Chapter no 27

Hidden Pictures

I blink several times and wake in darkness.

Through the shadows, I can recognize familiar shapes: my bed, my nightstand, a motionless ceiling fan, the thick wood rafters over my head.

I’m inside the cottage.

I’m sitting upright in a hard-backed chair and my sinuses are burning. It feels like they’ve been rinsed with chlorine.

I try to stand, only to discover that I don’t have use of my arms; my wrists are crossed behind my back, twisted at painful angles and bound fast to my chair.

I move my lips to call for help but there’s some kind of strap pulled tightly around my head. My mouth has been stuffed with cloth, a wet ball the size of an apple. The pressure on my jaw is excruciating.

My muscles tense and my heartbeat races as I realize all the things I can’t do: I can’t move, I can’t talk, I can’t scream, I can’t even wipe the hair from my face. Take away fight or flight and there’s nothing left but panic. I’m so scared, I nearly throw up—and it’s a good thing I don’t because I’d probably choke to death.

I close my eyes and say a quick prayer. Please God help me. Help me figure out what to do. Then I take a deep sustained breath through my nose, filling my lungs to maximum capacity before letting it out. This is a relaxation exercise I picked up in rehab, and it helps to keep anxiety at bay. It slows my pulse and steadies my nerves.

I repeat the exercise three times.

And then I force myself to think.

I still have options. My legs aren’t restrained. There’s a chance I can stand up—but if I do, the chair will be bound to my back, like a turtle shell. Walking will be slow and awkward but maybe not completely out of the question.

I can turn my head left and right. I can see just far enough into the kitchen to read the glowing LED clock on the microwave oven: 11:07. Adrian is due back around midnight. He’s promised to come see me. But what happens if he knocks on the door of my cottage and no one answers? Is there a chance he’d try to get inside?

No, I don’t think so.

Not unless I can signal to him.

I can’t reach my pockets but I’m pretty sure they’re empty. No cell phone. No keys. No stun gun. But there’s a drawerful of knives in my kitchen. If I could somehow reach a knife and cut through the restraints, I would be out of the chair and armed with a weapon.

I plant my feet on the floor and lean forward, trying to stand up, but my center of balance holds me back. I realize my only hope is to throw myself forward with enough momentum to rise up. I’m just afraid that I’ll spill forward and topple onto the floor.

I’m still working up the nerve to try when I hear footsteps outside the cottage, climbing the worn wooden stairs. Then the door swings inward, and Caroline switches on the light.

She’s dressed in the same scoop neck dress from before but now she’s also wearing blue latex gloves. She’s carrying one of her pretty supermarket tote bags—the kind you bring to the grocery store, to prevent plastic waste from cluttering up the oceans. She seems surprised to find me awake. She sets the tote bag on my kitchen counter and begins to empty its contents: a BBQ grill wand lighter, a metal teaspoon, a tiny syringe and needle with a plastic orange cap.

All the while I’m pleading with her but I can’t form words, only sounds. She’s trying to ignore me and focus on her work, but I can tell I’m irritating her. Eventually she reaches behind my head and the strap goes slack; I cough up the wet rag and it rolls down my lap, landing on the floor with a splat.

“No yelling,” she says. “Use your inside voice.” “Why are you doing this to me?”

“I tried to give you a nice send-off, Mallory. I made my seafood salad. I hung up streamers. Ted and I even put together a severance package. A month’s pay. We were going to surprise you with a check tomorrow morning.” She shakes her head sadly, then reaches into the tote for a small polybag filled with white powder.

“What is that?”

“This is the heroin you stole from Mitzi’s house. You took it yesterday afternoon, after you snooped around her bedroom.”

“That’s not true—”

“Of course it is, Mallory. You have a lot of unresolved grief. You’ve been masquerading as a college student, a track star, and it’s generating all this anxiety. And then the pressure of losing your job—losing your paycheck and losing your place to live—all those stresses caused you to relapse.” I realize she doesn’t actually believe this—she’s just rehearsing a story. She continues: “You were desperate for a fix, and you knew Mitzi was using, so you sneaked into her house and you found her stash. Only, you didn’t realize her heroin was cut with fentanyl. Two thousand micrograms, enough to bring down a horse. Your opioid receptors flooded

and you stopped breathing.”

“This is what you’ll tell the police?”

