She died on a Friday in September.
My hometown was a small city in 1984, and it felt safe, at least to me. At that time, I was almost thirteen and pretty innocent—I had never really successfully kissed a girl, and I would still be a few years away from puberty, but I wasn’t a bad kid by any means, even though I had shoplifted a couple of times and smoked a few cigarettes (until my mom told me not to). For the most part, even at 45, I’m still that kid. I still keep only a few close friends, still make inappropriate jokes, and of course, I am still haunted by the ghost of a girl whom I never knew of until she died.
I was in eighth grade, and at that point, I had only known one person who had died. The previous year, a former classmate of mine, Donald, had fallen into a wheat combine and suffocated. I knew enough about farm equipment from growing up in small towns in the 70’s that my mind filled in the blanks: large tractor-like machines that mowed down wheat and shot it into a big trailer in the back. Donald must have been playing around on the trailer and had fallen into the grain like an helpless animal into quicksand. I pictured him clawing and screaming as he tried to get out, each breath and scream being muffled by the grain until his mouth and throat were filled and silenced.
I had to read about it in the paper because I had moved to a different town by then and no longer saw him, but it still affected me in a way that I hadn’t expected. Of course, I knew about death by that point. I had grown up on a steady diet of scary movies and psycho killers, but this was real, this was someone I knew, and even worse, Donald was my age. Death was supposed to be for the adults. It opened me up to the world of morbid curiosity, which would go into hyper-drive during that autumn of 1984, after the murder of Christine Aquino.
She was fifteen—a sophomore attending the first school dance of the year. It should have been a great night. And maybe it was. Did she have a crush? Did she dance with them to “Careless Whisper” and feel nervous and hopeful and alive? I’ve never talked to anyone who might know. She left alone, that much is for sure. She walked across State Street and along winding road that cut through the vocational school and led to her house a short distance beyond.
She never made it.
It’s a fragile world we live in. Things break easily. Tempers break, bodies break, and lives break. They always have, but it’s a smaller world now, even thought the population has doubled in size since then. Cellphones and computers and text messaging have made up connected in a way that we never were when I was a kid. Everything is instant. If a parent wants to reach their child now, it is only a matter of pushing a button on a cellphone. And there is an expectation in that immediacy. Text messages leave evidence. Voicemails stay programmed on your phone until you delete them. The person contacting you will know if you are ignoring them. GPS apps can pinpoint your location on another person’s phone. Put simply, there is no isolation.
In 1984, a child could step outside and disappear three feet from their home. If your parent wanted you, they had to play tag via wall phone by calling other parents with hopes that you’d be nearby. If worse came to worse, they could scream your name into the neighborhood, hoping that the wind and their anger would be strong enough to carry the massage to you:
GET HOME NOW!!!
Christine never made it home.
She was found in the backyard of her next door neighbor’s house. So close to home that it still haunts me. Did she see her house and reach out for it? To this day, that death still haunts me more than any other. Maybe because of its tragic nature or because of her age when it happened. Maybe because of mine. She, like Donald, had been around my age, but but unlike Donald, her death wasn’t an accident. Someone did that to her. She died violently, and in that horrible tragedy she became a ghost.
I started that year at Batavia Middle School as sort of a ghost. Hell, at the start of sixth grade, most everyone was a ghost. Four elementary schools fed into the middle school, and there was sort of a grace period for everyone to figure out who they going to be. I had come from a completely different town altogether after the fifth grade, so no one knew I was the new kid, and I wasn’t used to having friends anyway. Like most young siblings, I idolized my older brother and tagged along after him whether he liked it or not.
In fact, my older brother, Terry, had been my hero for most of my youth. In elementary school, he was smart and athletic and personable. I tried to be like him. He won the Presidential Fitness Award, while I could barely do a pushup. When we got to middle school, he had become popular with girls, and I tried that too. I’m not sure how I ended up under our porch with an older girl name Jill, but there I was. It was dark, we were close, and I knew what I was supposed to do. I had watched Terry make this move flawlessly over and over. Now it was my turn. I leaned closer. Jill leaned closer. And I went for it. I readied my mouth, leaned in, and kissed her . . . nose.
