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Winter's Child

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- Nichole -

September 18th, 2019 - Brisbane, Australia


All I ever wanted was a family to love. A family of my own. Children. A husband. Love. It’s all I ever wanted.

I struggle to get ahold of myself on the drive to the police station. It isn’t easy. Tears keep running down my cheeks and my nose is dripping. I know I look a sight.

But all I can think of is what if Jhon dies? What if his brain is swelling and bruising as we speak? Or he’s hurt so bad that he isn’t Jhon anymore? He was so still on the gurney. His face gray, bloodless. The EMTs walked, no spare seconds for small talk, their entire focus on Jhon’s care. The ambulance roared away, sirens screaming, lights flashing.

I fear so much. I fear being alone and fear Jhon passing from this life, from our lives.

Will our unborn child ever meet his father? This man who may have paid the ultimate price, his life, to be a father to our children, and a husband to me.

Elizabeth. They wouldn’t let me talk to her. Not that it would have helped. This is just what she was hoping for, after all. A group of paramedics checked her over. One watched me, her eyes slitting, jaw set in anger. And then they had placed Elizabeth in the back of a police car, wrapped her in a blanket, and gave her a stuffed bear. They don’t know what she has done. They don’t know who she is and what she is capable of. No one does. Only Jhon and me - we are the only ones who have seen it, who know her for what she really is. Everyone else, well, they’re all dead or long gone.

I hit her so hard. Seeing her fall limp to the carpet keeps replaying in my mind’s eye.

I hadn’t had a choice, but that didn’t make it any easier, seeing her lying there, limp on the floor as I dragged Jhon out of the bedroom and down the hall. No time to worry about the trail of blood. He needed help now, not after I had secured her inside of her room with lock and key. As if I even could, with the house in flames. All I could do was stop her and get to Jhon. Save Jhon. Save the father of my baby.

Jhon was right. God, he was so right. He said it was too big a secret to keep, that something like this would come out. And of course they will think the worst. I can’t even blame them for that. It looks terrible. The locks on the door, bars on her windows, the ketamine in the fridge, and her unconscious on the floor. She looked perfect, lying there, her red curls framing her face. Ignore the blood on her nightgown and hands.

What could I have expected?

I breathe in and out. I concentrate on self-calming. As the car turns, slows at lights, and speeds up - I remember my therapist’s words. Breathe in through your nose and deep into your belly. Feel your stomach rise. Purse your lips and exhale through your mouth.

I do this for what feels like forever. We are miles and miles from the police station. This was intentional, but now, in the thick of it, it all feels like a mistake. Jhon could die. Might already be dead. All because of me. All because I couldn’t have a normal pregnancy. My deficiency. My shortcoming.

The breathing does the trick. At least for now. My tears have dried on my cheeks. Only their salty tracks betray the fact that they were ever there. I want to wash my face; it feels... crusty, and my skin is taut. There’s blood on my nightgown. Is it mine? No, Jhon’s.

The baby’s head presses hard against my cervix and he is quiet right now. Earlier, he was kicking in tandem with the rise and fall of the sirens as the ambulance carrying his father raced away.

I can’t help but wonder if our son will be a musician. He has a good sense of rhythm.

I push that from my mind. Thoughts of the future are a bad idea, a walk down a path that creates more questions than answers, more fear than solace. What will happen to me? Will they blame this all on me? I feel the voices rise inside my head. They question, they accuse, they warn. I’m no different from her, no different at all. And I’m terrified they will see it, that they won’t believe the truth.

What is the truth? We riddle truth with lies. I’m living proof of that. And perhaps, perhaps, she was right. I think about that often. It wakes me up at night, heart pounding, throat tight, remembering, while wishing I could forget. But I don’t. I can’t.

During the day, it’s easier. Life is full of distractions, of work, of its challenges. But at night, when the world is quiet, when darkness descends, the voices start. The memories flood back. And in my dreams, I’m right back there, with her, helpless.

My former therapist knows a lot about it, but she doesn’t know everything. Some of it is, well, unbelievable. Impossible. And I know better than to mention it. The complete story is far too unbelievable. No one could look at all of it, the entire picture, and walk away thinking I was sane.

I often wonder if I’m sane.

The only time it feels okay - or that all is right and well with the world - is when I’m sculpting. The clay, cool, thick, turning warm and slick beneath my hands. Everything else drops away. The world stops. I forget to eat. Eventually, my legs tap out a rhythm that breaks through my focus enough to tell me I need to pee. That’s what sculpting is, a frantic dash to rinse the clay from my hands in time as I try not to pee down my leg. All that I am, with my fingers in the clay, is the operator. The voices guide me, help me, or berate me depending on my progress. I feel as if I have purpose. And isn’t that what we all want? Some kind of purpose?

