I glanced at my mom and she nodded slightly. I walked back down the steps and into the living room, my heart hammering in my chest as I approached my father. He looked at me, curiosity in his eyes as I stood before him. Suddenly, I wondered if he had realized his box was missing. I wondered if he was going to ask me about it. He reached his hand toward my forehead and pressed.

“You’re hot,” he said. “Sweetheart, you’re sweating. You’re shaking.” “Yeah,” I said, my eyes to the floor. “I think I just need to lie down.”

“Here.” He grabbed his beer and pushed it against my neck, and I flinched, the cold glass numbing my skin, its sweat dripping down my chest and dampening my shirt. I felt my pulse, hard against the bottle, a cool beating. “Does that help?”

I nodded, forcing myself to smile.

“I think you’re right,” he said. “You should lie down. Take a nap.” “Where’s Coop?” I asked, suddenly aware of his absence.

“He’s in his room.”

I nodded. His room was on the left side of the stairs; mine, the right. I wondered if I could sneak in there without my parents noticing, curl into his bed, and pull the covers over my eyes. I didn’t want to be alone.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Go lie down. I’ll come get you in a few hours, take your temperature.”

I turned on my heel and started walking back toward the stairs, the bottle still pressed to my neck. My mother followed me, her closeness comforting, until we hit the hallway.

“Mona,” my dad called out. “Hang on a second.”

I felt her turn around, face his direction. She was silent, so my father spoke again.

“Is there something you need to tell me?”



Aaron’s eyes are drilling into my skull as I gaze out toward the river. I turn to him, unsure if I heard him correctly, or if my memories are flooding my subconscious again, clouding my judgment, confusing my brain.

“Well?” he asks again. “Is there?”

“Yeah,” I say, slowly. “That’s why I called you here. This morning, I got a call from Detective Thomas—”

“No, before we get to that. Something else. You lied to me.”

I look back toward the river and lift a coffee to my lips; we’re sitting on a bench by the water, the bridge in the distance looking even more industrial and bleak with the settling fog.

“About what?” “About this.”

He holds his phone in front of me, and I grab it with my free hand; I’m looking at a picture of myself, wandering amidst a crowd of people. Immediately, I know where this was taken. My gray T-shirt and topknotted hair, the mangled trees dripping in Spanish moss, the yellow police tape

blurry in the distance. This picture was taken one week ago in Cypress Cemetery.

“Where did you find this?”

“There’s an article online,” he says. “I was looking in the local paper, trying to identify some people to talk to, when I came across images from the search party. Imagine my surprise when I saw that you were there.”

I sigh, silently berating myself for not paying closer attention to those journalists I had seen walking around with cameras slung from their necks. I hope Daniel doesn’t see this article—or worse, Officer Doyle.

“I never told you I wasn’t there.”

“No, but you told me Cypress Cemetery held no special meaning to your family. That there would be no reason to think dumping Aubrey’s body there would be suspicious.”

“It doesn’t,” I say. “There’s not. I just stumbled across the search party, okay? I was driving around, trying to clear my head. I saw it in the distance and decided to look around.”

He stares at me, his eyes narrowing.

“In my line of work, trust is everything. Honesty is everything. If you lie to me, I can’t work with you.”

“I’m not lying,” I say, holding up my hands. “I swear.” “Why did you decide to look around?”

“I don’t really know,” I say, taking another sip of my coffee. “Curiosity, I guess. I was thinking about Aubrey. And Lena.”

Aaron is quiet, his eyes trained on me.

“What was she like?” he asks at last, curiosity creeping into his voice. He can’t help it; I know he can’t. Nobody ever can. “Were you friends with her?”

“Something like that. I thought we were, when I was little. But now I see it for what it really was.”

“And what is that?”

“She was an older cool kid looking out for a younger nerd,” I say. “She was nice to me. She gave me hand-me-downs, taught me how to put on makeup.”

“That’s a friend,” Aaron says. “The best kind, if you ask me.”

“Yeah,” I say, nodding. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. There was something about her that was just … I don’t know. Magnetic, you know?”

I glance at Aaron, and he nods knowingly. I wonder if he had a Lena, too. I imagine everyone has a Lena in their life at some point. A person who comes blazing in like a shooting star and fizzles out just as fast.

“She used me a little bit, and I knew it, but I didn’t even care,” I continue, tapping my fingers against my coffee cup. “She didn’t have the best home life, so our house was something of an escape for her. Besides, I think she had a crush on my brother.”