“This is what they’ll infer. Based on your history. And the autopsy. Tomorrow morning I’ll knock on your door to see if you need help packing. When you don’t answer, I’ll use my key to come inside. I’ll find you lying in bed with a needle

sticking out of your arm. I’ll scream and call for Ted. He’ll pound your chest and try to give you CPR. We’ll call 911 but the medics will say you’ve been dead for hours. They’ll say there’s nothing we could have done. And because we’re such good people, we’ll make sure you have a proper burial and headstone. Next to your sister. Otherwise Russell would get stuck with the bill, and that doesn’t seem fair.”

Caroline unseals the polybag and holds it over the spoon, carefully filling it with white powder. She leans over the counter, concentrating on her work, and again I see the tattoo that’s just below her neck.

“You’re the angel in the drawings. You hit Anya with your Viper and then you strangled her.”

“It was self-defense.”

“You don’t strangle someone in self-defense. You murdered her. You stole her little girl. How old was she? Two? Two and a half?”

The spoon fumbles out of Caroline’s fingers and lands on the counter with a clatter. The powder spills everywhere and she shakes her head, irritated.

“Don’t pretend like you understand the situation. You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

She reaches for a plastic spatula and slowly drags it across the counter, gathering all the powder into a tiny little mound.

“I know you had Ted’s help,” I said. “I know he’s the man in the pictures. You killed Anya and took her daughter. And then you sent Ted to bury her body. When did this happen, Caroline? Where were you living?”

She shakes her head and laughs. “I know the game you’re trying to play. We use it in therapy all the time. You can’t talk your way out of this.”

“You and Ted were having problems. He said you spent years trying to conceive. Was this the last resort? Stealing a child?”

“I rescued that child.”

“What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done and we need to move on. I’m sorry you won’t be part of our family anymore.”

Caroline carefully pushes the powder back into the spoon and then reaches for the BBQ lighter. She clicks the button several times before it produces a small blue flame, and I see that her hands are trembling.

“Does Teddy remember anything?”

“What do you think, Mallory? Does he seem traumatized? Does he seem sad or unhappy? No, he does not. He remembers nothing. He is a happy, well-adjusted child and I worked very hard to get him to this place. He’ll never know how much I’ve sacrificed for him. And that’s fine.”

As Caroline speaks, the powder in the spoon smokes and blackens and finally liquefies. East Coast heroin doesn’t have much of an odor but I’m struck by a whiff of something chemical—maybe it’s the fentanyl, maybe it’s some other lethal additive. I remember hearing about a drug dealer in Camden who supposedly cut his product with Ajax cleanser. Caroline sets down the lighter and picks up the syringe. She dips the needle into the bowl of the spoon and then slowly draws back the plunger, filling the syringe with sickly brown sludge.

“He remembers the rabbit,” I tell her. “Excuse me?”

“In Anya’s pictures, she shows a little girl chasing after a rabbit. The girl follows a white rabbit down into a valley. Now think back to my job interview, Caroline. The very first day I came here, you had one of Teddy’s drawings on your refrigerator. A picture of a white rabbit. Maybe he remembers more than you realize.”

“Her pictures are lies. You can’t trust them.”

“I had a hard time making sense of them. But I think I finally put them in the right order. They’re in the folder, on my nightstand. They show exactly what happened.”

Caroline reaches in her bag for a length of rubber tourniquet. She stretches it between her hands, like she’s ready to tie it around my arm. But then curiosity gets the better of her. She walks over to my nightstand, opens the folder, and starts sifting through the papers. “No, no, see, these drawings are so unfair! This is her version of what happened. But if you’d seen my side of things? The big picture? You’d understand better.”

“What’s the big picture?”

“I’m not saying I don’t feel guilty. I do feel guilty. I feel remorse. I’m not proud of what happened. But she didn’t leave me with a choice.”

“Show me what you mean.” “I’m sorry?”

“In the drawer of the nightstand, there’s a pad and pencil. Draw what happened. Show me your version of the story.”

Because I need all the time I can get.

Time for Adrian to drive home and get here and knock on the door and figure out something is very, very wrong.

And Caroline looks like she wants to do it! She seems eager to tell me her side of the story. But she’s smart enough to recognize that she’s being manipulated. “You’re trying to make me incriminate myself. You want me to draw out a confession, with pictures, so the police will find it and arrest me. Is that the idea?”

