Dark Reflections.In the darkness, the shadows of yelling firemen and paramedics crawled over the Nightingales' lawn.
The flashing lights of emergency vehicles lit Daniel Nightingale's haggard face in red pulses as he stood between his two daughters.
But even as he stood between them, they were still trying to attack one another.
He grabbed them by their shirts and shook them roughly so that their heads snapped back and forth violently.
They both stared at him, their eyes wild and vacant. Daniel could see the fear in both their faces, but he didn't care. His whole family nearly died tonight, and he was going to get some answers.
A dark form was running toward them. Daniel recognized it as the town's sheriff, Carl Jackson.
"Daniel! What's going on here?!" he yelled over the wailing sirens.
The Sheriff's department often worked closely with the state's attorney's office where Daniel was an assistant state's attorney. Over the years he and the Sheriff had come to know each other well.
Sheriff Jackson stood flabbergasted at the scene before him.
Never in his years as a law enforcement officer had he seen a father attacking his own children as their house burned down just feet away.
"Come on, Danny. Just let 'em go. Let them down...." The Sheriff gingerly pulled Daniel's hands away from the girls. He had been holding them so tightly that half their shirts were bunched into his fists and around the girls' necks. Each had been standing on tip-toe, as Daniel was holding them slightly off the ground.
"They did this!" Daniel said, dazedly looking from his two daughters to the Sheriff. "One of them DID THIS!" He pointed wildly at the house. The roof had started to catch fire.
"How could you?! What in the world-?" Daniel stepped closer to them, as if he were going to grab them again and Sheriff Jackson held him back.
The rage had gone from Daniel's eyes. Instead, he looked stunned--stunned and dumbstruck.
In the distance, a couple of paramedics were ushering an unconscious Claire into the back of an ambulance.
"Just tell me. Tell me, what HAPPENED?" he pleaded.
"It was an accident, Daniel," Sheriff Jackson offered. "It happens all the ti-"
"No! She did it on purpose! Astrid set the fire!" one of the girls cried. Tears streamed down her face as she began to sob. "She was trying to kill mommy! I tried to stop her. She tried to stop me so I couldn't get to mommy!"
"YOU SHUT UP! UUUAARRRRRRRGH!"
The Sheriff was momentarily stunned that such a guttural, animalistic sound could come from the body of such a little girl, but he regained himself in time to catch her before she could leap at her sister's throat.
"You let me go! You let me go NOW!" she screamed, beating her fists against the Sheriff's stomach. Before he could decide what to do with her, Daniel ripped her from the Sheriff's arms.
"You did this? You did this on PURPOSE?!" Daniel yelled. Bits of foam were flying from the corners of his mouth. "Astrid, how COULD you?!"
He gripped her tightly by the shoulders and shook her as he yelled, as if trying to rattle a response right out of her.
The Sheriff attempted to pull the girl from Daniel's grip, but he pushed him away.
"DANIEL LET HER GO!"
Daniel shook her again as tears of fury began to well in his eyes. "How could you, Astrid? How COULD YOU?! Your own MOTHER?!"
Daniel finally let go of his daughter so forcefully that she stumbled backwards onto the grass.
The Sheriff helped the little girl off the ground as Daniel placed an arm around the shoulder of his other daughter, who was still sobbing quietly.
"What do you want me to do with her?" The Sheriff called as Daniel led his other daughter away in the direction of the flashing lights.
"I--I don't care," he responded without turning around, his voice breaking slightly. Daniel hung his head wearily and continued off without giving them as much as a parting glance.
The girl in the Sheriff's arms continued to struggle, thrashing and beating her fists against him once again. It was all he could do to keep his hold of the little girl and prevent her from chasing after them.
Daniel stood before the windows of the nursery ward at Stonebriar General Hospital. Claire's fall had forced her into early labour and Sean Matthew Nightingale had been born by emergency caesarean only two hours earlier.
"Daddy...Daddy? Do you hear me calling you?"
Daniel snapped out of his reverie, shocked to see Tawny at his side, tugging on the tail of his shirt. "Tawny? What are you doing here?"
He'd last seen Tawny being whisked away to the paediatric ward to be treated for a few minor bumps and scrapes.
Tawny bit her thumb and looked down at the floor. "I snuck out so I could see the baby."
Daniel raised his eyebrows but did not ask how his daughter managed to slip past a host of doctors and nurses unnoticed.
