Shadow of Death
“Listen, Rachel,” Celeste said, setting her wine glass gently on the tabletop, “I don’t usually talk about my cases—you know that—but this one is keeping me up nights. I feel like I’ll explode if I don’t vent to someone.”
“I’m all ears, but what about confidentiality?”
“It’s okay. I won’t use their real names. I don’t think you’ll recognize the story. It wasn’t in the news that much, and it’s been a while.” She broke eye contact, then studied her hands as they encircled the base of her glass, searching for evidence of her former confidence. She’d completed her Ph.D. and established a successful practice in family and child psychology, but her dream had become a nightmare.
The friends were having dinner at Angelo’s, a downtown pizzeria and bar where they had been meeting since their college days. “This girl,” Celeste said, “continues to regress in spite of my best efforts, in spite of medication even. But now I think I finally know why. The problem is, I’m powerless. I don’t know what to do next.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Rachel said, gesturing for the waiter. “You’ve always known what to do, about everything.”
Celeste smiled. “This is different. I’ve never had a case that presented so many dilemmas—professional, ethical, legal, moral, even spiritual for Christ’s sake.”
Rachel slid her glass in front of her as she leaned forward. “Fascinating.” When she blinked, the left lid’s lagging behind the other resembled, could have been, a lazy wink.
“There were problems in the family before the father’s death, and the daughter—I’ll call her Annie—was having trouble in school as early as second grade when her brother was born. Up to that point, she’d been the only child, the center of attention, daddy’s little girl.”
Rachel signaled the waiter again with an impatient finger. The heavy young man stopped at their booth. “Would you like more salad? Breadsticks?” His long black hair covered half his face. He carried menus in one hand and an empty tray in the other.
“Yes,” Rachel said. “And another glass of Merlot, please.”
“Merlot also, for me.” Celeste turned back to her friend. “Things went downhill after the other child was born.”
“No problem,” the waiter said. “And will there be anything else?”
“Just bring a carafe,” Rachel said. “I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be here awhile.”
“Fairly typical, really,” Celeste said, breaking off a piece of bread from a small loaf, “for a child to become passive-aggressive, hostile even, after the birth of a sibling, but Annie’s behavior went beyond normal. Her mother started getting calls from school. Annie this, Annie that—not doing her work, damaging property, fighting. The child never did adjust. That’s how I first got involved with the case. School system called me in to interpret some test results.”
“Sounds like she’d been spoiled, maybe, before the other kid came along. My niece was the same way—”
“Not really. They were a working-class family. Dad was a construction superintendent, worked all the time. Mom stayed home. They carried on for a long time, working, taking care of the kids, paying the bills, meeting with teachers until Annie reached middle school. That’s when the marriage started falling apart.”
Rachel smoothed a strand of dark hair behind her ear. “What happened? Dad start cheating?”
“No, worse. He became abusive.” Celeste stopped, checking an impulse to reach into her purse for a cigarette. There was no smoking in the restaurant, and she had been quit for a year. There were still times, though, when the old habit tried to reestablish itself. She took another bite of bread and drained her wine glass. “He was the dominant male type. Liked to hunt and fish, drove a big four-wheel drive. Couldn’t engage his wife in meaningful dialogue about the family dynamics, about her needs. He didn’t see the signs or failed to acknowledge them. Like many men who fit that profile, he tried to force the circumstances, make them fit his paradigm.” Celeste stopped when she realized she’d touched a nerve. Rachel had recently divorced a man much like the one she was describing. Her friend was slowly turning her wine glass on the tabletop, looking into it.
“Sounds familiar,” Rachel said.
“Yeah . . . well, anyway, the wife had been so busy taking care of the family and dealing with Annie’s problems that her own needs weren’t being met. She started working part-time as a receptionist for an orthodontist, and he began to show an interest.”
“Good for her.”
“Yes, it was good for her, until her husband found out.”
“Uh-oh, not good. How bad?”
Their corner booth was dimly lit by a candle that flickered on a wrought iron sconce, casting the brick wall it was mounted on into textured relief. Celeste looked at the shadows, remembering the home visit when she had seen the mother’s face: the split lip, the black eyes still puffy and swollen. “It was pretty bad.”
“Well, what?” Rachel said, calling Celeste back. “Happened after, I mean, after he beat the shit out of her. Did she leave him or kill him? That’s it, isn’t it? She killed the abusive bastard!”
“No, no, no. Nothing like that, and as far as I know, the abuse only happened once. But that one time was serious enough—neighbors took her to the emergency room—for the courts to get involved. That’s how I got called in. They had decided to try and save the marriage, to keep the family intact, and they obviously needed help.”
