It's long and unpolished ... but it's where I was 13 years ago this week ...
It was a Friday. There was to be a football game that night and excitement filled the air. There was also a little concern in the air. Not high level concern as there is when you see a burning building or a car crash. It was low level concern like when you think you’ve left the iron on when you leave home in the morning. Two of the star cheerleaders, Sarah and Jenn, failed to show up to school that day. This wasn’t a big deal except that if they didn’t attend school, they weren’t permitted to cheer in the game. Both girls were fanatic about cheering so it was a little strange that they didn’t show. But, it was a Friday and Sarah’s parents’ were out of town. There were rumors that the girls had taken a little vacation to Atlantic City or some other fun place. Most of us who knew the girls at all knew that those ideas were bogus because the girls would never do such a thing. Even still, there was no major cause for concern. Yet.
However, the concern began the next morning when no one had heard anything from them still. I remember that I was working at the local drug store that Saturday morning. When my mom got out of work, she came by to check on me and to hand me a pile of posters. I looked at them and couldn’t believe what I saw. They were missing persons’ posters. Each poster had a picture of Sarah and Jenn with their descriptions and a reward for information leading to their return. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was unreal that two of my friends were on a poster offering a reward for their safe return. These things didn’t happen in Smalltown, America. These things happened in big cities where children stay out to all hours playing in the street. My throat got tight and my eyes started to well. My mind kept praying that they were indeed in Atlantic City goofing off.
As soon as my shift was over, I rode around with my mom as she distributed posters to all of the local business. My mother was close friends with the parents of both of the girls and felt that she must do something. She found comfort in spreading the word about their disappearance. We all felt completely helpless. What could we do but hope and pray for their safe return. The fear I felt inside was unlike anything else I had ever felt. The only thing I can relate it to was when my brother was serving in the Marine Corps in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. I remember going home every day after school, sitting in front of the t.v, hoping and praying that I wouldn’t see my brother’s name and face flashed upon the screen.
As word spread about their disappearance, the details of the case came out. As it turned out, Sarah’s home had been invaded. The phone lines had been cut and the shower curtain had been pushed in as though someone had been thrown against it. The cheerleading uniforms were still hung up on their hangers and there was no trace of the girls.
The rest of the details are personal and revealing. To keep things private for those involved, and to maintain my composure, I’m going to skip the rest of the facts. But, I will say that Sarah’s neighbor had broken into her home while she and Jenn were getting ready for school and took them away. He then killed them and hid their bodies. He was a husband and a father of a young boy. He had been their neighbor for years. His bedroom window looked directly into Sarah’s bathroom.
It’s amazing how people change when something bad happens. Before the tragedy, my class was a cliquey, divided group of teenagers. While, because of the size of our school, we all knew every one of our classmates by name, few of us crossed those rigid clique lines to have close interactions with our peers. We weren’t unique in that respect. Every high school has cliques to some degree or another. But, after the news of Sarah and Jenn broke, things changed quickly and completely. As a whole, my class became tight knit and dependent upon each other for support. Two of our classmates were missing and presumed dead (although we all still hoped for the best). We leaned on each other for comfort. Friendships were formed that would prove to survive anything. I’ve always heard that something good always comes from something bad. I never really believed it until I lived it. The tragedy that struck our hometown brought us together. We had a special bond that no one could ever duplicate or take away. We were friends formed from grief. We could simply look at each other and see how our friends were feeling. No words need to be spoken. Things are still that way today.
The day we heard about their deaths still plays in slow motion in my head. It’s almost like a dream. Rather than seeing through my own eyes, I see myself as I walked around. Nothing seemed real. I was in math class. Mr. Prugh. He knew we couldn’t focus on any real work so he was simply wasting time with review and idle talk. The principal interrupted our classes to make an announcement. He then told us that Sarah and Jenn were confirmed dead and that classes were released for the day. If we had a way home, we could leave but the building would remain open for those who didn’t want to be alone. We weren’t allowed to leave without a responsible adult. I walked out of my classroom and saw one of the saddest scenes of my life. Jenn’s younger brother was overwhelmed with grief and punched a hole in the glass windows that lined the hallways. How did they expect him to react? His big sister had been stolen from his home and murdered. His sadness permeated the hallway. No one knew what to say because none of us knew how he felt. I wandered my way to the front office and waited in the long line to use the phone. Although the school had a strict no cell phones policy, students everywhere were dialing on their wireless phones to contact home. Even the staff members were borrowing the cell phones of students. When I finally had the chance to use the phone, my mother told me that she would be there in a few minutes to pick my up. I walked out of the office and saw my best friend, Justin. We hugged tightly without saying a word. His eyes were so sad. It broke my heart even more. He asked if I was going to be okay and I simply nodded. He then asked if I had somewhere to go and, again, I simply nodded. He continued to stand there as I turned to wander down the hall. The hall was in a state of silent mass confusion. No one knew what to think or where to go. All that we could do is hold each other and sob. People were walking around crying or searching for friends. I eventually found my way outside and my mother was waiting in the van directly outside the door. It was almost like a movie. Things fell together so perfectly. I didn’t have to look around to find her. She was right there. But, looking back, she’s always been right where I need her whenever I need her.
