For a moment Jeff couldn’t see her body. The wind, a light breeze blowing through the flat desert landscape, rippled the surface of the water turning Kourtney’s outline on the bottom of the pool into nothing more than sparks of sunlight on tiny peaks of chlorinated water. It looked like a picture in the Rubicon Ranch brochure.
Jeff stood on the pool’s edge, a tiny smear of blood where Kourtney’s head had slapped the stones. He felt numb, as if his own lungs were filling with liquid and passing him slowly into unconsciousness.
The water smoothed and he could see her again. Her arms and legs hung in limbo as if she were caught in a spider’s web. He searched his soul for regret, for guilt at pushing her in, but he found none.
Jeff’s emotions were scorched clean like the wildfires that cleansed the scrub brush every decade. He felt the sun on his neck and over the next half hour could feel the sunburn burrow down into his flesh. He didn’t turn away from the water or step into the shade. He concentrated on the heat of his skin, letting the pain make an attempt to burn a hole through to the rest of him so the dull feeling of nothingness would go away.
The muscles in his legs began to burn from standing still. His eyes were sore from the bright reflections coming off the water. Still he did not turn away.
After time his wife’s body floated to the top.
Face down she sagged on the surface, turned away from him as if she finally felt shame for what she had done. What she made him do. She floated in slow circles, always threatening to dip under again. Her long hair fanned out around her in tangles. Her feet hung down as if they missed the cool bottom of the pool, or maybe they were reaching for one of the flip-flops that had sunk and landed next to the drain.
A cloud passed in front of the sun and a blanket of shade covered Kourtney’s body. Jeff turned and walked away, his legs stiff and prickling with tiny stabs of pain.
Inside, Jeff ignored the phone. He knew he should call Sheriff Bryan but something stopped him. There would be time for that later.
He went upstairs and stood inside Riley’s room. He’d been avoiding the bright lime green and pink bedroom since her death. He discovered that Kourtney had started packing her things away so now the room had none of Riley’s personality, only an oddly bright paint scheme and a bare mattress on a small-scale bed. It looked more like a crime scene than ever. His daughter’s belongings packed away like evidence.
Jeff began opening boxes and sifting through Riley’s things. He ran fingers over books he’d read to her, ceramics he’d helped her paint, the wind-up ballerina jewelry box she kept her “treasures” in.
Jeff began sorting. He put anything personal, anything holding a hint at who Riley was as a person, into separate boxes. Framed photos of her first time on a horse, the picture she drew in first grade of her smiling family, the ribbon she won for her school field day.
He packed things away and then labeled the box with the name of Riley’s birth family in Minnesota. A token gesture to understanding the child he took from them. He knew it would hurt them. He tried to imagine how strange the sensation of opening a glimpse into what could have been, a message from a ghost.
Jeff decided against writing a note. There was no explanation. No justification. He expected no forgiveness. He only knew he didn’t deserve to keep the remnants of her life. He had failed his daughter, his wife, himself.
“I knew we’d pay. Someday. Didn’t you know?”
Jeff sat in a reclining chair by the pool. Kourtney’s body floated lazy circles around the water like a forgotten toy left to be carried by the wind.
“You kept saying it would be all right. You said we deserved this child. We deserved to be happy.” Jeff picked at the label on his bottle of Vicodin, tossing the tiny scraps of paper into the water. “Why did our happiness have to come at the expense of someone else’s? And why did she have to pay for our mistakes?”
Kourtney’s body bumped against the edge of the pool, the tiny flecks of paper caught in her hair.
“We let her suffer our punishment. It should have been us in the desert. Both of us. Dead and abandoned. Not her. Never her. We deserved it. Not her.”
Jeff took another pill. His blood began to slow, his brain paused and began struggling to catch up.
All the things he meant to say to his wife over the years, now he had the chance. He told her how he felt about her, how she’d changed. How the light had gone out of her the day they left the hospital. She thought taking Riley would end her suffering, but it only brought grief on top of grief. They gave the girl a good life, but not the one she deserved. Not the one she was born into.
That life was destined to be shit, Kourtney would always say.
“But it wasn’t up to us to decide for her,” Jeff said to the water, his voice starting to slur.
Jeff reached for another pill, but found the bottle empty. Had he taken that many already? His muscles were becoming unresponsive. When he tried to set the plastic bottle back on the glass-topped table beside him, his heavy hands knocked over the glass of lemonade. Ice cubes fell to the stone pool deck and broke into pieces, just as Kourtney’s head had done. Jeff smiled.
He needed to tell more. Voicing secrets to her deaf ears wasn’t enough. In his last moments, he needed to tell the truth.
Jeff stood and headed inside. His body leaned, his feet refused to lift any higher than a drunken shuffle across the pool deck. Stand up, get the blood flowing, he thought. It should gain him an extra few minutes of lucidity.
What it did was move the drugs faster through his system.
At the back sliding glass door he reached out a hand to steady himself. He missed the door frame and hit hard against the solid pane of glass. His arm folded against the door, curling in half and hitting hard with his elbow, shattering the glass. Without the support of the door to stop him, Jeff pitched forward and fell into the house onto a bed of broken glass. He rolled, moaning as he did while hundreds of tiny cuts opened on his skin. The sound came to his ears wrapped in cotton.
He got two hands beneath himself and pushed up, palms crushing the glass underneath and slicing his soft, computer technician hands. His knees remained protected by the thick denim of his jeans. The Vicodin kept the pain a distant whisper. Jeff pushed himself to standing and he continued his staggering move to the front door, now leaving a trail of blood to mark his path.
He lifted his car keys off the row of hooks by the door, noticing the thick coating of blood on his palm as if for the first time. Shouldn’t this hurt more? he wondered.
Get to the sheriff. Tell it all. Jeff wanted it said in his own words. Now that Kourtney wasn’t around to twist the truth to fit her sad justifications, he could tell the real story. He knew it would come out eventually.
He pressed the button on the key fob and the car doors unlocked. A minivan rolled by in the street. No one noticed him, his drunken stumbling out of the house, the blood spotting through his clothes. That’s Rubicon Ranch for you. GOOD NEIGHBORS, says the sign on the south entrance. Good neighbors who keep to themselves. Who ignore you. Who let kidnappers live among them for years, never asking questions. Jeff always wondered what other secrets lay behind the unlocked doors and jewel green lawns of Rubicon Ranch. Maybe this scandal would bring more out into the open. Expose this place for what it was.
His hand slid off the door handle twice before he could grip it tight enough in the slick of blood. He fell into the seat, bumping his head on the door frame as he sat. The world outside dimmed to gray. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were fully open or not. He lifted the keys to the ignition, but they slid from between his bloodstained fingers and hit the floor mat.
Jeff leaned back in the seat, too tired to move any more. He started reciting his confession to himself. He saw time running out, the coming blackness. The last thought in his head was a final apology to Riley. Then only the steady wind over the desert. The slow dip of the sun over the hills. The coming night.