I turned over in bed, my face in the pillow, the blanket over my head. The rain kept me awake all night, a heavy, incessant rain, pounding on the road and on the roof. I looked toward the window and saw a curtain of wind-blown water, hitting the ground with an angry drumming. It was Monday morning and I wanted to stay in bed, forget about the job, the kids, the wife and the world.
I stepped into the bathroom, onto the cold tile floor and fumbled for the switch in the dark. A row of sixty-watt bulbs came on at once. My eyes slammed shut under the blinding glare. I reached for the faucet and let the water run until it ran hot in my hand.
I caught the running water in my cupped hands and splashed it onto my face. I repeated the process over and over, slapping myself awake. I spread the shaving cream evenly over my face and let the razor glide lightly over the thin beard. I felt the blade catch the skin on my neck and saw the trickle of blood.
I turned off the hot water and heard the phone ringing in the other room. I let the machine get it, the ex-wife undoubtedly, pestering me for money. I turned on the cold water and rinsed my neck. I dampened a clean white cloth and held it against the cut until it was stained a soupy red. The bleeding still hadn’t stopped.
I wrung the washcloth into the sink and decided that cutting my own throat wasn’t a valid reason to miss work, no matter how much blood I lost. I slipped into the newest suit I owned, skipped over a puddle the size of a small pond and paddled off to work.
There was a new patient arriving at the center today, a fifteen-year old boy, court committed. It was my job, as a primary counselor at the Westbrook Psychiatric Center, to interview him, analyze him and recommend treatment. The boy murdered his seven-year old sister.
* * *
The squeaking windshield wipers were as ineffective against the rain as the balding tires. My old Buick was all over the road and I couldn’t see a damned thing. By the time I arrived, the lot was full. I found a spot on the street and ran through the pouring rain.
Rainwater cascaded gently down the granite steps like a park fountain. The heavy glass doors of the main building were coated with a misty condensation. I took the stairs two at a time and noticed a sheriff’s car glide slowly around to the side of the building. Two deputies jumped out, oblivious to the morning rain. They opened the back door of the car and pulled out their prisoner, his hands and feet shackled, his hair falling down in front of his face. His brown prison uniform was swimming on him.
I took the elevator to the third floor, avoided eye contact with the receptionist and made it to my desk just as the telephone rang. My ex-wife on line one.
“Your late again, Rob.”
“I know baby. The checks in the mail.”
“Bullshit. And don’t baby me. Do you remember that you have a daughter, a little girl that needs shoes and dresses, not to mention food. I owe payments on dance lessons, violin lessons, that you insist upon and then don’t send the money for.”
“A daughter I don’t get to see. How about I drop by later with the check, spend a little time with Ashley.”
“No way, mister. I don’t see any money, you don’t see Ashley.”
She hung up on me and the receiver suddenly felt hot against my ear. I slammed down the phone and kicked the wastebasket. Crumpled paper and a couple candy wrappers flew across the floor. I fingered a picture of my six-year old daughter, turning it in about an inch from the edge of the desk.
* * *
Each of the deputies held an arm, twisting slightly, as they guided the boy between them into a bare examination room. His feet barely touched the ground as they dropped him into a short metal chair. He took a few furtive glances at himself in the mirror on the wall. The bright fluorescent lights illuminated his face, revealed a hint of acne across his cheeks and peach fuzz on his chin. His hair was wet, flat and slick against his head with a greasy shine.
He leaned back in the chair, as if he expected it to recline, put his feet up. One of the officers barked at him from the door, told him to straighten up. The boy rolled his eyes behind strands of dark hair.
“My name is Robert Wright. I’m a counselor here at Westbrook. I’m here to help.”
“It’s a little late for that.”
“It’s not too late, Domenic, but I’ll need your cooperation and your honesty.”
