I. THE SPECIALIST
That girl washed up in St. Clair last night, frozen stiff and light as the snow we dragged her through. Her mouth was locked into a gasp, baby teeth pink from asphyxia, wide eyes gone bruise-toned and milky. I knew from that first glimpse on the riverbank that it was her. Even through the distortion of bloat, her little belly distended and chest radiating purple, we all knew. Had to get up close to take our examination shots, a group of grown men shakily huddled around something so small and lifeless. Rob remarked how much she looked like his daughter, how he’d been thinking it from the day he first saw her missing poster at the grocery store. How now he could see so clearly what his girl would like, full of water and rigor mortis-ed. They called her father to come down and identify her, and his heaving, throaty wails rang in my head for hours afterward. Thank Christ none of our crime scene photos ever got out. The only people who had to see her like that were my crew, her father, and God.
My uncle, the go-to coroner over in Port Huron, said he damn near cried when he had to shave her curls to get a better look at her scalp. Forty years in the business, and he’d never seen anything like that. Three chop wounds to her skull, all from behind, all antemortem, likely from an axe or machete. Evidence of internal bleeding and severe bruising to the abdomen, indicating repeated blunt force trauma. Pulmonary edema and freshwater debris in her stomach pointed to her being alive when they tossed her in the lake, though it was impossible to say whether the injuries or the water were the thing that got her in the end. It was a homicide, pretty cut and dry; no one gets those injuries on accident. No evidence of sexual assault, thank god, though that opened up a whole new line of questioning at the department regarding motive. Who? How? Why? My job was done as soon as we loaded her onto the gurney and sent her away, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor kid.
She had a face made for milk cartons, that one. I’d been seeing her with my morning cereal for weeks, those pearly whites grinning at me as I scarfed raisin bran. MISSING: MOLLY WOODS. In the car, they mentioned her on the rock station that came in over the border. – Missing Molly Woods. Outside, on every lamppost: – Missing Molly Woods. On the 7 o’clock morning news: – Missing Molly Woods. Even now, her name has the prefix to it in my head. Little Miss Missing, Lake Huron’s unwilling starlet. Our very own JonBenèt.
When the news broke that she was dead, it got the whole Great Lakes region talking about her. You couldn’t go anywhere, turn on anything, without hearing people whispering about what might have happened. Starting up rumors, coming up with their own revolting hypotheses. When the true circumstances got out, all the brutality and senselessness, it went national both here and up north. Everyone loves a manhunt, sure, but more than that, they love a dead little girl. They want to hear about her, clutch their chests and wonder what is this world coming to as they shove every grisly detail down their throats. Then they get greedy, throw that old dead girl away when she starts to rot in the news cycle. She wasn’t enough. No, they want worse next time. Want true fucking horror. If it bleeds, it leads! If it’s under four feet, the story’s got meat!
The nightly news did a feature on Molly a week after we fished her out, interviewing her parents in their living room. Behind them, there was this big ceramic cross stuck on the wall with little lambs and doves painted on it. It was all I could focus on, as her mother droned through empty, scripted grief with unfocused eyes. I wondered how many of these they’d already had to do, how many more would come. How often they’d have to relive the moment, how many times they could say we know she’s in a better place before they stopped believing it. I know where she is because I saw her go there. It’s a hole in the goddamn ground, stuffed in a pale pink baby coffin, loaded with sculpting wax and formaldehyde to keep her pretty a few days longer. Makes me sick.
After a few minutes of torturous platitudes, the camera crew panned around her bedroom for a good minute, zooming in on her play jewelry and toys and books while some voiceover recounted her murder for the hundredth time that night. When they showed a drawing she made of her family, all multicolored stick figures with scribbled, backwards names, stuck to the wall, I shriveled up in my recliner. She could barely hold a pencil yet. The creeping realization that I too was a voyeur there, eyes pinned on the screen and hungry to count every little thing she’d lost, had me up and retching over the toilet bowl for an hour. I couldn’t stop thinking about her eyes, how gummy and soft they’d gone once her body warmed up in the ambulance. Four years old. Four goddamn years old. I puked until all that came up was chartreuse bile.
