(A novel by Susan Overturf)
I slept in the next morning and ate a leisurely breakfast. With David in custody, at least temporarily, and Eileen still wishing to have privacy at the women’s shelter, I hoped that the riddle might eventually be answered, perhaps without any more effort on my part. I assumed that David would be charged with the crimes he had committed against me; he would most likely be out on bail within a few days. However, I was not so sure any more that David was a guilty man, at least not guilty of murdering his child, accidental or otherwise. I had to hope that Jeff and his colleagues would get the answers I had not been able to find.
After David’s intrusion the day before, I decided to stay at home in my cocoon. After breakfast, I sat down in the study and decided to finally open up the letters my father had written to my mother during the war. He had been gone for nearly four years, and I had no idea if these were the only letters he had written. There were about thirty of them. If they were the only ones he wrote, that would mean my mother had received no more than a letter a month. But, in checking the dates, I realized that they had not come that regularly. There were gaps as large as four months between some of the dates, and sometimes the contents of them seemed to indicate that no letters had been written in between. It’s possible, of course, that my mother had kept only the ones that she had wanted to keep. But I was fairly confident, based on dates and content, that these were probably all of the letters my father had written to my mother in the years he was gone.
The letters were full of passion and longing. He was homesick, he missed his wife, he wanted to come home and lead a normal life. He talked of the hardships: lack of food, cold weather, missing buddies. But he never spoke of killing anyone, of seeing friends killed, or of firing his rifle. I don’t know if he simply wished to save my mother from the worst of war, or if he didn’t want to think of it while he was writing to her, but if I had not known that he was at war, it might have been hard to know it. Occasionally, he made minor references to his locations, but apparently he knew that would be censored anyway. Most of his letters were uncensored, so he had clearly learned how to avoid having his words blacked out.
I learned about a different man than the one I had known. He expressed his loneliness, his unhappiness, and his humanness. I could even see how and why my mother had fallen in love with him, and I understood why she had kept his letters. We humans are a complex entity of contradictions and enigmas. My mother saw a different man in her husband than what I saw in the same man who was my father, just as Jeff saw different people in his grandparents than I saw in them. I was glad to learn about this new person my father had once been, but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that I had never known him.
A car alarm going off in the neighbourhood interrupted my thoughts. I stood up and went to the window and looked down, but as usual, nothing seemed amiss. Car alarms go off all-too-often and, as a result, they’re like the boy who cried wolf. No one believes that anyone is trying to steal a car. Eventually, the alarm quit and I turned back into my apartment to pick up my father’s letters which I had spread over my dining room table. The idea came to me out of the blue: Why not go see the doctor who had signed Catherine’s death certificate?
I simply could not give up my search for the truth. It seemed likely to me that the doctor might shed new light on the mystery. I couldn’t remember his name, so I got out my journal — I had been keeping one ever since my exploration of Catherine’s death had begun — and flipped through the pages. Eventually I located the name: Alan Orr. He was no longer listed in the yellow pages as a practicing physician, so I checked the white pages. There were three of them; I began with the first name on the list but he was a construction engineer, not a doctor. The second Alan Orr was the son of the first. When I called the third number, I wondered if I might finally have the right man.
“Hello,” a voice said. It sounded faint, and not particularly robust.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m trying to find Dr. Alan Orr. Is that you?”
“Yes, I’m Dr. Alan Orr. Who is this?”
I explained to Dr. Orr who I was, why I was interested in talking to him, and I asked if I could come to see him. He seemed a bit puzzled but willing to see me. When I asked where he lived, I was amused and pleased to learn that he was just two blocks over on Haro Street, down towards Lost Lagoon and Stanley Park. When he said he was free to see me any time, I invited myself over within the hour.
I washed my face and hands, put on some fresh clothes, and used minimal lipstick. It was early March, still chilly, so I wore my heavier jacket, and took a hat and a pair of gloves in my backpack. The walk to Dr. Orr’s apartment was quick, about ten minutes. As I rang the entry button for his apartment, I thought, for the first time, that I wasn’t sure just what I would say to him. I figured I would work it out as I went along.
The doctor buzzed me in and I rode the elevator to the eleventh floor. When I got off, an old gentlemanly fellow stood in front of an apartment door, greeted me, and led me in. Afterwards, I thought, I didn’t even know for sure it was him, but he had such a kindly look that I figured he was harmless and that he surely must be the man I was meeting. How easily we are seduced by strangers, I thought, when our minds have already conjured an image. Yet, after years as a teacher, I should have known that nothing is as it seems.
