A Child's Last Hope

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Chapter 23

“As I began to lose consciousness, I thought for sure that I was dying. It’s hard to believe that was a month ago. Seems like just yesterday. Of course I thought about never seeing Maria again or being there for Renee as she grows up, but as heartbreaking as those thoughts are, my primary concern during those last few seconds before blacking out was how I had caused my own death. I hated myself in that moment because it was all my fault. I could have easily avoided putting myself, Sarah, and Kathy at risk,” Ethan said, speaking from the heart.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, Ethan. Many people that have been near death have said that their regrets dominated their thoughts in the final moments. It doesn’t mean that you love your family any less. There is no reason to be ashamed,” Janelle said, trying to console him.

“Now that I’m leaving, I just kind of feel like a failure. I couldn’t handle the responsibility or pressure that comes with being a social worker. No matter how good I am at it, I just can’t deal with all the trauma anymore. Be honest with me. Don’t you think that I’ve failed?”

“Of course not. There is no shame in reaching a limit when it comes to anything in life. What’s most important is loved ones and being happy on a personal level. You know that a continued career in social work would either destroy the person you are, or it would tear your family apart. You’re asking me what I think, but you don’t need me to tell you what you already know. You think you need to hear it from someone else, but you don’t. Every time that we had a session together, all I did was observe and facilitate.”

He looked down and patted the couch. “Yeah, well, I appreciate it none the less. I’m actually going to miss this couch. It grew on me.”

“You know, you could come back to talk whenever you like. It doesn’t have to be official,” Janelle said.

Ethan laughed and stood up. “I appreciate that, Janelle. But we’re moving back up to Northern California. Probably back to my hometown of Chico.”

“That sounds nice. Well, if you ever come back down, just give me a call. What did you decide you would do once you get there?”

“As soon as I take some more criminal justice classes and get a private investigator’s license, I’m going to focus on finding missing children. With the amount of people that go missing, it won’t be easy. Parents go through hell not knowing where their child is or if they’re even alive. I wouldn’t wish that on any parent. I’m hoping I will be able to help.”

Just imagining what Beth and her ex-husband must be going through nearly brought tears to his eyes. Now that Roger was dead, they probably won’t ever find Eve’s body, which means they can’t lay her to rest. He regretted not forcing Roger to tell him where her body was hidden.

Janelle followed him to the door. “You take care, Mr. Harper.”

“You too, Mrs. Barnes. You too,” Ethan said, choking up from the frog in his throat.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be coming back to the Child and Family Services Agency again, he knew in his heart that he had sat down with Janelle Barnes for the last time while watching her office door close behind him. As his head spun back around, his body jolted from being startled by Owen, the big oaf standing directly in front of him silently like a statue.

“It’s not going to be the same around here without you, buddy. Now we have to travel so far just to see each other,” Owen said. Resting his forehead on Ethan’s shoulder, he began playfully crying. “Oh no! Please don’t go! Wha, ha, ha!”

“You’re going to cry for real when I leave this place, so keep putting on a show,” Ethan said, pointing his finger at him.

Owen handed Ethan a plastic bag filled with notebooks and writing utensils. “Here’s your things. I took the liberty of packing for you.”

He looked through the bag seeing no sign of his coffee mug. While Owen was expecting gratitude, he instead produced an unsatisfied smirk. “Really? You’re forgetting my most important possession.”

Seeing Owen stand there dumbfounded, he marched into the break room and grabbed his mug, then marched straight back to Owen and held the mug out in front of his face. “I thought you knew me? I can’t survive an early morning without my coffee, dumbass.”

“Okay . . . see . . . I’m not going to miss you being a dick,” Owen struggled to say, legitimately becoming emotional.

Ethan took the bag from him, giving him a one-armed hug. “You run the place now. Don’t let me down. I’m leaving big shoes to fill. See you later before we leave town, yeah?”

“Yeah, pal. See you in a bit.”

John walked up and patted Ethan’s shoulder. “Sad to see you go, Ethan. You were a good guy. Now we’re all going to have to pick up the slack you’re leaving behind, so thanks for that.”

