Home > Little Lies(2)

Little Lies(2)
Heather Gudenkauf

I put the van into Park and open the door. A biting gust of wind tries to slam the door shut again, driving me back inside, but I return the favor with equal force and clamber outside before it can gather its breath again. Another officer asks for my identification and once again I explain who I am. She nods somberly. “The kid’s in the ambulance.” She points toward an area not illuminated by the headlights, and just to the right of the statue I see the emergency vehicle. I crane my neck, trying to find Joe, but there are about a half-dozen people bundled up in thick coats, hats pulled down low, scarves wrapped around necks, making it impossible to tell who is who. Their attention is focused at their feet, their chins identically lowered as if in prayer. But I know better—they aren’t praying. They are assessing, scrutinizing a crime scene.

As if being pulled by an invisible thread I numbly move toward the group of police officers. It’s not that I want to see the body—I don’t—but to best take care of the child waiting in the ambulance I need to find out all that I can about the person who died. I’ve seen my share of death. In fact, fourteen years ago, my very first case as a social worker involved a set of six-year-old twin boys, a five-year-old girl, their mother, their father and a baseball bat. Only one of the boys survived. Joe Gaddey was the officer positioned outside the front door of the home. When they brought out the body bags, he held me up when I nearly fainted, and we’ve been friends ever since.

A large shape steps away from the group and I recognize Joe. He is a big man in regular clothes, but dressed in a down coat, knee-high winter boots, a hat and gloves, he is downright massive. Standing well over six feet tall and weighing at least two hundred and fifty pounds, an angry Joe could make even the toughest criminal shrink in fear. But his baby face and shy smile are disarming and indicative of his gentle disposition. He takes me by the elbow, deftly trying to lead me away from the crime scene, but it’s too late. I see the body of a young woman who appears be in her early twenties and I shiver at the inadequacy of her dress even though I know she is well beyond feeling the cold. She is wearing leggings and a short-sleeve white t-shirt, something I might wear to bed. Her feet are bare. She is lying on her back, her long dark hair is fanned out in stark contrast against the snow, her eyes are opened wide and unseeing, a look of curious consternation on her face as if her final thought was, This wasn’t what I was expecting at all. There doesn’t appear to be any blood or obvious wounds that would suggest a cause of death.

“Can’t see it from here, but it looks like blunt force trauma to her head,” Joe says as if reading my mind. He has this uncanny ability to know what I’m thinking before I can even utter a word. “Looks like she was killed somewhere else and dumped here.”

“Do you know who she is?” I ask, unable to pull my eyes away from the woman’s face. Her t-shirt is pulled up to just below her breasts and I want to go to her and pull it back down to cover the twinkling belly-button ring in her navel.

Joe shakes his head. The tip of his nose is bright red and frost is collecting on his newly grown goatee. “No ID. A call came into Dispatch saying that it looked like a woman and a kid needed help in the park.”

“Who would be here in weather like this in the middle of the night?” Joe doesn’t speak and I study his troubled face. “You think it was the person who killed her?” I ask, taking a step closer to him.

“Don’t know for sure,” Joe answers and touches me softly on the back and guides me toward the ambulance. “The whole thing is very strange.”

“And familiar,” I add.

“Maybe,” Joe concedes. “The little boy found with her looks like he’s around three years old. Like I said on the phone, he doesn’t appear to be hurt, but the EMTs are checking him over before they take him to the hospital and have a doctor take a look at him and give him a thorough exam.”

I look curiously up at Joe. Typically, the ambulance would be long gone by now. “Has he said anything yet?” I ask as Joe lightly raps his knuckles on the back door of the ambulance.

“Nope, he’s a little freaked out right now, and understandably so.”

“Ahh, you were hoping that I would be able to wield my magical child-communicating powers and get the kid to tell me who the bad guy is, right?”

The ambulance door opens to reveal a small child wrapped in a warm quilt. Upon seeing Joe, the boy begins to wail in fright. “Like I said, he’s kind of freaked out. Every time one of us gets near him he starts to scream.”

“You are kind of intimidating,” I say as I lightly nudge him from the child’s view. “I think it’s your hat.”

“What’s wrong with my hat?” Joe asks as he pulls the fur-lined aviator hat from his head and examines it.

“It looks kind of like a wild animal sitting on your head. Now stay here for a minute and I’ll see if he can at least tell me his name.” I remove my own hat and hoist myself into the back of the ambulance and pull the door closed behind me where I find the boy’s howls have dimmed to a mournful sob. I reach into my coat pocket and dig around until I find what I’m looking for: a small unopened package of animal-shaped crackers. “Is it okay?” I ask the EMT, who nods permission.

“Physically he seems fine,” the EMT explains. “I’ll give you a few minutes and then we need to get him over to St. Raphael’s.” The EMT moves to the front of the ambulance and I sit on a gurney across from the little boy, who is curled up on the padded bench that runs the length of the ambulance. I know I need to tread lightly in my interactions with this boy. Whatever he’s been through tonight has been incredibly traumatic. There are only two ways this can go: I can make it a million times worse, or I can make it infinitesimally better.

I pull my mittens from my fingers, carefully open the bag of crackers and shake a few into my hand. Sad little hitches of breath come from the boy’s mouth as he eyes me suspiciously. Strangely, unlike his mother, if that’s who the dead woman is, the boy is dressed warmly in a navy blue winter coat, gray mittens made of wool, a matching hat and winter boots. It doesn’t make sense. I pop a cracker into my mouth and chew for a few moments before speaking. “My name is Ellen. What’s your name?” I make a point to not stare directly at him for fear of frightening him. “I have three children. My oldest is eight years old. Are you eight years old?” The boy thinks about this for a moment and shakes his head no. “My son is five. I bet you’re five,” I say with confidence. “You look like you’re five.” Again he rotates his head in the negative. “Are you two?” He seems offended by this question and shakes his head with vehemence. “Of course you’re way older than two. Are you four?” He nods shyly. “I have two daughters. One is named Leah and the other one is Avery. She’s just a tiny baby. My son’s name is Lucas. Can you tell me your name?” I try again. He is silent.

“I help boys and girls who are scared and sad.” Again, no response. “You seem like you’re a little bit sad.”

The boy’s lower lip quivers and fresh tears begin to fall as his eyes swing to the window of the ambulance. “Mommy,” he says thickly.

“What’s your mommy’s name?” I keep my voice light, conversational. He gives no response.

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