H. J. Shaw
I’ve been interviewed enough times to know all the games, I say. You show up with a tape recorder and just because I knew your mom, you think you can trick me into playing along. Well, Coco, I’ve seen it all, I say, I really have.
Coco’s playing dumb because she knows she’s been caught like a kid with candy wrappers. She dries her palms on the flanks of her tartan pencil skirt like there’s nothing wrong with what she just did. She’s polished: a sleek haircut, a tailored blazer—but I can sniff out a snoop.
You go by Colette now, right, I remember. But I’ve known you too long to be anything else. You’re still Coco to me. I remember when you were little. You wore guilt the same way when you were cheating at checkers while we waited up for your mom’s shift to end.
And for the record, I say, since you want a put this in the post, I have trouble sleeping. All the pills you saw I can account for. I take melatonin nightly, valium, antidepressants, and pain killers as I need them, not that I need them that often. And I don’t abuse them.
I don’t know when that started though, the trouble sleeping. Like maybe I’ve always had that. I didn’t take notice of it and neither did my doctors for a long time.
Coco doesn’t admit she’s been looking through my medicine cabinet. She just takes out a pad of paper and starts to write. I tell her, And, Colette, I still go by Lorelei in case you were wondering. I didn’t change my name.
His time’s almost up, isn’t it? Because it’s suddenly dawned on me. That’s why you’re coming around. I don’t even need to pay too close attention to know what’s happening to him out there.
Coco doesn’t tell me if I’m right, just that Davy isn’t the one being interviewed.
It’s trouble sleeping, I say. I don’t think it’s anything too special. Isn’t there some statistic out there like two-thirds of America can’t sleep the whole night well? You probably know it better than me with all your fact-finding.
Sometimes though, it’s nightmares. I’ve always had them. Long before Davy. Before anything. I don’t remember what happens in them, just the feeling of dread. It climbs over you in the dark and doesn’t care that you want it to end.
I once saw a therapist that thought they might have been repressed memories. She wanted me to lean into them, but we don’t need to do that. Nothing good ever comes from things lying there in the shadows.
Most nightmares now involve blades.
It begins with a smooth cut down the spine. Sometimes my spine, or someone else’s. She’s always both me and not me and I’m staring down from above, like we’re in a kind of medical theater. She’s splayed out on a long metal table. We look alike. The same honey-brown hair. It falls in waves across her back like a cloak.
There isn’t blood, like she was frozen first and just starting to thaw, but she’s being disassembled, dismembered, disemboweled. Vertebrae pulled out like teeth. Then onto the muscles, the tendons, the parts that pull and snap. Her skin is peeled back. Someone who’s face I don’t see raises a beating heart up towards the bright light from above.
There’s no reason it should be beating, except for that she knows that even this is not the end.
You know, I think I’ll put on a pot of tea for us, if you’d like some. Sometimes interviews get me wound up and I need something warm to help bring me down.
Coco takes the chance to get up, walk with me into the kitchen. She pauses by the fridge over a photo of me and my son Xander. It’s a stupid candid Polaroid Xander took with his friend’s camera. He looks more like me than he has any right to and in the photo, we’re smiling, half-laughing, eyes squinting, big teeth showing.
He’s not Davy’s son, I say. Coco whips her head towards me like I’ve just read her mind. She’s not that different from every other interviewer. I tell her, Everyone asks.
I fill the kettle and Coco switches gears. She wants to know when the last time I talked to Davy was. I can’t remember. We’re still married though and we still write sometimes, not that I read his letters anymore. I just write them. I’ll see something and think of something from when we were kids.
I talk about Xander sometimes – he wishes he could have known Xander. He said that once right after I’d had him. It was something to the effect that he’s glad my life didn’t end with his. I mean, Davy’s not dead yet, he’s on death row. But how much of a difference is there now?
The whistle of the tea kettle distracts us both and Coco flips the page in her notebook.
Lemon? I ask. I put lemon in Coco’s mug anyway and fix mine the same. Coco’s cheeks are pink, like somehow this whole ordeal is more embarrassing for her than it is for me.
The rabbits? I can talk about the rabbits. We can start there. It’s a good place to begin.