I kissed her nose. She laughed and I felt dead. It’s been my luck with women since then.
Eventually, I started to become my own person. I made friends with a kid named Richie and we took drags off cigarettes in empty buildings and we got in to trouble in class, and I actually felt like I wasn’t invisible. I met a girl named Jen, and I crushed hard. I’m not sure why, but I think it was just a simple matter of her stopping to talk to me on the way home from school. I was smitten with the rest of that year. Unfortunately for me, she was smitten too—just not with me.
One day I came home from school to find Terry and Richie sitting with Jen and her friend, Natasha on our back steps. Since they were my friends too, I thought I’d hang out with them. I had not the coolness or wherewithal to notice that they were in pairs: Richie and Natasha; Terry and Jen. I may not have ever noticed it until Jen asked me, “Todd, why are you here? There’s no one here for you.”
I’m not sure what my reply was, but I know that I left, went inside, and cried on my bed.
I stopped hanging out with those guys that day, and stopped tagging along after my brother. Terry went on to hangout with Richie and his older cousins, Dee and Danny. Dee had a boyfriend named Dave Ferringer, and they would hang out and party and drink and do drugs. That was never my scene. Hell, I had stopped smoking back in the sixth grade when my mom found out that I had taken a few drags with Richie. She said don’t, and I said okay.
At the start of the eighth grade, I met a kid in shop class who seemed like an outsider too, so we bonded pretty easily. His name was Jeff, and he lived on the same poor side of town as me. Sometimes the best friendships we encounter are based on trust and compatibly. Sometimes they come down to proximity. That’s who Jeff was to me. In hindsight, he was my friend because of our closeness geographically. Later on, we learned to fake the closeness on a friend level, but during that September the friendship was fresh and as young as we were. Still innocent. Jeff and I were similar in another respect: we both had older brothers who were cool when we weren’t.
Things never improved with Jen either, although I did have one last encounter. That night when Christine Aquino had her last dance, I had one of my own. Jeff and I went to the dance at Batavia Middle School, and I found myself out in the hallway with Jen and a girl named Esther. I’m not sure how Esther knew about my crush on Jen, but somehow she managed to get Jen to dance with me. It was a slow song, so I knew even though I was not physically gifted, that I could pull that off. We stepped close together, and I put my arms around her and danced as George Michael sang “Careless Whisper.” I was nervous and unsure of myself, but I was happy—too stupid to know that the song was about how a person would never be able to dance again with the person they loved.
They found Christine Aquino in the morning. She had left the dance at Batavia High School at around 11:45. BHS is one of the last buildings on State Street before it becomes a country road. It sits across from the vocational school that teaches cosmetology and auto repair and horticulture, and which was unfairly stigmatized because it also held the school for kids with learning disabilities. It holds a special place in my heart as being the location for my class of dropouts. On the other side of the school is a quiet neighborhood and a Holiday Inn motel. Christine walked the half mile around the vocational school and through the quite neighborhood toward her house. At the same time, someone left the Holiday Inn, heading her way.
His name was Dave Ferringer. I knew who he was because Terry hung out at his house, drinking and getting high. Terry was 15. Dave was in his mid-twenties. And on this night, Dave had been drinking at the bar tucked away inside the motel. At around 11:45, he followed a woman into the bathroom and attacked her, punching her in the face. Her screams brought people running into the bathroom and Dave was tossed out. He hopped on his ten speed bike and quickly pedaled away. The police found him at 12:27, two blocks away. When they arrested him, he admitted to attacking the woman in the bathroom, and they took him into custody. Meanwhile, Christine was a short distance away, dying.
A kid from BHS had walked behind her that last night when he saw a man on a bike pull up beside her. When he looked again, they were gone. She was gone.
When I heard about the murder, I didn’t know how to process it. Deaths happen. I knew that. Wars happen. Accidents happen. Kids fall into wheat combines. But there was something about that short walk home that still haunts me now. It was such a random chance of timing. Had Dave gotten kicked out one minute later, would Christine be alive now? Had she left the dance one minute sooner? He she walked with the kid behind her? Had be been a few feet closer? I couldn’t shake it.
