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I died before I was born.
My slate wasn’t clean but marred with half-erased sentences and distorted images. I’ve tried to smooth the etchings, but it’s difficult to repair a damaged surface. All I know for certain is that my grandmother chose to date a serial killer who eventually murdered her. And that’s not the kind of event a family gets over.
It’s difficult being the only daughter of a man who lost his mother to poor choices he wishes he could’ve controlled. All I know is it’s difficult to be someone’s second chance—to feel like a symbol of all that ever went wrong.
As a child, I tried to imagine it all—the murder—in my mind. I still do.
[private]I look for any semblance of a resolution, so I can avoid a similar outcome.
I picture myself at the crime scene. I find her body in the midnight blue dress with the crimson piping that drips around the edges of her neck. That’s what she wears in the picture on my parents’ piano. A single bobby pin holds her dark brown hair back on one side of her skull like in the picture, but she doesn’t pose for pictures in my imagination. Instead, her body lies limply in the backseat of her vintage Volkswagen van. Sometimes, I see her in the van on the abandoned mountain road in the middle of the summer. I scuff my feet along the gravel, and the man with the horse waves at me to walk faster. He hops off his horse and looks through the window and yells, “Oh, no. Get over here.”
I pick up my pace, and as I start to get closer to the van, an odor
of baked fleshed overtakes me. The man looks at me. He wears a plaid button-up flannel like the one my father wore in the seventies. I saw the shirt in pictures, and my mind puts all the pieces together—tries to make a seamless narrative to explain this all away.
The horse swishes its tail from side-to-side, the way my real pony used to.
He says to me, “Look in here.” I lean closer into the backseat window with my hands around my eyes and jerk back when my bare skin barely touches the car. The summer heat is almost unbearable to me, so I look at the man. He says, “No, go ahead, look.”
I turn my head back to where I know she is. I’ve found her there before when I tried to imagine how her kidnapping ended.
Her arm dangles off the seat, and her hand grazes the hot plastic of the floor cover. But she keeps her hand there, because I’m the one who does the feeling now.
Her other arm bends slightly and lies atop her stomach, and she lies there like Sleeping Beauty, her cheeks the color of Red Wood Sequoya, and the piece of her shot-off head, neatly placed next to her, hair sprouting from it like prongs on a crown.
“This must be that lady they were looking for,” the man says.
“Must be.” I know exactly who she is.
I exist in this way, caught up in my mind.
He rides off down the mountain for help, I suppose, because that’s what he’d always done before—just like in the stories my family told me about her disappearance. I put my hand inside the bottom of my yellow tank top—my favorite shirt in kindergarten—and try to open the car door to pick her hand off the matt, but the door is locked. I start to sweat. And she lies there with her arm still on the matt, but there’s nothing I can do to stop her flesh from scorching. I can’t resurrect someone from the dead.
So I stand there by her van in my yellow tank top and matching shorts and tennis shoes with little pink flowers all over them—my favorite outfit when I found out about her. The outfit I wore twenty years ago before I knew how one person’s murder devastates generations. Next to the van, I crack the spine of my John Steinbeck novel and begin from the first page, because Dad told me he’s her favorite. Grandma, and I need a distraction until the man gets back with the police.
That’s how I find her sometimes—me with the man on the horse, her head already shot off. But other times it’s me with the police at the top of the North Dakota mountain. There’s no van or bench seat, just a sleeping bag—one of those heavy green army ones that zips across the top. The police dogs sniff about the muddied ground and chunks of half-melted snow.
My mind concocts multiple versions because no one in my family can quite get their story right—no one’s details match up. So sometimes
I am with the man on the horse like my dad talks about and, other times, I am with the police and she’s in a sleeping bag like my aunt says.
The police say, “She’s around here somewhere boys.” I start to feel cold, and snow seeps into the tops of my shoes until my socks become wet, but I don’t own an extra coat in my mind, and there’s no way to warm up. I kick at the lumps of snow, but don’t want to move around too much, because I knew her body is up there just like the police think, and I don’t want to tamper with the evidence.
“No one goes missing for a year and makes it alive.” That’s why we bring the dogs.
I already know she doesn’t make it, but I don’t remember exactly where we find her in the sleeping bag. Soon a dog sniffs her out, and all the cops notice a glint of shimmer where the sun’s light bounces off the zipper flap. “Come over here,” they call to me.
