(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["My heart pounded and my palms felt sweaty, two panic symptoms I had felt even as a young child when playing the piano in front of an audience."]
I went straight to the phone and called Eileen Fuller and, as luck would have it, she agreed to see me that afternoon, within the hour. I dressed carefully for my meeting: a pair of black cords, a red v-necked sweater under a black jacket, my favorite earrings — white gold hoops — and a matching necklace. I was about to grab my backpack when the phone rang. I almost didn’t bother to answer, but then I thought Eileen might be calling to change plans, so I grudgingly picked up the headset. It was the same as before: background noise but no voice.
Just as I thought it was time to hang up, a deep muffled voice said, “Did you get my notes?”
I hesitated, uncertain how to respond, and then said, “Yes, I did. Who are you? What do you want?”
“Pay attention to the notes, Mrs. Parsons.” And then the line went dead.
I’ll admit it: I was shaken. My heart pounded and my palms felt sweaty, two panic symptoms I had felt even as a young child when playing the piano in front of an audience. I sat down and breathed deeply. Slowly, my heart rate returned to normal. Wow, I thought, someone really doesn’t want me to pursue this!
I thought it was a man’s voice. Who might it be? Mr. Fuller? If he did kill his daughter, he would certainly not want me to figure that out. What if he’s not the killer?
What if it’s one of the druggies who came to the apartment?
Or could it be Mrs. Fuller? It didn’t sound like a woman’s voice, even though it was muffled, but I felt I still had to keep her on the list of possibilities. I knew that mothers sometimes killed their children — who hasn’t heard of cases like Susan Smith? — but they were far less common.
What if David Fuller was in a turf war with a drug dealer? What if, however, someone killed Catherine Fuller to get David Fuller to back off? What if that drug dealer was still in operation, perhaps even living in Royal Manor?
A chill went up and down my spine, but I just couldn’t turn away. I kept thinking of little Catherine. Someone had to be on her side. I stood up and re-checked myself in the mirror. I was still going to see Eileen Fuller, threatening notes and phone calls or not. I concentrated on finding justice for Catherine. I carefully locked my door and headed for the bus stop.
It didn’t take long to ride the bus and walk to the house. The gateman recognized me and let me in, as did the maid. As before, I was sent to the cold and uncomfortable red-and-white room; five minutes later, Eileen Fuller came in and led me into her “special den.” It was almost the identical scene as my previous visit except there was no warm fire in the fireplace and the room felt cool and uninviting. Eileen wore a very attractive gray wool suit, contrasted by a pink, lacy blouse. It made her look vulnerable, and I realized, more than before, that this woman might not be capable of making her own decisions.
“I’m surprised that you wanted to come and see me again, Dorthea. Please sit down.” She pointed to the couch where I had sat before, and then took a seat in what she obviously considered her private place. She looked pale and tired. Tea had already been prepared and sat on the coffee table. Eileen pointed to it, and asked, “Would you like some tea?”
“No, thank you. I’d just like to talk.”
Eileen shrugged her shoulders and sat back in her chair.
This time I hoped to get closer to the truth, but the cold room and Eileen’s demeanour cautioned me that I might not get anywhere at all. Still, I pushed ahead, hoping that my misgivings would not be noticeable in the sound of my voice. “Eileen,” I said seriously, “I’ve received threatening notes and phone calls. Do you have any idea who might be sending them?” I figured I might as well get right to the point.
Eileen’s face remained blank. “Threatening notes? Phone calls? Why would anyone do that?” she asked. A slight pause occurred and then she frowned. “Oh, dear,” she said. “Not about your inquiries into Catherine’s death, I hope.”
“Yes, of course, that’s it,” I said irritably. I felt angry that Eileen seemed so disconnected and unconcerned. “I’m not doing anything else that would arouse people’s suspicions,” I added.
Eileen looked at the floor, apparently unable to look at me. “I can’t imagine what that’s about.”
“I think you do, Eileen. I think you know a lot more than you’re telling me. Please, can’t you tell me what really happened to Catherine? It doesn’t have to go beyond this room. As a mother, I feel badly for both you and Catherine. I’m certain that you know more than you’ve told me.”
