Rating: PG-13, 'cos I'm not sure.
Summary: She felt alone and at the mercy of all kinds of dangers. A sitting duck with no possibility whatsoever of taking control of her own life.
Author's Notes: Sara's thoughts are in italics. Thanks to Marlou for the wonderful beta-reading and excellent suggestions.
Oh Gosh, I really need some feedback on this. I'd crawl over hot coals for feedback, really. I so would. So, if after reading you think it sucked or you liked it, please, please, pleaaaaase, pretty pleaaaaaaase, tell me.
Whatever the verdict, I hope you enjoy.
Sara felt the bile surging up her throat. She thought that if she had to stay a second longer in the interrogation room with Michael McGregor she would surely throw up and make an utter fool of herself.
Not to mention Grissom and Brass –both in the room with her- would immediately suspect she'd been on a bender before coming to work. Maybe Brass wouldn't, but Grissom would surely leap to that conclusion.
Michael McGregor was a 49-year-old insurance salesman, but you wouldn't have known that by his looks. Oh no. He looked forty tops, not a day older. Impeccably groomed in his pastel-green polo shirt and kaki slacks. A sleek insurance salesman.
Sara felt the bile quickly invading her throat.
Slowly, as not to draw attention, she took a deep breath and released it just as slowly, trying to chase the nausea away and bring down the thuds of a rapidly beating heart.
No one in the interrogation room seemed to notice, yet.
"I came by to tell you I can't stay today. Hot case, you know how it is. I'm on my way to the desert now actually," Sara explained to her PEAP counselor, whom she'd come to know as Dianne. Sara presented this information standing up and a good two feet from 'the armchair' for one reason, and one reason only.
It was in that black plushy leather chair, with its comfortable armrests that this woman had told her: If you say you're okay and that it was just a dumb mistake that won't happen again, I believe you. She'd been referring to the DUI. Sara had regarded her with a frown and a thought surfaced, more like a question. Was she actually doing okay?
"It's alright Sara, we can reschedule," she said with that sympathetic smile that made Sara feel there was something wrong about her that made her worthy of the shrink's sympathy."Tomorrow seems ok with you?"
Sara smiled then. Bringing one hand to her forehead and breathing air into a hissing sound, she said, "Tomorrow isn't a good idea, how about next week?"
With her slender fifty-ish hand still resting on her leather-bound day planner, she smiled. She had the sweetest smile Sara had ever seen.
"Sara," she said after taking off her rimless glasses. She reminded Sara of Grissom when she did that and somehow, she felt she was about to get one of Grissom's agonizing silences. "I can't say I didn't see this coming."
Sara clasped her left leg close to her chest and stared at the torn flesh on her knee. Her lips peeled upwards, hissing when her curious finger explored the exposed glistening skin-underneath-the-skin. It stung, so she puffed her cheeks full of air and gently blew over it.
"Aw, my little tomboy," a voice said and Sara looked up, squinting in the late afternoon sun.
"Doesn't hurt," she said.
It did hurt but what she'd accomplished before coming crashing down on the pavement and busting her knee dulled the pain a great deal. Accomplishment was, even at that tender age, a mighty high for Sara. Her natural drug. One that would help her earn a scholarship to Harvard.
"We have to get that cleaned up," the voice said in a tone that left no room for negative answers. "Stay here, I'll get the first aid kit."
Sara stayed put in the backyard, feeling the soft cushy grass through her shorts and glancing at her red bike with a mixture of contempt and pride. Contempt because the blasted thing had failed her at the most critical moment –landing- after she'd taken that ramp; pride because it had given her afternoon a 'tragic' turn.
She thought of the headline: Girl shuffles to her aunt's house in search of much needed medical attention after her brush with death. . .and the pavement.
"Ooowee, kiddo, you really messed up this one," a male voice said as he came through the French doors that overlooked the deck and the backyard. Her aunt came behind him, smiling and carrying a red and white box with a red cross in the middle.
By the end of the day, the antiseptic aroma of alcohol and gauze would be imbedded in her mind like carved hearts in the tender bark of a tree.
Sara glanced down at her hands and mostly, at the file under them. Inside there were pictures and words Sara disliked. Dislike was too mild a word but that would be the word she would use if anyone asked her. She would not use the word 'disgust' or 'repulsion' or –this one was always there under the surface of her conscious mind- 'fear'.
"Did you know Thomas Clain?" Grissom asked, fully aware Michael McGregor had known him and perhaps had given him a bullet in his skull as a late Christmas present.
"He was the family doctor," McGregor replied with two sorrowful green eyes and a sniff. His hands were visibly shaking from time to time and he'd developed an ironic sort of tick: scratching his ring finger and swirling the gold band around and around.
"I have to pick up Johnny from pre-school. He worries if no one picks him up." He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and shook his head in disbelief. "Rachel always picks him up on time. You know he cried every time she left him there?" Scratch. Around and around.
Brass looked unimpressed by the display of emotion. Grissom barely garnered the effort to feign concern.
Sara steeled herself and silently battled her nausea. She knew it'll pass. She hoped.
"What did you see coming?" Sara frowned and gave Dianne a lopsided quizzical smile that didn't quite hide the fact that Sara knew perfectly well what Diane was talking about.
The councellor leaned back in her chair, readying herself for a long chat. She gestured towards the chair. "Sit down a moment, Sara."
Standing two feet away from the armchair, Sara glanced at it as if Dianne had just ordered her to take a mad dash across the office and careen into the glass windows and into the void, where gravity would invariably snag her body and bring her down like a rock, hitting the concrete slabs four floors down.
"Is it that bad today?" Dianne asked, concern in her gray eyes.
Sara held her gaze for a moment before flashing a toothless smile that faltered immediately, like a shooting star. "I. . .," Sara was still smiling, it was fixed and she couldn't help it, it was like a cramp. "I just don't feel like talking today, doc. Happens to everybody."
Diane nodded slowly, not in the least swayed by Sara's smile. It seemed like the CSI had a gun pressed on her back and a menacing voice ordering her to smile or she'd be history.
"Please sit down, this won't take long. I'm sure Mr. Grissom can wait a little bit," Diane said.