I wonder if it was the same for her. Maybe it was. Perhaps she and I are more alike than I wish.

The night is chilly, dark, and it is raining. Typical winter weather for Brisbane and not so different from living in Seattle. I have steel handcuffs on my wrists. The police officer who put them on my wrists tightened them an extra click. He did it on purpose. I could feel the anger rolling off him. It felt hot. If I were a painter, I would have painted his outline in reddish-orange, maybe even a dark purple. He thinks he understands what he sees. That I hurt her on purpose, and that I was the one who hurt Jhon. He thinks he sees the whole picture. It is a perfect little package, wrapped up neatly with a bloody bow. I can see it in his hard eyes, the flinty glances in the rearview mirror as he looks back. He thinks he knows what happened, but he doesn’t. No one does. Only Jhon, and me, and Elizabeth.

I almost hate that name. Elizabeth.

Now, Isabel, Lizzie, those names still fill my heart with such love. Even Elsa. I can live with Elsa. But Elizabeth?

My face is a map of my emotions. I know it must be, as I feel the officer staring at me in the rearview. I look up and he holds my eyes for a second before glancing away. What does he think he sees? Anger? Contempt? Hatred?

Elizabeth. She stared at me from the police vehicle twenty feet away. There in the gloom, for just a fraction of a second, a tiny smile appeared on her face. No one else saw it. Only me. She’s so damned smart like that. Too smart for me. Too smart for Jhon. We were fools to think this would work. That we could make it another winter with her. She’s grown smarter, harder, more slippery, and so very dangerous.

I don’t blame him. This angry officer, his back rigid, his hands clenched on the wheel as he takes a turn hard and I slide across the slick plastic seat. If it makes him feel better to do it, to cause me this extra bit of pain for the drive from here to the station, so be it. They don’t know what I know. I keep repeating that to myself. It helps remind me I once would have reacted the same way.

It would serve no purpose to argue, to explain. I know better now. In some ways, I wish I didn’t.

They won’t understand. But somehow, somehow, I must try to explain it all. Or, at least the parts that aren’t too crazy. Somehow, I have to convince them I’m not a danger to Jhon or Elizabeth.

That will be hardest. Convincing them I love my child. Because I do. I love her. That might seem strange, and these police would be quick to point their fingers and tell me how my love is twisted, and wrong, but they don’t understand. I can’t make them understand either. I will tell them the story of it all and hope to God that they listen to me. That they believe. Everything we have done has been to protect her, to love her, and to provide a safe environment for her. Somehow, I have to make them believe that. Hell, I need them to believe me.

The rain keeps falling, hard, not soft. The rain in Seattle is far gentler, but here, on the outskirts of Brisbane, it feels like an attack. It pours down, swift and heavy. There is a sharpness to it. A thousand needles hitting all at once.

And there have been so many attacks in recent days that I don’t react as I once did. When they pull me out of the vehicle, I’m soaked. The rain is cold and my fingers and toes are already ice-cold, stiff. The officer does not try to shield me from the rain, despite the obvious baby bump. He’s angry, so angry. If you want to piss off an officer, hurt a child. I want to tell him that if there had been any other way to stop her, I would have done it. But there was so much blood, and I panicked. After I hit her, she fell so still I was sure she was dead. Instantly I thought of Isabel, Lizzie, and Elsa. That I would never see them again. And I love them. Even as I fear Elizabeth. I can’t help but love her in some small way, too. I see the others in her. And even if she is dangerous, they are not.

The portico on the side of the police station is empty. The officer parks fifty feet away on purpose. He’s soaked too, but his anger rises. It looks like steam at the moment. Maybe the rain will cool him. I shiver, my body aching and stiffening until I feel as if I am waddling about on two frozen logs for legs. My baby shifts, kicking into my bladder, which is full, as usual, given my pregnant state.

An officer at the side entrance stands under the portico and yells at the officer holding my arm. “Searles, get her in here, for fuck’s sake. We don’t need the DHA up our ass. This is going by the book. Now get her in here. The room is waiting.”

The officer holding me growls, his teeth set on edge. His beefy hand tightens on my arm, and he pulls me towards the building. I’ll be sporting bruises tomorrow, without a doubt. I can’t help thinking that they would pair well with the older bruises on my back and shoulders. The rain pelts us, running in rivulets down my front, my legs, and puddles into my shoes as we escape it under the portico and they hustle me inside.

