It was Jenny’s death that killed my mother. Killed her as good as if she’d been shot in the chest with a twelve-gauge shotgun. The doctor said it was the cancer. But I saw the will to live drain out of her the moment the policeman knocked on our screen door.
“It’s Jenny, isn’t it?” Mom rasped, clutching the lapel of her faded dressing gown.
“Ma’am, I don’t know how to tell you other than to say it straight.” The policeman spoke in the low-pitched melancholic tone he’d used moments earlier when he’d pulled up and told me to wait in the patrol car as its siren lights painted our house streaks of red and blue.
Despite his request, I’d slipped out of the back seat and rushed to Mom’s side as she turned on the front porch light and stepped onto the stoop, dazed from being woken late at night. I hugged her withered waist as he told her what he had to say. Her body shuddered at each word.
His jaw was tight under strawberry blond stubble and his light eyes were watery by the time he was done. He was a young cop. Visibly inexperienced in dealing with tragedy. He ran his knuckles across the corners of his glistening eyes and swallowed hard.
“I’m s-s-sorry for your loss, ma’am,” he stammered when there was nothing left to say. The finality of those words would reverberate through the years that followed.
But at that moment, as the platitudes still hung in the air, we stood on the stoop, staring at each other, uncertain what to do as we contemplated the etiquette of death.
I tightened my small, girlish arms around Mom’s waist as she lurched blindly into the house. Overcome by grief. I moved along with her. My arms locked around her. My face pressed against her hollow stomach. I wouldn’t let go. I was certain that I was all that was holding her up.
She collapsed into the lumpy cushion of the armchair. Her face hidden in her clawed-up hands and her shoulders shaking from soundless sobs.
I limped to the kitchen and poured her a glass of lemonade. It was all I could think to do. In our family, lemonade was the Band-Aid to fix life’s troubles. Mom’s teeth chattered against the glass as she tilted it to her mouth. She took a sip and left the glass teetering on the worn upholstery of her armchair as she wrapped her arms around herself.
I grabbed the glass before it fell and stumbled toward the kitchen. Halfway there, I realized the policeman was still standing at the doorway. He was staring at the floor. I followed his gaze. A track of bloody footprints in the shape of my small feet was smeared across the linoleum floor.
He looked at me expectantly. It was time for me to go to the hospital like I’d agreed when I’d begged him to take me home first so that I could be with Mom when she found out about Jenny. I glared at him defiantly. I would not leave my mother alone that night. Not even to get medical treatment for the cuts on my feet. He was about to argue the point when a garbled message came through on his patrol car radio. He squatted down so that he was at the level of my eyes and told me that he’d arrange for a nurse to come to the house as soon as possible to attend to my injured feet. I watched through the mesh of the screen door as he sped away. The blare of his police siren echoed long after his car disappeared in the dark.
The nurse arrived the following morning. She wore hospital scrubs and carried an oversized medical bag. She apologized for the delay, telling me that the ER had been overwhelmed by an emergency the previous night and nobody could get away to attend to me. She sewed me up with black sutures and wrapped thick bandages around my feet. Before she left, she warned me not to walk, because the sutures would pop. She was right. They did.
Jenny was barely sixteen when she died. I was five weeks short of my tenth birthday. Old enough to know that my life would never be the same. Too young to understand why.
I never told my mother that I’d held Jenny’s cold body in my arms until police officers swarmed over her like buzzards and pulled me away. I never told her a single thing about that night. Even if I had, I doubt she would have heard. Her mind was in another place.
We buried my sister in a private funeral. The two of us and a local minister, and a couple of Mom’s old colleagues who came during their lunch break, wearing their supermarket cashier uniforms. At least they’re the ones that I remember. Maybe there were others. I can’t recall. I was so young.
The only part of the funeral that I remember clearly was Jenny’s simple coffin resting on a patch of grass alongside a freshly dug grave. I took off my hand-knitted sweater and laid it out on top of the polished casket. “Jenny will need it,” I told Mom. “It’ll be cold for her in the ground.”