Sara snorted a laugh –I paged you two hours ago- and padded towards the seat. The plushy armchair felt treacherously comfortable, just like that candy house had been too tempting for Hansel and Gretel.
Don't get carried away eating, Sara, or you'll be Gretel.
"I've had patients like you before." Sara's eyes were on the armrests. "That DUI scared the shit out of you." Eyes snapped up. "You pulled yourself together fairly quickly. I know you felt these sessions were a waste of time but you came anyway and you played along with me at first, when I was walking on safe territory but now—."
"You're reading too much into last week's session, Doc. That's the problem with you psychologists, you try to make a big deal out of everything." The angry overtones in her voice surprised Sara but not Dianne.
"Your mom's not gonna be happy, kiddo. We have that BBQ at Jimmy's house and she's been raving all about that pink dress she bought for ya," her uncle said, squatting near her bike and spinning the front wheel with his hand. The wheel spun half a turn and then halted with a rubbery thud against the left fork.
Her aunt put down the kit and sat beside Sara.
Sara grimaced and stuck out her tongue in disgust. "Pink, yuck. Could've picked red or yellow but. . .pink?"
Her uncle went on saying, "Now her little girl is gonna have a not-so-girlie scrape on her knee." He got up with a grunt and padded inside the house looking for his toolbox.
She sighed. "He's right," Sara said, long lashes coming down over her eyes.
Usually, her mother let her be whatever she wanted to be, and that was, clothing-wise, shorts and T-shirt in the summer. But she'd fallen head-over-heels in love for this 'unbelievably cute pink dress' her only daughter Sara had to wear. Just once, sweetheart. Just once.
Her aunt patted her lap and Sara placed her injured leg across her aunt's flowery dress.
"Mom said she was gonna take a picture," Sara said, abashed. She had ruined her mother's wishes all because she'd been acting like a daredevil again.
Her aunt tipped the alcohol bottle over a ball of cotton as she said, "Munchkin, don't listen to him. You're gonna look sooo pretty in that dress no one's gonna notice your knee." She winked.
Sara's smile faltered when her aunt's husband plunked his toolbox on the deck. Her aunt Margaret –auntie Maggie- stopped dabbing the wet cotton on her knee –stopped blowing too- as if she'd remembered she'd let the stove on and something was about to burn to a crisp.
"What was your wife's relationship with Dr. Clain?" Grissom asked. Though Grissom appeared curious, Sara knew he was actually weaving the web in which McGregor would surely tangle himself like an unsuspecting fly.
He would throw a sticky line here, another there and wait patiently for his suspect to bump or back into one. Say the wrong thing, contradict the statement he and Sara knew by heart, and voila: he would be trapped.
Michael McGregor frowned and malicious hatred flashed in his eyes before answering. Sara -not being the most trusting woman when it came to men- thought the expression could be because: a. he was pissed at Clain for killing her wife or b. the mention of his wife name pissed him off.
"Well, nowI don't know how to answer that, Mr. Grissom," he said, lowering his for-a-moment-malicious eyes forlornly. He twirled the wedding band again.
For reasons unknown to Sara, her right hand began to shake. Nothing serious, just a little shake and clamminess. Same thing that happened when she was minutes away from taking a final in the most challenging course of the whole university.
Sara intertwined her fingers over the file and the shaking disappeared from view. She could still feel the tingle though.
"Just tell us what you think happened," Sara said, her voice tight and controlled while her hands continued to shake for no reason she could recognize. As if a part of herself was afraid about something the other part didn't know -or didn't want to acknowledge- existed.
Dianne crossed her arms over her blue shirt and nodded several times. "You think it's not a big deal?" It wasn't so much of a worried question as it was a casual enquiry. Like: you really think this shirt goes with these pants, Sara?
For a split-second Sara was going to say that yes, it was a big deal, a huuuuge deal but why not leave it well enough alone, Doc? The unspoken words appeared on Sara's face in the form of a slight waver in her gaze, just before she replied.
"No, not really," she shook her head. "I see worse situations any day of the week."
Sara didn't know why she was so on the defensive, she hadn't been engaged in such active deflection of her questions before. There was a push-shove mechanism inside her head that reacted whenever the shrink delved into certain topics, like a mouse trap. Pressure, snap.
"What about this one? What about yours?" Dianne asked, her gray gaze touching Sara's, wordlessly saying it was Sara Sidle's real opinion that she wanted. Not a cop-out.
It was hard for Sara to ignore a look like that. It would have been much easier to tune-out a jaded sixty-ish man who viewed her as a malfunctioning machine and whose only task consisted in detecting –through Sara's Freudian slips and relationships with her father- which was the broken cogwheel that had caused that DUI. Dianne looked like she really cared.
And maybe she does. But that doesn't change a thing, does it?
"I'm here in one piece, Doc. How bad could it have been?" she said nonchalantly.
"There," her aunt said after cutting up a two-inch stretch of tape and placing it carefully on top of the remaining edge of the gauze.
Sara craned her small neck to admire the dressed wound and smiled, it looked cool. She felt powerful, like she'd been through a character-test and the fact that she hadn't cried and endured the stinging alcohol in stoic silence meant Sara Sidle was tough.
Maggie got up, trudged in the direction of the house to put away the kit. She returned seconds later, taking a seat next to Sara, who was still sprawled on the lawn, brown curls dangling from her back and with a small button nose identical to that of her aunt and her mother.
Sara chuckled when her uncle's hand slipped from the front wheel of her bike and he wounded up on the floor. The wheel stared back at him, still bent in the middle. Her aunt chuckled as well.
Sara propped up her upper body with both hands pressing into the grass behind her. The position made her shoulders rise closer to her head, similar to the way a turtle occasionally peeks out from its shell.
Her uncle scrambled from the floor into a crouching position, muttering something Sara catalogued as adult gibberish and tried again.
"I can do it. I'm used to it," Sara offered from the lawn, head lolling on her slender right shoulder.
She'd broken that bike before and apparently she had a knack for fixing most things mechanic. Chains, action-reaction and electricity just made sense to her in a way that didn't make sense to the rest of the 9-year-olds that lived on her block.
Fixing the wheel would be a cakewalk for her. Her uncle smiled at her and said, "I know you can kiddo. I can do it too."
