The Murdered Son
My father was not a good dad.
I mean he did the best he could, but he didn’t really know how to deal with kids. I don’t think he ever was a kid. He didn’t have good parents and he dropped out of school. He was a deeply troubled dude and not really-
Why am I defending him? The psychopath murdered me.
Mom was always able to control him. Not in a bad way. Like in the way a bad dog can be controlled by a loving owner. She’d say, “honey.” And she was really saying, “Honey do you want to do that? Are you making that choice?” And he would drop his head and look all embarrassed and she wouldn’t even have to tell him not to do whatever he had been thinking or talking about or preparing and he would say, “yeah. You’re right.” and usually he’d come over and give her a kiss.
I used to think she had some kind of magic power over him and sometimes I hated her for it. Usually, he would be doing something cool like throwing me in the air or teaching me to use one of his guns when I was still five or giving Charlotte some whiskey to shut her up when she was crying. Then you’d hear that “honey?” and he’d take the gun away or put the whiskey down.
I think he was getting better by the time we got to Dawn. She looked like him. I mean we all looked like him, mom had what’s called recessive genes blonde hair and green eyes, we all had his brown eyes and dark hair, but Dawn looked like him. She had a craziness in her smile, a twinkle in her eye. Just something in how even as a baby she’d stick her tongue out at you and laugh then in the next second bite you.
Dawn was his favorite and a terror. Mom had no control over her, but Dad did and not in a bad way. He’d say her name, stern and she’d stop trying to cut Charlotte’s hair with a fork or pushing the kitten off the table.
He was getting to be a good dad. Probably never great, but he was figuring it out. Maybe he would have been great for the fourth kid.
If she’d lived.
Sometimes I think the baby died because there was no place for her in the family. I was the boy, the oldest son. Charlotte was the good girl. Dawn was the crazy girl. Like if the new baby were a boy, she could have been the youngest boy. Then we all would have lived and we would be okay.
But she was born a girl and she died.
She was the evil one, because when she left, she took mom with her.
The only argument Mom and Dad ever had was over the hospital. Mom had been raised in some kind of fun cult. Dad used to say he rescued her from them and mom would usually smile and nod in her sad way. She didn’t like talking about the fun cult, which I guess means it wasn’t all that fun.
One of the things she believed that Dad blamed on the fun cult was that you didn’t have children in the hospital. There was something unnatural about it, she said. And as she had more and more of us in the farmhouse, his arguments just got smaller and smaller.
But it turns out, he was right, just that once. And that last “Honey?” cost my mom her life.
I was in the playhouse with my sisters when Dad started hollering for me. I ran. I always ran to him when he hollered, not away which is how I always felt like running.
Mom was drenched in blood. The midwife was looking sick and pale and trying to clean up all the blood. I didn’t know a body had so much blood in it.
“Here.” Dad handed me the phone and went back to cleaning up mom, holding her hand and whispering to her.
I stared at them in stupefaction, then I heard a voice coming from the phone and I stared at it a moment in confusion.
He had called for the emergency services, but he couldn’t talk to them.
I told them my name, my address, the nature of my emergency. I was cool-headed about it, not screaming like my father was. I relayed the woman’s information to my parents with calmness and translated my father’s profanity filled questions to the voice of the telephone. My terror did not destroy me like it destroyed my father. My fear froze me and I operated one function to the next, methodically doing the task I had been assigned.
My mother interpreted my fear incorrectly. She smiled at me and said, “my brave boy.”
That was the last thing she did in life. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell back.
The two adults lost their minds, screaming at her, at each other, patting her with water. My father pulled her away and clung to her shaking her and cradling her and began to sob.
The voice on the phone asked what was happening.
“My mother just died,” I said and because I reckoned there wasn’t anything more she could do, I hung up the phone.
I noticed the baby on the floor. That’s how I know it was a girl. Tiny blue and broken body disregarded. I wondered if she’d been born blue, or if that had happened when she hit the air. Had she been the twisted up my mother’s body or had my father thrown the newborn, maybe still alive then, to the ground when he saw mom was going to bleed to death?
I don’t know why, but I picked her up and carried her out to the playhouse, cradling her tiny body and feeling the little bones in her shifting as I carried her.
I showed her to Dawn and Charlotte. Dawn didn’t understand right away. “Why she broke?”
“Don’t know.” I answered. “I think Dad, but maybe she was born wrong.”
Charlotte started talking a mile a minute. “what do you mean you think maybe Dad? Do you think Dad killed her? Dad wouldn’t kill anyone. It’s stillborn. Why did Mom let you take it out here? That’s tragic and gross and – where’s Mom?”
