“You look luscious, my darling.” Vashti smiles at me, her dark hair flowing around her voluptuous body. She is nude—uncovering that body I so missed. Her skin is the color of mahogany or cherry wood, or perhaps, chocolate ice cream. She has no shame at showing me her body, all of it. Her breasts are heavy with longing, her nipples dark with anticipation. She has one hand coyly covering her pubic area, but there is a smirk on her face at the same time. I am nude as well, and I am wet in anticipation. I reach for her, but she stays my hand. We are in a forest with only the barest sliver of a moon to guide us. She is dark on dark—a nymph whom I worship. I bow down to press kisses upon her polished toes, which she consents to graciously. As I straighten up, she takes my hand in hers and clamps it to her breast.
I slip my hand between her legs and find her wet. My entire hand slides inside her with no problem. She plucks my hand out of her and sucks my thumb before letting go. Without a word, we start walking hand in hand as the night grows darker. Suddenly, the moon disappears completely. I clutch her hand nervously as the peaceful woods turn spooky in the blink of an eye. It is no longer comforting to be surrounded by darkness. Vashti and I press against each other as the darkness closes around us. We are gripping each other’s hand so tightly, our hands fuse together. There is no separating us now, even if we so desire. We are no longer walking as we are rooted to the spot. My mouth is full of thorns which are pricking a thousand miniscule holes in my tongue. I try not to swallow them as I do not want a hole in my stomach as well. There is a howl in the distance that causes Vashti and me to cling to each other.
“Help me,” I whisper, but Vashti doesn’t hear me, so deep in her own fright is she. Without warning, a pterodactyl swoops out of the sky and rips Vashti out of my arms. I feel a searing pain in my hand as our grasp is severed, leaving me with a jagged wound where my hand used to be. Vashti is moving her lips, but I cannot hear what she’s saying. “Don’t leave me,” I moan, reaching out for her with my bloodied hand. She reaches out her stump as well, but the pterodactyl has her firmly in his mouth and is flying away. “Don’t leave me!” I scream, panic flooding my body. What will I do if Vashti is taken from my sight? I try to run to keep up with her, but my feet are molded to the ground. They are turning into mud as I watch Vashti fly further and further away from me. “No! Don’t go!” I wave frantically, but she soon disappears.
“Wake up, Rainbow,” she says sharply, shaking me.
“What, huh?” I jerk awake, my heart thumping.
“You were dreaming again.” My mother has stayed with me for the week and into the weekend. My body has pretty much healed except for remaining bruises, but my mind has become fragile again. Mom is looking down at me with rounded eyes. There is concern, but also fear in them. She’s spent enough nights by my bedside the last time around to know I had a nightmare. When she catches me looking at her, she smoothes the worry out of her face. “Want to talk about it?” Mutely, I shake my head.
“What time is it?” I whisper, snuggling under my covers. I always feel vulnerable after a nightmare, and this time is no exception.
“Five-thirty,” my mother replies, holding out a glass of water to me. “Sunday morning. February.” She knows the drill as well as Paris does. I sit up and drink obediently, knowing that it’s a good idea to hydrate before trying to sleep again. “Go back to sleep, Rainbow. I’ll hold your hand until you do.” I give her the glass before lying down again. I slip my hand into hers, feeling a safeness I haven’t felt in years. I close my eyes, comforted by her presence. Soon, I fall into a dreamless sleep. This time when I awake, I feel refreshed despite the earlier nightmare. After performing my morning ritual, in slippers and robe, I pad my way to the kitchen.
“Morning, Rainbow,” my mom says cheerfully. “I was getting ready to serve you in bed.”
“I felt like getting up.” I pour myself a cup of coffee before plunking down in a chair. I grip the coffee with both hands and sip away. There is nothing better than a freshly-brewed cup of coffee in the morning. “French toast?” I ask hopefully, looking at my mom with puppy dog eyes.
“Chocolate chip pancakes,” my mom says with a big smile. My mouth waters. Her pancakes are the best in the world, bar none. She sets a plate of three pancakes in front of me, and I grab the maple syrup and pour.
“Terrific,” I mumble around a mouthful of pancake. My mother plates two for herself and sits across from me.
“Last night was a bad one,” she says soberly as she cuts neatly into her pancakes. “I was shaking you for five minutes before you woke up.”
“It’s not the worst I’ve had,” I say with a shrug. We decide to take our food into the living room and turn on the television to watch the news. It’s not something we’d normally do, but I need to keep up on the murder cases.
“Dead woman’s child slain!” The words flash on screen before cutting to a reporter who is in the Mission District somewhere. “The cops are more baffled than ever.” The reporter is talking about Rosie’s child, the one who was staying with Leticia Torres. Mariah. That was her name. Like the singer. They show a picture of her, not from the murder scene, but in her Catholic schoolgirl uniform, grinning a gape-toothed grin. I close my eyes to shut out the picture, but I can still hear what the reporter is saying.
