Image credit: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water,” from Four Elements. 1566. Oil on wood, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
A girl runs.
Whenever I imagine her, I ask myself if that’s what she wants to be called. By law, she’s a girl, but to her own self—I’m not sure. A woman, maybe. Unfortunately, “chick” does the work of both. Her ears are as pink and translucent as a mouse’s, her legs swooping and pushing against the cold ground. Something inside propels her forward, as it always has, no music in her ears. When you’re that age, your extra-curricular activities often define who you are, as they will go on to define her, a seventeen-year-old dynamo from a San Diego suburb with her pick of colleges; a girl, they’ll say, with no savagery to her. But Chelsea loves to run, despite its place on an application, despite whether she’s a girl or a woman, and doesn’t think that anyone is watching.
But there he sits, a grown-ass man, tracking her from his car.
How do I know that Chelsea was running without music? Because her parents found her iPod in her 1994 BMW, which was parked near the running trail, along with her phone and school clothes. Her father ran as fast as he could up the trail, screaming her name.
Chelsea King was murdered in February of 2010, when I was twenty-one. I was a college student in La Jolla, an ultra-affluent shoulder of San Diego that rounds out into the ocean. Perhaps city planners didn’t realize that wealthy retirees and college students might not want to share a seashore, but they must have realized the crucial similarity between the two demographics—perceived entitlement—and understood that that’s what would keep the peace. Valedictorians looked at the beachfront Spanish Colonials as if they were carrots dangling in front of their faces, and studied a bit harder. The rich looked at our bodies. Both sides were convinced that, with considerable effort, we could have each other. To keep the town cohesive and beautiful, architects remodeled off-campus student apartments with lush Mediterranean façades that concealed mazes of dingy hallways, thin walls, and broken pipes. I woke one morning to find my feet and legs covered in itchy welts, and when I lifted my arm I saw a cluster of fleas migrating across my skin like a herd of tiny buffalo.
The exterminator sprayed the baseboards with a long hose, shaking his head and smiling. The fleas, of course, came back even worse than before, as if they were being raised for their meat. I took a scalding hot shower and shaved off all my body hair (except for the hair on my head, which I scrubbed with green dish syrup), then sealed all of the windows and doors shut with towels and tape. I popped open six bug bombs like beer cans then exited quietly as the poisonous geysers fogged up the apartment. This was just another thing, I thought. The toxic fallout wouldn’t hurt me. I was impervious. I had recently smoked too much weed and held my naked chest in bed as I drank eight bottles of water in rapid succession. I recovered after a deep rest, then proceeded to have such savage sex that we shoved the heavy wooden bed frame clear across a master bedroom. I didn’t really know how to smoke, and I didn’t really know how to fuck, but it certainly felt like I did, and this kind of achievement was the kind that we remember. If successful, my methodical killing of the fleas would be another.
I left my apartment to let it marinate for the weekend, started my gold minivan, and drove up the coast towards home. The car had been my mother’s. I remembered what my sorority sister had said to me two years earlier, curled up in bed next to me after the funeral, trying to cheer me up.
“Well, at least now you have a car?”
(I looked her square in the eye, then rested my wet cheek on hers).
I thought that I would have earned my first car. Up until recently, I had been a high achiever, and had been accepted into UC San Diego as a premedical student. I had just won “Sorority President of the Year” at the all-campus Greek Awards (my father proudly hung the plaque among his academic honors, medical degrees, and anti-war propaganda). I had held student body positions, won poetry awards, and volunteered seemingly endless hours in a busy emergency room. I had changed wet bandages and scrubbed blood off gurneys, trying to find the romance behind it all. But it was starting to mean less and less, and I was slowly learning the hardest lesson of adulthood: that very few people, if any, actually cared about the achievements that defined me (except for my father, another product of the highly gifted Jewish childhood who himself left all of his alma maters and work experience out of his online dating profile so that a nice woman would fall in love with his bright blue eyes, full head of hair, and affinity for responsible counterculture––though he knew, as I would one day, that external achievements could lead to internal ones, and celebrated mine as is if the two were the same). Chelsea King was four years younger than me but seemed to have mastered the art of internal achievement. She loved running, whether or not it could be commodified, and I’m sure her other activities meant something special to her as well. She was the kind of girl whose disappearance would prompt thousands of local residents to search for her, and whose death would inspire the passing of a child protection law and the formation of a major scholarship foundation. I was convinced that if the same happened to me, my return would probably be predicated on threats and under-the-table dealings, and that my death would, as they say, be a shock—but not a surprise.
