“Oh, my God!” Cheryl cried, then slapped a hand over her mouth. Her dark eyes searched the room for signs that others were staring at her. They weren't. It was a Saturday, and the restaurant was too busy and crowded for anyone to have noticed the tiny outburst.
They were sharing a booth at The Wild Horse, their favorite diner in downtown Boston. Kimberly was catching Cheryl up on the latest incident and her conversation with Lynn.
“She actually said that?” Cheryl asked, the hand that had been over her mouth fluttered to her chest. “Something out of the nightmare is still with her?”
“Those were her exact words,” Kimberly said, taking a sip of her coffee.
“So, all of this started with the nightmare. Wasn’t that the same day Gary moved in and we had that epic thunderstorm?”
Kimberly nodded. “At first I thought it was just the stress of Gary moving in or the storm that scared her,” Kimberly explained, “but when she spoke in that voice...”
Cheryl's face darkened.
“Cheryl, don’t scowl like that. I’m sorry, I would have been happy to agree with you that I’d imagined it because her nightmare frightened me and it’s only because I’d been woken up out of a sound sleep—”
“Okay, okay,” Cheryl relented, putting her hands up in a defensive gesture. “I believe you. I just don’t want to.”
“Neither do I.”
Kimberly began counting off on her fingers. “So far we have a nightmare, a bruise, three scary drawings, a phantom girl she chased down in the mall, and now this incident at school.”
Cheryl was quiet a moment, her dark eyes scanning the red and white checkered table as though it might contain some hidden advice.
“I think that’s more than enough strange incidents to warrant a visit to Debra Owens.”
“Who’s she?” Kimberly asked.
“She a colleague of mine. She works with children here in Boston. She’s an excellent child psychologist.”
“Oh, Cheryl,” Kimberly protested. “I don’t know. I told Hazel if something else happened, I would take her to see somebody—”
“And Hazel all but accused you of either abusing Lynn yourself or exposing her to it.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Still, she did say there was no need to call anybody.”
“Yet. Remember, she said 'Yet',” Cheryl deadpanned. “What happens when Lynn has another episode, and it can't easily be explained away?”
Now it was Kimberly’s turn to frown. “Another episode?”
“I want to think positive, but it seems whatever is plaguing Lynn is getting worse, not better.”
Kimberly sighed. “I know. I just have no idea what to tell a therapist. How can I just walk in there with her and say, ‘Well, my daughter is drawing pictures of adults beating up children and bruises mysteriously appear on her body, but really, her home life is fine.’”
Both women chuckled at the absurdity of the statement.
“Well, that’s what Debra is there for,” Cheryl said, “to unlock the mysteries of the child mind. You can’t deny something is going on.”
“No, I can’t. And Gary seems more than a bit unsettled about this whole thing. So much so he’s actually been avoiding Lynn for the past couple of days. Frankly, it's ticking me off.”
Cheryl arched an eyebrow over her coffee mug. She finished the remaining contents and put the mug down carefully, taking care not to slam it as a sudden and ominous thought took shape in the back of her mind.
Kimberly continued, oblivious to the change in her sister-in-law's demeanor. “I mean, I know he’s probably doing it because it started when he moved in. But if he starts treating her differently, she’s going to end up thinking there is something wrong with her, instead of thinking something is happening to her.”
Cheryl turned to look out the window. A young couple stood in the parking lot by a beat-up Chevy truck, talking animatedly and gesticulating wildly. She couldn't tell if they were arguing or really happy.
Suddenly, the girl ran onto a small patch of grass and held her phone out in front of her as though she were going to take a picture. Then, both of them started jumping up and down excitedly and giving each other a high-five.
Within moments, they were back in their truck, out of the parking lot, and out of sight.
Puzzled, but slightly amused, Cheryl turned her attention back to Kimberly.
“It did start when Gary arrived, didn’t it? Do you think his moving in put that much stress on Lynn?”
Kimberly shrugged and shook her head. “I asked that as I was tucking her in last night, and she told me it has nothing to do with him. In fact, she was adamant about it.”
“Did she seem too eager to defend him?”
The gravity of Cheryl’s question didn’t quite sink in at first because the waitress chose that exact moment to appear at their table, coffee pot at the ready. Kimberly nodded assent, but Cheryl declined a second cup.
Kimberly opened her mouth to thank the woman, but she was already halfway across the diner.
“What? Cheryl, are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?”
Cheryl blew out a breath and leaned forward in the booth. Her liquid-brown eyes locked onto Kimberly’s. “I’m not accusing Gary of anything.”