Aaron raises his eyebrows.

“Everyone had a crush on my brother,” I say, my lips twitching into a gentle smile, reminiscing. “He didn’t like her like that, but I think that’s the reason why she came around so much. I remember, there was this one time


I stop, catching myself before I go too far.

“Sorry,” I say. “You probably don’t care about that.” “No, I do,” he says. “Go on.”

I exhale, push my fingers into my hair.

“There was this one time, that summer. Back before everything happened. Lena was at our house—she was always making excuses about why she needed to come to our house—and she convinced me to break into Cooper’s room. I didn’t really do stuff like that … you know, break the rules. But Lena had a way about her. She made you want to push the boundaries. Live your life without fear.”

I remember that afternoon so vividly—the warmth of the afternoon sun stinging my cheeks, the blades of grass pushing deep into my back, itching my neck. Lena and I lying in the backyard, making shapes out of the clouds.

“You know what would make this even better?” she had asked, her voice raspy. “Some weed.”

I rolled my head on its side so I was facing her direction. She was still staring into the clouds, her eyes focused, her teeth digging into the side of her lip. She held a lighter in one hand, absentmindedly flicking it on and off

between her bitten-down fingernails, the other held above the flame, moving closer and closer until a little black circle appeared on her palm.

“I’m positive your brother has some.”

I watched an ant crawl slowly up her cheek, toward her eyebrow. I got the feeling that she knew it was there; that she could feel it, crawling closer. That she was testing it, testing herself. Waiting to see how long she could take it—just like that fire, searing her skin—how close it could get before she was forced to reach her hand up and brush it away.

“Coop?” I asked, tilting my head back. “No way. He doesn’t do drugs.”

Lena snorted, pushing herself up onto her elbow.

“Oh, Chloe. I love how naive you are. That’s the beauty of being a


“I’m not a kid,” I said, sitting up, too. “Besides, his room is locked.” “Do you have a credit card?”

“No,” I said, embarrassed again. Did Lena have a credit card? I didn’t

know any fifteen-year-olds with credit cards—Cooper definitely didn’t have one—but then again, Lena was different. “I have a library card.”

“Of course you do,” she said, pushing herself up from the grass. She held her hand out, her palms rippled with the indents from the blades, specks of soil stuck to the skin. I took it, damp with sweat, and stood up, too, watching as she picked the weeds from the backs of her thighs. “Let’s go. Honestly, I have to teach you everything.”

We walked inside, stopping by my room to grab the small purse that held my library card before crossing the hall to Cooper’s.

“See,” I said, jiggling the handle. “Locked.” “Does he always lock his bedroom?”

“Ever since I found these gross magazines under his bed.”

“Cooper!” she said, raising her eyebrows. She looked more impressed than disgusted. “Naughty boy. Here, give me the card.”

I handed it over, watching as she stuck it through the crack.

“First, check the hinges,” she said, jostling the card. “If you can’t see them, it’s the right kind of lock. You need the slant of the latch to be facing towards you.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to fight down the panic that was rising in my throat.

“Next, insert the card at an angle. Once the corner is in, straighten it up. Like this.”

I watched, mesmerized as she pushed the card deeper and deeper into the opening, applying pressure to the door. The card started to bend, and I said a prayer that it wouldn’t break.

“How do you know how to do this?” I finally asked.

“Oh, you know,” she said, wiggling the card. “You get grounded so many times and you learn to let yourself out.”

“Your parents lock you inside your room?”

She ignored me, giving the card a few more good yanks until, finally, the door pushed open.


She twirled around, a look of satisfaction on her face until I saw her expression slowly change. Mouth open, eyes wide. Then, a smile.

“Oh,” she said, placing her hand on a popped hip. “Hey, Coop.”

Aaron laughs now, polishing off his latte before placing the to-go cup on the ground by his feet.

“So he caught you?” he asks. “Before you even got inside?”

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “He was standing right behind me, watching the whole thing from the stairwell. I think he was just waiting to see if we could get in.”

“No weed for you, then.”

“No,” I say, smiling. “That would have to wait a few years. But I don’t think that’s what Lena was really after, anyway. I think she wanted to get caught. To get his attention.”

“Did it work?”

