The next few days are a blur of work and talking on the phone with Lyle and Paris. Despite what he said, Paris is grateful that Lyle made the trip to Memphis, even if it means Lyle staying at a nearby Holiday Inn. Mr. and Mrs. Jenson refuse to allow Lyle to stay in their house which pisses Paris off no end. Lyle is the one who calmed Paris down, making him see that it wasn’t the time nor the place for a hissy-fit. The funeral is set for Wednesday. It will be a quiet, family affair, and there is a battle raging on whether Lyle will be allowed to attend or not. Paris has already threatened not to go if Lyle is barred from the proceedings. Half of me is glad that I escaped the drama while the other half is sorry that I can’t be there to support Paris and Lyle. When I’m not on the phone with them, I’m worried about them. For all the good I’m doing the agency where I work, I might as well have made the trip South.
Tuesday, I’m keyed up for group. I don’t want to be the cops’ spy, but I don’t have much choice. I drink cup after cup of coffee at work to get through the day after a terrible night of not sleeping. It discourages me that I am regressing back into the land of nightmares after I thought I had put it behind me forever. I have four nightmares Monday night, each scary enough to wake me with a pounding heart and dry mouth. It takes a half hour to fall back asleep after each one. Needless to say, when the alarm finally rings in the morning, I don’t greet the day with enthusiasm. In fact, I seriously consider skipping work, but as I said, my cred at the agency has maxed out.
“Hello, everyone.” Carol is smiling her usual smile, but it’s frayed around the edges. Even she is finding it difficult to keep up her soothing therapy voice in the midst of the drama that is our group. “I hope you’ve all had a restful week.” The group members are stealing looks at each other, but no one is saying anything. Carol has her ubiquitous notebook out, which doesn’t help the confidences flow. Carol sighs but tries again like a good facilitator. “I think we need to clear the air before we can get back to what this group is really about. Who wants to talk about what’s on her mind?”
“I will,” Sharise says, thrusting her chin out defiantly. “It be hard to think about what we here for what with all this murder business going on. I come here thinking, ‘Am I going to be next?’ I be looking over my shoulder all the time, waiting to get KO’d, you know what I’m saying? I’m thinking this be my last time here.” She sits back, folding her arms across her chest.
“Ok, Sharise. I’m glad you’re being open. That’s what the group is for, after all.” Carol nods encouragingly. “I’d like to remind you that you were against shutting down the group last week. What changed your mind?”
“The 4-0 coming up in here,” Sharise says, her nostrils flaring. “Made if more real. Plus, I be watching the news saying it could be me. I had me four cousins die on the streets. I ain’t ‘bout to be one of them.”
“Thank you for your thoughts, Sharise,” Carol says neutrally. “Anyone else have anything to add?”
“Been thinking,” Tudd says jerkily, her bulk shifting in her seat. “Too much going on. Not relaxing. Forgotten why we’re here.” She stops and gasps for breath—quick, noisy gulps. It’s painful to watch her, and even more so to listen to her.
“Then let me reiterate our purpose, ok?” Carol looks around the room, waiting for us to nod. “We are here to heal the traumas that each of you has been through. Even though each of your experiences is uniquely your own, there are many benefits from sharing your pain with a group and finding common ground.”
“Shoot, you sound like a brochure,” Sharise breaks in, her eyes flashing. “We all feeling you, but we need more. What we about today? Right now? Speak from the heart, not from some piece of paper.”
“What I’m trying to say is that we are all affected by the recent events that most likely compound the traumas that brought you here in the first place. I’m not saying this group is the only way to heal, but I firmly believe it does help. I would just worry about all of you if we disbanded.” Carol radiates concern as she looks from one face to another. She is given mulish looks in return. “We are doing such good work here.”
