Chapter no 7

A Flicker in the Dark

I watch Daniel’s car back out of the driveway, his headlights flashing a goodbye as he waves at me through the windshield. I wave back, my silk robe clutched tightly around my chest, a steaming mug of coffee warm in my hands.

I shut the door behind me and take in the empty house: There are still cups resting on various tabletops from last night, empty wine bottles filling up recycling bins in the kitchen, and flies that were apparently born overnight circling over their sticky openings. I start to tidy up, clearing dishes and placing them in the empty farmhouse sink, trying to ignore the drug-and-wine fueled headache nagging at my brain.

I think back to the prescription in my car; the Xanax I filled for Daniel that he doesn’t know about or need. I think about the drawer in my office housing the various painkillers that would almost certainly numb the throbbing in my skull. It’s tempting, knowing they’re there. Part of me wants to get in the car and drive to them, outstretch my fingers, and take my pick. Curl up in the recliner meant for patients and fall back asleep.

Instead, I drink my coffee.

Access to drugs is not why I got into this line of work—besides, Louisiana is one of only three states where psychologists can actually prescribe drugs to their patients. Other than here, Illinois, and New Mexico, we typically have to rely on a referring physician or psychiatrist to fill a script. But not here. Here, we can write them ourselves. Here, nobody else has to know. Whether that’s a happy coincidence or a stroke of dangerously bad luck, I haven’t quite decided. But again, that’s not why I do what I do. I didn’t become a psychologist to take advantage of this loophole, to sidestep the drug dealers downtown for the safety of the drive-through window, trading in a plastic baggy for a logoed paper bag, complete with a receipt and coupons for half-off toothpaste and a gallon of 2 percent milk. I became a psychologist to help people—again with the clichés, but it’s true. I became a psychologist because I understand trauma; I understand it in a

way that no amount of schooling could ever teach. I understand the way the brain can fundamentally fuck with every other aspect of your body; the way your emotions can distort things—emotions you didn’t even know you had. The way those emotions can make it impossible to see clearly, think clearly, do anything clearly. The way they can make you hurt from your head down to your fingertips, a dull, throbbing, constant pain that never goes away.

I saw plenty of doctors as a teenager—it was an endless cycle of therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists, all of whom asked the same series of scripted questions, trying to fix the endless slideshow of anxiety disorders flipping through my psyche. Cooper and I were the stuff of textbooks back then, me with my panic attacks, hypochondria, insomnia, and nyctophobia, every year a new malady added to the list. Cooper, on the other hand, recoiled into himself. I was feeling too much, while he was feeling too little. His loud personality shrunk into a whisper; he practically disappeared.

The two of us together were childhood trauma wrapped in a bow and placed delicately on the doorsteps of every doctor in Louisiana. Everybody knew who we were; everybody knew what was wrong with us.

Everybody knew, but nobody could fix it. So I decided to fix it myself.

I shuffle through the living room and plop down on the sofa, my coffee sloshing over the side of the mug. I lift it to my mouth and lick the liquid from the side. The morning news is already droning in the background, Daniel’s channel of choice, and I reach for my MacBook, repeatedly tapping Return as I wake it from a long, groggy sleep. I open my Gmail and scroll through the personal messages in my in-box, almost all of them wedding-related.

Two more months, Chloe! Let’s get that cake finalized, shall we? Have you decided between your two options: caramel drizzle or lemon curd?

Chloe, hi. The florist needs to finalize the table arrangements. Can I tell her to invoice you for 20 tables or did you want to cut it back to 10?

A few months ago, I would have consulted Daniel on everything. Every little detail was a decision meant for the two of us, together. But as time goes by, the small, intimate wedding I had been envisioning—an outdoor ceremony followed by a private celebration for close friends; one long, slender table with Daniel and I seated at the head, picking at our favorite foods between sips of rosé and bursts of open-mouthed laughter— has turned into something else entirely. An exotic pet that neither of us knows how to tame. There’s the constant decision-making, the endless emails about details that seem so trivial. Daniel has been looking to me to make the ruling on almost everything, a gesture that he probably thinks is the right one, given brides and their reputation for wanting control. But the responsibility has left me feeling more stressed out than ever, the weight of it all placed solely on my shoulders. His only firm opinions revolve around the fact that he hates fondant cake and that he refuses to send an invitation to his parents, two demands with which I am eager to comply.

