Chapter no 22

A Flicker in the Dark

I remember seeing Lena’s parents once, Bert and Annabelle Rhodes, sitting in the audience of Breaux Bridge High School’s annual end-of-year play. That year, the year of the killings, they were putting on Grease, and Lena was Sandy, her tight-as-skin pleather pants shimmering every time the fabric caught the glare of the auditorium lights at just the right angle. Her usual French braids were replaced with a perm, a fake cigarette peeking out from behind one ear (although I very much doubted it was fake; she probably smoked it in the parking lot after the curtain had dropped). Cooper was in it, too, which was why we were there. He was good at sports—but acting, not so much. The pamphlet identified him as some tertiary role like Student #3.

But not Lena. Lena was the star.

I was with my parents, sliding through the rows of seats looking for three empty chairs together, apologizing as we knocked into the knees of the other already-seated parents.

“Mona,” my dad called, waving his hand. “This way.”

He motioned toward three chairs in the center of the room, situated right next to the Rhodes’. I watched my mother’s eyes bulge for a fraction of a second before she plastered a smile on her face and put her hand on my back, pushing me forward with too much force.

“Hey, Bert,” my father said, smiling. “Annabelle. These seats taken?” Bert Rhodes smiled at my father and gestured to the open seats,

ignoring my mother completely. In the moment, it struck me as rude. He had met my mother; I had seen him at our house, just weeks before. He installed security systems for a living; I remember his tanned, leathery arms as he knelt outside in the dirt of our backyard before she tapped him on the shoulder and invited him inside. I watched through my window as he looked up at her, his arm wiping the moisture from his forehead, the unnatural loudness of her laugh as she pulled him in. They went into the kitchen, where I heard them talking in hushed voices; from the bannister on

the stairs, I saw her lean over the counter, her chest pushed together as she cradled a glass of sweet iced tea.

We took our seats just before the lights dimmed, and Lena pranced across the stage, her twirling hips making her white hoop skirt fly around her waist. My father shifted in his chair, crossed his legs. Bert Rhodes cleared his throat.

I remember looking over at him then, at the stiffness in his posture. At my mother’s eyes, glued to the stage. And at my father in between them, oblivious to it all. Bert Rhodes wasn’t rude, I realized. He was uncomfortable. He was hiding something. And my mother was, too.

The news of their affair came as a shock to me after my father’s arrest; I suppose all children think of their parents as perfectly happy people, some kind of subhuman life form devoid of feelings and opinions and problems and needs. At age twelve, I didn’t understand the complexities of life, of marriage, of relationships. My father was at work all day while my mother was home alone. Cooper and I were at school or wrestling practice or camp most of the time, and I never really stopped to wonder what she did all day. Our languid nighttime routine of dinner served atop TV trays, followed by my father nodding off in his La-Z-Boy while my mother cleaned the kitchen and retreated to their bedroom with a book in her hand seemed like just that to me: routine. I never thought about how lonely it must have been, how stale. Their lack of intimacy seemed normal—I never once saw them kiss, hold hands—because I had never witnessed anything else. I had never known anything else. So when she started inviting a steady stream of men into our house over the course of that summer—the gardener and the electrician and the man who installed our security system, the man whose daughter would later vanish—I didn’t think of it as anything more than friendly Southern hospitality. Helping them beat the heat with a glass of homemade sweet tea.

Some people speculated that my father killed Lena as payback, as a

sick way of evening the scales after he found out about Bert and my mother. Maybe Lena, his first kill, was the onset of his darkness. Maybe it crept in from the corners after that, became bigger and messier, harder to control. Bert Rhodes certainly believed that.

I thought back to him standing next to Lena’s mother during that first televised press conference, before Lena’s status shifted from missing to presumed dead. He was a man undone, barely forty-eight hours into his daughter’s disappearance and already unable to string words together to form a coherent sentence. But when my father was identified as the man who killed her, he snapped completely.

I remember Cooper pulling me into the house one morning because Bert Rhodes was outside, pacing like a rabid animal in our front yard. This wasn’t like our other visitors, throwing things from a distance or scampering away when we chased them out. This time, it was different. Bert Rhodes was a full-grown man. He was angry, frantic. My mother had already left us, at that point—mentally, at least—and Cooper and I didn’t know what to do, so we huddled in my bedroom and watched through my window. We watched as he kicked at the dirt and shouted curse words at our home. We watched as he screamed in our direction and ripped at his clothes, his hair. Eventually, Cooper went outside. I had begged him not to, pulling on his shirtsleeve, tears streaming down my cheeks. Then I had watched helplessly as he walked down our front steps, emerging into the yard. I watched as he shouted back, pushing his outstretched finger into Bert’s beefy chest. Eventually, Bert left, with promises of retaliation.

