He almost confessed.
Standing in the morgue, surrounded by police officers and officials all concerned with a little girl’s death, Jeff almost broke. Almost told the police what they’d done.
When he and Kourtney stole that child, the little girl they gave the name Riley—a name also stolen from their stillborn daughter—he took not only another family’s happiness but he carried out of that hospital a burden for himself that would weigh on his heart every day like the dense black matter of a far away star.
Every time he saw a cop he felt the urge to confess. Standing in line at a coffee shop behind an officer of any stripe – highway patrol, sheriff’s department, parking enforcement—he sensed that magnetic tug inside pulling him forward to release the heavy weight crushing his bones for years.
His sobs echoed off the wall of refrigerated compartments as Kourtney’s simple, “Yes. That’s her,” sounded robotic. The monotone words and the scratching of the coroner’s pen on his clipboard were clinical like the chemical smells that invaded his nose.
Next to him, his wife stood as cold and unmoving as the dead surrounding them in that frigid, steel encased room. He watched her for signs of life but saw only a corpse-blue tint to her skin that proved she had no blood within her at all. After all, how could she pump blood with no heart?
* * *
Jeff’s mind buzzed with what to say as he waited for Kourtney to come out of the bathroom. They hadn’t spoken since the car leaving the coroners when she looked over at him, silently crying as he stared out the window, and said, “Oh will you cut it out. You sound like a woman.”
They came inside and split to different corners of the house, as usual. When each had exhausted the excuses for not coming to bed they both ended up in the bedroom and avoiding each other’s eyes. Jeff sat on the bed in his t-shirt and cotton pajama pants that had long since worn out their welcome. The seams had gone threadbare and the striped pattern had begun to fade like he’d been sleeping in the sun.
He heard the water in the sink turn off and the door unlock. Kourtney stepped into the room in a camisole top and naked from the waist down. It threw him off. He inhaled to speak, but then hesitated and gave a slight choke that made Kourtney suddenly self-conscious of being naked.
She hurried to the dresser and pulled on a pair of black panties and then moved one drawer up to get her pajamas out of the overstuffed bureau.
Jeff noticed three small bruises on her thigh he hadn’t seen before. The opportunities to see her undressed had been infrequent since even before Riley’s death so there was no telling how long they had been there. Kourtney always bruised easily. “Like a banana,” she used to say. Still, the clump of bruises just below her hip bone were one more unexplained curiosity.
Her cold calmness when they identified the body of their daughter would be one she could never explain. Not to Jeff’s liking.
“Do you want me to go?” Jeff asked.
Kourtney stopped her dressing. “What?”
“I think . . .” His will weakened. He felt light headed. He had to summon an inner courage like the time he went skydiving. Don’t think, just jump. “I think we both know this is over. You and me.”
“Our marriage. Without Riley here there’s . . . no reason.”
“Are you trying to leave me?”
Jeff regretted staying on the bed. She stood taller than him. His pathetic striped pants clashed with the bedspread and made him look silly. If he moved now, if he threw his legs over and stood, it would be a sign of aggression. He’d be on the attack. Instead he remained sitting on his side of the bed, legs outstretched and hands folded in his lap—weakness personified.
“I thought you’d want me to go.”
“Want you to go? Do you have any idea what people will think?”
“No, I don’t. What will they think Kourtney?”
“It won’t be good. They’ll get suspicious. They’ll think Riley’s death caused some sort of rift between us.”
“Well, hasn’t it?”
“Jeff, I’m just saying to think it through. We don’t want people to focus on the wrong thing now. You said yourself earlier about that Sinclair woman. And the police seemed to have a whole host of people they still wanted to talk to. Why give them some gossip to distract them from the investigation?”
“Kourt, it sounds to me like you want them to look anywhere but here.”
“Because I want them to look for the killer. And that person isn’t here.”
Jeff felt the words on his tongue like bile in the back of his throat. They almost came out. Almost said the thing he couldn’t take back. “Isn’t she?”
He choked the words down and added them to the roiling acid in his stomach.
“What are those bruises from?”
“On your leg. What happened?”
“I don’t know. You know how easily I get a bruise. I probably bumped the kitchen counter or something.”
Jeff nodded, unconvinced.
“Jeff, if you’ve got something to say to me, come out and say it.”
He stared at her. He couldn’t do it sitting up on the bed like that. He swung his legs down and sat facing her. “I think I should leave. Go back to Minnesota. I think I should turn myself in.”
“Would you just calm down?”
“Stop it. Stop it Kourtney. You keep telling me to calm down or shut up. You treat this like it’s nothing. Like it will all blow over in a week. I’m through. I’m not asking you to come with me. I’ll take all the blame. I just can’t live with it anymore. Riley is dead because of us. If we’d never taken her, never brought her down here, she’d still be alive.”
“Yeah, living in a trailer park stealing smokes out of her Mom’s purse and biding her time until some uncle rapes her or she gets knocked up at sixteen and her life is over.”
“How can you say crap like that?” Jeff stood. He slid his feet part way into his slippers then thought it was the only thing that could make him look more impotently ridiculous so he stomped out of the room in his bare feet.
Kourtney followed. “It’s true. You know it is. She had a better life with us than she ever would have if she’d lived to be a hundred with them.”
“That sounds an awful lot to me like you’re justifying something, Kourtney.”
“I am. Justifying what we did. What are you trying to say?”
Jeff reached the top step and stopped. He put a hand on the wooden banister, the same style that graced every house in Rubicon Ranch subdivision B, and spun to face her.
