A cool breeze whips through my open windows, sending wisps of my hair dancing into the skylight, grazing against my cheek. The glare of the setting sun feels warm on my skin, but still—it’s unusually crisp today. Friday, July 26.
My wedding day.
I look down at the directions in my lap, a series of turns that end in a single address written on scrap paper. I glance through my windshield at the long driveway stretching out before me, the mailbox with four copper numbers hammered into wood. I take the turn, dust kicking up from my tires until I pull up in front of a small house—red brick, green shutters. Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
I step out of my car, slam the door. Then I walk up the driveway, up the steps, and reach out my hand, knocking twice on a thick slab of pinewood painted a pale green with a wreath made of straw hung squarely in the center. I hear footsteps from inside, the gentle murmur of voices. The door swings open, and a woman stands before me. She wears simple jeans and a white tank top, slippers on her feet. There’s a casual smile on her face, a dish towel slung over her bare shoulder.
“Can I help you?”
She stares at me for a second, unsure of who I am, until I see the moment of understanding in her eyes. The moment her polite smile begins to fade as she recognizes my face. I inhale the familiar scent I had smelled on Daniel so many times—sickly sweet, like a honeysuckle in bloom mixed with molten sugar. I can still see the little girl I had seen in that school picture: Sophie Briggs, her frizzy blonde hair now gelled into ringlet curls, a constellation of freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose, as if somebody had taken a pinch and sprinkled them on like salt.
“Hi,” I say, suddenly self-conscious. I linger on the porch, wondering what Lena would have looked like if she had been given the opportunity to
grow up. I like to pretend that she’s out there, somewhere, tucked away like Sophie has been, safe in her own little corner of the world.
“Daniel’s inside.” She twists her torso, gesturing to the door. “If you’d like—”
“No.” I shake my head, my cheeks flushing hot. Daniel moved out right after Cooper was arrested, and for some reason, it hadn’t dawned on me that he would have come here. “No, that’s okay. I’m actually here for you.”
I reach out my hand, my engagement ring pinched between my fingers. It had been returned to me by the police last week, found on the floor of Tyler Price’s car. She doesn’t say anything as she reaches out and grabs it, twisting it between her fingers.
“It belongs with you,” I say. “With your family.”
She slides it on her middle finger, fanning her hands as she admires how it looks, back in its usual spot. I look behind her, into the hallway, and see pictures displayed on an entrance table, shoes kicked off at the base of the stairs. A baseball cap resting on the corner handrail. I peel my eyes from inside and glance around her yard. The home is small but quaint, undeniably lived-in: a wooden swing attached to a tree branch with two pieces of rope, a pair of Rollerblades leaning against the garage. Then a voice erupts from inside—a man’s voice. Daniel’s voice.
“Soph? Who is it?”
“I should go,” I say, turning around, suddenly feeling like I’m loitering. Like I’m snooping behind the door of a stranger’s bathroom cabinet, trying to piece together a life. Trying to catch a glimpse into the last twenty years, from the moment she had stepped away from that dilapidated old house and started walking, never looking back. How difficult that must have been—thirteen years old, only a child. Leaving her friend’s house and walking alone down that dark stretch of road. A car pulling up behind her, headlights off. Daniel, her brother, driving away slowly, dropping her at a bus stop two towns away. Pushing an envelope of money into her hand. Money he had been saving for that very moment.
I’ll meet you, he had promised. After I graduate. Then I can leave, too.
His mother, those dirty nails scratching at tissue paper skin; watery eyes as she looked into mine. He moved out the day after he graduated high school, and I haven’t heard from him since.
I wonder what those years had been like—the two of them, together. Daniel, taking classes online. Getting his degree. Sophie making money in any way she could—waiting tables, bagging groceries. Then one day, they looked at each other and realized that they had grown up. That the years had passed, and that the danger was gone. That they both deserved a life—and real life—and so Daniel had left, making his way to Baton Rouge, but always finding a way to come back.
My foot hits the top of the stairs when Sophie finally speaks again—I can hear her brother’s voice in hers, assertive and strong.
“It was my idea. To give you this.” I twist around and look at her, still standing there, arms crossed tight against her chest. “Daniel talked about you constantly. Still does.” She smirks. “When he said he was going to propose, I guess it made me feel connected, in a way. Picturing you wearing it. Like one day, we might know each other.”
