is there any peace of ground that has not tasted blood?
where no person has dug into the silent earth
to cover up the stains,
in an act that needs no words to say
"the living should not see the remains."
If I can accept that I'm going to die, just maybe I can do this.
The thought lingered as I slowly raised my head from the desk. The motel door chimes woke me from a night terror, the kind where you know you're sleeping but you can't move. My body felt like I'd almost drown, limbs heavy and weak as if just breaking through the surface of the water. Twilight clung to me.
But that's not why I wondered if I was still stuck in a dream when he walked in.
For a full minute I couldn't breathe; he-shocked the air right out of me.
He looked exactly how he should. Tall, attractive, broad shouldered, dark hair waving in a halo around his face. I knew that face. I knew those angelic eyes. Black as wet stones, they glimmered in kindness. Deceptive kindness.
"Paul." I said, unbidden.
"Do I know you?" His brow furrowed. And I hated myself then. For giving it away. For standing still as an offering. For trembling.
I must have paled because he switched from surprise to concern, "Are you Ok?" He placed a steadying hand on mine. Might as well have burned me.
I snatched my hand away. Sudden anger hot in my skin. I knew his false pity. To protect myself, I acted on instinct.
"Yes," I said reaching for my mug, "too much coffee, not enough sleep. Hazard of working the graveyard shift," I motioned to his keychain, one key labeled 'Paul's Garage', "Paul." I emphasized.
He grinned, perfect wolf teeth. "Observant. But how do you know they're my keys?"
The bastard was either flirting with me or trying to give me the creeps. I inched one hand under the desk into my purse to grip the handle of a gun, "Why? Do you make a habit of stealing other people's keys?" I asked trying to sound coy.
"No." He laughed. "But I could be traveling with a companion. And it could be my turn to drive."
"Oh…Are you?" I feigned, moving the gun onto a shelf within easy reach.
"No. You got me. It's Paul." He offered his hand. I shook it, made my grip firm, professional.
"Jean," I said. "Single rooms are $65 a night, $50 for two or more, $280 for the week. No smoking. There's a continental breakfast from 7am to 11 and complementary popcorn and soda from 7pm to 9. Check-out is at noon."
I pushed over the registration form, giving him room 24. My sister died when she was 24. Murdered. Wrong place, wrong time cops said like some anti-miracle; she'd been on her way to meet me for lunch when she disappeared.
"So what's for breakfast?" Paul asked.
I managed not to jump.
"Coffee, orange juice, and waffles, along with an assortment of muffins, cereal, and milk." I needed him to leave. "Ray makes the best waffles. He's a big sweet guy, works the same shift as me, you'll like him. He used to be a Marine." I darted my eyes as if looking for Ray, even though I knew Ray was at the other end of the motel cleaning the garage.
"So, you going to be here in the morning?"
"Yes sir, every morning save Sundays."
"Then put me down for a week. I like something to look forward to in the morning." He paid in cash. Kind eyes searching again, but he couldn't place me. On his way out he stopped and turned. "You know anything about Baxter's Quarry?"
If I can accept that I'm going to die, maybe I can do this. Without that thought I would have fainted. Baxter's Quarry was where they found my sister's body along with five other girls.
I recognized Paul's face because that's all I dreamt about since. I thought they were nightmares…that eventually they'd stop. Now I knew they were real. My sister was warning me.
The killer at the door had the nerve to appear apologetic. "I'm researching a story." He said. "I know it's a touchy subject—"
"—No you don't." I heard my voice as if it belonged to someone else. "Unless you lost someone that way, a mother, a daughter, a sister…you don'tknow. The memories are alive in this town, so you watch your step."
And I grabbed my purse, leaving. I needed space. I needed to make sure I wasn't crazy. And then I needed to stop him.
I was foolish. I shouldn't have left a public place for a private one. He could have followed me. A flash of violence and I'd be there in the quarry like the others or maybe he'd dump me in a field or a wood for a passerby to find, for the news to describe me-my body-as a discarded thing, as a broken doll.
But I was lucky. He didn't follow. I ran to the staff quarters, dead bolted my room, flew into the bathroom, locked that door too, and sank to my knees trembling. I threw up. Turned on the sink and threw up again. Crawled to a corner. Sobbing. Feeling. A long time of that.
It took the sound of a key in the outer door to shake me free. Frightened past hysterics, I froze.
"Jeannie?" Ray's voice, Ray's heavy footsteps. I shuddered with relief. "Jean, Jeannie are you here? Please be here."
Ray sounded like a scared little boy. For some reason that steadied me. The calm, distant observing portion of my brain that had been urging me to think, think, think regained physical control because it had to, because Ray needed me.
Truth be told, Ray is as much of an ex-Marine as a chair is a ladder. He talks like a tough guy, fools people from time to time because he's big as a bear and watches too many action films. But if you listen to him for five minutes, you'll realize he's slow. Talk to him for five more and you'll find out he's a thirty year old living marvel because all the doctors say he should have been dead at twenty-three on account of his diabetes, high blood pressure, and the tiny holes in his bad heart.