“The murders have nothing to do with me,” Jennifer says, shrugging her shoulders. “I know God is watching over me. There is no reason for me to fear.” Carol is scribbling something on her notebook as Jennifer is talking, and suddenly, I remember the words I had read from Carol’s notebook and my concerns about what she’s actually writing about return. I make a note to talk to her about it as soon as possible. “That Ashley was nothing but trouble. She deserved to die.”
“You’re crazy,” Maria exclaims, jumping up from her seat. “You call yourself a good Catholic! For shame, saying a young girl like dat should die.” She reflexively makes the sign of the cross which infuriates Jennifer.
“You should talk! You aren’t Catholic! You’re nothing but a whore!” Jennifer crosses herself. “I know all about you and your night job. You think you so smart, don’t you? Well, you not so smart after all!” Maria leaps across the room, screaming obscenities in Spanish. Jennifer answers her in kind. Carol steps between the two of them and says something sharply in Spanish to first Maria then Jennifer. They both subside and take their seats. The rest of us shift in our seats, avoiding each other’s eyes.
“We shouldn’t be judging each other,” Astarte says, her voice trembling. “Ashley was a bright girl and no trouble until her mother got cancer. I remember her father telling me that Ashley didn’t go to school for a week after finding out her mother was sick.” I haven’t looked at Astarte at all during the meeting, still reeling from the shock that she had had an affair with my father. However, the information that she knows the Stevenson family is enough to make me take a quick peek at her. She is as regal as ever in a purple caftan, but her face is lined with wrinkles I don’t remember seeing there before.
“Thank you, Astarte,” Carol says, relieved that things are back under control. “Yes, Ashley was a troubled youth, but she had potential. I believe that if she had lived, she would have eventually done something out of the ordinary with her life.” Hm. It sounds as if Carol knows Ashley as well. I wonder who else does but don’t know exactly how to find out. A thought comes to mind and before I can censor it, I act upon it.
“I have a favor,” I say clearly. All eyes swing to me, and for a minute, I am too abashed to say anything. However, I gather my composure and speak. “Since I’m new to the group, I didn’t really know Ashley well. It would mean a lot to me, help me find some closure if each person could speak about her favorite memory of Ashley.” I am ashamed of using psychobabble, but it produces the desired result.
“That is an excellent idea,” Carol says crisply. “I’ll start.” She pauses to collect her thoughts, then plunges in. “When I first met Ashley, she was dressed in skin-tight leather clothing and had an attitude to match. She reeked of alcohol, too. I had my doubts about our working relationship, but she blossomed in a short period of time.” She smiles at me apologetically, explaining, “You understand I can’t go into details because of client confidentiality.” I am surprised how much she’s already revealed. Her idea of confidentiality is far different than mine. Then again, this is the woman who is using the tragedy to hawk her book, so what do I know about confidentiality? “I suggested this group to her after a few sessions together because her school ordered her to enroll in group therapy, and she added something truly unique to group.” She finishes, her eyes damp.
One by one the women offer their own memories of Ashley. It is clear that Sharise only knew Ashley from the group. It is equally clear that Astarte and Carol were acquainted with her outside of group. What is less clear is whether Jennifer and Tudd knew Ashely only from group or not. My guess would be that Jennifer first met her in group while Tudd possibly knew her outside. Maybe Ashley took judo from Tudd. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. What is even less clear is how Maria knew her since she gave one generic line about Ashley being too young to die. It’s also clear that the women are more affected by Ashley’s death than by Rosie’s. I think it’s because Ashley’s death is the primary one with Rosie’s being a distinct second. Also, Rosie didn’t speak much in group whereas Ashley talked out of turn constantly. Ashley was very much a personality whereas Rosie seemed curiously blank.
“Rayne?” I snap out of my musings to find the other women staring at me. I don’t even know who said my name. I flush, embarrassed to be caught daydreaming.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I am careful to address the group in general so it’s not painfully obvious that I have no idea what is going on.