“No, Caroline, I’m just trying to understand what happened. Why did Teddy need to be rescued?”

She reaches for the tourniquet and moves behind my chair, but she can’t manage to tie it around my arm. Her hands are shaking too much. “Sometimes she gets in my head and it feels like a panic attack. It’ll go away in a minute or two.” She sits on the edge of my bed and covers her face with her hands. She takes deep breaths, filling her lungs with air. “I don’t expect you to have any sympathy but

this has been really hard for me. It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t end.”

Her breathing is ragged. She grabs her knees and squeezes hard, as if she can will herself into a state of calm. “Ted and I used to live in Manhattan. Riverside Heights, Upper West Side. I was working for Mount Sinai, thirty-five years old and already burned out. My patients had so many problems. There’s just so much pain in the world, so much misery. And Ted, he had some boring IT job that he hated.

“I guess we were two very unhappy people trying to get pregnant, and we were failing, and the failure made us even more unhappy. We tried all the usual tricks: IVI, IVF, Clomid cycles. Do you know about these things?” Caroline shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing worked. We were both working crazy hours but we didn’t even need the money, because my father had left me a fortune. So finally we were like, screw it: Let’s leave our jobs and take a one-year sabbatical. We bought a place in upstate New York on Seneca Lake. The theory being that maybe—in a more relaxed state of mind—we would conceive.

“The only problem is, we get up there and we don’t have any friends. We don’t know a soul. It’s just me and Ted alone in this cabin all summer long. Now Ted, he gets really into wine-making. He takes classes with a local vintner. But me, I’m so bored, Mallory. I don’t know what to do with myself. I try writing, photography, gardening, breadmaking, none of it sticks. And I have this horrible realization that I am just not a very creative person. Isn’t that an awful thing to discover about yourself?”

I try to look sympathetic and encourage her to continue. The way she talks, you’d think we were mother and daughter chatting over coffee and scones at Panera Bread. Not me in a chair with my arms looped behind my back, and Caroline fidgeting with a loaded syringe, anxiously twisting the barrel between her fingers.

“The only thing that gives me any joy is walking. There’s a park on Seneca Lake with nice shaded trails, and that’s where I first met Margit. That’s Anya’s real name: Margit Baroth. I’d see her sitting in the shade of a tree, painting landscapes. She was very talented and I guess I was a little envious. And she always brought her daughter. She had a two-year-old, a little girl named Flora. Margit would just plop her on a blanket and ignore her. For two or three hours at a time. She’d stick a smartphone in the kid’s hands and then completely neglect her. And not just once or twice, Mallory. I saw them every weekend! This was their routine! It made me angry every time I walked past them. I mean—here’s this perfect child, this beautiful little girl, starved for attention, and the mother’s plying her with YouTube videos! Like she’s a burden! I’ve read a lot of research on screen time, Mallory. It’s toxic for a child’s imagination.

“So after a couple times I decided to intervene. I walked over to the blanket and tried to introduce myself, but Margit had no idea what I was saying. I realized she couldn’t speak English. So I tried to pantomime what I meant—I tried to show her she was being an awful mother. And I guess she took that the wrong way. She got angry, I got angry, and pretty soon we were both screaming, me in English and she in Hungarian, until some people finally came over. They had to literally stand between us.

“After that, I tried going to different parks and trails. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that little girl. I felt like I failed her, like I had one chance to intervene and I blew it. So one day, maybe two months after the argument, I went back to the lake. It was a Saturday morning, and there was an incredible hot-air balloon festival. They do it every September, thousands of people show up, and the sky is filled with all these big bright colorful shapes. The perfect thing for a child’s imagination, you know? And Margit is painting one of the balloons but little Flora is just staring at

a phone. She’s down on the blanket getting sunburn all over her arms and shoulders.

“And as I stood there, getting madder and madder, I notice something. I see this rabbit wriggling out of the ground. It must have been burrowed nearby. It popped out of the grass and shook itself off and Flora saw it. She called, ‘Anya, anya!’ and she pointed to the rabbit, laughing, but Margit didn’t turn around. She was too caught up in her artwork. She didn’t realize that her little girl had stood up and walked away, that Flora was crossing a field and heading down into a valley. Toward a creek, Mallory. So I had to do something, right? I couldn’t ignore what was happening. I followed Flora into the valley, and by the time I reached her, she was completely lost. She was bawling, hysterical. I knelt beside her and I told her everything was fine. I said I knew how to find her mommy, and I offered to bring her back. And I really meant to, Mallory. I really meant to bring Flora back.”

