“How was the traffic?” I said while fumbling with the yellow legal pad and stack of papers under my arm.
I didn’t make much eye contact with either of the Dumonts or their granddaughter, finding instead that vague point just behind their collective left ear to focus on and direct my questions to. Still, I had to look, just a little, just once. It was only fair.
Ms. Dumont was very tired. Her eyes looked heavy and her soul, if such things could be slipped from their ethereal moorings, made solid and slapped down on greasy fish scale, was three times heavier than it should have been, would have been if, one desperate moment, hadn’t recently been carried to a horrifying extreme. Today hit her hard, over and over again: in the gut, in the head, in the heart. Each call she’d received, each visitor she’s seen, each request made – another blow, another painful blow.
And mine was coming next.
I thought about how much I hated Deputy Evanston at that moment. How much the Sheriff’s Department and bungled it, tripped it, fucked it up. They’d just looked, just checked in, just “saw” Alice and then just passed the buck to us. To Children’s Services. To me.
It’s all for the best, really.
Alice jumped and leapt and spun and danced. She was four, blessedly four, completely four, possessed of all the charm and wonder that is being four. To her, the half bent and broken toys scattered about the waiting room were stops in a labyrinthine wonderland, all hers to share and explore. She grasped a red block, banged it on the table and bid for Mr. Dumont’s attention.
“See Grammpy? See?”
Grammpy, Ms. Dumont’s husband – Jack? Steve? Chris, no, Chris was her… son – appeared stronger than he was.
He tried to seem stoic. The red at the edges of his eyes, the angry skin around the nostrils of his nose, the balled fist of fingers digging deep into his right palm, it all let slip the recent history of tears he tried now to hide away. He too seemed to find that vague point beyond my left ear and focus hard and silently on it.
“It was a long drive.” Ms. Dumont said. I knew without traffic it would have been two hours; at this time of day the trip was easily twice that.
“I’m still glad you came down.”
“The Sheriff asked us to. You did also. After all this, I just wanted to be helpful.”
Alice banged the block against Mr. Dumont again. He didn’t notice.
“Grammpy!” She screamed it.
“Alice, “ Ms. Dumont scolded. “Alice, we need to talk to the nice man. You need to be good right now.” Alice looked very disappointed. I sat down in one of the tiny chairs next to her. I didn’t avoid her eyes like I did her grandparents.
“You know what, Alice? We’ve got a nice kids room in the back. Good toys and stuff. Better than these. Want to play there while we talk?”
“Can Grammpy come too?”
“No. It’s a special place just for kids.”
Rachel, the case aid and child monitor, was right there waiting. She knew the drill. Like me, she’d done this countless times before.
Rachel took Alice by the hand, said some magic words to her and disappeared behind the security door at the edge of the lobby. The sound of Alice’s singing and skipping were cut off completely by the dull thunk of the electronic bolt securing. The security pad next to the door switched from green to red.
It’s all for the best, really.
We were alone now in the lobby. It was late, the front gate shut. No other families in the waiting area. No others save one.
Ms. Dumont suddenly slumped into a chair, her fortitude breaking like a coffee-cup on a hardwood floor. Tears flowed.
I reached for a box of Kleenex. “Here.”
Her hand trembled. She smiled back at me, drying her eyes. Mr. Dumont remained steely and poised.
“I was just trying to keep things up for Alice, you know?” She said. “Chris keeps calling and wanting to talk to her but I just won’t let him. It didn’t seem right.”
“Tell me more about that.” I sat down next to her. Paperwork tried to fight its way free of the file-folder titled “Dumont.” ARMED escaped from one the pages. WANTED scrambled out too. ATTEMPTED MURDER remained safely hidden next to the information sheet detailing the time, date, and location of the Children’s Court Detention Hearing.
“Tell me how Alice wound up staying with you.”
“Oh, it was his turn to have her for Thanksgiving. “ She glowed proudly at the thought.
“Chris always comes up for Thanksgiving. It’s his thing. He brought Alice along and she enjoyed herself immensely.”
“I’m sure. She looks like she loves you guys.”
“She loves her Grammpy. Can’t be more than two feet away when she’s here. Cries if she doesn’t see him. So when Chris said he had something to do and asked if we wouldn’t mind watching her while he took off. Of course I said yes. He’s done that a lot lately, just taking off. He said he needed to think. Is Alice going to be all right back there? My husband can go back if she starts to cry–”
“We’ll just be another moment. I wasn’t really clear when you said Chris called you.”
“He’s been calling. He called before he… he called even after Lorena – that’s Alice’s other grandmother — called and told me about…” She drifted off, remembering.
“So the first you heard of the shooting was when Lorena called you this morning?”
It took a moment, but Ms. Dumont returned. “Yes. She said that Chris had driven down after he dropped off Alice. She said he must have waited out front all night until Sulma opened the front door to go to get the paper and… and…”
“Shot her,” Mr. Dumont said. His voice was very deep. “Five times. With a .38.”
“That’s got to have been hard to hear.”
Mr. Dumont went back to the vague place. Ms. Dumont nodded her head. “No. What’s been hard is hearing he’s out there driving around. That he still has that gun and that he’s threatening to hurt himself.”
“And Alice? He threatened Alice too didn’t he? That’s what the police said.”
Ms. Dumont unscrambled her tissue and wiped her nose again. “I’m just glad I have Alice. That’s the best thing right now – for me and her. Since you’ve seen her, and you know she’s all right, can we go now? My sister is waiting…”
“I’m really sorry Ms. Dumont but Alice is staying with us.”
Mr. Dumont fixed me with a clean, steel, sharp stare. Ms. Dumont barely stammered out a “What do you mean?”
“I’ve detained Alice under section 300 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code. Because her mother is in the hospital, her father is on the run and threatening to kill her, I’ve taken her into custody pending a hearing in Children’s Court.”
“You told us—“ Ms. Dumont started. I could see the barricade in her heart against the pain of the day fall in on itself.
“I’m sorry. She’s not safe with you. She’s not safe with anyone in either family. Not while he’s out there.”
“But he wouldn’t—“
“Are you sure?”
She took a long breath.
“Yes. But she’s my responsibility,” I said, the steel in my voice flashing loudly.
I started reaching for the papers inside my folder. I’ll explain things the best I can to them. I’ll answer any questions, address any concerns, get my supervisor on the phone for them if I need to. It won’t change anything though.
Later, after they leave, I’ll call Deputy Evanston. I’ll tell him that the Dumonts had arrived as they’d promised; that they hadn’t gone to be with their son; that they didn’t know where he was; that they were tired, and broken and upset and angry. Oh, and I’ll tell him the important thing: I have Alice.
What I won’t tell him, what I will barely tell myself, is that Blessedly-Four-Alice was now far from her mother, her grandmothers, her Grammpy. Out of sight, in a strange and alien foster home far removed from the warmth and love of her remaining relations, no one will be there when Alice realizes she’s alone. No one, no one that matters, will be there to comfort her when her perfect childhood becomes the final casualty of the day.
But it’s all for the best.