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PART FORTY-NINE

Yuengling in hand and Buffalo cauliflower before her, Karla inflated her cheeks and exhaled sharply. “Listen,” she said, leaning forward and speaking in a conspiratorial volume, “if I tell you something that I’ve done that’s well, maybe not exactly legal, do you have to report me?”

Stacie and Suzann looked at one another, both women bringing their heads back and furrowing their brows. “Well,” Stacie said nodding slowly, “it just depends. We are mandatory reporters. That means that if we even suspect you may have done something that endangered Skylar we have to report it. No exceptions. Would what you’ve done fall under that category?”

The corners of Karla’s mouth fell, her eyes narrowed, and her head tucked down toward her chin. “Oh, God no! Or, at least I sure as shit would say no. Exact opposite. What I’ve done is to protect Skylar, but it’s why we can’t go to the police. We just can’t.”

Suzann held up her left hand and said very slowly. “We want to help you and to keep Skylar safe,” she said, leaving her hand up but with only her index finger extended. “But you have to realize that we must act within the confines of the law. If you tell us things that we think need to be passed on to the authorities, we will. We must. There’s no attorney client privilege here.”

Karla’s head jerked back in surprise. “You’re an attorney?! I didn’t know that!?

Suzann smiled and shook her head. “No. Just an expression. I just wanted you to know that anything you say concerning Skylar’s safety we cannot keep to ourselves. Do you still want to tell us about this thing you’ve done that, as you said, may not exactly be legal?”

“I think I got to. I don’t know what to do and it’s about Skylar. Which is funny, in a sick sort of way, because what I did was tell her daddy that she was dead.”

Suzann and Stacie again exchanged glances. “So, Stacie,” Suzann said, now holding up her hand in the classic, “Stop!” position, “let’s talk theoretically for just a moment, shall we?’

Stacie tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Theoretically?” she repeated quizzically. “Oh! Theoretically! Yes, lets, shall we!”

“And it might be best if, for right now, you just listened; do you understand, Karla?”

Karla wrinkled her nose and crinkled her brow. “Maybe. Why own’t you two talk for a bit and I’ll listen?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Suzann said, patting Karla’s hand. “Let Stacie and me ruminate and reflect for a moment. Stacie, have you had any students who were in the sole custody of one parent?”

“Well, sure,” Stacie replied. “I mean, every year, right? But-”

“No, no. Please. Let me finish. And when one parent has sole custody of a child then we have the right, actually, a legal responsibility, to prevent the non-custodial parent from gaining access to the student. Correct?”

“Correct,” Stacie replied guardedly.

“But we have no responsibility to search for an absent parent if a couple is separated and we’ve only had interactions with one of the parents.”

“Well,” Stacie said slowly, nodding her head. “That sounds right, though we’d have to comply with requests from both parents if there is joint custody.”

“Of course! But if we only have one parent listed as a guardian we have no legal requirement to hunt down the wayward parent who has elected to not participate in his, or her, child’s education.”

“Well, right. But I don’t think-”

“No, no. Again, please. Let me lay out my hypothetical case. If one parent is listed on all of our school forms and there are no restraining orders against the other, and separated parents have joint custody of a student, then we have no legal obligation to report this living arrangement as any kind of neglect nor abuse. Correct?”

“I, I think that would be correct. Hypothetically. But as I said, if the heretofore absent parent requests information about his or her child then we’d have to supply it.”

“Of course, of course. So, Karla, do you understand the conditions that apply to our purely theoretical exercise?”

Karla nodded slowly. “I think so. Yes.”

“Good. Now,” Suzann continued, “is there anything you’d like to tell us?”

Karla again exhaled but this time her whole being seemed to deflate. “I think I have to. What would happen if, theoretically, while Caleb was in prison I told him that Skylar died, and I told Skylar that her daddy died? What if I’d packed up the car, snatched Skylar and just left?  What if I left because I found out that my husband’s a killer?

“I know he is, and I know that if he finds me he’ll kill me, and I don’t know what he’d do to Skylar. Theoretical or not, I know that, and that’s why we have to keep Caleb Ezra Morse away from my baby and away from me.”