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I am a PhD child psychologist, and used to specialize in children who were victims of extreme trauma. About 13 years ago I took on a particularly brutal case.
I got the call around 9p.m., close to the time I normally go to bed. I was sitting at my old wooden desk, filing through my notes from the clients I had seen earlier that day. I remember that I’d mindlessly bumped my glass of milk, sending a splash of ice cold liquid onto my lap. I jumped in shock, which sent the tall class smashing onto the floor at the same time the phone rang. The combined sound of the shattering glassware and the piercing shrill ring of my landline (yes, we still had landlines in those days), sent my heart jumping into my throat. I reached for the faded yellow receiver with one hand while uselessly brushing at the now sticky wet spots on my sweatpants.
“Hello?” I stammered. My normal professionalism having been disregarded on account of my pounding heart rate, which was only now beginning to slow.
“Yes, hello?” I said again, more composed this time. I could feel my sudden rush of adrenaline releasing its grip on my sympathetic nervous system.
“Yes, Dr. Johnson?” They asked in an effort to confirm my identity. (I am choosing to change the names and locations in this writing, for reasons that will become obvious).
“This is Karen Smith. I am a caseworker in Tresser County. I’m sorry for calling you this late, but I have kind of an extreme case here.” She blurted out. Her voice carried a terrified urgency that let me know it was much more than “kind of” an extreme case. I thought briefly that she probably hadn’t even noticed the slight fright in my own voice upon answering, as she seemed barely able to restrain the panic in her own.
“That’s okay. What’s going on?” I chimed.
I’d worked with Karen before, but it had been awhile. Besides, the information she needed to communicate to me was too important to waste time with formalities of familiarity. The tiny hairs on my body began to stand on edge. I felt a cold electricity running up my spine as she spoke. The jolt from the broken milk glass had only just started to fade, and I felt my stomach turn. The hand that had been brushing my sweatpants froze in place, and began to feel cold and sweaty.
I don’t remember the specifics of the rest of that phone conversation. Her ability to hold down her panic had begun to waiver, so it was difficult to hear it all clearly anyway. I gathered the gist of it, and in the next minute I found myself in my car speeding toward the local hospital. I had somehow managed to change into a pair of jeans. I was momentarily grateful for this. At least I wouldn’t be the doctor showing up in milk-splattered sweatpants. I was not the sort of doctor that normally works in a hospital. But, as she had said, this was an extreme case.
The general picture I’d gathered from her, what I was on my way to deal with the aftermath of, was this: My soon to be client was a three-year-old girl. Her neighbors had called the police to do a welfare check on her and her two parents after seeing their cars unmoved, and mail uncollected for over two weeks. The family had frequently asked the neighbors to watch their dog when they were out of town. They hadn't done that this time, and the neighbors found this to be unusual.
The scene the police walked into was horrifying and heartbreaking. Both parents had been tied to the dining room chairs. Their throats had been cut from ear to ear. The cuts were so deep that their necks looked like gaping mouths. They were nearly decapitated. The family's little dog was found in the little girl’s room, dressed in doll's clothes. It’s throat had also been cut. Now the heartbreaking part; the little girl was also seated at the table. Untied, and seemingly unharmed. On the table, she had set out little pink plastic plates, and little blue plastic cups, as well as an array of plastic toy food, forks, and a gallon of milk. Apparently she had filled the cups with milk, and tried to make her parents drink it by pouring it in their mouths. This was evidenced by mixture of curdled milk and dried blood that caked their necks and clothing. By the state of the bodies, they had been dead for the full two weeks, at least. The little girl had been trapped in the house with the bodies of her dead parents and dead family pet for weeks. They guessed that she had been doing the only things she knew to try and make them better; feeding them, and giving them milk.
The darkness of the road gave way to the bright white and red light of the emergency room sign. I parked my car and headed for the entrance, steadying myself for the coming encounter with this traumatized young girl. I had only made it a few yards down the sterile corridor when Karen met me. Her panic seemed to have lessened, but she had the wide eyes and frazzled hair of someone in shock. She led me to an exam room.