It just got worse. I had to clean out my fridge, toss the perfectly good milk that still had her picture on it. When I went to get a new one, seeing those other kids’ faces, knowing they might be floating naked in a river somewhere, was like a blender to the belly. I ran out, left my cart in the aisle, and drove home in a haze, eyes burning with sweat. Whenever I saw a kid outside, I instantly envisioned them bloated and waterlogged, replacing their happy little smiles with gaping jaws and rotten tongues. My jawline was soft-stubbled, coming up on a beard because I couldn’t bear to grab my razor. I just thought of those machete chops, the uneven slits revealing her still-developing skull. Even basic tasks like washing the dishes became impossible because when my fingers pruned up all I saw were the ripples of her palms, skin bleached and bunched like gray matter from her time submerged. Missing Molly Woods. She was everywhere.
It’s not like dead bodies were new to me; I scrounged them up for a living. I’d even seen little kids before, just like her, all manner of destroyed and decayed at my feet. It shouldn’t have been any different this time. After a week of uselessness, they put me on leave and told me to see a shrink, and I started to hate her for it: What made Molly so special? Thousands of babies die every day, everywhere. She wasn’t unique, didn’t deserve all this time in my head. I got angrier and angrier at her. She wasn’t my fucking kid, so she wasn’t my fucking problem. Why couldn’t I convince myself of that? I punched a hole in my cheap drywall one night, drunk and fuming, and then I did it more and more and more until I knocked into a stud and my knuckles bled, and even then I just kept on going. Imagined I was killing the memory of her, which made me feel a little better until I realized that was just as evil as killing her outright. Made me the same as whoever did it to her. Made me understand what they must have felt, the relief and then the crushing regret they felt staring at the mess. That the guilt still didn’t quite outweigh what was lifted off my shoulders in that spurt of violence.
I started sleeping better, the horrible man that I am.
II. THE MOTHER
I prayed to God to make it hurt more.
Molly was a difficult child from conception. She always seemed to twist away during ultrasounds, hiding from the camera. We didn’t know her sex until she came out at 33 weeks, too small for her newborn clothes, in a sudden, random burst. I had preeclampsia at the time, bedbound and in talks for early induction, when she slid right out. We didn’t even have time to call 911. One moment, I was watching TV, and the next I was a mother. She just happened, let out three little wails and then shut right up. In that beautiful moment when my teary-eyed husband put her in my arms, when everything was supposed to come together, be worth it–
There was nothing. I felt nothing for her.
During her time in the NICU, we visited every day. I thought it would get better, once the shock wore off and it finally registered that she was mine. When that didn’t work, I assumed that once she latched, then the bond would kick in. After a week in the ward, she was ready. With her at my breast, finally eating and looking so soft and peaceful, I held my breath and waited for the flood of oneness to overtake me. It never came. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong; every book told me this would be magical, intense, life-changing. Instead, it felt more like buying a new piece of furniture; novel at first, sure, but quickly dissolving into ordinariness. Just another thing to manage and take care of. Even disgust, rejection, or anger would have been better than ambivalence. Those implied a passion I simply did not have. She was fine. It was all just fine.
What made it worse were her father’s reactions to her newfound presence in our lives. Where I was under-enthusiastic, he was too much. His eyes welled up every morning as she ate, staring intently at her and I. – I just can’t believe it, he’d say. – I can’t believe she’s real. All day, he held her tiny hands and let her sleep in his arms, watching the rise and fall of her chest with such an incredible wonder in his eyes. He soothed her increasingly frequent tantrums, patiently sitting through the overdramatic shrieks until she calmed. My husband doted on her every whim and cared about nothing else. It was fine by me; it meant he took care of her for the most part. I didn’t mind sitting out on his affections if it got me some peace.
When I was ready to get back to work, he fielded the idea of quitting his job and becoming a stay-at-home dad. It shocked him, I think, how easily I agreed. He was impressed that I was willing to go full-time so soon after my delivery; I had more paid maternity leave, but I just wanted to get out of the house and away from my daughter. I felt like I couldn’t breathe with her around all the time, always needing. Abstractly, I felt affection towards her, but in practice found myself failing. She just wasn’t the best thing in my life. It sounds horrible to say, I know, but it’s the truth. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to be a mother. I thought I’d love it, thought it would make me complete, but I felt the same as I always had. All she did to change my life was make it noisier and smellier. I liked her, but I didn’t love her.
