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“She’s not feeling well at all,” Cheryl told her. “That’s why I figured we’d bring her back home instead of taking her out with us for dinner. She keeps nodding off, the poor thing. I think she’s coming down with something.”
Cheryl and Thomas had taken the kids to see a movie, and were planning a trip to Olive Garden afterward.
When Paul left, she’d been putting the finishing touches on Lynn’s portrait and had been an hour into her work when the doorbell rang.
When Kimberly had opened the door, Lynn had practically fallen into her arms. She was pale, and her eyes had a shiny, vague look to them. Kimberly expected a fever, but when she lifted Lynn into her arms, her skin was cool and clammy to the touch.
“I’ll get her to bed,” Kimberly told her sister-in-law. “Give me a call later, OK?”
“I will,” Cheryl promised, reaching out to smooth Lynn’s hair. “You feel better, sweetie.”
“Have a good time with the kids,” Kimberly called as she closed the door behind them.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Kimberly whispered, rocking her daughter from side to side. “Is it your tummy?”
Lynn rubbed her eyes and yawned. She shook her head.
“No, my tummy is okay. I’m just sleepy.”
“Alright, let’s get you into bed. I’ll take your temperature just to make sure you don’t have a fever.”
She felt Lynn’s head nod into her shoulder as she carried her up the stairs.
“Did you like the movie?” Kimberly asked, pulling the thermometer from Lynn’s mouth.
She waited. It beeped. 97.5.
Weird. Cooler than normal.
When Lynn didn’t respond, Kimberly glanced up to see she’d already fallen asleep.
Kimberly gazed at her for several moments. The small half-moon circles that had begun forming under Lynn’s eyes a few weeks ago looked more pronounced. She also noticed, for the first time, that Lynn’s clothes were starting to look baggy on her already petite frame.
Roberta’s words came back to her as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“Your daughter is suffering. She is plagued.”
Kimberly felt a sudden, impotent frustration rising within her.
“Plagued” by WHAT?
Lynn had been to a medical doctor; a psychologist, and even a psychic and there were still no answers in sight!
Lynn moaned in her sleep and rolled over, curling into a ball. Kimberly pulled a sheet up to cover her and stood to close the window. As she glanced outside, she saw the leaves had almost completely turned. She would have to rake them soon.
Halloween was just a week away. Where had summer gone?
The telephone rang, breaking Kimberly out of her reverie.
Leaving the door to Lynn’s room half open, she padded down the stairs and grabbed the phone on the fifth ring.
Kimberly felt a stab of annoyance when she recognized the voice.
“Oh. Hello, Gary.”
“I’m just checking in to see how things went with your family and the trip to Maine and all. I mean, just because we’re taking a break doesn’t mean I don’t care. I wanted you to know that.”
Taking a break? Is THAT what he was calling it??
“They’re hanging in there as well as can be expected,” Kimberly said, noting the edge in her voice. “Annette isn’t doing well. George is taking it, well, how else could you expect him to take it?”
“Well, how are you handling all of this?”
“I’m doing alright,” Kimberly replied. She had the sudden urge to scream at him.
How the hell do you THINK I’m doing!?
“How about Lynn?” Gary asked, a bit of hesitation in his voice.
“Don’t you mean, ‘the demon seed’?”
Gary sighed. “I was going to apologize for that.”
Kimberly felt her shoulders relax. “That would have been a better opener. You act as though we just had a little spat.”
“Yeah, I know. I never should have called Lynn a name like that. I know she’s sick. I know there’s something wrong with her, and she can’t help it.”
Kimberly knew Gary meant well by his comments, but Kimberly felt a hot rush of anger pulse through her just the same. He was talking about Lynn as though she was a mentally disabled child whose biggest problem was poor bladder control!
“Gary, look. I don’t think she’s sick at all. I think she’s possessed. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced of it.”
“You mean like, The Exorcist possessed?”
“No, I’m being serious!” Gary insisted. “Has something else happened?”
Kimberly told him about the photograph and the visit with the psychic.
Kimberly chuckled in spite of herself.
“Does this mean you believe me or—”
“I never didn’t not believe you.”
“Do you realize how many grammatical errors there were in that sentence?”
“What’s up with you?” Gary replied, his tone defensive.
“Gary, I’m manic. I have no idea what’s up or down with me at this point. I guess I just never noticed certain things about you before, and they’re kind of striking me funny. I need some kind of comic relief at this point.”
“Well, your brother is the funny man,” Gary huffed.
