A pulsing light enters through the sunken basement window. The beam is shockingly vivid, then gone, then present again.
I fell asleep reading Crime and Punishment. Without it, I lay awake most nights, caught in the loop of my thoughts. The book pulls me into the slow, dream world of nineteenth century Russia, so unlike these times with their TVs and jarring noises.
I place my feet on the rug that covers the cement floor and then climb the stairs to the kitchen. The throbbing light overruns the room. I have never experienced anything this bright. And it’s odd, because it’s almost dark outside.
The parking lot is ambulances and police cars. Blue and red rescue lights reach up across the sky. A TV station has set up its flood lights and microphone. Right next door, medics are carrying out stretchers. No faces showing.
I turn on the radio, and it doesn’t take long before the announcer speaks the words: “A northeast community is reeling today after an apparent murder-suicide. Early this morning, emergency crews discovered four family members dead from gunshot wounds. Names are being withheld until notification of next of kin.”
The reporters assume we are all in shock, but they underestimate this housing complex. No one stays here long, if possible. It’s a cheap hotel where few people even say goodbye.
At first, we stayed in a motel. The low-lying buildings had wild rose bushes climbing up the sides, like a castle. The structure was curved. Even inside, the counter-tops and doorways were rounded. Art Deco, my father explained. Faux Art Deco. He studied at the Royal Danish School of Art and Design, but no one in this part of the world even knows what that is.
After the motel, we arrived here. Each apartment has a small, square, backyard patio with a circular clothesline and six-foot brown, shadow-box fences on either side. In the overcrowded units, families live tragic narratives with furniture that doesn’t match. Sofas wear the wrong pillows. TV trays hold up shadeless lamps. Most of the apartments do not have carpets. Bare yellowing linoleum stares at you emptily.
My mother plants flowers and routinely washes the front and back doors to differentiate us from the others and their entrances smudged with handprints from children going outdoors unwashed, eating jelly sandwiches while playing in the sandbox.
Every night, my parents say the rosary, always ending with a few prayers for the poor: “Bless the poor and protect them from trials and tribulations.” Technically, we are poor now, but poverty, my father explains, is a state of mind. The people around us aren’t temporarily displaced. They have permanently accepted their standing on the lowest rung of society.
My first friend was Jennifer. We played Barbie under the partial shade of a makeshift parasol that was actually a discarded sheet draped over her clothesline. Jennifer’s Barbie came in a shiny case that unsnapped and folded open to become the walls of a bedroom with a painted window beside a closet where doll dresses hung on little hangers. Soon Jennifer and her Barbies packed up for new quarters. Her father worked as a porter at the King Edward hotel (sometimes he came home in his costume). He didn’t earn enough to pay the rent. Usually it took three months, Jennifer explained, before they were evicted.
My other friend was Carole. She lived in a corner lot facing the empty green field. Her mother worked in the mall at the perfume counter but never wore perfume herself. Perhaps conflicting scents left her confused. The apartment overflowed with beautiful things—cushions, crystal and large prints behind glass. A picture in a magazine. The white sofa and chairs had pleated trims that touched the thick rug. Lamps stood on end tables, like fat vases wearing hats.
We met playing hide and seek. Just before sunset, streetlights flick on. Kitchen windows become yellow squares. About six or seven kids would gather outside my dining room window by the parking lot. A few were as young as five but then there was Carole, who was my age, but deaf. One evening, I heard the chatter and decided to join the game. Carole was It. She knelt beside the plug-in, covered her eyes and began counting to one hundred. We fled to different corners. I squatted behind a shed filled with lawn equipment. A few minutes later, she found me. Not long after, she uncovered everyone’s hiding place. Placing her palm on the ground, she could feel vibrations from feet walking. At birthday parties, Carole would dance the entire hour, feeling the songs through the floor. On Saturdays, we went to the movies. The Avenue Theatre still ran The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago. Carole could follow most of the story by reading lips and watching closely. At home, alone in her room, she was often on alert, feeling the floor for vibrations that could mean someone was coming up the stairs.
She liked to have me over when her mother was working, especially now that they getting married again. On one of the last day’s before they left, I came in the front door. The back of a man’s head was just higher than the stuffed chair. He was watching the Newly Wed Game.
I climbed the stairs. Carole’s mother had placed a stack of folded laundry on her dresses. A training bra on top. When she noticed, Carole hid it in the middle of the pile.
