Sara Linton stood at the front door of her parents' house holding so many plastic grocery bags in her hands that she couldn't feel her fingers. Using her elbow, she tried to open the door but ended up smacking her shoulder into the glass pane. She edged back and pressed her foot against the handle, but the door still would not budge. Finally, she gave up and knocked with her forehead.
Through the wavy glass, she watched her father making his way down the hallway. He opened the door with an uncharacteristic scowl on his face.
"Why didn't you make two trips?" Eddie demanded, taking some of the bags from her.
"Why is the door locked?"
"Your car's less than fifteen feet away."
"Dad," Sara countered. "Why is the door locked?"
He was looking over her shoulder. "Your car is filthy." He put the bags down on the floor. "You think you can handle two trips to the kitchen with these?"
Sara opened her mouth to answer, but he was already walking down the front steps. She asked, "Where are you going?"
"To wash your car."
"It's fifty degrees out."
He turned and gave her a meaningful look. "Dirt sticks no matter the climate." He sounded like a Shakespearean actor instead of a plumber from rural Georgia.
By the time she had formed a response, he was already inside the garage.
Sara stood on the porch as her father came back out with the requisite supplies to wash her car. He hitched up his sweatpants as he knelt to fill the bucket with water. Sara recognized the pants from high school --- her high school; she had worn them for track practice.
"You gonna just stand there letting the cold in?" Cathy asked, pulling Sara inside and closing the door.
Sara bent down so that her mother could kiss her on the cheek. Much to Sara's dismay, she had been a good foot taller than her mother since the fifth grade. While Tessa, Sara's younger sister, had inherited their mother's petite build, blond hair and effortless poise, Sara looked like a neighbor's child who had come for lunch one afternoon and decided to stay.
Cathy bent down to pick up some of the grocery bags, then seemed to think better of it. "Get these, will you?"
Sara scooped all eight bags into her hands, risking her fingers again. "What's wrong?" she asked, thinking her mother looked a little under the weather.
"Isabella," Cathy answered, and Sara suppressed a laugh. Her aunt Bella was the only person Sara knew who traveled with her own stock of liquor.
Cathy whispered, "Tequila," the same way she might say "Cancer."
Sara cringed in sympathy. "Has she said how long she's staying?"
"Not yet," Cathy replied. Bella hated Grant County and had not visited since Tessa was born. Two days ago, she had shown up with three suitcases in the back of her convertible Mercedes and no explanations.
Normally, Bella would not have been able to get away with any sort of secrecy, but in keeping with the new "Don't ask, don't tell" ethos of the Linton family, no one had pressed her for an explanation. So much had changed since Tessa was attacked last year. They were all still shell-shocked, though no one seemed to want to talk about it. In a split second, Tessa's assailant had altered not just Tessa but the entire family. Sara often wondered if any of them would ever fully recover.
Sara asked, "Why was the door locked?"
"Must've been Tessa," Cathy said, and for just a moment her eyes watered.
"Mama --- "
"Go on in," Cathy interrupted, indicating the kitchen. "I'll be there in a minute."
Sara shifted the bags and walked down the hallway, glancing at the pictures that lined the walls. No one could go from the front door to the back without getting a pictorial view of the Linton girls' formative years. Tessa, of course, looked beautiful and slim in most of them. Sara was never so lucky. There was a particularly hideous photo of Sara in summer camp back in the eighth grade that she would have ripped off the wall if her mother let her get away with it. Sara stood in a boat wearing a bathing suit that looked like a piece of black construction paper pinned to her bony shoulders. Freckles had broken out along her nose, giving her skin a less than pleasing orange cast. Her red hair had dried in the sun and looked like a clown Afro.
"Darling!" Bella enthused, throwing her arms wide as Sara entered the kitchen. "Look at you!" she said, as if this was a compliment. Sara knew full well she wasn't at her best. She had rolled out of bed an hour ago and not even bothered to comb her hair. Being her father's daughter, the shirt she wore was the one she had slept in and her sweatpants from the track team in college were only slightly less vintage. Bella, by contrast, was wearing a silky blue dress that had probably cost a fortune. Diamond earrings sparkled in her ears, the many rings she wore on her fingers glinting in the sun streaming through the kitchen windows. As usual, her makeup and hair were perfect, and she looked gorgeous even at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning.
Sara said, "I'm sorry I haven't been by earlier."
"Feh." Her aunt waved off the apology as she sat down. "Since when do you do your mama's shopping?"
"Since she's been stuck at home entertaining you for the last two days." Sara put the bags on the counter, rubbing her fingers to encourage the circulation to return.
"I'm not that hard to entertain," Bella said. "It's your mother who needs to get out more."
Bella smiled mischievously. "She never could hold her liquor. I'm convinced that's the only reason she married your father."
Sara laughed as she put the milk in the refrigerator. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a plate piled high with chicken, ready for frying.
Bella provided, "We snapped some greens last night."
"Lovely," Sara mumbled, thinking this was the best news she had heard all week. Cathy's green bean casserole was the perfect companion to her fried chicken. "How was church?"
"A little too fire and brimstone for me," Bella confessed, taking an orange out of the bowl on the table. "Tell me about your life. Anything interesting happening?"
"Same old same old," Sara told her, sorting through the cans.
Bella peeled the orange, sounding disappointed when she said,
"Well, sometimes routine can be comforting."
Sara made a "hm" sound as she put a can of soup on the shelf above the stove.
"Hm," Sara repeated, knowing exactly where this was going.
When Sara was in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, she had briefly lived with her aunt Bella. The late-night parties, the drinking and the constant flow of men had finally caused a split. Sara had to get up at five in the morning to attend classes, not to mention the fact that she needed her nights quiet so that she could study. To her credit, Bella had tried to limit her social life, but in the end they had agreed it was best for Sara to get a place of her own. Things had been cordial until Bella had suggested Sara look into one of the units at the retirement home down on Clairmont Road.
Cathy came back into the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She moved the soup can Sara had shelved, pushing her out of the way in the process. "Did you get everything on the list?"
"Except the cooking sherry," Sara told her, sitting down opposite Bella. "Did you know you can't buy alcohol on Sunday?"
"Yes," Cathy said, making the word sound like an accusation. "That's why I told you to go to the store last night."
"I'm sorry," Sara apologized. She took a slice of orange from her aunt. "I was dealing with an insurance company out west until eight o'clock. It was the only time we could talk."
"You're a doctor," Bella stated the obvious. "Why on earth do you have to talk to insurance companies?"
"Because they don't want to pay for the tests I order."
"Isn't that their job?"
Sara shrugged. She had finally broken down and hired a woman full-time to jump through the various hoops the insurance companies demanded, but still, two to three hours of every day Sara spent at the children's clinic were wasted filling out tedious forms or talking to, sometimes yelling at, company supervisors on the phone. She had started going in an hour earlier to try to keep on top of it, but nothing seemed to make a dent.
"Ridiculous," Bella murmured around a slice of orange. She was well into her sixties, but as far as Sara knew, she had never been sick a day in her life. Perhaps there was something to be said for chain smoking and drinking tequila until dawn after all.
Cathy rummaged through the bags, asking, "Did you get sage?"
"I think so." Sara stood to help her find it but Cathy shooed her away. "Where's Tess?"
"Church," Cathy answered. Sara knew better than to question her mother's disapproving tone. Obviously, Bella knew better, too, though she raised an eyebrow at Sara as she handed her another slice of orange. Tessa had passed on attending the Primitive Baptist, where Cathy had gone since she and Bella were children, choosing instead to visit a smaller church in a neighboring county for her spiritual needs. Under normal circumstances Cathy would have been glad to know at least one of her daughters wasn't a godless heathen, but there was obviously something that bothered her about Tessa's choice. As with so many things lately, no one pushed the issue.
Cathy opened the refrigerator, moving the milk to the other side of the shelf as she asked, "What time did you get home last night?"
"Around nine," Sara said, peeling another orange.
"Don't spoil lunch," Cathy admonished. "Did Jeffrey get everything moved in?"
"Almo --- " Sara caught herself at the last minute, her face blushing crimson. She swallowed a few times before she could speak. "When did you hear?"
"Oh, honey," Bella chuckled. "You're living in the wrong town if you want people to stay out of your business. That's the main reason I went abroad as soon as I could afford the ticket."
"More like find a man to pay for it," Cathy wryly added.