I rush over now to an uncovered sleeping bag, shaped like a cocoon, and sopping wet from the melting snow. Instead of baked flesh, I smell a rotting moistness this time—a bloated scent of violence. I bend down on my knees, bare skin pressing into the mud, and I grab hold of the zipper flap and pull it down, half expecting monarch butterflies like the ones in the pictures on the wall in mom and dad’s room to flutter out of the bag. But, instead, I first see her forehead, then nose and eyes, her full lips shaped like mine, and finally again I see the navy dress, and the back of her skull. Human beings don’t become beautiful creatures after hiding away.
But these are just the ways I can imagine it. No one’s ever given me all the details. I am not sure if they even know. Maybe the man on the horse…maybe the police, but I don’t expect anyone in my family to know for sure.
They have the false memories. I have the fake ones.
Sometimes I try to find her before he kills her to understand what she saw in such a man. I go to the criminal hospital she worked in—that’s where she met Kevin, her murderer. She wears a white jacket with the flap on the front with side buttons. White nylons cover her legs from the knees down and disappear in the white nursing shoes.
I follow her down the hallway, and try to match my footsteps with hers.
Dark brown hair falls out from under her nursing cap as she turns from left to right, looking into each room—her head completely intact and perfectly round like mine. Our heads have so much in common I’ve often been told.
My father appears as a young man; he told me he was young when he visited her at work. I blend all the details I’ve been told into one fluent story—trying to make sense of it all.
My grandmother stands in front of a room, “She stabbed all of her victims to death.” The woman’s hair is red and sticks up in tufts. The side of her face touches the inside of the glass so that we only see her profile with the one eye the looks directly at my father but past him at the same time. Her hand is balled in a fist and she rapidly stabs an invisible knife—I presume—at the glass. “We’ve tried to sedate her with enough medicine to kill ten men, but she still stabs all day.”
My grandmother explains.
The fluorescent lights down the hall pulsate and bounce off the newly waxed floors. Before much time passes, we find Kevin’s room—“This is Kevin.”
“He in for murder, too?” My dad asks her.
Sometimes I hear her say, “He tried killing someone with a baseball bat when he was thirteen.”
Or sometimes she says, “He’s a pedophile.” No one can get the details right, and I own no documented records.
Less often she looks at my father and admits, “Yes, he’s killed four people already.” They look into his room just as they did the others. Kevin doesn’t come to the window, and his eyes did not have the same distance as the others. Instead, his face, angular, looks directly into my grandma’s for a moment.
“He’s innocent.” She announces confidently.
After the hospital, I arrive at my grandma’s small house. She’s living with him now, surrounded by an Arizona yard measured in square-feet. Their voices carry out of the windows, almost making each tiny blade of grass vibrate.
“What did you tell your children about me?” His voice sounds accusatory.
“I tell them you’re innocent.”
She’s pleading for something. Maybe she already knows. “Why would they tell you not to be with me then?
“They don’t believe me, because you were in the hospital.” A bold move. I move around the gray-sided corner of the house, following the sounds of their voices, until I stand at the sliding door outside of the dining room. I see him there, sitting at the table, while my grandmother moves about the kitchen, putting together enchiladas and chocolate cake—her family recipes I have eaten at birthdays and holiday meals.
“Tell your daughters that you’re with me now; they have no say.” His young face looks straight into the sliding door. He gets up from the chair and comes to the door. I step back. He never sees me, but I always hide my face.
Grandma comes to the door with him. She stands behind him and puts her chin on his shoulder and wraps her arms around him, “Baby, you know I believe you. I got you out, didn’t I?”
“I know. I just can’t stand people not believing me. Especially your kids. I love you, and I want a normal life with you.” He turns and hugs her, and her face still looks at mine, but then she closes her eyes and squints them, like she’s actually in love.
I try to grab her arm or yell to her to get away, but she never hears me. She hears no one, except him. Maybe she doesn’t actually hear what he says. Perhaps she only hears herself. I doubt she ever saw far enough ahead to realize what he might do to me and how I’d spend my life looking for them. She never knew I’d exist. And maybe I don’t exist really.
I stay there and try to find the signs. I try to memorize what I must never do. I try to memorize the kind of man I should never love.
