They came bearing flowers in their arms: hyacinth, lilies, hellebores, winter narcissus, bouquets of roses in varying hues, poinsettia plants with pink and green leaves. They came as families, they came singly, they came in pairs of twos and threes. They carried handmade cards with stick figure families drawn on them. They brought chain-link garlands made from strips of colored construction paper and decorated with prayers. May God watch over you and keep you. They carried candles, flashlights, and electric lanterns as a light against the night. They brought freshly baked cookies, cast-off children’s toys, photographs and imitation wedding cakes like the kind that Meg Dearborn used to make. They brought angels and sparkly stars taken from the tops of their Christmas trees. They carried their gifts through the blocks and streets to lay them down at the front door of the Dearborn’s house, the family of four found in their basement five days after Christmas, bound at their hands and feet and with their throats slashed.
Jessica King hadn’t thought to bring anything to lie down at the Dearborn’s door, not flowers or cards or candy. She carried her baby and herself and that was all that she could manage. The vigil was supposed to start at seven. It was a struggle just to get the baby strapped into the baby carrier by herself. Bryant didn’t get home from work until seven-thirty, sometimes eight, and Jessica always had a hard time getting the baby ready to go out by herself. The baby screamed and kicked her legs. The straps of the baby carrier kept slipping off Jessica’s shoulders as she tried to fit the baby into the pouch-like contraption. For a terrifying moment, Jessica thought she was going to drop the baby on its head. Ever since the baby was born, Jessica experienced waves of terror like this at least once a day. Every time she picked up the baby, she felt a strange sense of slipping, that the baby could fall at any moment, that she could drop her, that she could lose her, that she could hurt her somehow and it would all be her fault. By the time she was finished strapping the baby in, Jessica’s hands were shaking so badly she thought she might need to sit down.
But she needed to get up. She needed to pull on her gloves, to turn off the lights, to lock the front door, to walk the six blocks, maybe seven, to the Dearborn’s house for the vigil. She needed to be there, to stand at the scene of the crime, to look upon the house where it happened and have it look back at her.
The Dearborns were supposed to be having a party when it happened. A friend of the family had stopped over early. He told police that he knocked on the door but found it open. Right away, he knew something was wrong. The smoke alarm was ringing. He called out, “Paul? Meg?” But no one answered.
When the police arrived, they found the bodies in the basement. The commanding officer stood on the sidewalk after, amongst the Dearborns’ family and friends, his red face steaming in the cold. He raised his arms up to the right and to the left. He told them, “I’m sorry, but you cannot go down there. I’m sorry, but I must ask you to step away from the house.”
More guests for the party starting showing up but they weren’t allowed near the house. Friends of the family couldn’t do anything but stand in the street, a bottle of champagne or a brightly wrapped box of cashew nuts clutched under their arms and watch, unbelievably, as the police carried the Dearborn family out of the house in black vinyl body bags on silver pulley stretchers.
“These were our friends,” a family friend said in the paper. She had come bearing toys for the two Dearborn girls, coloring books and crayons. She said, “These were good people. These were the best people we knew.”
Jessica King walked the distance to the Dearborn’s house alone, bare-headed and carrying her baby in a sac across her chest. She could hear the swell and crush of the vigil from five blocks away. As she crested the hill, she saw them below her, a sea of lights and hooded shapes, hundreds of people filling the street and spilling over onto the lawn in front of the Dearborn’s brick Colonial.
The crowd was aflame with questions. People stood around and asked each other what they knew, what they didn’t know, what they needed to know, what they heard.
“They were tortured first,” a man in a plaid flannel shirt said. “Police found a hammer that was used on their fingers.”
“Animals,” a woman said. “Animals who did this. Who could do that to those two little girls?”
Everyone passed the news they knew between them. There wasn’t much of it. Paul and Meg Dearborn were dead. They were found in their basement bound with masking tape, as were their daughters, Sophie, age three, and Anna, six. Their throats had been cut in a brutal fashion. Police didn’t know the details or if they did, they weren’t releasing any information. There were no suspects. The police didn’t know if the Dearborn murders were a random act of violence or if they’d been committed by someone the family knew. Robbery was possible but not certain. A flat screen TV had been taken from the living room, but everything else of value had been left behind: expensive jewelry, heirloom silver, a new .45 handgun made of plastic polymer that Paul kept in the drawer of his nightstand which now seemed egregiously misplaced. A fire had been set in the basement next to the bodies and then put out. There were no leads, no witnesses. An FBI profiler was flying in from Washington to investigate the case.
“I’ve lived next to the Dearborns for more than six years. Best goddamn people you ever met,” an elderly man with liver spots said. His hands fluttered at his sides like exotic, palsied birds.
Jessica King walked through the crowded, dark street amazed. She stroked the baby’s back, sleeping now against her stomach. She touched her nose to the baby’s head and smelled the sweet, powdery perfume of her baby’s skin.
The Dearborns lived in a brick Colonial on Jacob Street, nicely restored, with a two-car garage and a large fenced-in yard littered with colorful plastic kid toys. Paul Dearborn was a copywriter for an advertising agency downtown and played in a jam band on Wednesday and Sunday nights at the Bottom Line. Paul Dearborn had sandy brown hair and a pronounced, chiseled jaw line. He could be described as handsome, although Jessica didn’t find him personally attractive. It was his wife she was interested in.