Sara cleared her throat again, feeling like her tongue had swollen to twice its size. "Does Daddy know?"
Cathy raised an eyebrow much as her sister had done a few moments ago. "What do you think?"
Sara took a deep breath and hissed it out between her teeth. Suddenly, her father's earlier pronouncement about dirt sticking made sense. "Is he mad?"
"A little mad," Cathy allowed. "Mostly disappointed."
Bella tsked her tongue against her teeth. "Small towns, small minds."
"It's not the town," Cathy defended. "It's Eddie."
Bella sat back as if preparing to tell a story. "I lived in sin with a boy. I was barely out of college, just moved to London. He was a welder, but his hands . . . oh, he had the hands of an artist. Did I ever tell you --- "
"Yes, Bella," Cathy said in a bored singsong. Bella had always been ahead of her time, from being a beatnik to a hippie to a vegan. To her constant dismay, she had never been able to scandalize her family. Sara was convinced one of the reasons her aunt had left the country was so she could tell people she was a black sheep. No one bought it in Grant. Granny Earnshaw, who worked for women's suffrage, had been proud of her daughter's brazen attitude and Big Daddy had called Bella his "little firecracker" to anyone who would listen. As a matter of fact, the only time Bella had ever managed to shock any of them was when she had announced she was getting married to a stockbroker named Colt and moving to the suburbs. Thankfully, that had lasted only a year.
Sara could feel the heat of her mother's stare bore into her like a laser. She finally relented, asking, "What?"
"I don't know why you won't just marry him."
Sara twisted the ring around her finger. Jeffrey had been a football player at Auburn University and she had taken to wearing his class ring like a lovesick girl.
Bella pointed out the obvious, as if it was some sort of enticement. "Your father can't stand him."
Cathy crossed her arms over her chest. She repeated her question to Sara. "Why?" She waited a beat. "Why not just marry him? He wants to, doesn't he?"
"Then why not say yes and get it over with?"
"It's complicated," Sara answered, hoping she could leave it at that. Both women knew her history with Jeffrey, from the moment she fell in love with him to their marriage to the night Sara had come home early from work to find him in bed with another woman. She had filed for divorce the next day, but for some reason, Sara was unable to let him go.
In her defense, Jeffrey had changed over the last few years. He had grown into the man she had seen the promise of almost fifteen years ago. The love she had for him was new, in its way more exciting than the first time. Sara didn't feel that giddy, I'm-going-to-die-if-he-doesn't-call-me sort of obsession she had experienced before. She felt comfortable with him. She knew at the end of the day that he would be there for her. She also knew after five years of living on her own that she was miserable without him.
"You're too proud," Cathy said. "If it's your ego --- "
"It's not my ego," Sara interrupted, not knowing how to explain herself and more than a little resentful that she felt compelled to. It was just her luck that her relationship with Jeffrey seemed to be the only thing her mother felt comfortable talking about.
Sara went to the sink to wash the orange off her hands. Trying to change the subject, she asked Bella, "How was France?"
"French," Bella answered, but didn't give in that easily. "Do you trust him?"
"Yes," she said, "more than the first time, which is why I don't need a piece of paper telling me how I feel."
Bella was more than a little smug when she said, "I knew you two would get back together." She pointed a finger at Sara. "If you were serious about getting him out of your life the first time, you would've quit your coroner job."
"It's just part-time," Sara said, though she knew Bella had a point. Jeffrey was chief of police for Grant County. Sara was the medical examiner. Every suspicious death in the tri-city area had brought him back into her life.
Cathy returned to the last grocery bag, taking out a liter of Coke.
"When were you going to tell us?"
"Today," Sara lied. The look Cathy tossed over her shoulder proved it wasn't a very good fib. "Eventually," Sara amended, drying her hands on her pants as she sat back at the table. "Are you making roast for tomorrow?"
"Yes," Cathy answered, but wouldn't be sidetracked. "You live less than a mile down the street from us, Sara. Did you think your father wouldn't see Jeffrey's car parked in the driveway every morning?"
"Far as I've heard," Bella said, "it'd be there whether he moved in or not."
Sara watched her mother pour the Coke into a large Tupperware bowl. Cathy would add a few ingredients and soak a rump roast in the mixture overnight, then cook it in the Crock-Pot all day tomorrow. The end result would be the most tender meat that ever crossed a plate, and as easy as it looked, Sara had never been able to duplicate the recipe. The irony was not lost on Sara that she had mastered honors chemistry at one of the toughest medical schools in the country but could not for the life of her make her mother's Coke roast.
Cathy absently added some seasonings to the bowl, repeating her question, "When were you going to tell us?"
"I don't know," Sara answered. "We just wanted to get used to the idea first."
"Don't expect your father to any time soon," Cathy advised. "You know he has firm ideas about that sort of thing."
Bella guffawed. "That man hasn't set foot in a church in nearly forty years."
"It's not a religious objection," Cathy corrected. She told Sara, "We both remember how devastating it was for you when you found out Jeffrey was catting around. It's just hard for your father to see you broken like that and then have Jeffrey waltz back in."
"I'd hardly call it a waltz," Sara said. Nothing about their reconciliation had been easy.
"I can't tell you that your father will ever forgive him."
Bella pointed out, "Eddie forgave you."
Sara watched as all the color drained from her mother's face. Cathy wiped her hands on her apron in tight, controlled movements. In a low voice, she said, "Lunch will be ready in a few hours," and left the kitchen.
Bella lifted her shoulders and gave a heavy sigh. "I tried, pumpkin."
Sara bit her tongue. A few years ago, Cathy had told Sara about what she called an indiscretion in her marriage before Sara had been born. Though her mother said the affair had never been consummated, Eddie and Cathy had nearly divorced over the other man. Sara imagined her mother didn't like being reminded of this dark period in her past, especially not in front of her oldest child. Sara didn't much like the reminder herself.
"Hello?" Jeffrey called from the front hall.
Sara tried to hide her relief. "In here," she yelled.
He walked in with a smile on his face, and Sara assumed her father had been too busy washing her car to give Jeffrey any serious grief.
"Well," he said, looking back and forth between the two women with an appreciative smile. "When I dream about this, we're usually all naked."
"You old dog," Bella chastised, but Sara could see her eyes light up with pleasure. Despite years of living in Europe, she was still every inch the Southern belle.
Jeffrey took her hand and kissed it. "You get better looking every time I see you, Isabella."
"Fine wine, my friend." Bella winked. "Drinking it, I mean."
Jeffrey laughed and Sara waited for a lull before asking, "Did you see Dad?"
Jeffrey shook his head just as the front door slammed closed. Eddie's footsteps were heavy down the hallway.
Sara grabbed Jeffrey's hand. "Let's go for a walk," she said, practically dragging him out the back door. She asked Bella, "Tell Mama we'll be back in time for lunch."
Jeffrey stumbled down the deck steps as she pulled him to the side of the house and out of view from the kitchen windows.
"What's going on?" He rubbed his arm as if it hurt.
"Still tender?" she asked. He had injured his shoulder a while back and, despite physical therapy, the joint continued to ache.
He gave a half shrug. "I'm okay."
"Sorry," she said, putting her hand on his good shoulder. She found herself unable to stop there and put her arms around him, burying her face in the crook of his neck. She inhaled deeply, loving the smell of him. "God, you feel so good."
He stroked her hair. "What's going on?"
"I miss you."
"No." She leaned back so she could see him. "This week." His hair was getting long on the sides and she used her fingers to tuck it behind his ear. "You just come in, drop off some boxes and leave."
"The renters move in Tuesday. I told them I'd have the kitchen ready by then."
She kissed his ear, whispering, "I've forgotten what you look like."
"Work's been busy lately." He pulled away a few inches. "Paperwork and stuff. Between that and the house, I don't have time for myself, let alone seeing you."
"It's not that," she said, wondering at his defensive tone. They both worked too much; she was hardly in a position to throw stones.
He took a couple of steps back, saying, "I know I didn't return a couple of your calls."
"Jeff," she stopped him. "I just assumed you were tied up. It's no big deal."
"What is it, then?"
Sara crossed her arms, suddenly feeling cold. "Dad knows."
He seemed to relax a bit, and she wondered from his relief whether he had been expecting something else.
He said, "You didn't think we could keep it a secret, did you?"
"I don't know," Sara admitted. She could tell something was on his mind but wasn't sure how to draw him out. She suggested, "Let's walk around the lake. Okay?"