I continued holding the dead baby and stared at my sisters. I had already said the words, accusing, emotionless to a stranger, but telling your sisters something like that is harder. Dawn was eating a licorice and didn’t look like she would understand. Maybe she wouldn’t have felt anything even if she did. Charlotte was too scared already.
But who else was going to tell them? I could hear my dad sobbing in the house.
“Mom’s in heaven now,” I said. “She had to carry the baby there.”
The words sounded flat and stupid even as I said them. Insincere and wrong. I was lying and they knew it.
“You’re full of shit.” Charlotte screamed and ran out of the playhouse and towards the farm house.
Dawn took another chunk off her licorice. Then said, very simply. “Yeah. I don’t believe in Heaven either.”
She has to believe in Heaven now that we were dead, but we don’t have to go. We have business that was unfinished. I think about it all the time. We didn’t get to grow up. We didn’t get to go to Disney world. I never drove a car, just the tractor and the lawn mower when Dad needed help.
When I focus on him, I can go to Dad. Otherwise, I’m just in a kind of void of my thoughts. Existing on the farm but not. They’re going to tear everything down and build other things. None of them can see me, but I know they feel me sometimes. Feel the sadness of our lives ended too soon.
But when I focus on Dad I go to him. He sold the farm and then we all died. The woman at the church thought it was a sure sign Dad has been suicidal. She told the police officer so. She came by our house after Mom died and Dad had stopped going to church. Dad told her he had sold the farm and we were all going to someplace better. She said that meant Heaven and she blessed his sad heart and prayed for his soul.
At that very moment, my father happened to be in a Nevada brothel doing things with a lady I don’t want to talk about. He was burning through the farm money, taking an amount that could have put the three of us through at least community college, if we had done good in school, and spending it like it was cursed. He seemed happy, completely without remorse. He had never really loved us, I guess. Just Mom.
Sometimes, Dad looks at the Internet articles from the local newspaper. He sees that they found the truck. He waits to see when they give up the search for his body and my body.
The police officer investigating somehow had the truck pulled from the river. There was a team of divers. They knew about the truck because of the mangled guard-rail over the water.
Dad had not sent my sisters alone. I was ash in a pot by then, but he had carefully strapped Charlotte who was already dead into the backseat and Dawn, who was too long dead and to bend properly and be buckled, was laid down.
He had gotten into the driver’s seat, sweating and shivering. My body was in a tobacco tin in his front pocket. He started driving towards the river. I wonder if he knew we were all in the car with him. Not just our bodies but our spirits watching him and wondering what he was up to.
He talked himself though it the whole time. “Truck goes through the guard rail and into the water. The adult male smashed the window to escape. The boy gets through, carried away and dragged out into the river where he drowns. Body is never recovered. Father reached around to the backseat and struggled to unbuckle his youngest daughter. He succeeded, but drown like his daughters in the attempt. His body was carried out the front window by the current and like his son was never recovered.”
A few miles down the road, he permitted himself another narrative. “Three bodies found. Adult male killed going through the guard rail. Youngest daughter managed to unbuckle herself before drowning.”
I wonder if this is what will happen and what will become of my soul and my sister’s souls when he is dead. Will we automatically go to Heaven because our business is now finished?
He doesn’t hesitate as he drives towards the guardrail. Increases his speed and then, shuts his eyes and plows through. The window remains intact through the hood dent and crinkles in. For a moment, I think the car will not actually get into the water, that it will be stuck between the bank and open air, but then gravity takes the front down and my father plummets towards the river with his gruesome cargo.
The truck sinks immediately, faster than I thought possible. Movies always do this part in slow motion, so it goes faster than I expected.
My father is a little stunned when he strikes the windshield and it does not break. There’s water leaking into the car and the current buffets his truck like it weighs nothing. I see the real fear in his eyes.
“Calm down, Daddy,” Dawn says.
“Die, Dad,” I tell him.
“Don’t encourage him,” Charlotte says.
“Calm down,” Dad says to himself and tries to break the front windshield again. Then he reaches down and begins to open the door.
“The window.” My mother’s voice says. “Go for the window.”
And as if guided by instinct and not a ghost, my father cranks down his window. Then reaches over and cranks mine down as water fills the truck. He is holding his breath when he’s rolling down mine, the water has filled the cabin. Charlotte’s body floats towards the front cabin, but the stiffness of her body traps her in the back.
My father swims out the open window on the passenger side and he swims upwards towards the sunlight.
