A week passed since Ethan had killed Marcus in self-defense. He couldn’t stop thinking about how he had ended the life of another human being. So many years of life ended with one knife wound, and within only ten minutes of being stabbed. It never occurred to him how quickly a life can end.
He feared for his own soul in the afterlife, not just because he had committed a cardinal sin, but because he did not regret doing so. He had saved Martha and Jerome in a way that the system never could have. If Marcus hadn’t attacked him, he would have been powerless to do anything about the violence that Marcus perpetrated on his family.
Ethan sat outside the door of Janelle Barnes’ office, his leg uncontrollably bouncing up and down like a silent jackhammer. He regretted not having breakfast before leaving the house as hunger pangs began to set in. His empty stomach was only exacerbated by how nervous he was about visiting a therapist.
Ethan understood the importance of psychology, having taken many classes on the subject as part of the Social Work degree program. Criminal and clinical psychology were important to anticipate criminal actions and to help explain why people are abusive, while developmental and counseling psychology was important to help treat the victims of abuse. Therapeutic psychology on the other hand, was widely considered a load of crap.
He knew Owen would surely heckle him once leaving the shrink’s office. While he was visiting Janelle voluntarily, it was due in large part to Lin heavily suggesting and insisting he speak with her. In Lin’s eyes, it was a clinical visit to make sure one of her best employees was not too traumatized to continue working.
What would he share with her? How does the process even work? He had seen psychiatric visits in movies, and seen Janelle council children or parents on several of his cases, but not been to one himself. Aside from exchanging pleasantries and receiving her analyses of children involved in his cases, he had not had a casual conversation with Mrs. Barnes. Most of the employees avoided their in-house, mental health professional. How could talking to a stranger alleviate any of the complicated emotions he was feeling? Could she even answer the questions he had?
Ethan could not shake his doubts. A priest seemed like a more suitable person to interpret his emotions. He was feeling a spiritual, damning guilt. Would he spend all eternity in hell for committing the biggest sin of them all? How could he be forgiven when he felt Marcus’s death was best for Martha and Jerome?
Janelle opened her office door and squinted at Ethan, most likely having forgot that her glasses were on top of her head. “Good morning, Ethan.”
Ethan stood up from his chair and shook her hand, “Good morning, Mrs. Barnes.”
“Oh, stop,” she said, slapping his shoulder. “No need to be so formal. I would prefer if you just used my first name. Go ahead and take a seat, Ethan. Make yourself comfortable.”
The bright and colorful palette of the room surprised him as he stepped into her office. A scenic painting hung on every wall of the room—each depicting landscapes brimming with green foliage and vibrant flowers—set against a soft, blue paint scheme. There were two mint-green sofa chairs facing each other, set a few feet away from her computer desk.
He expected it to look more like a classic, neutral colored room with leather sofas. His expectations, once again, based on film interpretation.
Based on her personality, he should have expected a less formal office. Janelle was an animated and unique woman. She often wore classy sundresses that enhanced her fiery red hair. She rarely wore dark or neutral colors that the eye interpreted as boring and depressing. Her morning greetings were much livelier than any other employee. These were good qualities for a woman that had to help social workers and traumatized children deal with dispiriting emotions.
Ethan stiffly sat down on the couch, unable to shake how uncomfortable he felt. He tried to place his hands on the arms of the chair, but nervously started squeezing his palms together, fingers interlaced. His leg continued to jackhammer away, much like Kevin’s did before the trial.
Janelle rummaged through her desk looking for something. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, she closed the drawer and paused for a second before reaching for the top of her head, grabbing her glasses as it finally occurred to her that they were on top of her head. After putting them on, she sat down in the chair facing Ethan and quietly analyzed him. “You must think I’m crazy? Well, the feeling is mutual.”
Ethan smiled awkwardly, attempting to decipher the tone as serious or humorous, until of course she smiled.
“I’m just messing with you. Humor is a good way to calm people’s nerves. Is this your first time seeing a shrink?” she asked, clearly knowing the answer.
“Yeah, it is. I wouldn’t be here if I had to pay for it. I’m sorry, but I don’t have much faith in therapy.”
Janelle frowned like she was offended by his remark. “You don’t say?” Her expression quickly changed to a smirk. “Mental health therapy is associated with an unfortunate stigma. I get that all the time.”
They both sat staring at one another in silence. Ethan broke eye contact once he began feeling uncomfortable. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to start?” he said.
Janelle smiled, “You can start however you would like to.” She waved her pen and notepad in front of him. “I’ll just be taking notes during our conversation so that I can refer to them if you plan on coming back for further psychoanalysis. I’m guessing you’re here because of what happened on the Stewart case? So, why not start with how that has affected you?”
