Dominic Witherspoon sat facing the television; an amber bottle of Coor’s Light in hand and a remote in the other. His eyes were glued to the set, but nothing registered in his mind. Shellie knew he was in a zone of thought — a loop of depression, anxiety and loss swirling end over end like one of the washing machines at his work. It had become an old habit and what one would call a defense mechanism.
Too many times, she had watched her father drop into that old lime green recliner and simply disappear. He had no answers for what plagued their lives. More and more he fell into this evening ritual as pieces of Dom slipped off and melted away. She was losing him.
A commercial for Red Apple Snapple broke her own reverie and she glanced at the television. She had been watching him from atop the stair steps near the second-floor landing. Her little hands gripped the stair banister bars and she put her face between the posts to watch. Resembling a prisoner and like her father, her life had devolved into more of a life sentence.
He sipped from the bottle. Shellie understood that in all reality she was lucky that he didn’t do more than the one bottle each night. He would nurse the same bottle for two to three hours and then he’d fall asleep in the chair, often while watching Discovery or History specials. The drone of the narrating voice would lull him to sleep. On more than one occasion she had also fallen asleep only to be woken up in the late hours and carried to bed by Dom.
Floating up to her, the robotic voice of a news anchor stated, “…a task force combining local police, homicide detectives and state investigators are concentrating their search for Vicente Vargas in the Phoenix area, but there is speculation that he might be using resources to get back to Puerto Rico where he has family.”
Shellie was hungry, but she decided to hold off until he had fallen asleep to sneak into the kitchen. He was angry with her, but more than that, he was deeply disappointed in her. That hurt laid on her heart and pressed into her like a heavy boot standing on her chest. He had no real idea of what to be mad at her for — she had no real idea what she had done either — but it was there nonetheless.
The police had left only an hour and a half before. They had come back with a search warrant and had ransacked their house. The uniformed men had left with her laptop and her father’s HP Pavillion tower.
This had been their third visit in the last two days. The first visit was “routine”. They had knocked on their door about an hour or two since Ms. Baxter had left that morning.
Dom had been a little apprehensive opening the door to the uniformed police. It was a learned habit and a belief that one grew into when you lived in a rough neighborhood. He was originally from Chicago and his Irish father had worked on occasion for some known, shady associates.
From an early age, Dom had been taught that police knocking on the door was a bad omen. If you were doing anything illegal, then you had to be paranoid and guarded when you answered and spoke with them. If you weren’t doing anything illegal, it still meant bad news and that they wanted you to give them information on one of your neighbors or friends. And that actually could be even worse than the first outcome.
That morning, the two policemen had relayed the grim message that Ms. Brenda Baxter had died that morning in a traffic accident.
“We had some questions for you. Can we come in and discuss them with you, sir?”
“No. We can talk right here on the doorstep,” Dom had snapped a little too sharp. The pair of cops stared back at him with startled expressions.
“I… mean, no sorry. My ill mother is inside and she is resting right now. What do you need to ask me, officers?”
The first officer, Antony Royas, a Hispanic man with a thick mustache and short-cropped hair replied, “Well, there were some extenuating circumstances that we cannot go into, but could you state what was Ms. Baxter’s emotional state when she left this morning? Did she seem upset, depressed or stressed over anything?”
“Uh… well, no, not really. Why?”
“Like I said I cannot go into details, but I have to ask.”
“She died in a car accident you said. Why are there detectives?”
“Any fatalities have to be investigated per procedure. I’m sure you understand.”
Shellie had been at the kitchen table, listening in shock. Ms. Baxter had died! Part guilty relief and part fear washed over her. What would they do for a nurse now?
She had never liked the mean-spirited Brenda, but she knew how much her father had relied on her.
Officer Peter Gordon, Royas’ partner spoke up, “How about in the last two or three weeks? Was she having any financial problems or maybe was she suffering from any illnesses that you know of?”
It was Dom’s turn to stare at the pair, then he carefully worded his reply, “I am not on a personal level with my mother’s nurse so I do not know about her health, but as far as her finances, I did just offer to pay her more hourly while she takes care of my mother.”
The officers nodded and then jotted down the information in a hand-size notebook.
“I am sorry to cut this short, but I really do need to tend to my daughter’s and mother’s lunch. Is there anything else or are we done?”
Officer Gordon frowned. “Is there an issue or anything you want to tell us, Mr. Witherspoon? You seem a bit… nervous?”
Her father did not like being pressed.
“Okay. We’re done. Good day, officers.” He shut the door in their faces. This whole conversation would come back to haunt Dom, but at the time he wanted these “doomsayers” to leave him be. He had been rattled by the news and the sudden stress of having to find her replacement had already gripped him.
He rubbed his neck and shook his head.
“It’s okay, Dad. They will send someone out.” She was referring to the nurses service association.
“Uh… yeah. Eat your grilled cheese now.” He had passed by her and went upstairs into his room on the second floor to make calls from their only phone.
