By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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a waiflike soldier of the teenage wars, Corrie was never without her backpack. It was stuffed with the midriff-baring sweaters I didn’t like, as well as makeup and an abundance of iconic offerings she kept for new friends: fragile worry dolls, stippled beach rocks, a henna tattoo. And cigarettes, a silver lighter from an old boyfriend, hair clips shaped like butterflies and set with fake gems. Gum, pencils, tissues. Startlingly, a change of underwear. When the officer handed the backpack to me, Corrie’s belongings were organized neatly — or as neatly, at least, as if she’d packed them all herself.
Three kids in a pickup truck. In a field. And Corrie in the middle. Her head on a shoulder. Another leaning against her. The three of them like a trio of knocked-over pins. One window shattered. Glass on their laps. An empty open CD case on Garrett’s knee. Corrie’s hand clutching a wilted moss rose so tightly the woody stem had split, leaving a thin gash across her tender palm.
Just three kids out for a ride, listening to music, maybe firing up a blunt, although the ashtray was closed, no matches in any of their pockets, that lighter of Corrie’s way down at the bottom of the pack. No bottles either. Just the music, the flower, the broken glass, a bullet each, and nothing else disturbed.
May Shannon, my neighbor, commiserated: “You might expect it in a city, even a school or a fast-food joint — but in a field? And on an island, no less.”
I knew what she meant. You couldn’t help seeing circles in your mind: tight, impenetrable. The three of them in the center, the field around them, the island shore and surf ringing them all. And my daughter Corrie, the bull’s-eye. It’s not true that no one in Canada keeps guns. Someone here has one. A .45 fired at close range. And only the one ferry, arriving and departing like the tide.
Enemies? the Royal Canadian Mounted Police asked us. Strange characters lurking about?
Well, what did they expect us to say to that?
It’s no secret that, put anywhere else, most of us on the island would appear odd. Last year, I went down to Seattle on my yearly shopping trip. I was scanning the racks at Nordstrom’s, bowled over more by the other customers than by the merchandise. So much affluence, so young. I had no place there. I was too old and foreign, and my intentions weren’t honorable. I would not under any circumstances buy a tiny leather skirt or a sleeveless cashmere sweater — not even for Corrie. I wanted a winter coat, something just slightly more refined than the usual island wear. Apparently what I was searching for did not exist. I could have sewn one easily, I supposed, but sewing was what I did for a living, and this trip was a chance to treat myself. I halfheartedly considered a quilted white parka with a fur collar. Ridiculous, a white jacket, meant only for a rich twitch to wear out to dinner at the ski resort. I would dirty it beyond repair just climbing into the truck. Yet there I was, holding out a sleeve, stroking the collar, when a bag lady came up beside me. Her back was to me. I saw scraggly gray-blond hair, shabby mismatched clothing, sweaters over sweaters, brown lace-up shoes the worse for wear. Then, in the next instant, the bag lady was Helly from the island. Helly with her big pink flower satchel. Helly at Nordstrom’s! We, who hardly spoke to each other at home, had lunch together. She showed me a lipstick she’d bought. I opened the box containing my new boots. In the mirror behind our restaurant booth, I saw us as we must have appeared to others: two ragged people, friends with uneasily full wallets, waiting for the waitress to grace them with her attention. Helly was going on to visit her sister. I hadn’t even known she had a sister. After lunch, I accompanied her to the bus stop, watched her revert from Helly back into the bag lady as she hauled her bundles up the steep bus steps behind two young girls in identical black sweaters and black leather skirts.
And that was only Helly. We have far queerer folks on the island: Blunt Bob, the marijuana farmer. Ashley, the broad-shouldered transsexual. The Samuelsons in their yurt complex. Our hermit, who lives in the exact center of the island and has his groceries delivered to a red plastic crate by the abandoned logging road. And don’t forget the ex-navy commander who gives palm readings and sometimes becomes hysterical when we pick plums and wild strawberries in the metal-strewn lot behind his trailer.
Corrie went to him last year for a reading — my own idea of a birthday present for a fourteen-year-old who thought she knew everything.