Ethan took a moment to think about his response. He wasn’t sure if he should tell her the truth, or just say that everything was fine? After about a minute or two of silence, he decided to speak candidly, after all he had made an appointment with her voluntarily. “Well . . . I’ve been thinking a lot about how God will judge me for killing another human being?”
Janelle titled her head and shrugged her shoulders at a loss. “Unfortunately, nobody can answer that for you. Not even a priest can answer a question like that.”
While not comforting in the least, it was the truth, and eerily psychic. Ethan appreciated her bluntness because he wasn’t interested in being appeased with falsehoods. “I know it’s wrong to kill, but I feel justified in my particular situation. I think it’s just the guilt that’s getting to me. I’m not really religious or anything, but I do have faith. I would like to think that self-defense wouldn’t be a reason to go to hell. Plus, a wife and son are now safe.”
“You were justified to defend yourself according to the law. You didn’t enter this man’s home with the intention of murder, right? It would be different if you told me that you went to his home strictly with the idea of murdering him. In that case, it would be premeditated murder.”
Ethan felt partial relief from Janelle’s response. “But, I also feel guilty for appreciating killing Marcus. If he was still alive, Martha and Jerome would still be in danger. I had no proof he was being abusive because neither Martha nor Jerome were going to admit it. There was nothing I could do. I think I intentionally pushed Marcus over the edge, hoping that he would become violent and prove that he was violent. I hadn’t thought about killing him, though.”
“Have you been thinking about this a lot, and has it been affecting your job or relationships?” Janelle said.
“No. I just think about it when I’m alone, like in bed at night or driving my car. I can handle it. What’s most important is that Jerome and Martha are better off without Marcus. With both you and I helping them to cope with their loss, and by facilitating Martha’s success as a single mother, they will surely overcome adversity,” Ethan assured.
“I have to agree with you. They most likely will be better off. This guy, Marcus, sounds like he was a terrible person. Should he have been put to death? We leave questions like that to be determined by the justice system in an attempt to avoid chaos in society. Is the system perfect? I’d say far from it, but we shouldn’t abandon it altogether. You, Ethan, were reacting on primal instinct to defend yourself and Marcus’s family. I like to think God intended us to have that instinct, and if so, then you are justified in his eyes.”
He couldn’t resist being relieved by her interpretation. She confirmed and supported exactly what he was feeling and thinking. Something about hearing it from someone else makes it more convincing.
Sitting in silence for a moment, he noticed that his leg had come to rest and his hands were relaxed on the arms of the chair. Ethan motioned as if he was about to speak by opening his mouth, then quickly closed it and broke eye contact with Janelle without making a sound.
“What is it, Ethan? Whatever you say, I promise not to judge you . . .” she said, trailing off as she used sarcasm as a footnote, “. . . too harshly.”
“Is there something wrong with me if I often think about beating the shit out of the disgusting people that I meet on a daily basis?”
“No, not at all. It’s human nature to imagine hurting someone when they anger you. That’s why we often say things we don’t really mean when losing control,” she said. “Those that act on such feelings are the unstable ones.”
Ethan had no other thoughts or feelings to share with Janelle. Her perspective was reassuring, making him feel better than he had felt before the meeting. He now knew Mrs. Barnes was someone he could talk to. She understood his emotions and provided insightful answers to all his questions.
“Well, that’s about it. You’ve actually made me feel better, Janelle,” Ethan said.
“I’m glad. I’ve enjoyed our time together and I hope you’ll come see me again.”
Ethan stood up and Janelle followed his lead. “If I need to, I’ll come talk to you,” he said, shaking her hand.
Once exiting Janelle’s office, Ethan crept down the hallway, sneaking back to his desk before anyone spotted him. Word would spread around the office that he was losing it, especially if John Allen saw him. John was the gossip king of the office. An older gentleman that had been on many cases in his heyday, John grew tired and desensitized, willing to do everyone’s monotonous paperwork over going back out on a house call. He rather enjoyed scandal mongering about others above all else.
Unfortunately for Ethan, Owen walked up from behind him. “Hey, buddy. Watcha doing?”
Ethan ignored him and sat down at his desk. “Nothing to concern yourself with. Just making my rounds around the office.”
“Are you mentally unstable? I would hope you’d tell me before anyone else if you were. It’s just not like you to make any rounds in the office.”
“I’m fine, alright. Lin wanted me to chat with Janelle after what happened last week,” Ethan said.
“Interesting, you’re on a first name basis already. Lin must really be concerned. She’s headed into Barnes’ office right now.”
Ethan quickly turned to look down the hall and watched Lin enter Janelle’s office. He was slightly offended that Lin didn’t know him well enough to assume that he was fine, but he acknowledged the fact that it was her responsibility to make sure all her employees were stable. And it’s not every day that a social worker kills someone during an investigation.