As she grew, she had this uncanny sense of how to be cute. Sort of a sickly, pale little thing, but so goddamn precious. Everyone wanted to pinch a little color into her cheeks, give her treats, coo at her and clap at her childish dance routines. She was every preschool teacher’s favorite, despite her outbursts. She knew all the precocious, funny things to say, how to really play up her dimples when she smiled, how to cough sweetly and cry adorably when she skinned her knee. It was an intrinsic knowledge for her. As soon as she understood what liking meant, she wanted to be liked— by me, most of all. Maybe it was just because I was at work every day, that my attention was rarer than her father’s, or that she could sense my distance and needed to close it. Whatever the reason, she glommed onto me, demanded everything I had to give from the second I pulled into the driveway.
My husband was oblivious to my lack of maternal instinct. He never once noticed my discomfort around her, my apprehension, the way I looked at her and saw a stranger. I never told him about my feelings, afraid that he would see me differently as a result, but I always assumed that one day it would come to light. That he’d finally pay a nanosecond’s attention to me and see it laid bare. I never hid it, but he never looked in the first place. He assumed we were on an even plane of loving her. God, I wished we were. That’s the thing: I wanted so badly to love her. I desperately wished I could see her the same as my husband. His ignorance spurred my regret and jealousy on further, until I had a hard time even coming home at night after work. I didn’t want to see either of them, the two things that had ruined my life. Admitting it, the callousness of that truth, left me wounded and guilt-ridden for days. It didn’t change my feelings.
We took her to the same park where we celebrated her fourth birthday a few months earlier on a sunny, snow-melting Saturday. We sat under the pavilion, eating sandwiches from home and drinking Gatorades from the vending machine. Molly asked if we’d decided on whether or not she could join ballet, her obsession of that week courtesy of a picture book my mother gave her. This started my husband and I back onto the argument we’d been having ever since she first asked; ballet is expensive, and she had no idea whether or not she’d actually like it. It might be a total waste of money. My husband, of course, took her side and insisted it’d be good for her. We argued like that for a while as she sat silent, eating her food calmly. When she got bored of the back-and-forth, she asked if she could go play on the jungle gym. 50 feet away, all in clear view from our table. My husband could see her right over my shoulder. It was nothing. No problem.
– Sure, honey, I said. – Just be careful.
– I will!
– Love you, Molls, he called out to her as she ran off. She didn’t reply. We went back to arguing, not knowing that was it. That her last memory of her parents was going to be the two of us in a hushed fight over finances.
The cops descended on the location an hour after that, scouring every inch of the park, hoping for a glimpse of her towhead’s hair under a bench or in a dugout. Nothing. I chain-smoked under the pavilion with shaky hands as my husband joined in the search. There is no fear quite like that in the world; in a sick way, it was sort of nice. It finally made me feel like a mother, panicked and queasy over her. Still, I expected her to turn up. She had to be somewhere. We were only a little ways away from her. How could she get out of my husband’s view long enough for something to happen? He was meant to be watching her. He was the one who took care of her. God knows I did my best, but always, I was the one turned away. The one she couldn’t see the face of. The one who never saw her at all.
When her body turned up, I sobbed for hours and hours, trembling in my husband’s arms. He shushed me, soothed me. Told me it was okay. Told me she was somewhere better. I cried like a mother, yes, but it didn’t make me one. Something had been wrong with me from the start. She was mine, with my nose and her grandmother’s hair and her uncle’s crooked ears. Every piece of her was my reflection, but even in death, I could not love that child. So yes, I cried, but not for what I had lost. For what lay ahead.
For the relief, and for the guilt it wrought.
III. THE FATHER
My wife was at work when they called the home phone to tell us our baby was found in the St. Clair River. I tried calling her over and over again, first on her personal line and then to the front desk attendant. He informed me that she was out, but that he’d take a message for when she returned.
– They found her, I choked out. Tell her they found Molly.
