Chapter no 9

A Flicker in the Dark

All at once, my house seems both too big and too small. It’s claustrophobic, sitting here, these four walls confining me inside, trapping me with this recycled, stale air. But it’s also impossibly lonely; too large to be filled with only the silent thoughts of a single soul. I have the sudden urge to move.

I get up from the couch and walk into my bedroom, exchanging my oversized robe for a pair of jeans and a gray T-shirt, pulling my hair into a topknot and forgoing all makeup that takes more effort than swiping my lips with a stick of Blistex. I’m out the door within five minutes, my hammering heart slowing considerably once my flats hit the pavement.

I get in the car and crank the engine, driving mechanically through my neighborhood and into town. I reach for the radio but my hand pauses in midair, instead recoiling back to the steering wheel.

“It’s okay, Chloe,” I say out loud, my voice painfully shrill in the otherwise silence of my car. “What’s bothering you? Verbalize it.”

I drum my fingers against the steering wheel, push down my turn signal, and decide to take a left. I’m talking to myself the way I talk to my clients.

“A girl is missing,” I say. “A local girl has gone missing, and it’s upsetting me.”

If this were an appointment, next I would ask: Why? Why is this upsetting you?

The reasons are obvious, I know. A young girl is missing. Fifteen years old. Last seen within jogging distance from my house, my office, my life.

“You don’t know her,” I say out loud. “You don’t know her, Chloe.

She isn’t Lena. She isn’t any of those girls. This has nothing to do with you.”

I exhale, slowing down at an impending red light as I glance across the road. I watch a mother escort her daughter across the street, hand-in-hand; a

group of teenagers are Rollerblading to my left, a man and his dog jogging straight ahead. The light turns green.

“This has nothing to do with you,” I repeat, pushing through the intersection and taking a right.

I’ve been driving without direction, but I realize I’m close to my office, mere blocks from the safe haven of pills tucked inside my desk drawer. I’m a swallowed capsule away from a decreased heart rate and steady breathing; a giant leather recliner with a locked door and blackout curtains.

I shake the thought from my head.

I don’t have a problem. I’m not addicted or anything. I don’t go out to bars and drink myself into a coma or break into clammy night sweats when I deny myself that nightly glass of merlot. I could go days, weeks, months without a pill or a glass of wine or any kind of chemical substance to numb the constant fear vibrating through my veins; it’s like a plucked guitar string reverberating through my bones, making them rattle. But I have it handled. All of my disorders, all of those big words that I’ve been fighting for so long—insomnia, nyctophobia, hypochondria—they have one common trait, one significant quality that binds them all together, and that’s control.

I fear all situations where I’m not in control. I imagine the things that can happen to me in my sleep, defenseless. I imagine the things that can happen to me in the dark, unaware. I imagine all the invisible killers that can strangle the life from my cells before I even know they’re being suffocated; I imagine surviving what I survived, living through what I lived through, only to die from a case of unwashed hands, a tickle in my throat.

I imagine Lena, the total lack of control she must have felt as those hands latched around her neck, tightening. As her windpipe squeezed shut, her eyes started to throb, her vision began to brighten before taking a sudden turn in the opposite direction, getting dimmer and dimmer until, at last, she saw nothing.

My pharmacy is my lifeline. I know it’s wrong to write prescriptions that don’t need to be written; more than wrong, it’s illegal. I could lose my license, maybe even go to jail. But everybody needs a lifeline, a raft in the distance when you feel yourself starting to sink. When I find myself losing

control, I know they’re there, ready to fix whatever it is inside me that needs fixing. More often than not, it’s just the thought of them that calms my nerves. I once told a claustrophobic patient to carry a single Xanax in her purse every time she boards a plane, its mere presence strong enough to elicit a mental reaction, a physical response. She probably wouldn’t even need to take it, I told her; just knowing there was an escape within reach would be enough to ease the suffocating weight from her chest.

And it was. Of course it was. I knew from experience.

I see my office in the distance now, that old brick building peeking out from behind moss-lined oaks. The cemetery is only a few blocks west; I make a decision and turn toward it, driving in the direction of the wrought-iron gate, a yawning mouth inviting me inside. I ease my car into a spot on the street and kill the ignition.

Cypress Cemetery. The last place Aubrey Gravino was seen alive. I hear a noise and glance out the window; there’s a search party in the distance, scouring the place like ants ambushing a sliver of forgotten meat. They’re pushing through the overgrown crabgrass, sidestepping the crumbling headstones, rubbing their sneakers against the dirt pathways that snake their way through the graves. This cemetery spans over twenty acres; it’s an impossibly large piece of land. The prospect of finding whatever it is they’re hoping to find seems bleak, at best.