I almost lose the thread of the story because I am remembering the spirit board and its cryptic message and realizing I put too much faith in Google Translate. The message wasn’t HELP FLOWER—it was HELP FLORA, help her daughter.

“I just wanted to spend a little time with her,” Caroline continues. “Take a short walk and give her some attention. I figured her mother wouldn’t mind. She wouldn’t even know the girl was missing. There was a little trail nearby, heading into a forest, so that’s where we went. Into the woods. Only Margit did notice Flora missing. She was looking all over for her. And somehow she found us. She followed us into the woods. And once she recognized me, she was furious. She started screaming and waving her arms like she was ready to hit me. And I always walk with my Viper, I carry it for personal safety, so I used it to defend myself. I only hit her once, just to make her back off. But I guess she had some kind of neurological disorder because she went down and

couldn’t get up. She started having a seizure. She wet her dress, her muscles were shaking. Poor Flora was terrified. And I knew I should call 911 but I also knew how bad this was going to look. I knew if Margit told her version of things, people would misunderstand.

“So I took Flora and I led her behind a tree. I told her to sit down and close her eyes. So she wouldn’t see what happened next. And I don’t actually remember the rest, if you want to know the truth. But that’s the beauty of the human mind. It blocks out all the bad stuff. You know what I’m talking about, right?”

She waits for me to answer—and when I don’t, she keeps talking: “Anyway. I covered her body with leaves. I brought Flora home in my car. I told Ted what had happened and he wanted to call the police, but I convinced him we could make everything right. We were upstate in the middle of nowhere. The woman was an immigrant, she couldn’t speak English, I figured she was probably someone’s cleaning lady. I figured if we hid her body and kept the child, no one would notice her missing. Or people would just think that she’d run off with her daughter. Women do it all the time. So I sent Ted out to the park. He gathered the easel and the blanket and all of Flora’s toys, and he buried everything in the woods. With the body, I mean. He was gone all night. It took him forever. He didn’t get back until the sun was up.

“Now it should have ended right there—except Margit’s brother is actually a really big deal on Seneca Lake. He owns this stupid goat farm that all the summer people love, and he’s sponsored Margit and her husband, József, to move from Hungary to the United States and work for him. And worse, it never occurs to me that Margit must have driven to the lake in a vehicle—a Chevy Tahoe with a child safety seat, it turns out. The police found it in a parking lot and brought out their K9 unit. Within two hours, they’d found her body.

“Suddenly the whole community is looking for a missing two-year-old—the girl I’ve got screaming and crying in my cabin. So I run out to the Target, I buy her a bunch of boy clothes. Sports jerseys. Shirts with football players. Then I get some clippers and give Flora a buzz cut. And I swear it was like flipping a switch—all I did was change her hair, but you’d swear she was a boy.”

There’s nothing ragged about Caroline’s breathing anymore, and her hands have stopped shaking. The more she talks, the better she looks, as if she’s freeing her conscience of some horrible burden.

“Then we got in our car and drove. There wasn’t any plan. We just needed to get away, the farther the better. We didn’t stop driving until West Virginia, a town called Gilbert. Population four hundred, everybody’s retired in wheelchairs. I emailed our friends and said we’d moved to Barcelona, that Ted had an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Then we rented a house on ten acres of land, no neighbors, just a nice quiet place where we could focus on our baby.

“And Mallory, I swear to you, it was the hardest year of my life. For six months, Teddy refused to speak. He was so scared! But I was patient. I worked with him every day. I showed him love and attention and affection. I filled our house with books and toys and healthy foods, and we made progress. He started coming out of his shell. He learned to accept us and trust us and now he loves us, Mallory. The first time he called me Mommy, I started bawling.

“By the end of our first year, we’d made some really amazing progress. We started bringing Teddy out in public. Just little hikes or trips to the grocery store. Normal family outings. And it was picture-perfect. If you hadn’t met us, you’d have no idea what we’d been through.” And then her voice trails off. As if she’s nostalgic for a time when she still had hope.

“What happened?”