“I said, would you like to share a memory of Ashley? I realize you didn’t know her very well or very long, but perhaps you could say a word or two?” Carol’s face is implacable, so I can’t tell if she wants me to speak or not.
“She was quite a character,” I say, feeling my way. “She didn’t pull any punches, that was for sure. If she didn’t like something, she’d say loud and clear. On the other hand, it seemed like she was a honest girl as well. I bet she hated hypocrites.” There is a faint intake of breath, but I’m not quick enough to see who it is from. “I wish I had half the conviction she has. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all acted on our beliefs as she did.” This time, there’s no mistaking the tension in the air. Somebody is uncomfortable with what I’ve said, but I can’t pinpoint the source of distress. I decide to wrap it up. “So no, I didn’t know her very long, but she definitely made an impression on me.” I infuse the last sentence with a slight air of menace, but it has no effect.
“Thank you, everyone,” Carol says, bringing the attention back to her. Her right leg is jiggling slightly, causing her notebook to wobble back and forth. Suddenly, I have the urge to snatch her notebook from her so I can read what she’s written. I control myself with difficulty.
The group continues, but in a desultory fashion. Nobody wants to talk about the murders any further, but neither does anybody seem inclined to bring up the traumas that brought her to the group. There are long gaps in the discussion with Carol doing the bulk of the work. We are all rooted to our chairs, desperately waiting for the meeting to end. I wish one person would stand up and stomp out the door, but I lack the nerve to be that person myself. I stop listening long before the session wraps up, my mind wandering to Paris. I wonder how he and Lyle are doing. Perhaps I should have gone, anyway, my job be damned. After all, Paris has done so much for me, especially the last month. The murders. I straighten in my seat. Perhaps I can bring them up to jumpstart the conversation again.
“I have something to say,” I blurt out without planning what I’m going to say. Carol stops mid-sentence, pleased that someone else is making an effort. “These new murders are triggering my nightmares again. It seems like I can’t escape from the past no matter what I do.” I pause, covertly glancing around the room. “It does make me feel better to think that the police are working hard on this one, though. I heard there was a witness who actually saw someone arguing with Ashley hours before she was killed.” I lean back, pleased with myself. The women in the group exchange glances.
“A witness?” Astarte finally asks, a curious tone in her voice. “How come I didn’t read about it in the papers?”
“The police are keeping it hush-hush,” I say solemnly, not knowing if it’s true or not. “Since it’s hearsay.”
“Who was it?” Jennifer asks, her eyes wide.
“I don’t know the name of the person,” I lie. “All I know is it’s a neighbor of Ashley’s.” I mentally congratulate myself on hooking everyone’s attention.
“That’s very interesting,” Carol says calmly. “I think we’re straying off course, though.” She steers the conversation back to trauma and other dreary subjects. I am angry at her for changing the subject. I have worked hard to establish a mood, and she has to go and ruin it. I keep my mouth shut and my ears open for the rest of group, but hear nothing of interest. I’m about to hurry off when Carol calls me over. Maria, who is also waiting for me looking so fine in a red dress, seems disappointed but leaves with the others.
“Rayne, I’d like to check in with you. You seem pretty preoccupied with these murders.” Carol peers into my eyes, her pen poised over her notebook.
“You seem pretty preoccupied with your notes,” I reply, straining to catch a glimpse. Without a word, she shuts the notebook, her lips thin. It’s clear she won’t discuss the notes, so I move on. “I can’t help it. I keep thinking that Ashley was too young to die.”
“It’s always painful when a younger person dies,” Carol says automatically. “I wish I had been more helpful to her in her last session with me.”
“When was that?” I ask curiously.
“Wednesday afternoon after her last group,” Carol says briskly. “Poor thing.” Carol folds her lips before smiling tightly. “My concern now is for you. I worry that you are becoming too heavily invested in these murders. How is your sleep?”
“Horrible,” I admit with a sigh. “Plus, my roommate’s baby sister just died, so I have to deal with that, too.”
