It’s as if the answers have been in front of me all along—dancing, just out of reach. Twirling, like Lena—bottle in the air, her ripped-up shorts and double French braids, the remnants of weeds sticking to her skin, the remnants of weed heavy on her breath. Like that ballerina, chipped and pink, spinning to the rhythm of delicate chimes. But when I had reached out, tried to touch them, tried to grab them, they had turned into smoke in my grip, swirling through my fingers until I was left with nothing.
“The jewelry,” I say, my eyes on Cooper’s silhouette, his aging face morphing into that of my teenaged brother. He had been so young, only fifteen. “It was yours.”
“Dad found it in my room. Underneath my floorboard.”
The floorboard I had told him about after I found Cooper’s magazines.
I bow my head.
“He took the box, wiped it down, and hid it in his closet until he could figure out what to do with it,” he says. “But he never had the chance. You found it first.”
I found it first. A secret I had stumbled upon in my search for scarves. I had opened it up, plucked Lena’s belly-button ring from the center, dead and gray. And I knew. I knew it was hers. It had seen it that day, my face cupped against her stomach, her skin smooth and warm against my hands.
“Dad wasn’t looking at Lena,” I say, thinking of my father’s expression—distracted, afraid. Preoccupied by some unspoken thought tormenting his mind—that his son was sizing up his next victim, preparing to strike. “That day at the festival. He was looking at you.”
“Ever since Tara,” he says, the spider veins in his eyes flushing pink. Now that he’s started talking, the words are flowing freely, like I knew they would. I look down at his glass, at the puddle of wine left at the bottom. “He would just watch me like that. Like he knew.”
Tara King. The runaway, a year before any of this started. Tara King, the girl Theodore Gates had confronted my mother with—the outlier, the enigma. The one nobody could prove.
“She was the first,” Cooper says. “I had wondered, for a while. What it would feel like.”
My eyes can’t help but dart to the corner, to the place where Bert Rhodes once stood.
You ever think about what it feels like? I used to keep myself up at night, wondering. Imagining.
“And then one night, there she was. Alone on the side of the road.”
I can see it so vividly, like I’m watching a movie. Screaming into the void, trying to stop the impending danger. But nobody hears me, nobody listens. Cooper, in my father’s car. He had just learned how to drive—the freedom, I’m sure, a breath of fresh air. I can picture him idling behind the wheel, quiet, watching. Considering. His entire life, he had been surrounded by people: the crowds around him at school, in the gym, at the festival, never leaving his side. But in that moment, alone, he saw an opportunity. Tara King. A suitcase hanging heavy over her shoulder, a note scratched on her kitchen counter. She had been leaving, running away. Nobody had even thought to look when she vanished.
“I remember feeling surprised, how easy it was,” he says, his eyes drilling into the countertop. “My hands on her throat, and the way the movement just … stopped.” He pauses, looks at me. “Do you really want to know all this?”
“Cooper, you’re my brother,” I say, reaching my hand out to cover his. Right now, touching his skin, I want to vomit. I want to run away. But instead, I force myself to regurgitate the words, his words, that I know work so well. “Tell me what happened.”
“I kept expecting to get caught,” he says at last. “I kept expecting someone to show up at our house—the cops, something—but nobody ever did. Nobody even talked about it. And I realized … I could get away with it. Nobody knew, except…”
He stops again, swallowing hard, like he knows these next words will hit harder than any that came before them.
“Except Lena,” he says finally. “Lena knew.”
Lena—always out late, by herself. Picking her way out of her locked bedroom before running outside, wandering into the night. Seeing Cooper in that car, creeping slowly behind as Tara walked down the side of the road, unaware. Lena had seen him. She didn’t have a crush on Cooper; she had been pushing him, testing him. She was the only one in the world who knew his secret and she was drunk with power, playing with matches the way she always did, getting closer and closer before the fire singed her skin. You should pick me up in that car of yours sometime, calling over her shoulder. Cooper’s rigid back, hands punched into his pockets. You don’t want to be like Lena. I picture her lying on the grass, that ant creeping up her cheek—her, motionless and still. Letting it crawl. Breaking into Cooper’s bedroom, the smile that twisted across her lips when he had caught us—that knowing grin, hands on her hips, almost as if to tell him: Look what I can do to you.