In the cramped stall of his trailer, the white-haired commander sat stiffly beside her. He took her left hand as if he might bow to kiss it. He held it out in front of him and squinted, then brought it close to him, turning her palm upward. With a finger he traced the six major lines on her palm, gave their names: Heart, Head, Life, Mercury, Apollo, Saturn. Her hand, he pronounced, was conical, the fingers long and knotted. He deciphered the crosses and stars and little hatches that marked her palm. He clucked over the feathery lines, the presence or absence of “padding”; declared, without irony, with surprise even, that Corrie had a heart. She preened, smirked at me a little. The commander bristled when he saw.
“Listen up,” he said, sternly. “This isn’t a prize, girl.” He dragged long and hard on his hand-rolled cigarette, letting the smoke escape slowly as he continued. “Having a heart —” he smiled, showing a mouthful of long yellow teeth — “just means that you can be stopped.”
He offered to read my palm as well, but the truth is, ever since I moved to the island, just before Corrie was born, my future has been clear enough. And I certainly had no desire to be called down for my failings. (Corrie was already doing a fine job of that, thank you.) Besides, despite his pressed exterior, the old man’s hands were filthy, stained by cigarettes and fruit pulp, and his fly was half unzipped. I couldn’t wait to get out of that musty trailer, rank with the smell of nesting rats and rotting plums.
Before we left, he drew my daughter toward a tiny copier machine on his kitchen counter.
“Just like that,” he breathed, pressing her hand tightly over the flashing roll of light.
I expected him to offer us the copy; my hand was open for it. Instead, he slipped the blackened image of Corrie’s hand into a flesh-colored folder.
“It’s mine,” he said, pushing the door open for us. “Who knows what I’ll see here in the future.”
over the phone, May Shannon tells me there are investigators on island. They’ve visited her, promised to visit everyone. They are probably listening right now over the party line, getting a feel for who we are and how we conduct our business. She giggles a little at the thought that we are all suspects, then immediately apologizes. “It’s not funny,” she says. “I don’t know why I’m laughing.” Nothing makes sense, I want to say; why should this? She’s whispering now, asking if I’ve been out to the field. She knows it’s on my way to the beach where I usually clam. (Never mind that I don’t clam during this cold, windy season.) She makes us sound like conspirators, and maybe it’s because of that, because they might be listening, that I pretend to be afraid. “Do they think we’re safe?” I ask May. The silence that meets my question tells me that May has never thought of this herself, has never wondered if another inexplicable murder will follow this one. It’s just not the way we think here.
And then we have the funerals. They are almost too much for me to bear. Three in a row. One boy’s family is Catholic. They take his body to the mainland, and we all go down to the ferry and see him off. Garrett’s family, although not churchgoers, holds a service in the Methodist church, the only real church on the island, a sweet gray clapboard chapel close to the beach. For Corrie, my partner Jasper and I forgo a formal funeral. Instead, we rent the kitchen shelter in the provincial park. Jasper’s idea. He’s the one with all the ideas now, although when we had Corrie here, he was clueless, always retreating to his studio when she and I butted heads. “She’s your daughter,” he’d say when I asked for help. And yet Jasper and Corrie sometimes seemed more kin than she and I did, the way they each burrowed away from me at times, reveling in solitude and secret projects.
At the kitchen shelter, we serve high tea, Corrie’s favorite. As a little girl, she loved to linger in the lobby of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, hoping we’d come up with the thirty dollars a head to treat her to tea. We never did. So we have tea now. We choke down scones and Devon cream, little sandwiches smeared with salmon paste or chopped egg. May Shannon’s husband, Ed, keeps a flask of whiskey handy and doctors my tea each time I hand him the cup for a refill.
the vancouver police find Corrie’s fake ID on a runaway. The runaway insists a boyfriend got it for her, but — surprise! — the boyfriend is nowhere to be found.
“They all vanish,” I mutter to Jasper as my eyes close that night. I hardly hear his answer. I used to be the one awake until dawn, charged with dread, as I listened for her. Now, for what seems like the first time in two years, I collapse deeply, astonished each morning by the calm autumn sun warming my face.