The sun. I remember the sun. The sun was shining bright and the sky was blue. It was warm and not a breeze to be felt. It was such a beautiful day. Normally on days like this we would spend the lunch period out on the lawns, playing Frisbee or hacky sack. Days like this normally brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart. Today was different. My face was frozen and marked by trails left by endless tears. My heart had already begun to grow cold. Aren’t tragic day supposed to be rainy and gray? This day did not fit the mood. The sun was too bright and the sky was too blue. It all had to be a dream. But it wasn’t.
My mother and I drove out to Sarah’s house to console the families. As we pulled up to the house, cars lined the streets and people littered their yard and the neighboring yards. It’s a very odd scene when there are fifty or so people gathered outside on a beautiful fall day and no one is wearing a smile. When we crossed the yard, Sarah’s mom, Sandy, met us half way. As she hugged me, I felt so much of her pain and grief. To this day, the memory of that hug makes me tear up. She held me so tight and so long. I felt guilt and grief, joy and relief. I was aware of this odd sense of guilt that my mom still had her daughter while Sandy no longer had hers. The grief that Sandy felt seemed to transfer into my body. By no means could I ever wholly experience or understand the pain that she felt, but for a brief moment, I felt a part of that and I understood her immense sadness. I also felt her joy and relief. Joy that I was safe and no other children had been taken and relief that she finally knew the fate of her beautiful daughter. All I could piece together was “I’m sorry.” What else could I say? In the coming years, I would grow to hate that phrase. It’s often used so artificially and is too often used by people who really don’t care. But, I had no other words. My mind was reeling but it was neither the time nor place for my many confused thoughts. It would be a long time until I could put my feelings into words. But, I truly was sorry for her and her family. I couldn’t compare any amount of grief I had ever experienced to the grief she felt at that moment. I couldn’t tell her that it would be all right because I wasn’t sure if it would be. Honestly, at this point, I thought that things would never be all right. All I could do was stand there, mutter my innocent consolation, and be held by that saddest woman in the world.
I had never before been to such an event. At Sarah’s home, all of her family and friends had gathered to join in their grief and console each other. I saw many faces I recognized and many I had never seen before. Food miraculously appeared on the counters and tables. No one really ate it. It just sat there, looking out of place. There’s always food at sad events. I don’t really understand it. Who ever brought the food was making an attempt to be helpful and to ease just a piece of the pain the families felt. But, who could eat at a time like that? Food was the farthest thing from our minds. But, the food was still there, decorating any surface that wouldn’t move.
Finally, after an eternity, my mother and I left, to drive home in an awkward silence. My mother and I have always talked about everything but, for the first time, we seemed to be at a loss for words. I had so much to say but the words were lost. Anything I wanted to say seemed so trivial compared to the magnitude of the events. My mind was racing with thoughts but, for the first time in my life, I had no words to say them. We held hands as she drove and I silently sobbed all the way home.
Never before in my life had I felt so lost and hopeless. I had been raised in such a safe and protected home. I was the only kid I knew who had a mom and dad who weren’t divorced. My parents never left us alone overnight without someone to stay with us. I was sheltered and well protected. My safe, secure life had suddenly been ripped apart and exposed to the harsh reality of life. Bad things, very bad things happen to good people in small towns. No one is safe. Anyone can be a victim.
Looking back, my innocence was lost at that moment. People say that we become desensitized to violence through all of the violence we watch on TV. They are wrong. I was raised watching such shows as COPS and America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. Nothing I had ever seen on TV could have prepared me for what I had just experienced. The events of October 1996 affected me more deeply and profoundly than any other event in my life. My life has never been that same and never will again, all as a result of one crazy man. I felt so much hate inside. I was raised to never hate another human being and now I was experiencing a profoundly scary feeling that I had never known before. Feeling such hate was very scary. I thought that something was seriously wrong with me. It kept me awake at night and settled in the pit of my stomach like lead. How can I hate so much? To this day, I still feel that hate towards him. It still scares me, but not as badly as before. Surprisingly, the feeling hasn’t dulled all that much. When I think of that man’s face, I cringe inside. He is the only person that I have ever wanted to physically hurt. I remember wishing that I could have just a few moments alone with him so I could make him feel just a sliver of the pain that he caused. I would have been no better than him but I still felt that anger and hate. Knowing that I am capable of such strong emotions is very frightening. This experience has opened my eyes to a whole new dimension of emotion; hate and detestation.