“She’s just doing her job as a supervisor, Owen. You’re just being ridiculous like you always are.”
“You’re right, buddy. That’s why she’s headed over here now,” Owen said, pointing toward the hallway.
Lin approached Ethan’s desk and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Can we chat for a minute, Ethan? In my office.”
“Yeah, sure. No problem.” Ethan got up and curiously followed Lin.
“Good morning, Lin,” Owen said.
She didn’t respond to him, appearing to concentrate on her train of thought. Ethan became suspicious of what she wanted to talk about. He was getting a negative vibe based on how discreet she was being.
Upon entering her office, Lin waved toward the chair in front of her desk. “Go ahead and take a seat for a minute.”
Ethan obeyed and sat down. “What’s this all about, Lin?”
She sat down and looked Ethan in the eye. Her eyes were glassy, appearing to struggle with keeping her composure. “I got some bad news early this morning, Ethan. I’m just going to lay it out for you, like pulling off a band aid.”
Ethan’s eyes widened. “Is it really that bad?”
“Kevin East was sent to the hospital late last night. Frank went too far this time. Kevin suffered severe head trauma and a fractured skull. He had some serious internal bleeding in his chest as well. Frank and Nancy have both been taken into custody, and Bailey is here in the visiting center.”
Ethan shot out of his chair, his head heating up from the rage that was building inside. He paced back and forth across the office, unable to contain his anger. “They could have put that son of a bitch away and this would never have happened. Which hospital is Kevin at? I have to get over there.”
His rage instantaneously simmered down into remorse as he watched Lin wipe a tear away from her eye.
“I’m sorry, Ethan.”
A moment of silence explained the sadness in Lin’s eyes, expressing all the information that he needed to understand the painful truth about Kevin’s fate.
Lin looked away to regain her composure. “Kevin died earlier this morning from his injuries. There was nothing they could do.”
Ethan sat back down and covered his mouth with his hand. He had so much hate for Frank, but it was being overwhelmed by his own guilt. What else could he have done? He could have . . . no, should have confronted Frank alone and beaten the shit out of him. He should have given him a taste of his own medicine and threatened the bastard to stop the abuse. Wouldn’t that have worked?
Ethan slammed his fists on Lin’s desk. “I should have done more, damn it.”
Lin looked back at him sympathetically. “There is nothing else you could have done, Ethan. You got Kevin to court, but he didn’t follow through. That’s the way things are.”
“Well, things fucking suck then, Lin. What’s even the point if saving these children is out of our hands?”
“We do the best that we can with what we are given. You did your very best. You always do your best, Ethan.”
Ethan took a moment to relax. He felt pain, disgust, anger, and confusion. That moment demonstrated the most painful part of being a social worker. The realization that not all children could be saved—at least not by following the rules. It wasn’t fair that repulsive human beings like Frank didn’t have to follow the rules. He now understood why police officers are judged for their use of force by the public without any emotional context, every time they are caught being too rough with a suspect. Some people don’t deserve fair treatment.
Ethan wanted to face Frank and tell that piece of shit how evil and sick he was. He wanted to beat Frank until his face was covered in blood and permanently scarred. He wanted Frank to beg for forgiveness and scream in pain. People like Frank who destroy innocence and life are undeniably not human. A human father could not hurt their own child without in fact being a monster. Ethan could not fathom any other reason.
“If you need to take the day off to process this, then by all means, Ethan,” Lin said.
“No.” Ethan said, sternly looking at Lin. “I’m going to find Bailey a home. She deserves the love of a real family. I owe her that much.”
As Ethan somberly walked out of Lin’s office, Owen curiously approached him. “Everything good, man?”
Ethan didn’t stop to converse. “I’m fine. We’ll talk later. I’m headed back to the visitation room. I have a five-year-old girl that needs placement. She’s had a rough night.”
Walking toward the visitation room, an image of Kevin’s lifeless body lying on a morgue table, battered and bloody, appeared in Ethan’s mind. The disturbing image was the result of a father physically beating his son to death, when he should have been protecting his child. Over what? What could the child possibly have done to deserve such a fate? Reasoning was beside the point. Ethan could not change anything now, but he vowed to himself that it would never happen again. Not when there was something he could do about it.
Ethan entered the visitation room. A toy box was located in the corner of the room on a carpet colorfully stitched with the alphabet. Next to the toy corner, Bailey sat in one of three small desks covered with children’s art supplies. And in the center of the room was a large, circular table that seated ten. The wall adjacent to the hallway had a horizontal, rectangular window so that visitations could be monitored less intrusively than having a social worker hovering over everyone.
Ethan was happy to see Bailey again, especially without any visible signs of physical abuse. She had somehow been spared during Frank’s rampage.