Meg Dearborn owned a catering shop in the art gallery district. She baked elaborate wedding cakes, tiered numbers with seed pearls for trim and real rose petals for flowers. Jessica had always watched Meg Dearborn with interest. She wondered how she managed it: the two girls, the husband, the house and the catering business. She oversaw a staff of eight, consisting of bakers, cashiers and runners. Every once in a while, a national magazine would write a feature article about Meg and her cakes. She was photogenic and striking with dark eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. She wore her chestnut hair in a short, becoming pixie cut. Meg Dearborn looked like the kind of woman Jessica had always meant to befriend. Meg Dearborn was smart, creative and successful. Jessica was trying to make new friends ever since she and Bryant moved to Naperville, but striking up new friendships in a new town where she didn’t have a job seemed laughable and ridiculous. It was like dating, she thought. It made her feel uncomfortable and masculine, asking out women she met at yoga class for a play date or a late luncheon. But her therapist encouraged it.
“You need to create a ‘support system,’” Dr. Block said. “You need to get out of the house.”
Jessica watched the people mill around her, all of them warmly dressed in winter coats, hats, mittens and scarves. Many of them cried openly. People hugged each other, threw their arms around each other, shored each other up under the weight of the tragedy. All of them, like her, standing on a suburban street on a dark December night, five days after Christmas, blinded by panic and dread, drawn by the same unspoken fear that what had happened to the Dearborns could just as easily have happened to them, that death could come for them even here on this expensive street draped with oak trees and flickering streetlights.
“Jessica.” A hand touched Jessica’s arm. Two identical-looking blonde women stood beside her in matching black dress coats. Jessica racked her brain for their names. She had met them in the early weeks when she first moved to town. That much she knew. She felt her heart flutter in wild panic. What were their names? Why couldn’t she remember their names?
“Can you believe it?” the shorter blonde woman asked. She had two little boys at her sides who were taking turns hitting each other with a foam baseball bat.
“We can’t believe it,” the taller woman said. “I called Millie as soon as I saw it in the paper and told her, ‘I don’t believe it. I simply won’t believe it.’”
Millie Vincent and Leslie Nathan. The names came to Jessica quickly. Jessica had met them in a jewelry-making class she’d taken during the first week she moved to Naperville. She was still pregnant and hopeful that she could make friends. Millie and Leslie were pretty, blond and bubbly. They had invited Jessica to join them for lunch once, but the friendship fizzled as quickly as it started. They were stay-at-home moms who had known each other their entire lives. Why should they need a third? Millie had two little boys at home, ages three and four, while Leslie had a daughter who was turning three and still hadn’t spoken yet.
“I’m sick over it. Positively sick,” Leslie said. She shivered in her dress coat and pulled the collar tight around her throat. “To the Dearborns. Of all people.”
“Look at this little one,” Millie said. She reached out and touched the baby’s sleeping face. Jessica felt the baby kick and shy away, involuntarily, from Millie’s touch. “Want to trade one of my boys for her?” Millie asked with a wink.
Jessica didn’t know what to say to Millie and Leslie. She never did. She was out of practice with small talk. She spent her days alone with the baby and their running list of baby tasks: feed the baby, burp the baby, wash the baby, rock the baby, put the baby down, pick the baby up, start all over again. Often Jessica felt like they were swimming, she and her baby, floating in amniotic fluid through the tasks and responsibilities of their many days together.
“It’s so sad,” Jessica said, then cursed herself. Of course it was sad. It was beyond sad. A family of four was slaughtered in their basement five days after Christmas. It wasn’t sad. It was horrific.
“Have you heard about the ex-boyfriend?” Leslie said. “Everybody says it was the ex-boyfriend.”
“Who?” Jessica asked.
“Meg Dearborn’s sister had a boyfriend who was certifiable. Completely crazy,” Millie said. “She broke up with him a few weeks ago. He has a record.”
“Why would he do this?” Jessica asked.
“He was trying to get back at Meg’s sister. He tortured them to hurt her.”
“Exactly,” Leslie said, nodding her head.
Jessica looked from Leslie to Millie, trying to understand. The theory sounded far-fetched, tangential at best. Why would the sister’s boyfriend kill a whole family? How could a family friend cut the throats of those two little girls? But Jessica could believe anything now. Now that the unbelievable had happened, practically at her front door.
“It’s so good to see you,” Millie said. She reached out a hand to touch Jessica on the shoulder. “And your baby, she’s precious. Such a beauty, already.”
Jessica had a strange, sudden urge to kiss Millie on the lips. She didn’t know why. But she wanted to do something. She felt like she was a part of something, just to be there, standing on the street with them, with Millie and Leslie, with the one hundred neighbors, family and friends who had gathered here together. She wanted to reach out and touch the world. She wanted the world to reach out and touch her back.
Jessica looked at the dark house. There were no lights on inside. The house looked like it was sleeping. It looked like a husk of a house, haunted by the terrible thing that had happened in the basement. There were others here like her who couldn’t turn away from the house. Who had gathered here together to bear witness to the terrible thing that had happened, who stood in the street and had nothing to offer but their tears and their prayers, who stood together as one against the night. Jessica felt swept up by something bigger than herself. She touched her baby’s forehead with her lips. The baby kicked and let out of a soft cry. Jessica whispered, “There now, baby, it’s okay. Momma’s got you now.”