Tiny little legs dangled over the edge of the exam table, one white sock crumpled and drooping over a little black strappy shoe, the other sock pulled up to the knee. I could see the dark shiny coating of dried blood on the bottoms of those shoes. I thought in horror of how many times she must have paced through her parent's blood, climbing up onto the table to pour milk into their mouths. I shuddered at this, remembering the spilled milk I had not yet cleaned off my own floor. She was wearing one of those cheap pink princess dresses. The kind you buy as a costume, but little girls never want to take off. It was crumpled, and had a few tiny dark brownish-red handprints about it, but was otherwise clean. Her hair fell in loose tangled curls, and had the look that it hadn’t been washed in a couple weeks, which made sense, given the circumstances. It was odd, I noted, that she looked remarkably healthy for having been alone with her dead parents for over two weeks.
She sat perfectly still, tiny hands clasped in her lap, head looking down at them. Her stillness made her look like a doll. A dirty, overused doll; the kind that got worn from a little girl carrying her everywhere with her, but still caring not to damage it too much. Underneath the soiled clothes and hair, she had a glow to her, an innocence.
I approached slowly. “Hey there Sarah. How are we doing?” I spoke softly and kindly.
She didn’t move. I kneeled down in front of her, and gently put one of my hands over her tiny little clasped fingers. At this she tilted her head up slightly, revealing large dark eyes set in a doll-like face. Her eyes were clear and bright, and her face expressionless. Not sad, or scared…Just emotionless, like a doll. She didn’t make eye contact with me, rather looking lower, my mouth perhaps. She still said nothing. She must be in shock. I’d have been surprised if she wasn’t.
“Do you know why you’re here?” I asked sweetly.
She slowly moved her head up and down three times, as to indicate "yes."
“My name is Dr. Mary. I know you’ve been through a really hard time. You are safe now. Ms. Karen and I are going to help you, is that okay?”
At this her eyes flashed and met mine. So dark brown they almost appeared black. My body jolted with the same shock the broken glass and phone ringing had brought up in me earlier. I knew she was a real girl, of course. But, something about seeing those dark eyes set in such an angelic face seemed unreal; like seeing a doll's eyes move. Without realizing it, I had withdrawn my hand from ontop of hers. Was that anger I saw in those eyes? After holding my gaze for what felt like a full five minutes, but was probably only a moment, she nodded her head up and down again. Slowly, and only three times.
I knew from experience that traumatized children can never be pushed. A good therapist will always allow them to come around in their own way, and at their own time.
“Ms. Karen is going to find you some very nice people to stay with, you will be safe. And I am here for you too. You can tell me anything. Is there anything you want to talk about now?” I asked gently.
She glanced quickly toward the doorway where Karen stood, then slowly shook her head side to side three times, indicating “no.”
Karen and I sat with her for several more hours while the doctors and nurses checked her over. She was found to be entirely healthy. Not a scratch, not even slightly dehydrated. The entire time she sat completely still, only moving her head to indicate “yes” or “no” responses. Most of the time we sat in silence, not wanting to push her too much in her fragile state.
After awhile, Karen said she would handle the rest and I got up from my chair to make the drive home. As I was about to walk out the exam room’s door, I heard a quiet, childlike voice from behind me.
“It was for their own good.” She said flatly. I turned to meet her piercing eyes, gazing out from an expressionless face.
“What was that sweetheart?” I asked back, not sure if I’d heard her correctly.
“It was for their own good.” She repeated.
Karen stepped over to her, and the little girl put her head back down, resuming her previous doll-like posture. Karen and I exchanged glances, and I continued out the door.
All the way home I contemplated what she had said. "It was for their own good." From my previous experience dealing with children who had witnessed such a gruesome event, I decided that it was most likely something the murderer had said while killing her parents. This was common, and gave me hope that in the weeks to come I would be able to extract more details from her in order to help police with their investigation. They had little to go on at this point. No sign of forced entry. The deadbolt had been locked and was too high up for the little girl to reach, which may be why she had been trapped in the house for so long. The girl had not said anything to the police when questioned (I’ve always detested the harsh way that police tend to question traumatized children). Why the little girl had been spared was a mystery. The murdered dog had been in her room. They assumed that she had been hiding during the murders. She then dressed the dog afterwards, similar to her attempts to feed and give milk to her parents. Perhaps that’s what she meant by her statement. Of course, "milk does the body good," as the commercials say.
