Read an Excerpt
“E ka Makua e; he nani kou.
He kupanaha kau mau hana a pau.”
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens. Lord with me abide.”
LOADING THE LAST CUP into the dishwasher, Carissa decided to run the noisy old machine in the morning. She much preferred the calming sounds of the Northwest summer night that sneaked through her open windows—crickets with their friendly fidgets, frogs trying to outdo each other with persistent one-note wonders. Across the lawn a blue jay perched on the top of the hammock frame and tilted his head as if to say, “Are you coming out?”
Carissa reached for the small book of poems she had bought in downtown Portland during her lunch break that afternoon. Making her exit from the empty house, she traipsed barefoot across the warm grass and crawled into the hammock. With her feet up and ankles crossed, she drew in a deep breath and pressed the book against her stomach with both hands.
Above her, a tribe of starlings rose from the tall pine tree in the north corner of the yard. Moving as one, the birds darted across the sky, writing their own invisible lines of poetry with sharp, black movements. She watched them disappear over the rooftop while in her nostrils lingered the dusty fragrance of the towering cedar trees that stood shoulder to shoulder along the back fence. Their proud chests were gilded with the golden medals awarded by a commanding August sunset.
A softness hung in the air. It was just the right balance between the mossy dampness that greeted them nine months of the year in the great Northwest and the feathery dryness that rose from the earth on an Indian summer evening in September. This was the sort of magical summer night meant for lingering.
Carissa adjusted her position and twisted her warm brown hair into a small fist of curls at the base of her damp neck. She should be content. She knew that. She should feel much more of a sense of peace. Yet a disagreeable restlessness clung to her.
Exactly when the slow-burning melancholy had arrived and marked her spirit like a bruise, she couldn’t remember. All she knew was that the discontent was with her—on her—following her everywhere, the same way Murphy, their aging black Labrador, shadowed her around the house. The loyal Lab had joined Carissa at the hammock and was resting his chin on the sagging edge, awaiting an affirming pat or scratch on the head.
“Just you and me again, isn’t it, Murphy?” She tugged his ear and scratched where the old dog liked it most, beneath his collar.
Richard should be here. He should be the one lingering with me. This is a night for reminiscing over the past and dreaming about the future.
Carissa tried to remember the last time she and her husband had shared such a night or even sat outside together and gazed into the twilight sky. What happened to those luxurious nights a few summers ago, right after their son moved out? They would take their time enjoying dinner on the patio and then together climb into this hammock made for two. Here they whispered their affection for each other, with fingers intertwined. They spoke of their future with eager anticipation.
But here it was, the future, and she and Richard had become little more than two roommates sharing a bed, a stack of bills, and a growing discontent with their life together.
Murphy nuzzled her hand, prodding Carissa for more scratches.
With one hand on Murphy’s head and the other on her unread book of poems, Carissa closed her eyes and cried just a little. But then, unfortunately, a little bit of guilt joined her as well. Richard had a good job. What he did was important. He helped people in significant ways. Lives were being changed. Over the twenty-four years of their marriage, Richard had made many sacrifices for her.
Why was it so hard for her to concede to this small sacrifice and find a way to keep content the three nights per week that Richard worked late? Her life was far too good for her to feel sorry for herself over this.
So the guilt came back to sit beside her. She knew she should be grateful for her husband and his job.
Yet loneliness isn’t something that can be blown away with a breeze of logic. If it could, I would have been over this months ago.
Drawing in a deep breath, followed by another even slower and more consoling breath, Carissa drifted off. Lulled into a weightless half-sleep accompanied by Murphy’s calming presence and his rhythmic breathing, a dream came and rested on her. Carissa imagined she was afloat on a vast ocean, heading effortlessly to an inviting cove. Overhead a brilliant full moon illuminated the sea. She felt safe. Protected. Not alone.
Murphy moved, rousing Carissa from the vivid half-dream. She closed her eyes and tried to return to the soothing image of the moon on the sea, but Murphy became restless. His ears lifted, and his head turned toward the house.
