A man out for his regular early morning walk finds the girl’s naked body near an Ottawa park path beside a row of bushes. A road goes close by; however, no motorist has reported the grisly sight. Later, this is put down to the drowsy commute when cobwebs of sleep aren’t completely brushed aside.
The man (a civil servant a few years short of retirement) experiences what many would label extreme (or creepy): while a stunned witness to the aftermath of a brutal and horrifying sex crime, he feels a surge of exhilaration and is ecstatic (to the point of being giddy) that he’s the one to have stumbled upon it. It’s like discovering a secret which, terrible though it is, bestows on him a status that he’s never enjoyed. By this time, he’s known death exclusively from television dramas and movies. Yet he has remained untouched except for distant relatives scattered around the country who occasionally depart the world. But due to this repellent business he rises to a minor celebrity as the inquisitive (and those who trade in prurient gossip) corner him and he recounts the lurid details until gradually interest wanes and the incident becomes yesterday’s news and is forgotten.
Police cruisers arrive (the man has hurried home, called 911, and returned to give a statement) and a police officer (a burly cop) questions him. Two officers take note of the girl. The younger is bothered by the sparse hair on the body. The second goes searching for evidence. A forensics team and a staff sergeant are on the way.
The burly cop glances at the corpse. He isn’t turned off by crimes like this. He doesn’t subscribe to the soul’s immortality or even divine punishment for that matter. Despite this attitude (for some it is detachment) he is fascinated by homicide. How it boils up as if out of nowhere. But in the end, he regards the victims as authors of their own misfortune—usually through personal weaknesses. His years on the force have only increased this cynicism. He has a friend who takes crime scene photographs. Sometimes, he shows him the most gruesome: streaks of bony meat glow harshly like lightning impaled into his retinae. (Now and then, his mind tricks him into believing the dead gaze with curiosity back at him, lifeless eyes on the verge of blinking.) Limbs and torsos forever broken off from depth and solidity. Extinction like a transformed environment: Obscene Theatre. Off duty, liquor bottle in hand, he will summon the images like a seedy director: the slain emerge one after another like bewildered players in a snuff film. The pornographic cinema of the murdered softens his bachelorhood’s downward trajectory (he’s twice divorced) as he drinks himself into a stupor.
The young cop’s earliest encounter with death is rooted in childhood. He’d owned a dog (a terrier which would never keep still) that was struck by a speeding vehicle and died of injuries. At that age the notion of anyone ruthless enough to run over a beloved pet overwhelmed him and spawned night terrors. That no one knew who was responsible lent it a distressing abstract personality, like a malicious entity lurking in the background and ridiculing the grieving boy.
Yet with the girl’s remains only feet away—a blanket has been draped over her—he again is conscious of something behind him, snickering. But now, at the start of a career in law enforcement, he is willing to concede—if only for a minute as the wind causes the blanket to ripple and lift—that even this child is not important or necessary to an indifferent world.
Ten years later a veteran police officer is visiting friends. They are watching an NFL game, drinking, and telling jokes. During half-time the cop slips outside—his buddies figure he’s gone for some needed air—hikes a number of blocks, scales a fence which separates the area from train tracks traversing the city, lies across the tracks and is still there when the train comes by on schedule.
June 3, 3:30 am
Even though she isn’t heavy (she’s as light as a pillow or cushion) he has more of a job carrying her than he could have guessed. She bounces like a doll losing its stuffing and whose equilibrium constantly shifts. Fortunately, the houses are dark at this hour. But there are street lamps that can’t be avoided. Then their shadows create a two-headed nightmare, as if they are fused to each other. The entrance to the park is not far. That is their destination. They continue their journey.
Beyond the bedroom window she sees a man go by with somebody slung over his shoulders. A girlfriend passed out, she assumes. Alcoholics—and addicts—are common in the neighborhood. She checks the clock: 3:30. She moved to this house following a divorce and after her daughter had married and left for a different city. So, she’s been alone—but not entirely. For a while she had shared the premises with the ghost of a woman who’d lost a baby in childbirth (as far as she was able to piece it together) and had returned to look for it. She was startled the first instance the ghost had appeared in an upstairs room where she stored books and a computer. Over the months, once her initial fear had eased, it was as if she were observing an actress repeating a scene continuously in a loop. She did a property title search all the way back to the original owners (the house dated to the nineteen twenties) but never determined the woman’s identity. Then after several years the apparition disappeared and was never seen again. Sometimes she imagines the ghost is wandering from house to house, confused, unable to locate her stillborn child and where she once lived. The woman wonders if that is what death is: an eternity of transient rooms.
