Five Days Ago (twenty years old):
I rolled the windows up as we headed into yet another rain shower. This was the third one since we had left the Heifer Project after working in the garden for class credit — we were caked with dirt and sweat, but thankful the rain had held off until the return trip. Our talk was light, like the water droplets that kissed the windshield and glazed the fields as we passed. As I accelerated out of a curve I glanced to my left at a small white steeple that peeked out from the trees. Something seemed familiar about the church, like an image I’d conjured from reading a fairy tale, or one I’d known in a dream. Then I noticed the neatly kept graveyard that separated the church from the road; my heart slammed into my ribcage like a small car into the back of an eighteen wheeler. The steeple, the graveyard, the woods around it, the sign announcing St. Boniface Catholic Church . . .
Six Years Previous (eighth grade):
I grabbed my blue duffel bag and lugged it into the hallway as the phone began to ring.
“Hey, it’s Lauren. . . I need to tell you something.” I sat the bag down and went into my room even though my mom was calling for me to get in the car “What is it?” I sighed; preparing myself for a story of what Rachel had done this time to make her mad.
“Well. . . I was looking in my step mom’s car for something and I found this book. . .”I didn’t like her voice or the way it trailed off. It was cautious, like a rescue worker trying to talk me down from a seventh story window ledge.
“Uhh. . . It’s about your family and – you know, Ronald Gene Simmons,” she stammered. “I wasn’t sure at first, but then I saw your parents and your grandparents’ names inside.”
I slumped to the floor against my flowered bedspread, shocked and suddenly angry. I was sick of everyone hiding the truth from me – I may have been too young to know the details when it all happened, but I was thirteen now. Why had no one told me about the book? I knew I had to read it. It seemed to me a once lost treasure buried under years of questions, a lantern deep in the darkest woods, the nail that would finally hold the finished painting on the wall.
Two Years Before (sixth grade):
I surveyed the labels written on the packing boxes trying to find one I had hastily packed— Kitchen supplies, Jennie’s bedroom, Newspaper Clippings. . . Newspaper Clippings? I started to open the box, and then glanced around to make sure my dad and brother were inside the house; why was I uneasy about its contents? I unfolded the first yellowed paper and immediately recognized the scene captured in photo form on the front page: my grandparents clutching one another on a courtroom bench, my father and aunt frozen in the background. I’d seen them like that on TV years before, in the news coverage of the Supreme Court trial. Their faces screamed of grief as they awaited a verdict for the man who killed their youngest son. My eyes blurred, remembering their faces without needing a picture – I looked at the next newspaper. The headline blurted out the words that had been engraved in my mind long ago, like a tattoo I had never asked for: “Simmons Kills Family: Largest Mass Murder in Arkansas History.” The print was bold, too bold. I saw my dad’s brother listed among the victims, along with his wife and their two children. Their names didn’t belong there, typed in like made-up characters in some Stephen King novel.
There were pictures of all the sixteen victims woven throughout the text – snapshots of the Simmons family, school photos, pictures of the two co-workers who had also been killed. I suddenly noticed a wedding photo of my uncle with his new bride and her parents. A caption underneath identified the parents as Ronald and Becky Simmons and the new bride as Simmons’ oldest daughter, Sheila.
The print swirled in my hands.
Most of elementary school:
A large crowd buzzed behind me as the judge slammed his gavel onto the desk and pronounced his judgment. With his permission now granted, I stepped closer to Simmons, who towered over me, hands tied, in front of the angered mob. His dark eyes had no tears, no fear, no remorse, daring me to finish what he had started. I lifted the shotgun with my innocent arms, and shot him, over and over and over, each time thinking he had done the same to my uncle, my aunt, my two cousins. . .
“MOM!!!!!” I clutched my tattered doll tighter as I slid out of bed and ran down the hallway into her lap, the sobs coming quicker than my footsteps. She already knew, but I told her anyway—told her how I missed Michael and Sylvia. It was Sylvia’s doll that was now sandwiched between my cotton nightgown and my mother’s chest. Her cautious voice told me again of how my cousins were playing in heaven, jumping from cloud to cloud with my Aunt Sheila and Uncle Dennis. She said they were watching over us, and I tried to imagine them shining above in glorious white gowns with glittered wings to match, far far away from that man.
