Chapter no 26

A Flicker in the Dark

It’s late afternoon by the time I make it back home. When I enter the hallway, our new alarm system beeps twice, sending a jolt of panic through my chest at the sound. I immediately reengage it once I close the door behind me, increasing the sound to the highest setting. Then I look around my house, quiet and still. Despite my best efforts, Bert Rhodes’s presence is everywhere I look. The sound of his voice seems to echo across the empty halls, his dark eyes peering at me from behind every unturned corner. I can even smell him, that musky scent of sweat mixed with a hint of alcohol that trailed him around as he wandered through my home, touching my walls, inspecting my windows, injecting himself into my life once again.

I walk into the kitchen and take a seat at the island, placing my purse on the counter and fishing out the Xanax bottle I retrieved from my glove compartment. I twist it in my hands, shaking the bottle slightly and listening to the rattle of the pills as they tumble around inside. I’ve been craving a Xanax since the second I left the morgue this morning; that was only a matter of hours ago—sitting in my car, the mental image of Lacey’s blue body making my fingers shake as I held the pill in my palm—but given all that’s happened since, it feels like a lifetime ago. I twist open the cap and dump one in my hand, tossing it back and swallowing it dry before another phone call can interrupt me. Then I glance at the refrigerator, realizing that I’ve barely eaten all day.

I jump up from the island and walk over to the fridge, opening the door and leaning against the cool stainless steel. Already, I’m starting to feel better. I told the police about Bert Rhodes. Detective Thomas didn’t seem very convinced, but I did what I could. He’ll be looking into him now. Surely, he’ll be watching him, watching his movements, his patterns. He’ll be noting which houses he visits, and if another girl goes missing from one of those houses, then he’ll know. He’ll know I was right, and he’ll stop looking at me as if I’m the crazy one. As if I’m the one with something to hide.

My eyes land on the leftover salmon from last night, and I pull the Pyrex container out, removing the lid before placing it in the microwave, the kitchen quickly filling with the smell of spices mixing in the air. It’s too late for lunch, so I’ll call it an early dinner, which means it’s entirely within my rights to enjoy a glass of that cabernet that paired so well with it last night. I walk over to the wine cabinet and retrieve a glass, pouring the ruby red liquid to the brim and taking a long drink before dumping the rest of the bottle into the glass and then tossing it into the recycling bin.

Before I can pull out my barstool, there’s a knock at the door—a loud, closed-fist pounding that sends my hand to my chest—followed by a familiar voice.

“Chlo, it’s me. I’m comin’ in.”

I hear the sound of a key in the lock, a quiet clicking as the latch slips out of place. I watch the doorknob begin to turn when I remember the alarm.

“No, wait!” I yell, jogging to the door. “Coop, don’t come in. Hang on a second.”

I reach the keypad and punch in the code just before the door swings open; when it does, I turn to face the porch, my brother’s surprised eyes staring in my direction.

“You got an alarm?” he asks, his feet planted on the Welcome! mat, a bottle of wine clutched in his hand. “If you wanted your key back, you could have just asked.”

“Very funny.” I smile. “You’re going to have to start giving me a heads-up when you’re coming over. This thing will call the cops on you.”

I tap the keypad and gesture for him to come inside, walking back to the island and leaning against the cool marble.

“And if you try to break in, I’ll see you on my phone.”

I lift up my cell phone and wiggle it in the air before pointing at the camera in the corner.

“Is that actually recording?” he asks. “Sure is.”

I open up the security app on my phone and turn it around so Cooper can see; he’s standing in the center of my cell phone screen.

“Huh,” he says, turning back around and waving into the camera. He looks back at me and grins.

“Besides,” I say. “As much as I love your visits, I’m not the only one who lives here now.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cooper says, taking a seat on the edge of a stool. “Speaking of which, where is your fiancé?”

“Traveling,” I say. “For work.” “Over the weekend?”

“He works a lot.”

“Hm,” Cooper says, twirling his bottle of merlot on the table. The liquid glistens under the kitchen lights, casting bloodred shadows across the wall.

“Cooper, don’t,” I say. “Not now.” “I didn’t.”

“But you were about to.”

“Doesn’t it bother you?” he asks, the words pressed and urgent, like if he didn’t speak them now, they would come ripping out on their own. “How often he’s gone? I mean, I don’t know, Chlo. I always pictured you with someone who was around to keep you feeling safe. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve that. Someone present.”

