Authors: Keith Houghton
“Water under the bridge.”
Owen misses the tension in my response. “Yeah, well, we tried telling him over the years, your aunt and me. We tried making him see sense, but he wouldn’t listen. Your dad was stubborn like that. Come to think of it, he was the definition of bullheaded. No
he ended up lonely and alone. He never bounced back from your mom walking out.”
My father isn’t the only one.
I let out a shaky breath. “It hit us all hard—because he hit my mother hard. It was all his fault. Everything. He brought it on
. She did what was best for her own survival. She left him and got as far away from him and Harper as she could.”
He nods. “Hey, don’t think I’m making excuses for him. I don’t condone marital violence in any shape or form, or any violence at all for that matter. But the demon drink can do that to a man. Your dad’s not the first and he won’t be the last. His decline accelerated after your brother left, too, you know that, don’t you?”
But my leaving had no impact.
“He lost his health, his mind, his faith. You do know Aaron never came back either?”
“My father wasn’t easy to live with.”
“That’s for sure. Like rats in the attic. Still, I never thought it would end this way. Like it or lump it, Jake, you’re all he has. It’s down to you now. You’re the man of the house. I know it’s tough, but you’ve been through worse, right? I know you’ll do the right thing.” He reaches out and pats my arm. “I’m here, if you need me. I still have my seat on the council, which gives me some sway in town, if you need it.”
“Thanks, Owen. I appreciate it.”
Out of everyone, Owen is one of the few people to champion my corner without question and without reward. Although he was unable to visit me religiously every month in Stillwater, he did visit a couple of times each year, especially in the early years, and that is more than can be said for anyone else. Not once has he questioned my innocence. Not once has he bought into the lie. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty. It’s golden. It’s familial.
“Oh, and before I forget,” he says. “Your dad has papers here somewhere. Insurance stuff, you know? Maybe even a will. You need to find them, just in case the worst happens and he doesn’t pull through. Last thing you need to worry about is the bank calling in a loan or something.”
y the time Owen leaves and I venture outside, the snowfall is heavier, thicker. A sheet of muslin is drawn across the sky, mummifying the snow-deadened landscape.
, I crunch my way down the side of the house, shovel in hand,
flakes from my nose as I go. The backyard beckons, but it can wait.
The upshot of my uncle’s visit was an urgency to investigate my father’s affairs. As soon as he was gone, I broke the lock on the
bureau in the living room and rolled back the lid. My father’s filing system consisted of bills and bank statements, in ripped
piled high, and all of it in no particular order.
A quick rummage revealed no land deeds or insurance
, but I did find a photocopy of his Last Will & Testament in a manila wallet. It was positioned on top of the dog-eared paper clutter, as if deliberately put there for me to find. Heart thudding, I pored over its contents. The will was signed and dated the year my mother walked out. The legal jargon was of no interest, so I skipped straight through to the beneficiaries section, too realistic to be
; I knew my father wouldn’t leave me a crust of bread if I were
One beneficiary: the holy building directly across the street from the house on Prescott. The Harper Community Church. My father’s beloved obsession, and the one thing in his life aside from Aaron that he loved unconditionally.
I grew up in its shadow, and its legacy lives with me still.
A snowdrift has barricaded the garage doors shut. I get to work with the shovel, chopping at it like a mad axman. The effort of clearing the concreted ice warms me up a little. No strength for it earlier.
Images of Jenna’s skeletal remains play on my mind:
This morning, as we headed down off the mountain and into town, I asked Krauss: “What happens next?”
Her expression was solemn. “Once they recover all the bits and pieces, they’ll send them to the ME’s office over in Duluth. Run tests to determine the exact cause of death. Don’t be surprised if they come back inconclusive. Eighteen years is a long time to be under the earth.”
“Blades and bullets leave marks on bone.”
“They sure do. But you can’t tell from a skeleton if the person was asphyxiated or even had their throat cut.”
Krauss’s comments should have spooked me, but they didn’t. In my head, I have played through all the scenarios of that fateful night, time and again until I am left dizzy and directionless. As a species, death fascinates us. When we’re young and healthy we can only conceive of death happening to somebody else. But there’s no discrimination. Death has no favoritism. Sooner or later it’s our turn to take a bow.
During long, lonely nights in my cell I thought about Jenna being abducted, bludgeoned unconscious, bundled into the trunk of a car, taken somewhere remote, raped and beaten, then fatally stabbed or shot before finally being buried in a shallow grave out in the woods or dropped to the bottom of the lake.
