It was a call in 2003 that cracked my world open. My younger brother Mike said my name twice, but when I spoke, I heard only the hollow echo of my own voice and the clicks and static of empty sound. A bad connection, I assumed. Next to me, a tapping like nails drummed against a desk; my sleeping hound, Dante, kicked the air behind her, her short legs beating the back of the stiff pleather sofa. The third time Mike said my name, I sat forward and snapped, "You called me, fucker. What?"
"I think Dad's been murdered," he said slowly. His voice sounded split in half, at once high and low, as if two people were trapped inside him fighting to use the same vocal cords.
I shook: my muscles volcanic, every bit of my body rumbling and quaking. An old violence stored deep inside stirred. I stood, thinking that might steady things, but I only swayed in small uneven circles as a familiar float took over me.
Beneath my feet, a ratty beige carpet. Why couldn't I feel the dense and dusty foam of it? That woozy drift: the world suddenly dulled. No car alarms or horns, the hum of the air conditioner gone, the scent of recently brewed coffee erased. Even the scrape of Dante's paws hushed. When I was young—five, maybe six—I was sure I'd levitated between the sofa and love seat of my childhood home, crashing to the ground when the clop of my father's footsteps severed my concentration. In that float, imagined though it must have been, I'd felt lightness and joy. This was different; in my living room, the beginning of an untethering I didn't yet understand had begun. "What do you mean murdered?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I got to his house and there were cops everywhere and they brought me to the station. I was down there for an hour, sitting in this waiting room with some jackass I went to high school with telling me how cool my old band was." I hadn't heard his voice crack so much since he was a lanky preteen. I wanted to ship him back a decade to the safety of giggle-grunting along with Beavis and Butt-Head and cranking out metal licks on his Fender. Back to a time before the police were at our father's home or the ugly double bump of the word murdered. Back to when he was a boy oblivious to what our father was capable of.
"Are you driving?" I asked. "Get over here before you crash."
"I'll be there in ten." He paused. "Lis? The cops said not to watch the news."
I hung up and reached for the remote.
May a riptide carry him directly into a shark's gaping mouth. May his souvlaki contain hemlock instead of oregano.
The picture on my ancient Sony sharpened into splotches of red, yellow, and orange on a deep-blue background, like fire sitting on water. Hurricane Isabel spun two hundred miles off the coast of the Carolinas, muddying the Atlantic as she decided whether to head for shore. I didn't care if she destroyed everything. I wanted the anchors to say something of consequence, something to snatch me back into this world. I had to know what happened.
A newscaster in a fuchsia blazer offered advice: "Stock up on water and batteries. Locate the safest room in your home. Check your emergency kit."
My emergency kit had long been stuffed full of booze. The night before the call, I'd celebrated my twenty-seventh birthday with my dear friends Guinness and Jameson, and I'd paid for it all morning with an ache in my temples. I'd finally recovered late in the afternoon, but then Mike called.
I stared at the TV, empty, weightless.
How many times had I wished my father dead? In eighth grade, I daily pressed my forehead to the smudged window of the school bus and invented capital punishments for him as the landscape ticked by. May a riptide carry him directly into a shark's gaping mouth. May his souvlaki contain hemlock instead of oregano. May a meteor target his car, the intersection where he waited for the light to change reduced to a smoky black crater. I'd wanted him gone, but an external source had to be responsible. If I thought directly about it, if my wishes grew too realistic or personal, the guilt was too heavy to carry.
And still, I shook. My hands, the thin skin below my eyes, the rectus femoris muscles that connect hips to knees. Rectus. From the Latin for "appropriate" or "straight," as if shaking muscles were the appropriate response, the straightest line the body has to shock.
I made two quick calls—one to the Wood, a bar I hated but worked in, the other to Matt, my boyfriend of seven years. I'd planned on lying to my boss, but when he answered, the same line Mike had said poured out like one soggy word: Ithinkmyfathersbeenmurdered. I begged him not to tell anyone and hung up. Next: Matt. The corporate art store he worked at put me on hold, and I chewed on the word murdered while an overly enthusiastic recording thanked me for calling. I pictured Matt leaning against a counter surrounded by canvases, talking someone into having their work professionally framed, his dark hair pulled into a loose ponytail. A black tee and torn jeans, the uniform of artists everywhere. When he answered, his voice felt like knuckles stroked softly across a cheek. I envied him. He sat in a moment of preknowledge, hovering in a dull and ordinary day.
"Babe, this is hard to say, but I think my father's been murdered." I paced in my living room.
"What? What? What do you mean?"
"I don't know. That's what Mike told me. He's headed here now." Part of me knew I was in my living room, on my phone, but part of me floated elsewhere.
Matt was silent for a beat before asking, "Should I come home?"
That brought me back to earth. My spine straightened, my voice flat as paper.
When I think of that moment now, I do not see my chest rising and falling with breath; instead, I am static with anticipation.