We both knew how much Jenny hated the cold. On winter days when bitter drafts tore through gaps in the patched-up walls of our house, Jenny would beg Mom to move us to a place where summer never ended.
A few days after Jenny’s funeral, a stone-faced man from the police department arrived in a creased gabardine suit. He pulled a flip-top notebook from his jacket and asked me if I knew what had happened the night that Jenny died.
My eyes were downcast while I studied each errant thread in the soiled bandages wrapped around my feet. I sensed his relief when after going through the motions of asking more questions and getting no response he tucked his empty notebook into his jacket pocket and headed back to his car.
I hated myself for my stubborn silence as he drove away. Sometimes when the guilt overwhelms me, I remind myself that it was not my fault. He didn’t ask the right questions and I didn’t know how to explain things that I was too young to understand.
This year we mark a milestone. Twenty-five years since Jenny died. A quarter of a century and nothing has changed. Her death is as raw as it was the day we buried her. The only difference is that I won’t be silent anymore.
A single streak of white cloud marred an otherwise perfect blue sky as Rachel Krall drove her silver SUV on a flat stretch of highway toward the Atlantic Ocean. Dead ahead on the horizon was a thin blue line. It widened as she drove closer until Rachel knew for certain that it was the sea.
Rachel glanced uneasily at the fluttering pages of the letter resting on the front passenger seat next to her as she zoomed along the right lane of the highway. She was deeply troubled by the letter. Not so much by the contents, but instead by the strange, almost sinister way the letter had been delivered earlier that morning.
After hours on the road, she’d pulled into a twenty-four-hour diner where she ordered a mug of coffee and pancakes that came covered with half-thawed blueberries and two scoops of vanilla ice cream, which she pushed to the side of her plate. The coffee was bitter, but she drank it anyway. She needed it for the caffeine, not the taste. When she finished her meal, she ordered an extra-strong iced coffee and a muffin to go in case her energy flagged on the final leg of the drive.
While waiting for her takeout order, Rachel applied eye drops to revive her tired green eyes and twisted up her shoulder-length auburn hair to get it out of her face. Rachel was tying her hair into a topknot when the waitress brought her order in a white paper bag before rushing off to serve a truck driver who was gesticulating angrily for his bill.
Rachel left a larger than necessary tip for the waitress, mostly because she felt bad at the way customers hounded the poor woman over the slow service. Not her fault, thought Rachel. She’d waitressed through college and knew how tough it was to be the only person serving tables during an unexpected rush.
By the time she pushed open the swinging doors of the restaurant, Rachel was feeling full and slightly queasy. It was bright outside and she had to shield her eyes from the sun as she headed to her car. Even before she reached it, she saw something shoved under her windshield wiper. Assuming it was an advertising flyer, Rachel abruptly pulled it off her windshield. She was about to crumple it up unread when she noticed her name had been neatly written in bold lettering: Rachel Krall (from the Guilty or Not Guilty podcast).
Rachel received thousands of emails and social media messages every week. Most were charming and friendly. Letters from fans. A few scared the hell out of her. Rachel had no idea which category the letter would fall into, but the mere fact that a stranger had recognized her and left a note addressed to her on her car made her decidedly uncomfortable.
Rachel looked around in case the person who’d left the letter was still there. Waiting. Watching her reaction. Truck drivers stood around smoking and shooting the breeze. Others checked the rigging of the loads on their trucks. Car doors slammed as motorists arrived. Engines rumbled to life as others left. Nobody paid Rachel any attention, although that did little to ease the eerie feeling she was being watched.
It was rare for Rachel to feel vulnerable. She’d been in plenty of hairy situations over the years. A month earlier, she’d spent the best part of an afternoon locked in a high-security prison cell talking to an uncuffed serial killer while police marksmen pointed automatic rifles through a hole in the ceiling in case the prisoner lunged at her during the interview. Rachel hadn’t so much as broken into a sweat the entire time. Rachel felt ridiculous that a letter left on her car had unnerved her more than a face-to-face meeting with a killer.