"It's Ok, Ray, I'm here. I'm sick." I said.
"You don't sound good." He tried the door to the bathroom, stubbornly rattling it. "Why is the door locked?"
"I'm sick." I said.
"Well, let me in. You don't sound good. You might need a doctor or the paramedics."
"I don't need the paramedics. I have the flu. I-you should watch the front desk," I grasped for an excuse to make him leave, "I meant to get you, but I didn't make it that far."
"I don't know how to watch the front desk. I'll call Patty."
"That's a good idea." I said.
"So put it in your toolbox." He chirped, pleased with himself. I smiled. It was kind of his catch phrase. Over the years, I'd lost count of how many times I was supposed to put his suggestions in my 'toolbox' for work or 'lunchbox' if I happened to be getting 'schooled' that day. And actually if it wasn't for the fact that there was a serial killer roaming the premises, he would have had the right idea.
"Wait. Don't call her." I retracted. "I'm feeling a little better. It's silly to call her. It was probably something I ate. And trust me, whatever it was, it's not there anymore. I only have a few hours left in my shift. I can tough it out. Just watch the front desk for me for ten minutes. Ok? And I'll be right there."
"I don't know. You sound scrathy. I should take your blood pressure and your temperature."
Ray is the only person I know who carries around his own blood pressure cuff. I would have laughed and called him a perv if my world wasn't ending.
"No Ray. Somebody's got to be at the front desk. I've been away too long, I'll get fired."
Ray paused mulling it over. "I don't know. I think I should call Patty. You sound really bad. And it smells. And you won't let me in and Paul said you looked like you were going to die."
"Paul?" I asked, my voice cracking.
"I agree with Ray. I think you should call Patty, Jean. I think you're under estimating how bad you're feeling." Paul said, smooth as honey. "I can't apologize enough for my part in that."
For a fraction of a second, I blacked out. Or maybe I fell into a hole. Or maybe I was pushed into a quarry at the dead of night, crashing through the surface, drifting down into its cold, blank waters. Like Jessie.
Post-traumatic stress, waking dreams, my dead sister whispering in my ear—I didn't know what was happening. But I was certain Paul was a killer. The killer.
When sense returned, I was staring at the sink, at my purse, at the gun inside. I'd done that much. Brought the gun with me. Smart girl, right?
Calmly, I ran over my choices:
I'm not crazy. Kill Paul. Go to jail.
I'm crazy. Paul's just a reporter. Check myself into a hospital.
I'm not crazy. Check myself into a hospital. Paul keeps killing. Or worse, what if he hurts Ray? What if I hesitate and he hurts me and Ray? He's certainly taken an interest in me. Can I use that?
"I'm coming out, hold on." I called. Gargling, splashing water on my face, I gave the pale girl in the mirror a big smile and forgave her for looking like hell. Who knows maybe it'd be the last time I'd see myself smile? Grabbing my purse, I opened the door.
"See, all in one piece." Putting on a brave face, I held the gun behind my back. "Will you watch the front desk now, so I can change and not get fired?" I asked.
Noticing my friend's hesitancy, his expressions as clear as words on a screen, I stooped to new lows, "What do you say Hero? It sure would be a lifesaver."
Ray's frown bloomed into pure joy. Nobody gave him credit while precious few ever relied on him. The chance to be my hero immediately over-road any concerns. "Sure." He practically bounced. "You know you can count on me." He said.
When I smiled at Ray, it was genuine. I genuinely cared for this man. I loved him. I was proud of him. "I know I can. You're a good friend." I said, meaning every word of it, wishing I could touch his shoulder, give him a hug. Say goodbye, I mentally shrugged, you never know.
Instead I waited, the gun firmly in place, pure relief when he left.
"I'm sorry; you'll have to go to. I need to get dressed." I told Paul.
"Sure." He said. "But before I do…it's important to me that you know I'm not the monster you think I am."
My hand spasmed on the handle of the gun.
This was it. He's going to try to kill me now. He'll lull me into a false sense of security and then he'll go for my throat. He killed Jessie that way, crushed her windpipe. Played at it. Enjoyed it. A slow constricting squeeze until she slumped, unconscious. When she woke up, he tortured again, cut off the air again. The cycle continuing until finally she didn't wake up, her burning lungs bloodied, her throat completely caved.
As Paul continued to talk, all I could see was Jessie's face in those last moments, my sweet sister.
"I'm not here to sensationalize your loss. I want people to experience your loss like it was their own. I want people to know the victims and their families. I'm hoping that the details I uncover might break open new leads, that you'll have justice." He said.
I almost believed him, those endless brown eyes of his were so damn sincere. I knew in my gut, it was his eyes that got all those girls killed. You simply trusted his eyes.
In that second, I pictured myself raising the gun, pulling the trigger, and saying 'yes, I will have justice'. I'd step over his body. I'd get in my car and drive away forever.
"But before when you said you can't know unless it's happened to you…it hashappened to me. I cover these violent cases because of my brother. My twin."
Paul's revelation snapped me out of my dark fantasies, stopped the action dead. I now hung on his every word.