Her aunt made an 'ok, ok alright, we get it' face and jerked her thumb at her husband's back like saying: 'Look at this poor clueless bastard. Men are never going to change.'
Sara chuckled again and this time, her uncle turned around –right hand still on the bent part, left on the opposite side of the rim- and flashed her aunt a look young Sara interpreted as the sore-loser glare. Like the look Kathy Tannery darted at her whenever Sara won the fifth race in a row –from her house to Kathy's- which meant the ice-creams were on her again.
Though Sara noticed the way her uncle's movements had turned sharper, like when you have to clean your room and you don't want to and that makes you snap the closet doors a bit too forcefully, Sara thought her uncle was pretending to be angry and she found that performance hilarious until. . ..
"I think I'd been blind for a long time," McGregor confessed with regret. "The pressures of work kept me away from home for too long. It's not like I looked forward to meetings that dragged on to the wee hours of the night. I never saw my kids, never went to PTA meetings," he said and leaned forward, elbows of the table, expecting twin nods of understanding from two experienced CSIs who could work twenty hours without so much as a wink of sleep. When he found none, he slumped back in his chair and continued.
"Most of the time I saw Reachel when I got home and by that time she was fast asleep. She would take the kids to school in the morning while I was still asleep and when she came back I was already gone."
"Yeah, sad story," Brass said from behind Sara. "Answer the question, pally. What do you think happened three nights ago in your house?"
McGregor looked at Brass and that dark shroud flashed over his eyes again. Sara's stomach knotted instantly, like a reflex. It had been fast, that look, but if you had taped Michael's McGregor face and paused it on that moment, you would've seen the face of an angry man. An enraged one.
Taking a deep breath McGregor complied, "I think she was having an affair with Dr. Clain and somehow, things ended up. . .horribly wrong. I can't blame her for cheating, you know. Women have needs too and I certainly didn't have the time to satisfy my wife's," he said, bowing his head in shame.
Sara shook her head as she stared at McGregor's anguished pose. She glanced at Grissom, he was equally astonished by the show the man was putting on. He shook his head too.
"Yeah but, you cheated on her first, right?" Sara asked, with a conspiratorial smile that would've been a warm c'mon-fess-up-we're-among-friends smile if it hadn't been for the frosty glare in her eyes.
He'd teed her off. He'd been doing that since she'd processed the scene but this time he'd crossed the line. On the other side of that line Sara Sidle, the woman, could do and say things Sara Sidle, the CSI, wouldn't do or say. The other side of that line would be what Grissom called 'getting emotionally involved in the case'.
To Grissom, you could build a barrier over the line so no one could step over it.
To Sara, Grissom was deluding himself and seemed blind to the fact that sometimes, even he didn't practice what he so adamantly preached. Do as I say but not as I do.
"It was a mistake, that," McGregor said. . .to Grissom, as if a fellow male would surely understand him.
Sara used to lose control after crossing the line but that didn't happen anymore. That trapped energy that made her lose her grip on the situation had redistributed itself so that it worked for her, not against her.
Or maybe you're just kidding yourself and you're still always on the brink of losing it, Sara.
"Really?" Sara asked, tilting her head. "Boy you must be a slow learner, 'cos you made that mistake six times, according to Wendy, your cliché secretary."
The frost in her eyes spread to her last two words and a feeble alarm begun to bleep in Grissom's head.
"Sara, you are a bright woman who, I'm sure, has learned from her line of work that appearances can -and are- deceiving," Dianne said after uncrossing her arms and leaning forward on her mahogany desk.
"I'm not a wildcard or a loose cannon, and I'm sick of people treating me like I am," Sara blurted, not angry but tired. "Seriously, Dianne, I have to go."
Hands onto the armrests, Sara prepared to push herself off that hideous tell-me-your-secrets plushy armchair when Dianne voice made her stop.
"You were angry," Dianne stated matter-of-factly.
Sara's arms lost all strength for a second, then the urge to be in the desert with Grissom came back full force, like fire after a gust of oxygen. "Yes. So?" she snapped.
Dianne's fifty-ish, round and caring face smiled a knowing and wise smile. "You're still angry, dear."
Yeah, sometimes she was but most of the time she wasn't belting at furniture or having crybaby weeping-episodes. Most of the time Sara wasn't angry.
So what? She couldn't be angry at some things every now and then?
"Everyone gets angry. My name is Sara, not Pollyanna," Sara quipped. Dianne smiled. Sara made her smile at least once each session.
"When my father died in World War II, I had nothing but hatred for all things German. I loathed the Germans, didn't matter if it was Hitler or that third generation neighbor who'd emigrated from rural Germany forty years ago. To me, they were responsible for my father's death and if I hated them with enough zeal, the world would be ok. It took me twenty years to figure out I didn't hate Germans; I was angry at my dad for going to war."
Sara listened but the leery frown never disappeared from above her brown eyes. Dianne was the first person –besides Brass- that had shared something so private with her. Even though Sara wanted to trust her more than anything, the same thought popped in her head, gnawing at her: Sara, you can't be so alone in this world that the person who knows more about you is your shrink.
Tell her and that will be become true. You will be alone.
"I'm sorry but I don't see what that has got to do with me."
"Anger is a façade, many different feelings can hide behind anger. Fear, for example. Guilt. Helplessness. Betrayal," Dianne checked them off with her fingers, seeing the sliver of reaction in Sara's eyes when she said the last three.
Guilt. Helplessness. Betrayal.
Her aunt was shaking her head at the hopeless sight of her husband's attempts to set the wheel straight. She would exchange glances with Sara, her by-all-accounts favorite niece.
Auntie Maggie was Sara's mother's younger sister and had taken upon herself the job of spoiling Sara rotten in a way that didn't involve cotton candy or any cavity-inducing sweet.
Indulging her niece consisted of basically one thing: answering her questions with all the scientific accuracy her 9-year-old mind could grasp, which was a lot in her niece's case. Sara didn't like half-baked answers and should you contradict yourself with an earlier statement –one you said, say, two months ago- she would bring forth the inconsistency and enquire about it.