“I’ve heard it a million times before, from all you guys, from my teachers and guidance counselors, even cops, asking for something they’re not willing to give themselves. You’re no different. You’re all a bunch of phonies. If half the shit you say is true, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
I put my hands on the table and slid my chair in a little closer.
“Like, if you’re honest, tell someone what’s going on, they’ll help, but they never do.”
“Did you speak to somebody, prior to this incident, I mean.”
“You should know. You have the file. Don’t you guys write down everything?”
“I’m asking you.”
“You’re asking me to answer a question you already know the answer to.”
“I guess so.”
He leaned forward, crossed his arms on the table and rested his head in the crook of his elbow, his face hidden in the folds of his brown prison uniform. His heavy muffled breathing sounded like air escaping from a balloon.
“You have trouble sleeping?”
“Nobody sleeps in the detention center. They lay down, close their eyes, but they don’t sleep. Might never wake up.”
“Well, you’ll be able to sleep here. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
I straightened the stack of papers on the table and replaced them in the file. Two orderlies came in and led the boy out.
* * *
I lit the lamp on my desk. The rain tapped at the window, leaving streaked lines of dripping water on the glass. The dark gray clouds rolled by. I jotted down a few notes, first impressions, questions for tomorrow’s session.
I saw the light blinking on my phone and knew I had a call coming in. One of these days, I wouldn’t be where I was supposed to be, at the other end of the line, across the desk, asking questions and answering them like a middleman, selling my own brand of sanity.
It was South Elmhurst Elementary School calling about my daughter.
“We tried contacting your wife, Mr Wright, but there was no answer. We did have another number, for a Mr. Charles Ardent, but we thought to call you first.”
“Elizabeth is complaining of a stomach ache. She’s in the nurses’ office now. She’s asking for you.”
“I’ll be right over.”
I met with the principal in his office. He was a tall, thin man, in a brown suit, the pants and sleeves an inch too short. His hair looked ten years out of style, not long or short, somewhere in between.
“Mr Wright, please come in. I’ve spoken with your wife many times, but never with you.”
“Sandra and I are divorced. Everyone keeps referring to her as my wife.”
“That is awkward, my apologies. I wanted to have a word with you about Elizabeth. These ailments, these complaints of pain, they’re becoming more frequent. There doesn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with her.”
“You’re saying the problem could be mental.”
“I don’t doubt it. Her home life has been disruptive in the past year.”
“We mentioned it to your wife. She seems to think that your daughter is a bit of an actress, looking for attention. We just want to make sure there is nothing going on, something that we need to be concerned about.”
“It’s a lonely world out there for some kids, Mr. Wright. Imagine the worst.”
“I’ll talk to her. Thanks.”
Elizabeth was too happy to see her father to spoil it with talks of her troubles, of belly-aches and broken promises. She sat in the back seat, bundled up, her bookbag at her feet, telling him how funny the substitute teacher looked, about the new girl in class and the presents she wanted for her birthday. But nothing about her mom’s new boyfriend, about getting off the bus and walking home alone and finding him there, like he belonged there, like it was his house, like she belonged to him.
Sandra was home, waiting in the doorway, her car still warm in the driveway. I took one look at her, at her tan skin, the reddish glow, and knew she’d been at the salon, probably lost track of time. I didn’t have to see her hands to know that her nails had a fresh coat of red paint. Her toes too.
Charles Ardent appeared behind her in the doorway. I’d heard the name a few times, when Sandra tried to throw salt into a fresh wound. We’d never met face to face. Elizabeth refused to get out of the car, sudden panic in her eyes, looking to her father for help, protection.
“I don’t know who’s worse, you or her. You both cry when you don’t get what you want. You both need constant attention. She only behaves this way around you,” Sandra screamed.
She opened the passenger side door and pulled Elizabeth from the car. She moved quickly, her mouth moving. I wasn’t listening to her and I was too late to stop her, my attention on Ardent, coming down the front steps.