– Oh, thank God, he sighed. That’s so good to h-
– She’s no longer with us. I won’t be home until 5; I need to drive out and ID her. Please let my wife know. Before the poor man could launch into his apologies, I hung up and saved us both the trouble. My mouth felt alien, unruly, as if someone else had said those words a moment ago, was controlling my body as I grabbed my keys and drove in blank-minded silence. I was at least glad that it was just me going, so my wife wouldn’t have to see. It would have destroyed her, seeing our daughter like that. I didn’t know if she’d ever be okay again. That’s why it was good that it was me alone. I could be strong for both of us.
When I got to the riverbed, the crew there had me walk up to the gurney on the ground, covered in a big plastic tarp. I steeled myself with clenched fists and held breath, staring down at the outline of my daughter. Stupidly, I began to pray for a mixup, asking God to please, please let it be someone else’s child under here. Let it be a mistake. Let my girl come home. They lifted the sheet just enough for me to see her face, folding the plastic down just over her shoulders the way I always tucked her into bed. It was no mistake. Through the damage, I saw my daughter. What remained of her. I squeezed my eyes shut before I could dedicate her face to memory, before this dead Molly replaced the living one in my head. I nodded in the affirmative, and they covered her back up.
When I sank to my knees and screamed over her, hunching in on myself, no one did anything to stop me. They just froze and watched, some with teary eyes, as I crumpled into a fleshy heap of agony and grief. – My baby girl, I kept whispering. – My baby. My baby.
They drove me home, one of them taking his own vehicle and one driving my car for me since I was too messed up to see straight. I don’t remember what we talked about when I calmed down, but I do remember him veering to the shoulder and letting me out so I could puke in the ditch. When I climbed back in, I laid flat in the backseat and stared up at the padded roof of my SUV. Everything was quiet then, broken only by the occasional kicked-up pebble on the freeway, as heavy tears slithered down my temples and into the shells of my ears.
When I stumbled in the door, my wife was already at the table, waiting with wide, red eyes. She looked at me, taking in my disheveled clothing, blotchy and swollen face, the traces of vomit down the front of my shirt. We watched one another, silent in our mutual understanding of all now gone. What was there to say that we didn’t already know?
Our baby is in Heaven without us. Every modicum of my body pulses and stings with that knowledge. Parents shouldn’t outlive their babies. It’s against the natural order of things. To this day, there is no pain I have felt greater than this. My wife, small and cold and tremulous, fell into my arms and stayed there, screaming into my chest. – You’re okay, I said. – You’re okay. She’s in a better place. You’re okay. It was all I could think to say. The two people I loved most, each decayed in their own way. My girls. My world. Gone.
As hard as I tried to stay in control, to care for what remained of my family, the facade didn’t last long. Over and over again, we went through questioning with the police, then the media. Agents kept contacting us, talking about book deals and ghostwriters and leaving messages on our machine. They smelled blood in the water, money-grubbing sharks that they were. I deleted every single voicemail. No one was going to make a penny off my daughter’s memory. She wasn’t some sad story, some tearjerker for old ladies to pass around their book clubs. She was my child, my flesh and blood, my proudest achievement in life. I missed her horribly.
I spent days in bed, climbing out only when my wife went to work to lay on the floor of Molly’s room. No one was allowed to touch a thing in there, myself included; I stayed still on the little pink rug next to her bed, looking at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to her ceiling. I remembered putting them up there, how excited she was when we turned out the lights and they lit up seafoam green above us. She was always so neat, keeping her room tidy and insisting we do the same. After her death, the house was in disarray. I couldn’t bring myself to clean it anymore. Without her, I saw no reason to try. Let it clutter. She wasn’t there to help with her little purple broom anymore, singing the cleanup, cleanup, everybody clean up! tune from Barney. She would have been a great singer, I think, with her little voice so clear and sweet. My baby. She could have been anything. Now I’ll never get to know.
My wife began to resent me, then. She told me information about the case every night when she got home from work, all of which I could only answer with autopiloted hmms. She said they caught the guy. I was too weak to care. What was the point in justice now, after she was already dead? A just world wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place. Those were the thoughts that consumed me, stuck on the floor like a sick dog, laying and whining for her to get home and take care of me. My utter uselessness was more apparent each day as the piles stacked higher and my to-do lists grew longer. – This isn’t the man I married, she said.