The morning after the murders, Jessica smoothed the newsprint flat on the breakfast table and bent over the grainy photograph of the Dearborn house wrapped with yellow caution tape. The baby cried in her high chair, her fists punching the air. Jessica glanced up at her backyard but she didn’t see anything. She didn’t see the wooden summer furniture silvering in the melting snow or the unfilled bird feeder swinging from the branch of her favorite crabapple. She didn’t see the turkey coop that she kept meaning to turn into a studio or the eye of the sinkhole where the front door used to be. Instead, she tried to picture the morning of the Dearborn’s murder. She tried to imagine how it happened: how the killer got to the house, when the killer got there, how the killer or killers led the Dearborns, one by one, down into the basement where the family of four would be forced to their knees to wait, no one knew how long they had to wait, to die.
It was an awful thing, but Jessica wondered who was killed first. She wondered which was worse. Would it be worse for the girls to be killed first, meaning that Meg and Paul would have to watch? Or would the killer take the parents first and then the two little girls? Jessica imagined that the killer started at the head of the family with the father, then proceeded to the two little girls, saving Meg Dearborn for last. The mother would suffer the greatest amount. The mother always did.
The baby overturned a glass jar of peaches and let loose a blood-curdling, high-pitched wail. Jessica scooped up the baby and stepped around the cardboard boxes stacked in the kitchen. The boxes had sat there for eight months, ever since Jessica and Bryant moved to Naperville. Jessica had no idea what was in them: her parents’ old set of ceramic plates decorated with roosters, a brass ashtray in the shape of a crab. She kept meaning to unpack them, but a whole host of other small, meager tasks kept getting in the way.
The baby screamed and twisted in Jessica’s arms. It was time to eat. It was always time to eat. Jessica believed in breast-feeding the baby. Her own mother had never breast-fed her. Jessica had decided before the baby was born, before she was even pregnant, that she would breast-feed the baby. She would give the baby everything she ever needed and more. She would be the kind of mother she had always wanted, the mother she had needed but never received.
Jessica went into the baby’s room and sat down in the rocker. She unhooked the strap of her nursing bra, brought the baby to her nipple and stared at the dressmaker’s dummy that stood over the crib while the baby nursed. Jessica had never made a real career out of dressmaking. A few boutiques in Detroit carried her long skirts with fish tails. She also made crochet sweaters and wire necklaces. She’d lost her sewing machine somewhere during the move, but she still had her dressmaker’s dummy. It stood in the baby’s room, watching over the baby sleeping in her crib like a headless, surrogate mother. Jessica had put pins in its mouth, years ago as a joke, and now Jessica thought the dummy’s mouth looked like a zipper, silver teeth on a dotted line. Once upon a time, Jessica thought of the dress form as a friend, a co-conspirator, a partner in crime. But now, she knew the dressmaker’s dummy reproached her. It stood there, as if to look upon her and judge her. She knew that if the headless, armless shape could talk, it would address her squarely, simply, and say, “You fool.”
Jessica thought about the clothes that Meg Dearborn used to wear: form-fitting sweaters in rich colors like marine blue, crimson red and burnt umber. She favored chunky artist’s bracelets made from pebble-like semi-precious stones that she layered on her wrists. Sometimes, she wore a paper chrysanthemum in her chestnut-colored hair. Jessica had noticed Meg’s breasts. She didn’t notice other women’s breasts, but she noticed Meg Dearborn’s because they were full and perfect as grapefruits. It was impossible not to notice them. Meg Dearborn never looked crass or overtly sexual because of her breasts, Jessica thought. On the contrary, Meg Dearborn was the picture of femininity. She was beautiful and rare; she was special and now she was gone.
When Jessica glanced down, the baby’s face was bright red and wrinkled. The baby had pulled away from her breast, she didn’t know for how long, and now the baby’s mouth was open but no sound came out. The baby wasn’t breathing. Jessica panicked; she threw the baby over her shoulder. She patted the baby on the back. The baby coughed and then cried, a loud, healthy cry.
Jessica exhaled, relieved. The panic dissolved in her blood stream. She wanted to be a good mother. All she wanted in the world was to be a good mother. But sometimes it seemed like she didn’t know how to do anything right. She wondered if Meg Dearborn ever felt like this. Like the worst mother on the planet, like a complete and utter failure. Jessica had no idea how lonely motherhood would be. How often she felt like she was alone in the world, fighting the waves alone, dog-paddling through the breakers, the baby hanging like a dead weight around her neck. She wondered how Meg Dearborn felt that morning in the basement with her two daughters, if she felt that she had failed them or if she believed somehow, some way, up until the end that she could save them.
The baby stirred in Jessica’s arms and started screaming, a high-pitched, piercing cry. Jessica’s day was about to wash over her. She could feel it, swelling before her like a tidal wave, brimming with its surge of tasks and operations that she would handle with varying degrees of skill. She tried to relax and just let it happen, to be swept up by the groundswell of her life. She took a deep breath and held it. The wave was about to fall.
“Let’s continue with your mother,” Dr. Block said.