“Daniel is present,” I say, reaching for my wineglass and taking a deep drink. “He keeps me feeling safe.”

“So, what’s the alarm for?”

I think about how to respond to that, my fingernails tapping against the grooved glass.

“It was his idea,” I say at last. “See? Keeping me safe, even when he’s not here.”

“All right, whatever,” Cooper says, standing from the barstool with a sigh. He walks over to the cabinet and grabs a corkscrew, twisting the cork from his own bottle. Even though I know it’s coming, the pop makes me jump. “Anyway, I was going to suggest we drink, but it looks like you’ve already gotten started.”

“Why are you here, Cooper? Are you here to argue with me again?”

“No, I’m here because you’re my sister,” he says. “I’m here because I’m worried about you. I wanted to make sure you’re doing okay.”

“Well, I’m fine,” I say, raising my arms in a shrug. “I don’t really know what to tell you.”

“How are you dealing with all this?” “With what, Cooper?”

“Come on,” he says. “You know.”

I sigh, my eyes flickering over to the empty living room, to the couch that suddenly seems so comfortable, so inviting. I let my shoulders slouch a little; they’re so tight. I’m tight.

“It’s bringing back memories,” I say, taking another drink. “Obviously.”

“Yeah. For me, too.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to determine what’s real and what’s not.”

The words escape before I have a chance to reel them back in; I can still taste them on my tongue, that admission I had been trying so hard to just swallow down. Forget was ever there. I look down at my wineglass, suddenly half empty, then back up at Cooper.

“It’s just so familiar, I mean. There are so many similarities. Doesn’t it seem a little coincidental to you?”

Cooper eyes me, his lips parting gently. “What kind of similarities, Chloe?”

“Forget it,” I say. “It’s nothing.”

“Chloe,” Cooper says, leaning toward me. “What are those?”

I follow his stare toward the bottle of Xanax still on the counter, that tiny orange bottle holding a mountain of pills inside. I look back down at my wineglass again, at the finger of liquid remaining.

“Have you been taking those?”

“What? No,” I say. “No, those aren’t mine—” “Did Daniel give you those?”

“No, Daniel didn’t give me those. Why would you say that?” “His name is on the bottle.”

“Because they’re his.

“Then why are they open on the counter when he’s out of town?”

Silence settles between us. I glance out the window, at the sun beginning to set outside. The noises of the night are starting to emerge—the scream of the cicadas and chirping of crickets and all of the other animals that begin to come alive in the dark. Louisiana at night is a noisy place, but I prefer it to silence. Because when it’s silent, you can hear everything. Muffled breaths in the distance, footsteps digging deep into drying leaves. A shovel being dragged through the dirt.

“I’ve been worried about this.” Cooper exhales, pushing his hands through this hair. “It’s not safe for him to be bringing all those drugs into the house with your history.”

“What do you mean all those drugs?”

“He’s a pharmaceutical sales rep, Chloe. His briefcase is full of that shit.”

“So? I have access to drugs, too. I can prescribe them.” “Not to yourself.”

I feel of a wave of tears pricking at my eyes. I hate that Daniel is taking the blame for this, but I can’t think of another explanation. Another way out without telling Cooper that I’ve been calling pills in for myself under Daniel’s name. So instead, I’m quiet. I let Cooper believe it. I let his distrust for my fiancé sink deeper, simmer louder.

“I’m not here to fight,” he says, standing up from the stool and walking toward me. He wraps my body in a deep hug, his arms thick and warm and familiar. “I love you, Chloe. And I know why you do it. I just wish you would stop. Get some help.”

I feel a tear escape, gliding down my cheek and leaving a trail of salt in its wake. It lands on Cooper’s leg, leaving a small, dark stain. I bite my lip, hard, trying to stop the rest from falling.

“I don’t need help,” I say, pushing down on my eyes with my palms. “I can help myself.”

“I’m sorry I upset you,” he says. “It’s just—this relationship you’re in.

It doesn’t seem healthy.”

“It’s fine,” I say, lifting my head from his shoulder, wiping the back of my hand across my cheek. “But I think you should go.”

Cooper tilts his head. This is the second time in one week I’ve threatened to choose Daniel over my brother. I think back to the engagement party, standing on my back porch. That ultimatum I’d given him.