“No, it’s not your master. He won’t be home for a while.” Carissa tried to read the face of her watch, but the night had closed in around them. She had dozed longer than she had thought. Now it was too dark to see. As she shifted in the hammock, the poetry book slid off onto the grass. Reaching for the book, she tried to remember if she had read any of the poems before falling asleep. No, she knew she hadn’t opened the book. How was it that the lyrical image of the ocean and the moon had been so clear? Where did that impression come from?
Murphy turned toward the side yard, his ears perked up. A low growl came from the faithful watchdog, and then with uncharacteristic spunk, Murphy took off and bounded toward the side of the house by the garage. He let out a bark and then growled at the closed gate, barking in a long succession the way he used to bark at the UPS man years ago, when the dog was still young and suspicious.
“What is it, Murphy?” Carissa rolled out of the hammock and headed for the nearby gate. “Did a rabbit slide under the fence?”
The security light blinked on. Carissa froze. Rabbits and squirrels didn’t create enough motion to set off the security light. Something larger was out there, just on the other side of the unlocked gate.
Then she heard it. The unmistakable sound of feet crunching through the gravel along the side of the house.
Carissa lunged for Murphy’s collar and pulled him with her, dashing to the back door. She yanked the rigid dog inside the house with her, quickly turning the bolt and rushing to the front door to make sure it was locked. Murphy stayed at the back door, growling, while Carissa stood in the darkened living room, cautiously peering out the front window.
A car was parked in front of their home. Cars never parked in front of their home. They lived on a dead-end street with only one other house nearly half an acre away.
Carissa tried to quell her panic as she reached for the phone. Reason told her to dial 911 but instinct prompted her to call Richard. He picked up on the first ring.
“Someone’s here, Richard. A prowler. The security light went on.”
“You sure it wasn’t a squirrel?”
“No! There’s a car out front.”
“In front of our house?”
His tone changed. “Is it a Toyota?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is the car white?”
“Carissa, call the police right now. Hang up and call the police. I’m on my way.”
Her hands shook as she dialed 911 and spoke rapidly to the dispatcher. He asked for specifics, and Carissa listed how the dog barked, the security light went on, she had heard footsteps, she couldn’t think of any reason for a car to be parked in front of their house. Then she suddenly felt self-conscious. What if it was only a large rabbit that had triggered the security light? What if it had been several rabbits, and their shuffling in the gravel sounded like footsteps?
Before she could talk herself into calming down, the pulse of a flashing blue light seeped through the closed shades, indicating the police had arrived. Two officers with long-handled flashlights approached the parked car. Through the corner of the front window, Carissa could see the outline of a man in the driver’s seat. He handed his wallet to an officer who then returned to the patrol car with the ID in his hand. The other officer remained standing beside the car, apparently asking the man more questions.
With her heart pounding, Carissa unlocked the front door, slowly opening it just a few inches in an effort to hear what was being said. Their voices were too low.
Murphy arrived at her side. He poked his nose out the door and growled. Carissa pressed her leg against him. “Shhh! Don’t bark. Stay here.”
The first officer got out of the patrol car and strode toward the suspect with purposeful steps. He ordered the man out of the car and told him to lean against the hood while the other officer placed him in handcuffs.
A moment later, the first officer was at the front door.
“Good evening, ma’am. I’m Officer Roberts. Were you the one who made the call to 911?”
“May I ask you a few questions?”
She repeated the details in response to his questions, and then the officer asked, “Your husband is Dr. Lathrop, is that correct?”
“He’s a psychologist, is that right? A professional counselor?”
“Yes, he is. Do you know my husband?”
“I do. He assisted our department a few years back.” Hesitating, the officer added, “He helped with the Sellwood case.”
An involuntary shiver shot through Carissa. Her grip on Murphy’s collar tightened, and the compliant dog took the action as a command to sit.
Just then a Mazda with squealing brakes peeled around the corner and screeched as it turned into the driveway. Six-foot-tall Richard Lathrop lurched from the car, leaving the door ajar. Instead of rushing to the front door, where Carissa stood with the officer, he went to the handcuffed man at the curb.