The waiter arrived and placed salad, bread, and wine on the tabletop. He smiled, looking above them at the brick wall. “Will there be anything else?”
“No,” Celeste said. “We’re good now, thanks.”
Rachel reached for the carafe. “Why would she want to salvage an abusive relationship if there was someone else? She had the orthodontist, right?”
“He dumped her. Decided to protect his face, I guess after he saw what happened to hers.”
“Typical male. Get out when it stops being convenient.”
“Right, typical. It’s all really very typical, isn’t it?”
“Seems that way to me. Must be like . . . well, dozens of other cases you’ve handled. I don’t see why you’re so worked up over this one.”
“It’s about the daughter, remember?”
“Right. Regressing. So how did she handle her mother getting beaten?”
Celeste’s eyes moved from her friend’s face to the tabletop. Her hands holding the wine glass made a wavering shadow over the salad bowl. She began to sift through memories of the girl—Allison was her real name—and how she had changed over the last two years from a sullen, underachieving preteen to a deeply disturbed adolescent. She saw the angry red welts and scars up and down the insides of Allison’s forearms where she had scraped and cut herself. Rachel wanted to hear the story, to be entertained. Celeste wanted to be free of it. There were parts she couldn’t tell, that couldn’t be communicated no matter how much wine they drank. How would she be able to convey the chill she had felt when Allison told her, finally, about what happened that night? How could she describe those dead eyes looking out from the black shadow, a manifestation of the shame that was metastasizing inside of her?
It had been clear from the beginning that Allison hated her father, what he had become and how he had hurt her mother. The man seemed clueless, and he never did take responsibility for what he had done. In the ways of appeasement and emotional expression he was a blunderer, finally turning to alcohol and drugs to escape the frustration of reality he could not control—a response that could only make things worse.
Celeste remembered that first home visit when she had gone up to Allison’s room to get a sense of the child, her emotional state. She had left the parents sitting at opposite ends of a distressed brown sofa while the little boy played on the floor with a plastic truck. She followed the daughter up the staircase to her room. Celeste knew that the preteen and early adolescent years were a time when children became adept at posturing and posing as adults to conceal the turmoil inside, the dark secrets, the desires they often felt should be hidden from those who had nurtured them through the earlier innocent years. Celeste hoped that the intimate physical space would reveal parts of Allison’s personality she had otherwise learned to hide.
The room seemed typical: decorated in pink and purple with bean bags, flowery inflatable cushions, and throw pillows everywhere. Frilly bed with a psychedelic flower-print comforter. Shoes, jeans and tee shirts spilling out of the closet. Posters on the wall: Miley Cyrus, One Direction, The Beatles. And there were holdovers from earlier periods. A play kitchen made of pink plastic was crammed into a corner and stacked with magazines, school books, CD cases, and handbags. Stuffed animals—kittens, puppies, and a sad-eyed panda—gazed expectantly from the clutter. A furry lemur with Velcro hands hung from the closet door knob.
“This is it,” Allison said. Then, motioning to the bed, “You can sit down if you want to.” She plopped down in a bean bag, picked up a remote from the floor, and clicked on a portable TV atop her chest of drawers. It came on loudly, a Disney sitcom with canned laughter.
“I think we could talk better with that off,” Celeste said.
“Why? Don’t you know how to multitask? I thought psychologists were smart.”
Celeste could only remember bits of the conversation. It had not been productive, nor had their subsequent visits. Looking over the salad bowl and breadsticks at Rachel’s face, She realized that her entire involvement with the case—two years of work—had been a waste of time: the father was dead; the mother was bungling her parenthood role, relying on sleep aids, antidepressants, and pain medication to get through each day; the little boy was subject to tantrums, bullying his first-grade classmates; and the daughter was clinically depressed, even suicidal. If she had it all to do over, she would handle things differently. There had been signs, she realized, that pointed to a different course.
She remembered in Allison’s room the framed picture lying face down on the nightstand. There had been other pictures, snapshots of Allison with friends and with her mother, on the walls and a little white shelf. A framed photo on her chest of drawers showed Allison smiling with her arms around a large golden retriever. Her face was pressed next to the dog’s, her hand under the muzzle, holding the head up for the camera. The dog seemed old and tired.
Celeste had not seen any animals, either outside or in the house. “Looks like a nice dog,” she said. “Do you still have it?”
“No. Sally’s gone.” Her eyes narrowed. When she spoke, she barely opened her mouth. “Daddy did something with her, just ’cause she got old. I don’t know what. I know what he did to the puppies, though.”
“Puppies?” Celeste asked from the edge of Allison’s bed. “When did you have puppies?”
“It wasn’t that long ago. Daddy killed them.”
Celeste was barely able to mask her heightened interest. “Why did he do that? He must have had a reason.”