I began my weekly sessions with Sarah a few days later. Most were uneventful. She sat in the same doll-like pose, not moving or speaking. She was placed in a foster home with a nice local couple with no other children. They had taken sympathy on her after hearing about the case in the local paper.
On the third week I was able to coax her into coloring with me. We sat a table, completely silent, side-by-side, coloring our respective pages. After several weeks of this, I noticed that she had taken the red crayon and made jagged scribbles all over the neck of the picture of the cat she was coloring.
“Is that a bowtie?” I asked cheerfully, pointing to the scribbles.
She flung her face toward mine, piercing me with those dark eyes. She looked angry, despite no other emotion showing on her tiny face. Then, wordlessly, she stood from her chair, and walked to the pile of stuffed animals in the corner. She picked up a fuzzy white stuffed dog with floppy white ears. She held it by the ears in one hand, still clasping the red crayon in the other. Then violently she started slashing at the dog’s throat with the crayon, all the time yelling loudly, “IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD! IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!” over and over.
Given the months of silence, I was more than startled. My blood ran cold, and my hands had begun to sweat. A voice in my head told me to run for the door, but I resisted the urge. It was then that I was certain this phrase had nothing to do with the milk. It was definitely linked to the murders.
“Where did you hear that Sarah? ‘It’s for your own good?’” I asked gently. At this, she stopped. Again, her eyes locked onto mine. She said nothing. But I swear I saw the corners of her mouth begin to form the faintest hint of a smile.
Following that session, I spoke with her foster parents. They had been shocked by the loud shouting coming from behind my office door, as they had never heard her speak. She spent most of her time in her room, having silent tea parties with her stuffed animals. I also contacted the investigating officers. I knew it wasn’t much to go on, but I shared my thoughts on her murder reenactment with them. The had recently found a loose link between her father and members of the local mob. My description of her behavior seemed to confirm this being a possible mob hit.
Then again for several weeks, there was nothing. One hour a week I had a silent coloring session with the doll-like girl.
It was in our fourth month of work together that everything changed. Her foster parents were working late, so Karen had dropped her off for her session. Her foster parents were due to get her after. It started normally; both of us coloring silently. Then, out of nowhere she stood up and walked to a random toy chest and began digging furiously through it, looking for something.
“What are you looking for?” I questioned cheerfully.
“Shhhhh…” She had stopped and turned, one finger over her small mouth making the shushing sign.
I playfully pretended to close the zipper on my mouth, and she continued. I was curious. Any variation on our sessions was progress, so I was williIng to comply.
She came away with a pink jump-rope. The kind with cheap little pink plastic handles, and white and pink braided rope. She carried it back to where I sat, and silently as ever grabbed my wrists and pulled them behind the chair so she could tie them together with the rope. This unnerved me, and my stomach began to turn, but I remained silent. I suspected that this was to be another murder reenactment. It was a normal way for someone so young to process such horrific trauma, and I was not about to ruin the opportunity for progress. It still felt wrong. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was terrified. I did my best to hide it, and allowed her to continue.
After I was tied to her satisfaction, she pulled her chair so that it was back to back with mine. Both chairs where those miniature child-size plastic types (I am not a large person, and I prefer to be on the child's level). She then climbed onto the chair directly behind me. I could not see her, but I felt her tiny shoulder brush against my back as though she was reaching down to straighten one of her dark-pink knee-high socks.
By this time I was trembling. Adrenaline was rushing through my bloodstream, and my mouth tasted like metal. I could hear my own blood rushing around in my head. It was still near the beginning of the session, and there was no one in the building except me, and her.
She leaned forward, reaching her little arm around my neck and whispered with unmistakable malevolence, directly into my ear, “it’s for your own good.”