I have held her hand and walked through every step with her in meticulous detail. Every heartbeat. Every breath. Every scream. I have changed the locations, the circumstances, the variables. I have seen her bleed, her bones break, her eyes glaze over. No matter how many times I rewind and run through it again but with different setups, the outcome is always the same:
Jenna dies every time.
The truth is, I have a preoccupation with Jenna’s death and I can’t escape it. It’s coiled up in my DNA. It’s all I’ve known. It’s par
t of me.
About a year into my sentence, my psychiatrist assured me:
“Repeatedly going over events beyond our control is a perfectly normal predisposition.”
It explained my craziness, or made it less alien. She went on to tell me it was healthy, restorative. Over the preceding six months she’d worked hard at unraveling my layers of complexity, digging deeper than anyone else had done previously. She’d uncovered a vein of truth. The treasure was within touching distance and she had no intention of letting it slip back into
“The mind is a composite of realities,” she continued.
“Replaying traumatic events and working through alternative outcomes is its way of compartmentalizing the incomprehensible. Reflection, analysis, and conjecture are all constructive functions. It shows that the mind is trying to come to terms, to deal with sudden loss or unwanted change. Think of it as a Band-Aid for the brain.”
Speculating on Jenna’s death was healthy, it seemed, at least for me. Nevertheless, I spent sleepless nights worrying over the days leading up to her disappearance, wondering how I missed the signs, how I failed to notice the dark stranger watching her from afar, watching and waiting for his moment to pounce, to strike, to
my world into a million bloody pieces. Who was he? Where had he come from? Why did he choose Jenna? Why wasn’t I there for her when she needed me the most?
“The world is full of bad people,” the psychiatrist said matter-of-factly. “When they enter our lives and cause mayhem we try to rationalize their actions as best we can in our own terms. We
their deeds to the moral framework we are
with. We try and understand their motives, their mindset. But
be so easily pigeonholed and reasoned away.
people are evil. They do very bad things, despite our best efforts to the
I spent even more fruitless days hypothesizing on how Jenna met her fate, and what she was thinking in those final moments before he cruelly ended her life. Did she plead to be with her mother? Did she cry for the future she knew she’d never have? Did she think of me? Did she blame me?
Torturous thoughts were unstoppable, uncontrollable. They invaded in the dead of night, when my guard was down, in those quiet moments when I was at my most vulnerable.
The psychiatrist told me that chastising myself for being unable to foresee, prevent, and ultimately save Jenna was normal
, natural. When we lose someone close, that’s what we do. A personal inquisition. What could we have done differently? What could we have done to force fate to switch direction? What could we have done to intervene?
An endless stream of questions. And not one single answer to stem the flow.
Back in Harper, I shake the memory from my head and stab the shovel deep into the snow.
The psychiatrist knew her stuff. But thinking of Jenna kills me every time.
The garage doors complain about rusted hinges as I drag them apart. A waft of something dead brushes past me and escapes. I discard the shovel and step inside. Things smell musty in here, bad, worse than the mildewing kitchen. A sagging workbench stands beneath a pegboard prickled with nails and rusted tools. Cartons of screws, slowly being absorbed into the moldy surface.
, packing boxes gone waxy with age. The small
at the back is veiled with webs. Mouse droppings litter the floor.
My father’s prehistoric Ford Bronco is fossilizing beneath a stained tarp. Dust billows as I pull it back. The vehicle looks like it hasn’t been let out in years, and has been going to seed for much longer. Red paintwork masking rust. A testing kick at the tires shows they are soft but surprisingly doable.
In another time, I hear my father’s voice saying:
“They don’t build them like this no more.”
The words came as I was soaping it down one sunny Sunday afternoon, trying to make a good impression, one of many.
“Put your back into it, boy,” he commanded. “Get all the crap out from under those fenders. You don’t want to give that rust any excuse to make itself a home.”
I was sixteen at the time, hoping to build enough trust in him to be permitted behind the wheel. In fact, I was running around doing every chore I could find, just to stay on his good side, if there was one. Three months and twelve washes later I was allowed to run the Bronco up and down the driveway for the first time, but not under my own supervision, and not without one or two coarse corrections.
I hook gloved fingers under the door handle and give it a tug. The driver’s door isn’t locked, but it might as well be. Rust has welded it shut. I put my back into it and wrench it open. It obliges with a yowl, and brown flakes fall to the floor.
Then I hesitate before climbing completely inside.
The stench of my father is overwhelming. It cuffs me on the chin and claws at the walls of my stomach. Decades of sweat and Marlboro Reds, ingrained in the vinyl. Hostile.
