Chapter no 4

A Flicker in the Dark

My car idles in the driveway as I dig into my purse and fish out the pharmacy bag. I rip it open and pull the orange bottle from inside, twisting the cap and dumping a pill into my palm before crumpling the bag in a ball and shoving it, and the bottle, into my glove compartment.

I look at the Xanax in my hand, inspecting the little white tablet. I think back to that phone call in my office: Aaron Jansen. Twenty years. My chest constricts at the memory, and I pop the pill into my mouth before I can think twice, swallowing it dry. I exhale, close my eyes. Already, I feel the grip in my chest loosening, my airways opening wide. A calmness settles over me, the same sense of calm that follows every time my tongue touches a pill. I don’t really know how to describe it, this feeling, other than pure and simple relief. The same relief you would feel after flinging open your closet door to find nothing but clothes hiding inside—the slowing of the heart rate, the euphoric sense of giddiness that creeps into the brain when you realize that you’re safe. That nothing’s going to lunge at you from the shadows.

I open my eyes.

There’s a hint of spice in the air as I step out of my car and slam the door, clicking the lock button twice on my key fob. I turn my nose toward the sky and sniff, trying to place the scent. Seafood, maybe. Something fishy. Maybe the neighbors are having a barbecue, and for a second, I’m offended that I’m not invited.

I start the long walk up the cobblestones toward my front door, the darkness of the house looming before me. I make it halfway up the walkway before I stop and stare. Back when I bought this house, years ago, it was just that. A house. A shell of a thing ready to have life blown into it like a saggy balloon. It was a house prepared to become a home, all eager and excited like a kid on the first day of schoolBut I had no idea how to make a home. The only home I had ever known could hardly be called a home at all—not anymore, at least. Not in hindsight. I remember walking

through the front door for the first time, keys in hand. My heels on the hardwood echoing through the vast emptiness, the bare white walls littered with nail marks from where pictures once hung, proof that it was possible. That memories could be formed here, a life could be made. I opened up my little tool kit, a tiny red Craftsman that Cooper had bought, walking me around Home Depot as I held the lips open while he dropped wrenches and hammers and pliers inside like he was filling up a bag of sweet-and-sour gummies at the local candy store. I didn’t have anything to hang—no pictures, no decorations—so I hammered a single nail into the wall and hung the metal ring that held my house key. A single key, and nothing more. It felt like progress.

Now I look all the things that I’ve done to it since to make it appear like I have my shit together from the outside, the superficial equivalent of slathering makeup over a marbling bruise or fastening a rosary on top of a scarred wrist. Why I care so much about the acceptance of my neighbors as they slink past my yard, leashes in hand, I don’t really know. There’s the swinging bench bolted to the porch ceiling, the always-present layer of buttery yellow pollen making it impossible to pretend that anybody ever actually sits there. The landscaping I had eagerly purchased and planted and then subsequently ignored to death, the skinny brown tendrils of my twin hanging ferns resembling the regurgitated bones of a small animal I once found while dissecting an owl in eighth grade biology. The scratchy brown welcome mat that says, Welcome! The bronze mailbox shaped like an oversized envelope bolted to the siding, maddeningly impractical, the slit too tiny to fit an entire hand, let alone more than a couple of postcards mailed to me by former classmates-turned-Realtors after the promise of their degrees turned out to be not-so-promising.

I start walking again, deciding in this moment that I’m going to throw

away the stupid envelope and just use a regular mailbox like everybody else. It is also in this moment when I realize that my house looks dead. It’s the only one on the block without lights illuminating the windows, the flicker of a television behind closed blinds. The only one without any evidence of life inside.

I walk closer, the Xanax cloaking my mind into a forced calm. But still, something is nagging at me. Something is wrong. Something is different. I look around my yard: small, but well-kept. A mown lawn and shrubs push against a raw wood fence, an oak tree’s mangled limbs casting shadows against a garage I’ve never once pulled my car into. I glance up at the house, now mere feet before me. I think I catch a glimpse of movement behind a curtain from inside, but I shake my head, force myself to keep walking.