He glanced back at the house, then at her. "Yeah."
She led him through the backyard, taking the stone path to the shore that her father had laid before Sara was born. They fell into a companionable silence, holding hands as they navigated the dirt track that cut into the shoreline. She slipped on a wet rock and he caught her elbow, smiling at her clumsiness. Overhead, Sara could hear squirrels chattering and a large buzzard swooped in an arc just above the trees, its wings stiff against the breeze coming off the water.
Lake Grant was a thirty-two-hundred acre man-made lake that was three hundred feet deep in places. Tops of trees that had been in the valley before the area was flooded still grew out of the water and Sara often thought of the abandoned homes under there, wondering if the fish had set up house. Eddie had a photograph of the area before the lake was made and it looked just like the more rural parts of the county: nice shotgun-style houses with an occasional shack here and there. Underneath were stores and churches and a cotton mill that had survived the Civil War and Reconstruction, only to be shut down during the Depression. All of this had been wiped out by the rushing waters of the Ochawahee River so that Grant could have a reliable source of electricity. During the summer, the waterline rose and fell depending on the demand from the dam, and as a child, Sara had made a habit of turning off all the lights in the house, thinking that would help keep the water high enough so that she could ski.
The National Forestry Service owned the best part of the lake, over a thousand acres that wrapped around the water like a cowl. One side touched the residential area where Sara and her parents had houses and the other held back the Grant Institute of Technology. Sixty percent of the lake's eighty-mile shoreline was protected, and Sara's favorite area was smack in the middle. Campers were allowed to stake tents in the forest, but the rocky terrain close to shore was too sharp and steep for anything pleasurable. Mostly, teenagers came here to make out or just to get away from their parents. Sara's house was directly across from a spectacular set of rocks that had probably been used by the Indians before they were forced out, and sometimes at dusk she could see an occasional flash of a match as someone lit a cigarette or who knew what else.
A cold wind came off the water and she shivered. Jeffrey put his arm around her, asking, "Did you really think they wouldn't find out?"
Sara stopped and turned to face him. "I guess I just hoped."
He gave one of his lopsided smiles, and she knew from experience that an apology was coming. "I'm sorry I've been working so much. "I haven't gotten home before seven all week."
"Did you get the insurance company straightened out?"
She groaned. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," he said, obviously trying to think of something to say. "How's Tess?"
"Not that, either."
"Okay . . ." He smiled again, the sun catching the blue in his irises in a way that made Sara shiver again.
"You wanna head back?" he asked, misinterpreting her response.
"No," she said, cupping her hands around his neck. "I want you to take me behind those trees and ravage me."
He laughed, but stopped when he saw she was not joking. "Out here in the open?"
"You can't be serious."
"It's been two weeks," she said, though she hadn't given it much thought before now. It wasn't like him to let things go this long.
She put her lips to his ear and whispered, "It's warm in my mouth."
Contrary to his body's reaction, he said, "I'm kind of tired."
She pressed her body closer. "You don't seem tired to me."
"It's gonna start raining any minute now."
The sky was overcast, but Sara knew from the news that rain was a good three hours away. "Come on," she said, leaning in to kiss him. She stopped when he seemed to hesitate. "What's wrong?"
He took a step back and looked out at the lake. "I told you I'm tired."
"You're never tired," she said. "Not tired like that."
He indicated the lake with a toss of his hand. "It's freezing cold out here."
"It's not that cold," she said, feeling suspicion trace a line of dread down her spine. After fifteen years, she knew all of Jeffrey's signs. He picked at his thumbnail when he felt guilty and pulled at his right eyebrow when there was something about a case he was trying to puzzle out. When he'd had a particularly hard day, he tended to slump his shoulders and speak in a monotone until she found a way to help him talk it out. The set he had to his mouth now meant there was something he had to tell her but either did not want to or did not know how.
She crossed her arms, asking, "What's going on?"
"Nothing?" she repeated, staring at Jeffrey as if she could will the truth out of him. His lips were set in that same firm line and he had his hands clasped in front of him, his right thumb tracing the cuticle of the left. She was getting the distinct feeling that they had been down this road before, and the knowledge of what was happening hit her like a sledgehammer to the gut. "Oh, Christ," she breathed, suddenly understanding. "Oh, God," she said, putting her hand to her stomach, trying to calm the sickness that wanted to come.
She walked back down the path, feeling stupid and angry with herself at the same time. She was dizzy from it, her mind reeling.
"Sara --- " He put his hand on her arm but she jerked away. He jogged ahead a few steps, blocking her way so she had to look at him. "What's wrong?"
"Who is it?"
"Who is she?" Sara clarified. "Who is it, Jeffrey? Is it the same one as last time?" She was clenching her teeth so tight that her jaw ached. It all made sense: the distracted look on his face, the defensiveness, the distance between them. He had made excuses every night this week for not staying at her house: packing boxes, working late at the station, needing to finish that damn kitchen that had taken almost a decade to renovate. Every time she let him in, every time she let her guard down and felt comfortable, he found a way to push her away.
Sara came straight out with it. "Who are you screwing this time?"
He took a step back, confusion crossing his face. "You don't think . . ."
She felt tears well into her eyes and covered her face with her hands to hide them. He would think she was hurt when the fact was she was angry enough to rip out his throat with her bare hands. "God," she whispered. "I'm so stupid."
"How could you think that?" he demanded, as if he had been wronged.
She dropped her hands, not caring what he saw. "Do me a favor, okay? Don't lie to me this time. Don't you dare lie to me."
"I'm not lying to you about anything," he insisted, sounding just as livid as she felt. She would find his outraged tone more persuasive if he hadn't used it on her the first time.
"Sara --- "
"Just get away from me," she said, walking back toward the lake.
"I can't believe this. I can't believe how stupid I am."
"I'm not cheating on you," he said, following her. "Listen to me, okay?" He got in front of her, blocking the way. "I'm not cheating on you."
She stopped, staring at him, wishing she could believe him. He said, "Don't look at me that way."
"I don't know how else to look at you."
He let out a heavy sigh, as if he had a huge weight on his chest.
For someone who insisted he was innocent, he was acting incredibly guilty.
"I'm going back to the house," she told him, but he looked up, and she saw something in his expression that stopped her.
He spoke so softly she had to strain to hear him. "I might be sick."
"Sick?" she repeated, suddenly panicked. "Sick how?"
He walked back and sat down on a rock, his shoulders sagging. It was Sara's turn to follow him.
"Jeff?" she asked, kneeling beside him. "What's wrong?" Tears came into her eyes again, but this time her heart was thumping from fear instead of anger.
Of all the things he could have said, what next came from his mouth shocked her most of all. "Jo called."
Sara sat back on her heels. She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them, her vision tunneling. In high school, Jolene Carter had been everything Sara wasn't: graceful, curvaceous yet thin, the most popular girl in school, with her pick of all the popular boys. She was the prom queen, the head cheerleader, the president of the senior class. She had real blond hair and blue eyes and a little mole, a beauty mark, on her right cheek that gave her otherwise perfect features a worldly, exotic look. Even close to her forties, Jolene Carter still had a perfect body --- something Sara knew because five years ago, she had come home to find Jo completely naked with her perfect ass up in the air, straddling Jeffrey in their bed.
Jeffrey said, "She has hepatitis."
Sara would have laughed if she had the energy. As it was, all she could manage was, "Which kind?"
"The bad kind."
"There are a couple of bad kinds," Sara told him, wondering how she had gotten to this place.
"I haven't slept with her since that one time. You know that, Sara."
For a few seconds, she found herself staring at him, torn between wanting to get up and run away and staying to find out the facts.
"When did she call you?"
"Last week," she repeated, then took a deep breath before asking,
"I don't know. The first part."
"What does it matter?"
"What does it matter?" she echoed, incredulous. "I'm a pediatrician,
Jeffrey. I give kids --- little kids --- injections all day. I take blood from them. I put my fingers in their scrapes and cuts. There are precautions. There are all sorts of . . ." She let her voice trail off, wondering how many children she had exposed to this, trying to remember every shot, every puncture. Had she been safe? She was always sticking herself with needles. She couldn't even let herself worry about her own health. It was too much.
"I went to Hare yesterday," he said, as if the fact that he had visited a doctor after knowing for a week somehow redeemed him.
She pressed her lips together, trying to form the right questions. She had been worried about her kids, but now the full implications hit her head-on. She could be sick, too. She could have some chronic, maybe deadly disease that Jeffrey had given her.
