Equal parts smart and smartass, small town reporter Leah Nash is rarely at a loss for words. But when she receives a cryptic message from a nun asking for help, just hours after the woman’s body is pulled from the river, Leah is stunned.
The dead woman had been on staff at DeMoss Academy, a residential school for troubled kids run by an order of Catholic nuns. Leah’s self-destructive sister Lacey had died there five years earlier.
The nun’s note compels Leah to plunge headlong into a search for the truth about Lacey’s “accidental” death. But it’s a mystery no one wants her to pursue. Not her publisher, who orders her to stop making waves. Not the director of DeMoss Academy, who’s worried about the school’s reputation. And definitely not the politician’s wife worried about Lacey’s connection to her husband.
As Leah starts closing in on the real story behind her sister’s death, someone starts closing in on her. And just when she thinks she has it all figured out, a shocking revelation changes everything.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
As a reporter I covered a lot of stories that revealed the difference between what seems to be, and what actually is. When a friend told me a story about an encounter with a nun, I began to see how I could develop a murder mystery using that as part of the plot.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I created a main character, Leah Nash, who is a reporter and a smartass because I didn’t have to do a lot of research on either thing. I was a reporter for five years and I’ve been a smartass a lot longer than that. No character on the book is based on a real person, but I used parts of a lot of people to populate the town of Himmel, Wisconsin
I’ve seen a lot of really ugly things happen in my 10 years as a reporter. Good people suffer, bad people thrive, and it all seems pretty random to me. A friend of mine keeps telling me I have it wrong. Life is a tapestry woven with the threads of all that is good and bad in all of us. But in this world we’re limited to viewing it from the underside, full of knots and tangles and hanging threads that seem to have no connection or purpose. It’s only after we reach the next world that we can see how everything fits together in an amazing, beautiful picture.
Maybe. But what I know for sure is that when I started to pull on one of those tangled threads last spring, a lot of lives unraveled, and I almost lost my own. It was pretty hard to see a Grand Design in that unholy mess.
My name is Leah Nash. I’m a good reporter and an even better smartass who, as it turns out, isn’t all that smart. That’s why instead of driving around sunny Miami chasing leads, I was slip-sliding down a riverbank in Himmel, Wisconsin, on a particularly nasty early April day last year. My assignment – and I had no choice but to accept it – find some wild art to fill a gaping hole in the front page layout of the Himmel Times Weekly.
Wind and sleet riled the normally placid Himmel River into foaming whitecaps. Miles upstream the force of the current had uprooted a dead oak and carried it on a collision course with the dam supplying hydroelectric power to the town of Himmel. Now city crews in two boats were trying to harpoon the tree with hooks and ropes before it wreaked havoc at the dam. I was hoping to get some action shots before deadline.
When I reached the bottom of the steep incline I saw that a massive winch had been set up to haul the tree in. As I shifted my camera bag from my shoulder, a fresh gust of wind sent an icy trickle of water down my neck.
“Damn! I’m gonna kill Miguel.” Miguel Santos is the other staff writer at the Times and a much better photographer than me. It was his turn to follow up on the scanner chatter that had alerted us to the renegade tree photo op, but he’d begged off with a dead car battery. So I was the one shivering and reaching for the telephoto lens.
“Whatsa matter Leah, Ricky Martin afraid the rain will mess up his coiffure?” Darmody asked, pronouncing it cough-your and then guffawing.
“Shut up Darmody,” I said reflexively, though I was more distracted than annoyed. The boats were already halfway to the tree by the time I got the lenses switched but Dale Darmody, the Himmel Police Department’s most useless cop, was still droning on.
“That tree must be 80 feet long. And lookee all that stuff hangin’ from the branches. Musta picked up a load of crap goin’ downriver.” His chapped red nose wiggled as he talked. Little tufts of gray hair sprang from it and from his ears. His watery blue eyes blinked in the wind.
“Darmody! Make yourself useful and help Bailey with the winch.” The order came from Darmody’s boss, David Cooper, now striding toward us.