This ain’t over! I heard him scream, his gruff voice echoing through

the vast nothingness that was our home.

We later learned that the rock that came hurtling through my mother’s bedroom window that night had come from his callused hands, the slits in my father’s truck tires the work of his blade. In his mind, it was his fault. He had slept with a married woman, after all, and within that same stretch of summer, her husband had murdered his daughter. Karma had been served, and the guilt was too much to bear. He was angry to his core. If Bert Rhodes had been able to get his hands on my father after he confessed to Lena’s murder, I’m positive he would have killed him, and not quickly. Not mercifully. He would have killed him slowly, painfully. And he would have enjoyed it.

But of course, he couldn’t. He couldn’t get his hands on my father. He was in police custody, safely locked behind bars.

But his family wasn’t, so he set his sights on us.



I unlock the front door now and peek my head into the house, searching for Daniel. I’m home before lunch, as promised, and I can smell fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen. I eye my laptop in the living room, and I want to grab it, open it, start typing furiously.

I want to learn more about Bert Rhodes.

He knew about Lena’s belly-button ring. He knew about the way my father looked at his daughter at the fair and at the school play and as she laid flat on my bedroom floor, those long legs in the air. All of the other girls—Robin, Margaret, Carrie, Susan, Jill—they were victims, too. But they were random. They were taken out of necessity or convenience or some mixture of the two. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time, the exact time the darkness crept in and my father could no longer fight it off—when he found the first young, innocent, defenseless girl he could get his hands on and he squeezed, hard, until it retreated back into the corner like a beetle scuttling away from the light. But Lena seemed to be more than that, she always had. With Lena, it was personal. She was his first. She was taken because of who she was, because of the way she made my father feel. The way she teased him with her waving fingers before she disappeared into a crowd; the way Bert teased him by sleeping with his wife before turning around and smiling at him in public, pretending to be friends.

I walk across the hall to the living room and sit on the couch, pulling

my computer into my lap and powering it on. Bert Rhodes was violent, angry, unforgiving. Bert Rhodes had a grudge. Was he still stewing over this, twenty years later? He hadn’t forgotten my father’s crimes—and maybe he didn’t want us to forget them, either. I can’t shrug off the feeling that I’m onto something, so I tap my fingers across the keys, typing his name into the search engine and hitting Enter. A series of articles come up, almost all of them related to the Breaux Bridge killings. I scroll through the pages, skimming the headlines. They’re all outdated, and I’ve read them all before. I decide to refine my search to Bert Rhodes Baton Rouge and try again.

This time, a new result pops up. It’s the website for Alarm Security Systems, a Baton Rouge–based security company. I click on the link and watch as the website loads, reading the homepage.

Alarm Security Systems is a locally owned and operated on-demand security company. Our trained installation experts will personally install and monitor your home, 24/7, to keep you and your family protected.

I click on a tab titled Meet The Team and watch as Bert Rhodes’s face loads onto the screen. My eyes drink in his picture, his once-sharp jawline now padded with excess fat and saggy skin, stretched like pizza dough and left to hang. He looks older, fatter, balder. He looks terrible, to be honest. But it’s him. It’s definitely him.

Then, the realization hits me.

He lives here. Bert Rhodes lives here, in Baton Rouge.

I’m engrossed in his image, in the way he stares at the camera, the way his face completely lacks an expression. He’s neither happy nor sad nor angry nor irritated—he just is, a shell of a human. Empty inside. His lips droop into a gentle frown, his eyes emotionless and black. They seem to suck the light from the camera flash deep into their center instead of reflecting it back, the way the other pictures do. I lean closer to the monitor, so absorbed in the image on my screen, in this face from my past, that I don’t notice the sound of footsteps walking toward me.


I jump, my hand shooting to my chest. I look up to see Daniel hovering above me, and instinctively, I shut my computer. He glances at it.

“What are you looking at?”

“Sorry,” I say, my eyes darting from my computer and back to him. He’s fully dressed and holding a giant mug in his hands, staring at me. He pushes it in my direction, and I take it, reluctantly, even though I just downed a venti with Aaron thirty minutes before, and the caffeine—or at least, I think it’s the caffeine—is already making me jittery. I don’t answer, so he tries again.

“Where were you?”

“Just running an errand,” I say, pushing my laptop to the side. “I was already in town, so I figured I might as well knock it out—”

“Chloe,” he interrupts. “What were you really doing?”

“Nothing,” I snap. “Daniel, I’m fine. Really. I just needed to drive around for a little bit, okay?”

“Okay,” he says, holding up his hands. “Okay, I get it.”

He turns around, and a wave of guilt washes over me. I think of every other relationship I’ve had, all over before they even began because of my inability to let people in. To trust them. Because of my paranoia and my fear silencing every other emotion in my body screaming to be acknowledged.