"Can I see him, daddy? Please?"
Daniel gave his daughter a stern look. "Okay. But only for a few minutes, and then I take you back."
Tawny bounced up and down excitedly. "Yay! Pick me up, daddy! Let me see him!"
Daniel obliged and lifted Tawny easily into his arms so that she could see through the pane of glass separating the hall from the nursery.
"Which one is he, daddy?
"He's right over there, the one inside the incubator."
"Why does Sean have to sleep in that box and not in a crib like the other babies?"
Daniel smiled softly. "It's not a BOX, sweetie, an incubator. There--there were some problems when Mommy was delivering him?"
"I heard the nurse-ladies in the paediatric place say that mommy was having the baby perma....perimeter. Is that it?"
"Premature. Sean was premature."
"Yeah, that's what I meant. Why was he.....that?"
Daniel swallowed hard. "When your sister--when mommy fell, it made her start having the baby too early. Mommy also inhaled a lot of smoke from the fire. Do you remember I told you that the baby eats what mommy eats?"
Tawny nodded while looking intently at her father.
"Well, since mommy breathed in lots of smoke, so did the baby. Right now, Sean is too weak to fight the smoke in his body and it's making him really, really sick. So--he has to stay in the incubator for now."
"That means it's Astrid's fault that Sean was primitive-"
"Yeah. That's what I meant. It's all her fault he's sick now..."
Tawny was silent for a moment, and then said, "I hope she never comes back."
Daniel was taken aback by the sudden bitterness in his daughter's voice.
"You can't mean that Tawny. Astrid--she's your sister."
"I don't care. I hate her, I hate her!" she cried.
Tawny sobbed heavily, burying her tiny face in her father's shoulder.
Daniel sat at his wife's bedside watching her as she lay unconscious.
Without the large, round belly he'd grown so accustomed to, the beeping and humming hospital monitors towering above her made her look so tiny and frail in her bed.
He held fast to her limp hand.
Earlier, the nurse had given him a warm smile and commented that Claire would appreciate his touch.
But it was he who needed her touch, and he hadn't bothered to correct the nurse.
He stared at his wife with red-rimmed eyes that were burning with unshed tears, not knowing what or how to feel. His wife was unconscious, his newborn son might not survive, and his daughter might be a monster.
Claire struggled to open her lids. It felt as if they were made of lead. Rhythmic beeping noises surrounded her, but there was another sound, too. She instantly recognized it as someone crying very softly.
Claire finally managed to open her eyes. She was in a hospital room.
"Claire? Claire, sweetheart?" Daniel's face loomed into her view.
"Danny?" Claire croaked faintly.
"Yes, sweetheart, it's me. I'm here."
Claire placed a weak hand against her middle and whimpered when it found a flattened stomach.
"Baby?" She asked, her frail voice edged with panic
"He's fine the baby's okay," Daniel lied.
Claire covered her eyes with a shaking hand and exhaled deeply.
"She's good. They gave her a bed in the paediatric ward."
Daniel knew her next question even before she asked, but even so, he didn't know how to respond when Claire's small voice whispered, "Danny? What about...what about Astrid? Where is she?"
Daniel looked away. Claire could see now that he had been crying for some time. His eyes were puffy and red, his lashes gummed with the salt of dried tears.
When he spoke next, his voice was thick with guilt and grief.
"She--she was taken to County Children's Services?"
Daniel let loose a sob. "Claire, why didn't I see it? Why didn't I listen to you?!"
Claire gripped her husband's hand as he wept openly.
"Danny, don't blame yourself. It's not your fault."
"It is!" He cried. "I should have listened to you...gotten her.?Help or something! Everyone tried to tell me, but I just, I couldn't admit that my little girl was?"
Daniel couldn't bring himself to say the words.
"Danny," Claire whispered sadly, "this is no one's fault. She just--she just came out....wrong?"
Daniel had been staring at the County Children's Services building with dread, when he turned to see Sheriff Jackson walking purposefully towards him.
Working in the state's attorney's office, Daniel had heard dark tales from other co-workers who visited the building many times to interview abused and neglected children for trials against their abusers--usually their parents. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine his own daughter would be there.
"Hi, Carl," he said hoarsely putting out his hand for the Sheriff to shake.
"Daniel, I need to warn you before you go in--you need to prepare yourself?"
Daniel frowned. "Prepare myself? For what?"
