A horn blast behind him alerted Jeff that the light was green. His tires squeaked as he lurched forward through the intersection. The car was aimed for home although he wanted to be anywhere but.
Driving with the sling was difficult. At least it wasn’t a stick shift like his first car. Working the gears in that shoebox on wheels in the Minnesota snow would test the best drivers in the world.
His explanation at the Urgent Care clinic on the edge of the Rubicon development was weak and noncommittal. Kind of the way Kourtney would describe him.
His arm, “Banged into something.” He left it at that, omitting the part about his wife attacking him with a clock and the fall down the stairs. He’d suffered through the pain during his night on the couch, but by morning he knew he needed actual medical attention. A hairline fracture they said. Not much to do but immobilize it and take care not to “Bang” it on anything again. The way the doctor smiled she must have thought there was a sly, perhaps slightly tipsy, story to go along with the injury. Jeff regarded her grin with a tight-lipped stare.
Thankfully there were no follow up questions, another reason to love the clinic. It couldn’t handle anything serious like the hospital, but that was thirty miles down the road and having the clinic on the premises added to the cocoon-like feeling Rubicon gave residents.
All Jeff could think about as he sat in the waiting room was the only other time he’d been there, with Riley. She needed three stitches after she banged her chin on the kitchen counter. Like father like daughter.
His awkward lies to the nursing staff were still better than the embarrassing call to the police. Almost as soon as the dispatcher answered, his backbone went soft.
He started off screaming for help, wailing about how his wife had gone crazy. The look on Kourtney’s face reflected back how pathetic he sounded. That familiar emasculating sneer of hers—her mouth a thin line and her eyes saying, “You sound like a woman.”
“What is your location, sir?” the dispatcher asked.
“Um, I’m at home . . . but . . .”
“What is the address?”
Kourtney stayed frozen, waiting for him to say something stupid. Then what? After what had already happened that night he wasn’t willing to find out.
“It’s . . . never mind. False alarm.”
“Sir? Did someone assault you, sir?”
“No. Never mind. It’s nothing.” It was all he needed to have Sheriff Bryan see this report come across his desk. The police didn’t need any more reason to look deeper into their lives. Their secrets were buried right below the surface. A whiff of air would be all it took to unearth them.
Kourtney’s judgmental scowl turned to a smug grin as she turned and walked back upstairs.
Out driving, Jeff felt exposed. He much preferred the sanctuary of home. In the years they’d been residents of Arizona he never found time for friends. Now every face on the sidewalk or driver in another car glared at him suspiciously, an angry mob preparing their torches. They knew what he’d done. They knew his secrets.
Up ahead Jeff saw a Sheriff’s car. He cut a hard right down a street he’d never been on. Anything to avoid more scrutiny. The repetitive conformity of Rubicon Ranch made this street almost indistinguishable from his own. He wove the car around the gentle curves and past the manicured lawns, squares of green patched over the dry brown land like a bad toupee.
The muscles in his back spasmed again. They had been tender ever since his fall. He remembered the prescription in his pocket for Vicodin. “If you need it,” said the doctor cheerily.
Jeff said nothing. He wanted to tell the doctor she was a fool. No pills could take away the pain he felt. His daughter was dead. Where’s the prescription for that?
The pharmacist stabbed at her keyboard and said in a weary tone, “Give me about fifteen minutes mister . . .” She struggled with the doctor’s handwriting.
“Mr. Peterson.” The name sparked a light in the darkness. “Oh. Are you . . ?”
Jeff waited. The woman was caught. She knew she was prying, but it had slipped out as easily as gossip with her girlfriends. Her mouth gaped in strangled silence.
“I’m her father.”
“Oh, I . . . I’m sorry Mr. Peterson. I’m sorry for your loss.” Her cheeks and neck blushed against her white coat. “I’ll get this right away.”
Jeff stepped away to the waiting area—a small green carpet and a spindle of informational pamphlets on ailments of all kinds, each with photos of pleasantly smiling people of all colors grinning through their Acid Reflux, Eczema, Diabetes and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The pharmacist confirmed what Jeff had known for years—that it took significantly less than fifteen minutes to fill a prescription if they really wanted. She was back in less than three.
“Here you go. Looks like you could use these.” She nodded her head at his sling as she packaged the bottle of pills.