Deep down, Rachel knew the reason for her discomfort. She had been recognized. In public. By a stranger. That had never happened before. Rachel had worked hard to maintain her anonymity after being catapulted to fame when the first season of her podcast became a cultural sensation, spurring a wave of imitation podcasts and a national obsession with true crime.
In that first season, Rachel had uncovered fresh evidence that proved that a high school teacher had been wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife on their second honeymoon. Season 2 was even more successful when Rachel had solved a previously unsolvable cold case of a single mother of two who was bashed to death in her hair salon. By the time the season had ended, Rachel Krall had become a household name.
Despite her sudden fame, or rather because of it, she deliberately kept a low profile. Rachel’s name and broadcast voice were instantly recognizable, but people had no idea what she looked like or who she was when she went to the gym, or drank coffee at her favorite cafe, or pushed a shopping cart through her local supermarket.
The only public photos of Rachel were a series of black-and-white shots taken by her ex-husband during their short-lived marriage when she was at grad school. The photos barely resembled her anymore, maybe because of the camera angle, or the monochrome hues, or perhaps because her face had become more defined as she entered her thirties.
In the early days, before the podcast had taken off, they’d received their first media request for a photograph of Rachel to run alongside an article on the podcast’s then-cult following. It was her producer Pete’s idea to use those dated photographs. He had pointed out that reporting on true crime often attracted cranks and kooks, and even the occasional psychopath. Anonymity, they’d agreed, was Rachel’s protection. Ever since then she’d cultivated it obsessively, purposely avoiding public-speaking events and TV show appearances so that she wouldn’t be recognized in her private life.
That was why it was unfathomable to Rachel that a random stranger had recognized her well enough to leave her a personalized note at a remote highway rest area where she’d stopped on a whim. Glancing once more over her shoulder, she ripped open the envelope to read the letter inside:
I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name. I feel that I know you so well.
She recoiled at the presumed intimacy of the letter. The last time she’d received fan mail in that sort of familiar tone, it was from a sexual sadist inviting her to pay a conjugal visit at his maximum-security prison.
Rachel climbed into the driver’s seat of her car and continued reading the note, which was written on paper torn from a spiral notebook.
I’m a huge fan, Rachel. I listened to every episode of your podcast. I truly believe that you are the only person who can help me. My sister Jenny was killed a long time ago. She was only sixteen. I’ve written to you twice to ask you to help me. I don’t know what I’ll do if you say no again.
Rachel turned to the last page. The letter was signed: Hannah. She had no recollection of getting Hannah’s letters, but that didn’t mean much. If letters had been sent, they would have gone to Pete or their intern, both of who vetted the flood of correspondence sent to the podcast email address. Occasionally Pete would forward a letter to Rachel to review personally.
In the early days of the podcast, Rachel had personally read all the requests for help that came from either family or friends frustrated at the lack of progress in their loved ones’ homicide investigations, or prisoners claiming innocence and begging Rachel to clear their names. She’d made a point of personally responding to each letter, usually after doing preliminary research, and often by including referrals to not-for-profit organizations that might help.
But as the requests grew exponentially, the emotional toll of desperate people begging Rachel for help overwhelmed her. She’d become the last hope of anyone who’d ever been let down by the justice system. Rachel discovered firsthand that there were a lot of them and they all wanted the same thing. They wanted Rachel to make their case the subject of the next season of her podcast, or at the very least, to use her considerable investigative skills to right their wrong.
Rachel hated that most of the time she could do nothing other than send empty words of consolation to desperate, broken people. The burden of their expectations became so crushing that Rachel almost abandoned the podcast. In the end, Pete took over reviewing all correspondence to protect Rachel and to give her time to research and report on her podcast stories.
The letter left on her windshield was the first to make it through Pete’s human firewall. This piqued Rachel’s interest, despite the nagging worry that made her double-lock her car door as she continued reading from behind the steering wheel.
Copyright © 2020 by Megan Goldin