“She brought home a lot of dudes,” my friends would later admit.
College was ending soon, but I wasn’t exactly sure when. I told myself that I would take fifth year, a “victory lap,” in order to take all the classes that I had dropped at the last minute. My schedule had once been packed with school and extracurricular obligations, but I now used my planner to stagger my hookups and make sure that I didn’t sleep with different men on the same day. When I was by myself, I’d lie in my crumpled bed, the La Jolla sun peeping through my windows, playing fishing games on my phone, extending the drag on a pixelated muskellunge so it wouldn’t break my line. I spent a night as a club promoter. I tutored teenagers from wealthy families on the beach front, kids who would have never interacted with a girl like Chelsea, even if she, too, was from San Diego, the biggest small town in America. I applied to be a florist’s assistant and never heard back, despite my impressive resume and well-articulated need to be around fresh flowers. But I still spent too much time in my bed, making out distorted faces and creatures in the cottage cheese ceiling and as if it were a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
That night I drove up the black coast towards home. I sped in the left-most lane, blasting the radio, sipping an energy drink five-times the volume of my heart. The beat-bumping switched to a local news update. Chelsea’s body had been found near where she was running, in a shallow grave by the shore of Lake Hodges, a reservoir famous among locals for its bass fishing and for “Hodgee,” its fabled lake monster. Years later, The Escondido Grapevine would interview Stan Smith, a “poet cowboy and man about town,” about the mythical beast.
“Several people are saying they think they’ve seen it. Sometimes, when you look at the lake it looks like something is moving the water, some currents or something. The fact is it is a mystery.”
As I drove, I thought about Chelsea, but only for a second or two. All of the news had been about her but, be fair, not much else was “doing.” The National Library of France had just purchased Casanova’s memoirs, and Alexander McQueen had just hanged himself in his London living room, but none of this really mattered in Poway, a suburban enclave about thirty miles’ northeast of Downtown San Diego known best for its bible college (and, soon, Chelsea King herself). The local radio and TV stations had broadcasted the search from its inception, and though her body had been found this would not be the end, or even the beginning; it would forever be somewhere in middle, unrelieved, but I wouldn’t learn that until much later. That night I was sad for Chelsea and her family—a dim, appropriate sadness—but that’s what happened in these creepy San Diego suburbs, I thought, and though it was gruesome it didn’t match the gore I’d heard about while growing up in Hollywood Hills. I thought about her car and how her parents found all of her stuff in it.
As a 21-year-old, the very thought of that—of my family discovering the contents of my Nissan—was scarier than the idea of a predator on the loose. There was nothing incriminating in her car, but mine was a completely different story. There were expensive hair extensions and cheap lace bras, both of which I doubled up to draw attention away from my ever-fattening cheeks and stomach, the products of decriminalized weed and convenient fish burritos. There were heaps of clothes and satin stilettos and reams of condoms that crackled whenever an empty soda can rolled over them during a sharp turn. The trash was a-plenty. There were human target papers from a date I’d been on at a shooting range, and the entry points were impressively close to the forehead for a girl who had previously never fired a gun; my Southern mother had been a sharpshooter, despite her hatred of firearms. Some of her things were still in the car. A pair of Nikon binoculars, a pair of sunglasses, some small canisters of undeveloped film, a few chinois lipstick cases, a Thomas Guide of L.A. County, and a map of Yosemite. I couldn’t bring myself to take them out. The truth was that I was afraid of the idea of my father discovering the inside of my car not because of its carnal jetsam—he remembered the ‘60s—but because I had trashed a thing that my mother had kept so clean and held so dear. She always thought that she would be able to drive it again, and had begged the doctors to just let her go home.