Sara swallowed, trying to speak past the tightness in her throat. "Did he put a rush on the test?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know," she confirmed, not a question. Of course he didn't know. Jeffrey suffered from typical male denial about anything relating to his health. He knew more about his car's maintenance history than his own well-being and she could imagine him sitting in Hare's office, a blank look on his face, trying to think of a good excuse to leave as quickly as possible.
Sara stood up. She needed to pace. "Did he examine you?"
"He said I wasn't showing any symptoms."
"I want you to go to another doctor."
"What's wrong with Hare?"
"He . . ." She couldn't find the words. Her brain wouldn't work.
"Just because he's your goofy cousin doesn't mean he's not a good doctor."
"He didn't tell me," she said, feeling betrayed by both of them.
Jeffrey gave her a careful look. "I asked him not to."
"Of course you did," she said, feeling not so much angry as blindsided. "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you take me with you so that I could ask the right questions?"
"This," he said, indicating her pacing. "You've got enough on your mind. I didn't want you to be upset."
"That's crap and you know it." Jeffrey hated giving bad news. As confrontational as he had to be in his job, he was incapable of making waves at home. "Is this why you haven't wanted to have sex?"
"I was being careful."
"Careful," she repeated.
"Hare said I could be a carrier."
"You were too scared to tell me."
"I didn't want to upset you."
"You didn't want me to be upset with you," she corrected. "This has nothing to do with sparing my feelings. You didn't want me to be mad at you."
"Please don't do this." He reached out to take her hand but she jerked away. "It's not my fault, okay?" He tried again, "It was years ago, Sara. She had to tell me because her doctor said so." As if this made things better, he said, "She's seeing Hare, too. Call him. He's the one who said I had to be informed. It's just a precaution. You're a doctor. You know that."
"Stop," she ordered, holding up her hands. Words were on the tip of her tongue, but she struggled not to say them. "I can't talk about this right now."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know," she said, walking toward the shore. "Home," she told him. "You can stay at your house tonight."
"See," he said, as if making a point. "This is why I didn't tell you."
"Don't blame me for this," she shot back, her throat clenching around the words. She wanted to be yelling, but she found herself so filled with rage that she was incapable of raising her voice. "I'm not mad at you because you screwed around, Jeffrey. I'm mad at you because you kept this from me. I have a right to know. Even if this didn't affect me and my health and my patients, it affects you."
He jogged to keep up with her. "I'm fine."
She stopped, turning to look at him. "Do you even know what hepatitis is?"
His shoulders rose in a shrug. "I figured I'd deal with that when I had to. If I had to."
"Jesus," Sara whispered, unable to do anything but walk away. She headed toward the road, thinking she should take the long way back to her parents in order to calm down. Her mother would have a field day with this, and rightfully so.
Jeffrey started to follow. "Where are you going?"
"I'll call you in a few days." She did not wait for his answer. "I need some time to think."
He closed the gap between them, his fingers brushing the back of her arm. "We need to talk."
She laughed. "Now you want to talk about it."
"Sara --- "
"There's nothing more to say," she told him, quickening her pace. Jeffrey kept up, his footsteps heavy behind her. She was starting off into a jog when he slammed into her from behind. Sara fell to the ground with a hollow-sounding thud, knocking the wind out of her. The thud as she hit the ground reverberated in her ears like a distant echo.
She pushed him off, demanding, "What are you --- "
"Jesus, I'm sorry. Are you okay?" He knelt in front of her, picking a twig out of her hair. "I didn't mean --- "
"You jackass," she snapped. He had scared her more than anything else, and her response was even more anger. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I tripped," he said, trying to help her up.
"Don't touch me." She slapped him away and stood on her own.
He brushed the dirt off her pants, repeating, "Are you okay?"
She backed away from him. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm not a piece of china." She scowled at her dirt-stained sweatshirt. The sleeve had been torn at the shoulder. "What is wrong with you?"
"I told you I tripped. Do you think I did it on purpose?"
"No," she told him, though the admission did nothing to ease her anger. "God, Jeffrey." She tested her knee, feeling the tendon catch. "That really hurt."
"I'm sorry," he repeated, pulling another twig out of her hair.
She looked at her torn sleeve, more annoyed now than angry.
He turned, scanning the area. "There must have been . . ." He stopped talking.
She followed his gaze and saw a length of metal pipe sticking out of the ground. A rubber band held a piece of wire screen over the top.
All he said was "Sara," but the dread in his tone sent a jolt through her.
She replayed the scene in her head, the sound as she was slammed into the ground. There should have been a solid thump, not a hollow reverberation. Something was underneath them. Something was buried in the earth.
"Christ," Jeffrey whispered, snatching off the screen. He looked down into the pipe, but Sara knew the half-inch circumference would make it impossible to see.
Still, she asked, "Anything?"
"No." He tried to move the pipe back and forth, but it would not budge. Something underground held it tightly in place.
She dropped to her knees and brushed the leaves and pine needles away from the area, working her way back as she followed the pattern of loose soil. She was about four feet away from Jeffrey when they both seemed to realize what might be below them.
Sara felt her own alarm escalate with Jeffrey's as he started clawing his fingers into the ground. The soil came away easily as if someone had recently dug there. Soon, Sara was on her knees beside him, pulling up clumps of rock and earth, trying not to think about what they might find.
"Fuck!" Jeffrey jerked up his hand, and Sara saw a deep gash along the side of his palm where a sharp stick had gouged out the skin. The cut was bleeding profusely, but he went back to the task in front of him, digging at the ground, throwing dirt to the side.
Sara's fingernails scraped something hard, and she pulled her hand back to find wood underneath. She said, "Jeffrey," but he kept digging. "Jeffrey."
"I know," he told her. He had exposed a section of wood around the pipe. A metal collar surrounded the conduit, holding it tightly in place. Jeffrey took out his pocketknife, and Sara could only stare as he tried to work out the screws. Blood from his cut palm made his hands slide down the handle, and he finally gave up, tossing the knife aside and grabbing the pipe. He put his shoulder into it, wincing from the pain. Still, he kept pushing until there was an ominous groan from the wood, then a splintering as the collar came away.
Sara covered her nose as a stagnant odor drifted out.
The hole was roughly three inches square, sharp splinters cutting into the opening like teeth.
Jeffrey put his eye to the break. He shook his head. "I can't see anything."
Sara kept digging, moving back along the length of the wood, each new section she uncovered making her feel like her heart would explode from her mouth. There were several one-by-twos nailed together, forming the top of what could only be a long, rectangular box. Her breath caught, and despite the breeze she broke out into a cold sweat. Her sweatshirt suddenly felt like a straitjacket, and she pulled it over her head and tossed it aside so she could move more freely. Her mind was reeling with the possibilities of what they might find. Sara seldom prayed, but thinking about what they might discover buried below moved her to ask anyone who was listening to please help.
"Watch out," Jeffrey warned, using the pipe to pry at the wooden slats. Sara sat back on her knees, shielding her eyes as dirt sprayed into the air. The wood splintered, most of it still buried, but Jeffrey kept at it, using his hands to break the thin slats. A low, creaking moan like a dying gasp came as nails yielded against the strain. The odor of fresh decay wafted over Sara like a sour breeze, but she did not look away when Jeffrey lay flat to the ground so that he could reach his arm into the narrow opening.
He looked up at her as he felt around, his jaw clenched tight. "I feel something," he said. "Somebody."
"Breathing?" Sara asked, but he shook his head before she got the word out of her mouth.
Jeffrey worked more slowly, more deliberately, as he pried away another piece of wood. He looked at the underside, then passed it to Sara. She could see scratch marks in the pulp, as if an animal had been trapped. A fingernail about the size of one of her own was embedded in the next piece Jeffrey handed her, and Sara put it faceup on the ground. The next slat was scratched harder, and she put this beside the first, keeping a semblance of the pattern, knowing it was evidence. It could be an animal. A kid's prank. Some old Indian burial ground. Explanations flashed in and out of her mind, but she could only watch as Jeffrey pried the boards away, each slat feeling like a splinter in Sara's heart. There were almost twenty pieces in all, but by the twelfth, they could see what was inside.
Jeffrey stared into the coffin, his Adam's apple moving up and down as he swallowed. Like Sara, he seemed at a loss for words.