I get out of the car and walk through the gates, edging closer to the party. The property is dotted with bald cypress trees—the Louisiana state tree, and therefore the cemetery’s namesake—their trunks thick and red and ropey like tendons. Veils of Spanish moss dangle from their branches like cobwebs festering in a forgotten corner. I duck under a ribbon of police tape and do my best to blend in, trying to skirt away from the police officers and journalists with cameras hung from their necks, wandering aimlessly among the dozens of volunteers in their hunt to find Aubrey.

Or to not find Aubrey. Because the last thing you want to find in a search party is a body, or worse: pieces of one.

They hadn’t found any bodies in the search parties of Breaux Bridge. No pieces, either. I had begged my mother to let me tag along; I saw the hordes of people gathering in town, distributing their flashlights and walkie-

talkies and cartons of bottled water. Hollering out instructions before dissipating like gnats being swat at with a rolled-up newspaper. She hadn’t let me, of course. I was forced to stay home, watching the flicker of lanterns in the distance as they swept their way across the seemingly endless abyss of tall, grassy pastures. It was the most helpless feeling, watching. Waiting. Not knowing what they’d find. It was even worse when the search party was in my own backyard, my eyes glued to the window as police scoured every inch of our ten acres after my father had been taken into custody. But that didn’t yield anything, either.

No, those girls are still out there, somewhere, the layers of dirt concealing their bones growing thicker every year. The thought of them never being found is mind-numbing to me, even though I know, by this point, they probably never will be. It isn’t the injustice of it, or the lack of closure for the families, or even the concept of those girls decaying in the same way as the dead field rat I once discovered under our back porch, their humanity being stripped away along with their skin and their hair and their tattered clothing. An entire life whittled down to a pile of bones that are no different from yours or mine or even that field rat’s, really. No, it isn’t any of those things that keep me up at night, that keep me from ever giving up hope that they might someday be found.

It’s the realization of how many hidden bodies could be buried beneath my feet at any point in time, the world above them completely oblivious to their existence.

Of course, there are bodies buried beneath my feet at this very moment. Lots of bodies. But cemeteries are different. These bodies were placed here, not dropped. They’re here to be remembered, not forgotten.

“I think I found something!”

I glance to my left at a middle-aged woman dressed in white sneakers, khaki cargo pants, and an oversized polo shirt, the unofficial uniform of a search party concerned citizen. She’s kneeling in the dirt, her eyes squinting at something beneath her. Her left arm is waving madly in the direction of the other searchers, her right clutching the kind of walkie-talkie you’d buy in the toy section at Walmart.

I look around—I’m the closest one by several yards. The rest are coming, running in our direction, but I’m here now. I take a step closer and she looks up at me, her eyes excited yet pleading, like she wants this item to hold some kind of significance, some kind of meaning, but at the same time, she doesn’t. She desperately doesn’t.

“Look,” she says, waving me over. “Look right there.”

I step closer again and crane my neck, an electric shock jolting through my body as my eyes focus on the object nestled in the dirt. I reach for it, without thinking—a kind of knee-jerk reflex, as if someone had smacked my shin with a mallet—and pluck it from the ground. A police officer runs up behind me, panting.

“What it is?” he asks, hovering over me. His voice has a strangled quality to it, like his breath is trying to cut through a forest of phlegm. A mouth breather. His eyes bulge as he sees the item cradled in my hand. “Jesus, don’t touch it!”

“Sorry,” I mutter, handing it to him. “Sorry—I, I wasn’t thinking. It’s an earring.”

The woman looks at me as the officer kneels down, chest rattling, one arm jutting out to the side to stop the others from getting too close. He plucks the earring from my palm with his gloved hand and inspects it. It’s small, silver, a cluster of three diamonds at the top forming an inverted triangle, the tip of the triangle attached to a single pearl dangling at the bottom. It looks nice, something that would have caught my eye in the window of a local jeweler. Too nice for a fifteen-year-old.

“Okay,” the cop says, pushing wisps of hair across his sweat-soaked forehead. He deflates just slightly. “Okay, this is good. We’ll bag it, but remember: We’re in a public place. There are thousands of graves in here, which means hundreds of visitors daily. This earring could belong to anybody.”

“No,” the woman shakes her head. “No, it doesn’t. It belongs to Aubrey.”

She reaches into her cargo pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, creased into quarters. She unfolds it: Aubrey’s MISSING poster. I recognize the image from the one I saw this morning, plastered across my TV screen.

The single image that will define her existence. She’s smiling wide, that black eyeliner smeared across her lids, pink lip gloss reflecting the flash of the camera. The picture cuts off just above her chest, but I can see that she’s wearing a necklace, a necklace I didn’t notice before, nestled in the puddle of skin between her collarbones—three small diamonds attached to a single pearl. And there, fastened to the lobes peeking out from behind the thick, brown hair tucked behind her ears, is a pair of matching earrings.

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