My team and I enter the deserted house. We hear screaming, pounding on the basement door. We open it, and Ginny flies out. She pumps her wings and bumps up against the ceiling. I lift my arms, call her name and try to coax her down.
“I got this.” One of my team wearing an orange vest hoists a shotgun.
I link my index fingers but tug too hard. Damn.
Cops take missing children cases hard. As they drag on, some detectives put in overtime at church as well on the job. Some turn to psychics. I’m not one who listens to voices from beyond. But from within is a different story. I pay attention to my dreams.
Dreaming about Ginny having wings was telling me she was dead. I hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself because then I’d be obliged to dash Helen’s hopes. Someone on my team trying to shoot Jenny? Haven’t worked that out yet.
Sometimes the cue with my index fingers triggers lucid dreaming. I could’ve talked to whoever it was with the shotgun and maybe determined who they represented. But I pulled my fingers too hard, and woke up.
I don’t know much about the classics, but I know circles of hell, and Helen Burns has suffered in three of them. She didn’t know her daughter, Ginny, was riding her tricycle in the driveway when her husband, Roger, backed out of the garage in a hurry and angry he had to go to work on a Sunday. How can parents be relieved to hear that their daughter will never walk again? When terror she might die has had them in a strangle-hold for 72 hours.
Helen’s second plunge into misery came a couple months later when she and Ginny got home from her daughter’s physical therapy. She found Roger dead, overdosed on pain pills.
It was at the station that I first met Helen. I initially thought she was strangely calm then realized it was more like a trance of someone suffering so much they were on auto-pilot. She’d awakened that morning to find her daughter’s bed empty and a note that said “She’s mine now.”
That was two weeks ago. We’ve interviewed the neighbors and everybody at the clinic where Ginny went for physical therapy. We came up with three potential suspects and eliminated each of them. There’s been no ransom note. We’ve forensiced the hell out of the house. There’s not been a single hook to hang any hope on.
“Detective Bartholomew, you originally said the first 48 hours were critical. It’s been 14 days. I can’t —” Helen takes a sip of water. When she puts the glass down, it looks as if there are tiny sparks inside it. I lower the shades to block the bright sun.
I need to give her something to cling to. “She’s Mine Now” could mean someone took Jenny to raise as their own. At least she wouldn’t be dead. But then why did I dream about the girl having wings? I have to be missing something.
“I got more bad news yesterday,” Helen says. She takes another drink of water.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” But at least it gives me a little time to think. “What—”
“The insurance company has ruled Roger’s death a suicide. I’ve told them over and over he didn’t kill himself. At least not intentionally. It was all that guilt. Helen goes on to say she was counting on Roger’s life insurance to make their home more accessible for Ginny’s wheelchair and to send her daughter to a private school. “You told me not to give up hope, right?”
Maybe Ginny having wings means she’s going to fly away … escape. “I haven’t given up and you shouldn’t either.” I find myself drawn to Helen, fight the urge to take her in my arms.
Later that day I call the insurance company on Helen’s behalf but get nowhere … except realizing I’m in a dangerous back alley of getting too personally involved in the case.
The host greets me at the door and puts a drink in my hand. He looks vaguely familiar. “My own concoction,” he says. “I call it a Flame.” He lights a match in the glass and, sure enough, a flame swirls around the rim. “Down it hot.” I do as he says. The drink burns deep into my chest and makes the room spin for a moment.
“Has quite a kick doesn’t it?” When the room quits turning, I realize who he is: Roger Burns. Helen’s dead husband.
I interlock my fingers, pull gently and stay in the dream.
“You’re not a very astute detective,” he says, orange fire licking the inside of his glass.
Don’t be defensive. Dream Roger might have information I can use. “Why so?”
“Men don’t commit suicide with pills, do they? They Hemingway themselves or do the dangle-dance. Also, who stood to benefit from my death? For that matter, who’d want to free themselves from the burden of a girl in a wheel chair?”
“You’re not suggesting Helen killed you? And her own daughter? She wouldn’t … couldn’t.”
“Maybe she had help. Maybe a boyfriend.” Burns nods toward a fellow on the other side of the room. “His name’s Lucas Peterson.” And there’s Helen talking to the guy. She’s cheating on her husband? I stride toward them. The guy sees me and climbs out a window. Helen dumps her drink over her head and goes up shrieking in a swirl of flames.
Trying to control my anger, I sit across from Helen in the interview room. I’m furious to think she has a boyfriend, has been dishonest with me. I tell myself jealousy has nothing to do with it.