The girl stared at the TV screen as she talked. “He said they’d be better off, that they were gonna die anyway. I could have saved them, though.”
Allison was reluctant to talk about it, but Celeste, through careful questioning, pulled out the story of three sickly puppies—one with a lump on its side—born to an old, uninterested dog. Allison had watched as her dad duct-taped a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust of his truck and placed the other end, along with the puppies, under an overturned cardboard box. He had told her that he was putting them to sleep, that they wouldn’t feel a thing.
There was no evidence of the father in Allison’s room. No family pictures of the four of them together, although there were some shots of the little brother. On the far side of the chest of drawers almost out of sight was a trashcan stuffed with broken Happy Meal toys, various body parts of dolls, and ripped-apart picture books. Kids Allison’s age, in striving for maturity, often wanted to distance themselves from childish things. Celeste had noted the trashcan filled with broken playthings, but she had not seen in it the child’s destructive potential. She shook her head to dispel the image.
Rachel asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Sorry. It’s just that when I think about this case, I start second-guessing myself, seeing things I didn’t see before.”
“Well, you know what they say about hindsight. I’m sure you did your best with what you had. And this girl . . . you’re still seeing her, right? I mean, there is hope, isn’t there? That she’ll get better?”
Celeste didn’t know what to say. The shadow swayed between them. She almost reached into it for a breadstick, then changed her mind. “I need a cigarette.”
“No, you don’t. You need to finish telling me the story, about Annie and her family. What did she do after her dad put her mom in the emergency room?”
“Nothing at first, except withdraw further into her low-functioning, nonverbal world. Her grades were already bad. They got worse. But then she did do something. A very small act with huge consequences.”
Celeste could see her friend’s eyes in the candlelight, wide-open, pupils dilated, hungry for narrative—tragedy, comedy, melodrama. The human race, Celeste thought, we’re all insatiable story sponges, sopping the scum of lives as we live our own, leaving new slime trails for others to absorb. A slimy mess, really. She took a sip of wine and wanted a cigarette. She wished she hadn’t started this telling. Rachel’s eyes made the lazy wink again. Then they both looked away.
Rachel tore off a corner of the wet napkin and started rolling it into a bell. “You’ve got to finish this if it’s gonna do you any good. The venting, I mean. I can see it’s painful for you, but that’s why I’m here. You can’t blame yourself for—for whatever happened. That girl . . . well, she’s obviously got issues, and you did what you could. She’s just an emo kid, one of the thousands. What could she possibly have done that’s so huge, so unsettling to the natural order of things? Life will go on, hers and yours.”
“But not his.”
“Allison’s father. He’s dead, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah. But you never did tell me how. What happened to him?”
“He should’ve never combined them, the booze and the meth. He was so distraught over the way things were going—”
“Meth? My God, what was he, an idiot?”
“He had no coping mechanisms, like most men. When they lose control, they get really destructive. He wasn’t an idiot, really. He was just a man.”
“But meth. I mean those people get all haggard, and their cheeks sink in, and their gums recede, and then their teeth fall out and they look like the walking dead with their eyes dilated—”
“Yes, that does happen in extreme cases, but he hadn’t got to that point yet. He started out drinking and staying out late with old buddies, trying to hide from his problems at home. He discovered meth as a way to party late and then work the next day. He was packing in as much as possible to make up for what he’d missed or thought he’d missed, by trying to be a good husband and father. It was another way of striking back at his wife. In his warped sense of justice, destroying himself was a way of getting even.”
“But he wasn’t trying to kill himself, was he?”
“Subconsciously. Most forms of destructive behavior are symptomatic of self-loathing, guilt, shame.”
“Well, sure. So did he get wasted and drive his truck off a bridge, die in a bar fight, or what?”
“No, he actually made it home safely the night he died.”
“Oh. Heart attack then.”
Celeste shook her head. “Nope. His death was completely painless. You could say he died in his sleep.”
“That seems weird, for a man his age.”
“It’s weirder than you think.” Celeste looked away and reached for the carafe. As she poured, filling both glasses, Allison’s words flowed through her mind from that day in the office when she had finally opened up, the day that should have been a breakthrough in the case. Celeste had felt the anticipation of closing in on something—like a hunter must feel when finally flushing his prey—when Allison revealed that her father had been coming into her room at night. Celeste knew if she could get her to bring it out into the light, to talk about what her father had been doing to her, then they could begin the healing process. But the conversation took a surprising turn.
It had started with an off-hand comment that prompted Celeste to roll her chair around closer and face the girl. “What do you mean,” she asked, “your father was ‘acting weird’ before the accident? What was he doing, besides staying out late and drinking?”