“Dear god, what the hell is going on?” My mom only swears under duress. She stops cutting her pancakes for a minute as she becomes absorbed in the news.
“She was found in the alley behind Leticia’s home,” I say numbly, repeating what the reporter has said.
“She was on her back, Bobby, her arms folded over her chest.” That image disturbs me more than I care to admit, and I want to yell at the reporter who stops just short of sordid to shut up. “She was shot in the temple.” I gag, feeling the bile rising in my mouth. I rush to the bathroom and upchuck the pancakes I had so recently eaten. My mom is behind me in a flash, supporting my head. After I am through puking my guts up, I accept the glass of water she is holding out to me.
“Let it out, honey,” my mom murmurs, stroking my hair. I bury my face in her shoulder, not willing to face the world.
“She was just a little girl. What kind of world?” I can’t finish my sentence as the despair rips through me. I blink my eyes several times to stop the tears from falling. My mom doesn’t say anything but continues to hold me. After awhile, I realize that we are both crouched on the bathroom floor, and I extract myself from her grasp. We rise to our feet, and after I rinse out my mouth, we return to the living room and our cooling food. I am able to listen to the rest of the report without losing my composure again.
The details are sketchy. No one saw anything or heard anything, at least not that they are willing to say. There was a note pinned to her dress about the sins of the father, which I’m sure the police aren’t too happy to see in the papers. It sounds like one of those details they liked to keep secret so that only they and the perpetrator know about it—however, something that juicy cannot be kept from the press. The public’s right to know and all that bullshit. It appears that the girl had been snatched from her bed while she was sleeping. The Torres have a security alarm, but disable it while they are at home. When Leticia got up this morning to make breakfast, she discovered Mariah missing. Panic ensued. Her husband is the one who found his niece outside the house.
“She was a good child,” Leticia is saying. Tears are streaming down her face as she clasps her hands together in front of her chest. “There wasn’t anybody who met her who didn’t like her.”
“It’s a shame when a child isn’t safe in her own home,” Mr. Torres adds. His name is Sergio—he looks like a Sergio. He has bags under his eyes, and he looks older than forty. He has his arm around Leticia’s shoulders.
“We haven’t found a link to her mother’s murder at this time,” Inspector Robinson says noncommittally. “We will let you know as soon as we have more information.” That means they have nothing.
“What do you think?” My mother asks cautiously, watching my face.
“Maybe Rosie’s murder was the important one,” I muse, my temple throbbing. “Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way thinking Ashley was the primary target.”
“Why was she killed first, then?” My mom asks in a reasonable tone. Since I’m not feeling reasonable, it irritates me.
“I don’t know!” I snap, immediately regretting my tone. My mother is only trying to help. I modulate my voice. “Perhaps she knew that the person was going to kill Rosie, so she had to go.” My mom doesn’t say anything, but I can see the skepticism on her face. I don’t take offense as I find the theory difficult to swallow myself.
“I have an alternative theory,” my mom says slowly. “What if Rosie had told the child something? Something about the murderer? That would make sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I object. “How would the murderer know that Rosie had told Mariah something? Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that she told Leticia?” We both subside in silence, each of us thinking dark thoughts. At least, I am. For all I know, my mom is thinking about making another batch of pancakes.
She isn’t. She forwards the theory that it’s a friend of the family, but that doesn’t take into account Ashley. I refuse to believe that the three deaths aren’t linked somehow; that would be too much of a coincidence for me to swallow. I want to talk to Mr. Stevenson because I think he has to know something relevant, at least to Ashley’s murder. My mother is shocked because she thinks I think Mr. Stevenson killed his own daughter. Libby and I are two of her greatest joys in life, and she can’t comprehend parents who feel less than affection towards their children. I hasten to reassure her that I only think he’s guilty of holding back. I explain the conversation I heard at the Lex about Ashley and her father, how he’s having difficulty with a lover and Ashley found out right before she died.
My mother is skeptical. Adultery does not carry the stigma it once did. She can’t see someone killing over it, nor did she think the unwanted pregnancy was much of a reason for murder, either. She reasonably points out that his lover wouldn’t have threatened to go to the media if she wanted to keep the affair a secret. Besides, as I myself had thought earlier, it’s the blackmailer who’s supposed to be murdered, not the one being blackmailed. I counter that perhaps the lover is running a bluff. She may have thought he would pay up rather than be exposed, then was put in a quandary when he told her he didn’t care. There was the odd phrase, ‘emotional damages’ as well. That had to mean something. My mother is already shaking her head even before I finish speaking. Even granting my hypothesis, there is no reason to kill Ashley. She forces me to face the fact that the adultery/abortion angle is a dead-end when it comes to a motive for murder.