“I need to use the facilities,” I tell the two other men waiting inside, trying not to let my teeth chatter. One of them, a short, heavy, balding man, stares at me with open contempt. The other, younger, in his mid-thirties, nods and points toward the desk where there is a young female officer.

“She’ll take you.”

They remove the cuffs but hold onto my arm, the arresting officer bruising it further in his iron grip as he walks me towards the restroom, the young woman matching our steps. She takes over from there. First, she holds open the door for me, then enters the bathroom, stopping just inside of the door. She watches as I use the toilet. There is a trail of water that drips from the door to the toilet and a puddle is forming at my feet. At least it is warm inside of the precinct. Outside it is bitterly cold. How cold, I don’t know. I hadn’t been down under long enough to move from Fahrenheit to Celsius. I’m hopeless at the conversions.

I shiver uncontrollably. I’d done my best to control it outside in the rain, but now, in here, I feel safer. Foolish, I know. As if hiding it was my way of toughing it out or something. I just hated how the first police officer looked at me. I hated the thought of him seeing any weakness. After all, I survived her. And I survived losing my first two babies. I’d fought to keep this little baby boy alive inside of me. I wasn’t weak, I was strong.

“I’ll get you a change of clothes,” the woman says. “Get you out of those wet ones.” Her uniform has a name tag, but from my angle I can’t read anything more than the first few letters, HENN... She sticks her head out of the door and speaks to someone out in the hallway. A few seconds later, a knock on the door and a hand shoves a green prisoner’s uniform through.

A prisoner. I am a prisoner. The voices rise, a cacophony of panic ricocheting through my head.

They’re going to lock you up, Nichole.

Throw away the key.

Jhon’s dead. Or brain-damaged or worse.

All because of you, Nichole. All because you had to have your way. You just had to be a mom.

As if you could do any better.

As if you ever could be a mom.

I want to reach inside my skull and pull out the voices, one by one. I want to scream at them to be silent, to be still.

Instead, I thank the woman. Hennessey, A. - that’s what her name tag reads. Did A stand for Amber? Angela? Or Astrid, a favorite of mine since I binged all five seasons of Fringe on Netflix as I lay there in bed trying to keep my baby alive. If our baby had been a girl, I would have insisted on Astrid.

As I fumble with my sodden shirt and skirt, I imagine reaching in with razor-sharp fingernails, rifling through the gray folds of my brain, and pulling each trash-talking loop of brain-flesh out with cold precision.

The color of the prisoner uniform isn’t ugly. Dark green is one of my favorite colors, but the fabric is rough, abrasive. My skin chafes, first from the wet and the cold, and now, from the tough, canvas-like material.

Hennessey sucks in a breath as I stand there in my bra and panties and slip on the pants. My back is to her, so I’m guessing the bruises have ripened to a lovely purple-black by now. What must she think? That my husband had beaten me, that was for sure. How many times did she see it in her line of work? Beaten, cowed women - terrified, shaking, maybe even soaked to the bone like I was. But to think my husband beat me. Gentle, kind Jhon? Not likely. Not if she spent a handful of minutes in his presence. He might get crabby, even snappy if woken too early, but never, ever would he have even dreamed of violence towards me. Not a chance.

I pull the shirt over my head, wincing as it passes over bruised flesh. I pull the end of my ponytail out of the collar and walk over to the sink. If I could just squeeze out the water, the sodden mess would dry easier. Hennessey stops me. “Sorry, but the detective needs those as evidence, Ma’am.”

“Of course.” My voice is raspy, no doubt from screaming. No actual surprise there. I hand her the sodden, dripping clothes. And she slips them into a clear plastic evidence bag with blue latex-gloved hands.

Two by two, hands of blue. The line from River Tam in the show Firefly echoes in my mind. A small puddle of pink water is already forming in the bag. An image of Jhon on the floor, lying so still, his breaths shallow and ragged, and the blood from dozens of stab wounds hits me then. So much blood.

“I’ll take you into the interview room now. This way, please.” Hennessey’s voice seems kinder. The bruises have changed her mind about what this is. She thinks she understands. Thinks it’s Jhon. She isn’t right, though. None of them are. They hadn’t seen what I had seen. And even if they had, they would have explained it away.

I walk with her, no handcuffs on my wrists. There aren’t many here, not at night. Or was it morning? Yes, early morning. The few that are there, stare. Their faces are tight, eyes flinty, full of anger and distrust. I’m sure I do myself no favors by staring back at them, meeting their eyes. Now I am branded as something else, something far worse.