I was excited to get out of San Diego. After the newscast was over and the music came back on, my mind clicked away from Chelsea to all of the people I would see in L.A. and my father’s warm house that smelled like verbena and cognac. I had never been hurt by a man. To me, “assault” and “rape” meant the same as “famine” or “tornado,” things that I had only heard about on the news, and even a decade later, when women stood up around me and said they, too, had known a beast, I still felt as though I had survived a plague by building some unfair immunity, a resistance gained from persistence, and that I had played the odds as the angel passed over my bed.
That night it was too dark to see the water, and too dark to see the hills, so I sipped my drink and stared at the lights of the highway, the volume all the way up, a chick at my own party.
Not a day goes by that they don’t talk about the Hodgee monster.
—Mickey, a local
A girl walks.
She’s fourteen and carries a $200 check that she’s going to use to buy a lamb for her Future Farmers of America project. She’s from Escondido, a few minutes north of Poway.
Amber Dubois’ father will later notice that she and Chelsea looked similar: 5’5, thin, and blue-eyed. But anyone who has ever been to high school knows that the two are worlds apart. They are both remarkably beautiful, separated only by their hairstyles—Chelsea has long, strawberry blonde hair, and Amber a shaggy brown bob—and the baby fat in their faces. Amber, three years younger than Chelsea, has rounder cheeks, and forces her smile. Chelsea’s comes gleamingly, naturally. Amber glares, and has reason to: she is in the worst season of her life. A freshman, her beauty unrecognized and uncultivated, staring down the barrel of high school, and has probably already endured the injustices of a winter formal, a sophomore boy with a corsage and a raging stinger creeping up behind her as the speakers hiss:
Hey bitch, wait til’ you see my dick
I’m a beat that pussy up
Chelsea, on the other hand, is on her way to getting out of there, though everyone wants to keep her. She’s the sweetheart of the student body. I’m sure that, if Amber and Chelsea had gone to the same high school and passed each other in the hallway, Amber would have groaned. But it wouldn’t have been anything personal. Chelsea is coolly walking the waters between girlhood and womanhood, while Amber is decidedly the former. Amber could be like Chelsea one day—if she wants to—but she will never have the chance to see, a tragedy compounded by the fact that she will be silently compared to her forever.
A member of Chelsea’s search party told The San Diego Tribune, “We hoped she’d be OK. In reality, we all knew.”
When do statistics become instinct? A statistic can provide a possible counter-argument to our feelings. Sometimes, it can inspire hope when it feels like all has been lost. Statistics and gut feelings are usually contentious, but when they align, like in the murder of Chelsea King, it’s often hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
Like in this scenario, the case of a teenage girl taken by a stranger (it had to be a stranger—of course!—because Chelsea was a girl with no enemies, and the thought of it being a family, friend, or acquaintance, though statistically much more likely, was too much to bear). If she had been taken by a stranger, then the truth was:
That Chelsea was a girl.
That the perpetrator probably wasn’t.
That he probably grabbed her on the street or lured her into his car.
That he probably raped her.
That, if he murdered her, he probably did it within three hours of taking her.
That, even if he had waited longer, she still probably didn’t make it.
That it probably happened near her home.
That he had probably done it before.
We all knew. Hers was a statistic that was lived in. It was second nature, unlike others. Cancer survival rates climb slowly through the years, as does the percentage of carbon in the air. Most crime rates fluctuate based on power and need. But not this kind; when a stranger takes a girl like Chelsea, she rarely comes back, a statistic that never really changes.
Few knew that—felt that—more than Amber DuBois’s mother, Carrie McGonigle, who helped search for Chelsea. Amber had disappeared the previous year, in 2009, with no leads. When divers in Lake Hodges found Chelsea’s body by the shore, in a shallow grave dug with fingers and sticks, Carrie got the news with the rest of San Diego.