“Wait, I’m sorry,” I say, reaching my arm toward him. I wiggle my fingers, and he turns around and walks back toward me, sitting next to me on the couch. I drape my arm over his back and lean my head against his shoulder. “I know I’m not handling this very well.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Let’s do something today,” I say, sitting up straighter. My fingers are still itching to get back to my laptop, to dive back into Bert Rhodes, but right now, I need to be with Daniel. I can’t keep blowing him off like this. “I know you said we could spend the day in bed, but I don’t think that’s what I need right now. I think we need to go do something. Get out of the house.”

He sighs, running his fingers through my hair. He looks at me with a mixture of affection and sadness, and I can already tell that I’m not going to like what he’s about to say next.

“Chloe, I’m sorry. I need to drive to Lafayette today. You know that one hospital I’ve been struggling to meet with? They called me, while you were … running your errand. They’re giving me an hour this afternoon, and I might even be able to take a few of the doctors to dinner. I have to go.”

“Oh, okay.” I nod. For the first time since I walked in, his appearance really registers. He isn’t just dressed; he’s dressed well. He’s dressed for work. “Okay, that’s … of course that’s fine. Do what you need to do.”

“But you should get out of the house,” he says, poking me in the chest. “You should go do something. Get some fresh air. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you, but I should be home first thing tomorrow morning.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “I have some wedding stuff I should be catching up on anyways. Emails to answer. I’ll settle in here and knock it out, maybe grab a drink with Shannon later.”

“Atta girl,” he says, pulling me in and kissing me on the forehead. He pauses for a minute, and I can feel his eyes drilling into the laptop behind me, still closed shut. He keeps me tight against his chest with one arm as his free hand snakes across the couch and reaches for the computer, pulling it closer. I try to reach for it, too, but he grabs my wrist first, holding it tight, while he slides the computer onto his lap, opening it wordlessly.

“Daniel,” I say, but he ignores me, his grip on my wrist getting tighter. “Daniel, come on—”

I swallow hard as the screen illuminates his face, wait while his eyes scan the page I know is still pulled up—Alarm Security Systems, and the picture of Bert Rhodes. He’s quiet for a while, and I’m sure he recognizes the name. He knows what I’m up to. After all, he knows about Lena. I open my mouth, getting ready to explain, before he cuts me off.

“Is this what you’ve been so worked up about?”

“Look, I can explain,” I say, still trying to wriggle my wrist free. “After Aubrey’s body showed up, I started to get worried…”

“You want a security system installed?” he asks. “You’re worried whoever is doing this to those girls might come for you next?”

I’m quiet, trying to decide if I should let him go down this path or explain the truth. Again, I open my mouth, but he keeps going.

“Chloe, why didn’t you say something to me? God, you must be so scared.” He lets go of my wrist, and I feel the blood rush back into my hand, an icy tingle pulsing through my fingers. I hadn’t realized how tightly he had been squeezing. Then he pulls me into his chest again, his fingers trailing against my neck and down my spine. “The memories this must be bringing back for you … I mean, I knew you were thinking about it, about your dad, but I didn’t realize it had gotten to this.

“I’m sorry,” I say, my lips pressed into his shoulder. “It just … it felt a little ridiculous, you know? Being afraid.”

It’s not the truth, exactly. But it isn’t a lie, either.

“You’ll be fine, Chloe. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

My mind flashes to that one morning with my mom, with Cooper, twenty years ago. Crouched in the hallway with our backpacks on. Me, crying. My mom, comforting.

She does have something to worry about, Cooper. This is serious.

“This guy, whoever he is, he likes teenagers, remember?”

I swallow, nod, and my mind formulates the words I already know he’s going to say before he has the chance to say them. As if I’m standing in that hallway again, letting my mother wipe away my tears.

“Don’t get into a car with strangers, don’t walk down dark alleys alone.”

Daniel pulls back and smiles at me, and I force a smile back.

“But if getting a security system installed will make you feel better, I think you should do it,” he adds. “Call this guy and get him over here. At the very least, it’ll give you peace of mind.”

“Okay.” I nod. “I’ll look into it. These things, though, they’re expensive.”

Daniel shakes his head.

“Your peace of mind is more valuable,” he says. “Can’t put a price on that.”

I smile, a genuine one this time, and wrap my arms around him one last time. I can’t blame him for being angry with me, for being curious. I’ve been secretive these last few days and he knows it. He still has no idea I’m not actually shopping for security systems, that I’m investigating the man on the screen and not the piece of equipment he installs, but still. I can tell that the emotion in his voice is authentic. He means it.

“Thank you,” I say. “You’re amazing.”

“As are you,” he says, kissing my forehead before standing up. “Now I’ve got to go. Get some work done, and I’ll text you when I get there.”

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