I started stuffing the rabbits as a girl. Growing up, we kept them in a pen behind the house. They’re not pets. They weren’t creatures for loving. Even if they were soft and sweet. I used to feed them, watch the way the nibbled ferociously at blades of alfalfa.
When my dad was in the mood for it, mom went out to the garage to butcher one. She taught me first how to skin the thing. Then, how to slice. You had to know where the bones were, where to cut.
My mom was more concerned with the cooking. She spiced the meat and made it into rarebit, stews, and potpies. She relished in the things she could create and I watched the rabbits die over and over again.
I must have got the idea from the woman at the flower shop in town. She used to have a little Chihuahua named Dee-Dee that would prance around and circle my feet every time I had a reason to go in there. But once, the little dog was curled up in a ball on the counter by the register. The owner, a frizzy-haired chainsmoker, broke the news to me that Dee-Dee was dead. ‘I took her to Pat’s,’ the woman said, ‘Hadn’t he done her good?’ I didn’t know Pat’s, but that didn’t matter, because I learned something that day. While I stood up at the counter stroking Dee-Dee’s short blond coat with two fingers. Dee-Dee was dead, but she didn’t have to be gone. She could lay there at the register just like she was taking a nap. Like a death undone.
Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about Dee-Dee so much if my mom hadn’t gone out the way she did. It was later, but not too much later than that. I got to see her lying on white taffeta in an open casket, stuffed like Dee-Dee, wearing a lace and lily corsage over the wrist she split open.
When she was gone, the rabbit-killing fell to me.
Coco stopped taking notes. She’d gone a little pale in the last few minutes.
That’s what you came to hear about, isn’t it?
She nods. Of course it is. Though in a quick moment of uncertainty, Coco’s lost her confidence. How much of this stuff had her mother already told her? Maybe less than I thought, or much more. It’s hard to tell. Coco flipped through her notepad to find a new question. There’s more than a few to go.
I guess I wanted to save the rabbits. I had to kill them but they didn’t have to be so dead. The first few attempts were disasters. It’s not like I was ever trained in taxidermy. They’d rot away in a few days, souring from the inside, unsalvageable. I cried for them. Gave the burials in the yard and set stones on their graves so the raccoons would have a time of getting them. Each new failure tore my heart again. Death twice over. I was never great at tanning the hides.
That year one of our does had three litters. More than my mom ever allowed, but she was gone, and I loved to see the babies grow.
My first success had no feet. The hides always used to rip at the rabbit’s wrists and ankles. I sewed him up with furry stumps for hands and feet and just went without. He was a charming critter, even without any toes. I posed him with his head down, body curled in, legs tucked tightly and eyes shut for sleep, just like how Dee-Dee looked. He was a rabbit saved.
I kept him on my writing desk where he could finally be loved and admired the way he never could when he was in the pen out back. I don’t have him anymore. He was a gift for Davy, because we met right around then.
It wasn’t anything special, the way we met. It’s like I’d known him already, even if I hadn’t really, I just might as well have, you know? We were in the same class at school and he lived in the neighborhood.
I might have just been any other girl at school to him if it hadn’t been for the rabbits. He was never popular, kept to himself, and said little in classes. He’d been at my mom’s funeral and I only remember that because he told me that my dad should rot in hell. If you’d have known my dad, you’d know that was a nice thing to say. No one ever writes about this part, but Davy was sensitive. He had such a capacity for compassion.
I remember when he first saw me working on a rabbit. We’d gone on a few dates, maybe two. Once at least to the Dairy Queen in Elton. He stopped by unexpected and found me around back, wiggling wires through a rabbit skin. I can still see it, clear as yesterday, when he should have cringed at me in my apron, dappled with blood, he lifted my chin and stroked away a long swath of hair with the back of his hand. He kissed me on the mouth so I could feel the heat of fire licking at his insides. I felt as though he understood my mission, that he was there for it and blessed it.
He admired the rabbits. It was why I gave the one from my room to him, my first, my joy. I tied a ribbon around his neck and handed him over.