Don’t be ridiculous, Chloe. Be real.

My key is in the front door, already twisting, when I realize what’s wrong, what’s different.

The porch light is off.

The porch light I always, always leave on—even when I’m sleeping, ignoring the beam of light it casts straight across my pillow through the gap in the blinds—is turned off. I never turn the porch light off. I don’t think I’ve ever even touched the switch. That’s why the house looks so lifeless, I realize. I’ve never seen it so dark before, so completely devoid of light. Even with the street lamps, it is dark out here. Someone could come up behind me and I’d never even—


I let out a scream and plunge my arm into my purse, searching for my pepper spray. The lights from inside flick on and I’m staring at a crowd of people in my living room—thirty, maybe forty—all staring back, smiling. My heart is slamming inside my chest now; I can barely speak.

“Oh my—”

I stutter, look around. I’m searching for a reason, an explanation. But I can’t find one.

“Oh my God.” I’m instantly aware of my hand in my purse, clutching the pepper spray with a strength that startles me. A wave of relief washes over me as I release it, wiping the sweat on my palm against the interior fabric. “What—what is this?”

“What does it look like?” A voice erupts to my left; I turn to the side and watch the crowd part as a man steps into the opening. “It’s a party.”

It’s Daniel, dressed in dark-wash jeans and a snug blue blazer. He’s beaming at me, his teeth a blinding white against his tanned skin, his sandy hair pushed to the side. I feel my heart start to slow again; my hand moves from my chest to my cheek, and I can feel it growing hot. I crack an embarrassed smile as he pushes a glass of wine toward me; I take it with my free hand.

“A party for us,” he says, squeezing me tight. I can smell his body wash, his spiced deodorant. “An engagement party.”

“Daniel. What … what are you doing here?” “Well, I live here.”

A wave of laughter erupts in the crowd, and Daniel squeezes my shoulder, smiling.

“You’re supposed to be out of town,” I say. “I thought you weren’t getting back until tomorrow.”

“Yeah, about that. I lied,” he says, eliciting more laughs. “Are you surprised?”

I scan the sea of people, fidgeting in their places. They’re still looking at me, expectant. I wonder how loudly I screamed.

“Didn’t I sound surprised?”

I throw my hands up and the crowd breaks into a laugh. Someone in the back starts to cheer, and the rest follow, whistling and clapping as Daniel pulls me fully into his arms and kisses me on the mouth.

“Get a room!” someone yells, and the crowd laughs again, this time dispersing into various parts of the house, refilling their drinks and mingling with the other guests, scooping heaps of food onto paper plates. The smell from outside finally registers: It’s Old Bay. I glimpse a table of crawfish boil steaming on the picnic table on our back porch and am instantly embarrassed about feeling left out from the fictional party I had invented next door.

Daniel looks at me, grinning, holding back a laugh. I hit him on the shoulder.

“I hate you,” I say, though I’m smiling back. “You scared the shit out of me.”

He laughs now, that big, booming laugh that drew me in twelve months ago still proving to hold a trance over me. I pull him back in and kiss him again, properly this time, without the watching eyes of all of our friends. I feel the warmth of his tongue in my mouth, savoring the way his presence physically calms my body down. Slows my heart rate, my breathing, the same way the Xanax does.

“You didn’t give me much choice,” he says, sipping his wine. “I had to do it this way.”

“Oh, you did?” I ask. “And why is that?”

“Because you refuse to plan anything for yourself,” he says. “No bachelorette party, no bridal shower.”

“I’m not in college, Daniel. I’m thirty-two. Doesn’t that seem a little juvenile?”

He looks at me, cocking his eyebrow.

“No, it doesn’t seem juvenile. It seems fun.”

“Well, you know, I don’t really have anyone to help me plan that kind of stuff,” I say, staring into my wine, swirling it against the glass. “You know Cooper’s not going to plan a shower, and my mom—”

“I know, Chlo. I’m teasing. You deserve a party, so I threw you a party. Simple as that.”