I ran around the car, tried to block her way, get between her and the child. Ardent’s punch hit me square in the jaw, just below my left ear. I lost my balance and tumbled to the ground. I could hear Elizabeth crying. By the time I struggled to my feet, they were inside the house.
I rubbed my red swollen face and banged on the door. Sandra would be calling the police. That much, I knew.
* * *
I sat on the couch in the living room with a bag of frozen corn on my face and poured over the case file of Domenic Lamb. Apparently, there had been allegations of sexual abuse by the step-father, but they couldn’t be substantiated. There were comments about Domenic’s propensity for lying, his anger over his mom’s involvement with various men, the fights in school and at home. He stuck to his story but no one believed him. The police investigation failed to bring an arrest and the years went on. Domenic’s behavior got worse.
Domenic’s mother found her daughter’s body in a shallow grave behind their house. It wasn’t hard to find. The autopsy results were death by asphyxiation. She died outside, not in the house. There were signs of sexual abuse but it was impossible to determine, from the physical evidence, who the perpetrator was.
The police interviewed Domenic. He didn’t deny any of it. He was arrested and charged as a juvenile. All the assumptions, from all the counselors and teachers and cops were confirmed. The kid was bad and now he was my problem.
* * *
Nobody in the office commented on the bruise under my eye. Nobody wanted to hear that kind of story. They’re much more comfortable with their own opinions, right or wrong. I watched Domenic through the two-way glass, sitting in the same room, at the same table, waiting for me to come in and start probing. He was picking at an acne scar on his cheek and I thought I saw blood.
“How’d you sleep?”
“The nurse gave me a pill.”
“All the patients are prescribed medication. You’ll be seeing a doctor today who will prescribe medication for you. It helps.”
“Turns you into a zombie.”
I opened a manila folder and tapped my pen lightly on the table.
“Domenic, could you tell me about a fight you were in, after school. You hurt a kid pretty bad. He was a friend of yours.”
“My best friend.”
“He started running his mouth. So, I shut it for him.”
“What did he say?”
“Does it matter?”
“He wanted me to go with him after school. I told him that I had to watch Olivia, my little sister. He said, the only reason my mom and Jimmy kept me around was to baby-sit.”
“Did you watch your sister often?”
“Practically every day after school.”
“Is that what made you mad?”
“Yeah, and something else he said.”
“What was that?”
“He said that Olivia wasn’t even really my sister. That we came from different fathers, that I didn’t even know who my real father was, that they only cared about Olivia and didn’t care about me.”
I could see it coming out of him, like water seeping out of tiny cracks in a dam. This kid wanted to talk, tell it his way, to anyone who’d listen.
“Did you believe him? Did you think it was true?”
“I don’t know.”
“It made you angry, though.”
“I said, I don’t know!”
He nose-dived onto the table, like before, like he was exhausted, rung out, afraid to show his tired face.
“Did you eat today?”
“What did you have?”
“Toast and eggs, milk.”
“Good. Keep eating. It’s good for you.”
I started shuffling papers and he knew our time was up. I put a soft smile on my face, like a surgeon after he cuts you open. Domenic Lamb was my only assignment. My dissection of him was done for the day. I spent the rest of the day trying to get hold of my lawyer. He’d been avoiding me lately. I didn’t blame him.
There were two detectives waiting near my car in the parking lot. I saw them as I exited the building, standing at attention in matching black raincoats.
“Mr. Wright, we have a warrant for your arrest.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“There’s a list of charges, sir. Interference with the custody of children.”
“I picked my daughter up at school.”
“I didn’t assault anybody. He hit me.”
“Violation of a protection from abuse order.”
“I was only dropping my daughter off and leaving.”
“You’ll have a chance to tell your side of the story in court, Mr. Wright.”
They snapped on the handcuffs and squeezed me into the back seat. The metal bit into my wrists.
“What about my car, officer?”
The cop in the passenger seat half-turned, his face against the smudged plastic barrier.