Jessica had a standing appointment with Dr. Block every Wednesday morning at eleven o’clock. That gave her just enough time to nurse the baby three times – at four, seven and ten – before handing the baby over to the sitter and driving to the medical complex for her weekly appointment with Dr. Block.
“You said you felt abandoned by her,” Dr. Block flipped open a manila folder on her lap. “That she never breast-fed you. Last week, you said you thought she may have suffered from post-partum depression after you were born.”
There were two chairs and a desk in Dr. Block’s office. Dr. Block always took the chair on the left, closest to the door, while Jessica took the one on the right, closest to the window. Jessica liked to be close to the window. Today the sky looked swabbed with grey, like the dirty end of an eraser nub.
“Can we not talk about that today?” Jessica asked. “I don’t really want to talk about that today.”
Jessica and Dr. Block had been talking about her mother for weeks. It was embarrassing to talk about. To tell the story of how her mother didn’t love her, how her mother ignored her as a child, how her mother even admitted it, openly and without shame, after the baby was born when she came to help out around the house.
“I’d hear you crying in your crib,” Jessica’s mother said. “But I wouldn’t pick you up. I wouldn’t touch you. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Jessica’s mother said this with a straight face, sitting on the couch and stirring a cup of tea balanced on her knee. “I wasn’t like that with your brother,” her mother said. “But I was like that with you.”
Even thinking about it made Jessica feel like her mouth was full of tin. It seemed like such a private, embarrassing thing for her mother to say out loud. Jessica pulled at a loose thread on her sweater and asked, “Have you been reading about the Dearborns?”
It had been six days since the murders. The killer still hadn’t been found. There were no arrests, no clues and no leads. Jessica searched the newspaper, the Internet and local online chat rooms for details. She wanted to know exactly how long the Dearborns were on their knees in the basement. She wanted to know what had happened with the hammer, what it meant to be tortured. She wanted to know if Meg Dearborn was assaulted in any way, sexual or otherwise. She wanted to know if Paul or Meg put up a fight. She wanted to know how and when and why they were killed. She wanted to understand.
“The Dearborns,” Dr. Block said. She closed the manila folder on her lap and looked at Jessica. “Did you know them?” Dr. Block asked.
Jessica looked out the window. “No,” she said. “But I feel like I did.”
Jessica had started passing Meg Dearborn’s cake shop in the gallery district. There was a monitor in the window that featured a continuous loop of family photos and video clips. Jessica stood in the street transfixed. Paul Dearborn sang into a microphone, a cowboy hat perched on his head. Meg Dearborn produced a cake trimmed with velvet ribbon and flower blossoms for the camera. She smiled and put a hand up, bashfully, to her face. One of the Dearborn girls ran through the backyard with a crown of daisy chains slipping off her blond hair. The family looked familiar to Jessica even though she had never known them in real life. They lived the way that Jessica had always intended to live but could never manage.
Part of her was jealous. Why hadn’t she been friends with Meg Dearborn when she was alive? Meg Dearborn was six years older. The Dearborns ran with an established circle of friends, the old Chicago set of musicians, writers, designers and painters. Jessica had always thought of herself as creative, a dressmaker, a burgeoning talent. But her husband was a businessman. He surrounded himself with buyers and contractors. It seemed like Jessica and her husband had always lived on the outskirts of the life she really wanted even before they moved to Naperville.
It was a bad habit, Jessica knew, but she had begun to wonder what her life would have been like if she had been friends with Meg Dearborn. She imagined that if she had been friends with the Dearborns, they would have done exciting, city things together. They would have carpooled to downtown clubs like The Blue Note or The Green Mill to hear new bands, something she and her husband had never done. She imagined dancing with Meg Dearborn, two grown women dancing like girls with their hands over their heads. She imagined taking Meg Dearborn and her daughters to the pottery-painting store where they would spend their afternoons decorating terra cotta plates with oil-based paints. She imagined going to lunch with Meg Dearborn at the new Italian place and ordering a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate in the middle of the afternoon, to clink glasses and say “Cheers” for no good reason. But none of that was possible now, now that Meg Dearborn was dead.
“The killer smashed in their heads with a hammer,” Jessica told her therapist. “Then he slit their throats.”
Dr. Block took a sip from her coffee cup. The cup had a cartoon drawing of Garfield the cat on it. Jessica wished she had something else to say. Meg Dearborn had lived a varied life. She was a mother and a businesswoman, an artist with a wide circle of friends, family members and people who loved her. All those people at her vigil! Jessica couldn’t help but wonder, who would show up in the street to hold a candle for her if she was murdered? She thought of her husband holding her baby in the street, her mother stirring her cup of tea. She thought of the street, bare, and pockmarked with gravel holes.
“Are you still thinking about leaving your husband?” Dr. Block asked.
Jessica sighed and shifted in her seat. She felt uncomfortable, penned in and claustrophobic in Dr. Block’s tiny office with the door closed. She wished she’d never told Dr. Block about that. Didn’t every woman think about leaving her husband?
“But what about the Dearborns?” Jessica said instead. “Don’t you want to know what happened to the Dearborns?”
Dr. Block watched Jessica with a tired and benevolent expression on her face. She opened the manila folder in her lap and made scratching notes with her pencil. It was going to be a long morning, Jessica decided. It was going to be another long morning that never seemed to end.