“Right LT,” said Darmody, scurrying off.
“Hey Coop. What good’s a promotion to lieutenant if it doesn’t keep you warm and dry behind a desk? What are you doing here? ”
“Crowd control,” he said, clapping his hands together to warm them and glancing up at the high bank above us.
“Right.” The nasty weather meant only a fraction of the usual gawkers were on hand, and all were neatly contained behind yellow police tape. But the faithful few who kept watch were about to be rewarded.
A sudden shout from the water signaled the tree had been hooked and we both turned our attention to the river. As the winch roared to life I focused the camera and started shooting pictures, but soon realized I needed a better angle. I glanced around for a higher vantage point, then spotted a half-dead birch jutting from the bank a few yards downstream. I sprinted behind the winch and shinnied up to a Y-juncture in the tree. It wasn’t a very sturdy perch, but I only needed it for a minute.
I looked through the lens and zoomed in. As I did, the winch groaned against the weight of the tree and gave a banshee wail. The men in the boats pushed hard at the trunk with long poles topped by metal hooks. The tree began bobbing up and down and rolling side to side slowly at first, then picking up speed. The pressure from the poles, the pull of the winch, the force of the current and its own growing momentum caused the tree to rock faster and faster. It began to buck, one side dipping low in the water as the other raised higher with each rolling motion.
“Look out! Look out! She’s going over!”
Poles dropped and motors roared as the boats pulled away from the wake of the giant tree. With a lurch the part of the oak that had been underwater shot upward. Branches that had been submerged lifted toward the sky. Hanging from one of them was what looked like a flapping sail. But as the tree bounced up and down more slowly, the horrifying truth became clear.
“Somebody’s caught, someone’s on that tree!” came a shout from the onlookers.
Tangled in the web of branches was a body bobbing up and down in awful rhythm as the winch groaned slowly on and the oak neared the shore. The crews moved back in quickly to steady the tree and free the body. By the time they pulled it into one of the boats, someone had already radioed for EMTs. The other crew and the guys on the bank continued to maneuver the tree to shore, but our eyes were on the boat speeding in with the unknown victim.
I scrambled down from the birch and watched in silence with everyone else as two men carried the body to a grassy spot a few feet from where we stood and laid it gently on the ground.
Rivulets of dirty river water ran down a narrow face above a once white collar now muddy and askew. Wide open eyes didn’t blink as sleet fell on their sightless stare. The veil that had once covered curly black hair was gone, and the gray color of the long robe had gone black with water and river grime. For a minute no one said anything.
Then Darmody broke the silence.
“Holy shit! It’s a goddamn nun.”
Two EMTs came up behind me with a stretcher. “Ma’am you’ll have to get out of the way.” Nodding I took a step backward. Stumbled. A hand under my elbow kept me from falling.
“Leah? You ok?”
I grabbed the arm and looked up. “Coop. I know her. She – ” I stopped and looked again at the battered body, the blank eyes and slack mouth and remembered the last time I saw her. I looked away.
“Leah?” Coop repeated. “Who is she?”
“Sister Mattea Riordan. She’s a nun at DeMoss Academy. How could this happen? She was fine the last time I saw her.” An irrational wave of anger rose in me. What? Like the mere fact of seeing her alive a week or so ago made it impossible she was dead now? I gave my head an impatient shake, sending droplets of water flying off my hair and into Coop’s face.
“Sorry. I’m all right. Really. I need to grab the rescue guys before they get away.” I looked at my watch. “What will you have for me before deadline?”
He shook his head. “Nothing official before you go to press, I’m sure. Probably not even confirmation that she’s dead.”
I gave him an incredulous look.
“I know, I know.” He held up his hands to ward off my scorn. “But a body pulled from cold water isn’t dead until a doctor says she’s warm and dead. Then we have to contact her order, her next of kin, there’ll be an autopsy, and well, you know the drill.”
“Coop are you serious? A dead nun floats into town on a tree and the Times has nothing but ‘no comment’ from the police?”