After the initial shock and tumult die down, our neighbor the hermit brings us a Bundt cake on a chipped china plate rimmed with hand-painted forget-me-nots. He unlaces his muddy boots at the door, one filthy hand balancing on the doorjamb, and sidles into the living room. He stays to eat two pieces of the cake himself, expressing a querulous preference for the Hawaiian Kona coffee we once served him over the cinnamon tea Corrie favored, which still crams a cupboard shelf. A narrow-faced, gray-haired man with bloodshot eyes, he looks as if he’s been weeping. Once he’s had his coffee and cake, he might as well be alone, so fierce is his concentration. Even when we lay our forks on our empty plates, we have nothing to say. But our old Lab, Pamela, who’s been pining for Corrie, likes the hermit, and he wrestles with her on the living-room floor until the coffee table topples over. A blue pottery dish filled with beach glass is upset. Tears fill the hermit’s eyes as he apologizes, scurrying around on his hands and knees to pinch up the pieces before he flees.
one of the boys, the Catholic one, Danny, had a record on the mainland. He stole parts from cars, they tell us, and, worse, hustled sex-starved tourists at the Granville Market. Not uncommon, we’re told. There’s a cadre of lost children, boys mostly, who survive in the city this way. But Danny did not live in the city, and whether his past plays into “the incident” — as the police call it — is not certain until the Vancouver police and the RCMP rub heads together and come up with the first big lead of the case: Danny could have carried Corrie’s ID to Vancouver, possibly to present to a girlfriend. They show the runaway a photograph of Danny, and she shrugs. “His hair was longer,” she says. The RCMP and the Vancouver police are not fazed. They congratulate one another on this revelation and let all the families know in turn. I shake my head. Always these days I’m shaking my head.
The local newspaper prints Corrie’s yearbook picture. It’s the first time I’ve seen it; the proofs went straight to the school, and no one wanted to upset us by sending them over. She’s unbearably beautiful, even in the grainy newspaper reproduction. Her sometimes spotty skin has been smoothed. Her hair shines; her smile is without guile. She is my bright toddler brought to fruition. None of the painful transformation, the awful twisting of my girl into the screaming wretch she became in the past year — none of that is visible. Not for the first time, I wonder if there’s been a mistake, if the girl in the truck was a genuine stranger, perhaps someone Corrie befriended at school off-island. The island school is just for little kids. Come high school, we put our children on a boat every morning and send them to a bigger island, where they meet children we’ll never know, like Corrie’s supposed friend Alicia.
Two weeks after the funerals, Alicia reveals a skimpy diary in which Corrie, in an unfamiliar rounded hand, blames her father — that would be my ex, Kenneth — for unspeakable injuries. In the diary, she details her plans to leave for Vancouver. Money, she insinuates, is no problem. An unbearable excitement throbs behind her proclamations that no one will believe how easily she disappears, how her tracks will be so well hidden even Pamela couldn’t sniff them out. I find myself rooting for her, whispering words I could never say when she was here. Go, I urge as I read. Leave. Hurry, sweetheart, hurry. The only mention of me comes in the last paragraph of the diary, where she writes: “My mother will have no problem renting my room. She’s always said she could get big money for a room by the beach.”
Of course this isn’t true. Likely none of the journal is true, just a bit of drama dreamed up by Corrie or, perhaps, the all-too-helpful Alicia. Kenneth has lived in Toronto since Corrie was a year old and does not, to this day, acknowledge his part in parenting our glorious girl. I found a number for him and left a message on his machine right after the RCMP came, but he never called back. If Corrie had seen him in recent years, it was only in her dreams. And our house is a mile and a half from the beach, in a meadow bordered by an alder-choked clearing and a field full of purple thistles. Jasper and I can’t even find a summer renter for the studio we made in the barn — and studios, as you may surmise, are in great demand here.
weeks pass and the investigation peters out, although that’s not what they tell us. An RCMP stops by one evening to give us an update. I have one of my bad headaches and have to leave the room to vomit. He stays, sipping coffee with Jasper for almost an hour while I lie in our loft bed, feeling the murmur of their voices rising through the floorboards. Afterward, Jasper remembers only how heavily the man sugared his coffee and how he assured Jasper that they would “leave no stone unturned.” If the officer asked questions, Jasper isn’t repeating them.
“Lynnie, you know they’re doing their best,” he tells me, averting his eyes from my incredulous stare.