The small turkey coop in Jessica’s backyard had been built to look like a mini-version of the house with its white clapboard siding and its tin roof painted green. The main distinguishing difference was that the turkey coop was falling apart. Jessica held the baby and thought for the thousandth time, as she did every morning, that she should fix it up. She should put in new windows, hardwood floors, a skylight to let in the sun. She thought about how it could become a studio, a workroom, a place of her own and no one else’s if she could just find the time to do it.
The first owners of the house raised turkeys on the wide ten-acre lot. Over the years, eclectic owners had rehabbed the turkey farm into a creative, sprawling estate with an English garden, a grove of cherry trees and two small outbuildings behind the house, one of which used to be a turkey coop.
When they bought the house, Jessica’s husband promised her that they would rip down the turkey coop with its spools of wire fencing. They would clean out the building, they’d rehab it and convert it into a state-of-the-art studio for Jessica and her dress-making designs. Jessica loved to dream about the refurbished outbuilding: a bare, beautiful space that was hers and hers alone. She saw a wall of windows, sketches and swatches of brightly colored fabric tacked to the wall, two sewing machines stocked with spools of thread in every color.
But it wasn’t a studio, it wasn’t a workroom, it wasn’t anything. It was a crushed-in turkey coop and it sat there in her backyard as if to criticize her for all her failings. The windows were broken and blocked off with pressboard. The white clapboard siding was splintered and peppered with spores of mildew. A sinkhole opened up on the side of it, just before the small door where the turkeys used to crawl in and out of the coop. The previous owners had wrapped the windows and the door with chicken wire to keep out rodents, but a sinkhole had opened up beneath the broken door like an ugly, black maw. It looked dark and crammed with dirt. Jessica wondered what kind of animals crawled in and out of that dark place. She wondered what it looked like in there.
The baby started to wriggle and make small mewling noises in Jessica’s arms. She took the baby into the bedroom; she brought the baby to her breast, but her milk was slow. She could feel it coming in drips. The baby fought her. The baby didn’t want to latch to the breast. The baby turned her face and cried, while Jessica urged her to take the breast.
“Come on baby, please,” Jessica said. She held the baby up to her breast again, but her baby just cried.
“Please baby,” Jessica said. “Just try.”
It was exhausting. No one ever told Jessica how exhausting breast-feeding would be. The habit of it, the necessity of taking her breast out every two hours of every day over the last nine months. She hated it. She hated the way she had to wiggle out of her clothes, how she felt ugly and cow-like with her right or left breast exposed to the room. She hated how even the baby didn’t seem to want to take it. How the baby squirmed in Jessica’s arms, twisting her little red baby face to the side and screaming. Jessica hated how she pointed the red nipple at the baby like the muzzle of a gun. The baby still wouldn’t take it. They went back and forth this way for almost an hour, Jessica and the baby, fighting over the breast. Finally, Jessica put the baby down on the bed. The baby lay on her back with her legs in the air and cried. Her face was a bunched up mess. Snot ran down her face.
Jessica decided, Enough of that. She put her arms through the holes of her t-shirt. She pulled the t-shirt over her head. She stood up and headed for the door. The baby cried even louder. Jessica stood in her bedroom with her back to the baby. She knew the baby could roll off the bed. The baby could roll over onto her side and suffocate. There were a million ways her baby could die alone in that room. But Jessica took those thoughts and folded them up like the corners of a piece of paper and tucked them deep inside her. She felt like she was perched on a ridge overlooking a vast, black, body of water.
Jessica took a step, gingerly, into the hall. Then she took another one. She closed the door behind her. She went into the kitchen and fixed herself a glass of seltzer water with lemon in it. She went into the living room and sat down in the center of the sofa. She could hear the baby crying, she could hear its choking, hysterical sobs. She turned on the TV and hit the volume to block out the sound.
At a dinner party thrown by one of her husband’s associates, Jessica sat on a silk dupioni settee in the hostess’ expensive front parlor and waved off canapés. Instead, she took a sip of her martini and asked, “Have you heard about that woman at the Dearborns?”
A woman had come forward. It was all over the chat rooms. Everybody was talking about it. Normally, Jessica never spoke at dinner parties. Normally, she sat on the sofa, she smiled, she nodded, maybe she’d remark upon the curtains, the lushness of the color or the fine thick weave of the fabric. But tonight, she didn’t want to talk about the furniture or the faux finishing on the walls or the new porch addition with the three-season sitting room. Tonight, she asked, “Have you heard about the woman who saw Meg Dearborn on the morning of the murders?”
All eyes in the room turned to Jessica. There it was again, that feeling, that she was in on something special, that she was part of something important, that life was laced with significance and meaning and all you had to do was know where to look to find it.
Jessica told the party guests the story about the older Dearborn girl. Jessica told them how the older Dearborn girl had a sleepover at a friend’s house the night before. How the mother of the friend brought the older Dearborn girl home around seven o’clock on the morning of the murders. Meg Dearborn had answered the door looking visibly shaken. The friend said Meg Dearborn’s face looked jaundiced; that she kept pulling at a loose thread in her sleeve and rubbing her wrist. The little girl ran around Meg Dearborn and down the stairs into the basement. The friend asked if she was all right and Meg Dearborn said she thought she was coming down with the flu, nothing more. The killer was already in the basement, most likely, holding the others hostage, the husband and the youngest girl. And now he’d have them all.
