(Names changed or altered to protect privacy.)
In the sixteen years my husband and I have lived on this farm, only three times have sirens screamed out along our rural road. We can’t see the road from our house, but we recognize traffic by sound. Sirens resonate through the hills like a ringing in the ear as they work their way through valleys, vehicles straightening out the curving roads that follow creeks and streams. The ringing rises to a wailing shriek, louder and louder as the vehicles get closer, vehement mechanical screaming amidst the solemn mountains.
Last week, one by one, seven sirens sliced through our serene country evening just after dinner. They were, by the sound of it, law enforcement—fast, high pitched whooping, but without the low thrumming of an ambulance or fire truck’s massive motor. We wondered what happened. Law enforcement miles from town, flying along with sirens blaring? You do not need a scanner or a news broadcast to know something major has happened, something somber.
Within a few minutes, the story began trickling across social media. A shooting. Dead adult male, shot once in the back. Within twenty minutes, we heard the heavy motor of the ambulance meandering in the same direction, and we knew the victim’s name. David Queen, a sometimes troubled but amiable and harmless man, killed about ten miles away. Shot from behind with a rifle, found in a camper dead. Suspect on the run.
Anne and I are connected through an annual women’s retreat—a gathering of creative friends from across West Virginia when we all get together and eat, drink, craft, laugh, reconnect and share stories. We have been meeting seventeen years now; Anne joined us around the third year.
We are both daughters from respectable, middle-class suburban families. Her family is southern, mine northern. We both have blue eyes and chubby cheeks, and are about the same height, though she’s a little heavier than I, and more reserved. She has a great poker face; I have none. We met in the local writers group, where she wrote poetry and children’s books and I wrote essays and stories. We both for a time worked at the local newspaper, both had our rounds with questionable men. Twenty years ago, I was in love with a murdered man. On the day of those sirens, Anne was in love with a murderer.
Local law enforcement arrested the suspect in David’s murder within six hours, and when I read the accused’s name in the news reports, I wondered why it sounded familiar. I am terrible with names. Besides, the shooting was scratching up flashes of memory I had no desire to entertain. I thrust the issue from my mind.
A week later when I ventured into town, a local gossip made the connection for me. She grabbed me by the arm, pulled me close enough to smell her breath, and expressed concern.
“What’s Anne going to do now?”
“Now that what?” I asked, wondering what could warrant such intrigue in her eye.
“Now that Andrew is in jail for murder.”
I knew then why the suspect’s name sounded familiar.
Anne’s name had been omitted from the news reports, but the stories reported that Andrew was arrested “at his girlfriend’s house.” I tried to imagine Anne that night. How on earth did she manage that evening? Did he tell her what he had done? What must have gone through her mind when she opened the door to police from three counties? I want to ask Anne all these questions, but the questions will fade as time passes, I know. I may never come to ask them. They may not even matter. We will learn this story as she chooses to share it, just as I selectively share my story of John.
That evening I considered the status of my friendship with Anne. We had let too much time pass, made too little effort to keep in touch. I never got to know Andrew, and had been calling him “what’s his name” for almost four years. I will certainly not forget his name now.
I didn’t know Anne was dating online until a man she met was already in West Virginia, living with her and her boys. Andrew had come from Wisconsin. One wonders about a divorced man, living with his mother, willing to pack his truck and cross the country to live with a woman he has never met in person. But most often, our group of friends refrains from commenting on one another’s relationships. The women at our retreat come to escape our everyday lives, to have a time-out from those on whom we expend so much love, patience, and energy. We know better than to judge. We waited to meet Andrew.
Anne again came to our annual retreat the summer after Andrew moved East, noting that he had insisted on it. Some husbands pout about it, others manage to keep their women away. Anne seemed a bit quiet, but happy and proud of her boys. With a temporary butterfly tattoo sparkling on her soft cheek, she smiled and told me she was writing some again. I saw it as a positive sign.
The two retreats after that, Anne did not make an appearance.
Some people have close friends whom they see consistently. Others, especially in rural areas, are secluded and hardworking and catch up when they can, at an annual retreat for example. Over seventeen years, our retreats have commemorated our lives, our changes, and growth. Children become adults, men come and go or stay, the women morph and mature, lose and gain. Jobs shift, homes are adjusted, we transform—becoming more than just the sum of the moments of our lives. But each year we meet and share the lessons we are learning, tell favorite stories, laugh and cry at our mishaps, celebrate our joys. During those two years when Anne did not attend our annual meet-up, I felt disconnected from her, out of touch.