"He came back from Iraq…different. He'd been held prisoner for a half a year and it left its marks. Terrible things were done to him. And as a result…he's done unspeakable acts. I feel like I should have stopped him. I should have been able to tell how sick he was getting before he hurt so many people… I guess, this is my penance- to write. If you don't want to talk about your experience, I understand, but please don't think ill of me because I have to."
I wanted to believe him. The weight of what I had to do was so heavy, so beyond my ability. My arms felt like granite, my legs like the roots of a tree. My sister sent me dreams. I knew the face of her killer. That face was gazing at me right now, vulnerable, open, sincere. He would walk away, shortly.
"Is he your identical twin?" I asked.
"Yes." The blood drained from his face, I'd shocked him.
It wasn't enough proof. The dreams were too sharp, too demanding. "Do you have a picture of the two of you?" I forged ahead, bold and cold.
Almost as if in a trance, he pulled out his wallet, fished up a photo, and handed it to me.
Two men stood, their arms over each other's shoulders, big wolfish grins, mirror images with the same angelically disarming eyes.
When it came to the spirit world, my grandmother gave me the following advice. Test the spirits by testing the actions they seem to be asking you to take. Ghosts are hungry and you see only as much as they let you see.
I took a deep breath, preparing. At my feet there was a tiny puddle of water. My sister was close. These puddles had been manifesting for months, odd places, odd times, dry and wet weather.
"Thank you." I said. "You can go now. I do have to change. But tomorrow at breakfast, I'll tell you everything I know about my Jessie's murder."
The door shut like a crack of thunder, my thoughts fell like rain collecting into a pool of clarity. I knew what I had to do.
"We don't have to do this now. I'm here all week." I said, sitting across from Jean noticing that in profile she went from attractive to truly beautiful. The graceful neck, the high cheekbones—lovely; but it was the sweep of her short black hair, the way it set off her down turned eye that got me. The mystery in it. The desire to have her look at me straight on—overwhelming. And yet…when she did, it was altogether too honest.
Her chin lifted. Pale green eyes met mine. Something like shame flooded my body fire. I wanted her.
"No, let's get this over with. I'm Ok." She took a sip from her coffee. I pushed my plate of half-eaten eggs to the side of the table and took out a notepad trying not to acknowledge the fact that every detail about her screamed otherwise. She was the furthest from Ok I'd ever seen a person. And I wanted to screw her in the worst way.
It gave me a sick feeling, not sure what kind of person that made me. I pushed the image of sex away, swallowed hard, and nodded. My words weren't necessary, hers were.
She glanced down, folded her hands together as if saying grace. "It was two years ago. Early June, a few weeks before my 22nd birthday. Jessie was suppose to meet me for lunch and then we were going to visit the farmers' market. She'd just rented her first house and wanted some marigolds to keep the rabbits out of her garden and some daylilies to dress up the front yard. I wanted some fresh strawberry jam…I can't eat that anymore, do you think that's weird?" Jean scowled, a cloud passing over the sun, and then pushed ahead not waiting for an answer.
"She never showed up. I called her cell. Nothing. I went home, no message. I started calling friends and family, her work—she managed the Pump & Go. No luck. I even called the hospital; I thought maybe she had an accident. Finally, me and Mom checked her house. It was locked. Her car was in the garage. No Jessie. Not anywhere. The neighbor said he saw her leave the house at around 8 that morning to take Beans for a walk. Beans was her dog, a fat little furball. A Yorkshire terrier. He was ridiculous, I mean he could barely make it up a stair case, he was that fat. Jessie saved him from the pound. She was so proud too because she paid by credit card. Her first act of debt, she said, springing Beans from the can. Mom has him now. A couple of hikers found him at the quarry…just sitting by the water. That's why we found her, you know, that's why the cops dredged the lake…that dog would not leave. Search parties, television bulletins, no leads for a week and then Beans-you could see his ribs by that time."
She stopped talking. I stopped taking notes. Pain radiated off of her like an entity, like I could reach out and touch it, a fibrous cotton candy. Like it might reach out and envelop me, and then quick sink to live inside my skin. I almost wished it would.
"I'm not going to tell the rest because you can get that from the police records." She said.
Then she reached over to pull a few napkins from the dispenser mopping up a spill.
Captivated by her story, it didn't strike me as strange until a heartbeat later. It was water she was cleaning up. I hadn't noticed her spill any. She didn't even have a glass of water next to her. Nor did I. She caught me staring and bit her lips, pale green eyes searching.
"You said you were here because of your brother." She stated, voice flat.
Her pain became my guilt. At that moment, I would have done anything for her.
"Yes." I said.
"You think he did it." She said.
The spill had seeped through the napkin. The spill that was the size of a quarter when she first went to cover it, seeped through the napkin before pooling and flowing off the table in drips.
"Yes." I said.
She said she was tired and we made plans to meet again tomorrow, both of us ignoring the water.
When I shook her hand, it was damp.