Meg Dearborn stood in the door. There was that chance. She could have run. She could have called for help. She could have whispered fast in the friend’s ear, “Help us.” But instead, Meg Dearborn said “Thanks” and pulled the front door shut. The friend left. Got in her car and drove away. Meg Dearborn returned to the basement where she and her family died, one by one.
“It was the last time Meg Dearborn was seen alive,” Jessica said.
“I don’t like to think about it,” the hostess said. She had thin blond hair, a small, pinched mouth and eyes as black as a bird’s. “What good is thinking about it going to do?”
Jessica liked to imagine that she would have done something. She liked to imagine that if she could change places with the other woman, if she had seen Meg Dearborn standing at the door to her house, her face jaundiced, her hands shaking ever so imperceptibly at her sides, Jessica would have done something. She would have called the police. She would have yelled for a neighbor. She would have grabbed Meg Dearborn’s hand and taken off running. She would have saved them, somehow, the whole family or maybe just Meg herself. It would have been better than nothing. Better than getting in her car and driving away while a family of four was slaughtered in their own basement.
“But don’t you wonder?” Jessica asked. “Don’t you see how it all could have been different?” Jessica grabbed a pillow and placed it over her stomach. She was wearing a new red sweater. It was tight, form-fitting and Jessica felt self-conscious about how the fabric clung to her waist.
“You look different,” Jessica’s husband had said earlier when she was getting dressed.
“Really?” Jessica asked.
She had bought a paper rose at the arts and craft store. She tucked it behind her ear and regarded herself in the mirror. It didn’t look right. Not like Meg Dearborn’s yellow paper chrysanthemum which had always looked right, a sunburst of color tucked just so, naturally, behind her ear. Jessica pulled the paper rose from her ear and stuffed it into a drawer in her vanity case.
When they got home from the dinner party, Jessica took the crying baby from the sitter and went into the baby’s room. Jessica was embarrassed and ashamed about leaving the baby in the bedroom alone. She couldn’t believe she had done that. It was a terrible secret that she kept to herself, that she would tell no one, not even Dr. Block. She believed if she didn’t tell anyone, it would be like it had never happened. But now, every time she went to nurse the baby, she worried that it would happen again. That the baby wouldn’t take the breast, that the baby wouldn’t nurse, no matter what she tried, that the baby would cry, that the baby would scream and Jessica didn’t know what she would do if that happened.
Jessica brought the baby into the crook of her arm. She leaned the baby back and guided her nipple into the baby’s mouth. The baby fastened her mouth around the nipple, she suckled and quieted down. Her face went slack and calm. The redness disappeared from her face. Jessica wiped the baby’s face clear of snot. Her baby was so beautiful, so perfect when she wasn’t crying. Jessica felt like she was coming up for air, that there was a reason for all this. She sighed and leaned back into the rocking chair. She rocked and nursed the baby. It wasn’t bad, this life. It felt good and right to sit here late at night, nursing her baby after a dinner party. She could do that. She could do this, she was certain of it. She regarded the dressmaker’s dummy and its silent vigil over the crib. Jessica thought about draping the dress form with red crepe; she thought about making a new dress for herself with a plunging neckline and a cinched waist. She could see it, perfectly, in her mind’s eye. It could be easy. It could all be so easy from now on.
The baby let loose a short, pinched cry. Jessica patted the baby on her back and the baby gurgled. Jessica felt something warm and soft puddle over her shoulder and down her back. The baby had spit up the milk. Everything she had just nursed was down Jessica’s back. The baby started to cry. Jessica sighed.
Outside the bedroom, Jessica heard her husband flick on the TV. There was the blast of canned laughter followed by the jingles of commercials. Jessica sat in the darkened room and rocked the baby. She could put the baby in the crib and just forget it; she could try again later. She could make her husband take the baby and drive her around the neighborhood – up Mary Street, down Stephen Street – until the baby quieted down.
But the baby needed to nurse and Jessica would nurse her. She would start over, she would do everything right this time.
Jessica thought about Meg Dearborn standing at her door that last morning. She thought about the house behind her, the nightmare that was happening in the basement and how the street must have unfurled before her like a long, grey ribbon. Jessica thought about grabbing Meg Dearborn’s hand and the two of them running, shouting down the street. She could almost feel the morning air in her lungs, bright, metallic and burning.
Jessica leaned over the baby. She kissed her baby’s forehead and smoothed her cotton whisps of hair. She guided the baby back to the breast and the baby began to nurse.
The news broke in the paper. It was a random act of violence. The Dearborns had left their front door open. Two men, aged nineteen and twenty, one of them Caucasian, the other black, had been driving around the neighborhood, looking for something to do. They saw the Dearborn’s open front door and decided to walk in. So that’s what they did.
“I can’t tell you why we did it,” one of the killers said in the paper, “It just sort of happened that way.”
Jessica swished the coffee around in her mouth. She got up and checked all the locks in her house. Then she stood in the kitchen for a long time. She watched the sun fall across the floor like shards of glass. She could hear the house, ticking all around her, itching and settling down. She looked across the backyard at the sinkhole, its black and unblinking eye.
