Jeff stood with his back to it for a long time. He could hear the whipping of the yellow POLICE LINE tape wrapped impotently around the murder scene. When he approached he saw it but averted his eyes, not ready to take in the final resting place of his daughter. When he did turn around his eyes let loose again with tears he thought he’d used up. The desert tableau sent a shiver up his spine. The yellow frame, the broken TV, the footprints in the sand all around him like he’d missed a party.
When he left the house that morning he wasn’t sure where he’d end up. He needed air and Rubicon offered some of the best as a lure to people in colder climes to drop everything and move south. He sucked big lungfulls of the stuff and it did little to clear his head of the swirling thoughts that plagued him since the sheriff first came to his door. His feet took him to the spot by following some father’s instinct and the casual words the Sheriff let drop about where the body had been found.
With each passing hour he felt less like Riley’s father and more like the stranger he really was. Her real father would never have let this happen.
All that fresh air whistled in his ears. A dark green lizard darted out from under the TV set moving in stuttering bursts. Jeff wanted to crush it, to throw rocks and tell the creature not to use that discarded set as refuge. There could be no peace there.
He’d always told Riley she watched too much TV.
Jeff stepped over the yellow tape with little effort, angry at the police for their lack of understanding how sacred this place had become. He touched the edge of the hollow set, feeling tiny shards of the broken picture tube. His finger ran along the rim trying to imagine his daughter’s body fitting into such a small space and at the same time willing the image away, which worked about as well as the police tape. He stopped and stood abruptly, slicing a cut along his index finger as he did. He’d run into a single hair. He knew it instantly. The long strand waved in the gentle breeze the way it always did trailing out of Riley’s bike helmet as she rode away from home.
Jeff had misgivings about how much freedom they gave Riley but Kourtney kept insisting that if they stifled her she would rebel and they’d never get her back. For years Jeff suspected that Kourtney just didn’t want to deal with the increasing void between them. Letting her out to ride a bike, visit a friend or just be out of sight, out of mind worked for Kourtney’s avoidance. It never worked for Jeff. He worried, he fretted. Kourtney told him to calm down, to shut up, to stop being paranoid.
He stared into the empty black wound of the hollowed-out television and mouthed the words, “Told you so.”
* * *
Back at the house Jeff entered with his mind spinning on what excuse to give Kourtney about where he’d been all morning.
He found her watching TV. Immediately his blood pressure rose, his heart rattled against his ribs and his face flushed.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked her, much more forcefully than he usually spoke to her.
“Nothing. I was thinking about lunch. What do you want?”
Jeff didn’t think he’d ever be able to look at a TV again and here was his wife, slumped down in front of the tube like she had noting better to do than catch up on some celebrity gossip while waiting for the dryer to finish.
“Are you fucking serious?”
Kourtney turned to him. “What?”
Jeff’s days of capitulation were over. “Why are you doing this?”
Kourtney sat up straight, slipping right back into fight mode, easy as a comfortable sweatshirt and jeans. “Doing what, Jeff? Doing what?”
“Not doing anything. That’s what. Not doing anything that could find out who did this.” Jeff still struggled with the words, choosing vague terms like “this”, “it” and “this whole thing.”
“What the hell do you want me to do? The sheriff said he was doing all he could.”
“Yeah. All he could, not all we could.” Jeff stepped forward. He never stepped forward in their fights. “Let’s go ask around. Let’s talk to her classmates in school. Let’s go talk to that woman who found her.”
“Let’s offer a reward.”
“A reward?” Kourtney stood. Behind her, Ellen continued to dance and rouse her audience to get up as well. “What kind of reward, Jeff? Fifty bucks? It’s about all we can afford. I don’t know if you’ve looked at our checkbook in the last, oh I don’t know, six years or so.”
“We could take out an equity loan. Whatever it takes to find who ever killed my girl.”
He saw the words run through her like an arrow. For a second he thought he should correct himself, “Our girl.” He decided to let it hang, hoping it would hurt her. Knowing it would. He also knew that cut had been healed over by thick scar tissue. Nothing Jeff could say would cut as deep as Riley’s apathy towards Kourtney.