Bailey sat at a child-sized table, drawing pictures on paper with crayons. She didn’t lose concentration from her drawing as Ethan crouched down on both knees next to her. “Hello, Bailey. It’s been about a week since I last saw you. You’re still just as adorable as I remember.”
“Daddy is in trouble again, huh?” Bailey switched from a blue to a red crayon, focusing on her artwork as Ethan spoke.
“I’m afraid so, sweetie. Your mother and father are both in trouble for what happened to you and Kevin.”
“Is Kevin going to be alright?”
Ethan didn’t want to lie to the child, but he didn’t want to bluntly tell her the truth either. “I don’t think he is going to be alright, Bailey. I want you to know that none of it is your fault, though. That’s very important.”
Bailey put down her crayon and turned toward Ethan. “Will I see him again?”
Ethan knew that if he didn’t change the subject, he was going to start bawling in front of the child. In order to effectively comfort her, he would have to be strong, and the swelling of his tear ducts was an indication that he was about to fail at that task. “It’s important that we find you a loving home to live in. Your aunt can’t take you in because she’s a single mother with three children, and she struggles just to take care of them. You don’t have any other relatives, so I will have to place you in a foster home.”
Bailey began to cry. She looked like a child lost in a shopping center, all alone and desperately looking for her parents. “I don’t want to go back to the foster home. I want to go home with Kevin. He promised he would protect me.”
As a few tears escaped the restricted ducts of Ethan’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks, Bailey reached around his neck, squeezing tightly like a boa constrictor. “Bailey, I don’t want to put you in a foster home. I know someone that would love to meet you, and if we’re lucky, maybe even adopt you. Someone that will love you like her own daughter and will provide a positive environment for you to grow up in.”
The young girl released her grip and looked up at Ethan with her swollen, red eyes. “Can’t I go home with you, Ethan?”
He held her face in the palms of his hands, cupping her chubby little cheeks. “I’m not a foster parent, honey. But the woman I would like you to meet, Elena, is my sister-in-law. That means I’ll get to see you quite often.”
Ethan managed to comfort Bailey enough to where she stopped crying and panicking. He sat her back down in the chair and pointed at her drawings. “Those are very pretty pictures, Bailey. Maybe you’ll be an artist someday.”
“Thanks,” she solemnly said, picking her crayon back up to continue coloring.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes, honey. Draw me something special,” he said as he left the room to give Elena a call.
Janelle stood by the door as Ethan exited. “Hello again, Ethan. What’s the plan for poor Bailey?”
“My sister-in-law found out she couldn’t have children, but she’s always wanted a daughter. I think they’d be good for each other.”
“Can this lady handle a child that has as much psychological damage as Bailey does? As she gets older, the young girl will most likely have some serious intimacy issues. Not to mention difficulty trusting people. The most important people in her life have let her down already.”
“I believe that Elena will be able to handle it. She’s a strong woman that was raped once when she was twelve. She has more than enough love to share and experience dealing with trauma on a personal level, I think she’d be better for Bailey than anyone else would.”
Janelle nodded. “I trust your judgment, Ethan. I just want to make sure you’re not taking this whole situation too personally.”
“Have you spoken to Bailey yet?”
“Yes. I sat down with her an hour ago. She was crying profusely when we received her this morning. According to her, Kevin tried protecting her from their father’s wrath. Tragically, he saved her life at the cost of his own. You know how those two children would stick together through all the abuse that they experienced. I’m sorry about how things turned out, Ethan.”
Ethan closed his eyes as his head began to throb from the combination of anger and sadness he was experiencing. “Thanks, Janelle.”
Walking back to his desk, he took out his cell phone and called Elena.
“Hello, Ethan. You caught me on my way to work. What’s up?”
“Remember how we spoke about adopting a child in need? Well, I have an adorable five-year-old girl in my office that would love to meet you. Is there any way you could come by before lunch? I’m trying to find her a home quickly so that I don’t have to put her back into foster care.”
“Wow, this is pretty sudden, Ethan. We haven’t really committed to the idea yet.”
“I’m not trying to put you in a tough position, but this little girl just lost her older brother. He was the only one that truly loved her and tried to protect her from their abusive father. A father that raped her multiple times and the mother did nothing. I tried to do everything . . . everything that I could to stop this from happening, but I failed both children. She is the sweetest little thing, and I hate to say it, but I’m begging you just to come meet her,” Ethan said, feeling bad that he had to plead with her.
Elena’s end of the phone call was silent. Ethan could have sworn she was about to turn him down. “Okay. I’ll be there in an hour. I’ll see if my husband can make it, too.”
Ethan could not effectively verbalize just how thankful he actually was. “Thank you, Elena. See you then.”