"No, I'm fine," I said, though clearly I wasn't. I couldn't articulate what I needed, not then or for a long time afterward, but I wanted someone else to know what to do, to spring into action and make sure I was okay. In short, I needed help, and I didn't know how to ask for it. Maybe more than that, I didn't want to have to ask.
I would repeat that lie for months—I'm fine—for years—I'm fine—but in the moment—I'm fine—Matt must've believed me because he didn't come home.
He did not come home.
I waited for Mike—standing, swaying, time stuffed with stiff talk of cloud formations and barometric pressure.
When the five o'clock news began, my father was the top story. A trembling aerial shot of his yellow bungalow: overgrown grass, neighbors clustered around crime-scene tape, a SWAT team that crawled over his property like bald-faced hornets. Everything stilled. It was as though I were suspended in formaldehyde, a young woman peering out of a jar, the outside world slow and blurry. When I think of that moment now, I do not see my chest rising and falling with breath; instead, I am static with anticipation.
I pressed "Record" on the VCR, making a tape I would never watch but still carry with me each time I move to a new home, and squatted inches from the screen, as if by getting close I'd be able to learn more. When I reached out to touch the image of his house, a space I hadn't visited in four years, a tiny bolt of electricity stabbed my fingertip. My television suddenly seemed absurdly small. Big news should come from a big TV, not from the same little box coated in stickers of glittering hearts and stars I'd had since the fourth grade. Not the TV my father bought me.
The newscasters filled the air with information that didn't help: We've gotten word that a man lived in and owned the house in this suburban South Jersey neighborhood. I desperately wanted them to say his name. I wished the anchor would look directly into the camera, fourth wall be damned, and say, It's over now, Lisa, so I could know for sure that my father was dead. But I also wanted them to say nothing, our last name so uncommon that anyone watching would know immediately he was related to me. Shame. A shame I hadn't handled in years simmered beneath my skin, every inch of me hot to the touch.
Finally, movement: the front door to his house opened, a toothless mouth. A man with SWAT stamped across his shoulders walked backward down the steps, pulling a gurney, while a woman pushed from the other side. Then again. And yet again. We're told there are three deceased. Three gurneys were wrenched from my father's home, and at the sight of the third one, the floating stopped. I dropped hard to my knees and let out a sound I didn't know I was capable of—a sharp, inhuman howl. Dante scurried beneath the couch the way she did when thunderstorms shook the walls. She was right. My twitching muscles had started a storm: one that climbed through my legs, rumbled past my stomach, and barreled into my lungs before reaching my throat until, finally, I had no choice but to open wide and let that terrible sound rattle the walls.
I dropped hard to my knees and let out a sound I didn't know I was capable of—a sharp, inhuman howl.
For a long time I thought that howl was about the death itself, that even without confirmation from the news, I knew in my body my father was gone. I told myself it was intuition, a familial connection. Blood recognizes blood, like twins who feel one another's pain from across the country. But that's mythology, a bit of wishful wizardry. Once, Mike told me over breakfast that our father had had a minor heart attack. Is he dead? I'd asked. Mike said no. Too bad, I'd said and continued shoveling my Special K. Not a blip of empathy on my emotional radar and not my finest moment, but had he been dead that day, I'm not convinced I would have cried. Of course, there would have been processing and grieving eventually, and there's no way to guess what that would have looked like, but I didn't shake. My pulse remained steady. I most certainly didn't crumple to my knees.
This was different. I was different, and to understand why—to get to the heart of that unmooring howl—I had to figure out how we'd gotten here: my mother and brother still living in my childhood home in South Jersey, me a quick drive down the road, all of us fifteen minutes from my father's post-divorce house, the one he shared with a woman and two children, the one now on TV with a SWAT team carting away the dead like ghoulish repo men.
When Mike's tires crackled against the driveway, I peeled myself off the ground and wiped my face. The next day, I would find rug burns on both knees, scabbed patches that wouldn't heal for weeks, but I couldn't yet feel them. I blinked quickly, trying to erase the evidence of what had No One Crosses the Wolf just happened. For my brother, I wanted to fake being okay so that he had the space not to be, but when I opened the door and looked into his bloodshot eyes, there was no hiding from it; we both looked like shit.
I hugged him, the bones of his shoulders sharp beneath my palms.
We flopped onto the couch, stared blankly at the TV. We'd have to wait for the top of the hour, a full forty-five minutes away, to learn anything more. We didn't know the six o'clock news would bring no answers. We didn't know we'd drive to a local pub and play pool, and the late news would mispronounce our last name before delivering the sentence that would take years to unpack: The bodies of three deceased—two female, one male—have been found in this small South Jersey home, victims of what appears to be a murder-suicide.
"Oh god," I'd say.
"What the fuck?" Mike would whisper.
My father's girlfriend and her daughter were dead. It was official. Two possibilities wiped out, two remaining: our father was either dead or on the hunt. And if he were hunting, I was sure I'd be next.
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