I don’t have any left. I gave up almost everything when I had to leave the cabin. For a long time, everything was evidence. My house, my animals, my clothes, my jewelry.
Oh, you noticed that? I don’t wear a ring anymore, no jewelry. It doesn’t matter that the ring was mine. When I got it back, the damage was done, the rumors were already everywhere. No one could see me with a ring and not think of the girl with the missing fingers.
Trust me, her ring was nice. Nicer than mine. And that’s not to say Davy didn’t spend enough on a ring, he spent what he had. He was good that way. So Davy didn’t steal it. He’s not a thief. Don’t make assumptions like that. It’s not good journalism.
I don’t wear a ring because it brings up questions I still can’t answer. I get a question about my husband, and sometimes the person asking didn’t know a thing about him, but I don’t know what to say. I’ve moved on of course. I had Xander and for awhile, Xander’s father was in the picture. He passed though, almost a year now. It’s funny how Davy outlasted him. With the way things are going, he’ll outlast me too.
I get up and rush to the sink for a glass of water. Coco is asking if I’ll be alright. I don’t know what came over me. I really don’t. I’m fine sometimes and I’m not. But like always, it’ll pass. I get like this sometimes. It’s really nothing.
No, it’s fine. I don’t need a break. Or maybe we just go out for some air. I could use a walk. I’ve got an hour before I have to go pick up Xander from school, and the fresh, piney air might be just what I need.
Coco wants to say no. I can see it on her face, but she won’t. That’s how her mom raised her. I used to wear that look too, back before I learned to say no.
I’ll speak loud so you can still hear it on that damned taped recorder. Don’t turn it off, it’s fine. It’s really alright. I just. It’s not about you. It’s these interviews. There’s a reason I don’t do so many anymore. It’s not like you’re going to get anything new and I’m getting tired of seeing my words twisted up in print. But the truth here is simple. It’s even a little boring. We were happy. He never raised a hand – he didn’t even raise his voice to me. He wasn’t like that. When we fought, he’d get quiet. He’d leave the room, walk it off, but he always came back and sometimes we were happy.
He and my dad never got on. Sometimes I think for all those people Davy did think to cut down, somehow Davy never thought to pick him off.
I mean, I know it’s not like that. He didn’t hurt men. Just girls. He had a type. Girls with long, brown hair. Like me. It’s hard to hold those two things in your head. There’s the brown-haired girls and then there’s the little things like the way we had dinner together every night.
It was Davy that moved me out of my father’s house with the promise of a wedding ring three weeks before graduation. He said he couldn’t stand it about my home, my dad. Davy already had left home himself. He didn’t like to talk about it. He was ready for us to get married and strike it out on our own and we did.
Grace Marshall? I ask. I know the name, but, Coco, don’t jump the gun. I’m going to get there. You can ask me about her all you want but I don’t know when Davy met that girl. I can only say what I know.
Coco is too soft-spoken for this line of work. She nods and follows quickly even in those pointed-toe heels. They’re not shoes for the gravel road, but she hasn’t given up yet. If she’d been someone else’s daughter this interview might have ended twice already and she doesn’t even know that.
There were warnings, I guess, I say, right when we started living together. He bought a camper and took up odd jobs around town. After graduation, he got a job at the plant and worked with plastic water bottle caps. The pay wasn’t too bad, but he had to drive a long stretch of highway to get there. It’s why he started bringing home roadkill.
Usually it was raccoons. Once a groundhog, a skunk, even a coyote. He brought me home a turkey once, but I can’t work with birds. I let the ugly thing stay dead. The others though, I cared for them. I revived them in my own way. I improved so much in those first few years after we got married.
Davy asked that I not work. I didn’t need a job. He was making enough at the plant to afford our quiet little existence. He just said one thing about the animals. I couldn’t skin them without him there. He said just in case one of them was rabid or not really dead or in the event that I hurt myself with one of the knives. It made sense why he asked that, but he would watch me. The way I picked the spot to make the first cut. How deep it went. He didn’t ask questions or anything, he just always watched.
He brought home a cat once. Maybe I would have done it if it had been a stray, but the poor thing had a collar on. I remember it, a long-haired gray and white ragdoll with a pink satin collar. The kind with a little silver bell on it. The poor thing. Davy urged it into my hands.