Jessica picked up the phone to call somebody but didn’t know who to call. She stood there for a while, listening to the dial tone. The baby watched Jessica from her high chair. The dial tone turned into obnoxious beeping and a tape-recorded voice scolded, “If you’d like to make a call.”
Jessica pulled the white pages out of the pantry. She flipped to the back of the book, trailing the tip of her finger down the long list of V’s. When the phone started to ring, Jessica thought desperately of the right words to say. She wanted to say that the news changed things. She wanted to say that she hated herself for having such a hard time with this – her life. With feeding the baby and dressing the baby and caring for the baby. That she didn’t understand how to survive in a world where she could barely make it through her baby’s breakfast while someone like Meg Dearborn could be killed for leaving her front door open. Jessica was trying to think of the right words to say, but nothing was coming out of her mouth. She felt like she was drowning and she couldn’t get any air into her lungs. She thought that perhaps she was crying, but her face was dry and when Millie Vincent answered, all Jessica could think to say was a small and timid, “Hi.”
“Who is this?” Millie asked. Her voice was full of sharp ends like the points of needles. Jessica heard shouting in the background, the TV blaring and the bright, awful sounds of cartoons.
Jessica knew it was a mistake to call her, but she didn’t know what else to do. Jessica knew that she was bothering her, that Millie and Leslie hadn’t called her for a reason, that there was a reason she was alone here in the house with her baby, while people like Millie and Leslie and the Dearborns had friends and a full life and reason to get up out of bed every morning. She knew it was a mistake, but she asked Millie if she’d heard about the Dearborns. She asked what Millie thought about the Dearborns.
“I mean, it’s just so random,” Millie sounded distracted. Jessica heard running water and the clatter of dishes. Jessica heard Millie put the receiver to her chest and shout, “Boys, stop it right now!”
“I was wondering,” Jessica said. She took a deep breath. She could do this. She could be brave and strong. She thought of Meg Dearborn, standing at her open door that one last morning. She thought of Meg Dearborn and how everything could have been different if she had just opened her mouth. “I was wondering if you’d like to meet for lunch this week. You know…to talk about it.”
“You’re so sweet,” Millie said. Jessica felt a rush of relief. Jessica stood in her bright kitchen with the phone glued to her ear. The baby sat in her high chair and threw brightly colored rubber toys across the room. She was going to be all right. Everything was going to be all right.
“This week is no good,” Millie said. “I’ve got doctor’s appointments and soccer practice for the boys. And Dean is out of town, you know.”
“How about next week?” Jessica asked. She felt the water rising, but she would beat it back. She wouldn’t give up. She would grab hold of something steady.
“Next week, let me see,” Millie said.
The boys yelled in the distance. Jessica could hear somebody shouting, “Mommy! Shane hit me!”
Millie sighed, “Look, it’s sort of a zoo around here. Can I call you back later?”
The receiver clicked and Jessica was alone in the kitchen with the baby. The baby sat in the high chair and grabbed at Cheerios with her fingers. She mashed the blond, grainy cereal in her tight little fists. She grinned at Jessica and Jessica got very still inside herself. She grinned back at her baby. Jessica wondered what would happen if she picked up the baby and dropped her. If her skull would crack open like an egg on the kitchen linoleum. Or, Jessica wondered, maybe she’d have to get up on a ladder to do that. To get some height beneath her. The baby grinned and crumbled Cheerios in her fists. She brought one tiny fist up to her mouth and sucked the Cheerios off it. Then her baby squealed, a bright, happy yell. Jessica surprised herself by squealing too. It was a loud, honking sound. It was wild and dangerous and new.
“Yes, baby,” Jessica said. “Yes, baby, yes.”
The baby learned how to say “Da da,” but not “Mama,” even though Jessica leaned over her crib every night and repeated the words, like a chant, “Maa-ma, say maaaaaa-ma.” Her baby could say, “No,” and “Yes” and “Da da,” but no “Mama.” Never “Mama.”
Jessica waited for Millie Vincent to call her back, but Millie never did. Briefly, Jessica hoped that perhaps Leslie would call her, that Leslie was the more responsible one, but Leslie never called either. She had the daughter who didn’t speak, who would never speak, who would keep Leslie’s hands full for the rest of her life.
The baby threw her toys across the room and Jessica went to pick them up. The baby dirtied her diaper and Jessica cleaned it. The baby graduated to stage three baby foods, bananas and butternut squash; spaghetti and carrots with cheese. Jessica fed her spoonful after pink spoonful. Jessica held the baby to her chest, she stared out into the backyard at the broken down turkey coop. She thought about fixing it, calling a contractor, a designer, a roof guy and a floor guy. But she didn’t even know where to start. Instead she swung her baby back and forth, staring at the backyard and chanting, “Say ma-ma, baby, say ma-ma.”
Jessica decided to wean the baby. She didn’t tell Dr. Block. It only took a few weeks. She eliminated a handful of nursing sessions. Most mothers would have stopped breast-feeding two or three months ago, Jessica knew that. But Jessica had wanted to keep breast-feeding. She had imagined that she would breast-feed until the baby the refused her. Once upon the time, she had joked with Bryant that she would still be breast-feeding when the baby was walking and talking. “When the baby bites me with her teeth, it’s over,” she laughed. She had wanted to be necessary to her baby in a fundamental, primal way.