What does that mean, “their best”? Best is a shining A+, a gold star, a tiny girl twirling into my arms on the beach, squealing, Look, Mum, I made a new country, as she pulls me toward her deep sand hole with clamshells set around it like tidy houses, mimicking our island geography. Best is not a thin-lipped Mountie emptying the sugar bowl. When Jasper leaves for his studio, I dump the sugar into the trash and slam the pottery bowl against the wall. Afterward, I can almost hear Corrie’s slow, mocking applause, the door slamming behind her.
nearly five months go by. The Catholic family leaves the island. Garrett’s mum, Betty, has back surgery in Vancouver and doesn’t return for weeks. His dad takes up with May Shannon’s little sister, and when Betty returns, it’s to an empty house. Except for May, I don’t speak with any of them anymore, not even when we bump into each other in the aisles of the co-op. I want to burrow out of sight, put a distance between me and their grasping condolences. I leave it to Jasper to nod, offer the slightest of pleasantries. He’s good at that, too, I’ve noticed lately. Staying on the surface, I mean.
The seasons change; you can’t stop them. Jasper spends all day and some of each night in the barn studio, readying his pottery for the summer fair circuit. He specializes in oblong platters glazed with swirling sea greens and blues. Lately, the platters have grown ominously heavy, gaining in length and breadth, as well. When they’re finished, he wraps them in thin swathes of styrofoam, covers that with layers of newspaper, and stacks them in his van. More than once, I’ve been startled by the sight of him hoisting his shrouded platters across the drive.
The week before Jasper leaves, my father comes to visit from Victoria, where he runs a whale-watching business. It’s his busy season, the spring migration, but somehow he’s managed to get away. When he hugs me, I feel myself shatter and reassemble in a new, sturdier form. He can steady you, Dad can. Once, when I was a child and we were camping up in the Caribou, I watched him set a hiker’s broken leg in a splint. He had to twist the leg to set it straight. His hands were calm and quick, and the hiker, a banker from Richmond, never even cried out. The man sent us Christmas cards for years.
Dad has always been a fastidious eater. At dinner, he insists upon separating his food into nontouching piles and eating one small heap entirely before approaching the next; spoonful after spoonful of peas, followed by neatly cut-up pieces of browned beef, then the roasted new potatoes, whole on the fork. He says it’s a habit he picked up in the army, eating off mess trays. Corrie always admired this eccentricity. For a few miserable months, she imitated him. It was a bone of contention between us. I remember the night I’d had enough of her picking tiny bits of onion and corn from her rice and placing them in separate piles beside the already segregated chicken. I went a little crazy. I dove into her plate, swirling vegetables and rice and chicken together, dumping spoonfuls of chutney and pineapple into the mix. Then I did something far more shameful: I picked up a spoon and began forcing the mess into her nine-year-old mouth, even as she wept and wailed and the food dribbled over her face and chest. Remembering this now, I take off to the bathing shed Jasper built, where I switch on the bumptious whirlpool and try to slow my heart to the marching beat of the pump.
At supper on the first night of Dad’s visit, I place three separate plates in front of my father and prepare myself to observe his routine. Jasper chastises me with a look that says I’m being rude, but Dad isn’t offended. During his two-day visit, he is careful with me, accepting every suggestion I make without a single argument. We walk the beach; I measure him for a new shirt I’ll make; at night, we go out to the cafe by the ferry dock and drink beer and watch the lights on the water, the sea otters playing around the dock pilings. He doesn’t say a word about Corrie’s backpack, which I carry everywhere these days. Before my father leaves, Jasper exhibits his enormous new platters for him, and I make a lame joke about Dad taking one along on his off-season whale tours to use as a decoy. Neither Jasper nor my father finds my joke funny, but I laugh so hard my eyes tear and my chest ratchets with pain. My father presses my arm too tightly.
“Lynnie,” he says, as if he’s been waiting years to get my attention, “you need to get out of here.”
For the first time in my life, I shrug him off roughly, shake my head with a sour smile. I can never leave here now. Jasper, at least, knows that. He hasn’t even hinted that I should come along this year for the three months he spends traveling around to mainland craft fairs. Last summer we decided we would plant a crop of pot in the back field, but this doesn’t seem a good idea anymore, despite the unbelievable prices Blunt Bob is getting. Instead, Jasper just packs his van a few weeks earlier than necessary and offers me a dry, painful kiss goodbye.
keep busy, the island widows advised me at Corrie’s memorial tea. I pick early strawberries and scavenge downed plums behind the ex-navy commander’s trailer, ignoring the trenches edged with wire fencing that he’s dug around the plum trees, ostensibly to keep the likes of me away. I grab my clam rake and shovel and bucket and pass through the infamous field on my way to the beach. It’s part of my routine now. May Shannon says she doesn’t know how I do it. She’d be terrified. As if the killer were still there, a part of the field, an island ghost, like my girl. I don’t tell May about Corrie’s little red clamming boots, still in the mud room, or her own childish rake leaning beside mine; how when she was little she’d run along the beach, stamping at the clam holes, squealing when the clam would spit, the jet of water always taking her by surprise, no matter how many times I explained that every wild thing — even a clam — needs to protect itself. I don’t tell May how I scolded Corrie, how I was impatient, how I did not listen — ever, it seems — to her joy or her need.