Lena was invincible. We all thought it, even she herself.
“Lena was a liability,” I say, trying hard to swallow the tears crawling up the back of my throat. “You had to get rid of her.”
“And after that”—he shrugs—“there was no reason to stop.”
It wasn’t the killing that my brother had craved—I know that now, looking at him hunched over my countertop, decades of memories swirling around him. It was the control. And somehow, I understand it. I understand it in a way only family can. I think back to all of my fears, the lack of control I constantly imagine. Two hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing tight. It was that same control I feared losing that Cooper loved to take. It was the control he felt in the moment those girls realized that they were in trouble—the look in their eyes, the quiver in their voices as they pled: Please, anything. The knowledge that he and he alone was the deciding factor between life and death. He had always been that way, really
—the way he had pushed his hand into Bert Rhodes’s chest, challenging him. Walking in circles on the wrestling mat, his fingers twitching at his sides like a tiger circling a weaker rival, ready to sink in its claws. I wonder if that’s what he was thinking when he had his opponents by the neck: squeezing, twisting. Snapping. How easy it would have been, the pulsing of
their jugular beneath his fingers. And when he let them go, he felt like God. Granting them another day.
Tara, Robin, Susan, Margaret, Carrie, Jill. That was a part of the thrill to him—choosing, fingers outstretched the same way you would choose an ice cream flavor, perusing your options behind a glass case before making your decision, pointing, taking. But Lena had always felt different, special. She had felt like something more, and that’s because she was. She wasn’t random; she was taken out of necessity. Lena knew, and for that, she had to be killed.
My father knew, too. But Cooper had solved that problem in a different way. He had solved it with his words. Eyes wet, pleading. Talking about the shadows in the corner, the way he had tried to fight them. Cooper had always managed to find the right words, using them to his advantage— controlling people, influencing people. And they had worked. They had always worked—on my father, using him to set himself free. On Lena, letting her believe that she was invincible, that he wouldn’t hurt her. And on me, especially on me, his fingers pulling the strings attached to my limbs, making me dance in just the right way. Feeding me just the right information at just the right time. He was the author of my life, always had been, making me believe the things he wanted me to believe, spinning a web of lies in my mind—a spider pulling in insects with his crafty tendrils, watching them fight for their lives before devouring them whole.
“When Dad found out, you convinced him not to turn you in.”
“What would you do”—Cooper sighs, looking at me, skin drooping
—“if your son turned out to be a monster? Would you just stop loving him?”
I think of my mother—returning to my father after our trip to the station, the rationalizations she had formed in her mind. He won’t hurt us. He won’t. He won’t hurt his family. Me, looking at Daniel, the evidence I had seen stacking up, but still, didn’t want to believe. Thinking, hoping: There must be good in there somewhere. And surely, that’s what my father had thought, too. So I had turned him in—my father, for Cooper’s crimes— and when they came to take him, he didn’t resist. Instead, he looked at his son, at Cooper, and he had asked him to make a promise.
I glance at the clock. Seven thirty. Half an hour since Cooper arrived. I know that this is the moment. The moment I’ve been thinking about since I invited Cooper here, running through every possible scenario, thinking through every outcome. Turning them over and over in my mind like knuckles kneading dough.
“You know I have to call the police,” I say. “Cooper, I have to call them. You’ve killed people.”
My brother looks at me, his eyelids heavy.
“You don’t have to do that,” he says. “Tyler is dead. Daniel doesn’t have any proof. We can leave the past in the past, Chloe. It can stay there.”
I entertain the thought—the single scenario I haven’t yet considered. I think about standing up, opening the door. Letting Cooper step outside and walk out of my life for good. Letting him get away with it, the way he’s gotten away with it for the last twenty years. I wonder what a secret like this would do to me—knowing that he was out there, somewhere. A monster hidden in plain sight, walking among us. Somebody’s coworker, neighbor. Friend. And then, as if I had stretched out my finger and touched static, I feel a shock run down my spine. I see my mother, the way she had been pushed against the television screen, hanging on to every moment of my father’s trial, every word—until his lawyer, Theodore Gates, had come over, telling her about the deal.
Unless you have anything else I can work with. Anything at all you haven’t told me.
