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Little Brigid Theresa Quinn, with a Band-Aid on my knobby knee from jumping out of a banyan tree on a dare, and a ponytail of red hair that should have been washed four days ago—I’m only six years old when I first hear about the murder of the Walker family on December 19, 1959. Though the decades pass, and I have witnessed even greater horrors than were described that night, I still can’t see a Christmas tree without feeling the crime scene, the tree with its ornaments, the glittery packages, the bodies in the living room. Then the memory quickly fades and I’m here and now again.
Whenever I go back there I still find that same little girl.
I don’t hear about the Walker mass murder from the television. I get the scoop right in our own kitchen. You know, all the gory details that the news didn’t assault you with in those days before they started showing the body bags coming back from Vietnam. Dad’s friends from the Fort Lauderdale police department gather together on the Saturday nights when they don’t have to work the following day.
I sit on Dad’s lap at the Formica-topped kitchen table while he talks and drinks and smokes with his buddies. He smells of beer and cigarettes. The odors don’t come from the original source as much as they’re channeled through his sweat. December in Florida can be hot and muggy.
Dad’s buddies are Ken, Rory, and Mitch. They all look alike as far as I can tell, with flattop haircuts, big hands and bellies. I’m allowed to call them by their first names despite being just a little girl.
Over Dad’s shoulder I can see Mom far off in an armchair in the living room. There are only five days remaining before Christmas, and the multicolored lights on the tree cast a glow on her. Mom is needlepointing a seat cover with a big cluster of purple grapes in the middle. The background is blue, what she would call Virgin Mary blue. Mom is systematically covering everything in the house that can be covered with needlepoint. I don’t want to grow up to be a needlepointer. It doesn’t seem to make Mom happy. She frowns most of the time. No, I want to grow up to be like Dad, drinking and laughing and doing dangerous and heroic things. I don’t know until years later that all Dad did was give out parking tickets and maybe get a cat out of a tree once in a while. He’d never even fired his gun except at the practice range.
Ken, Rory, and Mitch are all married, but our house is the only house they can come to and drink because the other wives won’t allow “that kind of talk” around their children. That’s not how things are run in his house, Dad always says. He says he “rules the roost.”
The talk is brutal, all right. Axe murders. Gang rapes. Decomposing corpses eaten by alligators in the Everglades. I’ve grown used to this kind of talk that other children aren’t privy to. These stories I’ve heard are no worse than the fairy tales I read, like where Cinderella’s sister cuts off her own toe to fit into the glass slipper and the blood dripping on the road gives her away.
I think tonight will be just more of that. I can feel the excitement build along with the beer bottles and cigarette butts in the middle of the kitchen table. My heart speeds up with the clinking of glass and the restrained intensity of the talk, even the parts I don’t understand. Go on, go on, I think. More.
The reason they’re so excited is that this mass murder has happened right in Florida, our own state. It was in a little town called Osprey, on the west coast of Florida near Sarasota. When they talk about it being so, so close, it gives me a nice little shiver. Like watching Caltiki the Immortal Monster before it goes too far and the liver thing dissolves the guy’s forearm down to the bone and that keeps me up all night.
“What about that Spencer who confessed?” Dad says, not because he didn’t already know about Spencer, but just to encourage the conversation. It’s one of the reasons the others like him, because he’s willing to play right field. Ken, another beat cop like Dad, doesn’t even leave the bench but sits silently sucking down beer after beer. Maybe the main reason he comes is for the beer.
Mitch says, “He was already discredited by the sheriff.” He taps his cigarette in his ashtray with a hard tap that shows what he thinks of Spencer. Then he says, “A path-o-logical liar, made up everything. Buncha shit. Sorry, baby.” He says that to me because I giggle at the word “shit.”
I have gotten their attention with a giggle, so I giggle again to get more. I pull on the sleeve of Dad’s white undershirt. I ask, “Who’re the Walkers?”
Dad says, “A family of four that was murdered near Sarasota. That’s on the other side of our own state.” He has never held anything back, or treated me like a little girl. But then he does. “It’s like it’s … right … next … door.” Then he tickles me. It feels more like a thumb punch in my rib than anything nice, but I giggle again even though it makes me jump.
Rory gets up and helps himself to a cold beer from the fridge. Dad passes him the bottle opener and he pops off the top into a separate little pile on the table. Rory says, “We all know who we’re looking at for this one. Whoever killed the Clutters.”
“Are they liking anyone yet for the Clutter murders?” Dad asks.
“Two guys,” Rory answers with a scoff. “You don’t know this already?”
If Dad wasn’t on his fifth beer he might have taken offense at that. Now, not so much. He only shrugs.
