February 10, 2014
OUTSIDE, PATCHES OF fog swirled, though I could see glimpses of blue sky beyond. I imagined us in a vortex of gloom, while the world around us enjoyed a sunny morning.
Zora and I started down the drive that encircled the main house and cottages, walking briskly to stay warm. The nap had calmed me a little, but now Zora seemed agitated.
“What’s up? What did he say?”
Zora didn’t answer, and she was walking so fast I almost had to jog to keep up—impressive, given that she was at least four inches shorter than me.
The drive looped past the squat, stone building that everyone called the cookhouse. It was veined with the spines of Virginia creeper vines that had long since lost their leaves. I stared at the yellow police tape that cordoned off the wooden double doors—the only sign of the tragedy.
Zora and I stopped walking and gazed somberly.
“They took her away already?” I asked, finally.
“Funeral home in Charles City.”
“Is there going to be an investigation?”
Zora took off walking again. “Lacy, I need to tell you something. Daphne took her adorable little belt, laced it around her neck, tied the other end to the iron bar that they used for drying meats near the fire, and died jacking off.”
Zora glanced at me, grief and pity etching her face. “Auto-erotic asphyxiation.”
I felt a wave of dizziness. I smelled old meat and wood smoke and imagined Daphne in the shadows, surrounded by shelves of tools, a glittering strap of the black velvet belt tightened around her neck, her naked body slumped in a sitting position in the dirt.
“When did you … is that what your uncle said?”
“Not exactly. He just mumbled something about ‘gaspers’ and ‘if they put pressure in the wrong place, they pass out and suffocate.’ He kept saying, ‘she didn’t mean to.’”
“Well, you know, with auto-erotic asphyxiation, they aren’t trying to kill themselves. They even put padding on their necks to try to keep from bruising.”
“Why? Jesus. What’s wrong with masturbating in the comfort of their own beds like normal people?”
“They think it’s gonna get them high, Lacy. There’s no medical proof it even works. Just another one of those destructive myths that get started and passed on.” Zora yelled into the trees. “It breaks my goddamn heart!”
I glanced at her, surprised. I’d never heard her curse or raise her voice—never seen the hairline cracks in her calm control before today. As we rounded the curve at the far end of the property and headed back toward the main house, a flock of crows followed us, hopping from tree to tree and cawing loudly.
“I’m worried about Uncle Dan, too. I think he’s in shock. He was just standing there staring at the wall when I walked in.”
“I know how he feels.” It made me feel a little better about Dr. Clark, knowing that he was taking Daphne’s death hard.
“Dr. Grey stopped by while I was there. She’s the one who filled in the blanks about what Daphne did, but don’t say anything to anybody else, okay?”
“Why not?” I said suspiciously.
“Because she’s afraid it will leak out to the residents. We don’t want any copycats. I’m only telling you because I thought it might help you to realize that Daphne didn’t mean to kill herself. She wasn’t pushed over the edge by I.T.S.
Beyond Warrick’s grounds lay forest, and beyond that the river. I had a sudden wish to take off running into the trees and never come back. “But you said Thad wasn’t supposed to be alone with her. We still don’t know that he didn’t try to rape her.”
“And now that she’s dead, we never will.”
My mouth fell open. “How can you be so….”
“So what?” Zora stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Cold? Don’t you believe it! I’m hot as hell at Thad, at alarms that don’t go off, at kids that repeat ghost stories and gasper stories and, you want the god’s honest truth, I’m well and truly pissed at Daphne for throwing her life away doing something so stupid!
“When the workmen found her body, she had a padded rope around her neck, her pants around her ankles, and her hand between her legs. Unless the coroner finds something that contradicts this sad scene, we’re done here, Lacy. We have to focus on the ones we can still help.”
Zora started powerwalking again, and I followed in silence, gulping in breaths of cold damp air that seemed devoid of oxygen. Gaspers. I wondered if Daphne had realized at some point that she’d gone too far or if she’d just slipped into a coma, never to wake.