One hundred percent of lake monster sightings are unproven. It’s usually something like a shadow, or a sandbar, or four otters swimming in tandem. Sometimes it’s a hoax, like a big, dead seal carved up to look like Nessie. But don’t tell that to Linda, a San Diegan, who believes in Hodgee.
“But, then again, I believe in the tooth fairy.”
Investigators believed that Amber’s killer had to have been someone she knew. All statistics pointed toward the male head of the household: Amber’s stepfather, David Cave.
David willingly gave police access to everything he had: his computers, his cars, and the login information to all of his accounts. Nothing came up. Family stories, however, seemed to contradict his immaculate records. David and Amber were always fighting, an unsurprising yet notable fact; a fourteen-year-old might naturally harbor negativity towards her stepfather, a new and particularly strict authority figure in her life, while her own father, who loved her dearly, was trying to live his life elsewhere. David repeatedly avowed his love for his stepdaughter, even if their relationship was often strained by personality and circumstance, and helped spearhead the search for her. He remembered that his relationship with Amber had improved the month before she went missing, and how, on the day of her disappearance, she giddily asked him four times for the check that she needed to buy her lamb, and that he was happy to give it to her. Carrie McGonigle, Amber’s mother, remembered how David didn’t go to work that day, which was very unusual, and that he showed up to her office with roses for Valentine’s Day and hung around her office awkwardly until she asked him to leave.
By the time Carrie joined Chelsea’s search party a year later, she and David had separated.
Carrie didn’t know if she was sleeping next to her daughter’s murderer. She didn’t even know if her daughter had been murdered to begin with. There were no remains and no leads (David was a “person of interest,” though not a suspect). A team of cadaver dogs had lead Carrie and the investigators towards some grasslands in the Pala Indian Reservation, about thirty minutes from Lake Hodges, but found nothing. When Chelsea’s body was discovered, Carrie was convinced that there was a connection between Chelsea’s murder and Amber’s disappearance.
It was virtually the same crime. Two high school girls from the same area. Similar in appearance, though slightly different in their styling. Both moving their bodies, acting on their desires. Peace of mind. A lamb. Both gone, seemingly, without a trace. But Chelsea’s parents were given a few days to hope, while Amber’s parents were given a year (there are infinite arguments, on both sides, for which one is worse). Maybe if Chelsea hadn’t been found yet, investigators would have suspected her father, wondering if his screaming and running was just for show. Maybe if Amber were more popular, they would have assumed that a stranger had taken her.
Carrie McGonigle was right. One man had committed both crimes. He had taken the girls somewhere else. He had uncomplicated them forever. They would forever be known as the teenagers who would never get the chance to really fuck up. Chelsea, a laundry-list of achievements; Amber, eternally relegated to the worst adjective ever: “spunky.” Both judged by the way they smiled.
It wasn’t particularly hard to catch the suspect. A search team found Chelsea’s panties on the invisible path towards her body, the murderer’s semen glued to the garment, together one, like a bad metaphor. The police ran a DNA test, which immediately match the sample to a man who—surprise—had raped a child before who was even younger than Chelsea and Amber, but had been released from prison for something that resembled “good behavior.” They found him eating at a local Mexican restaurant and arrested him, mid-chip.
He wasn’t afraid to show face. He wasn’t afraid to say exactly how he felt. He told his therapist a few days before he murdered Chelsea that he hated women and that he was going to abduct, rape, and murder one in the days ahead. The licensed professional didn’t believe him, and sent him home.
It was 1993, I was five years old, and that afternoon my mother and I had witnessed an attempted carjacking in the parking lot of our local mall.
That night, we were curled up in my bed. She read me one of my favorite picture books, a children’s glossary of ocean animals. I was terrified of the eels, so she skipped to the description of the coelacanth, a cornerstone of cryptozoology, a primitive fish that biologists thought had gone the way of the megalodon 66 million years ago until a fisherman pulled one up off the coast of South Africa in 1938. A few more had bubbled up since then. The coelacanth is a small and ugly fish, a living fossil that looks like it wishes it were dead, suddenly gave legitimacy to fabled beasts everywhere; dragons, unicorns, and Hodgee were suddenly dredged back from the deep. My mother thought it was a miracle, a reason to keep on believing in outliers.