“You can go back inside now, Mrs. Lathrop. We’ll take it from here.” Officer Roberts started to walk away but then seemed to have a second thought.
He turned toward Carissa. “Listen, if you ever hear anything suspicious or have any cause for concern, anything at all, you call us right away. Don’t hesitate. Make the call.”
He gave a respectful dip of his chin and walked away.
Carissa felt her chest compressing. All her earlier hammock dreams of floating on a tranquil sea beneath a bobbing moon had vanished. It felt as if she had stepped into a nightmare. The soft fragrance of the honeysuckle blossoms on the twin vines that arched over the front door seemed out of place in light of what was happening in their front yard.
At the street, Richard was talking with the officers. His posture and gestures gave the impression that he was making a plea on the suspect’s behalf.
Richard, what are you doing? Tell me you’re not defending that man. He was prowling along the side of our house! Let the police take him in for questioning!
As Carissa watched with her teeth clenched, her persuasive husband apparently convinced the officers to uncuff the man.
The suspect stood beside his car rubbing his wrists while Richard walked with the two officers back to their patrol car. He spoke with them privately for a few more minutes before they all shook hands and the officers got into their car and drove off.
No, don’t leave!
Richard returned to the man. With his arms folded, Richard leaned against the car casually and tilted his head the way he always did when he was listening to someone with whom he disagreed.
Staring across the wide front yard that had turned dark now that the patrol car was gone, Carissa tried to burn her anxious thoughts into the back of her husband’s head.
Richard, tell me you’re not trying to counsel this guy. Not now. Not in front of our house.
With a shove, Carissa slammed the front door loud enough to send her husband a passive-aggressive message. She hated that she even knew what such behavior was. She hated that she knew anything about Richard’s world of counseling. It terrified her to think about the Sellwood case and what had happened to that innocent woman. The predator who had attacked her in her home late at night had been a client of Richard’s. True, he had been a client for only one counseling session and that session took place a year before the man carried out his heinous crime. But Richard’s notes from that one session aided the police in their arrest and eventual conviction.
While Carissa knew how much her husband had helped a lot of people rebuild their lives, all she could think of in this moment was, What about the ones who don’t respond to counseling? How many unstable clients has my husband met with that I don’t know about? How many is he meeting with now?
She stopped in the middle of the kitchen and allowed herself to ask a question she had never faced head-on before. How many of his clients know where we live?
Carissa suddenly realized why Richard had installed a security alarm system in their house the same day the Sellwood case hit the news. She understood more clearly why he had put a small canister of mace on her key chain and tested her to make sure she knew how to use it. Their unlisted home phone number now made sense.
Why hadn’t she seen this before? She was vulnerable. Here, in her own home, she was at risk. Richard had never come out and told her so, but his actions indicated that she was in danger.
Counting back the months and years to the day the Sellwood case broke, Carissa realized that was the day that a silent fear had entered their home and their marriage like an invisible gas. It had been slowly smothering her. Was that the heaviness she had been carrying around for so long? Or was it that Richard kept so much of his world hidden from her?
As soon as Carissa looked the unspoken fear-phantom in the face, it morphed. She was no longer silently afraid. She was furious.
Stomping over to the kitchen sink, she poured herself a glass of water and drank it quickly, as if the cool liquid could douse the embers that now burned inside her.
I’m not safe here. In my own home I’m not safe. That’s not okay. That’s wrong. Just then she heard the front door open. For a moment she didn’t move. A sharp pain shot through her jaw. She unclenched her teeth.
Her broad-shouldered husband entered, rubbing his forehead and looking agitated. His thinning blond hair needed attention. His blue, button-down shirt was crumpled, and his khaki trousers showed blotted evidence of a stain from whatever it was he had eaten for lunch. Richard lowered himself onto the couch and said nothing.
Carissa took a seat opposite him and started with a question to which she already knew the answer. “He was a client, wasn’t he?”