“I just never imagined Margit would find us. I’ve always been an atheist. I’ve never believed in any kind of spirit world. But after our first year in West Virginia, Teddy started having a visitor. A woman in a white dress. Waiting in his bedroom during naptime.”

“You saw her?”

“No, never. She only shows herself to Teddy. But I could feel her, I could sense her presence, I could smell her disgusting rotting stench. We told Teddy she was an imaginary friend. We said she wasn’t real, but it was okay to pretend she was real. He was so young, he didn’t know any better.”

“Did she ever come after you? For revenge?”

“Oh, she’d love to. She’d kill me if she could. But her powers are really limited. I guess she can work a Ouija board and move a pencil but that’s about it.”

I try to imagine the tedium of being stuck in a lonely house on ten acres of land in the middle of rural West Virginia—with no companions except my husband, a kidnapped child, and a vengeful spirit. I’m not sure how long I would last without losing my mind.

“I knew we couldn’t stay in ‘Barcelona’ forever. We all needed to get on with our lives. I wanted to live in a nice pretty town with good schools, so Teddy could have a normal childhood. So we moved here in April, and by Mother’s Day Anya was back in Teddy’s bedroom, singing Hungarian lullabies.”

“She followed you?”

“Yes. I don’t know how. I just know running from her isn’t an option. Wherever we go, Anya will follow. So that’s when I had my big breakthrough: Bring in a third party. A new playmate to compete with Anya for Teddy’s attention. You were the perfect candidate, Mallory. Young, athletic, full of energy. Smart but not too smart. And your history of drug abuse was a big plus. I knew you were insecure. I knew that if you saw some crazy things, you would doubt your own

judgment. At least for a little while. I just never counted on those stupid drawings. I never imagined she would find a way to communicate.”

Caroline seems exhausted, as if she’s just relived the last three years of her life. I steal another look at the clock, and it’s only 11:37. I need to keep her talking. “What about Mitzi? What happened to her?”

“The same thing that’s happening to you. Last Thursday, a couple hours after your séance, Mitzi came knocking on our door in a panic. She said her spirit board wouldn’t turn off. She claimed the plan-chette was spinning in circles and spelling out the same word over and over: ovakodik, ovakodik, ovakodik. Mitzi brought us back to her house and she showed us. She figured out that it meant ‘beware.’ She said you were right all along, Mallory: Our house was haunted and we needed help. Ted and I went home and argued about the best thing to do, but I finally convinced him to hold Mitzi down while I gave her the overdose. Then he dragged her body out to the woods and I sprinkled all those needle caps around her living room. Left the tourniquet on her end table. Just enough for the police to connect the dots. Then we made up the story about Mitzi having a late-night visitor, so the story wouldn’t be too neat.”

I check the clock again—only another minute has passed

—and this time, Caroline catches me.

“What are you doing? Why are you looking at the time?” “No reason.”

“You’re lying. But it doesn’t matter.” She stands and reaches for the tourniquet. Her hands are steady. She’s moving with renewed confidence and control, looping the tourniquet around my arm and knotting it tight. Within moments, my muscles are tingling.

“Please don’t do this.”

“I’m sorry, Mallory. I wish things worked out differently.”

I feel her soft gloved fingers tapping on the crook of my arm, coaxing my veins to swell up and cooperate. I realize she’s serious, she intends to go through with this. “You’ll feel guilty for the rest of your life,” I tell her, and I’m so scared I’m sputtering. “You’ll hate yourself. You won’t be able to live with yourself.”

I don’t know why I think I can frighten her into changing her mind. My warning just seems to make her angry. There’s a painful pinch as the needle breaks my skin and punctures the vein. “Look at the bright side,” she tells me. “Maybe you’ll see your sister again.”

And then she drops the plunger, injecting me with two thousand micrograms of heroin and fentanyl, enough to bring down a horse. My whole body seizes up as I feel the familiar first chill—like someone’s placed an ice cube at the injection site. The last thing I see is Caroline hurrying out the door and turning out the lights. She won’t even stay to watch me die. I close my eyes and plead with God to forgive me, please please forgive me. I feel like I’m falling back in my chair, like my chair and my body have collapsed through the floor and now I’m weightless, suspended in space. Intravenous heroin is lightning-quick and I don’t know how I’m still conscious. How am I still breathing? But then I open my eyes and see Margit waiting in the shadows, and I realize I’ve already OD’d.

You'll Also Like