– No, but it’s the man you had a kid with.
– Stop it! She’s gone, okay? Molly’s dead. Please. We can’t do this forever.
– I can.
She sighed, wiped the tears from her eyes, sniffled loudly, and clambered down on the floor next to me with creaky knees. She laid over me, resting her head on my chest and slinging an arm around me. – I wasn’t a good mother, she said after a long while. – I don’t know what I did wrong.
– Yes you were, I said. – You loved her. That’s what counts.
She sort of laughed at that before devolving into loose, ugly sobs. – I just want to be the way we used to be.
– I’m sorry.
– Me too. After a few agonizing minutes like that, she collected herself and stood, unsteady on her feet. – I’m gonna call and see if I can get some more time off work, okay? We’ll go to the hearing on Wednesday, and then we can try to get everything cleaned up and just. . . Work on this. Us. Everything.
– Okay, I muttered.
– I love you.
– I love you too.
Wednesday, then. I would hang on until Wednesday.
IV. THE PERPETRATOR
The first time I saw Molly was at the ER. She sat between what must have been her mother and her father, shivering and bright red with fever. Everything about her was angelic, even the way she rubbed snot on her sleeve. I had a tightly coiled bandage secured with duct tape around my finger to stem the bleeding and hold what remained of my finger in place. I slipped while chopping up brush out back, severing my pointer finger just above the second knuckle. When I pulled my hand away, glove frayed and split, the skin was just dangling there like something out of a cartoon. It hurt like hell and I was worried that the reattachment was growing more and more difficult with every minute spent waiting, but I was glad when they saw her first. – Molly? the nurse had called, and her father lifted her in his arms and took her back. She looked so frail, the poor thing; I certainly didn’t want her to suffer any longer on my account.
After a few hours, I walked out of that hospital with my finger sewn back in place and headed straight home to tell my mother about her.
– She looked just like those pictures of Aunt Beth you have in the living room. You know, the ones from ’34?
Her ventilator wheezed in reply.
– It was so weird. I looked at her, and I just felt this. . . kinship. Like in another life, we were twins or something. Like she understood me. I’ve never seen anyone so perfect. I wish you could have been there. You would have understood.
I took her hand, soft and papery, and held it with my right, keeping the injured left tucked away so she wouldn’t see and worry. On TV, we watched reruns of her soaps, though her eyes never opened. Deep down, I knew she heard and was laughing along with me in all the right spots, and I could almost hear it, so warm and joyous. I’m not crazy. Sometimes it’s just nice to pretend.
Two weeks later, while her nurse was over, I took a long, long walk. The house got crowded with all three of us in it, her big hospital bed and monitors taking up most of the front room and crowding me out. I liked to be outside during her checkups, stretch my legs and get some sun on my skin. When she was doing better, Mom always complained about how pale I was. Said it wasn’t healthy for a guy like me to be shut in all the time, that I needed to get out more. I took her advice to heart, so I tried to walk at least a couple times a week. My route usually took me out of my neighborhood, around the park, and halfway to the apartments at the edge of town. Even in the winter, it’s still a nice walk. You just need to watch for ice slicks is all.
As I was heading down past the park, whistling, I saw a streak of white-blonde flash down one of the slides, a color I’d only seen once. It stopped me altogether and I froze, scanning around and holding my breath. Was it really her? Why would she be here? The park was usually empty in November, but I suppose the day was quite nice, despite the chill; the sun melted most of the snow that morning, and it would be a few weeks before it got truly blistering. After a moment I saw her there, alone in a big purple coat, climbing up the jungle gym. Oh, Divine Providence.
– Molly? I half-whispered, leaning on the chain link fence next to the gate. She whipped around and looked at me, ruddy-cheeked from the cold against her almost translucent skin. – Is that really you?
– Yeah, she answered, tilting her head.
– Do you remember me? I asked.
She shook her head. It stung a little, that she didn’t notice me the way I noticed her back in the hospital, but it was okay. She was still so little. Maybe she just didn’t remember. We were connected, I could feel it. She’d understand soon.
– Come here, I said, gesturing her over. – I have something really cool to show you.