“Yeah I’m serious. Nothing official. I mean it. And don’t try any ‘highly placed sources in the police department’ bull either. The last time I gave you a heads up, the chief nearly took my head off. I got nothing for you Leah.”
“I already know who she is. Hell, I told you.”
“True, but you’re not going to print the name of an accident victim before the family gets notification are you?”
I pounced. “So you’re saying this is an accident?”
“Am I talking to Leah Nash or Lois Lane?”
“I just want to know what you think. Not officially, just as a regular person. You are still a regular person sometimes aren’t you Lieutenant Cooper?”
He took off his HPD ball cap and ran his hand through short dark hair, a sure sign that he was irritated. I was a little irritated myself. After two months back in town I still had a hard time accepting the ways of the local police department. Everything was on a need-to-know basis and the chief’s point of view was that the paper never needed to know anything. I could rarely even get anything attributable to an anonymous source, because the department was so small it was easy for the chief to pinpoint a leak.
“Off the record, right now I can’t see anything but accident, but that’s not official. We still have to investigate. Look, when I have some answers I’ll make sure you have them too. Is that good enough?”
“I guess it’ll have to be.”
I got what I could at the scene, then headed back to the office. The unexpected death of someone I knew and liked had left me unsettled. It wasn’t that Sister Mattea’s absence would leave a hole in my life, we barely knew each other. But her death did feel like a tear in the fabric of the universe that I vaguely believe holds us all together.
Funny, smart, not much older than me she was someone I’d planned to get to know when I had time. But we don’t hold time in our grasp; time holds us and often as not lets go when we least expect it.
The rain beat steadily as it had for days. My normal route back to the paper was blocked by flooded intersections, forcing me to go the long way round. The resulting drive was a small scale sociological survey of Himmel that added to my depression. On Worthington Boulevard upscale homes sat safe and secure behind high hedges and wrought iron fencing seemingly unaffected by the weather or the changed fortunes of my hometown.
But further on to the southeast things were definitely different in the once well manicured subdivisions, where middle class managers and young professionals and factory workers with plenty of overtime bought their homes. Now many of the houses were fronted by frayed, raggedy lawns with weather-beaten For Sale signs swinging in the wind. Driveways were empty and curtains were closed.
A few blocks later I turned onto a street in Himmel’s poorest neighborhood. There slapped together rentals still bowed under the burden of sagging roofs. Ancient asphalt siding still curled and peeled on the sides of houses. Scrappy lawns were still littered with broken bicycles and rusty lawn tools. The major difference from years past was the number of vehicles crowded into the rutted gravel driveways and parked on front yards, a sign of extended families huddling together, one paycheck away from financial disaster.
A turn north through town took me past empty storefronts that once housed the hardware store, the shoe store, Straube’s Men’s Wear. They were all going businesses when I was in school in the late ’90s, but our small town was living on borrowed time even then. A couple of big box stores moved in with lots of choice and low, low prices. We didn’t realize what the bargains would actually cost. Specialty stores began closing their doors, unable to compete with one-stop shopping.
By the time the first of Himmel’s several manufacturing plants closed the town was already in trouble. Jobs left, then families left, then one morning we woke up and Himmel was a struggling community of 15,000 not a bustling town of 20,000. The citizens who remained were frustrated and not quite sure who to blame.
“Much like me,” I said out loud as I pulled into the newspaper parking lot and turned off my car. But that wasn’t really true. I knew exactly why my fortunes had changed. The fault dear Brutus lies not in my stars but in myself, that I am a stubborn smartass. But I had neither the time nor the inclination for self-reflection just then. I had photos and final edits to do if we were going to make our Thursday night deadline. I grabbed my stuff and slipped into the side door of the building.
Max Schrieber, owner and publisher of the Times Weekly was nowhere to be found and Miguel was still among the missing. I filed cutlines for the photos, wrote up a brief on the officially unidentified female found in the river and went out to the front desk to check for messages. We had a lot of walk-in traffic at the Times as well as a fair number of callers who would rather leave word with a live person at the reception desk than record a voice mail. Though that could only be because they didn’t know Courtnee Fensterman our receptionist.