Mothers are expected to be soft, kind. Mothers are not dangerous, except when in protection of their young. And mothers, the good ones, don’t beat their children or try to kill their husbands. To these men, I am a monster. Will that change when Hennessey speaks to them? Maybe. But they still wouldn’t understand.

She removes my cuffs in the interrogation room and leaves me, saying that the detective will arrive soon. I can see from the hooks on the seat and the table bolted to the floor that handcuffing a prisoner is the norm. And from the raised voice in the hall from my arresting officer, I assume she is catching hell for taking them off of me.

I stare at my wrists. The tight handcuffs have chafed them and they are red and swollen from the ride in the back of the cruiser.

There is no clock in the room. No way for me to tell time. I should be tired. The past few months have been nothing but constant exhaustion, no matter how much I slept, but not now. Not in this moment when everything is dependent on whoever they send through the door. I need for them to understand, for them to believe me, for them to see how hard I tried. How hard Jhon tried.

In my head, the seconds turn to minutes and then hours. Days, even. The voices tell me how worthless I am. That I have been a fool. That I will spend the rest of my life in a place like this. Metal walls, rivets, and cameras watching my every move. This is what I have to look forward to. My child will be born in a place like this, and they will rip him from my hands. He will grow up wondering what he had done to deserve such a terrible mother.

I try breathing. Tears fall, and I rock, hands on my belly, trailing gentle fingers along until I identify his tiny butt pressing outward, his head positioned at my cervix.

We had been so close. So close to spring and Isabel’s return. To meeting our son.

Had it all been for nothing?

No one will believe me.

My eyes are closed when the door opens. I fear opening them, expecting nothing but hostility and hate. I wasn’t expecting to see a familiar face. Not at all.

Vincent Gallagher stands there staring at me, a note in his hand, his back to the camera and two-way glass. I focus on the scribbled note in his hand. Then back up at his face. His eyes warn me even as the tone in his voice sounds indifferent.

“Good evening, Mrs. Staunton, I’m Detective Gallagher.”

I nod.

More tears come. They blur his handsome face, a face I have kissed more than once. My best friend and my first steady boyfriend. My first lover. What the hell was he doing here in Australia? I haven’t seen him in, what, ten years? Not since the day I told him it was over. The day before I left for Seattle, never to return. I’d left him behind in Kansas City. My life in the Midwest over, buried. So much pain, loss.

The years have passed and Vincent is even more handsome than I remember. Mature now. No longer the boyish, youthful face I remember. My mind flashes on lazy Sunday afternoons in the backyard of Andy and Hannah’s house, Vincent and me and half a dozen others swimming in the pool and soaking up the sun. Stolen moments at theater rehearsals and soft kisses. Our last day together and the hurt on his face when I said I was leaving. I had wondered about him over the years. Imagined him dating, starting a family, going to the police academy. So many memories. He’d been a friend first, the only one in a new school and new neighborhood. We’d grown up together. Next-door neighbors. Friends through elementary and middle school. Lovers by our junior year at Northeast High School. And here he is. Here we both are. Thousands of miles from our childhood homes in Kansas City. In a different country, half a world away from our childhood home.

He sits down. His body is graceful, lean, his dark hair cut short now, so different from the ponytail he had sported through senior year.

“Mrs. Staunton, I understand that there was a fire at your residence and that your husband and your daughter,” he starts as he looks down at the opposite side of the note, “Elizabeth, both injured. I’d like to talk to you about tonight and the events that led up to the fire and the injuries that your husband and daughter have suffered.”

I swallow hard. Of all the people in the world to be interrogating me, Vincent Gallagher is the one man, aside from my husband, who knows me, truly knows me. If I had any chance to avoid spending the next decade of my life in prison, it depended on convincing him I wasn’t crazy, that I hadn’t tried to murder my child and my husband and set our house on fire. The note in his hand, now crumpled and shoved into his pants pocket, changes everything. He is taking a chance. A dreadful, yet miraculous chance on me. In mere seconds, my fear has turned to hope. I will tell him the truth. All of it. Vincent, my childhood sweetheart, is my only chance at saving my family. But even he doesn’t know everything about my past. To understand it all, I need to tell him everything.

I steady my breathing, dry my tears, and speak. “I met Jhon in Seattle while volunteering at a soup kitchen. We married the year after graduation.”

Vincent opens his mouth, but I hold up a finger. The nail on it is short, ragged. I have chewed it down to the quick.

“Please. I’ll tell you everything. Maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t, but you have to let me tell it to you from the beginning. Please.”

I don’t know if it is the look on my face or our shared past, but he closes his mouth and gives a nod.

“It all began on December 21st, 2013, the day I gave birth to my daughter.”

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