It’s almost the end of all I know now. The ride up north to North Dakota is chilly, because they won’t roll the windows up, and thin yellow shorts and a tank top do little to cut the breeze. They sit in the front seat. He’s in the driver’s seat. She sits in the passenger seat, her hand on his leg. She wears cat-eye glasses with little diamonds on the corners and one of those sheer scarves wraps around her head. She doesn’t wear the blue dress, but a polyester skirt and matching blouse like the one she wears in a different photograph. I don’t know why my mind constructs the scenes this way.
Sometimes they get in an argument about where to stop for gas or what kinds of music to listen to, but I don’t care much about those times. I pay more attention to the reasons. I want to know why she’s with him. I listen when she tells him that his “eyes are so pretty” or his “hands are masculine,” although I am not sure if she likes those kinds of things, but I do.
I try to figure out why they’re heading up north, but they keep it a secret. At first, I imagine that they had hoped to move to North Dakota. “I can’t wait to get away from it all,” he says. “All I want is to be with you up in the mountains.” He looks at her and smiles.
“Me, too. I’ve never loved someone so much.” She replies. These are the times I like the most.
Usually, he scares me. I see the handle of the gun bulging out of his pocket and she sits tensely in the passenger seat, rarely looking at him. Instead she keeps her eyes straight on the road except for occasional, staccato glances to the rearview mirrors. Sometimes I think she sees me, but she’s always looking at herself. I can’t tell whose eyes are in the mirror, hers or mine. Even though I now I’m invisible, and this whole memory’s fake.
“Now when we get to North Dakota, you’re not telling anyone who I am, you hear?” Kevin says.
“Of course,” she says, keeping her eyes on the road.
“Don’t think I won’t take care of a problem if I don’t have to.”
She says nothing. The noises from the outside get louder, the air picks up.
It’s as though the volume everywhere turns up—almost a deafening level. Then I see his lips moving, but I do not here what he says. I yell at the top of my lungs, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it?” But he doesn’t say anything, and I am glad he can’t hear me.
I move behind grandma’s seat, and I put my arms around her neck and hug her. I lean forward and whisper in her hair, “Get out of the car” or “leave him at the next stop.
I know she won’t hear me, but I have to try. I desperately want to get out of the car, but can’t unless she does. I don’t know how to live a life separate from hers.
Sometimes I ride in the car with them all the way to North Dakota—I ride along with them all the way to the end of her and the beginning of me. “Baby, I can’t believe we’re finally to North Dakota,” they both agree.
They trade smiles. I can’t tell who is fake and who is genuine. He pulls over on the side of a barren road while she climbs over the seats until she finds herself in the back assembling sandwiches for them.
I see him pull the gun.
Other times, he kills her before she makes lunch and then hauls her body to the mountain in the back of the van. Just before the murder, I find them at a vacant rest stop on the side of the road. Grandma and I hop out of the van to go into the bathroom. “You better hurry back, you hear?”
She doesn’t answer him.
“Woman, did you hear me?”
“I heard you just fine,” she yells now from the sidewalk near the entrance to the bricked bathroom building. “I heard you just fine,” she mutters again.
I follow her to the bathroom and stand in my yellow shorts at the entrance. I feel the concrete floor beneath my feet and hear the life of my grandmother echoing in the background. I watch him from the doorway, and the angles of his face become more acute from far away. He leans down between the seats. I see the glint of his gun through the windshield.
My heart quickens, and I run to my grandmother’s stall as she turns the knob to walk out; I stand in front of her body, trying to keep her from leaving the stall, but I do not deter her at all.
I watch her every move while she quietly observes herself in the mirror. She draws her face closer to it. The navy of the dress brings out her eyes and contrasts with her dark hair. She reaches into her handbag, pulling out a fresh tube of lipstick and applies a new layer. I marvel at her last moments, hoping she might say another word, explain something, tell me something about the reasons why.
The water from the faucet spurts and splatters tiny droplets around the edges of the sink when she washes her hands.
“Grandma, don’t go outside.” I yell this repeatedly, but she will not listen. She doesn’t even know I’m there. I grab her leg and struggle to keep her inside the bathroom, but she walks through my resistance.
The gunshot sounds.
The bullet darts through her brain and into mine—a wound that never heals.
She falls to the ground, and I’m alone with him.
I turn away and run—I run as far as I can from her until I start from the beginning again.
It’s as though I can’t run from her without running also to her, and
I wonder whose fault her death is: Kevin’s or hers or mine?
But mostly, I can’t tell who died: her or me?[/private]