After leaving Paul, I did exactly what I told him I was going to do. I went to my room, dead bolted the door, and slipped under the covers of my bed. The noon day sun poured through my windows; I didn't bother to shut the blinds. On the contrary, I welcomed the light. It lulled me, engulfed me in a warm, bright feeling. Since Jessie, I couldn't sleep nights which was odd because she disappeared during the day.
But as I closed my eyes and began to let my thoughts drift, the contradiction failed to matter. What mattered was, illusion or not, daylight made me feel safe. Ultimately, you do what you have to do.
For the first time in a long time, I slept without dreams. A deep, restorative slumber. My sister must have taken pity on me. Or perhaps, she too was tired, she too sensing an approaching end.
The clock flashed 6pm when I woke. My shift started at eleven. I called Patty, she said she'd cover for me. Then, I showered, dressed, and went to the office. I grabbed the master key.
Peace descended, as surreal as a bubble. I made chit-chat with customers and other staff as I passed them, smiling, nodding, saying "Hi". The politician on parade, fake but well received. All the while, the key a cold tiny weight in my pocket, against my thigh.
I went outside to the park bench overlooking the swimming pool, a cup of tea in hand. From here, I could see Paul's suite, his car parked out front. I waited sipping chamomile, the emotional numb I was experiencing somehow leaving my senses sharp as a tack. Smell was stronger, vision clearer, hearing acute. I knew a few seconds before the fact that he'd leave. I watched Paul step into the brisk night air, flip up the collar on his jacket, and lock the door. As he strode to his car, he paused and looked up. Spotting me, he waved. I responded, clever little actress, by lifting my cup. Aren't we fast friends.
He drove off.
Seconds later, I broke into his room with the stolen key. My first true crime. Congratulations, Nancy Drew.
He was exceptionally neat. Clothes folded primly. Toiletry supplies in a tidy row. Bed military made. The bathroom was wiped down and shining, not a hair on his razor. Housekeeping would be pleased. I thought. But my detachment began to wear thin, unease creeping along my skin. I didn't know anyone this precise.
On the end table, I noticed a tabbed binder. Stealing my resolve, I paged through the contents skimming for the information I needed. There were seven tabs, one for each of the six Quarry victims, full of police reports, photos, news' clippings. He'd underlined the similarities in the cases. Woman, early twenties, black hair, strangulation, bruises on wrists and legs, bondage, eyelids sewed open, no DNA recoverable.
I started to shake hard. I tried for several minutes to force myself to turn to my sister's tab. I couldn't.
Instead I flipped to the seventh tab. It was labeled "Matt". It had to be Paul's brother, why didn't I ask his name? Because you're in shock and you're not exactly thinking straight. I told myself and I couldn't argue with it.
The first page held Matt Denlinn's discharge papers and Purple Heart certificate. Army records followed.
He'd lost the thumb on his left hand. He'd been missing in action for one hundred and thirty eight days, prisoner of war. Psychiatric evaluation revealed that he suffered from acute post traumatic stress. On February 3rd, 2003, he was admitted to Marshal Hospital for psych observation, released three months later. New meds, new bill of health, counseling scheduled every two months.
I kept paging through the contents. Paul had added news paper articles to Matt's file as well. Most involved animal disappearances and mutilations. Two cited bar fights. (Charges dropped) And one assault and robbery. (Jail time, six months). It ended with another stay at Marshal Hospital and another release, this time with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia muddled with cocaine addiction. September 13th, 2006.
Carefully, I removed the last page of the binder. It contained an address and a phone number, the handwriting like calligraphy. Paul's script.
"I would have given it to you if you asked." I jumped. Think of the devil and he appears. Paul stood behind me, just inside the door.
There was no anger in his manner or voice. Instead he spoke calm and soft as one would to a wild animal you wanted to coax near.
"Can I have it?" I asked. Outside thunder started to rumble, barometric pressure dropping so suddenly I could feel it in my temples. It hurt.
Paul didn't seem to notice. His focus rested entirely on me. He approached slowly, again with exceeding care. Taking the paper from me, he glanced at it and gave it back, pain and sympathy his entire expression.
"He's not there anymore." Paul said and then lifted up his shirt. Three long jagged scars marred his rib cage. "Matt's in Calumet in a ward for the criminally insane. He tried to kill me."
It was a silence he created, letting his words and the sight of his body sink in.
She reached out and touched the scars. Her hair hiding her face as she bent to study them, tracing the thick silvery threads with a feather touch. I turned slightly, so she couldn't see the flooding desire washing up through me in a fast, heated flash. For me, sex had always been about comfort and acceptance. The trust a woman gave when she brought you into her. I knew Jean wasn't offering that, but her actions were so unconsciously intimate.
When I turned, she saw the other scars along my side and back. "He stabbed me three times while I was sleeping before I could react. I never even threw my hands up. I had no idea it was my brother. On instinct, I rolled out of the way and grabbed a lamp. I hit him with it and he crumbled. I hit him two more times before I realized who it was."
I stopped talking. Her cool fingers were still pressed against my skin as she looked up. It was incredibly erotic, that moment, her lips like an offering, her eyes engaged.