She closed the book, then held me close.
“I just want you to know that, if anyone tries to take you, you need to kick and scream. Never stop fighting and yelling, even if they try to stop you. Scream ‘Bloody Murder,’ OK?”
I was already half asleep, lulled into the darkness by the smell of cold cream on her face.
I had, as they say, “calmed down.” I had recently finished graduate school and was working on book research about the Protective Housing Unit (P.H.U.) at the state prison in Corcoran, California. I would spend weekends interviewing criminals who were placed in the P.H.U., all of whom couldn’t survive in the general prison population because of the infamy of their crimes; Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, and Juan Corona were some of the small unit’s more notable residents. Though interviewing prisoners was arduous work, and oftentimes unfathomable, I had found something that I could run with, an achievement that I could feel. I had moved back to Los Angeles to be with my long-time partner, and kept the pot smoking to a minimum. I got a new car and it was clean, its seats shampooed every season. If I wanted to fish, I went to the Sierras. If I wanted long hair, I grew it myself. This, I thought, was womanhood. I had learned how to achieve again, but now in a better way. I was told that a woman isn’t really a woman until her mother dies, but mine had, and I had continued to double-up my bras and drag my line across a digital lake. I felt that my achievements, which I had finally internalized, were the final markers of womanhood. But they were just the disappearance of the girl in me.
Chelsea King and Amber DuBois had been gone for nearly a decade.
I was eating lunch with a prisoner named David in the P.H.U. visitation room, an elderly Charles Manson gumming down a candy bar at the table next to us. It was difficult for me to not stare at him, but I was finally able to break my gaze and refocus on the colossus sitting in the back, who smiled broadly as he polished off his stack of sweets.
“Whose that guy?” I asked David through a forkful of cake.
“That’s John, the guy who raped and murdered those two girls in San Diego. Chelsea and that other one.”
My lizard brain beat. I remembered the long drives up the coast, of the months of news coverage that seeped its way into my mind, even if I hadn’t really felt it.
John Albert Gardner III (a regnal number that he had stylized himself) was the man who had been found at the cantina, deep in the chips. He was a tall, handsome, thirty-year-old white man with a history of violence against girls and women. He hated them. He hated them the way Chelsea loved to run, the way Amber loved the prospect of a little lamb. He had raped his thirteen-year-old neighbor. He said that it was biological, that he couldn’t control himself. When police took Gardner into custody, Carrie McGonigle voiced her concern that Gardner was somehow connected to Amber’s disappearance.
Gardner was already facing the death penalty for the rape and murder of Chelsea. After much exhaustion and deliberation, the defense worked out a deal: in exchange for life in prison, Gardner would show Amber’s family where hid her body.
The dogs had almost been right. Gardner led the prosecution towards Amber’s remains, which were on the Pala Indian Reservation less than a mile from where the dogs had whined at Carrie.
Amber, like Chelsea, was a girl abducted by a man near her home. He got her in his car, then raped and murdered her within three hours of her abduction.
Chelsea’s parents had pleaded for Gardner to get the death penalty. But in the end, everyone was tired, and just wanted it to be over.
Gardner was put in the P.H.U., where he quickly befriended Charles Manson.
I put my fork down and asked David quietly:
“How is John still alive? How haven’t the other prisoners—or the visitors! —killed him?”
David jerked his head towards the security station, where a few officers were poking around on Facebook.
“Those guys over there aren’t there to protect you. They’re there to protect him.”
Months later, I was told, John Albert Gardner III had brutally assaulted someone in the P.H.U. and was transferred up north to Mule Creek State Prison. I was continuing my interviews at Corcoran, but wanted to initiate a conversation with him, so I packed my bags and got on a little plane to Sacramento.
Sixth months before Chelsea’s abduction, 22-year-old Candice Moncayo was running on the same trail near Lake Hodges when she saw large man in street clothes standing still by the path. He tackled her in broad daylight and dragged her into the woods.