Rory goes on. “Couple of parolees, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Some prison snitch came forward and told the FBI he had worked for Clutter. Snitch said that he told Hickock there was a safe with ten thousand dollars at the house. The FBI is looking for them all over the country. They’ll find them, all right, but it’s a crying shame they couldn’t move faster. The Walkers could have been saved.”
The rest of the men shake their heads and tsk. Damn that good-for-nothing FBI.
“It’s a killing spree,” Rory adds after downing half the bottle in one go before sitting down. He takes another bottle out of the fridge so he doesn’t have to get up again so soon. “With the Walkers you got the husband and wife shot. You got the two kids shot, a three-year-old and the littlest one drowned in the bathtub. What kind of a bastard has to shoot a one-year-old and then not leave her alone, but drown her in the bathtub? Jesus H. Christ.”
Mitch says, “But that’s a difference, the drowning. Also the mother was raped. No one got raped before.”
Rory says, “That’s only because something stopped the killer. Remember the teenage daughter. What’s her name?” The men talk for a while about why there was no rape at the Clutter house. They think maybe it was because the Clutter family were all home at the same time, so it was harder to wrangle everyone. No time for rape.
At the age of six, I don’t know what “rape” is, though I’ve heard the word before. I’m certain from the tone of the men’s voices that rape can’t be good.
“Who’re the Clutters?” I ask, confused. I’m also still wondering about rape, so the part about the baby in the bathtub doesn’t immediately register. But now the men ignore me.
Mitch says, “Okay, maybe the kids were in the house and they got it first. But they were much younger so not as much trouble to manage, with that big teenage son. And with the Walkers, the husband came home after the three were killed.”
Rory says, “No, that’s not how it was. The wife was alone in the house, and the killer—”
“Killers,” Mitch says.
Rory shrugs and goes on, “—killers got her, then got the father and the two kids when they came home.”
Ken and Dad listen to Mitch and Rory talk as if they’re experts. No one ever mentions that they’re just robbery detectives and not homicide detectives. That would be rude.
Ken asks, “How do they know who got there when? There wasn’t that much time between the deaths.”
And Dad asks, “How can they even tell whether the baby was shot first or drowned first?”
Mitch says, “Oh, those medical examiners, they can tell.”
All the men nod like they understand what Mitch means, but after hearing the second time about a baby shot and drowned all I can think of is right … next … door … right … next … door …
The talk goes on but I stop hearing it. I can’t stop thinking about those children. What did the children see the men do to their mother? What did the mother see the men do to her children? Stop it, I think, no, I shout inside my head. Stop talking.
My little sister Ariel is four, and my brother Todd is two. They’re about the same age as the Walker children. They’ve already gone to bed but I’m big enough to stay up later. Part of my brain is listening to what the men are saying about the older child, after being shot, crawling to die next to his father. Part of my brain is listening to Dad’s voice repeating … door … right … next … door … right …
My face gets sort of numb and I guess my ears do, too, because the conversation is muffled and I stop being able to hear exactly what they’re saying almost as bad as when I’m under water in the neighbor’s pool and someone shouts “Marco Polo.” That’s okay because I don’t want to hear them anymore. I hear a whooshing sound and my pulse is beating so hard in the side of my neck that I can feel it. I wish I hadn’t heard what I heard. I only wish, I pray, Mom will come and tell the men to stop talking about killed children, or at least tell me it’s time for bed and take me away from the table, because I can’t seem to move on my own.
Prayer doesn’t do any good.
Sitting at the table, in my mind I keep hearing shotgun blasts. I keep feeling the cold water in the bathtub sloshing against my face as it goes under. I see the water turn pink. My thumb moves over the coarse hair on Dad’s forearm to stop imagining, but I can’t get the children out of my mind and how much they make me think of Ariel and Todd. What if someone comes into our house and does that to them? To me?
After silently begging her for so long, I’m finally taken by Mom and put to bed. But of course I stay awake staring at where the ceiling would be if the light were on, with my sheet tucked up around my ears on both sides of my head, as if that can protect me from men who kill children. Men’s voices continue to filter into my room. Then the voices finally die, doors open and shut with good-nights, lights go out, and the whole house is dark and still. When I figure my parents won’t be coming out of their room I push aside my bedsheets. They’re sweaty with my fear. I get out of bed.
Ariel asks, “Where you going?” We share a room and even at four she’s a light sleeper.
I say, “Bathroom.” I’m hopeful. “You want to talk?”
She says no and rolls over.
I creep down the hall, which is lighter than our bedroom thanks to the night-light plugged into an outlet. I spend that whole night in the hallway outside Mom and Dad’s bedroom. You didn’t wake up my parents if you were scared at night. They’d just get angry because Dad needed his rest. So I spend that night with my knees drawn up, as small as I can get. My back bones are pressed against their closed door. The muffled sound of my father’s snoring is a little comforting.
Copyright © 2019 by Becky Masterman