They shared the same thirst for knowledge and –aware or not- Sara wanted to please her aunt, accomplishment-wise, even more than her own mother. Her aunt was her hero.
Sara chuckled, her big browns shifting to and fro, from her aunt to her unsuccessful uncle. Auntie Maggie was smart, she was a highschool math teacher, had a great husband and Sara thought she wanted to grow up to be just like her.
"Well," Auntie Maggie peeked at her wristwatch, "Sara, I think you should lend this poor guy a hand before he breaks his arm trying. Your expertise is needed, munchkin."
Sara smiled and opened her mouth to agree but sounds never came. Even before her aunt had finished her sentence, her uncle stood up from his crouch with one huffing push and stomped towards Maggie. Little Sara's smile vanished when her uncle backhanded her aunt so hard she dropped to the grass.
Sara had never heard her uncle's voice loaded with so much scorn, and never directed at her aunt. "Shut up, you stupid b---."
Sara gasped and her uncle refrained from using the derogatory word in the benefit of his wife's niece, whom he adored as well. An act in futility since the damage had been done seconds before.
"I fixed it, kiddo. Good as new," he said with a smile and then he sauntered inside the house and turned on the TV. He left a petrified child with a bandage on her knee and shock raging inside her young mind.
Slowly, Sara knelt on her good knee and leaned over her aunt. The world had taken a sharp detour into a dark, bizarre land Sara had never been to, where bad things could happen in the blink of an eye.
The pressure on her chest made it difficult to breath and a thought surfaced in her mind, like a horrifying skull bobbing in murky waters. Auntie's dead?
Mommy. I want my mommy.
McGregor took a second to get a grip on his temper, managing to appear guilty about those indiscretions in the process. "It was a mistake," he repeated.
McGregor frowned and squinted at Grissom, then at Sara and then at Brass, as if he'd just realized he was being set up for a double murder. He snorted, miffed by such a preposterous assumption.
"If cheating on your wife is grounds for murder then half the country's women are about to be killed," he said.
"Do I look stupid to you?" Sara asked. Again, that uneasy I-don't-believe-you smile on her face. "Based on the amount of lies you told in your statement, I'm forced to think you regard law enforcement as a bunch of half-wits with guns who would need a map to find their own asses."
Michael McGregor licked his lips and replied carefully. "I did not lie."
Sara flicked the folder open and pretended to skim through his statement. For theatrical purposes only: she knew the facts like the back of her hand. She looked at him.
"You came home from a trip to Albany, tired and eager to be with your beloved wife and you found her in the bedroom with a cracked skull. Next to her, your family doctor. His skull was half-attached to his body and half-splattered on your wall."
McGregor nodded. . .to Grissom. He did glance at Sara with a mixture of annoyance and contempt before shifting to Grissom, though.
Oh, he had crossed the line and went far beyond.
Under the curious eyes of all the men in the room, Sara extended her right arm so that it got in the way of that invisible line that went from McGregor to Grissom and snapped her fingers. The loud angry pop made McGregor blink and look her way.
With a not-so-tight reign on the anger in her voice, Sara said, "I'm asking the questions, stop looking at him."
With an exaggerated turn of his head he looked at her. It wasn't an act of compliance but of flagrant disrespect. Like: What the crap do you want?
The knot in her stomach had dissolved and left behind a nasty angry worm that wanted nothing but to get out and flick the rules aside like one would fling an insect from a picnic table.
Grissom glanced at her. In his head the alarm rose to a steady and considerably loud bleep.
Out of sheer will-power and need to prove to everyone she could restrain herself, she collected her thoughts and continued. Voice leveled.
"That's a nice story, Mikey. I'm sure that's the tale you're gonna feed the jury after you," she made the sign of inverted commas, "swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth."
McGregor stared at her, an enraged dragon swirling in his gut.
"But let's pretend, just for one second," Sara lifted her index finger, "that you're not the lying bastard that you are. What sort of story would you tell to the jury then, huh?"
Before Michael McGregor could respond, Sara continued. She was on a roll and she was getting to him so Grissom stayed in silence, thinking he was fighting fire with fire.
"You came from home Albany, I'll give you that. But here's the first big fat lie: you came in early -something that had never entered wifey's mind- and saw something that you should've seen. And that wasn't her cheating on you with the good doc. Oooh no. It was much worse."
"You told me nobody ever did anything," Dianne said, repeating Sara's words from the last session.
Sara's jaw tightened. Last session had been dotted with tiny slip-ups which Dianne, with her shrink-mind, had thoughtfully mulled over for a week. None of this would be happening if Sara hadn't been dead tired after a night of searching the streets around a crime scene, looking for a getaway vehicle.
But if she'd said that, then her problem would've been a different one. Overtime, Sara. Why do you work so much?
Sara snorted. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
"I know I couldn't have done anything, spare me that speech," Sara replied.
Keep saying it out-loud, you might start to believe it, Sara. You just might.
Dianne shook her head, she was going to have to let Sara go. The woman was too quick on the uptake for her own sake. If she had been a little less intelligent she might not have been skilled enough to steer the conversation away from the core issue that easily.
But Dianne wasn't ready to let her walk out of the office yet, though.
"After you saw your uncle hit your aunt for the first time. . . what your mother told you that night was. . . has to have been shocking to you." Sara looked down. "You're telling me nothing short-circuited in your head? Nothing happened?"
Sara's chin quivered. "My mother. . .." She felt her chest tighten like it had years before.
Sara lay face-down on her bed, hand dangling from the edge, absently playing with a bunch of legos, sticking one on top of the other. Her favorite toy provided no joy to her now, in fact, she saw it as kids stuff even though she'd played with it before climbing on her stupid bike. She'd been building a space ship with her father.
She gave the tower she'd been building an angry shove. Stupid, stupid bike. The tower tumbled down. My fault. Me and my stupid bike.
She looked at the pink dress laying on a small yellow-and-white chair and she heard the grown-up voices again.
Sara Sidle, a dress? What did you do Laura? Chain her to the bed? You look so ad-orable. Oh I wish I had her hair. She's gonna be tall. What d'ya wanna be when you grow up, sweetheart? Ad-orabe, just ad-orable.
