Chapter no 31

A Flicker in the Dark

I’m staring at a picture of Aubrey on my laptop, a picture I’ve never seen before. It’s a small image, slightly pixelated from me zooming in on her face, but clear enough to know for sure. It’s her.

She’s seated on the ground with her legs tucked under a white dress, those same leather riding boots hiked up to her knees, her hands resting on a perfectly manicured lawn of pristine green grass. It’s a family portrait, and she’s surrounded by her parents. Her grandparents. Her aunts and her uncles and her cousins. The image is framed with the same moss-draped oak trees I had envisioned framing the aisle of my wedding; in the background, those same white stairs I had imagined myself walking down, with my veil trailing behind me, are ascending to that giant wraparound porch. To those chairs that never seem to stop moving.

I lift a cardboard cup of coffee to my lips, my eyes still scanning the image. I’m on the official Cypress Stables website, reading about its owners. It really has been in the Gravino family for centuries—what started as a sugarcane farm built in 1787 had gradually transitioned into a horse farm, then eventually, an event venue. Seven generations of Gravinos had lived there, producing some of Louisiana’s best cane syrup. Once they realized they were sitting on such a desirable piece of land, they renovated the farmhouse and decorated the barn, the immaculately ornamented inside and meticulously pruned outside providing the perfect Louisiana backdrop for weddings, corporate events, and other celebrations.

I remember the vague familiarity of seeing Aubrey’s MISSING picture. That nagging feeling that I knew her, somehow. And now I know why. She was there the day we visited the Stables. She was there when we had toured the grounds, when we had booked the venue for our wedding. I had seen her. Daniel had seen her.

And now, she’s dead.

My eyes move from Aubrey’s face to the face of her parents. The parents I had seen on the news almost two weeks ago. Her father had been

crying into his hands. Her mother had been pleading into the camera: We want our baby back. Next, I look at her grandmother. That same sweet woman struggling with that iPad, trying to calm my fabricated fears with promises of air-conditioners and bug spray. I imagine the fact that Aubrey Gravino came from a locally famous family was mentioned in the news at some point, but I hadn’t known that. After the discovery of her body, I had been deliberately avoiding the news. I had been driving around town with the radio turned off. And once her headshot was replaced by Lacey’s, that detail no longer mattered. The media had moved on. The world had moved on. Aubrey was just another vaguely familiar face lost in a sea of other faces. Of other missing girls just like her.

“Doctor Davis?”

I hear a knock and look up from my laptop, at Melissa peering at me from behind the cracked door. She’s in running shorts and a tank top, her hair pulled back into a bun, and a gym bag flung over one shoulder. It’s six thirty a.m., the sky outside my office just barely starting to morph from black to blue. There’s something inherently lonely about a morning spent awake when nobody else seems to be—being the one to turn on the coffee, the only car on an abandoned highway, arriving to an empty office building and flipping on the lights. I had been so engrossed in Aubrey’s image, so deafened by the absolute silence surrounding me, I hadn’t even heard her come in.

“Good morning.” I smile, waving her inside. “You’re here early.”

“I could say the same for you.” She steps inside and closes the door behind her before wiping a bead of sweat trickling down her forehead. “Do you have an early appointment today?”

I sense a panic in her expression, a fear that she had overlooked something on my calendar and now, here she was, showing up to work in gym clothes. I shake my head.

“No, I’m just trying to catch up on some work. Last week was … well, you know how it was. I was distracted.”

“Yeah, we both were.”

The truth is, I couldn’t stand to be in the same house as Daniel for a minute longer than necessary. Sitting in that kayak, the water bobbing us

gently as I stared at Cypress Stables in the distance, I had finally allowed myself to be scared. Not just suspicious … scared. Scared of the man who was sitting right behind me, my neck within grabbing distance of his hands. Scared of sharing a roof with a monster—a monster that hid in plain sight, like that alligator gliding across the surface of the water. Like my father twenty years ago. Not only did I have the necklace nagging at my conscience, Cooper’s distrust, and my mother’s warning, but now I had this. I had another dead girl linked to me—linked to Daniel. And just like I had been keeping secrets from Daniel, in that moment, I was positive that he had been keeping them from me, too. Cooper was right—we don’t know each other. We’re engaged to be married. We’re living under the same roof, sleeping together in the same bed. But we’re strangers, this man and I. I don’t know him. I don’t know what he’s capable of.

“I’m getting a bit of a headache,” I had said to him then, not exactly lying. A wave of nausea was rolling through my stomach as I stared at that house in the distance, at those empty rocking chairs being pushed by phantom legs. I wondered if Aubrey had been wearing the necklace at that very moment, the necklace that was now tucked away somewhere in my home. “Can we turn back?”

Daniel was quiet behind me; I wondered what he was thinking. Why did he take me there? Was he gauging my reaction? Was this part of the fun for him—dangling the truth in front of me, just barely out of reach? Was he warning me? Does he know I know? I thought back to my conversation with Aaron, about Cypress Cemetery holding some kind of special meaning. I should have put it together sooner. I first saw Aubrey at Cypress Stables, and her body was found in Cypress Cemetery. I didn’t think anything of it before—that name is so common—but now, like Lacey’s body showing up behind my office, it seems too coincidental. Too perfect to have been left to chance. Did Daniel want me to recognize Aubrey when her body was found? Or was he genuinely confident enough to show me another piece of the puzzle and expect me not to see the bigger picture that was starting to form?