Sheriff Jackson exhaled heavily. "When we brought your daughter in, she was extremely combative. She may have calmed down since then but if not, there's a good chance she'll have been sedated or restrained."
"Restrained?!" Daniel cried. "You're telling me that you've got her tied down like some kind of ANIMAL in there?!"
He turned on his heel and marched toward the door.
The Sheriff grabbed Daniel's arm and spun him around.
"You aren't going to do your daughter any favours if you bust in there like a runaway bulldozer!"
"She shouldn't even be there! She should be with me!"
"Daniel," The Sheriff sighed. "I spoke to your neighbours after the ambulances left they didn't have good things to say about your daughter. All of them seem to think she's ill. If you're going to get her out of this--if you're going to get your little girl the help she needs, you need to calm down!"
After managing to calm himself, Daniel entered the CCS building with Sheriff Jackson following closely at his side.
Daniel approached the receptionist.
"Excuse me, my name is Daniel Nightingale. I'm here about my daughter?"
The receptionist snapped her head up from her work.
"Welcome to County Children's Services"
As the receptionist's eyes raked over Daniel's appearance, the memorized greeting she'd been half-saying, half-singing died in her throat.
Daniel caught his reflection in the window just behind her desk and saw the gaunt face of a haggard man staring back out at him.
His chin was blue with stubble and dark circles had formed beneath his red, puffy eyes. His usually neat hair was sticking up on end from running his hands through it so many times, and his clothes were badly rumpled--he'd been wearing them for more than 24 hours.
"Nightingale did you say? I'll fetch Dr. Canker for you," she said uneasily, still gawping at his bedraggled appearance.
She slipped into the office behind her and seconds later, a young man exited, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to reach Daniel.
He was thin and pale. Oversized wire-rimmed glasses sat on his beaky nose, framing his wide-set, watery grey eyes.
"Mr. Nightingale?" he asked, offering his hand.
His reaction to Daniel was the exact opposite of the receptionist's. As he wrung Daniel's hand, he gazed at him with avid interest.
His thin lips were drawn tight into a beaming smile. Enthusiastically, he cranked Daniel's hand up and down so hard that his fleshy jowls wobbled around his weak chin.
"I'm Dr. Walter Canker. It is a PLEASURE to meet you, sir! Please, please, step into my office," he motioned to the tiny and cluttered office, barely registering the Sheriff's presence.
"Mr. Nightingale, Astrid is the most intriguing case of anti-social personality disorder I've ever seen-"
"Anti-social-? Wait, are you calling my daughter a psychopath?!"
"SOCIOPATH," the doctor corrected. "The accepted term is sociopath."
Daniel gave a dismissive wave and angrily shook his head.
"I don't care about terminology! You're calling my child crazy!"
A placatory grin stretched across the doctor's face. "I'd never use the word 'crazy'," the doctor explained, making air quotes around the word 'crazy' with his fingers.
"The issue is far more complex. With your permission, I would love to study Astrid more thoroughly."
The rabid eagerness on his face made Daniel uncomfortable.
"Astrid is a perfect candidate for my study on personality disorders in early childhood--it's actually my thesis."
"Thesis?" Daniel repeated. "You're still in school?"
The doctor nodded. "Graduate school."
"And you're the one examining my daughter? You're just a kid!"
Dr. Canker tapped his finger against one of the diplomas on his wall.
"I assure you Mr. Nightingale, I AM a doctor. And I'm only a semester away from getting my specialization in childhood and adolescent psychology," he added proudly.
"Have you managed to talk to Astrid?" Sheriff Jackson interjected, sensing Daniel's building anger.
"Well, we haven't been able to make much progress with her," he replied with dim surprise as though he had just noticed the Sheriff in the room.
"She will only talk about her mother, and a sister who kept getting in her way," he said, reading notations from Astrid's file.
"Yes." Daniel swallowed. "We think there’s possibility that the fire was an attempt to harm her mother. Her sister tried to stop her."
Dr. Canker raised his eyebrows. "Her sister?"
"Yes," Daniel replied. "She has a twin sister."
"I see?" Dr. Canker looked down at his file once more.
"What's going to happen with my daughter?"
Suddenly, the young doctor grew sombre and sat down to face Daniel and the sheriff.
"Your daughter's case is VERY serious. In fact, I recommend that she be placed at the Krueger Centre-"
Before Dr. Canker could finish his sentence, Daniel stood so fast that he nearly knocked his chair back.