They never mentioned my knee. Auntie was right. Sara sighed and in her mind –not a child's mind anymore- she saw her aunt, laying beside her, not moving.
Auntie? She shook her arm. Just a small shake. Sara's vision was blurry and she didn't know why her chest hurt so much. She kept looking around –what do I do? What do I do?- biting her nail anxiously. Auntie?
Her aunt stirred and opened her eyes. Seeing her niece's dismayed face, she said what she had always said: I'm okay munchkin, nothing happened.
In her bed, looking at the floor rather than her covered in glow-in-the-dark stars ceiling, Sara frowned. Nothing happened? But something had happened.
I'm gonna tell mom. Sara had said, determined to get her uncle a deserved punishment, the same way Johnny Easton got punished for hitting her in the arm and leaving a red-and-then-blue mark.
No, no, no, munchkin. He didn't mean it. You can't tell anyone. Auntie was up now, the left side of her face was red and there was a tiny cut under her eye. Sara watched her in silence as she staggered to her bike.
In fact, munchkin, there's nothing to tell.
Sara stopped wiping the last tear and looked sharply at her aunt. What? She thought.
Here. Take your bike, you better go home before your mom worries. It was an accident, munchkin. There's nothing to tell if it was an accident.
But was it? Something told her that it hadn't been. Shouldn't she tell ,then? She wondered now.
If she saw something that wasn't okay, she should tell, right?
Did this mean it was uncle George who broke auntie's arm last year? Sara frowned and started doing circles on the dark-green carpet in her bedroom with her finger. Her young mind wouldn't say that thought out-loud, it was too horrible to acknowledge, instead, the thought lurked in the back of her mind. Fear for her aunt gripped her chest again, her heart fluttered.
A hand rubbed her back. She gasped. It's uncle Gorge, he wants to hit me too---
"Hey, sweetie, it's me," her mother said, frowning at her daughter's startled reaction. "You didn't eat anything at the BBQ. Came home, straight to bed. What's wrong?"
She shouldn't tell but she had to. Mom would take care of everything. Yes. Because aunt Maggie is mom's sister and she will help her. I know I would help James if he was in trouble. Because he's my brother. And brother and sister should help each other.
Sara took a deep breath and sat on the bed, facing her mother in the semi-darkness of her room. Faint sounds of James and her dad watching TV wafted into her room.
"I know why auntie Maggie didn't come to the BBQ," Sara confessed and already the pressure in her chest and that uncomfortable lump in her throat diminished. "Uncle George slapped her and I don't know why. I was there mommy. He made her bleed."
Sara studied her mom's face for the outraged expression she was sure would see but it never came and little nine-year-old Sara got her second shock of the day.
"Come here, sweetie," she said, patting her lap. Sara scrambled up, her mother's arms surrounding her. Her mom's chin rested on her shoulder. Sara felt as safe as she would ever feel but there was something wrong about how this was playing out.
"You told this only to me, right?"
"Alright. I'm gonna tell you something, sweepy. What happened to auntie Maggie has to stay a secret because every house is like an island, see?"
Sara normally understood most things adults explained to her, being the bright child that she was, but her mother's words baffled her for the first time in her life.
She frowned. "An island, mom?"
"That's what my daddy used to say. We had problems like auntie Maggie has, back when I was a small button like you. And dad always said nobody should tell other people how to behave."
Sara frowned and behind her eyes, a storm raged. What is mom saying? What does grandpa have to do with anything?
"And every time people outside the house meddled and tried to tell dad how to treat his kids or his wife, dad got mad and things got worse for us. See?"
Things? What things? Mommy I don't know what you're saying! "Yes," Sara replied in a weak whisper.
"Auntie Maggie will solve it herself. If you tell what you saw to other people then things will get only worse for auntie Maggie," Laura explained, now stroking her daughter's curls lovingly. "What happens in auntie's house shouldn't be known in other houses. Do you understand that, Sara?"
The pressure had returned to her chest. It had doubled, she could barely breathe now. She felt like screaming: I don't understand why you're telling me all this!
"Yes, mom," Sara replied.
If mom says every house is an island, it must be true. Mom knows what to do. But. . .no, it must be true.
"You saw your wife packing two suitcases," Sara said, showing him two of her fingers. "Doc Clain wasn't having an affair with your wife, I seriously doubt she had a death wish. Quite the opposite."
McGregor jumped like a spring. "I don't know what you mean by that but---."
Sara rose her hand in a stop gesture. "Sorry, out of line."
Sara was anything but sorry but she didn't want to upset the guy before he confessed. Because she was going to prod, poke, question him until he confessed.
"Anyway, you came early, found her packing up with the doc there to help her. Boy you must have been surprised. You would think that if you beat a woman hard enough the first time she tried to escape she wouldn't be so stupid as to try a second time, right?"
"I've never hit my wife," McGregor said, seething.
"Your neighbors beg to disagree. So do her hospital records. I agree with her, you know. You came home, found she was about to leave you and you killed them both," Grissom said. He was playing the silent, could-be good cop.
McGregor shook his head vehemently. "No, they had a fight and he took my gun from the bedside table and shot himself."
Sara snorted a laugh. "Oh, you're a piece of work, Mikey. How did he know it was there?"
"I told him," McGregor replied confidently.
Brass walked past him, imitating a doctor's voice during a house call. "Yes your son has chickenpox and by the way. . .I keep a loaded gun in my bedside table."
Brass looked at Sara and asked, "You see that happening?"
Sara said 'nope' and shook her head.
She shrugged. "But just as well 'cos you made so many mistakes you've made us almost redundant. All arrows pointed at you, I didn't have to think really. Mistake number one: lying about the time you got home. Neighbors saw you coming in at 5:00 pm. You told us you found them at 6:00 pm."
Sara leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "Mistake number two: Tying up the doctor while you beat your wife to death with. . . a blunt object. You removed the tape afterwards but surprise surprise, his wrists were still sticky. I thought: well, that's odd, right? At some point between this alleged murder-suicide the murderer had his wrists taped up. Things are not adding up here."
Sara felt a train had left the station and she could do nothing to stop it. She felt a strange combination of exhilaration, anxiety and fear. Something akin to what one would feel before jumping off an airplane, chute strapped to your back.