She tore at him, screaming. He rolled on top of her. He shook her shoulders. He threatened to rape her, and she screamed even louder.
“You are going to have to kill me first!” she yelled.
“That can be arranged!” he grunted.
It was if it were written for the screen. A woman tied to the tracks, Scarlett fighting the final advances of Rhett. A verbal exchange so cliché yet born from the seed of life itself. Maybe this whole scene seemed, to Gardner, hackneyed (Years later, I’d ask him if he’d raped before, and he said many times; I asked him if there were other dead girls, and he told me not to ask).
But, this time, John Albert Gardner III didn’t know that Candice was the daughter of a champion kickboxer.
“I managed to get my left hand on the ground and took my right elbow and bashed him in the nose,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“He grabbed his face, yelled some things, and I got up and I ran faster than I think I’ve ever ran in my life.”
Candice survived, and when John Gardner’s trial came the next May, she testified against him.
“How’s your nose?” she asked in her closing statement, her voice trembling into the microphone.
Amber DuBois’ stepfather, David Cave, whose life had been ruined from grief, bad timing, and a failed romantic gesture, confronted Gardner in the courtroom, saying, “It seems you tried to grab an adult once but she whipped your ass so you went back to children.”
Gardner “yelled some things” to Candice when he was on top of her, but when Candice was asked what they were, she preferred not to say.
Believers with hearts of gold might see Hodgee as a good monster, the statistical exception, the David Cave of water beasts, one that wouldn’t turn on them; childlike pessimists. Others might think that Hodgee is something to fear, the John Albert Gardner III of bottom feeders, a natural but mostly avoidable predator; satisfied optimists. Non-believers know that neither is true, but might entertain the image of the universe balanced on Hodgee’s back.
Regardless, if you want to find a real water monster, look to the hippopotamus, which kills more than five hundred people a year. Or, even better, the mosquito, a water-squatter, which kills nearly a million.
The best way to survive them? Take medicine beforehand, see a doctor afterwards, don’t make waves, and always cover your skin—or just stay away from water altogether.
When I checked into my hotel room near Mule Creek State Prison, I immediately pulled up the fitted sheet on the bed and checked the crevasses of the mattress for signs of bedbugs or fleas. All clear. Out of all parts of this trip, that’s what I feared most, and now that that fear had been mitigated, I pulled the sheets back down and got ready for bed. I wasn’t scared of the upcoming weekend, even though, in a few hours, I would be interviewing an un-shackled Gardner at a small table with nothing in between us. Since the beginning of his incarceration, he had ballooned to over three hundred pounds, all of which saddled his massive frame like tight sandbags; antipsychotics had partially caused the weight gain, but one psychologist emphasized that, even though Gardner was receiving treatment for mental illness, he was completely in control of his own faculties and had committed his crimes in cold blood—it was a choice, one that he had made again and again. I had done interviews like this before, and though Gardner’s crimes were especially heinous, I remained undaunted. Surprisingly, I was never someone who took particular interest in “true crime.” Stories of complicated crimes often uncomplicated the victims, doing them another great—and boring—injustice. I was more interested in the criminals’ lives after their sentencing, how they carved out a ruined future as if it were a big, dead seal.
I brushed my teeth, slid naked into bed, and made out shapes on the ceiling until I sunk into a deep, vacant sleep.
I sat across from John Albert Gardner III and watched him eat a chicken Sriracha hamburger that I just heated up for him in the visitation room microwave. Prisoners weren’t allowed to touch the microwaves or the automat machines that spun out coveted novelty foods from the commissary.
“Don’t get a cheese burn,” I said lazily, watching him chew.
“You know,” he said be between bites,“Charlie Manson actually hates Brian Wilson.”
“Is that so?” I said.
“Yeah. You know, Charlie is a good guitarist when he isn’t drunk.”
“You heard him?”
“Yeah, I’d hear him playing from down the hall. But whenever I came by, he would just start yelling, ‘I am not an entertainer!’ and put his guitar away.”
