Editor’s note: This student submission comes from Vicki Lane’s “Practical Guide to Writing Popular Fiction” class.
I was running some Saturday errands on Public Square in Watertown, New York, when I heard a shrill yodeling out of nowhere.
“You hoo! Oh, you h-o-o-o, Catharine! Oh, Caaath-rr-rine, Max-onnn!”
I turned and spotted Nettie Leonard across the American Corner, holding her hands around her mouth like a megaphone, and I waved. The light changed, and she charged across the street, maneuvering her grocery cart toward me and looking relieved.
“Nettie. I’m glad to see you’re alive!”
“Don’t I know it.” She was panting and caught her breath before she said, “Did you really mean it when you asked me to move in with you the last time?”
“Yes, I meant it. And now more than before.” Today the fourth “Homeless Murder” was found with multiple stab wounds, as were the other three,in Nettie’s favorite dumpster across from the high school.
We discussed the horrific news and made arrangements for her to move into my house that very day in late September.
Later that afternoon on my way out Arsenal Street to pick her up, I heard on the radio that new, important evidence had been uncovered. Some reporter had leaked to the media that the police had found an original writing in the latest victim’s pocket, laminated presumably by the killer. My arms grew taut on the steering wheel and my stomach lurched. I imagined the killer premeditating somewhere in his solitary lair, even plotting to protect his fiendish words in clear plastic from blood, tissue, bone, and other unrelated garbage glop within the dumpster that he planned to use. The public had been waiting to hear who the latest victim was. The air around me crackled as if from static electricity.
Nettie was where she said she’d be at the Price Chopper Plaza. My stamina had been lagging but then revived as I took in her severe vulnerability. I pulled up in front of her by the curb, popped open the trunk, and jumped out to help her. We hoisted her black trash bag of belongings into my Ford, and I ran into the market for a few groceries while she waited in the car.
We rushed home to watch the Channel 7 six o’clock news. Hobbling into the house with the bulging trash bag, we hefted the thing where I indicated next to the washer. I went back for the groceries and then threw them into the fridge. We were able to plunk down beside each other on the big couch in the living room with a couple moments to spare. I flicked on the TV.
Although it’d be difficult for most people to tell, Nettie was tense as we waited through the last of the commercials. Sitting so erect and still, she was a gawky, haughty-nosed woman in mismatched clothes, and she reminded me of a great blue heron with primordial, deep-set, wet eyes. Watching the TV but expressionless, she was someone people would look at, even stare at, then immediately not see. Socially disconnected, Nettie was a proud person of the streets, and she wanted to stay that way. I’d felt safe in inviting her to move in for as long as necessary, just for that reason. I’d known her for twenty years. I’d broken through her almost impenetrable barrier when I was a relentless teenager, and now I was one of maybe two “outer” people she trusted a little.
“Here we go,” she said as the newscast started. Her voice was strangely high pitched but mellifluous.
I clutched her arm.
“The fourth victim found in the dumpster behind the Washington Street Shopping Plaza has been identified as Elsa Maitland…” and a glamorous photograph of the homeless woman who’d been Nettie’s best friend appeared on the screen.
“I told her not to go there!” Nettie wailed, and she doubled over, making a wild, keening sound.
“The victim was stabbed multiple times; she had no family and no permanent address,” the reporter continued. Nettie pulled herself up in order to hear the rest of the story—details about Elsa, who had “once been on the Broadway stage when this photo was taken.” Nettie watched with avid interest but broke down and wept with her head in her hands as the news went on to list the names of the other three homeless victims and where they’d been found in the city.
I moved closer and put my arm around her as she wept, and then I rocked her as she sobbed over this monstrous death. The station had gone to commercials, but then the news anchor returned with the announcement, “Channel 7 News has learned from a source that the Watertown City Police are in possession of a statement, written by the killer, and found in Miss Maitland’s pocket at the dumpster site.” The anchor urged the public to stay tuned for news updates and a more complete report on the eleven o’clock news. When they panned to unrelated news spots, I flicked off the TV and looked squarely at Nettie.