In the river, I can see all the drown people lingering, grabbing at his body, trying to snatch the breath from him and use it for themselves. But my mother, a bright light in the dark faces of the water pushes him upward.
I turn to my mother, in the water floating after him. “He killed us! All three of us. Why are you helping him?”
She does not answer, just drifts after her living husband, keeping him pointed towards the surface.
I’m at the surface with him when he sucks in a deep breath and nearly blacks out. He recovers his wooziness and floats with the current and when it slows makes his way to the far shore.
The river clutches at him, trying to pull him under, occasionally succeeding. But my father is a strong swimmer and he keeps surfacing.
I stay with him, wanting to push him under the water, to force him to join the masses of hungry mouths seeking air but never finding it. But I am without the strength. He laughs maniacally when he gets to the shore and just lies there laughing like an idiot with glee and freedom.
“Come with me, Isaiah,” my mother says. “Please. Let him go and come with me and your sisters.”
“We’re going to stay here until he’s dead.” I swear. “Until we get revenge.”
Dawn and Charlotte look at Mom with sadness as if they want to go with her. But when Mom disappears, I am still here and so are they.
When the police officers have a diving team rescue the truck, they find the bodies of my two sisters and the open windows.
“So here’s what happened,” One officer says. “Man is drunk drives off the road and into the water. Him and his boy crank the windows down. Boy gets out and into the river. Father reaches back trying to save the girls. That’s why the one is unbuckled. But he drowns before he saves them. Current carries him out the window. Like it carried the one girl to the front cabin. Boy… who knows. Probably drown and in the ocean now with his father’s body.”
The other policeman looks from one body to another and sighs. “Seems right.”
“No!’ I scream. “I was burned! Dawn was drowned in the tub. Charlotte was poisoned! He’s alive!”
For all my rage, there’s a stirring of the leaves. Nothing miraculous.
But I see the police officer’s mouth dent inward. “I don’t like the coloration on this girl.”
He points to Charlotte.
“I don’t either, but that’s generally the color of a dead girl.”
“No there’s… let’s just do an autopsy on them.”
“Ah, Pete, come on. They’re kids. Let’s give them a little dignity.”
“Somethings not right. Call in the coroner from Winslow county and get him to issue an autopsy order.” The officer scratched his head. “Besides, I think that’s the procedure for this kinda thing. We’ll have to check.”
His partner snorts but gets out his cell phone and calls.
The autopsy on Dawn showed the water in her lungs was soapy. A bubble bath water. Not the river water. But Charlotte’s was the one that damned him. When they cut her open, there was no water. Her jaw had been locked shut in death. Her insides had died from poison days before and the professionals could tell.
They decided my father had probably killed them, but they had no proof and no idea he was alive. This is when the woman from church told the police he was sending us all to a better place.
Death is not a better place. It’s a void. Dizzy place of past and present without no future. Dark and swirling, with occasional spot of bright light, but mostly just this gray.
The police did not find me or my father’s body.
Eventually, they went to the farm and saw the state it was in. Everything sold that could be, all our stuff packed like we were going with him. They found the poison on the counter where any of us could have eaten it. They found the broken chairs and the bloody knife where I had slashed at my Dad’s shoulder. I just realized, my father has an infection. He’s not taking care of it and it will spread and make him sick.
The police see the fire pit where my body had been burned, but they didn’t know I had been burned there. Just that there had been as one officer put it, “one hell of a fight. Kid didn’t stand a chance.”
They put an alert on my father, but it didn’t mean anything to anyone. When he went to Nevada he bought a fake id. He never even bothered to trim his hair or his beard, just went on looking like the wanted posters.
The police never caught up with him. Not that they chased very hard. Farmers kids from the sticks with a dead mother and no family to speak of. There was no one to motivate them, except us ghosts. And the police don’t believe in us.
The river did eventually get my father. Amazing thing about this river is how long it is. It goes from Wyoming where we lived all the way to Mexico after it joins up with the Colorado River. It passed through Nevada where my Dad was, where he had kidnapped a woman to rob her, to do worse to her once he had all the money in her ATM. She escaped, barely, had to have a surgery on her face and took pills to prevent her from getting a baby and told the police about him and made such a fuss that there was a big manhunt.
They traced his id and saw he was this guy from Wyoming who had killed his kids and maybe his wife. That part wasn’t true, but they knew my dad was a bad man and it made sense.
So the police arranged an even bigger man hunt. He was on the news everywhere and everyone was trying to catch him. He almost ran into the desert, but there’s my mom telling him to drive the other way and so he does. Heading towards Mexico, following the river.