Carole had taught me to sign, although we always carried blank paper folded in quarters. She scribbled. Touch. Carole moved her hands over her breasts and down her front and then pointed to the door. Carole could yell. She was capable of loud disturbing sounds, but she was deaf, and therefore no one would listen.
The nearby school believes teenagers are untrustworthy deviants unable to function without the superstructure of the educational system. It corrals us into classrooms with strict rules about when we can come and go, what we can wear, how loudly we can slam our lockers, how fast or slowly we can move down the halls, when we can go to the washroom.
Everyone has the same name. There’s nothing wrong with being ordinary or conformist, but these people distrust the exceptional. Don’t stand out. Keep your head down. Fit in. Aspiration leads to disappointment. The teachers fail to understand these kids are happy the way things are. Their parents can’t spell and they don’t care to either.
Now one of the neighbors is speaking to the reporters. On TV and radio, she will get more than her allotted fifteen minutes of fame. Push beyond your entitled space into other people’s affairs, so the airwaves can broadcast your voice. Talk about what a nice family they are, even though I am the one living next door, and you barely know them.
By noon, both news channels are telling the story of a young father shooting his wife, two daughters and infant son in the early morning of February 15, 1970, a Valentine’s Day massacre. He was not known to police. He was employed up north and had come home for his regular leave. There was no history of violence.
The murder victims are like us. This was to be a short stopover. He was earning an enormous salary in the Northwest Territories, and they were saving to purchase one of the split levels in the new subdivision just across the road.
Police vehicles and TV crews stay in the parking lot all morning and afternoon. Parents gather on the asphalt next to the garbage. Filth surrounds the shed: cereal and Kotex boxes, moldy hot dog buns, rotten hamburger crawling with ants, margarine tubs and Nabob coffee tins. People here can’t be bothered to open the door and throw in their green bags.
The crowd grows. I watch from the kitchen. These people possess irrational confidence. Their lives prove they cannot make sound choices. Still they feel qualified to identify the flaws in others. One woman is wearing galoshes and a ski jacket over a flowered dress with taupe nylons repaired with red nail polish. Her unwashed hair is up in a ponytail without any attempt at style.
Mrs. Nelson starts speaking. Her accent clings to her words even though she left Europe twenty years ago to follow a good-for-nothing across the ocean. She also lives next door, just on the other side of the victims. The title “Mrs” adds some dignity to this woman who wears knee-high nylons with dresses and goes outside in slippers and sometimes just a robe. She has old-lady hands. Her children are grown and don’t come around, except for one daughter who is in Grade 6 and already wears eyeliner.
Mrs. Nelson has a boyfriend who isn’t much over 30. Everyone knows what’s going on. The daughter doesn’t hide it. The situation explains why they have a new TV and are saving money to travel. Despite the extra cash, Mrs. Nelson is often at our house begging. Do you have extra bread and eggs? The check won’t come until Wednesday.
Sometimes I hear things from the open upstairs bedroom window, but most of the time I try to be like my dad and not think about what’s going on. My father wills himself to float above the riffraff and often quotes Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Eventually, I slip back downstairs to my room. My bed pushes up against the drywall that hides the two-by-fours that cover the concrete that separates my room from the space where he ended his own life with his rifle after shooting his sleeping children and wife. I must have heard the shots firing on the other side of the wall. In my mind’s eye, I see blood smeared on white linen pillows, as though images can travel through concrete like sound.
For days, pictures from the parking lot play across our TV screen. On the six o’clock news, neighbors repeat their self-assured judgements—these people who hit their children with broom handles in the front of everyone and call them good-for-nothings, idiots and little shits.
There is nothing in the newspaper, however. In 1970, it was still illegal to print stories about suicide. Copycat crimes, they called it. In that way, reporters protected us. It’s better not to know, they decided.
As far as I know, there’s no psychological term for what I experienced. I was in a grocery store checkout line, waiting. Everyone I met was a cheap magazine to pick up and page through. There was nothing better to do.
Terese Brasen is the author of the Viking novel, KAMA, published by Outpost19. She has an MFA in writing from Cedar Crest College, where she studied with Fred Leebron. MURDER NEXT DOOR is from a collection of creative nonfiction, titled THE THING THAT'S WRONG WITH ME. The stories explore growing up with a mentally ill parent. Several have been shortlisted for literary prizes.