It was hard for me to understand what happened next. In a second her little hand went across my throat, and I didn’t believe it. My neck and chest turned instantly to ice. I tried to speak, but my vocal cords refused to work. I heard a slight gurgling as air escaped my throat. My THROAT, not my mouth. I looked down to see a dark red pool forming on my shirt, turning the entire front of me red. Blood. My blood. I began to struggle and thrash. I fell to the floor to find that she’d done a much better job tying up my arms then I would have ever expected from a three-year-old. In this moment she was no longer a little girl. I was the helpless one. I swung my legs to kick over the chair she was standing on, and it fell to the floor with a cheap plastic "thunk." Empty.
I lay on my side, my own blood pooling up around me, unable to make a sound. I tried to pull my gaze upwards, catching a glance at her looking down at me. Her dark eyes shone brightly. She was smiling. I caught a glimmer of something metallic in her hand as she replaced it inside her sock. My mind was swimming with confused questions. How did she get a knife? How is this happening?!
My entire body began to feel cold. I felt as though I was sinking into dark icy water, unable to catch my breath. Even the warm pool of blood surrounding me felt frigid. My eyelids were impossibly heavy. I made one last attempt to scream. The cut in my throat simply gurgled and bubbled. My eyelids shut like steel doors.
In my last moments of dream-like consciousness, I thought I heard footsteps, and the sound of a door opening and closing. I had a fleeting hope that her foster parents had arrived. Maybe I was saved.
Everything went black.
I woke up in the hospital three weeks later. Sarah’s foster parents had found her sitting in my waiting room when they arrived. Calm, and doll-like. I was discovered the next morning by a client, barely clinging to life. The doctors had managed to stitch my throat back together, but I had lost so much blood that they had almost lost me. I had been in a coma for the past three weeks.
Sarah’s foster parents were found several days later. They had their throats cut in their sleep. I assume they had not been as willing as I was to play her murder game and be tied up. They were not as lucky as I was though. They were found dead. There was a glass of milk on each of their nightstands. She had poured some into each of their mouths as they were bleeding out. The milk spilled out of their throats and onto the blood-soaked sheets.
The murder of her foster parents and my own attempted murder seemed to confirm the mob connection. As a result, Sarah had been put in protective custody. Her name was changed, and she had been moved to an undisclosed location. No one, not even Karen, the social-worker, was given the information. I was not allowed to be privy to it either. Trust me, I tried.
I tried speaking to the police about it once. They looked at me sympathetically, and wrote it off as shock. It was a hallucination brought on by my own trauma. They were thankful that the little girl had gotten out of there before the killer had arrived, and had somehow managed to hide herself under the bed when her foster parents were murdered. They thought I should be grateful for this too. I wasn't. I tried explaining to them that trauma rarely causes hallucinations, but it was no use. No one was going to believe that a three-year-old girl is a vicious murderer, no matter how many degrees you have.
As soon as I could I left town, and changed my name. I joined a practice that allowed me to work with several other colleagues, so I wouldn't be alone. I stopped drinking milk, and did the best I could to forget about Sarah, her parents, and the whole ordeal. Three years after my move, I got a horrifying reminder.
Again, I was sitting at my desk in my new city apartment, going through the notes from that day. My phone rang. My heart shot into my throat, and I could feel the skin around my scar get hotter. As I reached for the phone, I noticed the time. Nearly 9p.m.
"Hello?" My voice trembled. I didn't even try to hide it.
I listened to the voice on the other end for a few moments, before dropping the receiver and screaming. Panic welled in my gut and quickly overtook my body. In a matter of minutes I packed a bag and ran out my door. I abandoned everything else.
The caller had been a local social worker. She wanted my help on an extreme case. A six-year-old girl had been found locked inside her apartment with the body of her adopted mother. It was when she got to the part about the cut throat and the milk, the FUCKING MILK, that I'd dropped the phone and screamed.
I changed my name, again, and this time moved to a different country. I work as a waitress at a local pub. No kids, no milk. I have panic attacks every time I see a glass of milk, hear a phone ring, or see a child sitting a little too still. It's been ten years since the last incident. This morning I passed a teenage girl on the street. She was pretty; dark hair, and a dark piercing stare. There is no way to know if it was her. But I'm packing my bags and changing my name again anyway.
It’s for my own good.