Eventually the police get a barricade and that stops him. He runs off into the wilderness, heading towards the river. He’ll have to cross it and this time the river wants his bones. This time there’s a cliff and a big drop and the river is licking at the stones and waiting for his body.
There are dogs chasing him and he starts climbing down, carefully. Slowly. Dogs can’t climb down. Police can, but if he gets to the bottom, if he hides in a cave until dark, if he swims downstream…
He has all these contingency plans, but he’s not very good with contingency plans and he’s going to die tonight. The river wants him dead and I… I’m stronger now. I know what to do.
When he rests on a ledge, halfway down the cliff, hidden from the police, I appear near him and whisper. “Papa, we’re here. We’re with you. Don’t worry.”
I can see him tremble.
Charlotte appears. Her lips swollen and her face pale and blotchy, skin the color of a dead girls, but not the right color for drowning. “Those pancakes taste funny, papa. My tummy hurts.”
Dawn is the right color for a drowning. Purple and bloated, her eyes looking wet and her hair straggly. “I don’t wanna go swimming anymore, Papa.”
The wind carries dust in his eyes, a little ashy, a little of me in them. The ashes inside his coat pocket, the tobacco tin he keeps opening and finding depressingly empty. Just his burnt son, bangs against his chest. “We came back for you, Papa.”
I tried to push him, with the wind and the tin, to push him away from the cliff face and into the water below. My father reached into his coat pocket, one hand firmly on the stone, unmoved by my pushing and he flings the tobacco tin down as if it were haunted. Which it was. The tin shattered when a cop shot it and my ashes flew in the wind across the Colorado river and back up the cliff base.
I pushed harder. “Let go and die, you bastard.”
But there was something wrong. My father was so scared, so desperate. I had not expected this weakness. He was supposed to be angry and overpowering and I was supposed to overpower him with the help of the police, of justice, of the river.
The shining image of my mother appeared behind him. Not helping him keep his footing, just hovering out in the air. Dawn and Charlotte, just as shining stood with her.
Which confused me, because they were with me. Weren’t they?
My mother shook her head and Charlotte said, “Let him go, Isaiah. Come with us.”
I did not let him go. I clung to his beating heart, to his rage and his fear. “But he killed you. He killed me.”
Charlotte nodded. She was the good one, the wise one. She had always kept me from losing my temper. “Yeah. He was a bad and a confused man.”
“You can’t hurt him.” Dawn said. Charlotte was holding her though Dawn was almost as tell as she was and she was sucking her thumb.
“You can only hurt yourself, by hating him. He hurt you and you can’t change what’s happened. You can only let it keep hurting.” my mother said. “I tried to tell you. Let him go. Come with us.”
“Turn yourself in,” one of the cops calls down. “We’ve got men coming in cars to the river. You can’t escape.”
My father shudders and looks over his shoulder at the river far below. Too shallow to jump. He’s so scared. So alone and afraid. He’s been that way his entire life.
And my anger fades. It takes seeing his fear his weakness for me to understand. He was never a hero, never a superhuman. I admired him too much and when he turned bad I hated him for not living up to what I wanted. But he was not evil and he was not good. He was just scared and angry and alone.
So I left him alone. I stopped pushing and looked at my mother to join her. To see if there was a Heaven and if I’d like it there. Figure out what to do next without revenge, without my father’s sins burdening me. He would go to jail for the rest of his life and he would think of us and his fear would become remorse and he would eventually have no choice but to become a good man or die on his own.
Then, he slipped on the cliff.
I reached for him, held him, steadied him. I saw in that instant why my mother had been helping him, saving him. She still loved him instinctively the way I did.
For a second, my father saw me. I don’t know if he saw my mother holding him, begging him. “Honey, no.”
I don’t know if he saw Dawn and Charlotte as they were, bright spots of light and not gory remnants of my hate.
I only know that he saw me. His eyes were wide and his mouth formed the word, “son.”
Everything rushed to the surface. I wanted to tell him everything I knew, everything I had learned since I was dead. The shapes in the river, the future that awaited him, the forgiveness of my mother and sisters… My forgiveness. It rushed out of me like a cold fire.
If I did convey this, he did not take it well. He let go of the cliff and plummeted towards the river, too shallow to break his fall only his body.
We all fell with him, holding onto the essence of him. My mother, my sisters, but mostly me, fighting to keep him, to keep what was good in him. There seemed so little of it, it was so precious. We fell past the river and into eternity, tangled together.
I don’t know what happens next, but we’re all going into it together.