She noticed he'd stop fiddling with his ring. It had been an act all along. Now that things were looking grim, the creep had tossed the sorrowful-hubby persona out the window.
He could probably play domino with his son with one hand and beat the living daylights out of his wife with the other.
Sara fidgeted in the chair for a moment, physically fighting to stay quiet. Dianne kept prodding and prodding her with questions. She reminded Sara of a kid smacking a piñata with a baseball bat. Bam. Bam. Dianne wanted the rotten candy inside her mind out in the open and Sara wasn't about to let her.
Dianne saw it in Sara's eyes. "It did confuse you," she said. "And understandably so. What she said was weird. Weird and wrong and you knew it," Dianne said, her voice pressing. "But you did what she told you. You never, ever told."
I never, never, ever told. Not even when—"No. I kept it a secret. Kids keep secrets too. So what?"
"So what?" Dianne was genuinely amazed. "Dear, nine-year-olds should never keep a secret like that. It puts them under an enormous amount of pressure, traps them in their own world. If you can't tell your best friend a secret that big, you can't tell her anything else either."
Although Sara wasn't looking at her, Dianne could tell she was listening to every word, drinking them in thirstily because what she was hearing was like water to a thirsty child. It justified her actions and the behavior many friends had described as 'exceedingly private'.
"What's the point? Right, Sara? What's the point in opening up to people if you always have to do it halfway. Better keep your mouth shut. There's always that other thing you're not telling, the one thing you so desperately want to tell. So, why share anything? What's the point?"
Dianne shook her head. "I think your mother was trying to help you, in her own strange way. It looks like her father had hit her--"
Sara wanted to say: So what? What did that have to do with me? Sara Sidle, daughter of Laura Sidle, chuckled sarcastically.
"You don't know half of it, Doc. I have to go," Sara said but didn't attempt to rise form the chair, her mind was somewhere else.
"STOP IT! STOOOOP! Uncle George!"
Sara had dropped by her aunt's looking for a book she needed to write an essay on in English class. Five years had gone by since that afternoon in the lawn. After asking her if uncle Gorge had done anything to her and getting a negative answer, her mother had allowed her to visit her aunt again, who lived three blocks from her house.
Life went on, unchanged. Sara started noticing every bruise that she saw on her beloved auntie's skin. And to think she'd thought the bruises meant her auntie was a daredevil like her.
Sara had spied on a conversation between her mom and aunt Maggie once. The last one had, in a no-way-are-you-crazy tone, said: No, he loves Sara. He adores her. He would never---
A thirteen year old Sara stood in the middle of the trashed kitchen, stepping on two broken plates. The biology book she had been hugging to her chest now lying on the floor, opened, spine up. "Stop it!"
He was choking her. "Oh God," Sara cried, without tears, though.
Something broke inside her mind, right then and there, she felt something going twack.
"Stop it!" she screamed, rushing to her uncle and kicking him in the leg with all her might. She looked up and was horror-struck to see he hadn't even noticed it. He looked like a monster. She kicked him again and realized she'd been wanting to do that for months, even years.
It felt good to be doing something to stop him.
She kicked him again and this time a hand –it hadn't felt like a hand, more like a bar of concrete- shoved her aside. She hit the floor hard and landed on something made of glass. She didn't feel shard cutting her back. She scrambled up immediately.
Sara reached up and grabbed a fistful of her uncles hair and tugged. Tugged hard. This time she was successful, her uncle's hands left Maggie's neck long enough for her to catch her breath.
This time, the shove was stronger, much stronger than a feather-weight kid. He was distracted, blindfolded by rage, so he didn't know that when he'd pushed Sara –the kid he adored- he'd sent her small delicate back against a cupboard of solid oak.
Things had broken inside her, snapped like a twig instead of bone.
"Go away, kiddo, this is none of your business," he said to her. Her aunt nodded and told her: 'It's okay, munchkin, you're gonna be late for school'.
She shuffled away from her aunt's house to school in a daze. The pain appeared gradually. First a throb on her back and her side, then an all-around ache to finally settle –one block from school- into a searing pain in her back and ribs, where she'd hit the cupboard. It made her mind go blank.
She wanted to cry and tell the teacher she didn't know what had happened to her aunt because her uncle had scared her. But in the back of her mind it was her mom's voice, so tender, so loving, explaining that every house is an island.
Loving voice, disturbing message. I might make things worse for Aunt Maggie.
"You can't sleep in class, young lady," the teacher said with a withering look Sara could not see.
Ten minutes after starting class Sara could not concentrate. For one, she had nothing to concentrate on because she'd forgotten her backpack at her aunt's house. And most importantly, sitting upright hurt and made her dizzy. She had crossed her arms over her desk and placed her head on top, like a pillow.
"Young lady, if you don't answer me you're going straight to the principal's office," she said, by the sound of her voice Sara knew she was beside her. Hands on hips no doubt. Sara stared at the boy at the desk next to hers, he was blurry.
She felt like someone was poking her in the ribs with a hot pitchfork.
"What's. . .this?" Sara felt two hands pulling her shirt up from her back. She couldn't move to stop it. The shirt was sticky with blood.
Island house, far far far away from other houses.
"Oh God," the new teacher said. If it had been Mrs. Kendrik –who knew Sara's mom- Sara's nightmare might have ended right there. But she was a sub.
"Who did this to you?" she asked, concerned. She'd been a social worker before becoming a teacher and she knew exactly what she was seeing.
It was a wan whisper. "Accident."
'Accident' was all Sara said.
"Mistake number three: prints on your gun. Not even one of your prints were on it. Wanna know why that's a mistake?"
"Whatever. You're concocting all this story. Cops get too antsy to lock someone up, sometimes they fabricate stories to close a case. I've seen that on TV." McGregor thought he was smart.
"Watch your mouth, pal," Brass warned.
Sara smiled coldly. "I'm gonna ignore that statement. Anyway, this mistake is a twofer really. You did some sort of a double blunder. There being not a single fingerprint from you on your own gun is strange. Very strange. Indicates that someone" -she pointed at him- "wiped it clean. Here's the second part: The doc's fingerprints are in all the wrong places. Bet you just grabbed his, by now dead hand and pressed it against the gun. You were so nervous you probably didn't see where the fingers went."
