Chapter no 42

A Flicker in the Dark

The back door pushes open, and I yank hard to free the card, wrapping it in my hand as I step inside. I feel my way through the hallway, trailing my fingers along the familiar walls to keep myself straight. The darkness is disorienting; I hear creaking in every direction, but I don’t know if it’s simply the noises of an old house or if it’s Daniel, creeping up behind me, arms extended, ready to strike.

I feel the hallway open up to our living room, and as I step inside, the room illuminates with the glow of the moon through the blinds, making it bright enough to see. I glance at my surroundings. The shadows of the room look exactly the way I remember them: my father’s old La-Z-Boy recliner in the corner, the leather faded and cracking. The TV on the floor with smudges on the screen from where my fingers pressed into the glass. This is where Daniel has been going: this house. This awful, terrible house is where he vanishes each week. It’s where he takes his victims, doing God-knows-what with them before returning to the spot where they disappeared and dumping their bodies. I look to my right, and that’s when I notice an unusual shape on the floor, long and lean like a stack of wooden boards.

A shape like a body. The body of a young girl.

“Riley?” I whisper, running across the living room and toward the shadow. Before I reach it, I can see that it’s her: eyes closed, mouth shut, hair loose around her cheeks and cascading across her chest. Even in the dark, or perhaps because of the dark, the paleness of her face is startling— she looks like a ghost, lips blue, all the blood drained from her skin, giving her a translucent glow.

“Riley,” I say again, my fingers shaking her arm. She doesn’t move; she doesn’t speak. I look at her wrists, at the line of red starting to form across her veins. I look at her neck, preparing myself to see those faint, finger-shaped bruises beginning to marble across the skin—but they’re not there. Not yet.

“Riley,” I repeat, shaking her gently. “Riley, come on.”

I bring my fingers beneath her ear and hold my breath, hoping to feel something, anything. And it’s there—just barely, but it’s there. A gentle pounding, her heartbeat, slow and labored. She’s still alive.

“Come on,” I whisper, trying to lift her up. Her body is deadweight heavy, but when I grab her arms, I see her eyes flicker, a rapid side-to-side movement, and she emits a gentle groan. It’s the Diazepam, I realize. She’s heavily drugged. “I’m going to get you out of here. I promise I’m going to



Immediately, my heart stops—there’s someone behind me. I recognize his voice, the way my name rolls around in his mouth like a lozenge before melting on his tongue. I would recognize it anywhere.

But it doesn’t belong to Daniel.

I stand up slowly, turning around to face the figure behind me. The room is just bright enough for me to make out his features.

“Aaron.” I try to think of an explanation, a reason for why he’s standing here, in this house—my house—but my mind goes blank. “What are you doing here?”

The moon dips behind a cloud, and suddenly, the room goes dark. My eyes widen, trying to see, and when the light streams through the blinds again, Aaron seems closer—by a foot, maybe two.

“I could ask you the same question.”

I turn my head to the side, looking at Riley, and I realize how this must look. Me, kneeling over an unconscious girl in the dark. I think back to Detective Thomas hovering in my office, the way he had glared at me, suspicious. My fingerprints on Aubrey’s earring. His words, accusatory.

The common thread binding all this together seems to be you.

I motion to Riley and open my mouth, trying to speak, but I feel a choke lodge itself in my throat. I stop, clear it.

“She’s alive, thank God,” Aaron interrupts, taking a step closer. “I just found her myself. I tried to get her to wake up but I couldn’t. I called the police. They’re on their way.”

I look at him, still unable to speak. He senses my hesitation and keeps talking.

“I remembered you had mentioned this house. How it just sits here, empty. I thought maybe she might be here. I called you a few times.” He lifts his arms, as if to gesture to the room, before dropping them back to his sides. “I guess we had the same idea.”

I exhale, nodding. I think back to last night, to Aaron in my motel room. His eager hands as they snaked through my hair; the way we lay there afterward, quietly. His voice in my ear: I believe you.