"You shouldn't look at me like that. My sister doesn't like it." She said.
Completely processing her words was beyond me. But, "I'm sorry." I said, unable to tear away my gaze or stop myself from cupping the side of her face. I had to touch her.
And then I couldn't see. It was as if water poured into my eyes, overflowing, rivering out across my face. "What's, what's happening?" I stumbled back, cluttered onto the bed, pressed my palms against my eyes as if that could stop the flow.
"Oh my God. I don't know." She said as the water continued to blind me getting into my nose now, my mouth. I panicked, swearing, flailing . She must have rushed to the bathroom because she shoved a towel against my eyes. "Try to calm down." She said. But I couldn't tell if she was talking to me or herself. "It'll be Ok. It'll stop." She said, her hand on my back, patting me as if I was some little boy with a bloody nose. I almost started to laugh at its ineffectiveness.
But then the torrent stopped as suddenly as it started.
My shirt was soaked ice. My face and eyes swollen a blotchy tomato. The water had been freezing. What do you say after something like that? What the hell do you possibly say?
She dabbed my face with the towel. The concern and sympathy I wanted out of her before lacing her every current action. "You mustn't ever look at me like that again." She said. A shell of forced serenity dropping from her mouth.
And it dawned on me that she'd lived with this type of phenomenon for a long time now.
"Jessie's very angry." She said.
Paul held my hand. My gaze moved to it, away from the towel which rested in my lap. He was in one piece. I was in one piece. The incident had passed.
But his hand was cupped over mine. I studied this. The warmth and weight, the blue-green veins branching over his tan skin like an aerial map of a river and its tributaries, his fingers pressed into my palm. His hands were so much larger than mine. It made me feel like I could hide there, a little white dove in her straw nest. If I didn't move no one could see me blending in. Then I thought, he could probably crack my bones with one good squeeze.
"It makes it easier." I said.
"What does?" He stared at his shoes.
"The scars. Thank you for showing me."
I felt odd. Bold. The strangeness of the situation giving me a peculiar license. Outside, I could hear the steady rain begin. And I thought, it's never going to stop. I'd never see the sun again. It was frightening how Ok I was with that. So I did the last decent thing I could think to do. I took my hand back.
"I wish he'd marked your face." I said, holding his tragic, beautiful eyes until they dropped. "Then maybe you wouldn't need what you think you do from me. I can't forgive you Paul…because it wasn't you."
I left then. Smiling as the water fell on me because it was so appropriate. As girls, Jess and I would rush out into the rain every chance we got to swing, to splash around, to play ball. We loved it. Mom thought we were nuts, she'd yell at us to come in before we'd catch our deaths. We pretended not to hear.
I felt that same lightness now as I did then. I had a name. I had a location. But, all I really had to do was live and die. I didn't owe anyone anything.
Not a notice. I fetched my keys, my purse.
Not a goodbye. I got into my car and turned over the engine.
Not to a friend. Driving away, I saw Ray in the rearview mirror.
Not even to my sister. I blew right past the crossroads.
At that instant, I knew I didn't have to go to Calumet. I didn't have to confront Jessie's killer. He'd taken enough from me.
And a friend would understand that. And so would Jess.
I tied my shoelaces at 5 o'clock in the morning. I stepped outside and immediately lost my jacket. The weather was a mild seventy degrees, decorated in a mist that should clear up into baby blue by eight.
Leave it to Jessie to prove she's smarter than me.I laughed out loud. I thought I was so clever picking Olympia, Washington as my new home town. It had the largest number of rain day over three decades in the United States, so maybe I wouldn't stick out, I reasoned.
But apparently the rain queen's return to cloud city would be heralded by sun. Since my move here two months ago, it had been uncharacteristically bright, my sister choosing to manifest in the guise of a leaky faucet. A ceaseless small drip, a continuous reminder whether I listened to it or not.
"I'm here, here, here, here."She said. Smarter than you too, she implied.
Instead of driving me crazy, I took it all as a good sign. I could feel the sun on my face again. I could escape the sound of the drip during the day and shut it out in sleep at night.
The dreams became fewer and farther between too. I started thinking about Paul often, and there wasn't any pain, any flashes of violence when I did, only a desire to lift the weight from his eyes, to talk to him the way I'd started talking to my sister.
"Isn't it better to let it go? To be in this moment-right here, right now. I wish you could experience what I'm experiencing. The morning. The way the light is slanting in making the mist a golden haze through the green leafing trees, the wet black road winding around a bend to a place outside yourself. A good place."I'd like to say or better yet show him, show them both.
But it wasn't like I had his address or his phone number. I hadn't pried into his life the way he had mine. But still.
It would have been good for him to know what I felt I was beginning to know. It would have been nice to have someone to talk back to me, someone who had a chance of understanding what it was like to feel happy and to be terrified of that happiness all at the same time—how when happiness first came back it was angry. Wrestling a bear angry, a drunk slapping a cop—outlandish self-preservation.
