Jeff Peterson stood at the window in his home office, the wide expanse of desert out before him. The starkly beautiful view went unseen as he stared down at his hands, fingers working a paper clip against the cuticles of his left hand. Beads of blood grew against his nails but he did not stop.
His daughter, his precious daughter . . . dead.
The Rolling Stones played on the stereo. He’d put on “Brown Sugar” as a tribute to Riley. Her favorite. He’d been bound and determined to raise the girl with good taste in music. “No Wheels On The Bus” for his special one. She’d been the only nine-year-old in town who even knew what a record player looked like.
After the song, Jeff let Mick and the boys play on, the memories rushing in. Leaving him gasping for air.
Each day for the past nine years he’d fended off the flood of thoughts threatening to drown him. Each day he devoted himself to Riley for fear that anything less than pure, unconditional love would undermine what it took to get her.
Now that she lay dead, a brutal act no daughter deserved, the levees broke. Nothing more held back the memories of what he had done those years ago.
Jeff and Kourtney tried everything to have a child. At first they could joke about it. The trying part was even fun for a little while. After all, it involved lots and lots of sex. Even when they first visited a specialist they could still joke about it to close friends, about trying the “turkey baster” approach to getting pregnant. Over time, it became less funny.
Jeff suggested they look into adoption but Kourtney insisted on trying increasingly complicated and expensive attempts. Jeff nodded along. Their marriage had been a long series of compromises. Kourtney stating emphatically what she wanted and Jeff compromising what he wanted in order to keep her happy, each time swallowing the bitter pill and keeping his mouth shut about his own feelings.
Four years and over eighty thousand dollars later the doctors announced that the couple fell into the category of “unexplained infertility”. They were given pamphlets on donor eggs, surrogates, and adoption. Kourtney threw them out.
And then, just as so many friends and relatives said would happen, they got pregnant. Jeff wanted to punch someone anytime they said in a cheerful, ignorant way, “I bet as soon as you stop trying so hard, it’ll happen naturally.” Condescending, uninformed bullshit.
Yet there he stood looking at an ultrasound image of his wife’s belly and the tiny peanut-shaped shadow they could call their child. All the hurt and frustration of the previous four years vanished.
Side 1 on the LP ran out and the needle made scratching loops around the final ring of vinyl. Jeff flipped the Stones record and set the needle down on side 2, leaving a smear of blood on the label. He kept the volume high and the door closed, uninterested in speaking to Kourtney. She offered no comfort, only painful reminders of what she’d made him do. He felt it every day since then, in that cold hospital ward. The fierce Minnesota winter howling outside.
The cries of babies in the room next door bore holes in his skull as she said the words out loud. Words he knew he should reject. Absurd notions, illegal plans. But, like always, he nodded his head and did what he was told. Their child may have been stillborn, but Jeff had been born without a spine.
The first signs of complications came in the second trimester. They’d known from the start theirs was a “high-risk” pregnancy. Kourtney spent months in bed and Jeff did everything he could to keep her and his unborn daughter safe and comfortable until it came time to welcome the girl they would name Riley into the world and put the ordeal behind them.
Her welcome party turned out to be a funeral.
Jeff had never seen anyone sink so deep as Kourtney. He knew he was losing her. There could be no recovery from this. He’d seen the impossibly small, blue-tinted shape of his daughter as she was rushed from the delivery room. Kourtney had been under anesthesia and never got a chance to lay eyes on her beyond the fuzzy ultrasound printout on their refrigerator.
Jeff wished he’d never seen the limp, silent ghost of a body. His sole image of his flesh and blood became a fleeting vision of a helpless, dying child. A small and weak result of his insufficient sperm. His lack of manhood.
When Kourtney finally said it out loud, Jeff saw it first as a good sign. She started joking again, albeit a gallows humor. Take another child from the nursery. A child they deserved. Take one from the woman down the hall in for her seventh. That smug way she refused the drugs and laughed it off like giving birth was just another Tuesday afternoon.
Jeff waited for a punchline. Kourtney stared him down. She was serious. She wanted Jeff to take another family’s child and run.
He looked out over the scrub brush and distant mountains, at the hiding place they’d escaped to. The view came straight from the fancy brochure for Rubicon Ranch Kourtney showed him and declared, without asking, that this would be their new home. A place to Rediscover. Reconnect. Revive. read their slogan. A world away from the Minnesota cold. A world away from the person he thought he was.
Kidnapper. Child thief.
His only solace came in knowing he’d been the best father he could. Riley worshiped him. They weren’t just father and daughter, they were friends. Kourtney became the stranger in the house.
And now . . . Riley stuffed into a TV set, sheriff Bryan said. Murdered.
Jeff shuddered at the thought that somewhere, out there, a killer lurked. The chill grew deeper as he let a thought invade his mind again, the first thought that flashed in his brain when Bryan gave them the news – perhaps his daughter’s killer wasn’t out there. Perhaps she stood downstairs.
The smell of coffee was always a bracer. Cleared the head. Chased the cobwebs out. Somewhere, beneath the numbness, Kourtney knew she felt grief. But she needed something to erase the gray, sharpen her focus.