I bumped into Anne at the local Chinese restaurant one day last spring, and we had a lovely lunch catching up. I asked about Andrew. “He’s fine,” she replied. We discussed working on a writing project together, mixing her poetry and my prose, and I looked forward to having her in my life again. We planned to think on the project and discuss it further at next summer’s retreat.
But Anne never came.
Twenty years ago John, my live-in boyfriend, was shot from behind. After those sirens last fall and David’s death, there is no way to avoid thinking of it.
John was shot in the head, with a .45, at close range. It doesn’t matter if I don’t want to think about it now, if the time is not convenient. The connections are there—my mind makes them naturally. Those once worn paths might have overgrown with the years, but David’s murder clears them in an instant. Both men were shot from behind, by someone we knew. Bullets. Blood. Violence. Death. Yes, I remember.
I believe love is an action, and I loved John beyond reason. I chose to invest in his potential, though he didn’t invest much in mine. I made excuses for him—for his jealousy, his cheating, his slaps, and his punches. I chose to focus on his good side: his handsome, bad-boy look, his intelligence and passion to share his knowledge, his musical talent, his sense of humor, his desire to entertain. I think we both believed our good would eventually outweigh our bad. I know now that would never have happened. Then, on February 24, 1996, it was over. The end of John’s life gave me a new life, whether I wanted it or not.
The images come: in my research to fill in the blanks of that night twenty years ago, I learned that a close shot to the head blows bone to bits, turns brain matter into viscous sludge. Even without the photos and graphics, it is a messy, messy situation. John’s body tumbled into the river though, where muddy waters diluted his blood, and tendrils of his brain escaped from his decimated skull. I pictured a bloated carcass aimlessly floating along a tranquil, lazy river, minnows pecking at the gray mass.
David Queen, on the other hand, died last fall on the floor of a small camper, shot in the back on a sunny September evening, his chest blown out before him. Fruit flies likely gathered quickly. In life, David was a small man, often smiling, soft-spoken, and shaggy. Now he was a permanent mess. Nothing would wash him away.
The cases are different, but the questions the same. Had David’s death been instantaneous or slow? How about John’s? This question preoccupied me for a dreadfully long time. I found it easier to believe a head shot was instantaneous, but a shot to the chest, I wasn’t sure. I pictured mucus splattered on rusty camper window screens, dark matter splotched on nicotine-yellowed walls. Blood, drying black, thickening on worn-out carpet. When David died, the camper would have smelled like mildew and crisp, fallen autumn leaves. With the unseasonably warm days though, it did not remain that way for long.
John was shot by a friend during an intense argument on their way home from a bar. The bullet entered his head as he stood on the edge of a low-water bridge and he descended, dead, into the water. So said Carl, who confessed two months later, claiming self-defense. Yet John was shot from behind with a .45. I contemplated that for countless hours. David was shot from behind as well, with a 30.30. I wonder if David was running, trying to escape that tiny camper. I wonder if either man knew what was coming.
At first such questions seem important, their answers imperative. But in the end the whys and why nots do not matter. Dead is dead. It is true what they say: life goes on. No, not the life we expected, not the one we were planning. Nor will we ever be the same again. But, life doesn’t wait for recovery. Life remains.
John’s body was missing for three months, carried away by cold February rains along a swollen, ruddy river. For weeks before Carl confessed, John was undead—just missing. At first, I searched for him, others searched for him. There was a moment when I returned from three days of looking, when the realization washed over me: he was permanently gone. I must have thought I would find him at home when I walked in the front door, must have expected him to be standing in the living room, laughing at the fuss, time, and energy I spent looking for him.
But when I entered the empty house and faced the silence, I knew I would never see him again, and the sudden knowledge of it dropped me to my knees in the front foyer. I began sobbing, but upon sensing the immensity of the emotions rising, choked them all back and regained control. With my hand on the wall to steady myself, I rose from the floor and wiped my eyes, and went to the wood stove to build a fire.
John was gone. We knew it, but none of us knew what to do about it. His parents long absent from his life, John’s grandmother, who raised him, reported him missing. The rest of us just went on, slogging through that muddy winter.
As the investigation progressed with no sign of John, I became a suspect. Friends became suspects. Carl and I both failed our lie-detector tests. My failure made me cry in confusion and fear; his failure made him confess. Spring arrived regardless, and come Mother’s Day weekend, John’s body was discovered—172 miles downstream, missing one boot after twelve weeks in the water. First news reports noted that the barge workers who found the body said it was that of a middle-aged bald man. But it was John. The top of his head was gone.
John and David knew each other. They attended the same schools, shopped the same stores, and frequented the same local beer joints. Of course they knew each other, growing up in the same small community, similar in age. Both grew long hair, eventually matted and tangled in blood. Was there some way to have known they would both come to such gruesome endings?