June 2, 11:25 pm
He pauses at the door. The rooming house is quiet. The glow has worn off and now something has taken its place—if not quite panic then a kind of rational reflex kicks in: an awareness that he must act to protect himself. The girl seems to have sunk into the bed. Burrowed into the mattress. He finishes a beer and opens another. His heart is pounding and he understands he has to catch his breath, clean up, and get rid of her. None of this had been planned. It is a case of it falling into his lap. And who to say someone else wouldn’t have done the same if the situation had presented itself as it had to him? Morality never takes opportunity into consideration, he thinks. The rational reflex is stronger. He concocts a hasty plan. As soon as the house lights are all off he will bring her down the stairs, out the front door, and over to the park. He rests against a wall. The beer tastes good and he drinks quickly.
June 2, 8:30 pm
Goddamned sonsofbitches. Goddamned sonsofbitches.
A middle-aged man squats on the steps of a porch. The bank mailed a letter asking him to see them regarding his car loan. He has missed payments and expects they want to repossess the car. They didn’t care about the predicament: losing his job a year ago, and unable to secure employment since, a girlfriend who’d bailed on him, and a recent cancer scare. No, they didn’t give a shit. He’s sinking but will they throw him a rope to grab? As he views it there are two options, both undesirable: either he sells the house, and given the sluggish market right now accept a loss on the deal, or he can go to the bank with a gun and shoot the bastards. If the news concerning his prostate is bad he probably doesn’t have much time anyway. So, he is leaning towards going to the bank and shooting it up, and everyone inside, before putting a bullet in his head. When two people (a male and a girl with an iPod) pass he barely gives them any notice. Ever since his troubles began a year ago, he has cared less and less about everything. So much is a struggle now. Each day more difficult than the previous. There are nights when he goes to bed and prays he doesn’t awaken in the morning.
June 2, 6:00 pm
The girl sneaks out after supper. She has an iPod that’s a source of steady teasing from classmates, and hopes her parents keep their promise (it depends on how well she behaves) to buy a new one for her birthday. She doesn’t hold out for a cell phone—her mother believes she’s too young. Her father is increasingly suspicious of her friends. In his opinion troublemakers. Kids destined for juvenile delinquency and then jail. For example, Emile who had smoked marijuana. When they learned of it she was forbidden to associate with him. This made the 12-year-old despondent and sulk for days. Hypocrites! Her mother had spoken of her own adolescence which included drugs and sex. But when the girl asks why they are so hard on her, the mother shrugs and says a parent’s life isn’t easy: there are responsibilities. The girl’s birthday is not for two months but a gap is widening between them. They are moving away from each other. The father (he grew up in the seventies and has not aged well) is baffled by his daughter’s stubbornness. She is no longer the child he remembers and this makes him feel like a stranger in her presence.
The girl boards a bus. She’s done this before, months ago, during an argument at home, bussing around while her parents had no idea where she was and were ready to call police when she walked in the front door. During her absence, they had entered her room which disturbed the mother as being too unkempt for a girl to live in. Spotting what they realized was a poem though at first the mother thought it might be a suicide note: “The sky/ not my slave/ not my night.” Three lines in her daughter’s handwriting in purple ink. Its meaning had puzzled her. Then pride that her daughter had inherited her artistic side since she herself had painted and written poems as a teenager.
The girl listens to the iPod as the bus drives through the suburbs and then to the west end. Passengers don’t pay attention to her.
She winds up in a part of the city she’s never been to. The bus halts and the smell of lilacs drifts through the windows. The girl gets out. She goes past unfamiliar houses, small stores, and houses again. She isn’t aware a man is following until he overtakes her and begins a conversation. Are you lost? he asks. No, she replies. Then the man smiles and the 12-year-old smiles back.
June 2, 7:25 am
Last dream before the alarm goes off: she’s floating like a balloon across the sky, dizzy with the wind, alongside clouds while birds rush below: a wild traffic of wings and feathers darting madly. Then, whoosh, she slides down (it’s like going down a slide at the playground) and finds herself in a park that’s cool and full of shadows. She strolls among the grounds. All the time the trees and grass are growing until they tower above her and it’s as if she’s the size of an insect—or maybe she really has shrunk. In a clearing, she comes upon an old stone house (older than anything she has ever seen) and a tall woman dressed in overalls who is painting its portrait. But the painting doesn’t resemble it: simply lines crisscrossing the canvas like hundreds of scratches. The woman’s hands are raw and torn like she’s been hitting them against a rock. Blood trickles from the fingers. She leans and whispers into her ear. A secret. Do you understand? the woman asks. She shakes her head. Then she is travelling again, along deserted streets—empty of people—as if she’s the last person on earth; finally, she sees a bed discarded next to a dumpster, curls into it, hears the alarm, and opens her eyes.