Dr. Orr was a tall, lanky man, and quite bald. He didn’t stand to his full height because he apparently had osteoporosis which caused him to bend over considerably. He was dressed in pants and a shirt, with a cardigan sweater that looked as though he wore it every day and never took it off to wash. He already had tea ready for us and we sat together at his dining room table, with a window overlooking Stanley Park. I think he was a lonely man, and he welcomed conversation.
“How long have you been retired?” I asked.
“Oh, about nine years now.”
“That’s quite a while,” I said. “I retired from teaching just last year and I’m still getting adjusted. Did you find it difficult?”
“Not really. You see, I was already 70 years old, and my health was failing. I don’t think I could have gone on much longer anyway.”
We talked, at first, about careers and retirement adjustments, health problems, and world issues. It’s amazing what two retirees can think of to say! But finally I decided it was time to steer the conversation to Catherine.
“Dr. Orr,” I began. “Do you remember a patient, a little girl, named Catherine Fuller?”
“Of course I do,” he said. “She was such a pretty little girl. Such a shame that she died.” He paused, as though he was picturing Catherine in his mind. “Why have you come over here to see me and ask about her?”
And then I launched into my now-familiar explanation of my apartment, Catherine’s death ten years before, and that Catherine’s ghost — according to some — still haunted the rooms of Apartment Five-One-Three. I did not tell him that I had seen Catherine’s ghost several times because, instinctively, I thought a doctor would not believe. His next words proved me right.
“I’m a man of science, Mrs. Parsons,” he said. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Of course,” I said, knowing that I would have to keep my conversation practical and clinical, not emotional or ethereal. “I just wanted you to know how I got started on this inquiry.” I paused for only a few seconds and then plunged in: “Dr. Orr, how do you think Catherine died?”
“I believe I put that on the death certificate. Internal bleeding in the brain, as a result of a fall she had taken earlier in the day.”
“Are you sure, Dr. Orr?”
“Of course I’m sure!” Dr. Orr gave me that look all doctors give when they think their patient has an I.Q. of at least a hundred points lower than their own.
I ignored the patronizing and pushed on. “Would it surprise you to learn that there was no fall at school?”
Dr. Orr looked puzzled. “What are you talking about? Of course there was!”
“I spoke to both the principal and Catherine’s kindergarten teacher. Both are certain that Catherine did not fall at school that day.”
Dr. Orr said nothing at first. Then, the wheels began to turn: “Well, perhaps they just didn’t see her fall. Eileen Fuller was quite insistent that Catherine had fallen at school that day.“
“She lied. Her husband told her to tell the authorities that.”
“I’m not sure of the answer that question. But apparently Catherine fell at home, not at school.”
“Again, I’m not sure. Someone may have pushed her. It might have been an accident.”
Dr. Orr shook his head. “I could find nothing else wrong with that child. The diagnosis I made had to be right. It doesn’t matter where she fell — at school or at home.”
“Why wasn’t an autopsy done?”
“There was no need for one. We knew what had caused her death. It was an accident.”
“But how could you be sure?”
Dr. Orr’s friendly, warm welcoming demeanour was changing to cold and annoyed. “Mrs. Parsons, I knew what I was doing.”
Clearly, I had hit a sensitive spot that all doctors seem to have about their credibility; he was becoming defensive. I tried to change the tone of the conversation so he would feel less intimidated. I didn’t think I was going to get any information out of him if he felt threatened. “How well did you know the Fullers?”
“Not terribly well, but well enough. I had known Eileen Fuller and her parents, as I had been the Engle family physician for years. David Fuller was a stranger to me until Eileen married him, and then he became my patient as well. But David was rarely sick, and he did not come to my office often.”
“What about Eileen? Did she come often? Did she bring Catherine for check-ups?”
“Of course. Eileen felt comfortable with me, and after Catherine was born, she relied on me to help when Catherine got the usual childhood illnesses.”
I thought that I might learn a great deal about Eileen and David if I did not offend Dr. Orr. I sensed that he was particularly protective of Eileen and her family. I decided to change topics: “Tell me about Eileen,” I said. “What was she like?”
Dr. Orr seemed pleased to talk about something else. “Oh, she was a delightful little girl. She always had a smile for me and seemed to enjoy her visits. That’s unusual for children. They don’t usually like to see the doctor.”
“Did you see her often? Did she have a lot of illnesses?”