And God, she actually did. I didn’t know if it would work, or if she’d run off screaming to her parents about the stranger talking to her. I should have known she wouldn’t. She sensed it too. We were the same. I held my hand out to her, making sure not to show the still-healing scars in case they frightened her. She put her tiny palm in mine and we walked off without looking back. Her trust was astonishing. So pure, kind, innocent. Didn’t know any of the bad things that could happen to her.
We made it to my house in relative peace, ignoring the sirens in the distance, though her legs got tired halfway through. I resorted to carrying her on my back the last few blocks, where she rested her head on my shoulder and fell half-asleep. The nurse’s car wasn’t parked in the driveway anymore, so I figured it was safe, but we went in through the back anyway just to be sure. Luckily, everything was calm and quiet, as it should be. I set her down in the living room and helped her out of her coat and boots.
– This is Mom, I said, sitting in my chair next to her bedside. She walked over and sat in the chair opposite mine, on the other side of the bed with fewer monitors. – She’s sick right now, so she doesn’t talk much, but she can hear you. Say hi.
– Hi, Molly said, soft as anything.
– Mom, this is Molly. She’s my new friend, right?
– Yeah, Molly nodded. I reached over and grabbed a hard candy from the bowl on the table; when my nieces and nephews used to visit, she’d always give them candies from that bowl. I tossed a strawberry sucker over to her, which she gratefully took.
– She’s gonna be staying with us for a while. Her mommy and daddy said it was okay.
The machines wheezed and I saw her eyelids flutter just the slightest bit, which I took to mean she approved. She must have felt it too, then. How right it was for all of us to be here together as a happy family. I didn’t feel bad for telling that little lie, because it made them both feel better. Besides, I doubted her parents would seriously mind. They must have known something was wrong too when she was with them at home. Something that told them she wasn’t in the right place.
I set up a bed for Molly in the only place I had enough room: the closet next to the bathroom. Normally it was full of linens, but I tossed them all on my mother’s unused, non-medical bed to make room. I threw a pillow and a couple comforters down onto the floor and arranged it to be nice and cozy. It wasn’t a large space at all, but since she was still so small, it would work. She’d fit perfectly. After giving her some dinner, I showed her to her new room. She was displeased with it, unappreciative of my efforts, and her lip started to quake as she pouted, eyes welling up with fat tears.
– I wanna go home, she said.
– This is home for now, I answered, confused. Didn’t she see?
– No. I wanna go back to my real bed.
– I’ll think of something better soon, okay? For now, this is your bed. A dark irritation rose in me, chafing my throat like bile and souring my words. – Be grateful. You’ll be happier here. Now get in.
And again, the obedient child followed my orders and curled herself up in the closet. I folded the slatted door shut and hooked it in place, ensuring she couldn’t easily come barging out of it. I’d hear if she tried.
– Good night, Molly.
– Good night, she returned. I smiled down at her, even though it was too dark for her to see the gesture, kissed Mom goodnight, and went to my bed. We would all be happier now. We were a family again, as we must have been a long time ago. Everything was right in the world.
For a few days, our peace continued. Each morning I fed her and let her out into the house. She spent most of her time watching TV with Mom, curled up and chewing absentmindedly on her hair. I felt complete with her by my side, filling the spot opposite my own. We played games, did puzzles, ate ice cream and listened to the radio. Sometimes they talked about her, and I’d quickly flip the dial so she wouldn’t hear. I didn’t want her to know her parents were worried. That might scare her away.
When the nurse came, I took her into my room, gave her coloring books, and locked the door. It was the only room I was certain the nurse wouldn’t check, and Molly never got loud or tried to call attention to herself. At first, I was expecting her to try to run at every opportunity, but she surprised me with her adaptability. She had a gentle, accepting temperament, and adjusted quickly to our way of life. I should have known she would; the only reason I worried was because I doubted my instincts. Deep down, I knew she wouldn’t go anywhere. Why would she? She was home, and she felt it. We loved her, Mom and I. We took care of her. She helped me keep my temper in check, be a better man. I would help her too.
I thought so, at least. Maybe she took my kindness for granted. Maybe I got too cocky. I kept wondering afterwards what I could have done differently, if it would have changed anything. I didn’t want it to go the way it did.