“What about it?”
* * *
I stood before Judge Patricia Jordan, a stern, sour-faced woman, with white hair, red-rimmed eyes and blue lips. She announced my name and read the charges out loud. She informed me of my rights, scolded me severely, told me to stay away from Sandra and Elizabeth and released me on my own recognizance.
I took a bus back to Westbrook. I stood in the aisle, hanging on to the overhead railing, looking out the window at the city streets, at the people and the cars moving blindly about like ants. Most of the passengers on the bus were old ladies, at the end of a long day of bargain shopping, clutching their bags as if I would snatch them from their cold, stiff hands.
The parking lot was deserted. My beat up old Buick looked abandoned, waiting for the wrecker to tow it away.
I stopped at Paddy Rooney’s on the way home, toasted my good fortune, my bruised face, my sore wrists and my tortured soul. I drank myself blind and made it home without killing myself or anyone else.
It was still raining the next morning, a cold, steady rain that kept the squirrels in the trees and the birds huddled together in shivering flocks. The water ran like a river in the gutter, carried an oily blackness with it, down into the sewer.
Domenic sat straight in his chair, waiting for me, his hands folded on the table, as he was taught in grade school.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Why do we have to meet here? Why not in your office?”
“Rules. Technically, you’re in our custody.”
I started tapping the pen against the table again, holding it like a cigarette between my fingers. It had become a nervous habit and I had become oblivious to the sound. Domenic stared at it like it was a clock, ticking on the wall.
“You’ve been very honest with me so far, Domenic, honest with yourself too, I think. You have a difficult road ahead of you, though. Hang in there.”
“Tell me about the day it happened.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did she say something or do something that made you angry?”
“Did you love your sister, Domenic?”
That got his attention like a jolt of electricity. His eyes opened wide and he looked at me as if I had shaken him awake from a sound sleep.
“She was the only thing I ever loved, and she loved me.”
“Then why kill her?”
“I needed to protect her. I tried to protect her. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to her that happened to me.”
“And what happened to you?”
“It was Jimmy, when he and my mom first got together. He’d be there when I got home from school, like he owned the place and everything in it. I couldn’t let it happen to Olivia. It was happening already.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I was still angry when I got home, not at her, but she always wanted to play and I wasn’t in the mood. I told her to leave me alone but she wouldn’t. I just wanted to relax until my mom and Jimmy got home, and the fighting would start all over again. They blamed everything on me.”
“Then what happened?”
“I hit her.”
“Is that all?”
“I kept hitting her. I couldn’t stop. It was like I was a different person. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Had you ever felt that way before?”
“Did you plan it?”
“Once you started hitting her, you lost control. What made you stop?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How did you feel afterward?”
“I was scared. I carried her outside and buried her behind the trees in the backyard. I was sure someone must have seen me but no one did. I told them that she went to Sarah’s house, her friend up the street. By the time they found her, it was dark and cold. I heard she was still alive, out there in the ground, that I didn’t kill her, that she froze to death.”
His head collapsed on the table again, like if he went to sleep, he wouldn’t remember anything when he woke up.
There wasn’t much left for me to hear. I was forming my opinion, a course of action, a plan that I hoped, would help Domenic avoid becoming a career offender. I didn’t think this kid was evil. I never believed in evil. A pair of sadistic hands molded him and it was my job to re-shape him.
I only saw Domenic a few more times. We talked about baseball, movies, and music, anything but murder. Some crazy judge got the idea that he’d be better off in a less restrictive environment, in a residential facility, with other troubled kids, his own age. I hoped he wouldn’t become a victim in one of those places or a predator.
My hearing came up. I sat at the table with my attorney. He’d nudge me every few minutes, remind me to sit up straight. I got supervised visitation and a suspended sentence.
Charles Ardent walked into the courtroom, holding Elizabeth’s hand. I could have accepted my own blindness, rather than see him, hand in hand with my daughter, while I sat helpless, at the mercy of a system turned upside down.