It was as heavy as a newborn, more fur than anything else. He’d said, “You can do this one next.” I still remember it. I told him, “No, we can’t because she belongs to somebody out there.” I told him I’d look for the owners if he showed me where he found her.
I kept asking about that. Where he found her. He said he’d tell me, but he never did.
I think about that cat. She wasn’t like the others. Sometimes while I’m holding the bodies, I can feel just how the car struck them. Something might be crushed or bruising. There’s always signs of the collision. It’s the first thing I look for because it’s the thing I’ll have to hide. But the cat, she was pristine. No blood even. Rigor mortis hadn’t even set in and the joints were still loose. Her neck – that’s what I think back to time and time again. I think he broke it.
Textbook, I know, I say, but when you’re standing the kitchen of your camper with a dead cat in your hands, it’s not really the thing on your mind.
We moved out of the camper not too long after that. He bought a house. He was always saying, a man and wife should have a house. It was farther out, farther from town. We didn’t get cell reception and on some stormy days, we went without cable, but it was beautiful. Forty acres of forest we could call our own, surrounded by more forest with other faraway neighbors. I moved my belongings into the cabin and he got rid of the camper. I thought he’d sold it. He didn’t mention it and I didn’t ask. He’d given me a house. It wasn’t big, but it had rooms for us and what he’d hoped for one day, children.
I didn’t want children right then. I was young. I knew that. I did what I could to avoid getting pregnant. He didn’t have to know about any of that. Money was tighter with the new house but he still never raised his voice at me. Not even then.
I thought sometimes about getting a job. I didn’t even tell him when I applied for the position. It was a hostessing gig at a stop off a couple miles down the road. Nothing came of it, but that didn’t matter. That look of betrayal on his face when I finally told him said it all. He didn’t speak to me for weeks.
Coco, maybe you know when that Grace Marshall girl died, but I don’t. I didn’t even see her story on the news. It was one fight a half a lifetime ago. Do you remember everything you did last month? Or even last year?
I was doing the laundry once and I washed bloodstains out of one of his shirts. He said it was from the animals, from a fox he’d picked up for me on the side of the road. I believed him because though it was the dead of winter, the fox was pretty mangled up already, but the fur, its brilliant red fur. He thought I could make something of it yet.
I don’t know when this was. What difference does it make? Come on, kiddo. Don’t ask me stupid questions.
It’s all clear in hindsight I guess. But I can tell you, I was in the dark. I didn’t know anything was off until I found that one girl. Tara Katz.
It was like walking through a dream, that’s the only way I can think of it now. Like something that’s not exactly real. I was out in the yard that day and I never go out. But I wanted to start a vegetable garden in the spring. There was still snow on the ground and we’d lost power for the day. So I’d made up my mind about this garden. I wanted to pick the spot, clear the brush, make it ready. Davy was still upset about something and I thought this would be a nice treat. A garden to bring us together again.
There were miles of forest. I thought I knew what was out there. That I hadn’t needed to explore every stretch of it to know it. I don’t know how far I walked, though it seemed like it had been a long time. I climbed a ridge and walked down the other side of it, over a frozen creek bed and maybe I’d already gone too far.
It was like a dream and I don’t even think I was looking for a spot for the garden anymore. I found a path, a narrow deer trail that cut through thicket and pine bush.
Then I saw the camper. A long lost relic. Though I’d lived there just a few years before, it seemed like it had rotted. The paint chipped. It was spotted with rust and water pooled in a place where the roof had been dented in. The curtains were shut and the cabin was dark.
I’d always thought he’d gotten rid of it. The tires were flat. Its railing was knocked away, though it still clung to the door frame, bent at an unnatural angle.
It’s not like I missed it, but suddenly it wasn’t gone.
I tried the door. It was locked, but that wasn’t much of an obstacle. I was always losing keys back when we lived there, so I kept a spare hidden beneath the plastic cover on the light fixture by the door.