Bringing a smile to his face, Ethan thought to himself how ridiculous it was to imagine John being the one to pick up any slack. Then he turned around to walk to Lin’s office, but noticed she was already walking out of it toward him.

“I just wanted to see you off and to tell you that we’re all proud of your accomplishments here. All the children that you’ve helped are indebted to you. I wish you success in all your future endeavors,” Lin said, sounding professional rather than heartfelt. “Can you come into my office for a minute before you go?”

Unimpressed by her farewell, he was intrigued by what she wanted to say within the privacy of her office. “Sure, Lin.”

Once the door was shut behind them, Lin turned around to speak before either of them could sit. “Before you’re gone forever, I just wanted to let you know that I’m aware of what really happened.”

“Excuse me? Wh—what are you talking about?” Ethan said, legitimately surprised.

“I’ve been doing social work for a long time. Very few in this field have had to kill anyone, especially three people. Either you’re the unluckiest man I’ve ever met, or you sought to punish these men.”

“I don’t really understand. If this is how you’ve felt, then why haven’t you said anything to anyone?” he said, not denying what she had claimed.

“What you did was dangerous and irresponsible. While your methods were completely against the law, they were also quite effective. I love these children as much as you, if not more. I understand why you did what you did, but I never imagined you would be capable of that when you started working here. Do you mind if I ask what put you over the edge? Was it Kevin’s death?”

At first, he couldn’t find the words to respond because he was caught off guard. He thought he had pulled the shades over everyone’s eyes. Now he was beginning to wonder if Lin’s conclusion was as obvious to everyone else in the office. Owen was oblivious, but that made sense considering who Owen was.

“That was part of it. I promised myself never to let that happen to another child again. I should have done something about Frank before he could take Kevin’s life. I blamed myself. Just so you know, Marcus was really in self-defense. His death was a gateway to the other two, though. It seemed so logical and simple after that. It was always for the children, Lin.”

Lin looked down at the ground and nodded her head. “I see. I want you to know that I will keep your secret. You’re lucky agent Ramsey did as well. I guess I’m not the only one that can see your heart is generally in the right place. I really hope you’ll find peace in your new career. Social work isn’t for everyone. Even those that can handle it need to stop at some point.”

Lin walked Ethan to the door. He stepped through the doorway and turned around to say goodbye. “I guess I can’t thank you enough, then. Thank you for being so good to me.”

“I’m sad to see you go. There will be quite a void in the office without you. It would take two social workers to match the amount of dedication you brought to the office every day.”

“I appreciate that, Lin,” Owen said, sneaking up behind Ethan. “I heard everything you just said.”

Lin smiled and ignored him. “If you need anything, professionally or personally, you can call me. I’ll do whatever I can to help. I’m sure you’re going to move on to do great things.”

Lin reached out her hand, so Ethan shook it. Knowing that everyone in the office was watching their interaction, he figured Lin was trying to keep it professional. “And just so you know, the social workers that don’t feel any guilt over the loss of a child don’t really take this job seriously.”

Lin went back to her desk and sat down as the door shut in front of him. He turned around to face Owen.

“Dude, get the hell out of here already. This place won’t fall apart without you,” Owen said, urging him to quit lollygagging around.

“Bye, pal. See you soon.”

Ethan looked around the office as he walked toward the exit, questioning if he’d really miss Child and Family Services. While he had accomplished many great things there, it was also the one place where he could not escape all the disturbing, violent, and soul crushing memories that would continue to torment him if he remained.

Stepping through the front door for the last time was quite a relief. The heavy amount of responsibility that he had placed on his own shoulders had finally been lifted. At the same time, he couldn’t help but feel like a recreant for abandoning the children he knew still needed saving; catch-22.

He refrained from looking back as he walked through the parking lot to his car, inhaling the morning air triumphantly with confidence that he would continue to help those in need. He had no intention of investigating cheating spouses or political scandals as a private investigator, but rather missing persons. Primarily in an attempt to prevent and end child exploitation.

He had made sure not to leave any loose ends. Having found homes for most of the children, Camryn and Tina were the two girls that still had challenges ahead of them.

