At Richard’s urging, Harriet sat up in bed and began to share her painful secrets. She avoided eye contact as she haltingly explained that she had started binging and purging her food as a young ballerina after finding out that it was a weight loss tactic used by a dancer whom she admired.
Food had always played a central role in Harriet’s life. Her earliest memories, before coming to live with Reverend Mother, were of neglect and hunger. There were times when she only ate once a day. Harriet would have starved if she hadn’t been signed up for the free lunch program at school. When Reverend Mother took her in, she marveled at what seemed to her like an abundance of food in the kitchen pantry and refrigerator.
Being able to eat whenever she was hungry felt like a luxury. Harriet supposed that she overcompensated for all those years of ever present hunger pangs. The stress of moving into a house full of strangers and being the outsider at school made her feel hungry all of the time. Looking back on it, she understood that she tried to ease her painful loneliness with the physical pleasure of eating good food. She always felt better after having something sweet.
Harriet was so withdrawn that people found it difficult to warm up to her. She didn’t fit in. Her silence made them uneasy. No one knew what to make of her. The other children had grown up together and enjoyed closeness borne of years of shared of experiences and inside jokes. Their social circles were all closed to her. Harriet became a loner, always on the outside looking in on everyone else’s happy lives.
A good day for her was when no one teased her or snickered as she walked past. Reverend Mother’s solution was to yell at Harriet and berate her for lacking social skills. Well-intentioned adults were always advising her to just walk up to kids and start talking. She always wondered if they could really be that clueless or if insensitive advice was their way of easing their guilt by dumping the responsibility for being friendless and bullied back onto her hunched shoulders.
When Richard joined the family, he and Harriet instantly connected having both been thrust into the same boat. Richard became her protector. She still had no friends, but at least people left her alone. She tried not to care what other people thought but it was hard to shake off the snide remarks people made about her and the judgmental glares the other girls often levelled at her. Harriet didn’t even realize that she was using food as a way to relax, to calm down when she was angry and celebrate when she was happy.
Now, they were all grown up but Richard still felt she needed protection. He listened to Harriet talk about her struggles over the years and felt increasingly powerless to help. He had no idea what, if anything that he could do. He had mixed feelings. Not ever having struggled with his weight, he couldn’t really understand why she felt the need to binge on food only to throw it all back up.
He personally hated the sensation of throwing up. It hurt him to hear about problems that Harriet had been struggling with for years, right under his nose. She probably kept it to herself assuming that he would react like others had and stand by giving useless advice while she suffered. That made him angry but he didn’t want to upset her. It had obviously taken a lot for her to share her tortured feelings with him.
Richard gently took her hands in his, “I’m no expert but don’t people…in your…situation usually go and talk to a professional?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if I would feel comfortable discussing my problems with a stranger.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like you’re going to be able to stop binging and purging on your own. I have no idea how to even begin helping you deal with that. What I can do is support you in any way I can. I’ll go with you to your appointments if you decide to go.”
“Thank you Richard. I appreciate the offer. I really do, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do.”
“Well, it’s something to think about it. Just know that I’m here for you, no matter what you decide to do.”
“I know you are. You always look out for me. But enough about me. I want to do something for you for a change. What can I do for you? I know, I could help you out with your new project.”
“Well to tell the truth, I was looking for you earlier because I was going to ask you a favor. But now, I’m not so sure that you could handle it.”
“Nonsense, I can do it. I need something to take my mind off my problems.”
“I was wondering if you could keep an eye on your sister and let me know when it looks like she’s about to do something stupid.”
“I’ll be calling you every few minutes.”
Richard laughed, “You know what I mean. Let me know if it seems like she’s about to do something to throw a wrench into the works. It would mean staying close to her though. She may not take to kindly to that if she realizes what you’re up to. Do you think that you can do it?”
“Of course I can. No worries. If she turns and charges at me suddenly I’ll just jump out of the way.”
They laughed and spent a few moments sharing their funniest Rachel tantrum memories. Harriet lay back and before long, her eyelids grew heavy. Richard kissed his sister on the forehead and took his leave so that she could get some rest. He hadn’t been in his room five minutes before Joshua knocked and let himself in.
“There you are bro. Listen, I meant what I said. I want to help with the investigation.”
“Josh, I thought we went over this already. It’s not a good idea for you to go…”
“Relax, I’m not talking about the stakeout. I just wanted to give you something. I did a little online snooping into Nicole’s background. Hopefully, you’ll find something helpful in these pages.”
“Thanks man, I look them over right now. I hope you understand that my decision not to take you on the stakeout with me is for your safety. It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you. It’s just that I don’t know much about Nicole or the company she keeps. You are way too important to me and to this family for me to put you in harm’s way.”
Joshua nodded and ducked out of the room, touched by Richard’s rare display of affection. Richard smiled fondly at his brother’s retreating back. Joshua was so excited, his eyes were shining. It reminded Richard of their childhood. Joshua had always looked up to him and followed him around like a puppy.
Of course, Richard wouldn’t let him tag along when he was with his friends. It wasn’t cool to have your little brother trailing behind you when your crew was looking to get into a little mischief. In the beginning, all Richard saw when he looked at Joshua was a spoiled little brat who never had to wonder for a second where his next meal was coming from or whether or not he would get kicked for moving too slow when his mother called him. Richard saw all the material things that Joshua had and resentment gnawed at his insides.
To Reverend Mother, Joshua deserved to be there and Richard constantly had to earn the right to be there. That much was glaringly obvious from day one. She never tired of pitting them against one another, as if she were afraid that if Joshua came to love him then he would somehow love her less. He often wondered if she had only taken him in to impress her parishioners.
Richard sensed all of these things as a child and his confusion over her motives made him sullen and suspicious of Joshua. Over time, his brother’s unrelenting affection and admiration helped him understand that Joshua did not share his mother’s sentiments. Richard realized that his brother was just as lonely and miserable as he was even with a mother who would literally buy him anything he desired. What Joshua wanted most was unconditional love. Not the controlling, suffocating, needful affection his mother forced on him. Joshua could never hope to fill his father’s shoes, but in many ways, Reverend Mother seemed to expect just that.
Richard could see that part of Joshua’s eagerness to help him check up on Nicole was partially because he had missed having his big brother around and wanted to spend some time with him. Maybe I can come up with something that’s safe for us to do together, mused Richard. Who knew, this might all be a big misunderstanding and Nicole might actually be harmless. Richard didn’t know much about her but he had seen her around town through the years.
She always seemed a little stuck up to him. However, that didn’t make her a criminal. He remembered hearing vague rumors about her doing something scandulous with or to one of her patients back when she was a nurse. Richard never put much stock in rumors. The fact that she was walking the streets instead of locked up somewhere made him discount the seriousness of the tales he had heard.
Richard did not expect much from the pages in his hand but his brother had gone through the trouble to gather the information, so he would at least look it over. He scanned through the top page and was surprised to learn that Nicole’s nursing license was suspended and eventually revoked due to falsification of patient records. He turned to the next page and was shocked to see that she was the defendent in wrongful death lawsuits involving former patients and probate rulings on the contesting of three patients’ last will and testaments. Reading through the pages painted a picture in his mind of a smooth talking, cold, calculating, ruthless individual. The thought of his mother and sister having each been unconscious and at her mercy made his blood run cold.