I clenched my fist and banged it on the table. All that did was draw an angry glare from the bench.
* * *
I was back at Paddy Rooney’s, same stool, same amber ale. Paddy took one look at me and set a shot of Jameson on the bar, his cure for everything. He didn’t ask any dumb questions, didn’t want any details. He just lined the shot glasses up like pawns on a chessboard and I emptied them.
“Hey Paddy, where can I get a gun?”
“I’m going to break one of my cardinal rules, sonny boy. What the hell would you be wanting with a gun?”
“That is a stupid question, Paddy. Guns are for shooting, right.”
“Well, I want to do some shooting.”
I gulped down another shot of Irish Whiskey and slid the glass across the bar like it was a shuffleboard table.
“I’ll re-phrase the question,” Paddy said, snatching the glass. “What do you plan on shooting, or should I say, who?”
“You ask a lot of questions for a guy who don’t ask many questions.”
“Trying to look out for your better interests, lad.”
“Just pour. I’ll handle the rest.”
I couldn’t see what he was reaching for behind the bar. His hands were hidden. I assumed it was his private stash, aged for thirty years, liquid fire that put hair on your chest, gave you a set of balls. He walked around, pulled my arm by the sleeve and dropped a loaded snub-nose revolver in my hand.
“Throw it in the river when you’re done. I don’t want it back.”
I waited a long time. I parked up the street, away from the light, in the shadow of a rotting maple tree. I leaned back in the seat, the gun in the seat next to me, under my jacket. I assumed the guy worked, had to come out sooner or later.
It was a quiet street, a quiet night. I imagined what the blast of that gun would sound like, if it would wake people up, if it would crack open the early morning darkness and spill all those sleepers into the street.
It was that time, just before dawn, when the sky begins to brighten but the night still refuses to melt away. The front door opened and he walked out. He paused on the landing, lit a cigarette, looking for his car on the crowded street. He took a few long drags like he was expecting someone, waiting for a car to pull up and drive him to work.
I stepped out of the shadows, my hands in my pockets, the gun in my hand. He saw me standing there, saw me smile, an empty, far-away smile, a smile I put on when I didn’t know what else to do, what to say. He looked at that dismal smile and came down those stairs with all the false confidence of the truly ignorant.
He didn’t return my greeting, didn’t say a word. He tossed the cigarette past me, into the street. He didn’t recognize me because he’d never seen me before. We’d never actually met, though I knew him instantly, knew all about him and knew what I had to do.
I emptied the gun into his belly. Fire exploded from the barrel. He tried to hold himself together, tried to stop his blood from spilling out onto the sidewalk. He took a couple staggered steps and fell flat on his face.
I walked away, toward my car, expecting a flood of people, expecting the street to fill with witnesses, watching my frightened face as I fled. I waited for the lights to come on, the sound of distant sirens, but nothing happened. I shot a man dead in front of his house and no one came. The silence and the darkness returned to that quiet street, like the tide rushing over the sand. I floated away like a phantom.
* * *
I showed up early for work the next morning. Domenic was leaving and I wanted to say good-by, find out if he got the good news.
There were two sheriff’s deputies waiting for him in the lot and the same two detectives waiting for me. Domenic smiled as they bent my arms behind my back and snapped on the cuffs. It was one of those grins you see on a kid after he hits a home run, starts off small, a little embarrassed, like it was just another swing of the bat. Then, it grows across his face because he just can’t keep it in anymore. I smiled back.
The interrogation didn’t take long. I confessed, told it just like it happened, in my own words, with all the extenuating circumstances, the case file, all the lonely faces, the failures, the disappointments, the victims I couldn’t save, the forgotten ones, for whom there would be no justice.
I pleaded guilty and drew fifteen years. With good behavior, I could be out in seven. I wondered if Charles Ardent would be counting the days, the same as I would.