“How awful,” Carol exclaims.
“The worse part is that I’m not able to be with him at this time,” I say, my shoulders drooping. “I just couldn’t take more time off work.”
“I’m sure he knows you’re with him in spirit,” she says soothingly. I am irritated by her platitudes. If this is the best she can do, I’d be surprised if she helps her clients at all.
“I have to go,” I say abruptly, pulling my purse closer to me.
“Be easy on yourself,” Carol says, patting me on the arm. “I’ll see you next week.” I don’t bother to respond as I walk towards the door. The last thing I see is her scribbling away in her notebook. I shake my head, leaving her to it.
“Hey, chica.” I nearly jump out of my skin as Maria appears out of the darkness.
“Don’t do that!” I explode, my heart thudding. “You scared me to death!”
“Sorry.” She smiles, revealing her white teeth. “What did Ms. Schmaltz want with you?” I look at her blankly, so she hastens to explain. “I call her that because she’s so syrupy, you can never tell what she’s really feeling.”
“Just wanted to make sure I’m ok.” I make a face. I really hate therapy. At least, when it’s done this ineptly. “Maria, tell me something. How did you hear about the group?” It’s an easy question, but Maria hesitates. I look at her expectantly until she reluctantly answers.
“Leticia Torres goes to my church,” she finally says, her voice low. “I don’t go regularly, but I attend occasionally. When she heard my parents died, she told me about the group.”
“Did Rosie go to your church as well,” I ask, feeling the excitement build inside me. Maybe this is a connection I’ve been looking for.
“Yes, she did. I didn’t know her as well as her sister, though. She kept to herself.” Maria’s face is taut, though I can’t figure out why. Without talking about it, we start walking. I think of what else to ask.
“Did you ever talk to Rosie outside of church?”
“What are you getting at?” Maria demands, her hands balled loosely in fists. “You thin’ I killed her, is dat it?” I can tell she’s upset, but I’m not really sure why.
“I don’t think that at all,” I protest. “I’m just making conversation.”
“Well, make it about somethin’ else, youse got dat?” Her Brooklyn accent is out in full force, and her hands are clenched into fists.
“Maria, what’s the problem? What did I say to upset you so much?” I touch her on the shoulder cautiously, not sure what to expect. After a tense moment, she calms down.
“It’s dat Rosie. I didn’ like her. Her sister, Leticia, she’s good people, but dat Rosie.” Maria’s face is darkening again. “She had the nerve to try to blackmail me, can you believe it?” She snorts in righteous indignation, but I want to hear the story. After all, I don’t know her very well, so perhaps she’s done something worthy of blackmail. It’s possible. Wisely, I don’t voice my thoughts as I have a feeling Maria will punch me if I do. “She accused me of…well…being a crackhead. Said she saw me buy some in North Beach. Said if I didn’t give her some money, she’d get me busted.” The look on Maria’s face is venomous. If Rosie had been the first one murdered, Maria would be my prime suspect.
“What did you tell her?”
“Said she was out of her mind she think I’m gonna give her money. I told her to prove it.” Maria tosses her head back defiantly. It occurs to me that she doesn’t deny she bought the crack. I’m not sure what that says about her, but I don’t like it. What if Rosie had proof of Maria buying crack? That would be incentive to get rid of her. “Dat bitch is crazy the way she play. No wonder somebody offed her.”
“What about Ashley? Where does she fit into the picture?” I want something more concrete than just a hunch.
“She and I were pretty chummy before she died,” Maria offers. “Not like lovers or nothing. She was too young for that. However, she was confused about her sexuality, and we talked some about that.” Maria is calming down, so her accent subsides. By this time, we are nearing an apartment complex that I assume is hers. “Wanna come up for a drink?” I’m not sure I want to spend more time with her though I still find her attractive, but the thought of going home to an empty apartment decides me. I nod slightly and follow her up the stairs.