“Oh, Nettie…I’m so sorry.” Nettie had withered into a limp heap. “I was worried it might be Elsa, but it’s hard to believe it actually was.”
Her face was soaked with tears. She seemed to have lost all strength, crumpled there as she was, sunken onto the back of the couch. She stared ahead, unmoving, expressionless, in shock.
I took her hand and held it for a time, hearing the tick of the grandfather clock across by the window next to the book-laden secretary. I wanted to wipe away her pain.
Then I stood. “Come on. Let’s get you to your room. I’ll run you a warm bath, and you can rest. Then we’ll have a nice dinner.”
She seemed glad to be told what to do and trudged behind me up the stairs. Ordinarily, she’d have shown more life in receiving her comfortable new room, an armful of clean white towels, and lavender-scented bubbles in a steaming tub, but now she could only manage a slight nod of thanks and stiff, shuffling movements.
I set out a new toothbrush and toothpaste. “Take your time, Nettie. I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”
While she was thus occupied upstairs, I went online in the kitchen and pulled up Newz Junky to see if they had the killer’s statement. They did. It read like a manifesto and would set the country on its ear:
I am not a generic Hitler, nor do I support eugenics.
But question: Why let hapless riffraff wander among us with no remedy?
Earthly air moans from their interminable suffering.
Or let this lackluster layer of humanity meet swift mortal relief:
The cigarette-sucking, voice-addled schizophrenics,
The pill-popping, beer-gutted, crack-dragging addicts,
The germ-spreading, fornicating whores and homos,
The needy, illiterate, mindless retards,
The thieving, trespassing, aimless jailbirds,
The sluggish, morbidly-obese welfare leeches,
The garbage-eating, can-collecting, sorry-ass disabled.
Greater nobility demands action—DO SOMETHING!
O World, let the time arrive.
Put your energy on elevating them, not on featuring me.
Good God. I reread the statement and then sat and pondered the message. Was the murderer thinking the end would justify the means? There were some valid points here, but most was sensational claptrap. The writing would attract attention. Violent, crude, the writer—mentally ill. Narcissistic. Histrionic? Definitely antisocial. I used my diagnostic skills and knew my co-workers and I would discuss it on Monday. Tonight Nettie and I would go to bed early and miss the late news—she didn’t need to be confronted with hatred like this after learning about Elsa.
I sorted her wardrobe into lights and darks and ran a load of her laundry, opened a jug of Burrville apple cider, and decided to take her up a glass. Tinkering with the meal of poached flounder, buttered wild rice, and soft baby spinach, I sipped on the chilled cider and thought about final arrangements for Elsa. I wouldn’t invite Nettie to church tomorrow or leave her here alone, but I’d call Father Eagan for an appointment. Maybe Nettie’d agree to Elsa being cremated. Her ashes could be placed in Trinity Church’s columbarium with a nice, engraved plaque. She could have a comforting memorial service, and all Elsa’s friends could attend. Our organist could play Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Or not. I reined myself in.
Later that night the gentle fragrance of chamomile tea sang to me as I ascended the staircase. Shaken by Elsa’s brutal death and Nettie’s traumatic response, my body dragged, but my mind hovered like a hummingbird. I turned right, took in a breath, and knocked on Nettie’s bedroom door.
“Come in.” Her voice was still weak, unlike her usual lilting tone.
I left the door ajar and set the pretty china cup and saucer on her bedside table with a soft clatter.
“Thank you.” She looked at me with her moist heron eyes. I answered by patting her arm.
The box spring creaked underneath the mattress of the cannonball bed as I sat on the edge near Nettie. She lay on top of the coverlet, cradled by piled-up pillows. Propping herself against them, she picked up the tea and sipped, slurping a little and swallowing. Her look was strained, her face bony. I considered her hair, a tinge of white now swirled in with the auburn. I could see clumps of matting at the nape of her neck. Some miracle conditioner, some detangler—maybe she’d accept a good styling at my salon. I’d never seen her hair shiny in all these years.
“It’s hard,” she said, staring out the windows into the night.
I nodded, understanding what she meant.