I think about Daniel, those articles tucked inside a book in his bedroom. Cooper’s crimes the inspiration he had needed to get Sophie out
—to make her disappear. So many lives were taken because of my brother; that fact still makes me lie awake at night, their faces burned into my mind like the soot on Lena’s palm. A big, black spot.
So many lives, gone. Except for Sophie Briggs. Her life was saved. “I’m glad you did.” I smile. “And now we do.”
“I heard your dad’s getting out.” She takes a step forward, like she doesn’t quite want me to leave. I nod, not really sure how to respond.
I was right about Daniel visiting my father in Angola; that was where he had been going during all those trips. He had been trying to get to the truth about Cooper. When he told him about the killings happening again— the girls going missing, offering Aubrey’s necklace as proof—my father had agreed to come clean. But when you’ve already pled guilty to murder, you can’t just change your mind. You need something more; you need a confession. And that’s where I came in.
After all, it was my words that had put my father behind bars; it seemed only fitting that my conversation with Cooper, twenty years later, would be the one to free him.
I had watched my father apologize on the news last week. Apologize for lying, for protecting his son. For the additional lives that were lost because of it. I couldn’t bring myself to see him in person, not yet, but I remember staring at him through the TV screen, just like before. Only this time, I was trying to reconcile his new face with the one I still saw in my mind. His thick-rimmed glasses had been replaced with wire ones, simple and thin. There was a scar on his nose from when the original ones broke, cracking as his head slammed into the cruiser, a line of blood trickling down his cheek. His hair was shorter, his face rougher, almost as if it had been buffed with sandpaper or rubbed against the concrete until it scarred. I noticed pockmarks on his arms—burns, maybe—the skin stretched and shiny, perfectly circular like the tip of a cigarette butt.
But despite it all, it was him. It was my father. Alive. “What are you going to do?” Sophie asks.
“I’m not really sure,” I say. And that’s the truth. I’m not sure.
Some days, I’m still so angry. My father lied. He took the blame for Cooper’s crimes. He found that box of jewelry and tucked it away, keeping his secret. Trading his freedom for Cooper’s life. And because of it, two more girls are dead. But on other days, I get it. I understand. Because that’s what parents do: They protect their children, no matter the cost. I think of all those mothers staring into the camera, the fathers melting into puddles by their sides. They had a child who was taken by the darkness—but what if your child was the darkness? Wouldn’t you want to protect them, too? It’s all about control, after all. The illusion that death is something we can contain, cupping it into our palms and holding it tight, never letting it escape. That Cooper, given another chance, could somehow change. That Lena, dangling herself in front of my brother, feeling the fire singe her skin, could pull away at just the right moment. Walk away unscathed.
But it’s just a lie we tell ourselves. Cooper never changed. Lena couldn’t outrun the flames. Even Daniel had tried it, attempting to control the anger that was inherent inside of him. Desperate to push down those
little glimpses of his father that would peek through in his weakest moments. I’m guilty of it, too. All those little bottles in my desk drawer, calling to me like a whisper in the night.
It wasn’t until I found myself hovering over Cooper in my kitchen, looking down at his weakened body, that I had a taste of what it really felt like: control. Of not only having it, but taking it from somebody else. Snatching it up and claiming it as your own. And for one single moment, like a flicker in the dark, it felt good.
I smile at Sophie before turning around again, walking down the last few steps, feeling my shoes hit the pavement. I make my way toward my car, hands in my pockets, watching as dusk smears the horizon with pinks and yellows and oranges—one last moment of color before the darkness settles in again, the way it always does. And that’s when I notice it: the air around me buzzing with that familiar electrical charge. I stop, stand completely still, watching. Waiting. And then I cup my hands and grab at the sky, feeling a slight fluttering in my palms as I squeeze them shut. I stare down into my clenched fingers, at the thing I have trapped inside. At the life, quite literally, that rests in my hands. Then I bring it up to my face, peering through the tiny hole between my fingers.
Inside, a single firefly glows bright, its body pulsing with life. I stare at it for a while, my forehead pressed against my clenched fingers. I watch it radiate up close, flickering in my grasp, thinking of Lena.
Then I open my hands and set her free.