Courtnee’s slightly buggy blue eyes peered out from under a feathering of light blonde bangs as she gave me a wad of pink message slips from the spike on the corner of her desk. Then she patted my hand.
“Wow, Leah. That is so weird. It’s like you’re one of those middles. You know, getting messages from dead people.”
“What are you talking about Courtnee?”
“The Sister. The dead Sister. Sister Mattea, the one in the river.”
“How – ” I cut myself off. There was no point asking how she found out about the death, let alone how she knew the identity of the body. The Himmel Times can’t compete with the Himmel grapevine.
“My cousin Mikey was at the hospital with my Aunt Frances, she had another spell. He saw them bring Sister Mattea in and he told my mom and she called me. But anyway like I said Leah, you’re like a middle or something. Kind of.”
“You mean a medium?” I asked, mystified but game.
“I’m pretty sure it’s called a middle Leah,” she said kindly. “I mean, because they’re in the middle of like two worlds right? The living and the dead.”
“Ok, I’m a middle. But what are you talking about messages from the dead?”
“Well the Sister. She’s dead. And she gave you a message. Only wait, maybe that’s not right. She wasn’t dead when she was here, so that probably doesn’t count. Right?”
“Sister Mattea? When was she here? What kind of message? Where is it?”
A blank stare from Courtnee told me my rapid-fire questions had caused a temporary interruption in brain service.
“Well,” her light blonde eyebrows pulled together in a frown of concentration and she bit her lower lip. Taking a deep breath I tamped down my impatience and altered my approach. I became the Courtnee Whisperer.
“Courtnee, Sister Mattea stopped by and left a message for me, right?” I said in a low, measured tone. I all but started stroking her withers.
She visibly relaxed and nodded.
“Well she had this book she wanted to give you. But then you weren’t here so she was going to leave it. She asked me for a post-it so she could write you a note. Then she asked me to give it to you. But then I thought, no, I’ll put it in a manila envelope so the book and the note will stay together.” She paused for a lump of sugar.
“That was a great idea Courtnee. Now, can you think where you put the envelope?”
“I put it on your desk silly. What else would I do with it?”
What indeed. “Actually no, Courtnee, you didn’t. I didn’t have an envelope left on my desk any day this week. Do you think maybe the phone rang before you could take it to my desk, and maybe you set it down somewhere and forgot about it?”
She turned slowly around her cubicle and patted papers on her desk like a horse pawing the ground. After shifting a few issues of the Himmel Times, lifting a couple of flyers, and picking up a stray box from Amazon.com, she gave a small whinny of happiness. Then she faced me, holding a large manila envelope in her hand.
“Here you go!”
My name was neatly written across the front in Courtnee’s carefully rounded handwriting. I grabbed the envelope wordlessly and headed back to my desk.
“You’re welcome!” she said in a reproachful tone as I closed the door behind me.
The newsroom was still empty. I sat down and tore open the sealed flap, reached in and pulled out the contents, a paperback edition of Echo Park by Michael Connelly, with a sticky note attached to the cover.
Leah – Sorry I missed you. Here’s the book I told you about. Also, I need to talk with you about something as soon as possible. I’d rather do it in person. Please give me a call to let me know when we can meet – M
I went back to the front desk.
“Courtnee, what day did Sister Mattea stop by?” She looked up from opening her box of Milk Duds and took a couple before answering.
“This week or last week?” she asked, her voice a little muffled by the need to talk around the sticky caramel.
“She was here last week?”
“Mmmph,” she said nodding, then swallowed her candy. “She was looking at the bound volumes and I made some copies for her.”
“What was she looking for?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Some old stories about the school the Sisters run for criminal kids, you know Dumbass Academy? ”
“It’s DeMoss Academy,” I said coldly. “She didn’t say anything about me or wanting to see me?”