Gardner spoke of Manson wistfully. Since he had been forcibly removed from the P.H.U. and sent to Mule Creek, Gardner hadn’t managed to make any friends.
We were both trailing off a little bit. It was midday, and we were beginning to get sleepy. I’m sure he hadn’t slept well, hulking over his man-sized cinder block, and although I had enjoyed a long-night’s sleep, the large-midday lunch seemed to be getting to us both.
“So,” I asked, “What else do you do to keep yourself occupied in here?”
“I really like math. I’m fascinated by the Cauchy-Riemann equations and the Pythagorean Theorem. I like to read math books and do equations.”
Partial differential equations and basic geometry: Gardner loved it all. He fancied himself some sort of mathematical antihero, an unrecognized prison prodigy, but there was no evidence to suggest he had ever excelled at math or that he could perform outside of a classroom setting. Though I had no doubt that he took interest in the subject, I knew that his amateurship began and ended at curiosity. He didn’t know—and I assume he wouldn’t have believed—that the young woman sitting across from him had been a pre-medical student and scientific researcher who had developed a working knowledge, and love, of partial differentials (but had abandoned a life in medicine after watching her mother die). I smiled enthusiastically.
A little terrier dog, the property of the visitor next to us, stared up at me and my food scraps.
“He’s probably looking at your chest,” said Gardener, expressionless.
I shifted my body, unoffended. I knew what I was getting into. At least, I thought I did.
“John, what I’m trying to ask you is: what keeps you alive in here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what keeps you going from day-to-day?”
“A lot of men in your situation would kill themselves.”
“I guess,” he said, “I just wouldn’t want ruin my mother’s life, too. I’m a miserable person, but I stay alive for her and my twin boys.”
“That’s very considerate.”
I looked over at the security station, where a few guards gazed around the room. Another guard, a black man, had been shanked eight or nine times the week before by a white supremacist inmate, so security had tightened up. No one was on Facebook.
Gardner often stated that he felt remorse for his crimes. Remorse is a difficult thing to understand in the context of a psychopath, a human who, by popular definition, cannot feel empathy towards another. Although there was no doubt that Gardner was a psychopath, perhaps he truly did feel, at times, a human bond with those he hurt, though it was more likely that he felt bad about getting caught.
I entertained the latter. I fidgeted, twirling my plastic fork under the table, then quietly cleared my throat.
“It must have been hard to keep Amber a secret for a year.”
“It was terrible.”
“What, exactly, happened?”
“Well, Amber was a defiant teenager. I pointed a gun at her and told her to get in the car. You know, they used to tell you that you should kick and scream unless the bad guy has a gun. If he has a gun, be quiet and do what he says. But now they say that you shouldn’t do that. You should still make a lot of noise, because it will scare him off.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
I bent the fork gently back and forth.
“But Amber got in the car with you?”
Children are more likely to follow an adult’s orders and get in the car.
Gardner’s tone changed. He seemed a lot more relaxed, describing his crimes as if he were recalling a night out with friends.
“Yeah, she just sat in the car, complaining. But Chelsea . . .”
From what I gathered, Gardner had grabbed Chelsea and dragged her into his car.
“ . . . Chelsea tried to outsmart me. She kept on trying to trick me into driving where people were.”
She had tried to fight him off with a stick.
The fork snapped into a tiny comb and a jagged knife.
I swallowed deeply. The ether between Gardner and I thickened.
“John . . . ”
“Were there others?”
“John, were there other rapes?”
He straightened up.
“Who were they?,” asked.
“I mean, there were many. One of them, this girl . . . she was just methed-out, and would play games on her phone while I raped her. I told the SDPD that I’d raped before.”
“What about your thirteen-year-old neighbor?”
“She wanted me.”
My ears began to ring.
“And Candice? Were you going to rape and murder Candice before she fought you off?”
“That’s bullshit. She never hurt me. I let her go.”
“John,” I said, squeezing my thumbs.
“John, were there other murders?”
He leaned forward and grinned.