“No,” I say. “That kind of thing never worked on Cooper. It kind of had the opposite effect, actually. He sat me down that night and talked to me about not doing drugs, the importance of good role models, blah, blah, blah.”

The sun is peeking out now, and almost instantly, the temperature seems to rise a few degrees, the humidity getting thick like churning milk. I

feel my cheeks start to burn—I can’t tell if it’s from the sun on my face or from sharing this intimate memory with a stranger. I don’t really know what drove me to tell it.

“So, why did you want to meet me?” Aaron asks, sensing my desire to change the subject. “Why the change of heart?”

“I saw Lacey’s body this morning,” I say. “And the last time we met, you were telling me to trust my instincts.”

“Wait, back up,” he interrupts. “You saw Lacey’s body? How?”

“She was found in the alleyway behind my office. Stashed behind a dumpster.”


“They asked me to look at her, try to identify if anything looked different from the last time I saw her. If anything was missing.”

Aaron is quiet, waiting for me to continue. I exhale, turn toward him.

“She was missing a bracelet,” I say. “And back when I was at the cemetery, I came across an earring. An earring that belonged to Aubrey. At first I thought it probably just fell out of her ear when her body was being dragged or something, but then I realized that it was a part of a set. She had a matching necklace, too. I never saw Aubrey’s body, but if she was found without that necklace—”

“You think the killer is taking their jewelry,” Aaron interrupts. “As a kind of prize.”

“That was my dad’s thing,” I say, the admission, even after all these years, still making me nauseated. “They caught him because I found a box of his victim’s jewelry hidden in the back of his closet.”

Aaron’s eyes widen before he looks down at his lap, processing the information I just gave him. I wait a minute before continuing again.

“I know it’s a stretch, but I think it’s at least worth looking into.”

“No, you’re right.” Aaron nods. “It’s a coincidence we can’t ignore.

Who would have known about that?”

“Well, my family, obviously. The police. The victims’ parents.” “Is that it?”

“My dad took a plea deal,” I say. “Not all of the evidence was presented publicly. So yeah, I think so. Unless somehow the word got out.”

“Can you think of anybody on that list that would have a reason to do something like this? Any police officers who got too obsessed with the case, maybe?”

“No.” I shake my head. “No, the cops were all—”

I stop, a realization settling over me. My family. The police. The victims’ parents.

“There was one man,” I start, slowly. “One of the victims’ parents.

Lena’s dad. Bert Rhodes.”

Aaron looks at me, nods for me to continue. “He … didn’t handle things well.”

“His daughter was murdered. I don’t think most people would.”

“No, this wasn’t normal grief,” I say. “This was something different. This was rage. And even before the murders, there was something about him that was just … off.”

I think back to Lena, jimmying my brother’s locked door. Her involuntary admission, that slip of the tongue. Pretending not to hear when I pressed her for more.

Your parents lock you inside your room?

Aaron nods, blows a steady stream of air through his pursed lips.

“What did you say the other day about copycats?” I ask. “They can either revere or revile?”

“Yeah,” Aaron says. “There are two different categories of copycats, generally speaking. There are people who admire a murderer and want to mimic their crimes as a form of respect, and then there are people who disagree with a murderer in some way—maybe they have an opposing political belief or just think they’re overhyped and want to do it better—so they mirror their crimes as a way to draw attention away from their predecessor and toward themselves. But either way, it’s a game.”

“Well, Bert Rhodes reviled my father. For good reason, but still. It seemed unhealthy. Like an obsession.”

“Okay,” Aaron says at last. “Okay. Thanks for telling me this. Are you going to bring it to the police?”

“No,” I say, probably too quickly. “Not yet, at least.” “Why, is there more?”

I shake my head, deciding not to mention the other part of my theory

—that the person taking these girls is talking to me, specifically. Taunting me. Testing me. Wanting me to the put pieces together. I don’t want Aaron to start to doubt my sanity here, to discount everything I just said if I take it a step too far. I want to do some research of my own first.

“No. I’m just not ready for that yet. It’s too soon.”

I stand up, pushing a wisp of hair from my forehead that the wind has loosened from my bun. I exhale, turning toward Aaron to say goodbye, when I notice him looking at me in a way I’ve never seen from him before. There’s concern in his eyes.

“Chloe,” he says. “Hang on a second.” “Yeah?”

He hesitates, as if trying to decide if he should continue. He makes up his mind and leans toward me, his voice low and steady.

“Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself, okay?”

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