My chest surges with warmth, and I squeeze his hand.

“Thank you,” I say. “This is really something else. I almost had a heart attack…”

He laughs again, downing the rest of his wine. “… but it means a lot. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Now go mingle. And drink your wine,” he says, using his finger to tip the base of my untouched glass. “Relax a little.”

I lift the glass to my lips and down it, too, pushing myself into the crowd in the living room. Someone grabs my drink and offers to refill it, while another person shoves a plate of cheese and crackers in my direction.

“You must be starving. Do you always work so late?” “Of course she does. She’s Chloe!”

“Is chardonnay okay, Chlo? I think you were drinking pinot before, but really, what’s the difference?”

Minutes pass, or maybe hours. Every time I wander into a new section of the house, someone else walks up with a congratulations and a fresh glass, a different combination of the same questions flowing faster than the bottles piling up in the corner.

“So, does this count as drinks soon?”

I turn around and see Shannon standing behind me, smiling wide. She laughs and pulls me in for a hug, planting a kiss on my cheek the way she always does, her lips sticking to my skin. I think back to the email she sent me this afternoon.

PS—Drinks soon? Need to get the details on the upcoming BIG DAY!

“You little liar,” I say, trying to keep myself from wiping the lipstick residue I feel lingering on my cheek.

“Guilty,” she says, smiling. “I had to make sure you didn’t suspect anything.”

“Well, mission accomplished. How’s the family?”

“They’re good,” Shannon says, twirling the ring on her finger. “Bill is in the kitchen getting a refill. And Riley…”

She scans the room, her eyes flickering past the sea of bodies bobbing together like waves. She seems to find who she’s looking for and smiles, shakes her head.

“Riley is in the corner, on her phone. Shocking.

I turn around and see a teenaged girl slumped in a chair, tapping furiously at her iPhone. She’s wearing a short red sundress and white sneakers, her hair a mousey brown. She looks incredibly bored, and I can’t help but laugh.

“Well, she is fifteen,” Daniel says. I glance to my side and Daniel is standing there, smiling. He slides up to me and snakes his arm around my waist, kissing my forehead. I’ve always marveled at the way he glides into every conversation with such ease, dropping a perfectly placed line as if he’d been standing there all along.

“Tell me about it,” Shannon says. “She’s grounded at the moment, hence the reason why we dragged her along. She’s not too happy with us, forcing her to hang out with a bunch of old people.

I smile, my eyes still glued to the girl, to the way she twirls her hair absentmindedly around her finger, the way she chews on the side of her lip as she analyzes whatever text just appeared on her phone.

“What’s she grounded for?”

“Sneaking out,” Shannon says, rolling her eyes. “We found her climbing out of her bedroom window at midnight. She did the whole rope-made-out-of-bedsheets thing, like you see in the freakin’ movies. Lucky she didn’t break her neck.”

I laugh again, clasping my hand to my open mouth.

“I swear, when Bill and I were dating and he told me he had a ten-year-old girl, I didn’t think much of it,” Shannon says, her voice low, staring at her stepdaughter. “Honestly, I thought I lucked out. A kid-on-demand, skipping right through the whole dirty-diaper-screaming-at-all-hours-of-the-night part. She was such a sweetheart. But it is amazing how the second they become teenagers, it all changes. They turn into monsters.”

“It won’t be like this for long,” Daniel says, smiling. “One day, they’ll just be distant memories.”

“God, I hope.” Shannon laughs, taking another swig of her wine. “He really is an angel, you know.”

She’s speaking to me now, but she motions to Daniel, tapping him on the chest.

“Planning this whole thing. You wouldn’t believe the time it took him to get everyone together in one place.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I don’t deserve him.”

“Good thing you didn’t quit a week earlier, huh?”

She nudges me and I smile, the memory of our first meeting as sharp as ever. It was one of those chance encounters that could have easily meant nothing. Bumping into an exposed shoulder on the bus, muttering a simple excuse me before parting ways. Borrowing a pen from the man at the bar when yours runs dry, or running a wallet left in the bottom of a shopping cart to the car outside before it drives away. Most of the time, these meetings lead to nothing more than a smile, a thank-you.