I would never admit it to Daniel, but I’m ready for it to be over. The

whole thing. I say a silent thank you for a quick engagement and tap out my replies.

Caramel is good, thanks!

Can we meet in the middle and do 15?

I scroll through a few more emails before I click on one from my wedding planner and freeze.

Hi, Chloe. I’m sorry to keep asking about this but we do need to get the ceremony details nailed down so I can finalize a seating chart. Have you decided who you’d like to walk you down the aisle? Let me know when you get a chance.

My mouse hovers over Delete, but that pesky psychologist voice—my voice—echoes around me.

Classic avoidance coping, Chloe. You know that never eliminates the problem—it only postpones it.

I roll my eyes at my own internal advice and drum my fingers on the keyboard. The whole idea of a father walking his daughter down the aisle is so outdated, anyway. The thought of somebody giving me away makes my stomach lurch, like I’m a piece of property being sold to the highest bidder. We might as well bring back the dowry.

My mind flashes to Cooper, the closest thing to a father figure I’ve had since age twelve. I imagine his hand clutched around mine, his body guiding me down the aisle.

But then I think of his words last night. The disapproval in his eyes, his tone.

He doesn’t know you, Chloe. And you don’t know him.

I shut my computer and push it across the couch, my eyes flickering back to the television playing in the background. There’s a bright red bar stretched across the bottom of the screen: BREAKING NEWS. I grab the remote and turn the volume up.

Authorities are still looking for tips in connection to the disappearance of Aubrey Gravino, a fifteen-year-old high school student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Aubrey was reported missing by her parents three days ago; she was last seen walking alone near a cemetery on her way home from school Wednesday afternoon.

A picture of Aubrey flashes across the screen, and I flinch at the image. When I was a girl, fifteen seemed so old. So mature, grown up. I dreamed about the things I would do when I was fifteen—but in the years that have followed, I’ve been forced to realize how painfully young it is. How young she is, they all were. Aubrey looks vaguely familiar, though I assume it’s because she looks like every other high school girl I see slumped over in the chair in my office: skinny in a way only adolescent metabolism can achieve, eyes smudged with black pencil, hair untouched by color or heat or any of the other destructive things women do to themselves as they age in an effort to look young again. I force myself not to think about how she probably looks now: pale, stiff, cold. Death ages a

body, turns the skin gray, the eyes dull. Humans aren’t supposed to die that young. It’s unnatural.

Aubrey disappears from the TV and a new image appears: an aerial view map of Baton Rouge. My eyes are immediately drawn toward where my home and office are located, downtown near the Mississippi. A red dot appears at Cypress Cemetery, Aubrey’s last known location.

Search parties are combing through the cemetery today, although Aubrey’s parents remain hopeful that their daughter can still be found alive.

The map disappears and a video starts playing—a man and a woman, both middle-aged and severely sleep deprived, stand at a podium, the caption identifying them as Aubrey’s parents. The man stands quietly to the side while the woman, the mother, pleads into the camera.

“Aubrey,” she says, “wherever you are, we are looking for you, baby.

We are looking for you, and we are going to find you.”

The man sniffles, wipes his eye with his shirtsleeve, smears the snot under his nose on the back of his hand. She pats his arm and continues.

“To whoever has her, or has any information about her whereabouts, we are begging you to come forward. We just want our daughter back.”

The man starts crying now, heaving sobs. The woman presses forward, never peeling her eyes from the lens. That’s a tactic the police teach you, I’ve learned. Look into the camera. Talk to the camera. Talk to him.

“We want our baby back.”

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