“Well, then what are you doing?” Kimberly asked, a slow heat rising in her neck.
“It’s just something to consider,” Cheryl said, her voice calm and even. “I’m sure I’m wrong, but can you think of any other reason she would have nightmares and draw pictures like that?”
Kimberly leaned over her coffee cup, glaring.
“Just because my father and Roger were creeps does not make every man I date a child molester!” Kimberly hissed.
Cheryl leaned back and crossed her arms. “I did not say that,” Cheryl said, measuring her words. “I’m not saying Gary is touching Lynn or anything like that is going on. I’m just trying to look at it from all angles. Every angle. Even the impossible ones.”
Kimberly took a deep, steadying breath. “Cheryl, I know you mean well, but you insult me when you make a suggestion like that. How would you take it if I were to even hint at a possibility of your husband touching Danielle?”
Cheryl flinched and averted her eyes.
“See?” Kimberly said. “Now you know how that feels.”
Cheryl opened her mouth to retort, thought better of it, and remained silent.
She was going to have to be a lot more tactful than she felt at this particular moment. Reaching into her purse, she took out a small, white business card. She held it out across the table.
“Will you at least consider making an appointment?”
“Dammit!” Kimberly cursed.
Just as she was righting the downed garbage can, she dropped the metal lid on her foot.
It was almost 11:30 at night. The sound of something rolling around in the driveway had startled her as she’d sat in the living room catching up on a novel.
It was only when she’d heard the metal scraping on gravel that she’d glanced at the clock and realized Gary hadn’t come home yet.
He hadn’t even phoned.
He’d left the same time she’d gone to meet Cheryl for coffee, well over twelve hours ago. He’d said he was going to take tie up a few loose ends at a new job site, grab lunch with a buddy, and then probably hang with the guys for a bit after.
Where was he?
She rolled her eyes as she picked up the trash bag. There was a long split down the middle.
This was the second time in a month she’d seen the metal can rolling around in the driveway, lid knocked off, garbage everywhere.
She’d been meaning to replace the old metal bin with a plastic one with a locking lid for months but hadn’t yet gotten around to it.
Walking back into the house, she grabbed a new garbage bag from under the sink, flapped it harder than was necessary to open it, and headed back outside.
She shoved the broken bag into the new one and yanked the strings upward sharply, tying them into a double knot more to expel her growing frustration than to discourage pests.
Jamming the bulging sack back into the can, she fitted the lid back and cast around for something heavy to place on top.
She was about to reach for a large piece of concrete left over from a still-unfinished project Gary had started in the spring when she heard a wail coming from her left.
Was that an animal?
Another wail, followed by a slam.
Mrs. Bellevue from next door had turned on the light at the back of the house and was heading out into the backyard.
Kimberly could see a look of frustration come over the elderly woman’s face as she struggled into a blue cardigan, eyes trained on a little girl padding silently through the backyard grass and into the night.
Kimberly squinted into the darkness.
The Bellevue’s granddaughter was in a pair of PJs; one leg rolled up to her knee as she continued walking, moving beyond where the dim outside light could reach.
When the wail came again, Kimberly realized with a chill that the sound was coming from Claire!
Kimberly stared open-mouthed as Mrs. Bellevue closed the gap between them and put an arm around her granddaughter, turning her gently and moving her back in the direction of the house.
The little girl moved like a marionette, simply allowing herself to be guided.
Another sudden crash, this time the sound of breaking glass, made Kimberly start.
A man swore.
“Howard?” Mrs. Bellevue called. “What fell?”
Mr. Bellevue answered his wife's question, but Kimberly missed it as the door closed behind grandmother and grandchild, swallowing their voices whole.
A moment later, the light went out and Kimberly was once again in blackness; left to wonder what she’d just witnessed.
What had Claire been doing walking around the backyard like that? What was that crash in the house?
Kimberly’s thoughts wandered back to the conversation she’d had with Lynn’s school counselor.
“Could one of her peers perhaps be experiencing something that she might be internalizing?” Hazel had asked.
An image flashed through her mind from a week ago; Claire had been standing by the window, staring into Lynn’s room. She had appeared to be speaking, but one of her grandparents had quickly moved her away and shut off the light.
Could it be that Claire had been confiding in Lynn about something?
Kimberly glanced in the direction of the house again but could see no movement from behind the curtained windows.
The child had never seemed like she was being abused, but, now that Kimberly thought about it, she had been acting strangely lately.
Hugging herself against a sudden internal chill, she hurried back inside, locked the door behind her, and headed upstairs to check on Lynn.