The victim was a young woman, probably in her late teens. Her dark hair was long to her waist, blanketing her body. She wore a simple blue dress that fell to mid-calf and white socks but no shoes. Her mouth and eyes were wide open in a panic that Sara could almost taste. One hand reached up, fingers contracted as if the girl was still trying to claw her way out. Tiny dots of petechiae were scattered in the sclera of her eyes, long-dried tears evidenced by the thin red lines breaking through the white. Several empty water bottles were in the box along with a jar that had obviously been used for waste. A flashlight was on her right, a half-eaten piece of bread on her left. Mold grew on the corners, much as mold grew like a fine mustache over the girl's upper lip. The young woman had not been a remarkable beauty, but she had probably been pretty in her own, unassuming way.
Jeffrey exhaled slowly, sitting back on the ground. Like Sara, he was covered in dirt. Like Sara, he did not seem to care.
They both stared at the girl, watched the breeze from the lake ruffle her thick hair and pick at the long sleeves of her dress. Sara noticed a matching blue ribbon tied in the girl's hair and wondered who had put it there. Had her mother or sister tied it for her? Had she sat in her room and looked at the mirror, securing the ribbon herself? And then what had happened? What had brought her here?
Jeffrey wiped his hands on his jeans, bloody fingerprints leaving their mark. "They didn't mean to kill her," he guessed.
"No," Sara agreed, enveloped by an overwhelming sadness. "They just wanted to scare her to death."
There were bruises that came from being a cop: the rub from where the gun on your hip wore so hard against you that some days it felt like the bone was getting a permanent dent. The thin line of blue like a crayon mark on your forearm from accommodating the lump of steel as you kept your hand as straight to your side as you could, trying not to alert the population at large that you were carrying concealed.
When Lena was a rookie, there were even more problems: back aching, gunbelt chafing, welts from her nightstick slapping her leg as she ran all out to catch up with a perp. Sometimes, by the time she caught them, it felt good to use the stick, let them know what it felt like to chase their sorry ass half a mile in ninety-degree heat with eighty pounds of equipment flogging your body. Then there was the bulletproof vest. Lena had known cops --- big, burly men --- who had passed out from heat exhaustion. In August, it was so hot that they weighed the odds: get shot in the chest or die from heatstroke.
Yet, when she finally got her gold detective's shield, gave up her uniform and hat, signed in her portable radio for the last time, she had missed the weight of it all. She missed the heavy reminder that she was a cop. Being a detective meant you worked without props. On the street, you couldn't let your uniform do the talking, your cruiser making traffic slow even if the cars were already going the speed limit. You had to find other ways to intimidate the bad guys. You only had your brain to let you know you were still a cop.
After the nurse had left her sitting in that room in Atlanta, what the clinic called the recovery room, Lena had looked at the familiar bruises, judging them against the new ones. Finger marks wrapped around her arm like a band. Her wrist was swollen from where it had been twisted. She could not see the fist-shaped welt above her left kidney, but she felt it whenever she moved the wrong way.
Her first year wearing the uniform, she had seen it all. Domestic disputes where women threw rocks at your cruiser, thinking that would help talk you out of carting off their abusive husbands to jail. Neighbors knifing each other over a mulberry tree hanging too low or a missing lawn mower that ended up being in the garage somewhere, usually near a little Baggie of pot or sometimes something harder. Little kids clinging to their fathers, begging not to be taken away from their homes, then you'd get them to the hospital and the doctors would find signs of vaginal or anal tearing. Sometimes, their throats would be torn down deep, little scratch marks inside where they had choked.
The instructors tried to prepare you for this sort of thing in the academy, but you could never be really prepared. You had to see it, taste it, feel it for yourself. No one explained how terrifying it was to do a traffic stop on some out-of-towner, your heart pounding in your chest as you walked up to the driver's side, hand on your gun, wondering if the guy in the car had his hand on his gun, too. The textbooks had pictures of dead people, and Lena could remember how the guys in class had laughed at some of them. The lady who got drunk and passed out in the bathtub with her panty hose caught around her ankles. The guy who hanged himself getting his nut off, and then you had this moment when you realized the thing he was holding in his hand wasn't a ripe plum. He had probably been a father, a husband, definitely someone's son, but to all the cadets, he was "the Plum-Nut Guy."
None of this got you ready for the sight and smell of the real thing. Your training officer couldn't describe the feel of death, when you walked into a room and the hairs on the back of your neck stood up, telling you something bad had happened, or --- worse --- was about to happen. Your chief couldn't warn you against the habit of smacking your lips, trying to get the taste out of your mouth. No one told you that no matter how many times you scrubbed your body, only time could wear away the smell of death from your skin. Running three miles a day in the hot sun, working the weights in the gym, the sweat pouring off you like rain coming out of dark clouds until finally you got the smell out, and then you went out on a call --- to a gas station, an abandoned car, a neighbor's house where the papers were piled in the driveway and mail was spilling out of the box --- and found another grandmother or brother or sister or uncle you had to sweat out of your system again.
No one knew how to help you deal with it when death came into your own life. No one could take away the grief you felt knowing that your own actions had ended a life --- no matter how nasty that life was. That was the kicker. As a cop, you learned pretty quickly that there was an "us" and a "them." Lena never thought she'd mourn the loss of a "them," but lately, that was all she could think about. And now there was another life taken, another death on her hands.
She had been feeling death inside out for the last few days, and nothing could rid it from her senses. Her mouth tasted sour, every breath she drew fueling what smelled like decay. Her ears heard a constant shrill siren and there was a clamminess to her skin that made her feel as if she had borrowed it from a graveyard. Her body was not her own, her mind something she could no longer control. From the second she had left the clinic through the night they spent in an Atlanta hotel room to the moment she had walked through the door of her uncle's house, all she could think about was what she had done, the bad decisions that had led her here.
Lying in bed now, Lena looked out the window, staring at the depressing backyard. Hank hadn't changed a thing in the house since Lena was a child. Her bedroom still had the brown water stain in the corner where a branch had punctured the roof during a storm. The paint peeled off the wall where he'd used the wrong kind of primer and the wallpaper had soaked up enough nicotine to give it all the same sickly jaundiced cast.
Lena had grown up here with Sibyl, her twin sister. Their mother had died in childbirth and Calvin Adams, their father, had been shot on a traffic stop a few months before that. Sibyl had been killed three years ago. Another death, another abandonment. Maybe having her sister around had kept Lena rooted in life. Now she was drifting, making even more bad choices and not bothering to rectify them. She was living with the consequences of her actions. Or maybe barely surviving would be a better way to describe it.
Lena touched her fingers to her stomach, to where the baby had been less than a week ago. Only one person was living with the consequences. Only one person had survived. Would the child have had her dark coloring, the genes of her Mexican-American grandmother surfacing yet again, or would it have inherited the father's steel gray eyes and pale white skin?
She lifted up, sliding her fingers into her back pocket, pulling out a long pocketknife. Carefully, she pried open the blade. The tip was broken off, and embedded in a semicircle of dried blood was Ethan's fingerprint.
She looked at her arm, the deep bruise where Ethan had grabbed her, and wondered how the finger that had made the swirling print in the blade, the hand that had held this knife, the fist that had caused so much pain, could be the same one that gently traced its way down her body.
The cop in her knew she should arrest him. The woman in her knew that he was bad. The realist knew that one day he would kill her. Some unnamed place deep inside of Lena resisted these thoughts, and she found herself being the worst kind of coward. She was the woman throwing rocks at the police cruiser. She was the neighbor with the knife. She was the idiot kid clinging to her abuser. She was the one with tears deep inside her throat, choking on what he made her swallow.
"It's been a week," she said, as if that answered the question. They had told her she would be able to go back to work two days after the procedure, but Lena didn't know how women managed to do it. She had been on the Grant County force for twelve years and never taken a vacation until now. It'd be funny if this were the sort of thing you could laugh at.
"I got some lunch on the way home," he said, and Lena guessed from his neatly pressed Hawaiian shirt and white jeans that he had been at church all morning. She glanced at the clock; it was after noon. She had slept for fifteen hours.
He pressed together his thin lips, scratching his arms like they itched. The needle tracks scarring his skin were still prominent even after all these years, and she hated the sight of them, hated the way he didn't seem to care that they reminded her of everything that was wrong between them.