"The Krueger Centre?! You mean to throw my daughter into that glorified nut-house?"
The doctor got to his feet, his face darkening for the first time as he surveyed Daniel.
"I don't think I need to tell you that the Krueger Centre is world renowned for its success. It's only because of the Centre that we have one of the lowest crime-rates in the country!"
Daniel snorted. "The only reason the Kruger Centre hasn't been burned to the ground is because the tax-payers in this state are paranoid about all the crime in New York and Baltimore they read about in the news! They think the solution is to lock up any child with even the slightest behaviour problem and brand them a criminal as early as possible!"
"The Krueger Centre is dedicated to HELPING troubled youths all over the nation-"
Daniel scoffed, barking with laughter. "Oh please! The Krueger Centre makes millions off the children in that place! They get paid to take the children other states don't want to deal with! And then they sign million dollar drug contracts to shovel experimental medications down the throats of children who have no one left to care about them! But of course, you don't see that! I'm sure they're paying you a nice chunk of change for every kid you manage to get thrown in there!"
Dr. Canker's face purpled.
"Daniel," The Sheriff said calmly. "That's enough."
He turned to the doctor, whose face was still splotched and purple with anger and indignation.
"Doctor, I think we can all agree that it might be a good time to go see the girl."
As the doctor led Daniel and Sheriff Jackson to where Astrid was being held, Daniel realized that he was scared. Scared of what he would do when he saw his daughter. Scared of what he would see when he looked into those eyes?
"Here we are," Dr. Canker announced stiffly as they entered a hallway containing many windows. Daniel realized that the windows were made of one-way glass.
They reached the final set of windows and Daniel peered through the glass.
Astrid sat unmoving in an oversized armchair inside a large playroom.
"You'll be glad to know, Mr. Nightingale, that since this morning; Astrid's behaviour has been without incident."
Daniel wondered whether the doctor's suddenly cold demeanour was because of their dispute, or because Astrid no longer seemed as crazy as he'd hoped.
"That's good isn't it?" the Sheriff asked
"Maybe?" Doctor Canker replied, not bothering to hide the doubt in his voice. "But it is my belief is that your daughter is very troubled, which manifested itself in the fire she set last night. My professional opinion is that she needs institutionalization."
Dr. Canker cast a defiant look at Daniel as he said this.
The muscles in Daniel's clenched jaw pulsed and twitched in response.
"Listen, gentlemen," Sheriff Jackson cut in. "We can talk about treatment options AFTER the therapy session. Shall we get started?"
As soon as Dr. Canker entered the room Astrid's head snapped up. "Is it time for me to go home?"
Dr. Canker smiled placidly, taking a seat in the chair facing Astrid.
"No. Not yet. I've come to talk to you for a little bit," he said, adopting a very syrupy voice. "Do you remember me? Dr. Canker?"
She gave him an insolent glare. "Of course I remember you. Aren't you the one I kicked in the stomach?"
Dr. Canker's saccharine smile slipped slightly on his face.
"Well, uh-yes. Yes you did. *Ahem* Can you tell me, why did you do that?" he asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I already TOLD you; because I want to go home and you WON'T LET ME!"
"Do you understand why you're here?" Dr. Canker asked reassuming his syrupy demeanour.
She jumped out of the chair and began pacing back and forth.
"You let me out of here. I want to go home NOW!" she screamed.
Dr. Canker began scribbling notes on his clipboard.
"Can you tell me about the fire last night?"
"That fire was supposed to kill my mommy. I already told you that, too," she yelled as she began pacing and muttering furiously under her breath.
"Last night, I was asking you about the fire. Remember that? And you told me that you hated-"
Dr. Canker's never finished his question.
Daniel watched in horror as his daughter pulled a book off the bookshelf and hurled it at Dr. Canker's head.
The doctor ducked as she continued throwing things at him; blocks, toys and more books. She picked up anything within her reach and threw them at the doctor, screaming all the while.
"YOU STOP ASKING ME ALL THESE STUPID QUESTIONS!! I ALREADY TOLD YOU I HATE HER! I ALREADY TOLD YOU I WISH SHE WAS DEAD! YOU LET ME OUT AND YOU LET ME GO HOME, NOW!!-"
Daniel pressed the intercom button and his daughter's yells were cut off.
"That's it," he whispered. "I've seen enough."