“It’s not all about you Leah, you know,” she said. “We had a really good talk about my cousin Andrew. He just got busted for weed and now my Uncle Don thinks he’s a drug addict. Sister Mattea was really nice. She said Uncle Don might be over reacting, but at least he cares. Most of the kids at Dum – DeMoss Academy their parents are just a waste of space my dad says.”
Clearly Courtnee had forgotten that my sister Lacey had spent time at DeMoss, but there was no point in pointing that out.
“She said not everybody is cut out to be a mom or dad. And then I told her about Max. How he’s a great dad to Alex even though he’s like so old. And crabby. It’s kinda cute, him and Ellie. But it’s probably good she already had her own baby when they got married because I mean like, could Max even well, you know, have sex? I mean you’d always be thinking is he having a heart attack and what if he like dies right on top of me! Then I thought whoops maybe I shouldn’t be talking about that to a nun – ”
“You think Courtnee?” I shuddered at the thought of Sister Mattea subjected to Courtnee’s over sharing about Max’s love life. Though it was a nice story. Max and his first wife Joyce never had children and he was so lonely after she died. Then he met Ellie on a trip to Ohio. It was a love-at-first-sight romance. At age 50 he became a newlywed with a toddler and a whole new, happier life. A lot of people had a lot to say about the 20-year age difference, but it didn’t seem to matter to them.
“I don’t really need a line by line of your chat Courtnee, just the essentials. So Sister Mattea left and she didn’t say anything about wanting to see me. Then she came back on Monday, she wanted to see me but I wasn’t here, so she left the book and the note for me, is that right?”
“Well, I have to think Leah. I don’t keep everything like right at the top of my head.” She tilted said head to the right and squeezed her big blue eyes to narrow slits.
She batted her hand at me lest I further disturb her concentration then began speaking, her eyes half-closed like a psychic in a trance.
“It wasn’t Monday, because the day she came in we were real busy. Mrs. Barry was yelling at me because I mixed up the numbers on her classified and everybody that called got a phone sex message. It wasn’t my fault. My mom says I have undiagnosed dyslexia and –”
“Right Courtnee. This was what, Tuesday?”
“I’m trying to tell you,” her eyes flew open in exasperation. “I was telling Sister Mattea you weren’t here and she asked could she leave you this book and a note and blah, blah, blah and then Mrs. Barry busted in and started yelling and I handed Sister Mattea a post-it and out of the corner of my eye I saw Max coming in and I didn’t want Mrs. Barry telling him all about my mistake. So I sorta pushed Sister Mattea off to him and Brad came in to fill the Coke machine.
“Then the phone rang and I accidentally knocked my water over onto my keyboard and Brad jumps over the counter – he’s really sweet – and helps me.” She paused for me to celebrate Brad’s heroic action but the look on my face got her back on track.
“Well then Mrs. Barry starts again so I gave her a refund and a free ad for next week to get her to leave. Then both lines start ringing and like I’ve told Max before I can’t do everything. And I look over to see if he’ll help but he’s walking out the door again without even helping me and Sister Mattea hands me the book and she leaves and then after she’s gone I notice– ”
“Courtnee! What. Day. Was. It. That’s all I want to know.”
“Well. Pardon me for trying to give some context.” She pouted for a few seconds as I stared at her and briefly wondered where she’d picked that phrase up. Then she continued in an injured tone as though waiting for me to beg forgiveness. As if.
“I told you. It was Tuesday. Brad always fills the Coke machine on Tuesdays. Why does it matter when she came in anyway?”
“Because, Courtnee, she asked me to call her and two days went by and I didn’t. And now she’s dead and I never will.”
“Well it doesn’t matter then, right? Like you said she’s dead.”
“Shut up Courtnee. Just shut up.”
I stepped back into the newsroom, closed the door and sighed. Courtnee had a point. Sister Mattea was dead and whatever was on her mind didn’t matter anymore. Still her note bothered me. Why did she want me to call?