"Thanks," she managed, letting her legs hang over the bed. She pressed her feet firmly to the floor, trying to remind herself that she was here in this room. This last week, she had found herself traveling around in her mind, going to places that felt better, safer. Sibyl was still alive. Ethan Green hadn't come into her life yet. Things were easier.
A long, hot bath would have been nice, but Lena wasn't allowed to sit in a tub for at least another week. She wasn't allowed to have sex for twice as long as that, and every time she tried to come up with a lie, some explanation to give Ethan for not being available, all she could think was that it would be easier just to let him do it. Whatever harm came to her would be her own fault. There had to be a day of reckoning for what she had done. There had to be some sort of punishment for the lie that was her life.
She took a quick shower to wake herself up, making sure not to get her hair wet because the thought of holding a hair dryer for however many minutes it took was too tiring to even think about. She was turning lazy through all this, sitting around and staring out the window as if the dirt-packed backyard with its lonesome tire swing and 1959 Cadillac that had been on blocks since before Lena and Sibyl had been born was the beginning and end of her world. It could be. Hank had said more than a few times that she could move back in with him, and the easiness of the offer had swayed her back and forth like the ocean's undertow. If she did not leave soon, she would find herself adrift with no hope of land. She would never feel her feet firmly on the ground again.
Hank had been against taking her to the clinic in Atlanta, but to his credit, he had let her decision stand. Through the years, Hank had done a lot of things for Lena that maybe he didn't believe in --- be it for religious reasons or his own damn fool stubbornness --- and she was just now realizing what a gift that was. Not that she would ever be able to acknowledge this to his face. As much as Hank Norton had been one of the few constants in her life, Lena was keenly aware that for him, she was the only thing he had left to hold on to. If she were a less selfish person, she'd feel sorry for the old man.
The kitchen was right off the bathroom, and she wrapped herself in her robe before she opened the door. Hank was standing over the sink, tearing the skin off a piece of fried chicken. KFC boxes were scattered on the counter beside a paper plate piled with mashed potatoes, coleslaw and a couple of biscuits.
Lena could see the brown gravy congealing on top of the potatoes and the mayonnaise smell from the coleslaw made her stomach clench. Just the thought of food made her want to vomit. Seeing it, smelling it, was enough to push her over the edge.
For once, she did as she was told, taking a wobbly chair from under the kitchen table. There were tons of pamphlets scattered on the top --- AA and NA meetings being Hank's most abiding addiction --- but he had cleared a small space for her to eat. She put her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hand, not feeling dizzy so much as out of place.
He rubbed her back, his callused fingers catching on the material of her robe. She gritted her teeth, wishing he wouldn't touch her but not wanting to deal with the hurt look on his face if she pulled away.
He pulled out another chair and sat across from her. Lena could sense him waiting for her to look up, and she took her time obliging. As a kid, she had thought Hank was old, but now that she was thirty-four, the age Hank had been when he took in his dead sister's twin daughters to raise, he looked ancient. The life he'd lived had cut hard lines into his face just as the needles he'd pushed into his veins had left their marks. Ice blue eyes stared back at her, and she could see anger under his concern. Anger had always been a constant companion to Hank, and sometimes when she looked at him, Lena could see her future written out in his cragged features.
The drive to Atlanta, to the clinic, had been a quiet one. Normally, they didn't have much to say to each other, but the heaviness of the silence had been like a weight on Lena's chest. She had told Hank she wanted to go into the clinic alone, but once she got into the building --- its bright fluorescent lights almost pulsing with the knowledge of what she was about to do --- Lena had longed for his presence.
There was one other woman in the waiting room, an almost pathetically thin mousy blonde who kept fidgeting with her hands, avoiding Lena's gaze almost as keenly as Lena avoided hers. She was a few years younger than Lena, but kept her hair swept up on top of her head in a tight bun like she was an old lady. Lena found herself wondering what had brought the girl there --- was she a college student whose carefully planned life had hit a snag? A careless flirt who had gone too far at a party? The victim of some drunken uncle's affection?
Lena didn't ask her --- didn't have the nerve and did not want to open herself up to the same question. So they sat for nearly an hour, two prisoners awaiting a death sentence, both consumed by the guilt of their crimes. Lena had almost been relieved when they took her back to the procedure room, doubly relieved to see Hank when they finally wheeled her outside to the parking lot. He must have paced beside his car, chain-smoking the entire time. The pavement was littered with brown butts that he had smoked down to the filters.
Afterward, he had taken her to a hotel on Tenth Street, knowing they should stay in Atlanta in case she had a reaction or needed help. Reese, the town where Hank had raised Lena and Sibyl and where he still lived, was a small town and people didn't have anything better to do than talk about their neighbors. Barring that, neither one of them trusted the local doctor to know what to do if Lena needed help. The man refused to write prescriptions for birth control and was often quoted in the local paper saying that the problem with the town's rowdy youth was that their mothers had jobs instead of staying home to raise their kids like God intended.
The hotel room was nicer than anything Lena had ever stayed in, a sort of mini-suite with a sitting area. Hank had stayed on the couch watching TV with the sound turned down low, ordering room service when he had to, not even going out to smoke. At night, he folded his lanky body onto the couch, his light snores keeping Lena up, but comforting her at the same time.
She had told Ethan she was going to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's training lab for a course on crime scene processing that Jeffrey wanted her to attend. She had told Nan, her roommate, that she was going to stay with Hank to go through some of Sibyl's things. In retrospect, she knew she should have told them the same lie to make it easier, but for some reason lying to Nan had flustered Lena. Her sister and Nan had been lovers, made a life together. After Sibyl died, Nan had tried to take Lena under her wing, a poor substitute for Sibyl, but at least she had tried. Lena still did not know why she could not bring herself to tell the other woman the real reason for the trip.
Nan was a lesbian, and judging by the mail she got, she was probably some kind of feminist. She would have been an easier person to take to the clinic than Hank, vocalizing her support instead of seething in quiet disdain. Nan would have probably raised her fist at the protesters outside who were yelling "Baby killer!" and "Murderer!" as the nurse took Lena to the car in a squeaky old wheelchair. Nan probably would have comforted Lena, maybe brought her tea and made her eat something instead of letting her hold on to her hunger like a punishment, relishing the dizziness and the burning pain in her stomach. She certainly wouldn't have let Lena lie around in bed all day staring out the window.
They'd had this conversation before. Mostly, Hank talked and Lena just stared, waiting for him to realize she was not going to participate. He had gone to too many meetings, seen too many drunks and addicts pouring out their hearts to a bunch of strangers just for a little plastic chip to carry around in their pockets.
She realized that she was rubbing her belly and made herself stop. Ethan had punched her square in the stomach when she had told him that no, she really wasn't pregnant, it was a false alarm. He had warned her that if she ever killed a child of theirs, he would kill her, too. He warned her about a lot of things she didn't listen to.
They didn't understand that it didn't matter how strong you were, mentally or physically. What mattered was that need you felt in your gut, and how they made the ache go away. Lena used to have such disgust for women who let men knock them around. What was wrong with them? What made them so weak that they didn't care about themselves? They were pathetic, getting exactly what they asked for. Sometimes she had wanted to slap them around herself, tell them to straighten up, stop being a doormat.
From the inside, she saw it differently. As easy as it was to hate Ethan when he wasn't around, when he was there and being sweet, she never wanted him to leave. As bad as her life was, he could make it better or worse, depending on his mood. Giving him that control, that responsibility, was almost a relief, one more thing she didn't have to deal with. And, to be honest, sometimes she hit him back. Sometimes she hit him first.
Every woman who'd ever been slapped around said she had asked for it, set off her boyfriend or husband by making him mad or burning dinner or whatever it was they used to justify having the shit beaten out of them, but Lena knew for a fact that she brought out Ethan's bad side. He had wanted to change. When she first met him, he was trying very hard to be a different person, a good person. If Hank knew this particular fact, he would be shocked if not sickened. It wasn't Ethan who caused the bruises, it was Lena. She was the one who kept pulling him back in. She was the one who kept baiting him and slapping him until he got angry enough to explode, and when he was on top of her, beating her, fucking her, she felt alive. She felt reborn.
With his history, Hank of all people should understand. Ethan was bad for her. He turned her into the kind of person she loathed, and yet she kept going back for more. He was the worst kind of addiction because no one but Lena could understand the draw.
She looked at the clock on the wall, tried to think how long it would take to pack and get back to Grant County. For the first time that week, she could feel her heart beating again, adrenaline flooding into her bloodstream and making her feel like she was waking up from a long sleep.