I smiled primly, then stood up to excuse myself to the bathroom. I walked around the table and stopped behind Gardner, placing my hand gently on his hulking shoulder, as one might do to a friend at a café. He must have missed the touch of a woman. He wasn’t allowed any kind of conjugal visits; I was a treat. I let my hand sit, then watched my fingers wander gently to his neck, palpitating his warm skin, then massage their way up to his chin, as if they were checking for something swollen. He groaned, his colossal, impenetrable body relaxing against my chest. I put my palm on the right side of his head and gently stretched it to the left until his ear met his shoulder. I released. Another sublime groan. I put my palm on the left side of his head and gently stretched it to the right until his ear met his shoulder. I released. I cupped my hand around his chin, and tilted his head back towards me, the fingers on my other hand palpitating up his throat, over his Adam’s apple, licking his chin and descending.
He looked up at me with soft brown eyes. For a second, I was exactly where he wanted me to be, an internal achievement to rival all others. I had released the smokescreen. He didn’t see the plastic shank in my mouth. Before he realized what he was looking at, I hooked my finger around his lip, and sliced his cheek from the corner of his mouth to his earlobe, the blood dripping from his face as if it were a cracked dam.
The guards kept gazing.
Gardner leaned forward and grinned.
I told him that I wasn’t feeling well and excused myself fast-clipping from the prison gates to my rental car where I sat, gagging with my hand over my mouth, as if a fisherman had reeled my stomach up from the deep.
In the 1970s, a newsletter was circulated around the Lake Hodges community, a “one sheet thing of rumors and innuendos.” It was called As the Dam Drips.
Matt Tidewell, a retired reservoir keeper, told The Escondido Grapevine that:
It all started at the Del Dios Store when someone put out a joke newspaper. It had a spoof monster that sure looked like a Loch Ness monster east of the freeway and it was the Hodgee monster . . . A reporter from Channel 8 News came up on the top of the dam. We had a diesel engine pumping air into the lake. These bubbles were coming up. She asked me what this was and I said this is where Hodgee, the monster, sleeps.
“Another reporter from the station came out to do the story and asked me what the monster ate. I told him the ranchers were a little upset because he ate a steer, or heifer, once in a while up there and then came back for a bale of hay for a salad.”
The beginnings of myths—of monsters—are usually untraceable, but not in the case of Hodgee. We know that this monster was made and not born. The story and statistics freeze at absolute zero. But even absolute zero is theoretical; a coelacanth sees daylight after 66 million years in hiding and, for a moment, it seems like we know nothing. Hundreds of people didn’t scour the hillsides because they believed that Chelsea and Amber were alive; they did it because they believed that Hodgee was, regardless of their opinion of him.
“We hoped she’d be OK. In reality, we all knew.”
For many, it’s easier to believe in Hodgee than to believe that a statistic can be changed, one that’s so lived in that it seems natural. But, as the coelacanth so pitifully shows, nature isn’t always what it seems.
A woman flies.
Through the California farmland in her rental car, a cheap and tippy thing, she seethes. There’s nothing out here but some hamlets and a prison, in a space that settlers once believed had “healing air.” There’s good fishing. People go missing.
Today, a man did her wrong. He put thoughts in her head, ones that she never wanted but got anyway, and she doesn’t care if her anger is righteous, if it’s the stuff of mythical queens and sirens. He hijacked her childlike imagination. Today is the day that she realizes that her achievements alone will never make her a woman; she realizes that, all this time, she needed to rage.
And she wonders why rage has to be a part of womanhood, why, like abduction of pretty girls, it’s just a lived-in thing. She knows, from a charmed life, that men don’t have to hate women, that it isn’t instinct. A woman’s rage, however, is her survival, a reality born from a myth.
And she knows that it can all be changed, but feels that it cannot, and drives back to her hotel and slides her naked body under the cold covers and traces grotesque constellations in the ceiling even though it’s still light outside, then finds something, clenching her jaws and shutting her eyes tightly as if the image were an electrical current moving through her brain:
Chelsea raging at Gardner with a stick, Hodgee watching.