Home > Little Lies(5)

Little Lies(5)
Heather Gudenkauf

Two women found murdered, thirteen years apart, in the same park and beneath the same statue, each with an unharmed child found at her side. My teeth begin to chatter and not just because of the cold. It could be a strange coincidence, but I don’t think so.

I feel the weight of someone’s eyes on me and I glance around. In the distance, beneath a cluster of shagbark hickory trees, stands a lone figure dressed in a baggy sweatshirt, the hood pulled up over his head. Male, I think, but that’s all I can tell. His face is concealed within the shadows of the trees. My heart thumps with fear and I scurry back to the safety of the van and lock the doors. I quickly drive away as the man darts into the woods.

By the time I have collected Avery from the sitter’s and turned onto my street, my nerves have steadied and I have convinced myself that it was just a curious gawker. No murderer would be stupid enough to return to the scene of the crime, I assure myself, but I make a mental note to tell Joe about the encounter.

I nurse Avery, admiring the tininess of her, the way she stretches languorously, her small fists waving like soft pink tulips bobbing in the wind. She is so beautiful and I know from experience how quickly they grow up. I long to keep looking at her, but a sudden lethargy overtakes me I lay Avery in her crib, set my alarm for 3:00 p.m. so I can pick up Leah and Lucas from school, and climb into my own bed.

Try as I might, I’m not able to fall asleep. Images of the women lying lifeless beneath the statue in the park keep invading my thoughts. Two women in thirteen years. How could it be a mere coincidence?

* * *

Thirteen years ago, on the day I met Jonah, I had received the initial call from the responding officer about a deceased woman and her child being found in the sculpture park. The first question I asked after being assured the boy wasn’t hurt was if they knew the little boy’s name.

“The woman has no wallet, no identification on her, just a backpack with a few clothes. Kid’s not talking. Probably transient. She’s a nobody, so’s the kid,” the officer said blithely. “When can you get here?”

I had to bite back the scathing response I longed to give the callous officer, but I learned, even that early on in my career, that I had to pick my battles. A time would come when I would need this officer’s help and it was best not to anger him. “Well, someone must know who he is,” I said instead. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” When I arrived, the scene was unnervingly similar to the one I witnessed early this morning. Though it took some time, the boy eventually told us his full name and as much as he could about his mother. Jonah Sharpe was five years old and his mother’s name was Nell. They had only just arrived in Cedar City a few days before. He was able to tell us that he came from a town called Franklin. At first we were hopeful. There was a Franklin, Iowa, in far southeastern Iowa, but there was no record of a Nell and Jonah Sharpe. We quickly learned that there were at least twenty-five towns named Franklin in the United States. Finally, we uncovered several arrest records from across the Midwest involving Nell. Public intoxication, drug possession, child neglect. No next of kin was ever found and Nell was buried in a Cedar City graveyard, her funeral and gravestone paid for by a local women’s group. Jonah entered foster care and never found his way out.

* * *

Giving up on sleep, I throw the covers back and pad down to the kitchen. I still have an hour before I need to pick the kids up from school. I pull a mug from the cupboard and put water on the stove for tea. While I wait for the water to boil I retrieve my laptop from my briefcase and turn it on. First, I look up Nell Sharpe on Google and three links to articles from our local newspaper pop up. I click on the top one and a news article from the morning after the homicide appears along with a picture of the crime scene. It’s a photograph of a small, bewildered-looking boy clutching the hand of an equally shaken-looking young social worker. Me. The accompanying article surmises that the murder was most likely a drug deal or a robbery gone bad. I always had my doubts. Jonah couldn’t or wouldn’t recount any details for us. He just knew that his mother was dead and was never coming back.

I know that this morning’s paper won’t have any information regarding the most recent murder, but sometimes the online version of the Cedar City Courier reports up-to-date breaking news. After a few clicks all I can find is a brief report of a deceased individual found in Singer Park. There is no mention of homicide or of a little boy. The whistle from the teakettle rouses me from my thoughts and I turn off the stove, pour the boiling water into a mug and absentmindedly drag a tea bag through the bubbling liquid. I take the mug and a plate of crackers that I’ve slathered with peanut butter over to the living room couch and turn on the television, alternating between taking sips of tea and bites of crackers, while watching for any updates on the murder on the local TV station.

The landline phone rings and I frantically leap from the couch and look at the clock, fearing that I have lost track of time and forgotten to pick up Leah and Lucas from school. Two forty-five. I breathe a sigh of relief; I still have fifteen minutes before the dismissal bell rings.

“Hello,” I say, answering the phone.

“You’re home,” Adam says.

“I’m home,” I say, warmed by the familiar sound of my husband’s voice.

“You must be tired,” he empathizes. “I’ll be home by six. I promise.”

We say goodbye and I trudge up the stairs to get Avery. I hate the thought of dragging her back out into this cold, but this, unfortunately, is the life of a third child. They get carted around everywhere, naptime and bedtime schedules are wishful thinking, and pacifiers aren’t disinfected after they are dropped onto the floor, but are unceremoniously popped back into the third child’s mouth. She is gurgling happily in her crib when I open her bedroom door. I change Avery’s diaper, make sure that her leggings and long-sleeve t-shirt are covering any exposed skin, pull her hat over her ears, fasten her into the car seat and tuck a warm blanket beneath her chin.

Leah and Lucas’s elementary school is only six blocks from our house, but I’m not comfortable letting them make the ten-minute walk home by themselves yet. It’s silly, I know. There’s a large group of children who make the trek homeward through the neighborhood, but Leah is only in third grade and Lucas is in kindergarten. I know better than anyone about the bad things that can happen to children.

* * *

Revitalized by eight hours of sleep, interrupted only once to feed a hungry Avery, I’m in my office at the Department of Human Services reviewing my notes for a termination of a parental rights case that I have to testify in later in the day. I do my best to try and help keep families together, but once in a while there is no redemption for the negligent, sometimes evil actions of parents and they lose their children forever.

There’s a soft tap on my office door and I look up to find Joe accompanied by a woman of about fifty, with swollen red eyes and a tear-stained face, diminutive within the folds of a quilted, plum-colored ankle-length coat. “Morning, Ellen, this is Judith Newkirk. Ms. Newkirk, this is Ellen Moore, the social worker I was telling you about.”

“Please, call me Judith.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say as I extend my hand to Judith. Her fingers are thin and cold. She offers me a brittle smile though I can tell she is fighting back tears.

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