I want you in this wedding. But it’s happening, with or without you.

But I can see now, from the hurt in his eyes, that he hadn’t believed

“I can see that you’re trying,” I say. “And I get it, Cooper. I really do.

You’re protective, you care. But no matter what I say, Daniel is never going to be good enough for you. He’s my fiancé. I’m marrying him next month. So if he’s not good enough for you, I guess I’m not, either.”

Cooper takes a step back, his fingers curling into his open palm.

“I am just trying to help you,” he says. “To look after you. That’s my job. I’m your brother.

“It’s not your job,” I say. “Not anymore. And you need to leave.”

He stares at me for a second longer, his eyes darting back and forth from me to the pills on the counter. He extends his arm, and I think he’s going to grab them, take them, but instead, he hands me the key ring that holds my spare. The memory of me giving it to him flashes through my mind—years ago, when I had first moved in, I had wanted him to have it. You’re always welcome here, I had said as we sat cross-legged on the mattress in my bedroom, foreheads damp with sweat from assembling my headboard, Chinese takeout cartons spilling onto the floor. The oily noodles leaving greasy smears on the hardwood. Besides, I’m going to need someone to water my plants when I’m gone. I stare at the key now, dangling from his pointer finger. I can’t bring myself to take it back—because once I do, I know that it’s final. That it can’t be returned. So instead, he places it gently on the counter, turns around, and walks out the door.

I stare at the key, fighting the urge to pick it up, walk outside, and push it back into his hands. Instead, I grab it and the Xanax and toss them into my purse before walking over to the door and setting the alarm. Then I grab Cooper’s wine bottle, still mostly full, and pour myself another glass before picking it up along with the salmon, now cold, and walking back into the living room, settling in on the couch, and turning on the TV.

I think about everything that has happened today and immediately, I’m exhausted. Seeing Lacey, my meeting with Aaron. The scuffle with Daniel and the interaction with Bert Rhodes and going to Detective Thomas, telling him everything. The argument with my brother, the concern in his eyes when he saw those pills. When he saw me, alone, drinking at the kitchen island.

Suddenly, more than exhausted, I feel lonely.

I pick up my phone, tap the screen until the background illuminates in my hand. I think about calling Daniel, but then I picture him at dinner, ordering another bottle at some five-star Italian restaurant, the roars of laughter as he insists on just one more. He’s probably the life of the party— cracking jokes, grabbing shoulders. The thought makes me feel even lonelier, so I swipe up at the screen and open up my Contacts.

And there, at the very top, I’m greeted with another name: Aaron Jansen.

I could call Aaron, I think. I could fill him in on everything that has happened since the last time we spoke. He probably isn’t doing anything, alone in an unfamiliar town. He’s probably doing the same thing as me, as a matter of fact—sitting on the couch, half drunk, leftovers perched between his outstretched legs. My finger hovers over his name, but before I can tap it, the screen goes dark. I sit for a minute, wondering. My mind is feeling a little foggy now, like it’s been wrapped in a thick, wool blanket. I put the phone down, deciding against it. Instead, I close my eyes. I imagine how he might react when I tell him about Bert Rhodes showing up on my doorstep. I imagine him yelling at me through the phone after I admit to letting him in. I smirk a little bit, knowing that he’d be worried. Worried about me. But then I would tell him how I got him out of the house, called Detective Thomas, went to the police. I would relay our conversation, word by word, and smile again, knowing that he’d be proud.

I open my eyes and take another bite of salmon, the drone of the TV

sounding more distant as my mind starts to focus instead on the sound of my chewing. The clank of the fork against the Pyrex. My heavy breathing. The image on the television is starting to grow fuzzy on the screen, and I

realize that my eyelids are feeling heavier with every subsequent sip of wine. Pretty soon, my limbs are tingling.

I deserve this, I think, sinking deeper into the couch. I deserve to sleep. To rest. I’m just exhausted. So, so exhausted. It’s been a long day. I turn my phone off—no disruptions—and place it on my stomach before pushing my dinner onto the coffee table. I take another sip of wine and feel a little bit dribble down my chin. Then I let myself close my eyes, just for a second, and feel myself drift into sleep.