I’d met her briefly when I first got back to town. Then I ran into her again at the bookstore a few weeks ago. She was buying a Michael Connelly paperback and I kidded her that Connelly didn’t seem like typical nun fare. She laughed and said she loved the way he wrote about LA. Then she offered to lend me one of her favorites. But time went by and I assumed she’d forgotten, like people do.
I picked up Echo Park and started leafing through it. Something fluttered from between the pages to the floor. I grabbed it, unfolded it, smoothed it straight. It was a two-sided copy of a page from the Himmel Times dated April 24, 2009. A photo in the lower left caught my eye – Max, Ellie and Alex grinning above a cutline naming them St. Stephen’s Family of the Year.
Above that was a story about water line replacement on Main Street, a grip and grin check passing photo of some Rotary Club donation, an ad for Bendel’s Ford. Typical page two copy. I flipped it over and read the front page headline. The air rushed out of my lungs as though I’d been punched in the gut.
Missing Teen’s Death Ruled Accident
By Mike Sutfin, Times Staff Writer
Himmel, WI – The death of Himmel teenager Lacey Nash has been ruled accidental, according to Grantland County District Attorney Cliff Timmins, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday. Nash, 17, disappeared last November from DeMoss Academy a residential facility for troubled youth run by the Daughters of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Her body was discovered two weeks ago in a ravine on the 300-acre estate owned by the nuns.
“The autopsy indicated cause of death was a head injury sustained in a fall. The sheriff’s department has re-interviewed witnesses and its findings coupled with the autopsy result have led us to conclude the death was accidental,” said Timmins in a prepared statement. There will be no inquest.
Nash had been a resident of DeMoss Academy for approximately 6 months at the time of her disappearance. She was reported missing the morning of November 2 by a representative of the school. At the time authorities believed that Nash, a student with a history as a runaway, had left on her own. An undisclosed sum of money was also reported missing at the time.
Timmins declined further comment, but turned the press conference over to Sheriff Lester Dillingham.
“Now, I want to make this clear. In no way did we not do a professional, thorough investigation of Lacey Nash’s disappearance. At the time we had every reason to believe she had run off like she did other times,” Dillingham said. However a witness who had previously not made a full statement came forward after the body was discovered.
The witness, whom Dillingham refused to identify citing her status as a minor, told investigators that she and Nash had both attended a party at the abandoned Lancaster farm adjacent to the nuns property. The site is popular with underage drinkers, Dillingham said.
“We can’t be everywhere. We patrol that area as much as we can, but kids do gather there to drink, it’s a fact. Our witness said Lacey became highly intoxicated and belligerent and said that she was leaving that night and never coming back.”
Nash left the party and the witness assumed that she had made good on her threats. She didn’t come forward at the time out of fear that she would get herself in trouble and because she believed that Nash had run away, Dillingham said.
“It’s a sad story but you get a kid with some booze and drugs inside her – it’d be easy to get disoriented in them woods at night. Then she trips, falls down the gully, hits her head on a rock and that’s all she wrote.”
The sheriff confirmed that an empty liquor bottle was found near the body. An unlabeled bottle containing several hydrocodone tablets, better known by the trademarked name Vicodin, was found in Nash’s purse. However, the autopsy report does not indicate Nash was intoxicated.
“Well, I don’t want to be crude, but a body exposed to the elements for better than six months, you got your accelerated decomposition to deal with. And out in the woods, you’ve got your animal factor. Let’s just say there wasn’t much left for testing and leave it there.”
Sister Julianna Bennett, director of DeMoss Academy, issued a formal statement, “We are saddened at the loss of Lacey and our hearts go out to her family. She remains in our thoughts and in our prayers.” Representatives of the order refused any further comment.
The funeral for Lacey Nash will be held May 5 at St. Stephen’s. (See Nash obituary, p. 10)
After I finished I took a deep breath that ended on a ragged note. Why did Sister Mattea have this clip about my sister Lacey tucked in the book she gave me? Was that what she wanted to talk to me about in person? Did she want to tell me something about her, or how she died?