“We have to help her,” I say, finding my voice. I swing back around to Riley and crouch down next to her, checking her pulse again. “We have to make her throw up or something—”

“The police are coming,” Aaron says again. “Chloe, it’s going to be okay. She’ll be fine.”

“Daniel has to be close,” I say, rubbing my fingers against her cheek. It feels cold. “When I woke up, I had all these missed calls. He left me a voice mail, and I thought maybe—”

Then I stop, remembering the sequence of that night again. Of me drifting into sleep, of Aaron’s chapped lips sticking to my forehead as he kissed me goodnight. I stand up slowly, turning around. Suddenly, I don’t want my back to be facing him.

“Wait a second.” My thoughts are moving slowly, like they’re trudging through mud. “How did you know Riley was missing?”

I remember waking up, a full day later, after Aaron had left. Calling Shannon, those slow, wet sobs.

Riley’s gone.

“It’s on the news,” he says. But there’s something about the way he says it—cold and rehearsed—that I don’t quite believe.

I take a small step backward, trying to put more distance between us. Trying to stand firm between Aaron and Riley. I watch his expression change as I step away—the slight hardening of his lips into a thin, tight line; his jaw muscles tensing, his fingers curling into his palms.

“Chloe, come on,” he says, trying to smile. “There’s a search party and everything. The whole town is out looking for her. Everyone knows.”

He reaches his arms out, like he wants to grab my hands, but instead of moving toward him, I put my own hands up, motioning for him to stop


“It’s me,” he says. “It’s Aaron. Chloe, you know me.”

The moon streams through the blinds again, and that’s when I see it, lying on the ground between us. I must have dropped it when I ran to Riley, my hands frantically searching her body for a pulse: Aaron’s press badge. The card I had used to jimmy the back door. But now, something about it looks … different.

I lean down slowly, refusing to peel my eyes from Aaron, and pick it up. I bring it to my face, looking closer, and that’s when I notice that it’s cracking, the force from the door causing it to break. The edges are fraying. I flick at the tattered paper, pulling it gently, and the entire face begins to peel. I feel a shiver run down my spine.

It’s not a real press badge. It’s fake.

I look up at Aaron, standing there, watching. Then I think back to the first time I saw this card, in that café, conveniently clipped to his shirt. Easy to read, that New York Times logo big and bold, printed at the top. That was the moment I had first met Aaron—but that wasn’t the first time I had seen him. I had known it was him because I had seen his picture, in my office, the Ativan making my limbs tingle as I drank in his headshot online—small and grainy, black-and-white. That checkered button-up and tortoiseshell glasses. The exact same outfit he had been wearing when he stepped into that coffee shop, rolling his sleeves to his elbows. And now, I realize with a sense of sinking dread: That had been on purpose. All of it, on purpose. The outfit, something he knew I would recognize. The press badge with the name Aaron Jansen printed somewhere easy to see. I remember thinking that he had looked different from his picture, different from what I was expecting … bigger, huskier. His arms too thick, his voice two octaves too low. But I had just assumed this man was Aaron Jansen before he had even introduced himself, before he had ever uttered the name. And the way he had sauntered into that café—slowly, confidently—as if he knew I was there, where I was sitting. As if he was putting on a show, like he knew I was watching him.

It’s because he had been watching me, too.

“Who are you?” I ask now, his face, in the dark, suddenly unrecognizable.

He stands in place, quiet. There’s a hollowness to him that I’ve never noticed before, as if all the yolk has been drained from him, his body a cracked shell. He seems to consider the question for a moment, trying to determine how best to respond.

“I’m nobody,” he says at last. “Did you do this?”

I watch as he opens his mouth and closes it again, as though he’s searching for the words. He doesn’t respond, and I find myself thinking back to every conversation we’ve ever had. His words are loud now, echoing around me like the blood I can hear pulsing in my ears.

Copycats murder because they’re obsessed with another murderer.