Island children are such pretty children; have I mentioned that? Ruddy cheeked, dressed in brilliant scraps of homemade clothes, they own the island with their hidden forts and meandering bicycle rides, their restless, concentrated wonder. They are the best of us, those little ones, the reason so many of us came here in the first place: to give our beautiful children a chance to grow up apart from the world. It didn’t occur to us how we each carry the terrors of the world within us.
In late spring, the island school hires me to make one of those huge parachutes they use to teach cooperation in the primary grades. I remember this from Corrie’s time. All the students stand in a circle, holding tightly to their bit of parachute silk. Together, they loft the parachute over and over into the air until, on the count of three, they simultaneously duck their heads inside. If they all work together, it’s a seamless motion. Supposedly, this swell of togetherness will etch itself in their memories and keep them from harming each other as they grow older.
The parachute is always a big hit. The children adore the moment when the ordinary world disappears into a prism of darting color and light, and they giggle madly, knowing the adults will wait for them to reappear. But this year, when they tried to hoist the ratty old parachute, the fabric tore, leaving a few forlorn children outside the circle, their hands full of unraveled silk. One child began to sob. The school secretary telephoned me that afternoon.
I have all the pieces cut out and am sewing them together on the machine when the hermit arrives with another Bundt cake — this one chocolate-swirled, with cocoa sifted prettily over the top. The entire living room is strewn with lengthy diamond-shaped panels of parachute silk. I have them hanging from the loft railing, draped over the couch and the chairs: strips of lemon yellow, fuchsia, azure, and chartreuse. More fabric lies bunched on my lap and slung around my shoulders: turquoise, orange, the reddest of reds. The hermit grins in awed relief. To him it must seem as if I’m wrapped in happiness.
When Pamela sees the hermit from her place of exile on the deck, she starts whining. Her tail hits the barbecue grill, and the air behind her clouds with charcoal dust. The tender hermit abruptly grimaces, already blaming himself.
“It’s all right,” I tell him. “It’s not your fault.”
I’m out of coffee. Out of tea, as well, since Jasper took the last of Corrie’s tea with him. No milk and only a scummy bit of apple juice in a recycled gallon container. Even the filtered-water barrel is nearly bone dry. I fling open one cabinet door after another, slam them all shut. Plates jump, glasses shiver. A saltcellar flips on its side and rolls under the refrigerator. I sink to the floor as if I’m about to rescue it, but all I can think of is how much I want to join it in the close dark. When I open my eyes, the hermit is still waiting. He’s crouched across from me beside the sliding glass door with Pamela pressing against the other side as if leaning into him.
“Come on, then,” the hermit says. He pulls me awkwardly to my feet, hands me Corrie’s backpack, and steers me to the door. His fingers feel like sandpaper.
Years ago, when I first arrived on the island and was fiercely walking my way through my pregnancy, I plunged down the wrong trail and ended up hiking through a swampy marsh that led, I discovered, to the center of the island, where the hermit lives. I remember telling this story to Corrie when she was six and liked to spend whole mornings hiding in a big cardboard box in the center of the kitchen. Corrie was intrigued. So, years after my first hike into his territory, she and I tried, without luck, to find his lair again. All we could see was a curved roof made out of mismatched shingles with a crooked brick chimney in the center. A thicket of Himalayan blackberries made any further approach unthinkable. We went home and, with my help, Corrie baked oatmeal cookies. Together we left them in the hermit’s red plastic crate by the logging road. Corrie added a drawing she’d made of a little pink house with a smiling face filling a window. A few days after that, the hermit appeared at our door with the first of his cakes, although he wouldn’t stay, and his voice, a testy whine, frightened Corrie. Now the hermit leads me, with Pamela squeezing beside us, right into the brambles around his house. I pull back, but he insists.
“There’s a path,” he says.