“Sure.” His voice was offended, quiet. “Sure, yeah, we can turn back.

Everything okay, Chlo?”

I nodded my head, forced myself to peel my eyes from the farmhouse and focus on something else. Anything else. We paddled back to the landing and rode home in silence, Daniel with his eyes on the road and his lips pursed shut, and me resting my head against the window, massaging my temple with my fingers. When we pulled into the driveway, I muttered something about a nap before retreating to our bedroom, locking the door, and crawling into bed.

“Hey, Mel,” I ask now, looking up at my assistant. “Can I ask you a question? It’s about the engagement party.”

“Sure.” She smiles, taking a seat opposite my desk. “What time did Daniel get there?”

She chews on the inside of her cheek, thinking.

“Not much earlier than you, honestly. Cooper, Shannon, and I were there first. Daniel was running late from work, so we let everyone else in until he showed up, maybe twenty minutes before you did.”

I feel that familiar pang in my chest again. Cooper, trying to push his feelings aside. He had been trying to be there for me, despite it all—or maybe because of it all. I imagine him standing at the back of my living room, his face hidden in the crowd. Watching me scream, my arm shooting into my purse, searching frantically. Daniel pulling me in, hands on my hips, working the crowd. It would have been too much for him to handle, I’m sure. Watching Daniel flash that iridescent smile, manipulating me into submission. So he had turned around before I could see him, ducking into the backyard, alone with his pack of cigarettes. Waiting for me there. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before—stubbornness, I suppose. Selfishness. But now, it was obvious: It had been the same way Cooper had always been there for me—quietly, in the background, the same way his head had bobbed over the sea of other faces at the Crawfish Festival, breaking apart from the crowd. Finding me, comforting me, when I had been alone.

“Okay.” I nod, trying to focus. Trying to think back to that day. Lacey

had left my office at six thirty; I had left closer to eight, spending some time saving her notes, packing up my office, and taking that call from Aaron.

Then I had made a stop at the CVS before pulling into my driveway, probably around eight thirty. That would have given Daniel two hours to grab Lacey from outside my office building, take her to wherever he was keeping her before he stashed her behind the dumpster, and get to the house before I made it home.

Was it possible?

“What did he do when he got there?”

Melissa shifts in her chair, hooking one foot behind the other. She’s tenser than she was when she walked in; she knows there’s something about these questions that’s personal.

“He went upstairs to freshen up; I think he took a shower and changed clothes. He said he’d been driving all day. Then he came back down just as we saw your headlights pull into the driveway. He poured a few glasses of wine and then … you walked in.”

I nod, smiling again to let her know I appreciate the information, even though inside, I feel like screaming. I remember that moment so perfectly. That moment I saw the sea of people part and Daniel emerge from the crowd. That moment he started walking toward me, wineglasses in hand, and the wave of relief that washed over my panic-stricken body the instant he snaked his arm around my waist and pulled me in. I remember the smell of his spiced body wash, his bleached white grin. I remember feeling so lucky, so goddamn luckyin that exact moment with him by my side. But now … I can’t help but wonder what he had been doing immediately before that moment. If his soap smelled so strong because he had intentionally lathered it up to wash away the scent of something else. If the clothes he had been wearing before he changed were even in our house anymore, or if he had dumped them somewhere on the side of the road or burned them with matches, incinerating any evidence that could link him to his crimes. Were there traces of her somewhere on his skin as our naked bodies lay intertwined in bed that night—a strand of her hair, a drop of her blood, a ripped out fingernail embedded somewhere that had yet to be found? I wonder about Aubrey, about the night she went missing, and about what we might have done together after he got home. Did Daniel jump into the shower the same way he always did after returning home from a long,

lonely drive? Did I decide to join him that night, peeling away his clothes for him as the bathroom fogged up with steam? Did I help him wash her away?

I pinch my nose, closing my eyes. The thought of it makes me sick.

“Chloe?” I hear Melissa’s voice, a soft, concerned whisper. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I say, lifting my head, smiling weakly. The heaviness of the situation settles over my shoulders. My inexplicit involvement reminds me of twenty years ago—of seeing and not realizing. Of unknowingly leading girls to a predator, or rather, leading a predator to them. I can’t help but wonder—if it weren’t for me, would they still be alive? All of them?

Suddenly, I feel tired. So, so tired. I barely slept at all last night, Daniel’s skin radiating like a furnace, warning me not to get too close. I glance down at my desk drawer, at the collection of pills waiting to be beckoned from the dark. I could tell Melissa to leave. I could close the curtains, escape it all. It’s not even seven a.m. yet—plenty of time to cancel the day’s appointments. But I can’t do that. I know I can’t.

“What does my calendar look like?”

Melissa reaches into her purse and pulls out her phone, navigating to her calendar app and skimming the day’s appointments.

“You’re pretty full,” she says. “Lots of reschedules from the other week.”

“Okay, what about tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, you’re booked until four.”

I sigh, massaging my temples with my thumbs. I know what I need to do, I just don’t have the time to do it. I can’t keep cancelling on my clients, or else pretty soon, there won’t be any left.

But still, I picture my mother’s fingers dancing madly across my palm.

How do I prove it?

Daniel. The answer is Daniel.

“You’re pretty open on Thursday,” Melissa offers, using her forefinger to swipe at her screen. “Appointments in the morning, then nothing after noon.”

“Okay,” I say, sitting up straighter. “Block the rest of that day off for me, please. Friday, too. I need to take a trip.”

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