McGregor knew they had him now but he didn't let on.
Grissom continued from where Sara left off. "Mistake number four: You put the clothes back in the wrong drawers. We know this because your wife arranged everything by color. And you, I bet, are not the type of guy who gets involved in housekeeping. Then you slid the suitcases your wife had been packing under the bed."
Sara opened the file for the second time and pulled out a crime scene photograph of a gray Samsonite suitcase with a line of splattered blood on it. "Look at that, you thought we wouldn't check under the bed? Picture taken by yours truly, Mikey," Sara said with obvious glee.
McGregor glared at her.
"I matched the blood to your wife's," she continued. "Oh, and we did identify that blunt object. A golf club. Wife's blood on one end, your prints on the other. That's what we call a smoking-club."
McGregor was surprised now, and it showed. Sara wasn't smiling but she did feel a resemblance of triumph.
There was a bed under her and it was not hers. The sheets didn't smell like hers – lavender softener- they smelled like they hadn't been cleaned in a long long time and that too many people had slept in it. I want my bed.
A tear rolled from her eyes, over the bridge of her nose and fell on the 'Care Bear' pillow she had under her head. Stupid pillow. She sniffed. I did what she said and I'm here. Mom doesn't like me. Why would she tell me to do something if she knew I'd end up here?
Here was the home of Donald and Elizabeth Coltson, foster parents to seven children. Newest addition, placed in a hurry: Sara Sidle, age 13.
Sara tucked the sheets under her chin and thought about all those people asking questions over and over, over and over. Your dad hit you? Your mom? Who hit you, Sara? Who? The doctor, the teacher, the social worker; all asking questions she couldn't answer.
All she said were four words that had become her mantra: It was an accident.
The sub had moved fast. She had called a friend immediately and acted so fast Sara was whisked away from her home even before she could return to it from the hospital.
But I didn't tell them anything because…all houses are islands and I'm in one and I don't have a boat to sail away.
She missed her mom, her dad and her brother. The social workers talked about sending him to a boys-home in the car on the way to the Carlton's, when they thought Sara was asleep.
Another hot tear rolled down from her eye, once again over the bridge of her nose, the one that looked exactly like her aunt's. She sniffed when another kid in the room –there were four- coughed. Another got up from his bed and sleepily shuffled to the door. He closed it behind him.
The house was full of strange people, strange kids, strange smells and food and noises and…
I want to go home.
Another hot tear. She choked down a sob but everyone in the room heared it anyway. Sobs were nothing weird here.
"First time?" said a voice in the bed next to hers.
"So tell me the other half, Sara. Tell me. I can see it in your eyes, you have something to say, so say it!" she pushed hard this time. She felt she was so close.
Sara took a deep wavering breath and released it in a fed-up huff. Sara leaned forward. "You know what she said when I came back?" Her voice was leveled, tough.
"You want to know what my mother said to me after I'd been in three different houses in six months? After I'd been living with god knew what kind of people? Huh, you wanna know?" Dianne nodded. "'Everything's over sweetie. Thank God you and your brother came back. Now, auntie Maggie moved away' ."
Moved away to a hospital, Sara added to herself. And she never came back. Not dead, not in the conventional sense.
Dianne was speechless. "That's---."
"That's my mother right there. I thought she was going to tell me," she paused, ". . .well, something different, I don't know."
I'm sorry I told you every house is an island.
I'm sorry I made you think everything would be worse for aunt Maggie if you told.
"You never talked about any of this with---."
"What's the point, doc?" she repeated sarcastically. "I was home again, everything returned to normal. Frankly, that's all I cared about."
But it was a half-truth. She hadn't talked to anyone about it because she was sure that if she told, they would take her away again. This time for a much, much longer time. And her stint in foster care was something she did not want to repeat.
That fear never went away though, always in the back of her mind ready to spring forward and seize her. It diminished considerably when she turned eighteen but it was always there.
"That was traumatizing for a young---"
"I'm not. . .," she paused, unable to say the word, "traumatized. I just don't like to remember it. I don't like doing this, alright? Forgive me for not being a masochist."
Dianne narrowed her eyes. "What's the relationship with your mother now?"
Something inside Sara stiffened. "I don't blame her so don't start with my mother or my clueless dad. Leave them out, everything was an accident. I shouldn't have gone to my aunt's house that day. That teacher overreacted and foster care was an accident."
"I don't believe you," Dianne said. "You're angry at your mom and I don't think you've ever told her that."
"It was an accident, she had nothing to do with it. It was my uncle. Why would I be angry at my mother?" Sara paused, rearranging her chaotic thoughts into a neat pile. The words came again.
"It was an accident," she repeated.
Yeah, that kid who got up to the kitchen had an accident too, Stick.
Sara flipped the pillow when the tears had stopped falling. That side was damp and it added to her discomfort about the whole situation. That strange smell, the smell of a hundred kids in that bed. It made her skin crawl.
"First time?" the voice asked from the bed again. Sara frowned and looked at the shapeless mass of shadows and light. As her eyes accustomed to the shifting patters the whipping tree-branch cast on the room, she saw a boy.
"You look and act like a first-timer," he said. The with a teasing voice said, "And you were crying."
"I wasn't crying," Sara retorted.
"Yeah, right, whatever. So, what happened to you, Stick?"
Sara frowned, yet another assault. Strange house, strange kids that mocked her. She felt alone and at the mercy of all kinds of dangers. A sitting duck with no possibility whatsoever of taking control of her own life.
She would experience that feeling every single day for six months.
"Don't call me 'Stick'," she said.
She thought she saw him shrug. "Nothing personal, Stick. I can't keep track of all the names anymore. I've been in this hell-hole five times, never with the same kids. You're skinny as a Stick, so it fits ya."
Sara understood his logic but she was too scared to think about where it stemmed from. If she thought about it, she might become him. Five times in this house. What if they never let me go home? I haven't thought of that before.
A wave of panic hit her, another two tears slipped silently from her eyes.
"So? What did they do to you? Smoked crack in front of you? Forgot their cocaine on the kitchen table and you eat it 'cos you thought it was icing sugar?" He appeared to assess her from the bed. Finally he said, "Nah, you're too old for that. I wasn't though. I almost OD'ed, you know?"