“We’ve never come into one of these rooms to talk, Detective Bartholomew. What’s going on?”
“Mrs. Burns, tell me about your relationship with Lucas Peterson.”
“Who? I don’t know any Lewis P—”
“Lucas Peterson. He says otherwise.”
Helen starts to raises a glass of water to her lips but instead dumps it over her head and goes up in flames.
Helen takes a seat in the interview room. “This is different,” she says. “And what’s this? And him?”
“My colleague is going to administer your lie detector test. You’re willing, right?”
Helen reaches for a glass of water. I don’t think I’m dreaming, but brace myself, not knowing for sure. She takes a sip. “I have nothing to hide.”
As she’s being hooked up, Helen tells me that her husband was abusive.
“I don’t believe there are any records of that.”
“I never reported it. He never hit me, but words can be fists, too, Bartholomew.”
Why is she telling me this now? Because she killed her husband, and now that’s it’s about to be revealed, she’s trying to justify it? Gain my sympathy?
No and no. Helen passes her polygraph examination with flying reds, greens and yellows. Nothing indicates her being involved in her husband’s death or Ginny’s disappearance. Nothing hints of a boyfriend. At least she’s as innocent as I’d hoped. Or is she one of those people who can outsmart a lie detector?
Helen is one of those people who can outsmart a lie detector. She had … has a boyfriend. One of my team leaks to a reporter that Helen has had a guy on the side, and he’s a person of interest. No truth to it, but it works. A fellow comes forward, and his call log and texts make clear he has a romantic relationship with Helen. It’s all I can do to stop myself from throttling him in the interview room. We also learn from examining his phone that he was out of the country when Roger Burns died and Ginny went missing.
That evening, after the boyfriend interview, I’m at home going through the mail and come across a hand-written letter tucked in with the envelopes and magazines. The note is brief:
Hey Detective Dummy,
Did you not consider my wife and her boyfriend hired a professional to do their dirty work?
The reference to “my wife” indicates the note was written by Roger Burns, but why would he sign it “Anonymous?” Makes no sense. I interlock and tug my fingers hard to wake up, but find myself still standing at the kitchen counter looking at the pile of mail and realize: The note is real. I’m not dreaming.
We bring Helen and her boyfriend back for separate interviews. We pretty much rule out that they hired someone.
The investigation continues to go nowhere and, after a year, gets back-burnered.
When I go to a shoe store to check out some running shoes, I can’t believe what I see — Helen and Roger Burns with their daughter. Ginny’s walking up and down the aisle to see how a pair of boots fits.
I position myself between them and the door. “What the hell’s going on here?”
Roger hands Helen a drink. At that point I realize I’m dreaming, but reflexively lunge to knock the glass away from Helen. She’s too quick and dumps the liquid over her head.
I interlock my fingers, pull gently and go lucid. The sight of seeing dream Helen go up in flames is so terrifying I nearly wake up but manage to stay in the dream. The setting shifts, and I’m at the station, studying the Burns files. What’s my inner self trying to tell me? Roger Burns is alive? Ginny is alive and healed? Not likely. I conclude that the dream’s message, though vague, is pointing the finger at Helen. Sometimes dreams are better lie detectors than technology.
Still in control of the dream, I tell the chief new information has come to light on the Ginny Burns case. When I can’t be specific, he nixes bringing in Helen for another interview.
“Forget Helen Burns,” he says. “We both know what happened to the little girl. You killed her.”
The room is sparse, familiar-looking. A tap on the door, followed by a man in a nurse’s uniform. He leads me down a corridor and nods. “Go on in. It’s time for your appointment.”
A tall fellow greets me. “Good day, Mr. Burns.” I look around, but he seems to be talking to me. “Take a seat, and let’s get right to it. Let’s see if we can’t build on all the progress we’ve been making.”
Who is this guy? “I’ll ask the questions, Mr. …?
Bartholomew. Dr. Bartholomew. You know me. We’ve been meeting twice a week since you moved into this facility.”
“That so? How is it we both have the same name? It’s not such a common moniker.”
“We don’t have the same name.” He swings his desk chair around, plucks one of the diplomas off the wall and hands it to me. “See the name: Bartholomew. That’s me. And you are?”
I give him back the framed piece of paper. “I’m Detective Bartholomew.”
He sighs. “A step or two backward after all our breakthroughs. It’s not uncommon. What we do together is a little like detective work. Trying find clues and piece together a puzzle. So you started thinking you’re a detective and took on my name. We talked about that, right?”