But sometimes, they lead to something. Or maybe even everything.

Daniel and I had met at Baton Rouge General Hospital; he was walking in, I was walking out. More like staggering out, really, the weight of the contents of my office threatening to tear through the bottom of a cardboard box. I would have walked right past him, the box obscuring my vision, my eyes downcast as I followed my own footsteps to the front door. I would have walked right past him had I not heard his voice.

“Do you need a hand?”

“No, no,” I said, shifting the weight from one arm to the other, not even bothering to stop. The automatic door was a yard away, less. My car was idling outside. “I got it.”

“Here, let me help you.”

I heard footsteps running behind me; felt the weight lifted slightly as his arm snaked between mine.

“Good God,” he grunted. “What do you have in here?”

“Books, mostly.” I pushed a strand of sweaty hair from my forehead as he lifted the box from my grip. And that was the first glimpse I got of his face—blonde hair and lashes to match, teeth that were the product of expensive adolescent orthodontia and maybe a bleaching treatment or two. I could see his biceps bulging through his light blue button-up as he hoisted my life into the air and balanced it on his shoulder.

“You get fired?”

My neck snapped in his direction; I opened my mouth, ready to set him straight, until he glanced my way and I saw his expression. His tender eyes, the way they seemed to soften as he took in my face, scanning his way from top to bottom. He stared at me as though he were staring at an old friend, his pupils flickering over my skin, searching for a trace of familiarity in my features. His lips curled into a knowing grin.

“I’m just kidding,” he said, turning his attention back to the box. “You look too happy to have been fired. Besides, wouldn’t there be some guards escorting you out by the armpits before throwing you down on the pavement? Isn’t that how it works?”

I smiled, let out a laugh. We were in the parking lot then, and he placed the box on the roof of my car before crossing his arms and turning toward me.

“I quit,” I said, the words settling over me with a finality that, for a second, almost made me burst into tears. Baton Rouge General had been my first job; my only job. My coworker, Shannon, had become my closest friend. “Today was my last day.”

“Well, congratulations,” he said. “Where to next?”

“I’m starting my own practice. I’m a medical psychologist.”

He whistled, poking his head into the box on my car. Something caught his eye and he twisted his head distractedly, leaning in to pick up one of the books.

“Got a thing for murder?” he asked, inspecting the cover.

My chest constricted as my eyes darted to the box. I remembered, in that moment, that situated next to all of my psychology textbooks were piles of true-crime titles: The Devil in the White City, In Cold Blood, The Monster of Florence. But unlike most people, I didn’t read them for entertainment. I read them for study. I read them to try to understand, to dissect all the different people who take lives for a living, devouring their stories on the page almost as if they were my patients, leaning back in that leather recliner, whispering their secrets into my ear.

“I guess you could say that.”

“No judgment,” he added, twisting the book in his hands around so I could see the cover—Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—before flipping it open and starting to thumb the pages. “I love this book.”

I smiled politely, unsure of how to respond.

“I really should be going,” I said instead, motioning to my car and offering my hand. “Thanks for your help.”

“The pleasure was mine, Doctor…?” “Davis,” I said. “Chloe Davis.”

“Well, Doctor Chloe Davis, if you ever need to move any more boxes…” He dug into his back pocket, fishing out his wallet before pulling out a business card and pushing it into the open pages. He flipped the book closed and thrust it in my direction. “You know where to find me.”

He smiled at me, winking in my direction before turning around and walking back into the building. When the automatic doors closed behind him, I looked down at the book in my hands, running my fingers against the

glossy cover. There was a tiny gap in the pages where his business card lay wedged and I stuck my nail into the crack, flipping it back open. I looked down, feeling a foreign twist in my chest as my eyes scanned his name.

Somehow, I knew that wasn’t the last time I would be seeing Daniel Briggs.

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