“Jeff, God dammit, the authorities are on top of it. You won’t help by playing armchair CSI, okay? You’ll probably make it worse.”
“What about those private eyes?”
“The couple? Jeff, they didn’t look like they could find the Grand Canyon with a map and compass.”
“They found us.” The argument had gone well past the point of Jeff’s usual retreat.
“Just let the sheriff do his Goddamn job.”
“Doing something is better than sitting around watching TV.”
She picked up the remote and killed the power. Ellen stopped dancing. “Jeff, they were asking for money too. If money were no object, hell, I’d hire ten private investigators. We have to rely on the system that has worked for everyone else for a long, long time.”
“I swear Kourtney,” The tears brimmed back on the rims of his eyelids. “I don’t think you want them to find who killed her.” He couldn’t believe he’d used the word. Jeff could tell by Kourtney’s face she couldn’t either.
She moved around the couch and stood in front of Jeff. Six inches shorter, forty pounds lighter than him and still he felt intimidated. He held his ground.
“You listen to me. For the last time, you deal with this your way and I’ll deal with this mine. I grieved for my dead child once in this life. Maybe I gave all I had to give. You don’t get to tell me how much I should cry. You don’t get to tell me I’m not doing enough. If they find her killer, what then? Does she come back? Do we get a do-over? Do we suddenly get pregnant and start from scratch?” Kourtney pushed past Jeff and went into the kitchen. Over her shoulder she muttered, “Fuck you Jeffrey.”
* * *
On the third knock to Moody Sinclair’s door, she answered. Jeff tried to clean up his red-rimmed eyes, clear his throat of the acid words he said to his wife.
“Jeff.” Moody clearly didn’t expect to see him. She struggled for words. “What can I help you with? I mean, I’m sorry, first of all.”
“Can we talk?”
“Of course. Come in.” She stepped aside and Jeff entered her home as he’d done with Riley. He felt the absence at his side and nearly sobbed again but held it together.
Moody wrapped her arms around herself, caught with a sudden chill in the room. Fresh memories of the Sheriff’s visit bombarded her thoughts.
“Miss Sinclair, Kourtney and I are . . . having difficulty with this . . . news.”
“Jeff, I’m going to stop you there.” His face flinched, wounded slightly by her words. “In light of the . . . investigation, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to talk to you.”
“Why not? I can’t talk to my own doctor?”
“You see Jeff,” she turned her back on him and paced the tile floor of the entryway. “I’m actually not even supposed to be practicing.”
Jeff grimaced. The one place he felt he could seek refuge turned against him. “Why not?”
She spun and looked him the eye. She felt she owed him that. “I don’t have a license to practice anymore.”
As she explained he felt an odd sense of relief. For the first time since the news came of Riley’s death, he felt perhaps it wasn’t his wife who’d done it.
* * *
The grandfather clock in the dining room chimed but Kourtney didn’t bother to count the bells. Jeff had yelled at her. Yelled. At her. Because of private investigators. Nosy peckers who thought they knew something and didn’t. Mark and Jamie Westbrook. If they had anything they would have called the sheriff and had him come on over. They were nothing more than a bump in the road . . . a pair of flies that needed swatting.
Jeffrey hadn’t been so sure. Don’t panic. She’d said it over and over again during the last nine years. “Don’t panic, Jeff. Trust me. Please trust me.”
Kourtney remembered a time, years ago. She must have been nine or ten herself then. She’d been spending the night with a girlfriend and they’d purposely tried to make words lose their meaning. Kourtney repeated the word “ladle” over and over until they’d rolled on the floor laughing, wondering how such a silly word could have ever come into existence, how anyone could make sense of such a ridiculous word.
That, she supposed, was what Jeff thought of the phrase “don’t panic”. Somewhere, the meaning had vanished, morphing from a command into absurdity—something that no longer even sounded like English. And that was the really bad part, she knew. A breakdown in communication was the first sign of trouble. And if she couldn’t communicate with Jeff anymore, then there was no hope.
The detectives, if that’s what one could call them, hadn’t gotten much from Jeff. He’d stammered around about their questions, looking like a deer in the headlights, desperately needing a shave—and a spine—but he didn’t give too much away. But now? Had he gone after them? Was he taking his fleshy hand and finally, finally pointing a finger in her direction?
