The Fragile Ones – Jennifer Chase

“Please can we go?” whined Tessa as she followed her mother through the living room and into the kitchen. “Please,” she said again, pushing her blonde curls away from her eyes. “I really want to go to the swing by the creek.” “Not by yourself,” countered Mrs. Mayfield, ignoring her daughter’s angry stare. “We’ve talked about this before.” “Yes, and you said I couldn’t go alone, and I’m not. Megan will be with me.” Tessa’s older sister was barely a year older and her best friend. Her mother began emptying the dishwasher, putting plates and glasses away in the cabinet. It was unclear if she was thinking about what Tessa had said or not, so she tried again. “I’m almost eleven and Megan is almost twelve. We’re practically teenagers,” she said. “Besides, Janey and her brother will probably be there.” Mrs.

Mayfield laughed. “You know, you would be a good lawyer the way you make your case.” “I don’t want to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a vet,” Tessa said, grinning. “Well, I know you are going to be whatever you want to be.” Mrs. Mayfield laughed to herself as she slipped the last piece of silverware into the drawer and turned to face her daughter. At the sound of her name, Megan had joined Tessa in the doorway and they both stood quietly waiting for an answer. Glancing at the wall clock with a sigh, she said, “You both have to be back by four thirty, not a second later. Understand?” “Thank you! Thank you!” Tessa said, grabbing her sister’s hand in glee.

Both girls were in denim shorts and pastel T-shirts with their favorite matching blue sneakers. “Be home on time,” their mom called after them. “We will,” chimed the girls. Mrs. Mayfield heard the front door shut, followed by the sound of running footsteps. She smiled and went back to her chores as the afternoon ticked by. At 4:45 p.m. Mrs. Mayfield was waiting impatiently to hear the girls enter the house with a list of a dozen reasons why they were late—but the front door never opened.

An hour after that, unable to wait any longer, she looked outside, thinking that the girls might be in the yard. Debris from a croquet set littered the lawn; the wooden mallets abandoned and colored balls scattered as if the girls had been playing only moments ago. The trampoline in the corner had one of the girls’ bright blue sweatshirts hanging on the edge. It swayed slightly in the breeze. There was no sign of them. She ran through the house to the backyard, but it, too, was deserted. No whispers. No giggles. No shrieks of laughter. The wind was picking up and whistling through the branches and leaves of the surrounding trees—almost whispering a warning.

Mrs. Mayfield pulled off her apron and reached for her coat, deciding to walk to the creek and bring the girls back herself. At this point, she was more angry than concerned, knowing how they could be forgetful when they were having fun, and often lost track of time. But surely they would be on their way home by now? she thought to herself as her pace quickened from a fast walk to a jog. Against her better judgment, and knowing that she couldn’t shelter them forever, she had crumbled and let them go down to the creek where one of the neighboring boys had constructed a swing that they loved to play on. And now fear ripped through her body. “Tessa!” she yelled. “Megan!” Terrible scenarios shuffled through her thoughts as she tried desperately to keep her emotions on an even keel. “Tessa! Megan!” She yelled their names over and over until her voice went hoarse. Her chest felt strangely heavy and her vision blurred as she ran, but her strength and mother’s instinct pushed her forward, down the trail leading to the creek.

The trail was well-worn by local kids looking for adventure and fun. Stumbling as she ran, she frantically turned left and then right. There wasn’t a soul around… She was alone. She kept moving. Looking up at the tall pine trees, everything spun in a dizzying blur of forest and darkening sky. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and open again, then stopped for a moment to listen. The swing was only visible at the bottom of the path just above the creek and she could hear the water rushing below. Peering over the edge, there was no sign of them— or anyone. She kept turning, expecting to see her girls everywhere she looked. They weren’t there.

All around her were discarded candy wrappers and remnants of fast food containers. Proof that children played here often. There was no sound apart from the whisper of the trees. No children laughing nearby. “Megan! Tessa!” she yelled again, but there was only silence. She ran all the way up the trail to the street, still calling their names in a full-blown panic. Mrs. Mayfield turned her attention up the road, her mother’s instinct in high gear. Something blue lying beneath a bush caught her eye and she ran towards it. She leaned down and her hand trembled over the light blue canvas before she forced herself to grab the abandoned blue sneaker.

“No,” she said, barely breathing. Written on the side tread of the shoe with a thick black pen was one word: Tessa. CHAPTER ONE TWO YEARS LATER Tuesday 1945 hours “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come, and really impressed at how hard you’ve been working to tackle your anxiety,” said Dr. Carver, her calm voice and serene expression beaming through the computer screen. “I’m finally feeling like I’m in control and not the other way around. I can actually say that a weight has been lifted,” said Katie Scott as she took a deep breath and tried to visualize her worries and fears leaving her body as she’d been taught. She then readjusted herself on the couch with Cisco, her jet-black German shepherd, at her side. “I want to insert a bit of caution,” said Dr. Carver. Katie didn’t want to hear anything negative to take away how great she had been feeling recently, but she knew that Dr.

Carver had been right about many things so far. She braced herself and listened. “This process will sometimes involve great steps forward and then surprise you with unexpected setbacks, but I don’t want you to become discouraged. Okay?” The doctor continued to makes notes just out of view, pushing her dark hair away from her face to concentrate. “I understand,” said Katie. “Do you still have nightmares?” “Sometimes, but they are becoming less frequent.” The truth was that she had disturbing dreams a couple of times a week, but she’d had them so long that she only really counted the truly terrifying ones. They’d become such a familiar part of her life. “That is common—so don’t worry. And taking into consideration your job as a coldcase detective and its unique stresses, it’s best to be alert, calm and prepared for what your next case will bring,” she said, and smiled.

“There might be some setbacks, but it won’t take away all the hard work you’ve put in. You are in a much better place now.” It was true. Katie had come a long way since she arrived home a little more than a year ago from two tours in Afghanistan as an army K9 handler. She glanced down at Cisco who was snoozing beside her. Not a day would go by where she wasn’t grateful for being able to bring home her partner with her. “Thank you, Dr. Carver.” She smiled. “I know there will be tough days ahead, and my past experiences will haunt me from time to time—but I’ve never given up on a fight.

” “And that’s when all your new skills and knowledge will kick in, and you’ll be much better prepared.” “I know now that the first case I took on after I came home from the army caused me more distress than I realized. The image of the graves of those little girls will never leave me.” “I know, but now you can use the fact that you overcame your demons and solved the case as a strength. Don’t forget what we’ve talked about; how you stay focused and in the moment, counting to ten with each breath. As simple as it sounds, it’s more difficult when you’re in the middle of an attack.” “Yes. I have several images that help to calm my mind,” she said. “Well, look, our time’s up for today. And I think that we can meet again in two weeks?” Nodding, Katie said, “Definitely.

” “You know you can call me anytime, if you need to speak before then. Okay?” “Thank you.” “Good night.” “Good night,” said Katie as the screen went blank, before the screensaver kicked in with a photo of her and Chad—her childhood best friend and now boyfriend. It was amazing how they had found each other again, and on this occasion the timing was right. She smiled, remembering everything they had been through growing up together, and then finding each other again at the perfect moment. Slowly shutting her laptop, Katie mused that things were falling into place at last. Perhaps for the first time since leaving the army she felt it was possible to be a police detective and lead a normal life. There were things that she had seen that would never be erased from her mind, but she was learning how to live without panic attacks and anxiety paralyzing her. She was learning to forgive her past, and herself.

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