“Still. Why suffer, right?” She winced, as if thinking that anything she could say would remind them both of Riley. Jeff handed her his debit and insurance card. She changed subjects while she rang up the transaction. “Crazy about the other death.”
“The other, um, body. In the desert.”
“No. An adult. I don’t know much about it, just that they found someone else. No I.D. or anything.”
It meant a million things at once. Riley’s killer? Another victim from the same person who killed Riley? A necessary cover-up to keep the killer’s identity hidden?
And where did Kourtney fit into it?
Jeff felt dizzier than he had at the base of the stairs after his fall. He took the pills and turned to leave.
“Oh, sir. Mr. Peterson. Your cards.”
Jeff turned back, collected his debit and insurance cards, and left.
The morgue attendant recognized Jeff. Jeff swallowed his embarrassment. The county morgue isn’t exactly the place you want everyone to know your name.
“Mr. Peterson, what can I do for you?” The man eyed Jeff’s sling. He may have known a mourning father on sight but Jeff had to read his name tag to remember even a simple name like Christopher.
“The, um, sheriff said—Sheriff Bryan—he said there’s a new body. Um, he wanted me to take a look at it. See if I knew the man.”
Christopher tilted his head, his red hair shifting down across his forehead. “I didn’t get a call about anything like that.”
“I just bumped into him on the street. Outside. Outside when I was out running errands.” Jeff’s arm ached. He wished he’d taken a Vicodin before he started trying to pass his lies. “He told me to stay quiet about it. That it wasn’t common knowledge yet. He just thought, y’know . . .”
Christopher stayed firm in his seat. “I’ll call in and check with him.” He reached for the phone on his desk.
“He’s out. I told you. It’ll take forever. Don’t make me come back here again. Please.” The desperation and panic swirling on Jeff’s face looked to Christopher like the deep welling pain of a father who’d just lost a child. Even a morgue attendant isn’t immune to sympathy.
“Okay. Sorry. It’s just highly unorthodox.”
“I know. Just following orders though. Both of us, I guess.”
Christopher smiled like the director at a funeral home. Practiced understanding. One of those times when a look said more than words.
The smells of the steel and white tile room brought back sense memories of identifying Riley’s body. He shuffle-stepped past the locker where she had been, and presumably still was. Christopher made no mention of it or gesture toward the refrigerator door.
He slid open a drawer on the bottom row and lifted a white sheet to expose a man’s face. Middle-aged. Weather-worn.
A hint of recognition, then a flood.
It was a face that haunted Jeff’s dreams for eight years now, the landmarks of which he saw every day in Riley’s face. The tired lines of stress added years to the man but the photos Jeff had seen, had committed to memory, were all after the man suffered such trauma. They matched what he saw before him.
He stared into the face of the man who he stole from, the man’s whose soul and body Jeff had taken a part of and called it his own. He looked down at the dead face of Riley’s real father.
Kourtney looked out the sliding glass door to the pool. Riley’s beach ball and snorkel set were still in the basket of water toys by the back shed. She let her eyes trace over them once, and then avoided looking in that direction. She looked instead at the undisturbed surface of the water, smooth as glass. She was going to sit by the pool and read because that’s what normal people did on a hot day. The funeral was still two days away and there was no one to call. Riley would be cremated and the small box containing her ashes would be buried in the cemetery under a small stone. She and Jeff would put flowers in a vase on the small cement base supporting the headstone every Memorial Day and on Riley’s birthday. They would cry a little and then they would come back home and go about their business.
Jeff didn’t know about the cremation yet. Kourtney knew what he wanted—an open casket in the front of the church where people could come and ogle and cry, the keening of one feeding the keening of another until the whole sanctuary was nothing but a room of howls.
It was easier to look at a nice wooden box beside a picture of Riley and be done with it. And Kourtney was done with it. It was time to get back to normal. A new normal. One without the daughter who didn’t like her anyway.
Jeff made more noise than usual when he came in. His arm was in a sling. When she saw him, Kourtney had a flash of something that may have been guilt, but if she were honest with herself, it was probably disappointment that he hadn’t been more seriously injured when he fell.
“Broken?” she asked, turning briefly from her view of the pool to assess him.