Something, some horrible feeling in her gut came to life. It started as a hot pinprick and bloomed, spreading out from her center in ripples that swam to her arms and trickled into her hands like hot lava. She swallowed. An image of Riley pushed itself to the surface of her mind and that hot pinprick in her gut got a little sharper. Kourtney took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. What would a mother do at a time like this? There had been a time, years ago, when Kourtney could have answered that question. Because for a little while, she had been a mother. She had felt the undulation of tiny limbs in her center, had felt the hiccups of her daughter at night as she lay down to sleep. Tiny jerks of her swollen belly that her doctor said were nothing more than nervous system development in the fetus but which Kourtney knew were the language of her child. “Hey Mom, I’m here. How you doin’?” There had been connection there—the lifeblood flowing from Kourtney into that tiny thing unable to sustain itself without her. There had been love. And if only Kourtney had been awake at the time of the delivery, if only she could have told the doctor what to do, how to hold her daughter, there would be none of this madness now. There would be no unshaven Jeff running through the neighborhood doing God knows what, no dead girl with curly blond hair in the desert, no suspicion. There would be Kourtney and Jeff and their child. But Kourtney hadn’t been awake. Jeff had made the decisions. And their baby died.
After that, there was really nothing to do except solve the problem. And the problem was that they needed a baby to sleep in the nursery they’d worked so hard to prepare. They needed someone to use all those diapers and to drink from those bottles and to wear the tiny pink clothes they bought. Solving the problem was what a good mother would do.
Maybe it had been madness that made her push Jeff to take the baby. The seventh child of a welfare mom from Stillwater, Minnesota. Maybe it had been desperation. Or maybe they’d just done the kid a favor. But really, if Kourtney thought about it, it had been the best solution for all parties involved. If it hadn’t been for the Petersons, Riley would have been raised on government cheese and handouts, wearing a winter coat with sleeves that didn’t come down past the elbows because there wasn’t money for more. She’d have been hungry, living in a house that smelled like a litter box with a four hundred pound mother and an abusive father. And although Kourtney had seen the family on Facebook—the attractiveness of the mother, the gentle eyes of the father, the middle-class appearance of the siblings—she still visualized her version of them in her head. Kourtney was a savior, a benevolent woman bestowing care and nurturing on a child unable to fend for herself. She was nothing less than this.
She gave a little laugh, but it sounded shrill, almost hysterical, to her ears. She realized she was still standing in that arched doorway between the dining room and kitchen, neither fully in one room or the other, looking at the grandfather clock with its second hand moving idly around and around and the hum of the last chime still resonating in the air. She held out her hands. Trembling.
So. What would a mother do now?
A mother wouldn’t stand in the doorway and shake. She wouldn’t waste time remembering things that happened long ago. Jeff, she knew, would do whatever Jeff would do. Kourtney would clean up after him as she always did because he was her husband and they were bound by vows. More than vows now, considering everything that had happened. And it was that bond that meant he’d be back. When that happened she’d make him tell her everything—every stupid thing he’d done since walking out the door.
She swallowed and licked dry lips, staggering a little as she turned on her heel and made her way back to the den. Despite her resolve, the pinprick in her gut was a flaming knife now and its heat had spread to her legs and her chest. Even her face felt hot. The edges of her vision blurred and once again she pulled herself together. She dug her nails into her palms and bit her tongue until the metallic taste of blood filled her mouth.
Then, she sat and opened her laptop and logged onto Facebook for the second time that day. She would contact Mrs. Silver and ask her to help with a funeral reception for Riley at the house. Come right in Mrs. Silver. Sit down. Have some tea and tell me why in the hell you want to mail a picture of my dead daughter to a family in Minnesota. And Mrs. Silver wouldn’t be the only rube she’d entertain; Kourtney would fling her doors wide open and invite everyone in. Let them try to find a crack in the veneer of the Peterson family history. Yeah. Let them try.
She typed frantically, composing her message to Mrs. Silver, unaware of the tears running down her cheeks.