He shook his head and set down his teacup. “No, not many illnesses. But she did have a lot of injuries. She was a bit of a tomboy and was always climbing trees and participating in athletic games.”
I ignored the old-fashioned attitude Dr. Orr displayed towards girls and their activities. He was, after all, seventy-nine years old. “What kind of injuries did she have?”
“Oh, lots of bumps and bruises and a few broken bones.”
“And her mother always brought her in?”
“Yes. Mr. Engle was much too busy to worry about Eileen and her activities.”
“Did you ever suspect, Dr. Orr, that Eileen might have been abused? Perhaps too strongly disciplined by her father?”
To my surprise, Dr. Orr did not immediately argue with me. He paused, looked out the window, put his hand on his chin and rubbed his stubble. “You know,” he said, “I didn’t at the time. But hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Looking back on it now, I wonder. And then when Eileen’s daughter, Catherine, came in with the same kinds of injuries, the same bruises, I wondered. But, if her mother had been an active child, then it wasn’t too surprising that her child might have been too. I just never knew.”
“Did you ever ask?” I said, incredulously.
“Well, now, how do you ask a question like that? Just say, ‘Hey, do you beat your child?’”
I stared at Dr. Orr and tried to keep calm. If only someone like him had said something when I was a little girl. Maybe someone would have arrested my father, or at least made him stop drinking. I thought of all the children who live in homes with abusive parents and no one helps them. “Dr. Orr, you’re required by law to report suspected abuse. As a teacher, so was I.”
“Well, yes, of course, that’s what the law says. But I began my practice before that law even existed. And, besides, I never knew how to say such things to a patient.”
I tried not to roll my eyes in total dismay. “All right, let’s forget for the moment that you didn’t ask or report. What did you see? What did you suspect?”
Dr. Orr took time to consider the question. I truly don’t think anyone had ever questioned him and his decisions involving Eileen as a child or later with her daughter. “For a long time,” he began, “I believed that Eileen truly was a tomboy. But after a few years, I did think she seemed to be accident prone. There were a lot of bruises and broken bones over the years. Her father, however, was an important man in the community, and I couldn’t believe that he was harming his only daughter. Mrs. Engle also seemed highly regarded by the community. When she brought her daughter in, she always seemed kind and caring and concerned.” He stopped and lowered his head. Then he looked straight at me. “I just could not believe that either her father or mother was harming that child.”
“And what do you think now?”
“Now, I don’t know. I admit it. I just don’t know.”
Silence filled the room momentarily, and then I changed the subject. “So what did you think when Eileen began to bring her daughter in with the same kinds of injuries she herself had had as a child?”
“Like mother, like daughter. They were both active children and prone to accidents.”
“It never occurred to you that Eileen might have married a man just like her father who would also be abusive?”
For a moment, Dr. Orr looked puzzled by my comment, as though I were talking about aliens. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t think it was Mr. Engle or Mr. Fuller who was abusive. If someone was harming Eileen, it was Mrs. Engle, and then Eileen had continued to do the same thing to Catherine.”
For a moment, I was speechless. What was this man talking about? I quickly thought back to my conversations with Eileen and I realized that I had perhaps made assumptions about what Eileen meant when she spoke to me. I had been so focused on what my father had done to me that it did not occur to me to look elsewhere for an explanation. I was positive that Eileen had told me that her father had abused her, yet with Dr. Orr’s words right before me, I realized that Eileen had always talked about her parents together. She had also said that David had never harmed Catherine but that he had threatened her. Everything was suddenly very confusing. I was having difficulty forming a new picture in my mind of the Fuller family, and now perhaps it was necessary to know the Engles better as well. At first, I didn’t want to believe Dr. Orr’s theory, but I knew that I had to explore the possibilities. “But,” I said to Dr. Orr, “Eileen told me about David and his drug dealing and his desire for her to have an abortion. Doesn’t that show what kind of a man he is?”
Dr. Orr shook his head sadly. “Eileen wanted the abortion, my dear, not David.” He said it matter-of-factly, and he ignored the comment about drugs. His use of the endearment “my dear” nearly threw me into a rage, but I listened anyway. He said, “They sat in my office together and talked to me about it. In the end, Eileen agreed to David’s choice.”
I suddenly felt like Alice in Wonderland, completely stuck in a world of opposites where truths are lies and lies are truths. Dr. Orr was giving me a completely different picture of both Eileen and her parents, as well as David. I no longer had any idea whatsoever who had been the villain in this little mysterious drama.