The light fixture was dank and molding, but the key was still there, untouched after all this time. I let myself in.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Like dampness and dead animal. I reached for the switch but it was dead. There was a split moment where I was just standing there in the doorway remembering our lives there. Everything was colored over with nostalgia, it was a feeling that I still try to remember, but I can’t hold onto it. There’s no getting it back.
Tara was on the kitchen table. At first I thought she was some kind of animal, like doe that had gotten stuck inside the camper and couldn’t get out. I must have stared for a long time before I realized she was person.
She lay there naked, pale white, like she was made of marble and splayed on the metal-topped table. She was wrapped in a pink floral bedspread I bought when we first were married. She didn’t even really look dead.
I don’t know what I did next. I cried I think. I might have ran. I don’t remember how I got home that night.
Yeah, I would have called the police, Coco. I’ll get to that. I held the kitchen phone to my ear and I had my fingers on the buttons ready to dial, but it wasn’t any good. The phones were all out from the snow. I could have walked to the service station down the road, but I guess I wasn’t thinking. Davy was going to be home and I had to get started on dinner and I wasn’t going to lie to him.
Afraid? I ask. Of Davy? No, haven’t you been listening? He’d never hurt me. I told you that already. So, when he got home, I told him what I saw.
He held me while I cried. Can you imagine that? You reporters never seem to get it. He could be so tender like that. And it didn’t matter that I never got to the phone anyway.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, plates not even cleared from dinner when police strobe lights flashed through the kitchen windows.
He came out. Hands where they could see them. And they took him away, then they took the house and everything else with it.
That’s it, I say. No, really. That’s what happened.
Coco says it isn’t. She’s trying her best to keep up and has finally ditched the heels. She tucked them into her purse so they poke out and jab her side. She’s been quiet until now, only urging me through the story, but now she’s stopped. This isn’t the story she was after. She says something that sounds mean but a tractor trailer blows by and drowns out her words.
I told you all you need to know, I say. When I found Tara, I told Davy he could stop killing. No. He had to stop killing. I told him I would leave him if he didn’t come clean.
So he told me about Lisa Olsen, Kate Christopher, Grace Marshall, Heather McMyers, and all those other girls. That’s not news. I said all that when we went to trial. I walked away with time served. Case closed. Now can we wrap this up. I’ve got to pick up Xander in a few and I don’t want him to have to hear a word of this.
Okay, I get it, you studied the timeline from the trial. The cops didn’t come right away. It was a week. Just one. Does it really make a difference if anything else happened? I say. No one else died.
Davy showed me the girls. Some of them had been so preserved by the frost that I could see just what happened. I’m not going say it didn’t make me sick. Suddenly I knew why he liked to watch me skin the animals. But he didn’t do that with the girls. He just cut them open and messed around.
We couldn’t just leave them like that. I told him he had to get me the all the pieces. We had to undo this.
I put them back together. There were pieces missing, you know. Like that one girl’s fingers. We never found her ring. They make me out to be so evil, but I’m not. I can tell you that. I saw enough death and I wanted to fix things the only way I knew how. And no one else was going to die.
We reach the foot of my driveway and Coco’s gone quiet. I tell her, I’m not going to talk about it much more. I don’t like thinking about the past. I’m not the same person anymore.
I almost don’t want to answer the question, but Coco promises that it’s the last one.
I’ve thought about it a lot actually. Sometimes it feels like it’s the thing my life’s been building to. That’s sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I’ve imagined it. I can see Davy strapped to a silver table. I’ll be there, watching him from behind a glass. I don’t know who else will be there with me, but it doesn’t matter. The table rises up so he’ll see me and I’ll see him. I’m still his wife. And whenever I imagine it, it’s like we haven’t aged a day since his arrest.
He’ll get his last words. I don’t think he’ll have any. Or maybe, like all those letter I haven’t read, I just won’t even hear them.
Someone will start the injections and he’ll start to lose feeling. One needle at a time, they make him sleep. His eyes will be on me until he can’t keep them open anymore. The muscles in his face relax into quiet. Then at last, his heart stops beating. And then it’s all over.
H. J. Shaw is a Pisces and lover of all things macabre. She holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and resides in Queens with her husband Jake. Shaw is at work on a novel inspired by urban legends.