What words can we use for these acts? What rational response can answer why? In the Western movie Lonesome Dove, after the unexpected loss of one of their men, seasoned rider Augustus McCray advises the rest of his crew: “The best thing you can do with death, boys, is ride off from it.” It is true. There is no need to dwell on death or the questions, regret it brings. Yet I know what autopsy reports say about a shot to the head, how solid becomes bits and liquid, how structure loses form. When possible, autopsies note the weight of the heart, the liver, the stomach, the kidneys, the lungs. Pieces. Parts and pieces.
I wonder if David’s heart weighed the same as John’s—if his soft heart even existed after the blast, or if it was the new dark paint color in that dingy camper.
That camper should be set aflame. Burn it, and scatter the ashes.
When John vanished, I felt drawn into a surreal story of destined moments, my life purely a sideline to the main event. I was a mere witness to twists and turns unwinding along an unplanned path. Everyone had questions, I had no answers. I had too many questions of my own. Days were spent re-running conversations, re-examining intentions and motives: Carl’s, John’s, my own. What do we willingly ignore?
I can only imagine that Anne felt the same way: blindsided, confused, and squandered. Caught up in events not of her making, placed in a life that couldn’t actually be hers. Second-guessing her past, facing a future not of her choosing. I assumed her days were a swirl of thoughts that made sense, and then made no sense. Endlessly repeating questions with no acceptable answers.
Perhaps I suffered my loss then, to help her now somehow, with hers. Perhaps she suffers now to somehow better heal me. I know, though she may be occasionally haunted and permanently changed, she will not be defined by this unless she chooses. Now that someone might grasp how deeply I was once wounded, I find myself examining how my wound has healed.
Anne has not reached out to me. I am sure she realizes no one can truly understand.
And yet I think, maybe I can.
Late October, last fall, when she was ready, Anne asked to see me. I invited her to the house to talk and have dinner. When she arrived, she looked as she did any other day, dressed professionally in a soft lavender sweater over black pants. She smiled, but her expression did not quite reach her eyes. When I wrapped her in my embrace, her entire body trembled.
There had been a ripple effect from the shooting, of course. The loss of her phones as evidence, the effect on her sons and her parents. For her safety and comfort, Anne moved from their secluded country house to a small apartment in town. Andrew and Anne had been planning to move out west come winter, planning to start their lives together now that her boys were out on their own. I was unaware of such plans, but no matter. They are all gone now.
We opened our afternoon with hot tea, chamomile with honey. We sat on the plush couch, honest and unguarded. Anne talked over her steaming teacup, occasionally sipping. I blew and supped on my own tea as I calmly listened. She was just now grasping what her life had become, was seeking resources, grasping for remnants of a scattered life. We talked of her story, not Andrew’s. We focused on what had happened to her life, and how to survive the now in order to get to the future.
I did not grill Anne with questions, as I feared I might. I offered gentle words when needed, but most often simply nodded at the information she was prepared to offer. I asked the one question I felt most important at the time. “Anne, have you ever been afraid of Andrew?”
“Not of him,” she replied, “but I’ve been afraid for him, afraid he would hurt himself.”
I nodded. I understood.
We went outside to the glider on the back porch, where we shared a quilted blanket and observed the lake’s browning with the arrival of fall. The water no longer reflected blue summer skies, but rippled in the winds of the changing season, showing only the shade of the muddy bottoms below. Though our conversation continued, we spoke then in brief statements, used softer voices.
“My boys said I’ve made excuses for all the men in my life.”
“It’s true.” I said. “It’s true of all of us.”
We whispered tough words into the wind, so some of the harshness would be whisked away. Geese honked, breezes blew, and the autumn season matched our mood. We absorbed the descending evening, and we were absorbed by it.
“I’m glad the geese are here,” Anne said, blanket pulled up around her neck, eyes scanning the flock.
“The ducks will come in about dusk,” I told her, pushing with my feet to initiate the glider’s smooth rocking.
“Wonderful,” she sighed deeply and rocked with me for a few moments in silence. Until the ducks arrived, it was simply the geese and us.
Anne gazed out over the water and named hurts aloud. I watched the lake too as I listened, only occasionally turning to check the expression in her eyes.
We rocked into the night as she spoke, and under the blanket, I held her hand.
Lisa Hayes-Minney is a librarian and professor who recently earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She has received awards from the WV Press Association and West Virginia Writers, Inc. and her writing has appeared in Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine, GreenPrints Magazine, Wonderful West Virginia Magazine, The Trillium, Fireside Folklore of West Virginia, among others. She and her husband, Frank, enjoy organic gardening, keep honey bees, and raise free-range hens. For more information visit LHayesMinney.net.