When Lacey disappeared she and I were barely speaking. But it wasn’t always that way. Lacey wasn’t even a year old when Annie, our middle sister, died. I was 10. Not long after that Dad left. He just couldn’t deal with the sadness, Mom said. But my mother pulled it together and we survived. Her parenting style was closer to Roseanne Connor with an English degree than to Carol Brady, but it worked for us.
Lacey used to dissolve in giggles that gave her the hiccups when Mom would belt out I Am Woman and point to us to come in on the chorus. Mom said we were the three Nash women and we could take on the world. Only it turned out after Lacey turned 14, we couldn’t.
I had just taken a job at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, after spending the first year out of college working at the Himmel Times. It was only a few hours away, but a small daily that’s short on staff doesn’t leave a new reporter much free time. Lacey and I emailed and talked a lot on the phone, but she was as busy with school and her activities as I was with mine. The next year when I took a position at the Grand Rapids Press, a mid-size daily in Michigan, Lacey and I had an even harder time connecting.
By then I was caught up in my first serious relationship. So caught up that it took awhile before I realized that when I did call, Lacey didn’t always call me back. When I asked her about it she brushed me off. But then things got worse. Lacey started lying about where she’d been, staying out past her curfew, skipping school, hanging out with kids she never used to like. Neither Mom nor I could figure it out.
It was as though someone had taken our Lacey and dropped a demon child in her place. Her behavior escalated for almost three years – drinking, smoking weed, doing other drugs. She stole, she ran away, she blew off the counseling sessions Mom set up for her. And lying. She was always, always lying.
When I questioned her she was evasive. When I talked to her she was sullen. When I yelled at her she was defiant. Nothing I did could reach her. She caused Mom a hundred sleepless nights and me a hundred furious days. It just kept getting worse. I dreaded answering the phone or opening my email because there was always some fresh crisis that I couldn’t seem to fix. When she was 17 she stole my credit card, took my mother’s car and headed for parts unknown with her boyfriend. That was it. I was done. I had to be. Trying to save her was killing me.
She was headed for juvenile detention, but my mother’s parish priest Father Lindstrom intervened. He got her into DeMoss Academy, a residential school for hard case kids run by an order of nuns outside of Himmel. I didn’t care where she went as long as it was out of the house.
No more screaming fights, no more nights driving around looking for her, no more missing cash, no more futile attempts to comfort Mom, no more feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I hated my sister and what she had done to our life. Or maybe more truthfully I hated that she made me realize we’re never safe. Nothing lasts. No matter what dues you think you’ve paid, they’re never enough to keep the next bad thing from happening.
I drove and Mom sat tight-lipped but dry-eyed all the way to DeMoss. Lacey lounged in the back with her ear buds in, listening to her music and staring straight ahead. I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t anything. I just didn’t care anymore. All I wanted was to get it done.
There was only one minute when I felt anything at all. After we finished the intake and met the staff Lacey was her usual self, defiant, angry, sullen. She endured Mom’s goodbye hug and ignored my “See you.”
I watched her go down the hall with her counselor. She looked so small. She held her body stiff with her shoulders squared and her chin high. She walked that same way the first day of kindergarten, trying not to show how scared she was. Just before they reached the end of the corridor, she half-turned and our eyes met. The lost look I saw there hit me so hard it took my breath away.
Later, after her body was found, I saw her in my dreams for months – the way she used to be. Running toward me with soft black hair flying, dark blue eyes shining, laughing, holding out a flower or a pretty stone or a butterfly she caught. But as she got closer the flower turned into a phone and she was crying into it Lee-Lee, Lee-Lee. I reached down to pick her up, but she slipped right through my arms. And she kept running. And crying and crying and crying.
And I would wake up in a cold sweat and know that I was only fooling myself. I never stopped caring about Lacey. In my unguarded dreams it all came flooding back – the guilt, the anguish, the sorrow, the love.
That’s why I had to know what Sister Mattea was trying to tell me with that newspaper clip.
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