Chapter no 37

A Flicker in the Dark

“What can you tell us about Sophie?”

Dianne glances in my direction, as if she had forgotten about my existence entirely. It feels wrong that this is the way I’m meeting my would-be future mother-in-law. She clearly has no idea who I am, and as long as I can avoid giving her my name, it should stay that way. I no longer have Facebook, so I never post pictures of myself online—and even if I did, Daniel doesn’t speak to his parents anymore. They aren’t invited to the wedding. I wonder if she even knows he’s engaged.

She seems to consider the question for a second, as if she’s forgotten, lifting her hand to scratch at the leathery skin on her arm.

“What can I tell you about Sophie,” she echoes, sucking down the last of her cigarette before putting it out on the wooden table. “She was a wonderful girl. Smart, beautiful. Just beautiful. That’s her, just there.”

Dianne points to a single, framed picture on the wall, a school portrait that features a smiling girl with pale skin and frizzy blonde hair, a turquoise backdrop that looks like pool water. It strikes me as odd to see her class picture displayed—that, and nothing else. It seems staged and unnatural, like a sad sort of shrine. I wonder if the Briggs family wasn’t big on cameras, or if there just weren’t any moments worth remembering. I look around for pictures of Daniel, but I don’t see any.

“I had big dreams for her,” she continues. “Before she went missing.” “What kind of dreams?”

“Oh, you know, just getting out of here,” she says, gesturing to the room around us. “She was better than this. Better than us.”

“Who is us?” Aaron asks, resting the tip of his pen against his cheek. “You and your husband?”

“Me, my husband, my son. I just always thought she would be the one to get out of here, you know. To make something of herself.”

My chest lurches at the mention of Daniel; I try to imagine him growing up here, getting buried alive in the clouds of cigarette smoke and

mountains of trash. I’ve been wrong about him, I realize. His perfect teeth, his smooth skin, his expensive education and high-paying job. I had always assumed those things were a product of his upbringing, of his privilege. That he is inherently better than me, than damaged Chloe. But it isn’t; he isn’t. He’s damaged, too.

He doesn’t know you, Chloe. And you don’t know him.

It’s no wonder he’s so meticulously clean now, so immaculately put together. He’s been trying so hard to become the exact opposite of this.

Or maybe he’s been trying to hide who he really is. “What can you tell us about your husband and son?”

“My husband, Earl. He’s got a temper, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.” She looks at me, smirks a little, as if we share some kind of unspoken bond over men. The things they do. Boys will be boys. I divert my gaze from the bruise beneath her eye, but this woman isn’t stupid. She must have caught me looking. “And my son, well. I don’t know much about him anymore. But I’ve always worried that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”

Aaron and I glance at each other, and I nod at him to go on. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that he’s got a temper, too.”

I think of Daniel’s hand on my wrist, squeezing.

“He used to try to fight off his daddy, protect me when he came home after a night of drinking,” she continues. “But as he got older, I don’t know. He stopped trying, just let it happen. I think he got desensitized. I guess I can blame myself for that.”

“Okay.” Aaron nods, scribbling notes in his notebook. “And how did your son—I’m sorry, what did you say his name was?”

“Daniel,” she says. “Daniel Briggs.”

I feel a squeeze in my stomach as I rack my brain to remember if I’ve ever mentioned Daniel’s full name to Aaron. I don’t think I have. I glance over at him, at the concentration warping his forehead as he scrawls the name on his notepad. It doesn’t seem to register.

“Okay, and how did Daniel react to Sophie’s disappearance?”

“Honestly, he didn’t seem to care,” she says, reaching for the pack of cigarettes and lighting another. “I know it’s not very maternal of me to say

things like that, but it’s true. A little part of me always wondered…” She stops, stares into the distance, then shakes her head gently.

“Wondered what?” I ask. She looks at me now, her daze broken. There’s a certain intensity in her eyes, and for a second, I’m convinced that she knows who I am. That she’s speaking to me, Chloe Davis, the woman engaged to her son. That she’s trying to warn me.

“Wondered if he had somethin’ to do with it.”