Kimberly rolled her eyes but tried to soften her tone. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Gary surprised her by letting out a low chortle. “You didn’t,” he said. “Forget it, I know I sound like Jeff Foxworthy.”
“Bill Engval,” Kimberly countered.
“The entire Blue Collar Comedy Tour?”
“Yeah, alright, I’ll go with that.”
They talked for about 15 more minutes. The conversation was still a bit strained, but the feeling of familiarity was there.
Gary told her his leg was healing fine, and he was finishing up on the BJ’s project and moving onto something even bigger in a few weeks.
When Kimberly hung up she found herself wondering if it was possible the two of them might be able to at least maintain a friendship.
As she climbed the stairs to check on Lynn, it dawned on her that she’d been blunt, honest, and sarcastic with Gary for the first time. She wondered why she could be like that now when they weren’t together but not when they were.
“No expectations,” she answered her own question as she stepped into Lynn’s room.
Her daughter was still sleeping, one arm tossed over her head, blankets on the floor. Kimberly covered her back up with the sheet and returned downstairs to her studio. She would have to make them both a good, healthy dinner in a few hours.
Lynn needed to get her strength back.
“So, did you like your chicken?” Kimberly asked as she undressed Lynn.
She’d drawn a bath for her and was filling it with bubbles.
When she’d gone upstairs to call Lynn down to dinner, she was surprised to see Lynn lying on her bed, coloring.
She’d smiled when she saw her mother. The color had returned to her face, and her eyes looked clear.
“It was good!” Lynn said now as she wiggled out of her shirt. “I just didn’t like the squash that much.”
“I thought you liked veggies,” Kimberly said, reaching past Lynn to turn off the tap.
“I like them when they crunch,” Lynn replied.
“Ah, well, next time I can make a salad on the side. Do you like still like black olives…”
The question died on her lips when she saw the angry red marks on Lynn’s skin. “Lynn, where did you get these?”
Kimberly pulled her child closer and peered down at the ugly crescent-moon shaped scratches that looked as though they’d been dug with long fingernails.
Lynn’s eyes widened as she examined her own arms.
“I don’t know,” Lynn said, a slight quiver in her voice.
She pulled away from her mother and stared at the marks with growing horror.
“Hang on.” Kimberly murmured, “Let’s check the rest of you.”
Kimberly examined her daughter’s body, but discovered no other marks. The large bruise that had once been branded across her back had faded away. Save for one bruise on Lynn’s knee from a fall she’d taken at the fairgrounds, she looked unharmed.
Still, both of her arms bore several red marks as though somebody had grabbed her and dug in their fingernails hard.
“Do they hurt?”
Lynn nodded. “A little.”
“Here, let’s get you into the tub, OK?”
Lynn stepped into the bath, keeping her arms out of the water.
When she finally did lower them in, she inhaled sharply, sucking air through her teeth.
Kimberly winced. “That bad?”
Lynn sighed and looked at her mother, her eyes serious.
“No, it’s more than I expected it to hurt,” Lynn said, skimming her hand over the water. “I’m almost starting to get used this crap.”
Kimberly frowned as she watched her daughter move toward the back of the tub. She was trying to rest her head against the porcelain, but she kept sliding.
“Here, try this,” Kimberly said, placing a washcloth between her daughter’s back and the tub.
Kimberly leaned her arms on the side of the tub and rested her chin on her hands. She blew on the bubbles and sent a stream of them up into the air.
Lynn smiled, but her eyes focused on the water as she continued to stir it with her hands.
“Baby, do you have any idea when you might have gotten those marks?”
Lynn picked up a small, pink bar of soap in the shape of a seashell and washed. “No.”
“How are you feeling?”
Lynn shrugged, her slender shoulders coming up out of the water.
“Do you feel well enough to go to school tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Lynn replied, poking one small foot out of the bubbles to wash it. “I want to go to school. I miss my friends.”
Kimberly watched as Lynn picked up the other foot and reached for it. She missed and dropped the soap into the water.
“Here, let me get it,” Kimberly said, fishing out the little seashell. “Turn around, and I’ll get your back, and then we’ll do your hair.”
As Kimberly reached for the shampoo, she watched Lynn close her eyes while her mother poured water from a cup over her head. But her body was stiff, too tense for a child.
Kimberly’s chest tightened.
None of this was right.
“Brian, there has got to be a way we can delegate this,” Kimberly pleaded, leaning on the edge of her swivel chair. She was trying to keep her voice level, but she knew her frustration was coming through.