The coffee maker hissed and popped. Hurry up, she thought, oddly satisfied that some of her impatience was surfacing again. Impatience was a sign of the desire for control. And control was all she had . . . all she’d ever had. She took a deep breath, blew it out, and watched the pot fill.
She felt Jeff upstairs. Brooding. Crying. It wouldn’t solve a thing. He’d lost a playmate. A pal. His best pal. Get over it already. They had bigger things to deal with.
The last picture Riley drew was front and center on the refrigerator. MY FAMILY was scrawled across the top in her nine-year-old hand. Riley had placed herself in the middle, a short stick-figure with crazy-curly blond hair. A small crayon-drawn hand held tightly to Jeff’s. His tall figure boasted a wide grin in the center of his peach-colored orb of a head. Kids could never get flesh-tones correct when they colored. Kourtney had half-a-mind to let the teachers over at La Flor del Desierto Elementary know what she thought about that. And what was up with crayon companies making peach colored crayons?
Kourtney swallowed hard. She supposed that the figure standing off to the side in the picture—arms crossed, back turned—was supposed to be her. A picture and a thousand words and so forth. Wouldn’t the psychologists have a time with that? Emotionally distant mother, doting father, dead child.
From the den upstairs Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil”. More brooding? Or a subtle message?
She dumped two packets of artificial sweetener into her mug and filled it with coffee. She stirred three times and put the spoon on a special plate she kept by the pot so she could use it again throughout the day. She took a drink, then another, and set the mug on the counter in its usual spot.
She breathed deeply, feeling the cobwebs part a little. That picture, she thought. That damn picture has to go.
“Jeff,” she called. “We need to talk.”
Mick Jagger sang louder.
Kourtney removed the El Diablo Rojo Restaurant magnets from the picture and put them carefully, deliberately, back in line with all the other magnets. She put the picture on the counter and fished around in the cupboard for a glass pie plate. Not clear glass. She wanted the one her mother gave her years ago. White with the trio of blue flowers on the bottom. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found it. Perfect.
She started to hum along with Mick. What the hell. It was the stones, right?
She carried the picture and the plate to the state-of-the art gas stove—standard in all Rubicon Ranch households, according to the slack-jawed realtor who’d sold them the place—and turned on the burner.
The picture caught easily. She turned on the fan vent. No sense in setting off the smoke alarms. Jeff burned first, his peach-colored head disappearing in flame before the fire moved to Riley’s body, catching her red lips first, twisting them into a dark sneer that charred and then glowed orange.
She set the picture in the pie plate and watched it burn as she picked up her coffee. When the small flame extinguished itself only a part of Kourtney’s head was left in the remnants of the drawing.
She retrieved her work bag from the antique bench near the back door, took her coffee to the dining room table, and booted up her laptop. If Jeff was going to listen to the Stones all day long then he would be useless. And there things to do, things to catch up on, and maybe, God forbid, tracks to cover.
The Bring Anne Neuhaus Home Fan page on Facebook was as busy as ever. Riley’s real family wished her a happy day wherever she was. Someone wished her a belated ninth birthday. “Hope you are well, my darling Anne.” Anne. Her real name. There were no pictures. She had been less than a day old when Jeff got his hands on her. The Facebook avatar the family posted was a picture of a rainbow arcing above a grove of pine trees. Very quaint.
Kourtney didn’t care about the well-wishes or the happy belated birthday comments. However, there were other comments, comments from the parents of Riley’s classmates, that were troublesome.
She scrolled down the page and clicked on the OLDER COMMENTS button and found what she was looking for.
It had been left exactly one week ago. “Funny thing,” wrote Jessica Silver, mother of Antonia Silver of Riley’s third grade class—Kourtney was filing that information away for later—“little blond girl in my daughter’s class. Curliest hair I’ve ever seen. She’s a real pill. LOL. Saw your family picture and thought she looked like you.”
The post went on to say how terrible to lose a child, blah blah blah. But the disturbing thing was the response from Mrs. Neuhaus. “Curly hair. Just like mine. Anne was bald as a melon when she was born. LOL. Do you have a class picture of this little girl?”
And that, Kourtney thought, was the sort of thing she didn’t need right now. She’d waited for the response, for the class picture to appear. It hadn’t. Jessica Silver posted her fear of privacy acts. A class picture sent to families was one thing. Posted on the Web was another. Thank God for common sense.
But what about now? Would the paper print a picture of Riley for the obituary? For the case? Would the news broadcast it? The coffee had grown cold. She drank it anyway.
Twitter was next. Mrs. Neuhaus tweeted about the possible lead last week followed by almost hourly pleas to her followers for information about legalities of posting a child’s photo online. The consensus was “bad idea.”
Kourtney didn’t find comfort in that. Maybe Mrs. Neuhaus would set up a private correspondence with Jessica Silver. Jessica could mail a hard copy of the photo, or e-mail it privately.
Upstairs Mick Jagger sang “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
“Tell me about it,” Kourtney muttered.