One night, I was shocked out of sleep by a loud, hollow pounding sound and the clinking of metal. I ran out into the living room and saw chunks of the closet door on the ground, wooden slats kicked out from the inside. The frame of it remained locked, still held in place despite most of the actual door being gone. Just like my finger with the machete, it was barely holding on. Molly was free. The back door was wide open, letting snow blow into the kitchen. Her boots and coat were still by the counter. She wouldn’t have made it far.
Outside, I could see her little footprints in the snow as the motion-detecting light snapped on, all leading towards the shed. I followed them and found her there, pressed between the fence and the wall, with my machete in her hands.
– Go away, she cried, wrapping her hands tighter around the base of it. – Go away!
– Molly, be quiet, okay? I’m not gonna hurt you. Let’s just go back inside, and—
– No! I hate you! I wanna go home! I miss my real mommy and daddy!
– You don’t mean that, I stuttered, clenching and unclenching my fists. I stepped closer and she stood, holding the blade over her head and ready to strike. – Quit being ridiculous and get inside.
– Go away or I’ll kill you, she bit out, the harshness tempered by her juvenility, making it clear she was playing pretend, mimicking the TV.
– Alright, that’s enough. I stepped forward again and she swung, missing anything vital but searing a gash into the webbing between my thumb and pointer finger. Adrenaline took over and I grabbed her then by the neck, wrestling the machete from her hands. She squirmed and kicked and screamed against me, but I managed to get her to the ground and retrieve the weapon. I slammed my knee into her abdomen over and over again, trying to get her to quit wiggling. – You ungrateful little shit! I did all of this for you! Stop fucking squirming!
She stilled and stared up at me with wide, terrified eyes. I realized what I had done and loosened my grip just enough that she could properly breathe again.
– Molly, if I let you up, are you going to be good? I asked, enunciating every syllable. She nodded. Slowly then, I stood, helping her up with me. – Good. Thank you for calming down. I’m sorry if I hurt you. Let’s go inside now, okay? You must be freezing. I’ll make you some hot cocoa.
She nodded again and held my hand as we walked again to the back door. I gestured her in first, but she hesitated.
She looked up at me, jaw set hard, and made a break for the gate. Without thinking, I raised the machete and crashed it down on her head, knocking her face first into the snow. She spasmed and I thought it was her trying to get up again, so I drove the blade into her head once more, twice more, then threw it off to the side. I dropped down, breaths coming heavy from the exertion as my blood pressure stabilized. Her arms were splayed out like she was making a snow angel, blood steaming as it trickled and tinted a scarlet halo around her. Aside from little gargles and twitches, there was no sign of life. My hand was still gushing all over everything as I flipped her over, deluded into believing there might be some hope if I let her breathe. It only made me feel worse to see her face, remembering what it had looked like when she smiled and laughed. Now she never would again, all because of me. My temper. I did this to her. God help me.
I don’t remember much of what came next, everything a desperate, survival-rushed blur. Where my memory returns is at the end of an empty pier half an hour away from my home, looking down at her in my arms over the dark, churning lake. Her head was tilted towards the sky at the end of her limp neck, eyes half-open reflecting the stars, her tongue lolling out like a cartoon corpse. Miraculously, it looked like she was still breathing, though it may have been an illusion, wishful thinking, whatever you want to call it. I remember crying, apologizing as I removed the clothing that had my blood mingled with her own in case my DNA stuck. I counted to three, held my breath, and tossed her into the water, wincing at the sharp splash of impact. Under the light of the almost-full moon, I could see her bobbing with the frosty waves. The lake would freeze soon enough, and I hoped that maybe it would go over her, keep her concealed until the spring thaw. Buy me some time.
Even then, I knew that I deserved any punishment that could come my way. I’d killed an angel on earth, and I could imagine no greater sin. She was practically my flesh and blood, my sister in another time, my other half. I killed a piece of myself with her. Nothing could have been crueler. Still, I didn’t want to go down for this. I had to take care of Mom, of the house, of everything I had in my life. I didn’t want to die in jail.