“I said what I had to say already. I’m leaving. You can make your excuses to somebody else from now on.”
He turned back around, facing down the steps.
“Like hell you are.”
Jeff felt her hand on his biceps, the grip stronger than he thought she was capable of. She was trying to stop him, grab him and pull him back up to continue the fight, but the force of her lunge to reach him punched his body forward and he began to tumble down the steps. How quickly things get out of hand, he thought. How easily it would be for her, who obviously didn’t know her own strength when she was upset, to do more damage than she intended. To make a fatal mistake. The only thing stronger than her grip seemed to be her desire to conceal her true self from everyone in her life.
* * *
Kourtney stared at Jeff’s prone form lying at the bottom of the steps. For an instant, just one, she thought he was dead. He’d landed face down, his hands flung out to the sides and his feet still up on the last two steps. She stared, open-mouthed, wondering if she could call 911 or just cut her losses and leave. No one would find him for a couple of days at least . . . unless the sheriff came back to question them . . . again.
But then Jeff moved; first his right hand, and then his left foot. He groaned a little bit and after a moment he pulled himself to his hands and knees and still Kourtney stood at the top of the stairs, staring, wondering if she should call someone.
Or worse, she thought, what if Jeff decided to call someone. She couldn’t let that happen.
“Oh my God, Jeff,” she said, moving down the stairs, her bare feet making no noise on the wood. “I’m so sorry. I don’t . . . I don’t know what came over me. Are you all right?”
He was still on his hands and knees when she reached him and she noticed his shoulders were shaking. Oh Christ. He was crying again. She clamped down on her irritation because she really couldn’t afford to have him continue along this road of independence he was steering recklessly along. He pushed himself to his feet and turned to face her.
Not crying, she realized. Laughing. He was laughing.
For the first time in their fourteen years of marriage, Kourtney shrank from him. He was taller than she was. She’d never noticed it before. “Wow, Kourtney,” he said. “That was amazing. Attempted murder on top of . . . what? Kidnapping of an infant at a hospital? You’re a real piece of work. If I weren’t so disgusted I’d almost admire your style.”
He took a step toward her and his smile faltered. Still scared of her, she thought. But something about his eyes wasn’t quite right. He was afraid, yes, but not as intimidated as he’d been. And that could be bad. “Jeff, I said I was sorry. And I am. I would never hurt you.” He looked blankly at her. She pressed her advantage. “And I would never hurt Riley. Don’t you believe me?”
He gave a sharp bark of a laugh and moved toward the dining room. He limped, like his left knee was hurt. “Jesus Christ, Kourtney. I don’t know anymore.”
“Let me have a look at your leg, Jeff. I think you might be hurt.”
He had flopped into a chair, resting his chin on his hands. Kourtney knelt beside him on the floor and reached for his knee.
“Stop it,” he said, his right hand coming from nowhere and hitting her on the jaw. It was an open-handed slap–he hit like a girl–but it was hard enough to click her teeth together and make her lose her balance. She fell back onto the floor.
She’d never been hit before. By anyone. The fact that Jeff would dare to touch her . . . to try to harm her . . . was unbelievable. She stared at the ceiling for a moment, waiting for the shock to subside. After a minute, she sat up and rubbed her cheek. He regarded her for an instant, shaking his head and she was unable to decide what, exactly, he was thinking. After a minute he rose and left the room. She heard his feet on the stairs. “Get back here you son of a bitch,” she yelled.
She still felt the sting of the slap on her cheek. Bastard, she thought. If he wanted to call the cops now, fine. She’d call him crazy; she’d talk about the domestic violence that occurred regularly at their house. She’d paint herself in the portrait of the victim.
She’d never had a light bulb moment. Kourtney Petersen had never experienced inspiration that came from nowhere. Even the thought to take Riley came on slowly, borne of the grief of their own lost child and the practical knowledge that something had to be done. But as she stood , rubbing a hand over the lingering sensation of his hand on her cheek, and walked up the stairs, following the path Jeff took to their bedroom, she saw the world clearly for the first time in her whole life. Solutions were sometimes so simple. So very, very simple.
The suitcase was flung open on the bed, his clothes scattered around it. He’d been to Riley’s room too, she noticed. A small brown bear sat beside the small pile of his socks.
“You realize you’re making a mistake.” It wasn’t a question. It was a fact. And he was an idiot if he didn’t get it.
He didn’t respond, just kept packing. But that didn’t matter. She was looking around for something to use . . . something that would crush his skull. She decided on the heavy onyx mantle clock he kept on top of his bureau. It was his grandmother’s and was hideously ugly. And it weighed about fifteen pounds.
She stood and watched him for a moment, wondering which part of the skull to strike.
It had to look like self defense.
The clock was heavier than it looked. Maybe fifteen pounds was off a bit. Maybe twenty was more accurate. She held it above her head and walked the four steps to where Jeff was angrily tossing things into his suitcase. He turned just as she struck out with the clock, raising his arms just in time. The clock struck his forearm and he yelled out at the same time the bone snapped.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
This time, he used his feet, lifting his left leg in a weak attempt at defense, but it was enough. His foot struck her square in the gut. Lucky shot, asshole, she thought. The clock fell to the ground with a dull thud. Kourtney sank to the floor, gasping for breath.
Cradling his arm, Jeff moved to the next room where Kourtney heard him speaking to someone on the telephone. “Someone needs to get over here right away,” he said. “My wife has gone crazy.”