I never told her what happened in my nightmares. And her stories never made it easier to trudge back down the shadowed corridor to the small room where I was certain my role as executioner waited. Her words never made it easier for me to close my eyes again.
Spring 1988 (four years old):
Everywhere I looked up I saw people in stark black suits and dark coats. Even the trees at the far end of the graveyard appeared draped with shadows. I shivered – my mom reached down and took my hand, letting go only to give my cousin, Kamber, a tissue. My parents told me this was a memorial service, a time for us to remember our loved ones that died. I had also been told my cousins, aunt, and uncle had been buried there in front of the large grey stone engraved with their names, and that’s why we didn’t walk on that part of the yard. There were rows and rows of big stones and I wondered how people got to those if you weren’t supposed to walk around them. I tried to listen to what Bishop McDonald was saying to the small crowd, but I didn’t understand – something about a valley of death and ashes. I wanted to ask someone where this valley was or why there were ashes in the valley or why someone would put their family in the ground.
But I just stood there, clinging to my mother’s hand.
December 1987 (four years old):
I’d never seen my dad cry before, and the tears that formed in his eyes seemed to fall deep into my stomach. I’d never heard silence until that moment, never come so close to the face of fear. My mother’s parents watched motionless from the couch as my brother and I sat down in front of the fireplace. Why was no one talking? Patrick fidgeted with the rug beside the brown recliner where my dad sat holding his graying head deep in his hands. Mom pulled me towards her as Dad looked up at us.
“Something happened a few days ago. . .” he started. Mom pulled me tighter, as though that would make the words come out of his mouth easier. “A very bad man hurt your Uncle Dennis, Aunt Sheila, Michael, and Sylvia,” the tears fell faster and landed deeper, heavier inside of me.
“They’re gone. . .”
That last word came out as though it was his final breath, and he sobbed like someone was slowly ripping out his insides.
I didn’t understand. Gone where? Why would someone hurt them? I climbed into Mom’s lap and watched as Dad held onto Patrick, tightly as though afraid he might lose his son like he just lost his brother.
Suddenly home didn’t feel so safe anymore.
Yesterday (twenty years old):
“St. Boniface Catholic Church” the sign came up sooner than I had expected. I turned onto the gravel road and followed it to the back of the church where I parked in the empty lot. I stood beside the car, not sure how to take the first step from the pavement to the grass. I wanted to leave my shoes there and walk across the field barefoot, soaking in all the greenness, but I kept my shoes on and stepped across the lawn to their gravesite. It had been years since I was last there with my grandparents to change the flowers that rested on the headstone. The fake blooms that were there now were faded, and I wondered again why we even put them there. I knew it was for the same reason my grandmother had the two stone angels put at the head of Michael and Sylvia’s graves. As I looked at the figures I remembered the rage that boiled within me upon hearing the news years before that someone had stolen the first set of statues from their resting places; why would someone steal angels from the graves of children?
I brushed the dust off of Sylvia’s angel as I lowered my body to the ground, and then noticed the epitaph that marched boldly under the names and dates. “Felled by the sword of an assassin, They are now safe in the arms of our Lord.” The words began to blur and I was suddenly aware of my own reflection on the shiny surface of the dark stone. My chest tightened as though an unseen hand had grabbed my lungs and wouldn’t let go. As I reached up to brush a tear from my cheek, I felt something warm on my arm. Startled, I glanced down to see a dark brown puppy, who returned the stare from deep, wet eyes. He nuzzled under my arm and plopped down beside me. We stayed like that for maybe five minutes – my hand stroking his fur occasionally, his paw on my leg, never uttering a sound – and then he left as quietly as he came.
Somehow I knew it was time to go. So I gently placed the yellow wildflowers I had picked, one on each grave, said goodbye, turned, and walked back through the green, green grass.