She knew, too. My mother knew. After we got home from the station, after turning in that box, my father must have told her, stopping her in her tracks as I ran up the stairs. But by then, it was too late. The wheels were in motion. The police were coming for him, and so she sat back, let it happen. Held out hope that maybe it wasn’t enough—no murder weapon, no bodies. That maybe he would go free. I remember Cooper and I on the stairs, listening. His fingers digging into my arm, leaving bruises like grapes at the mention of Tara King. Without even realizing it, I had witnessed the moment my mother had made her choice—the moment she had chosen to lie. To live with his secret.
No, I don’t. You know everything.
And that’s when she changed. That slow unravel, it was because of Cooper. She had been living under the same roof as her son, watching as he got away with it. The light had been extinguished from her eyes; she had retreated from the living room to her bedroom, locking herself inside. She hadn’t been able to live with the truth—what her son was, what he did. Her husband in jail, the rocks through the window, and Bert Rhodes in the yard, arms flailing, nails ripping at his own skin. I feel her fingers dancing across my wrist, tapping the blanket as I pointed to those tiles: D then A. I understand now, what she had been trying to say. She had wanted me to go to my dad. She had wanted me to visit him so he could tell me the truth. Because she had understood, listening to me talk about the missing girls, the similarities, the déjà vu—she knew, more than anyone, that the past never stays where we try to keep it, stuffing it deep into the back of a closet and hoping to forget.
I had never wanted to return to Breaux Bridge, never wanted to walk
the halls of that house. Never wanted to revisit the memories I had tried to keep stranded in that tiny town. But the memories didn’t stay there, I know that now. My past has been haunting me for my entire life, like a phantom that was never laid to rest, just like those girls.
“I can’t do that,” I say now, looking at Cooper. Shaking my head. “You know I can’t.”
He stares back at me, his fingers curling into a slow fist. “Don’t do this, Chloe. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“It does,” I say, starting to push my barstool back. But as I begin to stand, Cooper reaches out, his hand gripping my wrist. I look down, his knuckles white as he pinches my skin, hard. And now I know. I know, at last, that Cooper would have done it. He would have killed me, too. Right here, sitting at my kitchen counter. He would have stretched out his hands, clasped them around my throat. He would have looked into my eyes as he squeezed. I don’t doubt that my brother loves me—to whatever extent someone like him can love—but at the end of the day, I am a liability, like Lena. A problem that needs solving.
“You can’t hurt me,” I spit, yanking my arm from his grip. I push my stool back, stand up, and watch as he tries to lunge at me—but instead, he
stumbles forward, clumsy. His knees buckling under the sudden pressure of his weight. I watch as he trips on the leg of the barstool, his body crumbling to a heap on the floor. He looks at me, confused, before looking up at the countertop. At his empty glass of wine, that hollow orange bottle.
He starts to speak, but then stops again, the effort suddenly too much. I think back to the last time I felt that way, the way Cooper does now—it was that night in the motel room, Tyler pulling on his jeans, ducking into the bathroom. The glass of water he had pushed in my direction, forcing me to drink. The pills that were later found in those very pockets. The pills he had mixed into the water, the same way I had mixed mine into Cooper’s wine, watching as his eyes had gotten so heavy so quickly. The violent yellow bile I had coughed up the next morning.
I don’t bother with a response. Instead, I look up at the ceiling, at the camera in the corner, as small as a pinprick, blinking gently. Recording everything. I raise my hand and gesture for them to come inside now— Detective Thomas, sitting in his car outside with Daniel, phone in his lap. Watching everything, listening to it all.
I look down at my brother again, one last time. The last time it will ever be just us two. It’s hard not to think of the memories—running through the woods behind our house, tripping on the mangled roots erupting from the soil like fossilized snakes. The way he would wipe the blood from my skinned knees, push a strip of gauze tight against my stinging skin. The way he had tied that rope to my ankle as I crawled deep into that hidden cavern, our secret spot—and suddenly, I know that’s where they are. The missing girls, hidden in plain sight. Pushed deep into the darkness, somewhere only we would know.
I picture that dark figure I had seen emerging from the trees, shovel in hand: Cooper, always tall for fifteen, muscular from years of wrestling. His head ducked low, the darkness obscuring his face. The shadows swallowing him up—until, at last, he had turned into nothing.