Monday, October 24, 2011

The Andersons

The killer of children dipped her index and middle fingers into the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream and smeared some underneath each eye. The cold would shrink pores and tighten capillaries, pulling the skin taut. The emollients would soften dryness and decrease the visibility of fine lines and crow’s feet. That’s what was promised in the commercials and women’s–magazine ads: “decrease the visibility of fine lines.”

The duct system in the old house bypassed the bathroom that was hers. Heat flowed through the rooms, up and down the three aboveground stories and even into the basement and attic, breathing into the rooms via floor or ceiling vents, but her bedroom and bathroom were on the second story of a newer wing. Second story, new wing. Everything possessed some other, deeper meaning if you thought about it long enough. Or at least, the words did.

***

It would have been more ironic – that she worked at the sheriff’s office – had it not been such a small town. In a small town, it’s up to everyone to do everything. It’s like an elementary-school play where one kid plays the king and his best friend plays the thief who robs him just because somebody in the class has to; the role can’t go unfilled or you don’t have a play.

So she played her old part in the room with the other dispatchers who took the 911 calls. This was her role; it’d been unfair for her to be given two contradictory roles, the universe’s error, so she just pretended the newer one didn’t exist. Until it occurred to her that the second role – the villain of the play – had been her real part all along, and she had only been playing one of the normal townsfolk to kill time until her scene.

***

They blamed the ice.

After all, the accident happened on a lonely country road after a big storm. Thanksgiving Day, and the family driving home after a visit with the kids’ paternal grandparents, also named the Andersons. The town paper said the father had likely hit an invisible black patch, or had maybe been besieged by a sudden deer. They had gone into a ditch and flipped, the sedan ending up on its roof, which had smashed in. The family spent the night together in the field, still buckled up. Dawn came otherworldly to the field, bestowed it with heavenly hues that sparkled on the ice-crusted blades. Lt. McAllister had been the one on patrol, gliding along, thinking how pretty it all was. Of course she only knew this because she’d heard the story around the office. By then she was long gone.

***

It would pass. It had to. Her shaking hands. Insomnia. She turned to booze even more than before. The universe had made an error. Why hadn’t she joined them? “Excuse me, there must have been some mistake.”

***

Of all the stupid things to think about: How that group of popular girls from her high-school class would react if she turned herself in. How they would shape it into something pre-destined, because they were married and had children, and she had not gone that route. There must have always been something wrong with her.

She could have gone down that road, sure. There were boys, but they were boring to her. Then there were men, and they were never what she’d hoped they’d be. Or she never was.

She had worked at a cash register at the Piggly Wiggly after school and on summers and weekends. She had saved up – her parents had kicked in some – for a trip to Paris with her French teacher and a couple of the rich kids. Walking those magic streets alone in the morning – breaking her teacher’s rule to not go out unchaperoned – to get a croissant and bring it back to the hotel, she had vowed to return as an adult.

It occurred to her now that she still could. That was another error, because she wasn’t supposed to be so free. Why would the universe reward you for doing the wrong thing? Maybe a dark heart beat at the center of everything, and God was really the devil.

By then she was long gone.

***

Another stupid thing to think about: What dawn must have looked like on that icy field. Lt. McAllister always had that part in his story, about the colors and the sparkling. That was the part she could think about, and even liked to think about, found it calming as crazy as that sounded. She imagined the family transformed into glittering angels, the children with frost crystals in their eyelashes, twinkling in the morning sun.

***

She had been drinking.

Thanksgiving was hard. Her younger brother and sister both had kids, and dogs even. She lived alone in a room she rented – there were no apartment buildings in this town, not enough single young people for that – from a widow who had inherited a mansion. Not only was the bathroom cold, but when you twisted the spigot to use the sink or the tub, the pipes groaned and spat out rusty water first before relenting and changing to clear. As if the pipes had a role to play, too, and they weren’t happy about it. Maybe a weary heart beat at the center of everything.

***

Her parents didn’t know she drank. It was against their religion, but not hers. She told them what was in the bottle was a diet shake. That she was trying to shed some weight, so she was on this special diet. She even made up a part about how the shake had wheatgrass juice in it, although she’d never had that before and only said it because it sounded right. They believed her.

Her sister bounced her baby in her lap. Her brother wrestled with his small fluffy dog in front of the fire. Her father asked her if she had pepper spray, because she liked to go walking at night and it wasn’t safe for a pretty young woman to be out there alone. She said, “I take care of myself just fine, don’t worry.” And drank from her bottle.

***

She went out walking a week after it happened. She was drawn to the field but stayed away to avoid provoking suspicion. She wondered if someone had placed four crosses there, and plastic flowers.

The door at the side of the Baptist church was open, and children in coats were playing in the snow, packing it into balls in their mittened hands to take part in a benign fight. She stopped to watch them. The fight was only play, it wasn't real, so they laughed.

A girl with blond hair and a puffy pink coat ran up to her. This was what children did in this small town – they trusted grown-ups without question, because everyone here did everything.

The girl said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

It must have been some game they were playing. Or maybe they had been learning about what heaven was like in Sunday-school class that week.

She said that yes, yes she did.

The girl took her hand and led her into the church. The other children followed as the blond girl took her into what looked like a classroom, one wall partly covered with construction-paper hand cut-outs that had children’s names on them. "Caitlin." "Max." It occurred to her that those two kids, the ones with the twinkling frost in their eyelashes, might have hands on that wall, but she had already gotten very good at dismissing thoughts like these before they really cut in.

“Come on!” said the girl, running down the hall on her own. The others streamed after her.

She should not have been able to go to Paris. She should not have been able to go to heaven. She walked toward where they had gone, because they had invited her.

The kids were now in a room filled with stiffly billowing white chiffon and Styrofoam packing peanuts, white and silver helium-filled balloons, construction-paper angels finger-painted and Scotch-taped to the walls. And she knew: their Sunday-school teacher had indeed been teaching them about heaven, where the little boy and girl in the car had gone, and had told them don’t be sad because they’re in a better place now.

That had to be it, right?

The children jumped around in the “clouds” and threw up handfuls of packing peanuts like they were in a snow globe. The little girl reached out her hand and said, again, “Come on!” So she joined them.

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