She guessed that he would be calling into work and trying to find someone to take his shift at Carmen’s All-Nighter Laundromat. Without Ms. Baxter, Dom would not be able to leave her and Grannie.
At times like this, Shellie especially missed her mother. Her father tried to be attentive and always provided what he could, but he was awkward with affection and emotional connections. She didn’t ever doubt his love, but actually feeling it was another story.
She had realized then for the first time that Ms. Baxter was the only other person she knew of that had died other than her mother. Both had died the same way too — in a car accident.
I don’t want to go to her funeral! He won’t go, will he? She worried. She didn’t even like me, Dad or even Grannie! All she ever did was yell at us and hog the TV when dad wasn’t aroun—
She gasped. Do ghosts come because you thought bad things about them after they died?
Shellie had bolted up the stairs and jumped onto her laptop to research it. However, within five minutes she had been lost in a series of animated Youtube videos and had completely forgotten about the car accident, Ms. Baxter haunting her and her father’s work woes.
At about 7:30 pm that night, when it had all returned like a curse. The second visit this time was with Phoenix Homicide Detectives Dale Kenton and Jerry Pence.
“Look, it’s late, officers. I have already answered the questions by the first two. My mother is ill, can we do this another time?” Dom had answered the door and spewed out his excuses even before they could introduce themselves.
Pence had rebuked her father. His voice had been stern. “Actually, no, Mr. Witherspoon. This is a serious matter involving the death of your mother’s nurse. I would think you could take time out to help us with her death and help provide closure for her family. The woman, after all, donated her last year to care for your ill mother. It would be the most humane thing to do, no?”
The thin, white detective was dressed in a gray suit and black tie. It was pressed sharp and neat. He already had his hand-sized notebook out and had an impatient air about him. His Irish partner was heavier-set with a trim red beard and graying, receding hairline. Both veteran officers exuded professional confidence with a low tolerance for obstacles.
Dom sighed loudly but didn’t say anything else.
“May we?” Kenton had poked his hand toward their kitchen table behind Dom.
Again, her father sighed and muttered under his breath, but had opened the door to invite them inside.
“Go upstairs and check on your grandmother,” he’d ordered her as she stood next to the television.
Detectives Kenton and Pence had sat across the table from him and started going over some information. Their voices had been too low and garbled for Shellie to make out as she had checked on Grannie in her bedroom. The machines whirred and hummed like normal. Bright blue numbers had displayed her heart rate, blood pressure and temperature above her head. All had seemed normal.
Shellie had raced back quietly to the stairs and had been perched in her favorite spying spot to listen.
“…several of them have reported seeing a bit of a heated conversation between you and the late Ms. Baxter. You neglected to tell the officers that this morning.”
“It was just a… a… Well, it wasn’t as it appeared. She was upset with me because I ran late coming home from work. Threatened to quit.” Dom rambled on, defensively and taken aback.
“So you are saying she was angry… emotional?”
“Yes, but before she left she agreed to stay if I gave her a raise.”
“When the officers asked you about all of this, this morning, why did you keep it hidden? Per those officers, you were rather ill-tempered and unresponsive.” Kenton had pressured him.
“No! Not at all. I was just shocked to learn of her death.”
“Yet, you were present enough to keep information from them?”
“What is this all about? I know you are not digging this hard into a simple car accident. I… I am not answering anymore until you level with me or you can just leave now.” Dominic was a good man and had a keen sense of humor normally, but the stress had been wearing on him all afternoon and it was all too easy to be angry at that moment.
“Whoa whoa, let’s not raise our voices, Mr. Witherspoon. You are going to upset your family.” Kenton had warned.
Pence had then leaned over the table onto his elbows. “You seem under a lot of strain. We can be out of your hair here if you just give us what you last talked about this morning with Ms. Baxter. We are not ‘digging’ as you put it for no reason.”
“What is this all about then?” Dom insisted again.
“We can do this at the station if you would prefer,” Kenton whispered, but it had been a veiled threat.
Dom slouched in his chair. “No, I… I cannot leave my mother and daughter unattended.” He’d rubbed in anguish at the back of his neck. “She….Ms. Baxter was angry like I said when I got home. She had gotten into an argument with my daughter and she was mad that I was late.”
“What was this argument with your daughter about?”
“She found Shellie on her laptop watching videos on how to hack computers. She’s always watching videos and such. It was not a big deal, but Ms. Baxter said that Shellie hit her and that she couldn’t take it here anymore.”
The detectives had thrown sidelong glances at each other.
“Wait… What?” Dom had shouted upon seeing their expressions.
“Nothing. Go on,” Pence had insisted, trying to appear friendly.
“NO! Leave now! You won’t talk to me, I’m not talking to you.” Her father rose from his seat and had stormed over to the door and held it open for them again.
As Kenton strode past, he leaned in and whispered once again, “You can expect a call for an interview sometime tomorrow, Dom. This conversation is just getting started.”