Sara winced as she wrapped a Band-Aid around a broken fingernail. Her hands felt bruised from digging and small scratches gouged into the tips of her fingers like tiny pinpricks. She would have to be extra careful at the clinic this week, making sure the wounds were covered at all times. As she bandaged her thumb, her mind flashed to the piece of fingernail she had found stuck in the strip of wood, and she felt guilty for worrying about her petty problems. Sara could not imagine what the girl's last moments had been like, but she knew that before the day was over, she would have to do just that.
Working in the morgue, Sara had seen the terrible ways that people can die --- stabbings, shootings, beatings, strangulations. She tried to look at each case with a clinical eye, but sometimes, a victim would become a living, breathing thing, beseeching Sara to help. Lying dead in that box out in the woods, the girl had called to Sara. The look of fear etched into every line of her face, the hand grasping for some hold on to life --- all beseeched someone, anyone, to help. The girl's last moments must have been horrific. Sara could think of nothing more terrifying than being buried alive.
The telephone rang in her office, and Sara jogged across the room to answer before the machine picked up. She was a second too late, and the speaker echoed a screech of feedback as she picked up the phone.
The phone clicked before Sara could respond. She sat back in her chair, looking down at her desk, noticing the neat stacks of papers and memos. All of her pens were in a cup and the phone was perfectly aligned with the edge of the metal desk. Carlos, her assistant, worked full-time at the morgue but he had whole days when there was nothing for him to do but twiddle his thumbs and wait for someone to die. He had obviously kept himself busy straightening her office. Sara traced a scratch along the top of the Formica, thinking she had never noticed the faux wood laminate in all the years she had worked here.
She thought about the wood used to build the box that held the girl. The lumber looked new, and the screen mesh covering the pipe had obviously been wrapped around the top in order to keep debris from blocking the air supply. Someone was keeping the girl there, holding her there, for his own sick purposes. Was her abductor somewhere right now thinking about her trapped in the box, getting some sort of sexual thrill from the power he thought he held over her? Had he already gotten his satisfaction, simply by leaving her there to die?
"He could have taken away her shoes after she got in the box," Sara suggested. Then, realizing his true concern, she added, "I'll have to get her on the table before I can tell if she was sexually assaulted."
"Maybe he was waiting for that," Jeffrey hypothesized, and they were both quiet for a moment as they considered this. "It's pouring down rain here," he said. "We're trying to dig out the box, see if we can find anything on it."
"Yeah," he said. "The joints are all mitered. Whoever built this didn't just throw it together. It took some skill." He paused a moment, but she didn't hear him talking to anyone. Finally, he said, "She looks like a kid, Sara."
Sara was silent. She had seen too many secrets revealed during an autopsy to make a snap judgment about the girl. There could be any number of circumstances that had brought her to that dark place in the woods.
"That spot, though . . ." Sara let her voice trail off, wondering if there was a night last week when she had looked out her window, darkness obscuring the girl and her abductor as he buried her alive across the lake.
"He would want to check on her," Jeffrey said, echoing Sara's earlier thoughts about the girl's abductor. "We're asking neighbors if they've seen anybody in or out recently who looked like they didn't belong."
"Goggles, too?" she asked, feeling like a hall monitor but knowing she had to raise the issue. Jeffrey did not respond, so she spelled it out for him. "I don't want to be a pain about this, but we should be careful until we find out. You would never forgive yourself if . . ." She stopped, deciding to let him fill in the rest. When he still did not respond, she asked, "Jeffrey?"
"Maybe it was too restrictive. Maybe she panicked." Sara paused. "This is why I don't like giving an opinion without all the facts. There could be an underlying cause, something to do with her heart. She could be diabetic. She could be anything. I just won't know until I get her on the table --- and then I might not know for certain until all the tests are back, and I might not even know then."
"I called Nick," he said, referring to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's local field agent. "He's going into the office to see if he can pull up any matches on the computer. This could be some kind of kidnapping for ransom."
She gently placed the receiver back in the cradle, Jeffrey's words echoing in her mind. A little over a year ago, he had been forced to shoot a young girl in the line of duty. Sara had been there, had watched the scene play out like a nightmare, and she knew that Jeffrey had not had a choice, just like she knew that he would never forgive himself for his part in the girl's death.
Sara walked over to the filing cabinet against the wall, gathering paperwork for the autopsy. Though the cause of death was probably asphyxiation, central blood and urine would have to be collected, labeled and sent to the state lab, where it would languish until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's overburdened staff could get to it. Tissue would have to be processed and stored in the morgue for at least three years. Trace evidence would have to be collected, dated and sealed into paper bags. Depending on what Sara found, a rape kit might have to be performed: fingernails scraped and clipped, vagina, anus and mouth swabbed, DNA collected for processing. Organs would be weighed, arms and legs measured. Hair color, eye color, birthmarks, age, race, gender, number of teeth, scars, bruises, anatomical abnormalities --- all of these would be noted on the appropriate form. In the next few hours, Sara would be able to tell Jeffrey everything there was to know about the girl except for the one thing that really mattered to him: her name.
Sara opened her logbook to assign a case number. To the coroner's office, she would be #8472. Presently, there were only two cases of unidentified bodies found in Grant County, so the police would refer to her as Jane Doe number three. Sara felt an overwhelming sadness as she wrote this title in the log. Until a family member was found, the victim would simply be a series of numbers.
Sara pulled out another stack of forms, thumbing through them until she found the US Standard Certificate of Death. By law, Sara had forty-eight hours to submit a death certificate for the girl. The process of changing the victim from a person into a numerical sequence would be amplified at each step. After the autopsy, Sara would find the corresponding code that signified mode of death and put it in the correct box on the form. The form would be sent to the National Center for Health Statistics, which would in turn report the death to the World Health Organization. There, the girl would be catalogued and analyzed, given more codes, more numbers, which would be assimilated into other data from around the country, then around the world. The fact that she had a family, friends, perhaps lovers, would never enter into the equation.
Again, Sara thought about the girl lying in the wooden coffin, the terrified look on her face. She was someone's daughter. When she was born, someone had looked into the infant's face and given her a name. Someone had loved her.
the elevator doors, listening to the groaning machinery as the car made its way down the shaft. Carlos was incredibly serious, and one of the few jokes Sara had ever heard him make had to do with plummeting to his death inside the ancient contraption.
The floor indicator over the doors was the old-fashioned kind, a clock with three numbers. The needle hovered between one and zero, barely moving. Sara leaned back against the wall, counting the seconds in her head. She was on thirty-eight and about to call building maintenance when a loud ding echoed in the tiled room and the doors slowly slid open.
"Let me help," she offered, taking the end of the gurney so that he wouldn't have to angle it out into the room by himself. The girl's arm was still stuck up at a shallow angle where she had tried to claw her way out of the box, and Sara had to lift the gurney into a turn so that it would not catch against the door.
At the scene, Carlos had placed the girl in a black body bag, and together, they grabbed the corners of the bag and lifted her onto the table. Sara helped him with the zipper, working quietly alongside him as they prepared her for autopsy. After putting on a pair of gloves, Carlos cut through the brown paper bags that had been placed over her hands to preserve any evidence. Her long hair was tangled in places, but still managed to cascade over the side of the table. Sara gloved herself and tucked the hair around the body, aware that she was studiously avoiding the horror-stricken mask of the girl's face. A quick glance at Carlos proved he was doing the same.
As Carlos began undressing the girl, Sara walked over to the metal cabinet by the sinks and took out a surgical gown and goggles. She laid these on a tray by the table, feeling an almost unbearable sadness as Carlos exposed the girl's milk-white flesh to the harsh lights of the morgue. Her small breasts were covered with what looked like a training bra and she was wearing a pair of high-legged cotton briefs that Sara always associated with the elderly; Granny Earnshaw had given Sara and Tessa a ten-pair pack of the same style every year for Christmas, and Tessa had always called them granny panties.
"No label," Carlos said, and Sara went over to see for herself. He had spread the dress on a piece of brown paper to catch any trace evidence. Sara changed her gloves before touching the material, not wanting to cross-contaminate. The dress was cut from a simple pattern, long sleeves with a stiff collar. She guessed the material to be some kind of heavy cotton blend.
Sara checked the stitching, saying, "It doesn't look factory made," thinking this might be a clue in its own right. Aside from an ill-fated home economics course in high school, Sara had never sewn more than a button. Whoever had sewn the dress obviously knew what they were doing.