“What makes you say that?” Aaron asks, his voice growing more urgent with each question. He’s writing faster now, trying to remember every detail. “That’s quite the accusation.”

“I don’t know, just a feeling,” she says. “I guess you could call it a mother’s instinct. When she first went missing, I would ask Daniel if he knew where she was, and I could always tell he was lying. He was hiding something. And sometimes, when we were watchin’ the news, listening to them report on her disappearance, I would catch him smiling—no, like smirking, like he was laughing at some secret that the rest of the world didn’t know.”

I can feel Aaron looking at me, but I ignore him, keeping my focus on Dianne.

“And where is Daniel now?”

“I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue,” Dianne says, leaning back into the sofa. “He moved out the day after he graduated high school, and I haven’t heard from him since.”

“Do you mind if we look around?” I ask, suddenly eager to cut this conversation short before Aaron uncovers too much. “Maybe poke around in Daniel’s room, see if we can find anything that may point us in the right direction?”

She holds her arm out, gesturing to the staircase.

“Be my guest,” she says. “I already told this to the police twenty years ago, didn’t amount to nothin’. In their opinion, no teenaged boy could have gotten away with it.”

I stand up, take exaggerated steps over the obstacles in the living room and toward the stairs, the beige carpet dirty and stained.

“First one on the right,” Dianne yells as I take them one at a time. “Haven’t touched that room in years.”

I make my way upstairs and look at the closed door. My hand finds the knob, and I twist it open, unveiling the bedroom of a teenaged boy, all the lights off, a stream of sunshine through the window revealing specks of dust floating in the air.

“Sophie’s, either,” she continues, her voice distant. I hear Aaron stand up from the couch, make his way upstairs behind me. “No reason for me to go up there anymore. Truthfully, I didn’t really know what to do with them.”

I step inside, holding the air in my cheeks like a child stepping over a sidewalk crack, a weird superstition. Like bad things will happen if I breathe. This is Daniel’s bedroom. There are posters on the wall, ’90s rock bands like Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers fraying at the edges. A blue-and-green plaid comforter rumpled messily across a mattress on the floor, like he had just woken up and walked outside. I imagine Daniel lying in bed, listening to his father come home, drunk and disorderly. Angry. Loud. I imagine the screaming, the clatter of pots and pans, the sound of a body slamming against the wall. I imagine him motionless, listening to it all. Smiling. Desensitized.

“We should probably go,” Aaron whispers, creeping up behind me. “I think we got what we came for.”

But I don’t listen. I can’t listen. I keep walking, drinking in this place from Daniel’s past. I trail my fingers along the wall, leading to a bookshelf, where there are rows of dusty books with yellowing pages, a couple decks of cards, an old baseball resting in a mitt. My eyes skim the titles—Stephen King, Lois Lowry, Michael Crichton. It all seems so adolescent, so normal.

“Chloe,” Aaron says, but suddenly, I feel like there’s cotton in my ears. I can barely hear him over the sound of my own rushing blood. I reach out my arm and grab a book, pulling it from its home. I hear Daniel’s voice in my mind on that first day we met. The day he had grabbed this same book out of my box and trailed his fingers along the cover, that glisten in his eye as he held my copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

No judgment, he had said, flipping through its pages. I love this book.

I blow the dust from the cover so I’m staring at that famous statue of a young, innocent girl, her neck tilted as if asking me: Why? I run my fingers against the glossy cover the same way he had. Then I turn it to the side and see a gap in the pages, the same way his business card had left a gap in mine after he had wedged it deep inside.

Got a thing for murder?

“Chloe,” Aaron says again, but I ignore him. Instead, I take a deep breath and stick my nail into the crack, flipping the pages open. I look down and feel that same twist in my chest as my eyes scan a name. Only this time, it’s not Daniel’s name. And it’s not a business card. It’s a collection of old newspaper clippings, pushed flat from two decades of being wedged between these pages. My hands are shaking, but I force myself to pick them up. To read the first headline that stretches across the top in boldfaced print.


And there, staring back at me, is a picture of my father.

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