“So,” I said, taking time to clear my head, “you’re saying that Eileen’s mother abused her, but you let it go on the record as tomboy behaviour. And that Eileen didn’t want to have Catherine and, after she did, she continued the same abuse she had experienced. Do you think Eileen was afraid she would do the same thing to her child that had been done to her?”
Dr. Orr folded his hands together in front of him and stared briefly out the window. “You know, I’d never thought of that, but that could be the reason. I admit, to this day, that I find it hard to believe that a mother can do such things to their child. Mothers just don’t do things like that to their children.”
I knew exactly what Dr. Orr was saying, but I also knew that mothers could indeed harm their children, and at this point I was kicking myself for not seeing the obvious. Eileen was either a very sick woman, who had killed her own child, and a very effective liar, trying to place the blame elsewhere, or she was being victimized by someone else, perhaps her husband, her father, or her mother. “But why didn’t you do anything about it?” I asked Dr. Orr. “Why didn’t you say anything when Catherine died?”
“I never knew what the truth was. I talked to Eileen about her disciplining techniques with Catherine. I repeatedly told her that she should be gentle. But Eileen never admitted anything to me. I was just guessing. Sometimes Eileen seemed remorseful. Other times she’d be insistent that she was doing what she had to do to teach her child how to behave. Sometimes she would insist that she was not harming her child.”
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“Possible, yes. But who else if it wasn’t Eileen? Her mother? Her father? Her husband? I didn’t know and I didn’t have any proof.”
“Why didn’t you report Eileen? Why didn’t you have the authorities take Catherine away? They might have gotten to the bottom of it.”
“I believe that a mother and child should be together. I didn’t think Catherine would be better off somewhere else. Eileen was always so upset by Catherine’s injuries. I couldn’t believe she was doing harm to her own daughter.”
“And you didn’t worry that she might kill her daughter....even if it was accidentally?” I asked.
“No. No. No!” he almost shouted. “Eileen was a good person. She had been badly treated by her own mother. But she wanted to do the right thing. I believed that she would.”
“So, when Catherine did die, you were willing to cover up Eileen’s involvement?”
“Eileen was devastated. She was out of control, hysterical. She had never meant to harm her child. I knew that. So did David.”
“Are you telling me that David never hit Catherine? That Eileen was solely Catherine’s abuser?”
“I don’t know. I was never sure. It might have been her mother. But I rarely saw David, and I only heard what Eileen told me about him. She did say that some of Catherine’s injuries were caused by David, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. I believed Eileen was just trying to cover up her own behaviour.”
I took in a deep breath and sighed. Nothing is as it seems, I thought. What a mess. I began to fully appreciate why police officers struggle to find the truth behind just one murder.
“So,” I said. “You just lied on the death certificate.”
“No, I didn’t lie. Based on what Eileen told me and what I could see of the child’s injuries, I believe that Catherine fell, hit her head, and died of internal bleeding in the brain. Eileen told me Catherine fell at school. Maybe that isn’t what happened, but the result was the same. My conscience is clear. Catherine did not have to undergo the indignity of an autopsy; her parents could place her to rest, and they could get on with their lives. I believe justice was served.”
I nearly did something at that moment I rarely do. I wanted to hit Dr. Orr and tell him that he had brought no justice for anyone. But I saw no point in any of it. Instead, I shook my head and stood up to go. “Well, thank you, Dr. Orr. I appreciate your candor with me, even if I don’t agree with you or your actions.”
He shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Walk a mile in my shoes,” he said. “Then perhaps you’d understand what we doctors have to do.”
I didn’t consider that an excuse, but I didn’t say it. I thanked the doctor for his time, and I left as quickly as I could. I felt as though I had just spent an hour wallowing in a swamp. As I walked down to Lost Lagoon and sat on a park bench, I considered the situation as it now stood. Apparently, it was possible that Eileen had killed her own daughter, not David. Apparently, it was possible that David was not an abusive husband, though certainly he was a husband with secrets and he was clearly confused and upset. Apparently, it was even possible that Eileen’s parents were somehow involved, particularly her mother. Everything had turned itself upside down. I walked slowly home, got inside the door, and picked up the phone to call my nephew.
“Hello,” he said to me after I greeted him. “There’s news. David is out on bail for his break-and-enter charge and for taking a hostage, and Eileen is missing from the shelter.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s just dandy. And I have some news for you, too.”
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.