I don’t see any path. Still, we barely scrape the first branches before we’re in a fragrant tunnel in the midst of the blackberries, a safe distance from the thorns. A moment later, we emerge into an expansive, sunny clearing, spinning with raised garden beds. The hermit has shaped all his plots into spirals and rings, and the trail through them is equally dizzying. At the center is his house, just a shack really, covered, even this early in the season, with yellow and pink roses. I pride myself on my own flower garden, but I don’t recognize any of the hermit’s roses.
If Corrie were here now, she would shoulder past me into the cottage. She would coo and exclaim until he reddened with embarrassment. Her fingers would stroke the quiet contours of his books, his surprisingly fussy knickknack shelf. A keepsake might slip unnoticed into her pocket.
The hermit motions for me to stay in the yard. As he disappears into his cottage with Pamela wagging shamelessly beside him, I fold myself onto the grass and inhale. The purple sage is in bloom, the peas are flowering, and bulbs of garlic, with their long green spikes still attached, lie drying on a screen set up on bricks.
He presents me with a slice of cake on a china plate (this one rimmed with silver) and a shaking teacup filled to the brim with strong black coffee. Over his tattered sleeve, he’s placed a single ivory-colored linen napkin, which he offers to me as well. The fork is heavy and silver, and with each bite I feel pampered and reassured.
“Your roses: I don’t know their names,” I say, as if he’s neglected to introduce me.
I’ve heard that, years ago, the hermit was a university professor named Ewan Millet. We supposedly have books in the island library authored by that man, a historian. Now he jumps to his feet to snap off blooms and bring them to me with their stories. Here is the yellow Noisette and the rosy pink Gracilis.
“Gracilis is a Boursault,” he says in a slightly pompous manner that reminds me of May Shannon. “And this white, violet-scented beauty is a Banksia, named for the wife of Thomas Banks, who accompanied her husband on Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavor, as it sailed around the world. Her kinfolk thought she had disappeared off the face of the earth.”
His next offering is the least appealing: a rough purple blossom shot through with shades of crimson. He thrusts it into my hand, splashing coffee on the linen napkin.
“See,” he crows as if I’ve challenged him, “no thorns. According to the followers of Zoroaster, roses had no thorns until the arrival of evil in the world.”
“Zoroaster?” I say, but the hermit ignores me. He is too excited.
“Think of it,” he says in his high, soft voice: “something that knows no evil.”
I have a sudden urge to pluck each unlovely petal from the rose, introduce it to my world. The hermit doesn’t seem to see my outstretched hand. He tucks the rose — Alpina, he calls it — into Corrie’s backpack. His stranger’s hand emerging from the backpack reminds me of what the RCMP would not return to me.
“There are additional items, Mrs. Campbell,” the officer said, holding out a glass pipe with a pair of tubular stems and a wad of bills wrapped in the green flowered scarf I once saved in tissue for fancier potlucks. “Perhaps you recognize them?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head.
I’d caught her wearing the scarf as a halter once. No big deal, perhaps, but it seemed monumental at the time, the way she sifted through my things, culling out the best, only to later trash or abandon each much-cared-for article. The scarf was already ruined. Burned along one hem. I don’t even know why I wanted it back.
“Selfish bitch,” she called me, her face twisted with rage.
Again and again, she defied me. And why not? What did I understand of the world, shut away here on this island?
“You’re mine,” I told her. “That’s all I need to know.”
“You don’t know me at all,” she spat in return.
I chased her, catching the scorched hem of the scarf. I can feel it yet, the pinch of stiffened fabric pulling away.
© Gypsy Ray
i arrive home to another call from May Shannon. She is astonished to hear I have been to visit the hermit, that I have had Bundt cake and coffee in his garden while he braided garlic and introduced me to his roses.
“He’s crazy, Lynnie,” she warns. “Aside from you, he hasn’t been around people in twenty years.”
“Yeah, that’s crazy all right,” I tell May Shannon, laying the receiver in its cradle and easing away from the window as an unfamiliar green car appears in the gravel driveway, coming to rest beside my old truck.
Used to be we would all perk up at the sight of a visitor, but the woman who emerges from the green car, in her navy skirt and sensible heels, chills me. She is obviously off-island, most likely a tourist following the hand-lettered sign Jasper posted on the main road to advertise his pottery studio.
But she’s not a tourist. “Mrs. Campbell?” she says, when I finally come to the door. “Oh, I’m so glad I caught you at home.” Her name is Gayle Something-or-Other from the RCMP, and she has news for me about that boy Danny and the ex-navy commander.