She’d been in the office for two hours and already she’d been inundated with calls from clients, all of whom seemed to have chosen the same moment to have a profound financial crisis.
“There must be a full moon or something,” Kimberly commented with a sigh. “Do you realize how many calls I've gotten today telling me I’m their last hope before they yeet themselves off a bridge? These people need a psychiatrist, not a financial planner!”
“Kimberly, I’m sorry... Wait, did you just say 'yeet'?” Brian asked from the other line. He sounded so sick and congested, she felt sorry for him.
Kimberly blushed. “I... may have.”
Her colleague offered no further comment on Kimberly's weird word choice.
“Look, I’ve called Mark and Elissa. They’re independents I used to work with a long time ago. I’ll give you their numbers, and then you can just give them to the people who call. I know you need a break.”
Understatement of the century.
“Brian, I’m going to take these numbers and put them on my voicemail, telling anybody who calls I will be out of the office for an indeterminate amount of time and these people will handle their claims. It’s as simple as that.”
Brian hacked so hard into the phone; Kimberly thought he might be sick.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’ll survive,” Brain sniffled. “I just got to beat this damn thing. Do what you need to do, these people aren’t going anywhere and they’re not going to... 'yeet' themselves.”
Kimberly had to cover her mouth to stifle a laugh.
Brian went on.
“Mark and Elissa will take care of them while I’m away, and Terrence already gave you the leave for as long as you need it. So, just get out of there.”
“Alright, I’m leaving in an hour, and that’s that. Until I get things straightened out at home, I can’t stay.”
“Understood,” Brian replied, “Hey look—”
The receptionist cut in. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, you have a call on line three from Lynn’s school. It’s an emergency.”
“Shit!” Kimberly cried, slamming her fist down on the table. Moments later, she realized her receptionist had to have taken that sound right in the ear. “Damn, sorry. Jennifer, I’m sorry. Can you please transfer it now?”
“No problem. I’d probably have the same reaction.”
“Brian, I’ve got to go now, it’s Lynn.”
Kimberly clicked over before her co-worker had a chance to respond.
Hello, you’ve reached Kimberly Sumner at Salter and Warden Financial Planners. I have taken a leave of absence and will be away for some time. However, please feel free to call my colleague, Brian Salter at extension 2124 and he will be able to help you. If you are unable to reach him, please dial zero to reach our receptionist and she will be able to give you the numbers of Elissa Jeffers or Mark Guthrie, two financial planners in good standing with our firm. I apologize in advance for any inconvenience my absence may cause and hope to reconnect with you soon. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
It was all Kimberly could do not to break into a run as she opened the front doors of the school and headed down the hall to the principal’s office. Her heels clicked on the linoleum floor as she walked, sending an echo bouncing off the brick walls.
She tried to slow her breathing and swallow the lump forming in her throat. She needed to look and act as professional as possible. From the sounds of it, her daughter was in a LOT of trouble.
When she reached the door to the school office, she smoothed her hair and forced a concerned smile onto her face.
“Hello, I’m Kimberly Sumner,” she announced to the young woman at the desk. “I received a phone call about my daughter, Lynn. I was told she’d been involved in a fist fight?”
A woman who looked to be in her early twenties looked up and smiled.
“Oh, hello. I’m Sophie.”
Before the secretary had a chance to say anything else, a large, powerfully-built black man who looked to be in his late 40s emerged from the side office.
“Mrs. Sumner, please come in,” principal Hagen said, extending a hand as he led her into his office. “Lynn is waiting in here with me.”
Lynn was sitting in the chair in front of principal Robert Hagen’s desk, her legs curled up under her, her chin resting on her knees.
She looked terrified.
Kimberly sat down in the chair next to her and put her arm around her.
“What happened, Principal Hagan?” Kimberly asked, trying to look the man in the eyes. She wanted to appear in control, but she was having trouble keeping her voice from shaking.
“Well, Ms. Fritz, our school nurse, told you some of it, correct?”
“Yes,” Kimberly said. She glanced down at Lynn but the child was staring straight ahead, unblinking.
Kimberly went on. “She told me Lynn pushed a boy who was picking on her on the playground. She said he’d gotten a bloody nose.”
The principal nodded. When he leaned forward in his chair causing it to creak, Kimberly felt Lynn start under her arm.
“That’s most of what happened,” he replied. His voice was deep and gravelly, and he gave off an air of intimidation Kimberly didn’t appreciate. “However, there were two other teachers who tell the story in a way that doesn’t make too much sense to me.”