It’s dark outside when I wake up. I’m disoriented, my eyes fluttering open as I lie on the couch, the half-empty wineglass still propped between my arm and stomach. Miraculously, it didn’t spill. I sit up and tap my phone, looking for the time, until I remember that I turned it off. I squint at the television—the time on the newscast says it’s just past ten. My pitch-black living room is partially illuminated in an eerie blue glow, so I reach for the remote and turn off the TV before pulling myself off the couch. I look at the wineglass in my hand and down the rest of the liquid before placing it on the coffee table, walking upstairs, and collapsing into bed.

I sink into the mattress immediately, and pretty soon, I’m in a dream— or maybe it’s a memory. It feels a little bit like both, somehow strange yet familiar at the exact same time. I’m twelve years old, sitting in my reading nook, my bedroom pitch-black, with the glow of my tiny reading light illuminating my face just slightly. My eyes are skimming the book in my lap, engrossed in the words on the page, when a noise from outside breaks my concentration. I look out the window and see a figure in the distance, moving silently across our yard in the dark. It’s coming from the trees just beyond our property, the trees that line the entrance to a swamp spanning miles in either direction.

I squint at the figure, and pretty soon, I can tell it’s a body. A fully grown adult body dragging something behind it. The sound begins to drift across the backyard and leaks through my cracked-open window, and soon, I recognize it as the scraping of metal against dirt.

It’s a shovel.

The body walks closer to my window and I press my face against the glass, dog-earing my book and putting it down. It’s still dark, and I’m still

struggling to make out a face or features. As the body inches even closer, almost directly below my window now, a floodlight turns on and I find myself squinting at the sudden brightness, my hand shielding my face as my eyes try to adjust to the light. I remove my hand and confusion washes over me as the person below my window is finally illuminated enough to see. It isn’t the body of a man, as I had originally assumed. It isn’t my father, the way the memory should have actually played out.

This time, it’s a woman.

She turns her head to the sky and looks at me, as if she knew I was there all along. We make eye contact, and I don’t recognize her at first. She looks vaguely familiar, but I don’t know how or why. I look at her individual features—eyes, mouth, nose—and that’s when it finally clicks. I feel the blood drain from my face.

The woman below my window is me.

Panic starts to surge through my chest as twelve-year-old me stares into the eyes of myself, twenty years older. They’re completely black, like the eyes of Bert Rhodes. I blink a few times and look down at the shovel in her hand, covered in a red liquid I somehow know in my gut to be blood. Slowly, a smile forms on her lips, and I break out into a scream.

My body shoots upright, and I’m covered in sweat, my screaming still ringing throughout the house. But then I realize—I’m not screaming. My mouth is open, panting, but there’s no sound coming out. The sound I’m hearing is coming from somewhere else; it’s a loud, screeching sound, almost like a siren.

It’s an alarm. It’s my alarm. My alarm is going off.

Suddenly, I remember Bert Rhodes. I remember him in my home, sticking sensors on my windows, pointing his drill in my direction. I remember his warning.

I never wondered what it was like to lose my life. I’m talking about taking one.

I fling myself from bed, hearing the frantic sound of footsteps downstairs. He’s probably trying to disable it, stop the ringing before coming upstairs and strangling the life from my lungs the same way he strangled those girls. I run toward the closet and fling open the door, my

hands searching blindly across the floor for the box that holds Daniel’s gun. I’ve never used a gun. I have no idea how to use a gun. But it’s here, and it’s loaded, and as long as I can have it in my hands when Bert walks into my bedroom, I’ll feel like I have a fighting chance.

I’m flinging dirty clothes across the floor when I hear the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Come on, I whisper. Come on, where is it? I grab a couple of shoeboxes, opening them up before tossing them to the side when I see nothing but boots nestled inside. The footsteps are closer now, louder. The alarm is still blaring through the house. The neighbors are surely awake, I think. He can’t get away with this. He can’t kill me with the alarm going off like this. Still, I keep searching until my hands find another box pushed into the corner. I grab it, yank it closer, inspect it in my grip. It looks like a jewelry box—why would Daniel have a jewelry box? But it’s long, slender, about the right size for a gun, so I open the lid quickly, feeling the presence of a person just outside my closed door.

My breath catches in my throat as I look down at the box now opened in my lap. Inside, there is no gun, but something far more terrifying.

It’s a necklace with a long silver chain, a single pearl on the end, and three small diamonds clustered at the top.

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