Camryn was doing well in her group home, on the verge of turning eighteen and being prepared to live on her own. Tina had started rehab and therapy, but would have to struggle with the memories of her exploitation throughout the rest of her life.

Despite how awful all the children had been treated, they survived and overcame adversity unlike anything their peers could imagine. That makes them stronger than the average child. He admired that in a time when even adults were entitled and easily offended.

Ethan drove away from Child and Family Services with a heavy, yet rejuvenated heart. Having survived several deadly encounters, averted a prison sentence, and kept his family intact, he recognized that he now had a second chance at life. A fresh start as if he had just graduated high school. Before he could begin his new adventure he had one last stop to make before heading home.

As he drove down Sarah’s street, he quickly identified her house because of a sign in the yard warning reporters that they were not allowed. He parked next to the curb and walked up to the front door.

Knocking on the door, his hand shook. He was nervous about Sarah’s reaction to seeing him again. As painful as it was, he decided he couldn’t move on without apologizing to her.

When Sarah opened the door and saw him standing there, the smile on her face transformed into a scowl. “What do you want, Mr. Harper? Kathy has been through enough.”

He expected her to be angry. Having broken the law by attacking Roger, he had put Sarah and Kathy in danger. He was solely responsible for Roger taking them hostage and abusing Kathy. He didn’t stop by her house expecting forgiveness.

“I’m sorry to bother you one last time, Sarah. I’m leaving the agency and moving out of town. I couldn’t leave without telling you how sorry I am. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I never meant for you two to get hurt,” Ethan said with all sincerity.

Sarah’s eyes began to tear up. “Kathy suffered worse than just being hurt. I was very disappointed that you could be so careless with our safety. Someone in your position should know better.”

“I didn’t consider the consequences of my actions affecting you both. Taking out a personal vendetta against Roger is the biggest regret of my life. I’m honestly very sorry that you were both involved. I just hope that you receive some solace from the fact that he’ll never be a threat to anyone again.”

“You’re right about that. I feel much better knowing he is dead, but he has already affected our lives. There’s plenty more men out there just like him that we have to worry about. Nothing will ever be the same after everything Kathy has been through.”

He bowed his head and crossed his hands behind his back. “I know. I’m sorry for bothering you. I just had to say goodbye.”

Defeated, yet satisfied with his attempt, he turned around and walked back to his car. As he walked away, the sound of the door shutting that he expected to hear didn’t come.

“Ethan!” Sarah said, causing him to turn around. “Thank you for saving our lives.”

Without waiting for him to respond, she shut the door. All he could do was accept her response as a resolution.

Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed Maria. “Hello, honey. I’ve said my goodbyes and I just left the office for the last time, leaving behind all the darkness with it. But I’m taking with me all the victories that I had as motivation to move forward. I can’t wait until we hit the road, babe. It will be good for all of us.”

“I’m excited too, dear. I’m also very proud of you. Despite everything, you’re a good man with a good heart. I’m lucky to be married to you. In all honesty, I’ve never doubted you. I love you, Ethan,” Maria said.

“I love you too, Maria. See you in a few.”

“Hurry, honey. I’m only lounging around in my lingerie for another half hour before I have to pick up Renee from school.”

“Say no more,” he said, hanging up to sprint for the Escape.

Once he was in the car, the obnoxious ringtone on his phone went off again, alerting him to a received text message. Elated that Maria had presumably just sexted him a licentious photo, he pulled his phone back out, nearly fumbling it onto the floor had his reflexes not engaged, allowing him to catch it with his other hand.

To his dismay, the text was not from Maria, but rather an enemy with whom he was not yet acquainted and whose number was blocked.

“You’ve caught my attention, Mr. Harper. Consider yourself lucky. I wish you success in your new career field.”

“Who is this?” Ethan texted back.

He waited in silence, the suspense making him nervous. Very few people, other than those in the office, knew that he was changing his career. Was it a final prank by Owen?

The ringtone sounded as one more text was delivered, and Ethan looked down to read it. “Saint Nicholas.”

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