Eileen’s face softened. She seemed to like the idea that we had a common bond as mothers. I thought, for one brief moment, that I had convinced her, but then she straightened her back and said, “No. No, Dorthea. I can’t tell you anything else because nothing else happened.”
I was disappointed but not yet defeated. I decided to try a different tact. “I went to see Catherine’s teacher and her principal.”
“Did you?” Eileen seemed curious but not concerned.
“Yes,” I said. “They seemed very nice and they talked about Catherine. They said she was a lovely child and they had liked her.”
Eileen smiled for the first time since I’d been there. “Everyone liked Catherine. She was such a good child.”
“They said she seemed lonely, and sometimes afraid.”
“Afraid?” Again, Eileen frowned.
“Yes, afraid,” I said somewhat irritably. I was becoming annoyed with Eileen’s ostrich-in-the-sand attitude. “Can you think why she might have been afraid?”
“I can’t think of a thing.” Eileen remained rigid, her arms stiff. I felt like getting up and shaking her, anything to make her show some emotion.
“Do you remember Catherine’s teacher?” I asked.
“Yes, Miss Brown. Grace Brown, I believe.”
“That’s right. She told me that Catherine seemed to love school and enjoyed doing all the things the children did. But she also said that when you came to get Catherine, there were sometimes men with you. Strange men. Who were those men, Eileen?”
Eileen seemed to deliberately delay answering me, trying to clear her mind and think up a plausible explanation. “Men,” she said slowly. Then her eyes brightened, as though she had remembered something. “Oh, yes, there were only two men. One was my husband’s younger brother and the other was a friend of mine.”
“Really,” I said, not believing a word she said, especially since I knew her husband had no brother. “Grace Brown said they were very disreputable looking. She said you looked afraid when you were with them. She said they made her feel uncomfortable, and she said Catherine didn’t seem to like them either. Who were they really, Eileen? I know your husband doesn’t even have a brother, only a sister.” I leaned forward in my chair and looked directly at her. I even bent down a little so I could gain eye contact with her, as Eileen was looking at the floor. “You can tell me, Eileen. It’s safe now.”
Tears began to flow down Eileen’s cheeks. She looked up at me and said, “No. It’s not safe. It will never be safe. Catherine is dead. And it’s all my fault.”
At last, I thought, I’m getting somewhere. “Of course you’re safe. We’re here together in your home.“ Since Eileen had suggested that these strange men were to be feared, I thought that perhaps my suspicions about her husband might be false, so I added, “Your husband is at work, and he’ll be home soon. If someone is after you, we can go to the police. We can get help, Eileen.”
“No, no one is after me. Not really after me. But I’m still not safe. And neither are you, if you keep prying.”
I ignored her apparent threat; maybe she was the mysterious phone caller after all. I decided it would be best to get back on track. “Who were those men, Eileen?”
“Drug dealers and addicts,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Why were they with you?” I asked.
“Because David was both dealing and using drugs. Sometimes I was his messenger. Sometimes I delivered his drugs. I begged him over and over again not to involve me, and I wanted Catherine nowhere near these people. But David would never take ‘no’ for an answer. He thought it was the perfect cover for me to deliver drugs while I was taking Catherine to or from school. I really didn’t fear the addicts. They just wanted their fix and, as soon as they got it, they were gone. But David was arguing with another drug dealer for the territory. He came to the apartment and he and David argued. And one time he followed me everywhere and then told David that he could kill me or Catherine anytime he wanted. I think that scared David a bit, but he didn’t stop dealing.”
“Do you know who this drug dealer was?”
“No. Not his real name anyway. Everyone called him ‘Tats’ because he had a lot of tatoos.”
“Do you know where he lived?” I held my breath. I didn’t want to know that he lived in my apartment building.
“No, I don’t,” Eileen replied. “But he and David were arguing over who could sell to people in that area, so I suspect he lived nearby.”
“Do you think he was really a threat to you or to Catherine?”
“Yes,” Eileen said. She slumped back in her chair and put her hand under her chin. “The truth is, David was putting us in danger, but I knew he wouldn’t help. I had other worries, too.”