He was pale—paler than usual and trembling. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face. Even the backs of his hands were sweating.
“You look like you’re in pain. Didn’t they give you any pills?”
He slumped into a chair and set a brown bottle of pills on the dining room table. He made no move to open the bottle or to do anything that might alleviate his discomfort. Kourtney went back to looking at the pool. She really wanted to go out there, but couldn’t seem to make up her mind to open the door and step over the threshold. There were those pool toys in their basket and they were big and bright and so very THERE that, even though she didn’t look at them she could see them, looming in the periphery.
“They found another body in the desert.” Jeff’s voice was so soft she wasn’t sure she heard him at first.
“Her father.” When Kourtney didn’t say anything, Jeff dropped a heavy hand onto the table. Kourtney jumped. “Her real father.”
The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Another body. “Are you trying to tell me something?” She swallowed, trying to imagine Jeffrey taking a life. Was it possible? How had he spent his time the last days? Listening to music. They were rarely in the same room together unless they were sleeping and he hadn’t been sleeping well at all. He could have easily slipped out in the night.
Jeff stood and pushed the chair in, wincing a little bit, like he was still in pain. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”
She snorted. It was an ugly sound, she knew, but she felt ugly right then. He was going to accuse her, frame her. She quickly added pieces in her head:
He could kill, if Riley was at stake. If he meant what he said earlier, that he suspected her, then placing another body at her feet would be his perfect revenge. Blaming her for killing the man they’d already done so much damage to.
The pieces formed an incomplete picture, but one that frightened her anyway.
He had taken everything from her. He took the baby that she birthed and let it die and then he took Riley from her. “You did it,” she said. “Didn’t you? What happened? Did he come looking for her and you couldn’t bear to let anyone but you have her, so you killed him? Is that what happened?”
“I think we both know I’m incapable of that sort of thing.” He took another step in her direction, looking very much capable at that instant.
“You’re a kidnapper, aren’t you? Stealing babies from hospitals?” She threw the words out as violently as fists to keep him at bay. “Has your heart corroded that much over these years?” She knew it had because hers had too. “What else have you done? What else?” She was shouting and at first, Jeff shrank back from her, looking repulsive with that glaze of sweat marking his pale face.
But then he opened his mouth and roared. It was a raw sound, a coarse, grating sound that ripped his throat. “Enough!”
Kourtney didn’t think about the door anymore, didn’t think about the colorful toys against the shed. She moved quickly, her flip-flops slapping the tile as she broke the “NO RUNNING” rule she and Jeff had been so careful to enforce around the poolside. The back gate wasn’t far away. She could make it there, escape and then what? Tell the sheriff that her husband was angry because nine years ago she made him kidnap Riley? She made a noise that may have been a sob, or a groan. She didn’t know and it didn’t really matter. She cleared the long side of the pool and turned the corner, moving past the taunting basket of beach toys and then her shoes slipped on the hot stone.
Briefly, she recalled a conversation with Jeff about cement versus stone. “Cement is safer. Less slippery. Even when smooth stone is dry, your shoes can slip on it.” But it was a meek warning and Kourtney ignored it.
The memory was no more than a flash, lasting only an instant. But it replayed over and over as she fell, the side of her head striking the hot stone.
Jeff loomed above her. Her bare arms and legs burned, but she couldn’t lift them. She opened her mouth to tell him to stay away from her. She felt the blood pooling under her cheek. It was so hot. The stone was so very, very hot.
“I think we’re done now,” Jeff said.
But they weren’t. They weren’t and if she could talk, she could tell him her plan. They would pack and move south toward Mexico. They’d drive all the way down to South America and take up residence on a beach somewhere. They could be happy.
If only she could make her mouth move.
The toe of Jeff’s shoe was sharp in her back. He toed her to the edge of the pool. Sunlight hit the water and broke apart into a million diamonds. Was she already at the beach? She felt faint. And the tiles were so hot.
He nudged her over the edge of the pool and into the cool water. Kourtney felt instant relief. Finally. He read her mind. She had been so hot. She’d been too hard on Jeff. She knew that. She needed to tone it down a little bit. She would change. She tried to sigh, to explain herself, to voice her gratitude for the coolness of the pool, but her mouth filled with water. She opened her eyes and stared at the bottom getting closer.