Allison’s hair, long and unnaturally black, was swept across her forehead and cut in a one-sided shag. When she shook her head, the hair didn’t move. “I dunno, just stuff. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“‘Stuff’ isn’t very specific, Allison. I can help you get through this, but you’ve got to share with me. Was he mean to you, did he ever hit you or hurt you in any way? I’ve got a feeling that maybe he did.”
Allison looked down at her black high-top tennis shoes. She let out a short sigh of disgust. “He started coming into my room at night.”
Celeste felt a wave of pity for the child. She reached out and gently touched her knee, just below a frayed hole in her tight jeans. Her voice came out soft and measured like brushes on a snare drum. “I can see how you wouldn’t want your father in your room, especially at night. A girl needs some space. How would it begin, those nights when he came upstairs?”
Allison shrugged, looked away. “I dunno. He just came up. Late, after he’d been drinking. I’d hear him on the stairs and wake up.”
“Wasn’t that scary, being awakened in the middle of the night?”
“Then what? Tell me what he would say when he came into the room, before he touched you? He did touch you didn’t he? Just tell me everything. You’ll feel better.”
The cathartic release Celeste was expecting, never came. Allison began to withdraw once again into her shadowy, silent world, picking at the holes in her jeans. When Celeste persisted in questioning her about how long it had been going on, she finally revealed that her father had only recently—since the mother’s beating—begun coming upstairs to her room. “He would smell awful, and he would be all blubbery and teary-eyed, telling me how much he loved me and that he would never hurt me. He would want to hug me like I was a little girl or something.”
Celeste could tell that Rachel was disappointed. “So was that it?” her friend asked. “No incest?”
Celeste shook her head.
“Well, what’s so weird about that? That doesn’t explain his death or why the girl is the way she is.”
“I’m afraid it does. That’s the problem.”
“Oh my God!” Rachel said, throwing up her hands and leaning back in the booth. “Just tell the story, for Christ’s sake.”
Celeste raised her glass, took a long sip. “Okay. She did finally reveal enough for me to get the picture. She already hated her father for what he had done to her mother and the dogs, and she hated the way he smelled on those nights, the way he clung to her, crying. She heard him when he got home, heard the garage door go up, and his truck pull inside. She lay there, dreading the sound of his foot on the stairway. But he didn’t come in. She didn’t hear the garage door go back down. She said she thought that maybe he had just come home to get something and was going back out. At least, she hoped that’s what was going on. But he didn’t leave, and he never came into the house.”
“So, you’re telling me he died sitting there in his truck?”
“Exactly. The mother found him the next morning, slumped over the wheel. The ignition was on, but the engine was dead, out of gas. The coroner determined that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they couldn’t be sure if it was a suicide or accident. There were high levels of methamphetamine in his blood and nearly enough alcohol to kill him.”
“Doesn’t make sense. How was he driving? You said she heard him raise the garage door and pull inside. I don’t see how he could drive home, park his truck, and then pass out in the driver’s seat.”
“The meth kept his system stimulated in spite of the sedative effects of the booze. Up to a point, that is. He was running on autopilot, until he got the truck inside, the gear lever in park. Then all systems failed.”
Rachel wrinkled her brow, pushed her hair back. “Okay. Weird but possible, I guess. But I still don’t get it. What’s this got to do with the girl and the way she is?”
“She was dreading their little routine of him coming up to her room. She could hear the truck still running as she lay there waiting. Finally, she went down to see why he didn’t come inside. At the bottom of the stairs there’s a short hallway, then the kitchen and the door that opens onto the garage. She opened the door and saw that he was passed out there in the truck.”
“And she just left him? That little bitch! But wait. She wouldn’t have known what to do. She wouldn’t have wanted to wake him.”
“No.” Celeste looked out into the restaurant. A busboy was clearing a table, scraping pizza remnants into a plastic garbage pan. The few customers, mostly couples, were chatting softly as they ate and sipped their wine. It was a slow night. She looked back at her friend. “She didn’t want to wake him, but she did know what to do. She pressed the button and made the door go down. Then she went back to bed.” Celeste watched the effect of her words on Rachel’s face, the lips parting, the eyes widening. “Now you know,” she said, leaning in, “why I feel like I do, why I don’t know how to proceed.”
After a moment, Rachel said, “Oh my God. What will you do?”
Celeste shrugged. The shadow of her hands swayed and quivered over the tabletop as she poured another glass of wine.
Ron Yates holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in The
Writing Disorder, The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Prime Number Magazine, and other venues. Yates, a teacher for many years, lives in east Alabama on beautiful Lake Wedowee. When not writing he enjoys hiking, taking pictures, and tinkering with old cars and motorcycles. He occasionally leads small writing workshops. Ron Yates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.