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Opening Pages--Narrative Enhancements

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(First chapter, after prologue): Establishes the inciting incident (murder), character's internal conflict (she struggles with identity, guilt, shame, returning to work as a CPS caseworker after maternity leave) and external conflicts (only she knows something is fishy about her client's situation, she wants to help, but might not be able to because her memory is sketchy and she is unreliable; her baby is colicky and underweight and she isn't home to feed her; now she must help the victim's children in foster care), establishes setting (fall in Youngstown, Ohio), and core wound (she had to learn about being a young girl from the neighbor, not her mother). 


The Mahoning County Child Protective Services office buzzes with news of this morning’s murder, phones ringing, keyboards clacking, caseworkers whispering in small groups about what went wrong. Eyes follow as I walk down the center aisle toward my desk, like I know something they don’t.

Precious milk soaks through a second set of bra pads. I instinctively cover a breast with a free hand, wanting instead to rip off my clothes, the air too stifling for a chilly September morning. A tuna-fish smell wafts along the fourth floor. A moment of vertigo hits, the industrial carpet pattern flowing like a river, and I stop mid-aisle and blink to steady it, desperate to return to the open air.

“You going to faint?” says Jenn, our screener. Her stout frame almost knocks me down as it brushes against mine.

I shake my head.

“Maybe you should go home.”            

I don’t know if she means because I look bad or because I’m only half-time and today is supposed to be my day home with Brigit.

“I—,” I start, swallowing hard. I begin to tell her she knows I can’t. Because Cindy Brown’s children are still my clients—Jenn herself assigned them to me. And why did she, if she’s so concerned? Why give an emergency removal to a caseworker just back from maternity leave? “My baby’s underweight. She cries all the time,” I say instead. I have no idea why.

Jenn shrugs and turns away.    

My desk is surprisingly empty of squatters, files neatly stacked on either side of my dark computer, reference books lined up at the front. A new pen rests where I left it, against the Porky-Pig mouse pad Becca gave me when I started eight years ago, because, she said, she could tell I was ‘all business’ and needed to relax. I shove the pen in my mouth and bite down on its hard plastic, then set down my cold coffee and phone, unpeel my coat, and fall into my chair. Didn’t I want to work again? Didn’t I believe it would be a nice change? I’d shower every morning, I thought. Wear clean clothes. Engage in adult conversation. Maybe sit in a bathroom stall too long, reading celebrity gossip on my phone. So far, all I’ve done is remove two children from their soon-to-be-murdered mother, all the while worried that the college student caring for my baby wouldn’t call—maybe more worried she would.

A sticky note, written in handwriting I don’t recognize, clings to the computer screen. Call Cindy Brown’s public defender. I peel it away, crumble it, and toss it in the garbage. Across the span of desks, Jenn watches with those sour, cynical eyes, a frown flung my way.

“I’m pretty sure that’s her permanent face,” a voice behind me says. I raise my chin to see Becca behind me, her eyes cast toward Jenn, and pull the pen from my mouth. Becca dips her face to kiss my cheek, her natural brown curls dangling between us. “Hi, Darling.”


I missed that smile while on leave. I saw it only once, a few days after coming home with Brigit. She’d dropped off chicken casserole with instructions on how to heat it up, then ran through the rain in a slicker and galoshes like a little girl, yelling back that she’d call me later. Since then, we’ve only spoken on the phone, the last time several days ago.

It doesn’t matter. They all know. Everyone talks about everything here—how Ginny in job services is divorcing, how Jeff in long-term management has been offered a corporate job, how my younger brother failed rehab again last month, and how nice it is that Ryan and I finally got pregnant. Social workers are trained to be observant, to understand the intimate workings of peoples’ lives, to notice every time someone’s sweater begins to unravel.  

Sometimes I worry they will find my errant threads, give them a little yank, and watch me spin until I fall.

Becca’s splurged on a bright-blue manicure, a deviation from her usual self-done pink. It’s a small change, but noticeable. Everyone and everything seems to have changed since Brigit arrived, as though one new life in the world must shift the others in the metaphorical bag of marbles.