Kimberly frowned and leaned in. “What did they say happened?”
“They’re telling me Lynn didn’t just shove Michael, she somehow tossed him bodily into a metal slide.”
Kimberly’s eyes widened. “Well, if they were standing near it and she shoved him, I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose.”
“That’s just it,” principal Hagan told her, putting thumb and forefinger to his forehead as though combating a headache. He clasped his hands together and looked from Lynn to Kimberly. “Michael and Lynn were nowhere near the slide. They were by the swings, which is a good 15 feet away.
Michael ran to his teacher and said Lynn shoved him into the slide. He had a bloody nose, so she took him to the nurse and Mr. Young took Lynn in to see me. Both Mrs. Blake and Mr. Fitzgerald saw Lynn whirl on Michael and shove him…” He paused and closed his eyes for a moment before concluding his sentence in a tight whisper, “knocking him over five yards away from her.”
She kept her voice level and cool, trying to bring some rationale into the conversation. Even though it was impossible for a 7-year-old to shove anybody 15 feet from her, Kimberly knew somehow her daughter had been able to attack a grown man twice.
The principal nodded before continuing. “You’re right,” he admitted, his tone flat. “However, the boy was injured, and I have two witnesses telling me that this is what happened.”
Kimberly pulled her daughter closer. “Well, somebody was picking on Lynn, and it seems as though she was only trying to defend herself. How is Michael? Is he going to be alright?”
“He’ll be fine. I told his father he’d been shoved into the slide because he’d been picking on a girl. His response was that Michael has a habit of bullying children, and it was about time somebody shoved him back.”
“Wow,” Kimberly said.
The principal scoffed. “Yeah, we’re lucky he’s not pressing charges. This is very serious, Mrs. Sumner. Your daughter is a bright and intelligent little girl. We’re aware of that. But we are also aware of a few other incidents that have gone on in the past few months.”
Kimberly nodded in agreement. “Yes, you’re right. Lynn and I recently begun family counseling. We’re working through some tough issues right now. Her grandmother is very sick, and the man Lynn considered a father figure just exited our lives. So, there is a lot of pressure at home.”
She felt a stab of guilt at the exaggeration about Gary, but she wanted the school to see this incident as a result of a temporary and explainable emotional problem, not a case or child abuse or, God forbid, something out of the ordinary.
An ominous image of Lynn in a lab, her abilities being tested by strangers in crisp white coats snapped into her mind.
She shook the thought away, and she reached over to smooth her daughter’s hair. Lynn looked up, the corners of her mouth twitching.
Kimberly couldn’t tell if her daughter were trying not to smile or if she was about to cry. “That’s why I’ve been thinking it might be best if I schooled Lynn at home or perhaps found her a tutor for the time being.”
The suggestion flowed easily from Kimberly’s mouth as though this was something she’d been considering for weeks. In truth, her words startled her. Lynn was apparently just as taken aback. Her lips parted as though about to protest.
A frown creased the principal’s features.
“Are you sure you feel it is what’s best for Lynn?” He asked, steeping his long fingers again. “We do have programs for children who are facing difficulties at home. I wasn’t planning on suspending Lynn from school if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking you would,” Kimberly said, forcing a more relaxed facial expression.
“I don’t know about my daughter being able to make other children fly,” Kimberly said with a smile, “but I do know it would most likely be best for her if she were tutored at home for a while, at least until things settle down.”
Principal Hagan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then, to her surprise, he smiled, his body visibly relaxing in his leather chair. “If that’s what you feel is best, Mrs. Sumner, I fully support the decision.”
“Thank you, and again, I’m very sorry for what happened,” Kimberly said. “Lynn has never been a violent or angry child, she must have been pretty badly provoked.”
Principal Hagan nodded in understanding.
They spent a few more minutes discussing the best place to look for a tutor for the duration Lynn would be missing school. The principal suggested trying the local library and jotted down some online resources.
As she watched him write, she knew his minimal effort to stop Lynn from being taken out of school and tutored at home was highly unusual. Still, she said nothing. She was just grateful she wouldn't have to fight with the school board over it.
“Lynn, sweetie, are you ready to go home?”
Lynn was still staring wide-eyed at her mother. The dark circles were back and a look of exhaustion written all over her delicate features.
She looked defeated.
This is the best thing for her. Kimberly thought as she and Lynn rose from their chairs.
“Tell Michael I’m sorry,” Lynn said in a small voice, glancing at the principal for a moment before dropping her eyes to the floor. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.”