Sara returned to the autopsy table, relieved to see no signs of bruising or trauma on the girl's pubis and upper thighs. She waited as Carlos plugged in the purple light and waved it over the clothes. Nothing glowed, meaning there were no traces of semen or blood on the items. Dragging the extension cord behind him, he walked to the body and handed Sara the light.
She said, "You can do it," and he slowly traced the light up and down the girl's body. His hands were steady as he did this, his gaze intent. Sara often let Carlos do small tasks like this, knowing he must be bored out of his mind waiting around the morgue all day. Yet, the one time she had suggested he look into going back to school, Carlos had shaken his head in disbelief, as if she had proposed he fly to the moon.
Sara rolled the Mayo trays over to the table. Carlos had already arranged the tools for autopsy, and even though he seldom made mistakes, Sara checked through them, making sure everything she needed would be on hand.
Several scalpels were lined up in a row beside various types of surgically sharpened scissors. Different-sized forceps, retractors, probes, wire cutters, a bread-loafing knife and various probes were on the next tray. The Stryker saw and postmortem hammer/hook were at the foot of the table, the grocer's scales for weighing organs above. Unbreakable jars and test tubes were by the sink awaiting tissue samples. A meter stick and a small ruler were beside the camera, which would be used to document any abnormal findings.
Sara turned back around just as Carlos was resting the girl's shoulders on the rubber block in order to extend her neck. With Sara's help, he unfolded a white sheet and draped it over her body, leaving her bent arm outside the cover. He was gentle with the body, as if she was still alive and could feel everything he did. Not for the first time, Sara was struck by the fact that she had worked with Carlos for over a decade and still knew very little about him.
She waited until she heard his heavy footsteps echoing in the stairwell before she let herself look at the girl's face. Under the overhead spotlight, she looked older than Sara initially had thought. She could even be in her early twenties. She could be married. She could have a child of her own.
"Hey," Lena said, looking around the morgue, seeming to take in everything. She kept her hands on her hips, her gun sticking out under her arm. Lena had a cop's way of standing, feet wide apart, shoulders squared, and though she was a small woman, her attitude filled the room. Something about the detective had always made Sara uncomfortable, and they were rarely alone together.
"That's okay," Lena answered, walking over to the body. She gazed at the girl a moment before giving a low whistle. Sara watched her, thinking something seemed different about Lena. Normally, she projected an air of anger, but today, her defenses felt slightly compromised. There was a red-rimmed tiredness to her eyes, and she had obviously lost weight recently, something that didn't suit her already trim frame.
Sara stopped and explained everything that had happened. Lena took it all in, expressionless. Sara knew the other woman had trained herself not to respond, but it was unnerving the way Lena could distance herself from such a horrific crime.
He hissed between his teeth as she put his hand under the hot water. The wound was deep enough for sutures, but too much time had passed to sew it up without risking infection. Sara would have to butterfly it closed and hope for the best. "I'm going to write you a prescription for an antibiotic."
"Dr. Linton?" Carlos was standing by the lightbox, looking at the girl's X-rays. Sara finished with Jeffrey before joining him. There were several films in place, but her eyes instantly went to the abdominal series.
"I don't know," Sara answered, feeling like a piece of glass was in her chest. She would have to hold the fetus in her hand, dissecting it like she was cutting up a piece of fruit. The skull would be soft, the eyes and mouth simply hinted at by dark lines under paper-thin skin. Cases like this made her hate her job.
"Not necessarily," Sara reminded him. Depending on which side screamed the loudest, politicians were changing the laws governing fetal death practically every day. Thankfully, Sara had never had to look into it. "I'll have to check with the state."
"It's no longer based on viability," Sara explained, wondering why Lena was pressing the point. She had never struck Sara as the type who liked children, but Lena was getting older. Maybe her biological clock had finally started ticking.
Carlos helped Sara into the surgical gown, and together they went over every inch of the girl's body, measuring and photographing what little they found. There were a few fingernail marks around her throat where she had probably scratched herself, a common reaction when someone was having difficulty breathing. Skin was missing from the tips of the index and middle finger of her right hand, and Sara imagined they would find the pieces stuck to the wooden slats that had been above her. Splinters were under her remaining fingernails where she had tried to scrape her way out, but Sara found no tissue or skin lodged under the nails.
The girl's mouth was clean of debris, the soft tissue free from tears and bruising. She had no fillings or dental work, but the beginning of a cavity was on her right rear molar. Her wisdom teeth were intact, two of them already breaking through the skin. A star-shaped birthmark was below the girl's right buttock and a patch of dry skin was on her right forearm. She had been wearing a long-sleeved dress, so Sara assumed this was a bit of recurring eczema. Winter was always harder on the fair-skinned.
Jeffrey leaned over the body, holding the camera close to her face. The flashbulb sparked, sending a loud pop through the room. Sara blinked to clear her vision, the smell of burning plastic from the cheap camera temporarily masking the other odors that filled the morgue.
Sara pressed down the arm to the girl's side so that Carlos could ink and print her fingers. She said, "Full rigor would happen anywhere between six to twelve hours after death. From the way it's breaking up, I'd say she's been dead a day, two days, tops." She indicated the lividity on the back of the body, pressing her fingers into the purplish marks. "Liver mortis is set up. She's starting to decompose.
Sara looked at the card Carlos handed her, checking to make sure he had gotten a good set from what remained of the girl's fingertips. She nodded to him, giving back the card, and told Jeffrey, "There are molds that can grow quickly, especially in that environment. She could have vomited and the mold set up on that." Another thought occurred to her. "Some types of fungus can deplete oxygen in an enclosed space."
Sara nodded, though she could not imagine what it would be like to have known the girl in life and see this picture of her now. Even with all Sara had tried to do to the face, there was no mistaking that the death had been an excruciating one.
Carlos handed her the speculum and rolled over a portable lamp. Sara felt they were all holding their breath as she did the pelvic exam, and when she told them, "There's no sign of sexual assault," there seemed to be a group exhalation. She did not know why rape made cases like this that much more horrific, but there was no getting around the fact that she was relieved the girl hadn't had to suffer one more degradation before she'd died.
Next, Sara checked the eyes, noting the scattershot broken blood vessels. The girl's lips were blue, her slightly protruding tongue a deep purple. "You don't usually see petechiae in this kind of asphyxiation," she said.
She used an eighteen-gauge needle to pierce the center of the eye, drawing out vitreous humor from the globe. Carlos filled another syringe with saline and she used this to replace what she had taken so that the orb would not collapse.
Jeffrey and Lena nodded. Sara pressed the pedal under the table, engaging the Dictaphone, and recorded into the tape, "Coroner's case number eighty-four-seventy-two is the unembalmed body of a Caucasian Jane Doe with brown hair and brown eyes. Age is unknown but estimated to be eighteen to twenty years old. Weight, one thirteen; height, sixty-three inches. Skin is cool to the touch and consistent with being buried underground for an unspecified period of time." She tapped off the recorder, telling Carlos, "We need the temperature for the last two weeks."
"It got down to freezing on Monday," she reminded him. "There wasn't much waste in the jar, but she could have been restricting her fluid intake in case she ran out. She was also probably dehydrated from shock." She tapped on the Dictaphone and took up a scalpel, saying, "The internal exam is started with the standard Y incision."
The first time Sara had performed an autopsy, her hand had shaken. As a doctor, she had been trained to use a light touch. As a surgeon, she had been taught that every cut made into the body should be calculated and controlled; every movement of her hand working to heal, not harm. The initial cuts made at autopsy --- slicing into the body as if it were a piece of raw meat --- went against everything she had learned.
She started the scalpel on the right side, anterior to the acromial process. She cut medial to the breasts, the tip of the blade sliding along the ribs, and stopped at the xiphoid process. She did the same on the left side, the skin folding away from the scalpel as she followed the midline down to the pubis and around the umbilicus, yellow abdominal fat rolling up in the sharp blade's wake.
There was no bathroom in the morgue, and Sara assumed Lena was trying to make it upstairs to the hospital. From the retching noise that echoed in the stairwell, she hadn't made it. Lena coughed several times and there was the distinct sound of splatter.
Sara looked down at the body, wondering what had set Lena off. The detective had attended autopsies before and never had a bad reaction. The body hadn't really been dissected yet; just a section of the abdominal viscera was exposed.