I wish I could say the smell of him brings back happy memories, but it doesn’t.
Incredibly, the engine starts after a dozen turns, sputtering and wheezing and blasting soot into the rear of the garage. I rev it,
at first, then harder as the Bronco finds its feet. According to the dials on the dash, the tank is almost empty, needle touching red, but hopefully enough juice to get me into town.
I crank the heater to max and head out. The Bronco slews and freewheels its way along the back road, black soot booming from the exhaust.
The last time I sat in this seat, Jenna sat in the other. We were happy, tunelessly singing along to “Nobody Knows” by the Tony Rich Project—our favorite song at the time—laughing and fooling around. Teenagers with hopes and dreams and no idea how easily they could be torn asunder.
“Why don’t we just keep driving,” she suggested, her slender hands tapping along to the tune on the radio. “God knows it’s a crazy idea. But there’s nothing stopping us, right? We could just leave and never come back. Start our lives together someplace else. Just the two of us.” She implored me with heart-tugging eyes. To me, right in that moment, Jenna was the epitome of everything I desired. The idea of running away together was electrifying.
“What about school?”
“Screw school! Jake, you are such a Mr. Do-Right! Loosen up a little, will you? Who cares anyway? This is our life. Ours to do with as we choose. I don’t know what you think, but I don’t want to be one of those people who look back and wish they did things
. Do you? We should make the most of it. Live while we’re young. No regrets.”
At that point in our relationship I had real feelings for Jenna, feelings that were deeper than mere friendship, the kind that screamed when we were apart and purred when we were together. I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life in her presence, every waking moment and every sleeping one, too. Gagging, I know. I’d heard all the horror stories about young love turning sour with age. I knew, statistically, we were already doomed to fail. But this felt different. I
it was different. I couldn’t imagine a life without her in it. We were young lovers, on the verge of a great leap. Not into the unknown, but into each other.
Anything was possible if we wanted it hard enough. Right?
Jenna was still staring beseechingly at me from the passenger seat, waiting for my response, for an answer that could change both our destinies forever. I was about to take the plunge and gush out an “
all right, let’s do it!”
when she stuck out her tongue and announced:
“Jake, I’m joking! Jeez, you are so adorable, but you’re way too serious sometimes! Come on, let’s go get milkshakes at Merrill’s and fantasize some more.”
Like so many times since then, I kept the crushing disappointment from darkening my face. I loved Jenna for all the wrong
, but I hated her for all the right ones.
Days later she was gone, missing, then presumed dead,
“She skipped school today,” her father told me, the day after she went missing, the day we were all baffled by it.
Officer Meeks was there, at the Luckmans’, in their living room, taking notes and already trying to pin her disappearance on me.
“I thought she was home, sick,” I answered, blankly. “We all did. Ask anyone.” It was midweek, midterm, and as far as I knew Jenna had never played hooky before.
Meeks eyed me suspiciously. “Did you two break up?”
“No. Like I’ve already told you a million times: I wasn’t with Jenna yesterday, after school. I don’t know where she was, or went.”
“And you didn’t see her at all today?”
Jenna’s father shifted to the edge of his chair. Already he was looking like a father who was thinking something terrible had
to his little girl. “Jake, help us out here, will you?” His tone was a mixture of anger and parental perplexity. “As you can appreciate, we’re worried, scared even. Jenna didn’t come home last night. Her bed wasn’t slept in. We know she was in school yesterday, but she didn’t come home afterwards. We need to know where she went. If you weren’t with her, who was?”
“I wish I had the answer. Honestly, I do.” That way, I could
have put their fears to rest and told them something that would have
made sense, even to me. The Luckmans had been kind to me, treated me like a son. I owed them the truth. But the truth was, I had no idea what happened to Jenna after school. Jenna and I were an item, but we weren’t joined at the hip. She was free to come and go as she pleased, and strong-willed enough not to seek my consent either way.
Meeks caught my attention. “If not you, Olson, then who was she with?”
I shrugged. “Ruby?” It was a clutching-at-straws guess and sounded like it. “Have you asked her? She’s her best friend, you know? They’re always hanging out together when we’re not.”
“We’ve already spoken with Miss Dickinson and crossed her off the list. Ironically, she thought Jenna was with you. In fact, that’s what Jenna told her.” Meeks glanced at his notepad. “She says, and I quote, ‘
Jenna said she’d had an argument with Jake and wanted to sort things out
,’ and that’s all she knows.”