Eileen sometimes seemed to talk in riddles. I wondered what the “other worries” were, but I was afraid to go away from the main topic of Catherine’s death. I thought Eileen might tell me more if she understood that I, too, had dealt with abuse. “You know, Eileen,” I said slowly, “I had an abusive father. He hit my mother. He hit my siblings. He hit me. It became a contest every night to see which of us could get through the evening without getting hit. Home was a dangerous place for me when I was a kid. Was it like that for Catherine?”
Eileen nodded. She closed her eyes, as though she were going back in time, but what surprised me was that it soon became obvious she was not thinking of Catherine but of her own childhood. “It was the same for me,” she said. “My parents expected perfection in everything. I was an only child, though, so I couldn’t hope they’d go after someone else. I was their entire focus. I married to get away from them.”
“Oh, Eileen, I’m so sorry that you didn’t get the escape you were looking for.”
Eileen showed surprise, then understanding, on her face. “Yes, you’re right. David also put me in danger — and my child.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I thought about it, especially in the first few months. But I was pregnant with Catherine, and I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ house. They had despised David, particularly my mother, and they were very angry with me when I told them I was pregnant. I didn’t feel I had much of a choice: my parents or David. I decided I’d stay with the father of my child. And I hoped that David would eventually love Catherine, once he saw her and spent time with her. I thought she’d make him happy.”
“But it didn’t work that way, did it?” I prompted.
“No, it didn’t.”
Silence lay between us, a knowing, understanding silence. Those who have been abused understand the cycle of repetition, the inability to leave, the fear of staying. Eileen had been like many other women and remained, hoping for things to change.
Eileen broke the silence first. “David has a lot of good qualities. He’s intelligent and a good lawyer. He’s always provided well for me. Look at this house we live in.”
I was not surprised at Eileen’s defense of her husband, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to break through the wall she had built around herself. I decided to return to a discussion of what had happened to Catherine. “Eileen,” I asked cautiously, “what happened the day that Catherine died?”
With that one question, Eileen’s openness immediately closed. She stared at me, then appeared surprised. “Just what I said,” she said, sounding irritated. “Catherine fell at school. She came home and said she had a headache. She went to bed. She died in her sleep, apparently she had internal bleeding in her brain.”
I sighed. Eileen was still afraid to tell the truth about Catherine’s death. I decided to be a bit less sympathetic and more combative. “Neither the teacher nor the principal at the school knew about Catherine’s fall. They are certain she did not fall at school.” I said. “Did you know that?”
“Of course they knew!” Eileen argued back. “Catherine told me that she had told her teachers.”
“I don’t think so, Eileen. And I don’t think Catherine fell that day — at least not at school. I think something happened at home. I think you have made up that fall-at-school story to cover up what really happened.”
“No. No. No.” Eileen began to cry and she covered her face with her hands. “No. No. No,” she continued to say over and over again.
I stood up and went to Eileen. I knelt on the floor in front of her and took her hands in mine. “Eileen, it’s ok. You can tell me what happened. It can be between just you and me. I promise.”
Eileen looked into my eyes; I could see how stubborn she was. “What I told you is the truth,” she said slowly. “Catherine fell at school. You must stop this. You must not ask these questions any more.”
I could tell in Eileen’s tone that she was really saying, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it.” I felt that I had perhaps gained a little rapport with Eileen, but she was still not ready to open herself up entirely to me. I was going to get no further today. “All right,” I said, as I stood up and faced her. “Thank you for telling me about David and your parents, Eileen. We’ll just leave it at that for now. All right?”
Eileen smiled meagerly and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Would you like some tea?” she asked. “I hope it isn’t cold.”
“Of course,” I said. I felt it was best to remain and smooth over hurt feelings.
Eileen poured the tea, seemingly unaware that it truly had gotten cold, and for the next hour, we drank tea, ate cookies, and talked about children and fabrics and recent social events, as though there was nothing more serious between us than that. I eventually said that I had to go and when I left, I told Eileen that I would like to come back for another visit. She told me that I was always welcome and, as I walked away from the house, Eileen called out to me, “David’s been good to me, you know.” I just shook my head. How many times had my mother said the same thing?
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.