“One of your dangerous ones?” She tried to keep her words slow and even.
“I wouldn’t call him dangerous.”
“But they handcuffed him. Obviously he has a record. What did he do?”
Richard glanced over at her, barely making eye contact. “He’s not a predator, if that’s what you’re worried about. He’s just in a bad place right now. His wife left him. She took the kids and cleaned out the house. He’s frantic. He called me earlier, but I didn’t take his call. That’s why he came here. He was trying to see if my car was in the garage and didn’t want to bother you if I wasn’t home.”
While Carissa felt a slight twinge of sympathy for the man, it wasn’t enough to quell her fears. “Why did she leave him? What did he do?”
Richard hesitated. He stretched his neck from side to side, as if trying to release the tension, but didn’t respond to her question. That infuriated Carissa. She knew her husband could be trusted to keep the confidences of his clients, but now she was the one who needed to be trusted, and he was shutting her out.
“Richard, what was he convicted of?”
“Voyeurism and domestic violence.”
Carissa felt her heart pounding and her anxiety elevating. “And you dismissed him from any charges? A convicted Peeping Tom, who comes to our house and looks in our windows?”
“The domestic violence was dismissed, and the voyeurism conviction was more than five years ago. He hasn’t had another incident since—”
“You wouldn’t call tonight another incident?”
“He’s really a level one, Carissa. No human contact. He’s not dangerous.”
“How do you know that? What about the predator from the Sellwood case? Did you know for a fact that he wasn’t dangerous?”
Richard sat up straight, as if her comment had sent a shock through the couch. “There is no comparison. You’re making this into more than it is. Nothing happened.”
“Nothing happened?” Carissa leaned forward, her patience gone. “Richard, I can’t believe you’re taking this so lightly. Our home, our private space, was violated tonight. I was sleeping in the hammock when Murphy heard this client of yours on the side of the house. Do you know how terrified I was when the security light went on and I heard footsteps in the gravel?”
Carissa didn’t give him a chance to respond. “No, of course, you don’t know. How could you know how terrified I was? You didn’t even come in the house to check on me when you got home. You went to him! You defended him. You’re still defending him! Do you see the problem here? I’m your wife. You’re supposed to defend me and protect me, not your volatile clients!”
“You’re overreacting, Carissa. I told you, he’s not volatile.”
“I can’t believe you’re still defending him! Will you listen to yourself? Richard, I’m telling you, I don’t feel safe in my own home. What happened tonight is not okay. I am not okay.”
Carissa hadn’t expected the tears to come the way they did, fast and hot, racing down her cheeks. The tears angered her. But Richard angered her more. Why wasn’t he seeing the severity of the situation?
Leaning back and turning his steady gaze toward her, Richard said with calculated inflection in his voice, “I can see how you would feel—”
“No!” Carissa shot to her feet and put her hand up to stop him. Her enraged voice trembled, and her tears stopped immediately. “Don’t you dare start with that soothing tone and that concerned-counselor look. Not with me. You can go be the big savior to all the lost men in the world and tell them you understand their pain. But don’t pretend to understand what I’m feeling. Not like that. Not when you won’t even hear what I’m saying. All you really care about is your clients and their demented issues! You’re losing touch with reality.”
Richard was suddenly on his feet with a stern finger pointed at her. “Don’t ever say that to me! You’re the one who is out of control here!” His eyes were wild, and he looked as if he might throw something.
Stunned by his unexpectedly intense reaction, Carissa gave into her instincts and fled to their bedroom, slamming the door.
The white heat of her fear and anger incinerated her tears before they could leak out. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Trying to calm her spirit, she waited for Richard to come to her. She was certain that once he cooled off he would open the door and diplomatically suggest they sit down and talk things through. That’s what he did. He repaired broken relationships. He restored order and brought understanding. He initiated forgiveness.
But not tonight. Richard didn’t come to her to make things right. And Carissa didn’t open the door and go to him.
© 2010 Robin Jones Gunn