We continue to hash out theories until we are exhausted. Nothing we come up with seems even remotely plausible. I am tired and frustrated, feeling as if I’m missing something important. Well, obviously I am because I can’t figure out who the murderer is. My mother is more concerned with keeping me out of danger than with solving the actual murders. She insists that’s the cops’ job since they’re getting paid for it and I’m not. The news continues to drone on about the murder. There isn’t much that we don’t already know. The only noteworthy piece of information is that she hadn’t been ‘interfered with’, which is a relief to me. It may be wrong of me to think this, but it would have been the final stamp of ignominy if the girl had been raped. Soon, Inspector Robinson’s face fills the screen, looking unusually solemn.
“It’s always a difficult thing to be faced with a child’s murder,” she says gravely, holding her composure beautifully. “There is something especially repugnant about the loss of innocence. So far, we do not know of anyone who has motive to harm this child. We are asking the public for its help. If anybody saw anything related to Mariah Chavez between midnight and six in the morning, contact the station. We’d really appreciate it.” She doesn’t stay to take questions. Her head is slightly down as she barrels her way off-screen. It is not a good sign that she appears so hang-dog; I wonder how she’s sleeping.
“Seven years old,” my mother says softly, her eyes fixed on the screen as the news flashes a picture of Mariah. She is a captivating child, all brown curls and big grin. She appears to be laughing at a joke to which only she knows the punch-line.
“I want to tell the killer something,” Leticia is saying, looking straight into the camera. “You have deprived this family now, not once, but twice. First when you took my sister away from us, then when you took her daughter, my precious niece. Do you know what kind of pain and suffering you have caused? Do you even care? Please, turn yourself in before someone else gets hurt.” She buries her face into her hands, and her shoulders heave. Her husband looks at her helplessly, useless in the face of her grief. Sure, it’s his family, too, but the ties are not quite as binding for Sergio as they are for Leticia. She is openly weeping this time, which causes Sergio to pull her protectively to his chest.
“I hope you’re happy,” he says loudly before muttering something in Spanish. The station quickly cuts back to the studio where there are two guests ready to discuss the issue of violence in America. Why are we so violent, and how can it be stopped? As usual, a lot of concepts are thrown around with little results. My mom turns off the television, and we both stare into space. I don’t know what she is thinking about, but my thoughts are focused on the short life of Mariah Chavez.
“Come on,” my mother says at last, pulling me up from the couch. She leads me into the kitchen where she whips up more pancakes. I eat another with little difficulty. She watches me eat as she nibbles on a small pancake herself. She enjoys watching me eat, for what reason, I don’t know. “I want you to quit the group,” she says abruptly, setting down her fork. “It’s too dangerous for you to go.”
As I eat, we ride the merry-go-round again. Suddenly, I am ravenous and am eating pancakes as fast as my mother can make them. I counter every objection my mother brings up while gobbling down my food. I truly don’t believe the group itself is dangerous because nothing has happened during the meetings. Besides, there’s safety in numbers. My mother sharply disagrees, not happy that I seem to be so flippant about being the target of a murderer not once but twice. She’s also sore that I didn’t tell her about the first attempt when it happened. She’s even more upset that I refuse to tell the cops about this one because what can they do? It’s not like they have the manpower to guard me. Most likely they’d say I was imagining it, anyway. There are some crazy drivers out there who wouldn’t care if they hit a pedestrian. My arguments don’t stop my mother from pressing me to report the incidents, however, and she only subsides when I promise I’d mention it the next time I talk to Inspector Robinson.
I mop up my plate, having finished off my fourth pancake. I’m tempted to ask for more, but I don’t want to gain back the weight I had lost. My mother tactfully changes the subject, asking me about Paris. I lose my attitude when I think of my poor boy. He’s been calling every night with details of the funeral, but I haven’t talked much about it with my mother yet. I report that he’s sounding depressed and not at all upbeat. Even with Lyle there, Paris sounds as if he’s ready to sleep for days on end. He’s coming home on Wednesday, and I think it’s not a minute too soon. When we’re not talking about the funeral arrangements, he’s asking about the murders. I try to tell him as little as possible because he doesn’t need the grief. I won’t tell him about the second attempt on my life as that would definitely upset him, and he has enough on his mind right now.
“I just wish I could do something for him,” I tell my mother with a sigh. I’ve sent him cards online, but that doesn’t feel like nearly enough.
“He knows you care about him,” Mom says with a fond smile. “He knows all he has to do is snap his fingers, and you’ll be there. That’s more than most people can say.” We sit in companionable silence for a minute longer before we simultaneously rise to clean the table. I shoo her away as I hold firm to the tenet that she who cooks need not wash dishes. I gladly pay the price of washing the dishes for a home-cooked meal; it’s more than an even trade.