Chapter no 45

A Flicker in the Dark

Earl Briggs drank Jim Beam Kentucky Straight. Always slightly warm from sitting open on the living room table, light beams from the windows reflecting off the bottle like fossilized amber. Always in a highball glass, liquid filled to the brim. It coated his lips in a perpetual slickness like a puddle of gasoline, giving his breath a medicinal smell. Sickly sweet like butterscotch left out in the sun.

“I always knew what kind of day it would be based on how full the bottle was,” Daniel says, slumping down to the couch and staring at the floor. Normally, I would have walked to him, wrapped my arm around his back. Trailed my fingernail along the little stretch of skin between his shoulder blades. Normally. Instead, I stay standing. “I started to think of it like an hourglass, you know? It started out full, then we’d watch it slowly disappear. When it was empty, we knew to stay away.”

My father had his demons, obviously, but drinking wasn’t one of them. I have vague recollections of him cracking open a Bud Light after an afternoon in the yard, a sweaty neck warranting a sweaty bottle. He rarely broke into the liquor, only on special occasions. I would almost prefer it if he drank. Everybody has their vices: some people smoke cigarettes when they’re drunk; Dick Davis kills. But no, it wasn’t like that. He didn’t need any kind of chemical substance to switch on the violence. This particular demon I can’t understand.

“He went after my mom for years,” Daniel says. “About everything.

Every little thing would set him off.”

I think about that bruise underneath Dianne’s eye, her arms red like tenderized meat. My husband, Earl. He’s got a temper.

“I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just leave,” he says. “Just take us and go. But she never did. So we learned to navigate it, I guess. Sophie and I. We just kept our distance, tiptoed around it. But then one day, I came home from school—”

He looks like he’s in physical pain, like he’s trying to swallow a rock.

He squeezes his eyes tight, looks up at me.

“He beat the shit out of her, Chloe. His own daughter. And that’s not even the worst of it. My mom didn’t stop him.”

I let myself imagine it: a young Daniel, seventeen years old, listening to those familiar wails float through the front door as he makes his way home, backpack slung over his shoulder. Walking inside, living room filled with smoke. But instead of the usual scene, he sees his mother hovered over the kitchen sink, attempting to let the sound of the running water drown out the noise.

“God, I tried to get her to do something. To stand up to him. But she just let it happen. Better Sophie than her, I guess. I honestly think she was relieved.”

I picture him running down that hallway, barreling through piles of trash and the mangy cat and the cigarette butts discarded on the carpet. Pounding on a locked door, his screams falling on deaf ears. Running into the kitchen, shaking his mother’s arm. DO SOMETHING. I imagine the same sense of panic I had felt when I stumbled into my parents’ bedroom, my mother’s almost-lifeless body crumpled into a heap in the closet, as if she were nothing more than dirty clothes that had spilled over the side of the hamper. Cooper, staring. Doing nothing. The realization that we were on our own.

“And that’s when I knew she had to go. If I didn’t get her out of there, she would never leave. She would turn into my mother, or worse. She would turn up dead.”

I let myself take a step in his direction—a single step. He doesn’t seem to notice; he’s lost in the memory now, letting it spill freely. Roles reversed. “I heard about your father down in Breaux Bridge, and that’s where I

got the idea. The inspiration. To make her disappear.”

That article pushed into his bookshelf, my father’s mug shot.


“She went to a friend’s house after school and never came home. My parents didn’t even realize she was gone until the following night. Twenty-four hours missing … nothing.” He waves his hand, makes a poof motion. “I kept waiting for them to say something. I just kept sitting there, waiting for them to notice. To call the police, something. But they never did. She was only thirteen.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “Her friend’s mom called the next day, the friend whose house she had been at—I guess she left her textbook there, she knew she wouldn’t need it anymore—and that’s when they realized it. Someone else’s parent noticed before they did. By then, everyone just assumed the same thing happened to her as all those other girls. That she was taken.”

I imagine Sophie on that dingy television, the kitchen counter kind they had plopped on top of a portable table in the living room. That same school picture, her only picture, flashing onto the screen. Dianne watching as Daniel smiled quietly in the corner, knowing the truth.

“Then where is she?” I ask. “If she’s still alive—”

“Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” He says it with an exaggerated twang, like a misplaced commuter reading it off a map. “Little brick house, green shutters. I stop by and see her when I can, when I’m driving.”

I close my eyes. I recognize that town from one of his receipts. Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A diner called Ricky’s. Chicken Caesar salad and a cheeseburger, medium well. Two glasses of wine. Twenty percent tip.

“She’s fine, Chloe. She’s alive. She’s safe. That’s all I ever wanted.” It’s starting to make sense now, but not in the way I had expected it to.

I’m still not sure if I can believe him, fully. Because there’s still so much that has yet to be explained.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to.” I try to ignore the begging in his voice, the little quiver that makes it sound like he might cry. “You have no idea how many times I almost just came out and said it.”

“Then why didn’t you? I told you about my family.”

“That’s exactly why,” he says, tugging at the ends of his hair. He sounds frustrated now, like we’re arguing over the dishes. “I always knew who you were, Chloe. I knew the second I saw you in that lobby. And then

that day at the bar, you weren’t bringing it up, and I didn’t want to bring it up for you. That’s not the kind of thing you should be forced into saying.”

Those little nudges, the way he couldn’t seem to stop staring. I think about that night on the couch, and my face flushes with blood.

“You let me tell you everything and you acted like you didn’t already know.”

I can’t help but feel angry as the magnitude of his lies settles over me.

At the things he had made me believe, the way he had made me feel.

“What was I supposed to say? Stop you mid-sentence? Oh yeah, Dick Davis. He gave me the idea to fake my sister’s murder.” He snorts a little self-deprecating laugh, then almost as suddenly, his face goes serious again. “I didn’t want you to think that everything up until that moment had been a lie.”

I remember that night so vividly, the way I had felt lighter after that, after telling him everything. My insides raw but clean, a verbal purging to get the sickness out. His finger on my chin, tilting it up. Those words for the first time. I love you.

“Wasn’t it, though?”

Daniel sighs, rests his hands on his thighs. “I don’t blame you. For being mad. You have every right. But I’m not a murderer, Chloe. I can’t even believe you’d think that.”

“Then what are you doing with my father?”

He stares at me. His eyes look tired, like they’ve been drilling straight into the sun.

“If all of this has an innocent explanation, if you have nothing to hide, then why have you been visiting him?” I continue. “How do you know him?”

I watch him deflate a little, like he’s sprung a leak somewhere. An old balloon hovering self-consciously in the corner, shriveling into nothing. Then he reaches his hand into his pocket, pulls out a long, silver necklace. I watch his thumb polish the pearl in the center, making tiny little circles, over and over. It feels tender, like rubbing a rabbit’s foot charm or the cheek of a newborn, soft and juicy like an overripe peach. I have a flash of Lacey rubbing her rosary in my office, back and forth, up and down.

Finally, he speaks.

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