Like you know you don't deserve to be happy…or maybe it's more like, how can you be happy when you know what's out there? When you know that at this moment, somewhere, some unspeakable wrong is happening.
But you are. Happy. Something as simple as wild violets and a morning walk or a glimmering mist or damnable good cup of coffee making it start. What a fragile, stubborn feeling, because you don't want it to fade into the waiting sadness, the gapping mouth willing you to add to the unspeakable wrong.
Paul. Maybe he'd get it. No matter how many times I tried to explain, my sister didn't. She just quieted down.
"It happened…happened…happened."She keeps saying.
When I return to the house I head for the sink. I'm hot. Thirsty. My gaze flirts on the knife on the counter. I flash on Jess's white face molting and bobbing to the surface. "Happened." She repeats.
I turn my gaze to the green trees outside my window. Curl my tongue to the roof of my mouth and breathe deliberately. One of the little tricks I picked up from an arm chair psychology book. It helps slow my racing heart.
"I know." I answer. "I won't forget."
I turn the faucet on. Fill a glass of water.
"But I won't sacrifice myself to it either." I take a drink. Watch the faucet. For a minute it stops.
When it starts again I walk away and work on being angry.
With a polite but firm thud, the door to Jean's parents' house closed. Jean was safe but didn't want to be contacted any further. She'd been through enough and said all she had to say. So had her parents.
I turned around and squinted my eyes at the bright afternoon sun. Illumination could hurt. I should have brought my sun glasses but hadn't. I'd walked to the house from the hotel and I'd have to walk back. So, I kept my head down and meditated on the sidewalk, on the lace of dancing shadows in the shape of leaves from overhanging trees and my own retreating outline. Shape with no substance. It was fitting. It's what I'd been doing for months, going through motions, keeping busy, procrastinating—not accomplishing a thing.
All around me was green grass, black road, and quiet houses. I could talk to the families of the other victims, but I'd gotten my confirmation. Jean Ided Matt when she recognized me. Matt had killed all those women. The Ardane murders belonged to my twin. A sinking, terrifying thought that I didn't want to accept even if I'd suspected. I had no reason to stick around town anymore. Jean wasn't coming back. The choices were simple. I could believe her, believe the crazy phenomena I'd witnessed or not. I could believe Matt was a killer or not. Live in denial or face my own personal demon.
The shadows of the tree leaves started to take on a sinister bend, surrounding my elongated form, a multitude of tiny hands tugging, pulling, suffocating. I hated to think about Matt. It blackened my thoughts like spilt ink disfiguring a picture. He use to be so normal. He use to be like me.
The thought of his flat, emotionless gaze with its too big pupils and its way of staring without really seeing made me cringe. Talking to him now was like talking to a pod person. The outer shell was Matt, but inside he was all different. Talking to him was like being a shipwrecked sailor drifting in an ocean of water, dying from thirst. What you needed was right there, but it was tainted.
When Matt came back from the military I blamed his change on post traumatic stress, on drinking and drug use. Never, ever mental illness. I kept thinking he'd bounce back. He'd come around.
But he never did.
When I got to the hotel I checked out. I knew I had to visit Matt and get him to confess.
Living in denial was too costly. I thought about Jean, all those people hurt and still hurting because of Matt.
I couldn't change the past but I could do the right thing now.
" Smacks of S&M, huh?" I glanced down at the cloth restraints anchoring my arms around my body, another set tying my ankles to a bed alarm. "Maybe we need a safe word?" I suggested.
Paul grimaced, unamused. "Maybe you shouldn't try to kill yourself and the restraints wouldn't be necessary."
I turned my head. It bothered me to stare at my own face, telling me what I should and should not do. "Suicide, that's a good safe word. Might be the safest word I know. For everybody."
Paul pulled up a chair, ignored the obvious truth, "Don't say that."
I tugged at the cloth, tried to make it bite into my skin. It wouldn't cut. It wouldn't break. It didn't affect my circulation. How inhumanely, humane. "What do you want?"
"I was going through your room, packing up, when I found a bus ticket to Ardane." Paul knew how to talk to me, how to ask without asking. "Those families deserve some kind of closure, some semblance of peace."
"I'm thirsy. These horse pills they have me on make my mouth dry as hell. It was never this bad in the desert, even in the hole. At least I could pick up a pebble and suck on it when the water ran out. Here you beg and nobody's around, always too busy. But not too busy to tie your f*ing arms together like you're an fricken stuffed bear." I said.
Paul shot up. Poured ice water into a glass, lifted my head.
With a twinge, I drank. Greedily, like an infant, more than a little humiliated… but there'd been much worse in my past, so I wasn't about to get girlish now. Help was help. Period.
Cool water trickled down my throat. Zero relief. I wanted the taste of sand. I dragged my tongue under my teeth, wishing for something gritty. Paul didn't know what he was asking of me. He wanted me to let the past loose. Let the present the doctor's had been so carefully pointing me at with drugs and technique, burn out.