I look at this man, this stranger, who injected himself into my life at the start of all this. The man who had first shared the theory about a copycat, nudging me along until, finally, I believed it, too. Those questions he had asked, always probing, leaning in close: There’s a reason this is happening, right here, right now. When I had talked about Lena, the childlike giddiness that had crept into his voice, almost as if he couldn’t help himself, he had to know: What was she like?

“Answer me,” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Did you?”

“Look, Chloe. It’s not what you think.”

I think of him in my bed, his hands on my wrists, his lips on my neck. I think of him standing up, pulling on his jeans. Bringing me that cup of water before running his fingers through my hair, lulling me to sleep before stepping back into the dark. That was the night Riley went missing. That was the night she was taken—by him, as I slept, my forehead dotted with sweat, my limbs still throbbing from his touch. I feel disgust bubble up from the pit of my stomach. But that’s what he had told me, after all—that day on the river, cardboard cups of coffee between our feet, gazing out at the bridge in the distance, emerging gently from beneath a blanket of fog.

It’s a game.

Only I didn’t realize that the game was his.

“I’m calling the police,” I say, knowing now that he never called them himself. That they’re not coming. I push my hand into my purse, fumbling for my phone. My fingers are shaking, brushing up against everything inside—and then it hits me: My phone is in the car, still lodged inside my cup holder. It’s still where I had placed it after I had watched Daniel on my camera before driving mindlessly to Breaux Bridge, parking the car, breaking inside. How could I have forgotten it? How could I have forgotten my phone?

“Chloe, come on,” he says, moving closer. He’s only a few feet away from me now, close enough to touch. “Let me explain.”

“Why did you do it?” I ask, my hand still shoved deep into my purse, my lip quivering. “Why did you kill those girls?”

The minute the words escape my lips, I feel it again: the déjà vu, washing over me like a wave. The memory of me, sitting in this very room, twenty years ago. My fingers pressed against the television, listening as the judge asked my father the exact same question. The silence of the courtroom as everyone waited, as I waited, desperate for the truth.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he says at last, a dampness in his eyes. “It wasn’t.”

“It’s wasn’t your fault,” I repeat. “You killed two girls, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“No, I mean … It was. Yes, it was. But also, it wasn’t—”

I look at this man, and I see my father. I see him on my television screen, arms chained behind him, as I sat on the floor, drinking in his every word. I see the devil that lives somewhere deep inside of him—a wet, pulsing fetus curled up in his belly, growing slowly, until one day, it burst. My father and his darkness; that shadow in the corner, drawing him in, swallowing him whole. The silence of the courtroom as he confessed, tears in his eyes. The voice of the judge, disbelieving. Full of disgust.

And you’re telling me that this darkness is what forced you to kill those girls?

“You’re exactly like him,” I say. “Trying to blame something else for what you did.”

“No. No, it’s not like that.”

I can practically feel my fingernails digging into my palms, drawing blood. The anger and rage that had surged through my chest as I watched him that day; my indifference at seeing him cry. I remember how I had hated him in that moment. Hated him with every cell in my body.

I remember how I had killed him. In my mind, I had killed him.

“Chloe, just listen to me,” he says, taking a few steps closer. I look at his arms, reaching out toward me, soft hands outstretched. The same hands that had touched my skin, intertwined with my fingers. I had run into his arms the same way I had run into my father’s, looking for safety in all the wrong places. “He made me do it—”

I hear it before I actually see it, before I can even register what I’ve done. It’s as if I’m watching it happen to someone else: my arm, emerging from my purse, the gun in my hand. One single gunshot, exploding loud like a firecracker, jerking my arm back. A flash of bright light as his legs stagger back across the hardwood, glancing down at the pool of red expanding across his stomach before he looks back at me, surprised. The moonlight as it stretches across his eyes, glassy and confused. His lips, red and wet, parting slowly as if he’s trying to speak.

Then I watch as his body slumps to the floor.

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