I got out of there quick, not wanting to linger at the scene too long. I wrapped my hand up in duct tape, fought through the snow to bury her clothes a few miles away, then hurried home despite the near-blizzard obscuring my view. When I came in at long last, breathing a sigh of relief, I realized I could see my breath in the living room. It only took a moment of searching to figure out why: in my haste to dispose of Molly’s remains, I’d failed to close the back door. It’d been open for a couple hours, stealing the meager heat from inside and replacing it with pure late-November chill. A snowdrift had formed in the kitchen, piled almost up to the counter, with some even spilling into the hallway. I scooped enough out of the way to slam the door shut, leaving what remained to melt into the floor. There was no time to worry about it; I had to tell Mom what happened. I threw off my bloody clothes, stashed them in a corner, and sat down next to her bed in my boxers with a blanket over my shoulders. The tears were freezing against my cold-blistered cheeks.
– Molly’s gone. She tried to run and I. . . I killed her. Oh my god, I killed her. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I sobbed into the blankets and reached for her crepey hand, always a guiding light, always an easy way to soothe myself. But Jesus Christ, God above, Lord in Heaven, it was cold.
She was cold.
At 8 a.m. sharp, the nurse found me there, hunched over my mother’s corpse with my blood covering her bedsheets. She called 911, taking vitals as I shook in the corner, the house still freezing and snowy in spots. The cops came and took me into custody, locked up to the hospital bed as doctors stitched me up again. Involuntary manslaughter. Negligent homicide. My fault for not shutting the door, for letting my mother freeze to death. Killing someone half-dead is still murder. I knew it wouldn’t be long before they saw what I’d done to Molly, her hairs in the closet and blood in the snow. They shoved medicine down my throat in the hopes of clearing my stupor, to shake me out of catatonic silence and into the interrogation room. Still, I held my tongue. For two weeks, empty and quiet, I sat in a cell because I wouldn’t bond myself out. What was the point? They would know, soon enough, the scale of my crime. Orphaned at 46, without mother or distant sister, blonde dolly. Alone. It was what I deserved.
When she washed up, they identified her without issue. So much for her freezing over; everyone was talking about how the missing girl was found. It only took a day from then for them to charge me with her slaying; I don’t know when they searched my house or what exactly they found, but I gave up immediately and confessed. In a town of 2,500, why delay? It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing did. I wished we had the death penalty, despite it being out the door in 1846, so I could pay properly for my crime. I’d never kill myself, but Christ, I wanted to die in there. To feel what she felt. To pay my dues. Instead, it looked like life. That was fine too. Nothing left to live for outside anyways. I obediently took what I got, locked up in a lonely cell since I was now a “high-profile inmate,” the most hated man in the North. I was grateful no one ever relayed what they said on TV about me; what it must have looked like, for a man to destroy his mother and a little girl in the same night. They didn’t know what either meant to me. How important each was. How worthless a life alone was.
On Wednesday, two weeks after being charged, they dragged me from my cell and into the van, locked me up and took me to the courthouse for sentencing. When I stepped onto the sidewalk, guards holding me on either side, out-of-town press swarmed me, sticking cameras in my face and pressing microphones to my mouth, shouting all the while.
– Do you feel remorse for what you did?
– Did you love her?
– Why did you kill your mother?
– Is there anything you want to say to her family?
– What did it feel like?
– Would you go back if you could?
I closed my eyes and kept walking, letting the officers carry me along as I tried to breathe. A man slammed into me just as we got near the steps. The officers yelled at him to back up but he wouldn’t budge, leaning in close to me. He looked familiar, with eyes the color of dirty ice, slate gray and wide.
– Do you know who I am? he asked, voice soft and quiet against the background din of desperate reporters. I opened my mouth to respond, but he didn’t let me. The officers were still trying to shove him off, but he grabbed me by the collar and said, – I was her father.
Then there was a barrel in my mouth, screams, panic, camera flashes, and. . .
V. THE DEAD
— A.R. Vaive (any pronouns) is a writer hailing from Michigan and living in Pennsylvania. Her work has been featured in The Voidspace and is forthcoming in Mister Magazine and Celestite Poetry. She is currently working on her debut novel, attending college, and retweeting art @arVaive.