My house nestled on steep property atop a cliff at the northwest edge of town. City lights and faint stars twinkled against blackest night through double windows above her window seat. Across the room she’d left a small lamp lighted so as not to be sitting in the dark. She wore one of my nightgowns, yellow, flowery, and exuding honeysuckle sachet. I reached for her left hand and held it as we sat together, not needing to speak. It soothed me to sit next to her. In gazing at the lights shining outside the windows, our whole city was hurting too.
The murderer was attacking vulnerable people with troubled backgrounds. Were their vulnerabilities attracting the killer, just as limping deer or scampering rabbits signaled weakness to their predators? What was the murderer gaining? A satisfying surge of power after a quick kill? Relief from unbearable frustration or turmoil or rage? Or was it for the vicarious thrill of media attention? Were these particular victims chosen for this or another ulterior motive, or were they merely at the wrong place at the wrong time?
Elsa had briefly been in bit parts and choruses on Broadway, but she had become a homeless outcast, eating from dumpsters, trespassing for shelter. Now her glamorous portfolio picture was being flashed alongside the headlines, and in death she was gaining the fame she’d once craved. And her friend, poor, dearest Nettie, was visibly wounded as if she herself had been stabbed. She set her tea down and lay back on the pillows, then closed her eyes with a brief inward lift as if she were about to die. A pained sigh escaped from her.
I stood and stroked her forehead, trying to convey that she was loved and not so all alone on this grievous night. After a while she caught my hand, brought it to her lips and kissed my knuckles, then released it. I returned to stroking her forehead and the right side of her face, the side that had the rose-colored birthmark in the shape of a ripped maple leaf.
After a while she began to breathe more deeply and then almost to snore. I continued to outline her face, fearing she’d wake if I left her too soon. My heart warmed from giving her a comfortable bed with sweet-smelling sheets and soft blankets in a snug, sturdy house away from danger. My life had been blessed with able parents, not too difficult siblings, caring extended family, sanity on most fronts, and pools of joyous childhood amidst life’s strife and discord. My heart caught as I pictured what Nettie must have had in her growing up. Her circumstances before coming here were haphazard and not safe enough—they weren’t safe or good enough for anyone existing out on the streets.
I turned away, picked up the dishes, left the small light on, and closed her door. I noticed a whiff of cedar in the hall, bringing back my grandparents and the times I had spent the night tucked in this very room, or in the other one with the spindled twin beds, to the right beyond the end bathroom where Nettie’d bathed earlier.
Going back downstairs, I rinsed the teacup, shut down my computer with that awful manifesto, checked each ground-floor window latch, and made sure the doors were bolted. It was creepy having a killer out in those lights. I hurried upstairs, turning left to my own room with the twinkling city views and window seats.
The next morning it was obvious The Associated Press had picked up the local stories of the Watertown murders. Some copy editor in the big time had written the headline, “The Disposables,” because all the victims had been nonproductive, homeless people and the latest casualty had been literally found in a dumpster. The laminated text found in Elsa Maitland’s pocket, leaked by a Watertown Daily Times reporter from police evidence, was now plastered all over the country and much of the world.
I’d walked through the grass with Nettie to the picnic table out back near my grandfather’s garage and heated kennel, leaving her there since she’d wanted to drink a mug of coffee outdoors. She didn’t say, but she was likely feeling cooped up and needed to be alone. My scuffs were drenched from the morning dew, but the day was clear and it promised to warm up into one of those last, balmy September days in northern New York. I hadn’t brought up Elsa’s memorial service yet, but there was time.
Flipping around the channels, I saw that CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and even the news segments on the Sunday morning talk shows were describing the past six months’ happenings here. The cable channels rotated their video segments over and over again where each victim had been found: the hypo-marked prostitute, slashed and abandoned under the Arsenal Street Bridge; the hospital “frequent flyer,” lacerated and slumped outside Knowlton Brothers Paper on Factory Street; the jail punk squatting on private Ives Street property, gashed and chucked in a field beyond Immaculate Heart Central; and now the bit-part Broadway actress, hacked and stranded in the dumpster on the South Side. “The Disposables” had all been stabbed numerous times by what looked like the same weapon.