Chapter no 36

A Flicker in the Dark

Aaron drives as I navigate the directions on my phone, taking us deeper into a part of town that slowly morphs from middle-class modular homes into a dilapidated corner of Baton Rouge, barely recognizable. It happens so gradually I hardly realize it; one minute, I’m looking out the window at a toddler splashing in an inflatable pool—his mother soaking her feet, distracted on her phone with a lemonade in hand—and the next, I’m staring at a skeleton of a woman pushing a shopping cart full of trash bags and beer. The houses are falling apart now—bars on windows, paint peeling— and we turn in to a long, gravel roadway. Finally, I see a two-story with the number 375 bolted to the vinyl siding and motion for him to pull over.

“We’re here,” I say, unbuckling my seat belt. I steal another look at myself in the rearview mirror, the thick reading glasses I had put on before we left the motel partially obscuring my face. It feels cartoonish, putting on a pair of glasses as a disguise. Something out of a bad movie. I don’t think Dianne has ever seen a picture of me, but I can’t know for certain. For that reason, I want to make myself look different—and I want Aaron to do most of the talking.

“Okay, so what’s the plan, again?”

“We knock on the door, tell her that we’re investigating the deaths of Aubrey Gravino and Lacey Deckler,” I say. “Maybe flash her your credentials. Make it seem official.”


“Tell her that we know her daughter was kidnapped twenty years ago and that her abductor was never caught. We’re curious if she can tell us anything about her daughter’s case.”

Aaron nods, not asking questions, and grabs his computer bag from the back seat before placing it on his lap. He seems nervous, but I can tell he doesn’t want it to show.

“And you are?”

“Your colleague,” I say, before getting out of the car and slamming the door behind me.

I walk toward the home, the scent of cigarette smoke lingering heavy in the air. It doesn’t smell freshly smoldered, like someone was just out here, sitting on the stoop, sneaking a smoke before dinner. It smells like it’s engrained in the place, coming out in little puffs from a timed air freshener, a permanent aroma that seeps into your clothes and never really leaves. I hear Aaron slam his door, hurrying behind me as I climb the steps toward the front porch. I turn around to face him, raising my eyebrows as if to ask: Are you ready? Aaron nods, a subtle tilt of the head, before raising his fist and knocking twice on the door.

“Who is it?”

I hear the voice of a woman erupt from inside, high-pitched and screechy. Aaron looks at me, and I lift my fist this time, knocking on the door again. My arm is still raised in the air when the door swings open, an older-looking woman glaring at us from behind a dirty screen. I notice a dead fly trapped in the mesh.

“What?” she asks. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“Um, my name is Aaron Jansen. I’m a reporter for The New York Times.” Aaron looks down at his shirt, points to the press badge clipped to his collar. “I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

“A reporter for what?” the woman asks, her eyes darting from Aaron to myself. She stares at me for a second, her forehead crumpled, a dark blue shadow to the right of her nose. Her eyes are gelatinous and yellow, the consistency of Goo Gone, like even her tear ducts can’t be saved from the nicotine in the air. “You said you work for a newspaper?”

For a moment, I’m terrified that she recognizes me. That she knows who I am. But almost as quickly as her eyes settle on mine, they dart back over to Aaron, squinting at the ID on his shirt.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I’m writing a story about the deaths of Aubrey Gravino and Lacey Deckler, and it came to my attention that you also lost a daughter, twenty years ago. A daughter who went missing and was never found.”

My eyes scan the woman, the weariness in her features, like she doesn’t trust a person in the world. I look her up and down, take in the ratty, oversized clothes she’s wearing, the sleeves covered in microscopic moth holes. Her arthritic thumbs thick and crooked like baby carrots, the red and purple shiners marbling her arms. I can almost make out little finger marks, and in this moment, I realize that the shadow beneath her eye isn’t a shadow at all. It’s a bruise. I clear my throat, deflecting the attention from Aaron to myself.

“We would love to ask you a few questions,” I say. “About your daughter. Finding out what happened to her is just as important as finding out what happened to Aubrey and Lacey, even after all these years. And we were hoping—I was hoping—that you might be able to help us.”

The woman looks at me again before glancing behind her shoulder, sighing in what seems like defeat.

“Okay,” she says, pushing the screen door open and motioning for us to come inside. “But you’ll need to make it fast. I need you gone by the time my husband gets home.”

We walk inside, and the dirtiness of the place overpowers all my senses; there’s trash everywhere, heaped in the corners of every room. Paper plates with caked-on food forming leaning towers on the floor, flies buzzing around fast-food bags stained with ketchup smears and grease. There’s a mangy cat resting on the edge of the sofa, its fur patchy and wet, and she swats at it, sending it scampering across the floor with a squawk.

“Sit,” she says, motioning to the couch. Aaron and I look at each other briefly, then back down at the sofa, trying to find enough fabric peeking out from behind the magazines and dirty clothes. I decide to just sit on top of it, the crunch of paper beneath my weight unnaturally loud. She sits in the seat opposite the coffee table and grabs a carton of cigarettes from the surface— there seem to be cartons everywhere, littered across the room like reading glasses—peeling one from the pack with her thin, wet lips. She grabs a lighter and raises the cigarette to the flame, inhaling deeply before blowing smoke in our direction. “So, what do you want to know?”

Aaron grabs a notebook from his briefcase and flips it to a clean page, clicking his pen repeatedly against his leg.

“Well, Dianne, if you could just start by telling me your full name, for the record,” he says. “Then we can get into the disappearance of your daughter.”

“Okay.” She sighs, sucking in another cloud of smoke. When she exhales, I watch her eyes grow distant as she stares out the window. “My name is Dianne Briggs. And my daughter, Sophie, went missing twenty years ago.”

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