But Paul was my brother. He had my face. He had eyes that use to be my eyes before the beetles and the scorpions and the pit and the bombs and the piss and the screams. And before that switch in my brain clicked and I started to like it. Felt pretty natural. Felt pretty good. A red haze of adrenaline shutting down right and wrong bringing the world to basic. Why buck instinct?
"If I tell you, you have to promise me you'll make them take the restraints off." I said. What I was really saying was 'You have to let me kill myself if I want to.'
Paul nodded, "That shouldn't be hard. My bet it's illegal how they have you trussed up." He put a handheld tape recorder on the end table and sat back. I steeled myself. Watched the ceiling get closer, whishing it would fall and smother me.
"You're right. I went to Ardane." I said. "I stayed the year. But that's not what you want to know." I stared at Paul then, long enough to make him squirm. If I was going to suffer, he was going to suffer. Time he recognized what was what in his butter white bread life. Once I was sure he knew this story would be putting him on the hook instead of letting him off, I continued.
"It started on a filthy hot day. Where it's an oven outside. Ardane's sand and rock, so it was dusty, made me remember, and I guess that put me on edge. I was flashing. I'd look at something ordinary and it would remind me of something real bad. You know how people see faces in clouds? I was seeing shit in everything. I don't even know how I got to the quarry but I got there. I sat at the lip and stared down at the water welling up from the flat, jagged rock—to me it looked like a body blasted apart, blood pooling up from the center, bone shards piercing up through skin. Things like that…once you see them, you can't get rid of it; always comes back.
There was blood in my ears, drumming loud and thick, and I thought I should just dive off the rocks and miss the water. How great that would be, crack my neck, sink in the hole and it would all just shut up. Done and cold and the water would drag me to the bottom. I didn't do it. I could have, but I didn't.
Instead, I glanced away and lit on the garbage. Beer cans, cigarette butts, chip bags, place was littered. A real trash can. It made me sick. How can people shit things up like that? Rip a hole in the ground in the name of progress and when that resource is gone, they pack up, move out, let the shit lie. But worse they got to piss on it. By accident, these people have a decent place to swim so what do they do? Piss on it. Throw their shit everywhere.
In the middle of this, I see this girl. Pretty as hell. And she's picking up the garbage. I'm angry, flashing and she's picking up the garbage like it's going to make a difference, like she can cover up the crap and make it all beautiful again. And that makes me hot. I mean I'm on fire.
I tell her to stop. I tell her it's a lie.
But she don't hear me. Damn headphones plugging her ears. Noise, noise. People are so stupid. She don't even look up. Gorgeous as hell.
That's about when it happened…can't explain it. It just happens. Like a storm. Like breathing. Part of who I am now…you understand, it's instinct?"
I search Paul's face wishing he'd get it, what I'm trying to say. But he doesn't. So I skip the next part.
"When she's dead, I give her to the quarry because that's where I wanted to be." I finish the story. I guess I'm crying.
"Don't ask me for details. I like remembering the details. I know what I did. I know I was crazy, am crazy. Brief moments of lucidity don't count for sanity-they count for torture."
This time, Paul get's it.
His hands shaking, he asks. "Do you know her name?"
"No. But I killed five other girls the same way before I came home and tried to kill you. I don't remember much. It was a bad time." I said. "Thing is, I thought I was doing them a favor. I still sort of do."
Paul leaves. Doesn't say anything. I watch him then look back at the ceiling. "Fall, fall, fall, fall, fall…" I whisper, over and over again. I like the sound of it, the wish, the whoosh, my voice, the blank slate above. An hour. Two. Three. Then lose track.
Maybe I sleep, maybe I don't but at some point tiny hairline cracks begin to spiderweb like an etch-a-sketch across the white. "Nurse." I whisper.
The cracks get bigger.
"Nurse." I yell louder.
Water hisses out, a small stream and dribbles on my face. "Nurse." I scream and then louder. A bit of drywall speckles down with the trickle. "Somebody help me god damn it…"
When the staff finally arrives I'm littered with debris, my gown is damp, and in the corner I swear is the last girl I took.
It had been a long day on the back of a grueling week. I felt like a sensitive plant that had been touched so many times that it lost its ability to pull its fronds back. A job at the local supermarket wasn't the best fit for me but it paid the bills and I knew I shouldn't complain with so much rampant unemployment. But several full timers had been sick or on vacation and a rosary string of ten hour days on my feet, checking out endless groceries, as people flashed by with their little light bulbs of personality at turns dim and crabby to giddy and bright left me used up tender. People had too many tales to tell and for whatever reason they loved to tell me. 'A face you could talk to', 'a priest in a former life', 'someone who makes even the misfits fit in,' I mused over the descriptions my friends had for me with derision and tore off my clothes and headed for the shower.
The good thing was, I hadn't thought about Jess much. No time to feel sorry for myself and I liked that but…at the same time I was anxious, raw. One sweet old lady told me about her husband's funeral. She'd had tears in her eyes as she'd fumbled through her coin purse. There'd been a decapitation on the highway and everyone talked about that. Lots of people out of work and paying with food stamps, lots of people with crazy lovers and mother's of people with crazy lovers and parents with too sharp voices for misbehaving children. So much noise and unhappiness. A few individuals would come in smiling, on vacation, visiting with friends or family, but mostly I saw and heard burdens. I'd never been good at shaking that off.