“I’ve never worked with this population before, and maybe it shows,” I said as we approached Jemison. “All of my jobs were in the school system and hospitals. I’ve reported cases of suspected child abuse, done rape counseling, lots of drug abuse prevention, helped kids deal with anorexia, bulimia and bullying, but this level of violence and misery ….” I shook my head. “It feels wrong.”
“It is wrong. There’s no getting around it. But we didn’t create these kids’ problems. They came here broken. I promise you, I will do everything I can to help these girls. But if you have a meltdown every time there’s a crisis, you won’t be around to see it. You’ll burn out in under three months.”
I sighed. “I know. I’m trying. ”
“You’re doing fine, really. You just ….”
“I just what?” I held my breath, waiting for whatever was on the other side of that statement.
“Well, I don’t want to get in your personal business, but you seem a little prone to anxiety.”
I exhaled, relieved. Was that all? “Yeah, you could say that. It never came out in my work before … much. I did change jobs a lot.”
“I hope you stay, Lacy. You’re good with the girls. And I sleep better nights you’re in the cottage.”
“Really? Why?” I wasn’t fishing for compliments—I honestly didn’t have a clue.
“Because all this worry and conversation and questioning you’re doing here—whether you’re right about Thad or not—I know it’s coming from a good place. You care enough to go that extra distance to keep the girls safe. And not everyone is.”
I smiled at Zora. “Thanks for saying that. It helps me a lot, actually.”
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, and when I took it out there was a text that said, Sorry things got tense this weekend. We’ll figure something out. Love, Dad.
I texted back, Thanks, Dad. At work. Talk soon. Love you, too.
“Everything okay?” Zora asked.
I nodded. “Yeah … better, I think.”
“Don’t be afraid to talk to me, anytime. I’m the team leader. That’s why I get mad cabbage.”
“You get angry salad?” I widened my eyes in mock confusion.
Zora rolled her eyes. “Girl, don’t play.”
I almost managed a smile. “You want to go around the loop again?”
“I have to go into Charles City to meet with Daphne’s mom and social worker.”
She sighed. “Me, too. After the girls get out of I.T.S., keep sharp, okay? Head off any domino effect.”
I swallowed hard at the idea of any other kids getting hurt. “I will.”
AS I STARTED around the loop again, I looked at the text from Dad, again. Maybe he was rethinking his insistence that Kat should live with me.
Capitalizing on the spirit of the moment, I decided to take the plunge and reach out to Branson, too. Something short and sweet. I knew I could send him a text without fear of disturbing him his rock-like slumber.
Sorry things got insanely awkward. Love you. I hit send and put my phone back in my pocket. The sun was glinting through the bare trees beyond the drive. Birds and squirrels rustled in the fallen leaves, looking for food. Around the campus, I saw counselors ushering groups of chattering kids out of the cottages to the main building for school. It almost seemed like a normal morning.
I started running to get my blood pumping. I still had half an hour until my shift started. I figured a good sweat and some fresh oxygen would help clear my head. Then I’d take another hot shower and drink another cup of coffee. With any luck I might make it through the day.
But as I approached the cookhouse, I couldn’t help but slow down to look again.
The vine covered building squatted in the shadow of stunted oak trees. Yellow tape like a ray from a plastic sun. I turned my steps toward the building, telling myself a story about how I was going to investigate in order to keep other Warrick kids from copycatting, like some kind of macabre playtime. But that was only part of it.
I was attracted to the cookhouse the way that I was attracted to scary movies when I was kid. I needed to see, if not actual horror, the environs of horror. Maybe it was the primal need that anthropologists theorize makes us rubberneck at accidents—the urge to identify and understand, so that you can avoid the same fate.
In retrospect, I wonder how many of us, investigating danger, fall down the same sinkhole or encounter the same predator we were trying to avoid. But none of that crossed my mind then. Daphne was dead. Whether it had been intentional or not, I couldn’t let it go.
Continue to Chapter 18: The Man In The Woods