“OK, pal, we’re going to the station.” I reach in my pocket for my handcuffs. Crap. Forgot them.
“Tell me: Is Bartholomew your first or last name?”
“It’s my … Just Bartholomew. That’s all you need to know, buddy.”
“OK, OK. I’m going to help you through this relapse. You can handle it. You’re Roger Burns. You blame yourself for the tragic accident that killed your little girl. A couple months after that happened, your distraught wife lost control of her car and died in a fiery wreck. Your mind couldn’t take it anymore, so it locked you in a fantasy world.”
I decide to let him keep running his mouth. He might slip up and incriminate himself.
“In that fantasy world, you killed yourself because of guilt. Roger Burns died. Even so, your mind couldn’t handle the thought of your daughter being dead, so you concocted that she survived though was badly injured. But if she was alive, where was she? Missing. You created the peculiar Detective Bartholomew to find her by looking for clues in his dreams … in your subconscious. Your fantasy also tried to keep Helen alive, but that didn’t work very well. She kept going up in… well, you know. Sorry.”
It’s my job to look for holes in people’s stories, and I find a couple in his. “Tell me, Doctor Imposter. Why did Roger Burns imply to me that Helen killed Ginny? And Helen said Roger abused her. I never … he… Makes no sense.”
“I know you’re confused. Try to understand. Dream Roger suggested Helen killed Ginny because a part of you does blame your wife for letting your daughter play in the driveway unattended. Just as a part of Helen blames you.
And you might not have been abusive, but you said hurtful things to Helen a few years ago when the two of you were going through a rough patch, and she had a fling. Roger Burns told me these things during our sessions. You told me these things.”
“You have answers for everything, don’t you?” It’s too pat to be real. I’m in a dream. I interlock my fingers and tug. Nothing happens.
The doc comes around the desk and puts his hand on my shoulder. “It’s a lot to take in. Tell you what, we’ll stop for today. You let it all sink in, and we’ll get back at it next time.”
Nurse guy leads me back to my crappy quarters. I notice on the dresser a photo of Helen, Roger and Ginny Burns and turn it face down.
“Detective Bartholomew, get in here.” As I head for the chief’s office, a guy pushes past me.
I hear the fellow and the chief having an animated discussion, their voices rising to shouts.
“End of discussion, Detective Bartholomew,” the chief says. “You will not bring that Burns woman in for another interview.”
Detective Bartholomew? He comes out, sputtering, his face red. He goes to his desk, pulls open a drawer and slams it shut. I do that sometimes. Who is this pretending to be me?
He jumps to his feet as I approach his desk. “Roger Burns!” he says. “I thought you were dead. You are dead.” He interlocks his index fingers and pulls gently. The sucker’s trying to lucid dream me.
“Oh, no you don’t.” I interlock my own fingers and practically yank them out of their sockets.
I wake up in bed lying on my back. It’s pitch black. I stretch out my arms, the sheet smooth and cool under my sliding palms —Whoa! There’s somebody with me. “Who’s there?”
“Roger? Are you OK?” A light comes on.
“Not sure,” I say. “Sorry to wake you.”
“You should try to sleep if you’re going in tomorrow,”Helen says. “I don’t understand why you have to work on a Sunday.”
Roger? Work? Sunday? Tomorrow’s the day. The day that leads to so much sorrow and tragedy. I have a chance to change it all. “Helen, promise me something. When I leave for work tomorrow, make sure Ginny is in the house. Hold her hand. Put your arms around her. In fact, watch over her extra carefully all day.”
Who’s Ginny? I hook my fingers, pull gently and go lucid. “Helen, you know this isn’t real, right?”
“Ginny is our daughter, and I’m never going to see her again.”
“Me, too.” Helen takes a glass of water from the bed stand. When she swirls the liquid, it turns to flames. She starts to lift the glass over her head.
“No, Honey. You don’t have to do that anymore. I understand now.”
“I’m glad you understand now,” Dr. Bartholomew says. “Let me hear you say it.”
“I’m Roger Burns. My little girl, Ginny, died in in a tragic accident. My wife, Helen …”
When I finish, Dr. Bartholomew smiles. “Excellent. With a few more sessions and hard work, you’ll be back home for the holidays.”
Home for the holidays? The words twist my stomach. Without thinking, I bring my hands together and hook my fingers. Then I let go. I let go of it all.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now are retired and reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for a Best of the Net and has appeared in various journals including Potato Soup Journal, Moonpark Review, Gone Lawn and Fictive Dream. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.