Jessica sat in her bedroom, topless, her breasts bare and naked to the room. Her breasts had begun to shrivel up. They had been so ample and round when she was nursing. She had never been big-breasted. When she was nursing, she felt like Meg Dearborn must have felt in her red sweaters: she felt like the picture of femininity, the perfect woman. She thought her breasts would go back to the way they were before the pregnancy, small but proportionate to her body. But they didn’t. Now her breasts drooped and there were small, calcified lumps in them like pebbles found at the beach. Jessica didn’t like to look at them in the mirror. She didn’t recognize her new breasts. She didn’t recognize herself.
Jessica felt she should have been happy now that she wasn’t so trapped by the breast-feeding. She could leave the house whenever she wanted, her husband could help out with the feedings, but instead, she sat here, topless and bare-breasted. She sat on the bed and didn’t know what to do with herself. She watched the baby cry, with or without the bottle. The baby stood up in her crib and cried. The baby sat down and cried. Jessica picked up the baby and laid her down. The baby put her tiny red fists in the air and screamed with rage. There was no end to it. There would never be any end to it. She knew that now. It would go on and on.
The dressmaker’s dummy watched her. The pins in its mouth silver teeth on an executioner’s mask.
Jessica left the baby in the crib while she dressed slowly and with languor. irst she slid the silk slip over her head. Then the red cashmere sweater. She pulled her hair out of the neck of the sweater like a loop and combed it until it shined. She rolled hose over her right knee and then her left. She wanted to dress as if she were going to party. As if she were going someplace special. She picked out an old herringbone wool skirt with a daring slit up the back. A thin, brown leather belt with a snake’s mouth for a clasp. She touched perfume to the pulse points of her wrists. She fingered the red paper carnation she had bought shortly after Meg Dearborn’s death and fit it behind her right ear. She regarded herself in the mirror and didn’t see anything at all.
Then it was the baby’s turn. She dressed the baby in a tiny t-shirt and a small corduroy skirt. She combed the baby’s small wisps of hair, fine and blond as cotton. The baby stopped crying to watch Jessica, sagely and from a distance, before starting to cry again when Jessica pulled the thick snowsuit over her baby’s legs. She fit the baby’s arms into the armholes and zipped the suit up to her baby’s chin. Her baby’s face wobbled on its neck, furious as a fist. Jessica fit mittens over her baby’s tiny hands and pulled a knit cap with kitten ears over her baby’s head. Jessica stood with her crying baby in the kitchen. She stood with her baby all dressed up and nowhere to go. Jessica had been swimming for so long, she thought, trying to reach the edge. She felt she must be just about to reach it. That she was almost there.
Jessica picked up the crying baby and went outside. She locked the door behind her. She stood for a moment and considered the backyard. She looked at the wooden summer furniture turning gray in the snow. She looked at the empty birdfeeder swinging from the branch of the tree. She looked at the eye of the sinkhole and the sinkhole looked back at her.
Jessica glanced around the backyard, nervous, but there was no one there. The neighbors had left their tomato cages from the summer propped in the yard and now they slapped against the fence with the wind. A grey sedan pulled down the street. The baby cried, a blood-curdling yelp. Jessica knew what she needed to do.
Jessica walked the short distance to the turkey coop with a sense of purpose. She cleared out a cluster of dark purple leaves cluttering the mouth of the sinkhole. She scooped out the leaves and pebbles with both hands. She peered into the turkey coop and saw a dirt floor covered with turkey mess and feathers; she saw wadded-up paper and the silver label from a liquor bottle stuffed into the right hand corner where light was coming in. The air smelled bright and metallic like chemicals.
Jessica got down on her knees and crawled into the sinkhole backwards. She kept her eyes on the baby who sat in the snow in her pink snowsuit, looking around the backyard in wonder. The baby sniffled, her cheeks red and wet with tears. The baby whimpered a little. Inside the turkey coop, Jessica could feel the turkey mess beneath her like a chalky crust. The air was thick with dust. It burned her nose and Jessica sneezed. Her eyes watered. She peered out at the house from the small square of the sinkhole like an animal. She felt warm and furry, safe and quiet.
“Come on baby, lie down here with me baby,” Jessica said. She reached out her hands and pulled the baby in after her. The baby slid inside with ease. The baby turned her head from side to side, surprised at the dark and shallow space of the turkey coop.
Jessica knew she could put one hand over the baby’s mouth and hold it there, making sure it fit over the mouth and nostrils. If the baby kicked or tried to squirm, Jessica could hold the baby down with her left hand, cover the baby’s mouth and nostrils with her right. Her hands were strong. She knew how to hold the baby. Jessica knelt there in the dark with her baby. She knelt and stared at the house. She would decide what to do. She tucked her baby underneath her chest, close to her heart. The baby had finally stopped crying. She made her little baby noises. Perfect and gurgling. Outside, Jessica watched the house. She would watch it until she could decide what to do. She lay there, in the dark, with her baby pressed against her chest. Jessica’s fingers dug in the dirt. Her life, her real life, was just about to start.