“What a crazy return you’ve had.” Becca rubs my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I wonder if Brigit has been crying all morning, whether she kept down her first bottle. “Yes, fine.”

She’s better off with the nanny than with you.

“Should I take this case off your hands?” Becca moves around to face me, her eyebrows knotted. “I can totally do it. I’m wrapping up another today, so I have time.”

A text pings, and I glance down. It’s the nanny, Tammy, asking where I keep the extra wipes. Late to my assignment yesterday, I didn’t give her a proper orientation, merely pointing to the notebook with emergency numbers and instructions on how to reheat my breastmilk. This morning, after seeing Cindy’s house on TV—the one I’d just visited, now wrapped in police tape; the one my childhood friend once lived in, the place where I learned everything from hand-slapping games, to how to tie a hair bow, to how to pour milk so it didn’t spill on the floor—I rushed out, leaving Tammy to figure it out on her supposed day off. 

“No, no, I’m good to go.” But a sour odor has wafted up through my shirt, forcing me to turn my nose away. What would my clients think if they could smell on me my child’s constant cries?  If they knew I had forgotten to buy bread the last three trips to the grocery store, instead scooping eggs onto Saltines and eating peanut butter right out of the jar, sometimes with my finger, because no one has done the dishes and we are out of spoons? If they knew—god!—that my only client, after my first day back, was murdered, and all I can think about is my aching breasts.

“Actually,” I say, feeling the day already heavy on me. I didn’t sleep last night. Or, I slept too soundly. I don’t know which. “Can you do some digging for me?”

“What about?” Becca peels a pencil from the holder and a sticky from my desk and sits on the corner to take a note. In the movement, her hip tips my coffee mug, and brown liquid splashes over the side before she catches it, soaking the bottom of several books lined up at the front—manuals, new guidelines from which I read a page or two each morning to set the day’s tone right. “Oh, god,” she says, grabbing tissues from a nearby box and dabbing at the seeping liquid. “I’m so sorry.”

I pluck the books away before they soak, feeling the paper’s thinness between my fingers. I could tear them, I think, with a simple jerk of my hand.

“I’m stressing you out.” Becca looks up, searches my face. “I should go. Just text me what you need.”

“Wait—.” I reach for her, then pull away. I want her to both stay near—add a chair at my desk (would that be a strange request?)—and not ask too many questions. I want her to share my cases but trust I can handle the work. To ask me how I’m doing but not press for an answer. Her presence feels the most familiar in this office—new employees littering the halls, gabbing about their weekends as though having gone clubbing together, the din of phones and voices and heels clacking so unlike a baby’s constant cry, or the tick tock of Brigit’s swing, or the morning news on repeat. Keep her close and at arm’s length. I trust Becca—I do—but motherhood has a way of turning everything and everyone suspect.

 “Can you find out if she had any priors?”

“She?” Becca leans in. “You mean…” She raises her eyebrows. I nod.

“Maybe see which police were at those arrests?”

“You think it matters?”

I shrug and lean back, remembering how, during the home visit, Cindy, handcuffed and half-naked, met eyes with her eldest daughter Melinda and said, I’m not gonna let nothing happen to you girls. I’m gonna rid us up of this mess. Now she’s dead, and only I am left to rid them of anything.

“Something about yesterday’s removal is throwing me.”

“Well, that’s to be expected.”

“No, she said something—something about being promised she wouldn’t lose the kids?”

“Who would do that? She was only reported to us yesterday.”


Becca nods slowly, understanding, it seems, what I’ve asked her to uncover. “Okay, yeah. I can find that out. What else? Give me tasks. Give me all the tasks.”

I half-smile, knowing I won’t. I’ll update Cindy’s file myself, start the paperwork on long-term care of the children, and begin piecing it all together. I can do this. I’ve performed these tasks for years without fail—placed dozens of children in safe homes, straightened out hundreds of helpless parents, investigated endless problematic scenarios. I’m still that person. I can help these people. Yes, we are all here to help.

Help? Shea, you’ll destroy them all.


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