He talked about that it as if he was retelling an adventure filled with danger and he was the tough Sheriff who took one for the team. He reminded her of her mother. His tone of voice mismatching his words.
"Nothing happened," she replied.
He laughed quietly, not to wake the other kids. "Wait. You sleep only on your side and Fatso said something about a hospital. . .my guess is, they beat you up?"
'Fatso' was Donald Carlton; he'd called him that at dinner that first night. While normally Sara would been appalled at a child speaking like that to an adult, her apathy had been in full swing. She had been too empty of emotions to care.
This kid was annoying her. "No one beat me up. It was an accident," she stated.
This time his laugh was louder at first, but he piped himself down in a second. "Ah, Stick, you are so a first-timer." He rose his arm to a patch of light between the dancing shadows. "This was an accident too."
His arm was in a cast. Like the one her aunt had had, a life-time ago. Did that mean there were other people like uncle George? More like him who hit kids like her? Wives and. . . kids too?
"It was an accident," she repeated, more forcefully this time.
"Yeah, that kid who got up to the kitchen had an accident too, Stick. He has a tiny problem with food you see."
Problem with food? Sara felt a prickle in her arms, a chill struck her back, it was the same way she felt when someone told a horror story sitting by the flickering light of a fire.
"A long time ago when he was small –way smaller than you, Stick- their parents took up speed. You know what speed is, Stick?"
It's a. . .drug? Yeah, I remember. It's a drug. "Of course I know."
"Well, apparently, they. . .forgot they had a kid inside the houseHe was just a thing crawling around, you know. Speed makes parents. . .craaaazy."
This was the part where the one telling the horror story broke out the creepy news: and the lady had been dead all along, and they heard the sound of a chainsaw. . .. Sara didn't want to hear anymore about the boy who got up and shuffled to the kitchen. I want to go home.
This is not my bed, not my house, not my brother.
Stop talking. Stop.
"He ate what he could find. Climbing on the kitchen counter, opening doors, finding flour, beans, sugar. He lived on that for who knows how long. Gross, huh? And now, he gets up at night and goes to the kitchen to eat whatever he can find. I mean whatever. I saw him eating paper napkins once. Then he comes back and sleeps. Sometimes he does that twice a night."
I don't want to be in the same room with the kid who ate flour for who knows how long. This bed is dirty.
I want to go home.
"I want to go home. I'm telling Donald and Elizabeth it was an accident. They'll believe me and let me go home," Sara reeled off, flinging the covers off her.
I can't sleep in that bed. I can't. .I'm. . .I'm scared.
"Save the spit, Stick. You come in here and nothing you say makes a difference, adults run the show now, you just sit down and watch. Try not to get hurt or starved or touched. Good luck if you wind up with Claire and Mark. Telling social workers church-going Mark touches you were he isn't supposed to touch is a waste of time. He tells them you're lying. . .and they believe him every time."
What? Touching? What?
"Anyhow, trust me, save the spit," he said.
She didn't believe him right there. But the day after, when she told Elizabeth and she stroked her hair and told her 'accidents like the one that happened to you, aren't accidents' and that she didn't have to go back, she believed him. She tried a couple more times –even cried once- but they wouldn't listen.
Adults run the show. Adults run the show. She had no control whatsoever. Adults run the show.
Sara stayed in bed that night and after a long silence, the boy spoke again.
"Don't you come telling me you're here because of an accident, Stick. Don't you tell me that. If your mom's boyfriend liked to play with ya and she knew it and let him, that ain't an accident. If your dad is a drunk and has a fist like a ton of bricks, don't tell me it was an accident that your jaw is broken. Some 'accidents' should never happen."
The tone of voice of the boy frightened her, it was monotonous. It was dead, like there was no kid at all there, just a bunch of horrible, terrifying stories.
"My mom and dad are great, so stop saying they did those things."
I don't want to meet any more kids with horrible stories. But she would because six months was a long, long, long time. Plenty of kids to meet, things to see and stories to hear.
She didn't belong there, she'd said to him. She was there because of an accident; an accident-accident, not the other kind of 'accident'.
He laughed again. "Sorry to intrude in your fairytale but your parents are not so awesome-freaking-fabulous if you're here, Stick. They must've done something wrong."
Sara drove to the Lab, the streets were relatively quiet and her thoughts flowed uninterrupted.
McGregor was in custody. He didn't enter a plea, or confessed. But that didn't make a difference. Evidence was strong, an angry Pit-bull who would tear that guy's story like a rag doll.
"You okay?" Brass had asked as they walked the hallways. Grissom had taken a detour to the bathroom. Since he had a car of his own and Sara had a few things to do in the Lab before the shift ended, she had headed for her car.
Sara had flashed a smile and said, "Yeah."
"You ruled that room, you know? Crushed that scumbag like a bug," Brass had said, pride in his voice.
"Don't let Grissom hear you," she had replied.
She thought about last week's session with Dianne. She didn't want to go there anymore. She wasn't going to show up for her next appointment. And no one could force her to do otherwise.
Well, Grissom could. In any case, she only had three more sessions left.
Certain nightmares she hadn't had since she was thirteen were back and Sara knew she owed that to Dianne. Sara would wake up in the middle of the afternoon from a rerun episode of her aunt being choked and frantically glance around thinking: They took me away again, I'm not in my house, not in my bed. Dirty sheets! Mom? Mom!? Why?
No one would answer and she'd slump back on the bed. You're alone, Sara, just like you were that time. Just like you've been since you were nine. Alone in a crowd full of people, was the saying?
Never mind, she hadn't told Dianne everything.
She was still okay.
I'm not Stick. I sleep where I want. Eat what I want. I'm not with Donald and Elizabeth. Or Anne and John or with Claire and Mark.
Then that boy's voice came from that distant night into Las Vegas.
Sticky, lemme toss ya a piece of wisdom I learned from a friend who has his own apartment and nobody can tell him to live with Fatso up there if he don't feel like it.
You can take a boy out of the system, but you can't take the system out of the boy. Same with girls, Stick.
Same with girls.