Jeff and I had a tendency to walk around Batavia. We had no place to hang out at, so we walked the streets like nomads. One of my favorite places to go was Batavia cemetery. It was quiet and green, and the trees were old and tall and it felt like walking though time. A wrought iron fence penned it in, but it did little to keep trespassers out. Many of the tombstones had been knocked over, vandalized, and broken. One time, we came across a viciously vandalized headstone and stared at it in wonder. I never know why things affect me sometimes, and this did. This white stone that had marked the spot and memorized the person who lay beneath the ground was now in pieces as the the result of some punk kid or some drunk idiot. I just kept staring. So much so that I didn’t notice a van pull up behind us. Jeff hadn’t either.
When we turned around, here was this van, in the quiet of the cemetery, silent. We didn’t hear it—didn’t notice it was there. The driver’s window was opaque or tinted or whatever. I just know that I couldn’t see a driver. It was like a freaking ghost van. Jeff and I looked at each other and ran like deer through the cemetery and out through a hole in the side fence and across some derelict train tracks and we hid behind some tractor equipment next door. We watched the van slowly drive though the graveyard and out the front gate. It turned left on Harvester Ave, and headed towards us. Luckily, we were still hiding, but the driver seemed to know we were watching. It stopped the van on the tracks and just idled, sending the message: I see you.
It still creeps me out.
Two days after, Christine’s murder, Jeff and I made another walk through town, but this time, we didn’t walk though the old cemetery. We hiked though Elmwood Cemetery, which was much newer, much wider, with winding roads and a golf course feel. We saw the grave sight from a good ways away. It was freshly dug, the mound of dirt from the backhoe piled high beside the rectangular hold that would soon and forever hold Christine’s body. I stared down at the bottom of the grave, still trying to make sense of everything.
I can’t remember how it happened, but Jeff must’ve suggested that we jump down into the grave. It isn’t something I would have dared to do on my own, and not because I was more moralistic than Jeff, I was just a coward. Graves are like six feet deep, and at that time, I was like four foot ten. I was scared as shit that once I got in, Jeff would leave my ass in there. But I did it anyway.
When I jumped down inside, the first thing I noticed is that it was shallower than I thought it would be. It was only like four feet. The only people who would get trapped in there would be the ones who were meant to. Little roots stuck out from the walls of the grave, and I ran my hand along wall, marveling at how smooth it was. Despite every movie I had ever seen showing two mutant men with shovels as grave diggers, this job was done by machine, and after Christine was laid to rest the next day, that machine would fill the hole just as neatly. I looked up from the borrowed grave and imagined my own. The sky was deep blue above and the autumn trees still showed summer. Everything was alive and vibrant in the one place it shouldn’t have been.
I hurried out of the hole and scrambled away, clapping the dirt and guilt from my hands. I shouldn’t have been in there. It was already a horrible tragedy as it was. Me climbing down into the grave was the same as the kids who vandalized headstones. If the man in the ghost van drove up then, I know that I would have died in that very spot, and I would have deserved to. Jeff and I walked out of the cemetery as though we hadn’t done anything wrong. Who knows? Jeff might not have thought we did, but I knew better. We had just added insult to injury.
Christine was laid to rest the next day, and I have never been back to that grave, even though I promise myself that I will. Next time, I will bring flowers and be respectful. I will tell her that I am sorry for her loss. I am sorry that someone stole her future and terrified her in her last moments of life. And none of it will matter because I can’t undo any of it.
We live in a fragile world. I’m 45 now, and I’ve know many more people who’ve died tragically, senselessly, and with malice, but for me it will always comeback to that first horror—when there was a time when I believed the world was safe and it wasn’t. None of us are. We come of age with love and death. We learn our ABCs on Sesame Street, and on the real streets we learn that all of the horror without is somehow within.
Todd Tobias earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. He lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and spends his summers teaching creative writing at Emerson College’s Creative Writer’s Workshop for their pre-college program. He can be found on Twitter @todd_tobias. He was recently published In Splitlip Magazine.