© Jenn Reidel
all through the long afternoon, I work on the parachute. The sewing machine’s lurch and rumble, its harsh whirring mirrors something inside me. The needle pierces the fabric; seams are joined. Still nothing fits quite right; the fabric puckers and gapes.
“Yes, Mrs. Campbell,” Gayle said when I challenged her. “We are absolutely certain.” She went on to describe the commander’s folders, the smudged sheets of photocopied hands.
At dusk, that splintered hour between day and night when I can half hear Corrie banging across the deck, I finally look up. Her backpack slumps into a corner of the couch as if she had thrown it there herself: her graceful hand, with its bitten-down nails and stained fingers, lofting the backpack into the air, declaring her return. It occurs to me that I could see that hand again — or, more accurately, I could see the image of Corrie’s fourteen-year-old hand. I could examine it myself.
the moment I round the corner to the commander’s trailer, the news Gayle Something-or-Other was so eager to share grows teeth. The trailer is encircled by bright orange tape that hangs limply, like the ribbon on an unwanted present. The tape won’t keep me out, nor will the smell coming from the place: that same rank, fruity smell that worked its way into Corrie’s hair the afternoon he told her fortune. My eyes are stinging as I turn the meager lock, let myself in, and switch on the naked bulb this monster lived beneath.
They’ve gone through everything. The file cabinet where he kept his manila folders is missing. Its absence creates the only clean patch on the soiled dun-colored carpet. The tacky, wheezing copier machine has vanished, too. Still, it seems possible that the file with Corrie’s handprint might have been overlooked. I open drawers and root gingerly through a cupboard. I can make out dusty gaps on the bookshelves — presumably places where the RCMP found suspect volumes. What remains are an odd mix of poetry and psychology books, a collection of essays by Walter Pater, and several well-read war biographies, one thick with illustrations that remind me of William Blake’s hallucinations of heaven and hell.
“Boys and war were his passions,” Gayle informed me, as if that would clarify his motive.
He had no choice, he claimed when they came for him. Pointing to his file cabinet, he demanded they “check the evidence.” He had been misunderstood, he protested. He was a Uranian, not a bloody molester. The boys — the lithe, conniving Danny and his shadow, the complicit Garrett — they were doomed, like all those impossibly bright boys who’d fought in the war for which the commander himself had been decades too late, the one he still felt held his destiny.
And Corrie? Just another casualty, lost in the War of the Beautiful Lads. “Check the evidence!” he repeated.
But where? I think. How?
The rage I feel at the missing handprint creeps up on me, arriving with a force that almost blows me apart. I rip through the trailer, upending the already torn-apart bench seats, smashing a bowl half full of rotting plums. As the air fractures around me, a series of high-pitched, strangling cries emerges without warning from my throat.
Eventually, I bang my hip hard against the aluminum edge of the formica table and collapse into the trailer’s only chair, the one Corrie claimed that day. The ripped leatherette seat scrapes the back of my thighs. When I pick up one of the bad plums and squeeze it, the juice stings like crazy, and I notice the knuckles of my right hand are bleeding. This new pain seems almost pleasurable.
She lied, you know, more easily than she told the truth. She stole whatever she fancied, as well as less-desirable items that others treasured. Her capacity for malice obliterated any positive expectations the rest of us harbored for her. Last summer, after Ed Shannon gave her a job registering overnight visitors at the boat haven, she chugged a pilfered half liter of tequila and rampaged through the building, breaking glass and swearing loudly, until a live-aboard used the pay phone at the dock’s laundromat to call Ed.
“If you don’t watch yourself, young lady, they’ll have you locked in a box,” Ed told her.
“As if I fucking care,” she taunted him.
She would have left anyway, and I would have grieved even as I dreaded her return. It’s that tangled anticipation I won’t have, I realize, the nights of pained wakefulness, our mutual disdain rasping against my hopes for her. No matter how far she roamed, she would still hover near enough to flail at the open, ever-deepening wounds she loved to inflict.
A salt breeze enters the trailer and mixes with the gassy mold stench. I clutch Corrie’s backpack to my chest to steady myself. As I do, my hand brushes against my mouth, the stink of my daughter’s murderer lands on my tongue, and I am finally weeping, knowing that I am left with only this: a backpack full of childish longings, a daughter I can carry.