In the shower, I tried to practice mindfulness, to let everything go and just feel. I breathed in deep, closed my eyes, let the sensations engulf me. The water flowing, racing, trailing over my skin. I breathed out, opened my eyes. The hot steam clouding and rising around me, enveloping in its own moist heat, the diadems clinging to the shower screen glimmering. I set a pattern of breathing, of clearing my thoughts, of replacing them with warmth, safety, solace, the clean flowery scent of soap. Images of dead chickens kept interrupting. I couldn't stay focused—today's last story fresh in my mind.
The conversation had started simple enough. I made a friendly comment on what a great sale there was on eggs. The man in line looked like a farmer, John Deere hat, dirty work boots, muddy shirt. I should have known better than to open my mouth. Looking stricken, he told me about how a raccoon had gotten into his hen house and killed sixty of his laying hens. He had to give the other twenty away because he knew from past experience that once coons got in they'd always find a way in, tear off a screen, dig under the coop, find a small opening in a wall and widen it. He described the massacre in detail. I could almost smell it.
I gave up on the shower and decided sleep would be the better cure. Black it all out. I was weary enough but I knew I'd need a nudge. I hit the sheets with a paperback, a trashy romance novel. For me, reading in bed was better than a sleeping pill. Black ink, day to bleed to dreams, and I'd be gone.
Night. The grass is green and wet, cool on my bare feet. The moon is full, my eyes adjusted to the dim light enough to notice the dew gleam. I'm headed for the barn. It's old, peeling red paint revealing weathered wood. I'm in a white shift. So overly aware of the breeze on my body, of how smooth my skin feels, the feathery soft touch of the air sliding along my legs billowing up and under the shift, my core beginning to pulse, my body responding. A pagan night, I think, nature itself the seducer. As I'm moving towards the barn, I see the silhouette of the man I only now realize I'd been rushing out to see. Paul's dark gaze scans my body. The shift is see-through, gossamer and he's tracing the outline of my heavy breasts with his eyes and down. When I get close enough and he grasps me and pushes me against the wall to lean his whole body against mine and take my lips and give me his kiss, I'm ready, accepting. He holds me up as much as the wall, hard, smooth lines. His hands travel, caressing, kneeding, grasping my bottom to bring the thin material of my clothing against his rough jeans, a rhythm being set with our tongues as we continue to kiss as we begin to show each other what we'd like to do. I whimper and he groans into my mouth when we both hear it and freeze. A growl.
And then I remember. I didn't come outside to meet Paul. I heard noises; it woke me that's why I'd left my bed. An acrid stench makes me step back. The temperature drops. The humid heat breaks into a slow falling snow. I can see my breath. I can see Paul's. Still breathing heavily, he drapes his jacket over me, zips it up. Suddenly, it's like I can see myself, like I'm watching a movie.
"What was that?" Paul asks, rubbing his arms.
The dazed look in my eyes snaps into sudden knowledge.
"A raccoon. It must have gotten to the chickens." I say and race for the coop next to the barn. The screen is torn, bent. Inside there is blood, feathers, innards. Feed bags are dumped and torn into. Pails lay tipped over. Feces are smeared on the floor, the walls. Gagging, I stumble outside. Paul follows.
"It didn't even eat them. It just ripped them up. For the fun of it." I say.
And then I'm not with Paul anymore. I'm with Jess.
"Yeah. It did. And you know once it finds a way in. It'll keep coming back. No matter how hard you try to protect yourself." She says.
I woke with a start. Sweat damp and sticking to my underwear and t-shirt, my heart pumping so hard it ached. The phone was ringing. I threw the novel at my side on the floor and picked up the phone. The clock on the nightstand blinked 9 o'clock. I'd only been sleeping for a half-hour and I felt like I was still swimming for the surface, laden and groggy.
"Hello." I managed.
"Jean. It's Paul. I hope you don't mind that I got your number from your parents. Can I come over? I have to see you. It's important."
"You know where I live?" A flurry of panic hit the pit of my belly; it must have laced my voice. Why would my parents give him my number, my address?
"Yes. I'm sorry." He sounded guilty. "I know you don't want to be bothered and I respect that, but this is very important."
The dream was still with me, disturbingly vivid. I didn't want to see Paul. I didn't want to dream about Paul. To be sexually attracted to him was unacceptable and sick. He had the same face as his brother. The face of a killer.
"You can tell me what you have to tell me on the phone." I said.
There was a long pause. "I got Matt to confess to Jessica's murder. I got it on tape. The police are verifying the details. But what I have to say next is bad. Please can I come over." He said.
My throat felt dry, constricted. "No." I held firm.
He took a breath. "He escaped. Matt escaped."
"Come over." I said and hung up. My heart that had been wildly fluttering like the wings of a captured bird became still as a stone.
Eventually, I glanced out the window. I wasn't surprised to see it raining in long, fierce sheets.