Feeling blessed and lost at the same moment is a very overwhelming blend of emotions. I felt blessed that I could live another day while two girls I knew and cared for were robbed of their futures. I thought forward and realized that they would never fall in that true love we all want so badly. They would never see a graduation gown or experience going off to college and living on their own. They would never stress over term papers or buy their first new car. They would never experience motherhood and gaze into the innocent eyes of their newborn child. They would never have grandchildren or see the Northern Lights or cruise through the Bahamas. All of those things would happen to me, but never to them. It scared me that futures could be stolen so quickly and quietly. Feeling lost is a bit harder to describe. I remember sitting curled up on my family’s big blue couch. I don’t remember when this was but it was shortly after we discovered their deaths. All I could do was sob. My mom got home and asked me if I was okay. I couldn’t answer her. I felt so confused and torn up inside. I didn’t seem fair that someone as average and boring as I could continue to live when two shining stars with so much to offer were taken away in the cover of night. These two girls sparkled. They really did. I look back through my scrapbook of that time and in the pictures from the newspaper, their eyes still glitter. Their smiles, while haunting, still make me smile. They were smart, kind, and were going places. Now it seems so silly that I felt that way but it was a very real concern at that time. Sometimes I still feel that if by some chance I could give myself to save just one of them, I would do it in a heartbeat. If I could ease the pain of their families in any way, I wouldn’t hesitate.
I mentioned before how tragedy tends to bring about good. The first good it brought was the closeness between my classmates. The second good was the bond that developed between my big brother and me. My older brother, Donnie, was twenty seven when the girls were murdered. He was married and lived about a half an hour away. I remember sitting on my bed one afternoon shortly after the news of their murder. I took up the habit of cutting newspaper clippings out of any newspaper or magazine that ran stories about the girls. I realize now that this probably wasn’t the safest thing for my mental health. To this day, I still have the scrapbook that I created from those clippings. My brother came into my room and sat in my chair. He looked at my teary, swollen face and said two simple words: “You okay?” Those two words changed our relationship forever. For the first time that I could remember, my brother seemed concerned about me. I know he always loved me but we never really had much to discuss, being ten years apart. After those two little words, our relationship opened up and began a new chapter. We still fight and argue about the normal sibling problems but I know that beneath it all, we have a connection that no one can break.
The school hosted a memorial service the weekend after the news of Sarah and Jenn’s deaths were official. The weather was gray and rainy and cold. Appropriate for the circumstances of the day. We parked in the soccer field and walked across the wet grass in our nicest shoes and darkest outfits. Sad events like funerals and memorial services never have nice weather. I don’t know if the massive sentiment of sadness affects the weather or if the weather exaggerates our depression. Or maybe it’s an even combination or both.
A school gym is an odd place to hold a memorial service. There was no place more appropriate for this service but it still seemed out of place. Schools are places of laughter and happiness, not mourning and tears. The gym where we had spent so many hours playing extreme badminton and soccer and basketball with our friends had been transformed into an ominous and heartbreaking environment. To see all of your friends and classmates gathered in the high school gym with no smiles is a very unsettling sight. It just shouldn’t be that way. But, a service held anywhere else would have been awkward and strange. Sarah and Jenn had lived in that gym during the cheer seasons. We had all seen both Sarah and Jenn cheer at many basketball games in that gym. They felt at home and at ease there. Sitting in the bleachers, surrounded by tearful classmates, one could almost feel their presence. The service was sad yet not depressing. As with all services, the happy and joyful times were the focus and the tragic events surrounding their deaths were only mentioned as a backdrop. There were huge collages of pictures taken at every stage in their lives. It’s odd how a person can laugh at such an ominous event but seeing their smiling faces in candid shots brought a smile to all of our faces. They loved life so much, it was impossible not to see that love in their eyes. I truly believe that Sarah and Jenn were with us that day. They were sitting there among their tearful classmates who were collapsing under the weight of their grief. They put their arms around us and gave us the strength to carry on.
If you cry enough, tears seem to wash away the pain. But, when the tears dry, the pain is still there. For a long time, the pain seemed to remain constant. Every morning, I would wake up with tears caked onto my cheeks. Small events would trigger memories and set me off for seemingly no reason. I would see a spectacular sunrise that would set tears streaming down my cheeks. I would see a girl with bouncing blond curls or straight red locks and I would see Jenn’s or Sarah’s face again and the tears would fall. I must have looked like a basket case to those around me. I didn’t know how to deal. I thought that the pain would never end.
And it didn’t. But, it did get duller. At first the pain was a sharp shooting bullet through my chest. But, as the months went by, the pain eased into a dull, throbbing ache deep down inside of me. To this day, that ache is still there, hiding behind my heart, deep inside my chest. On bad days, that dull throbbing can flip into that shooting pain. But, luckily, those days are few and far between. I’m afraid of the day when the pain is completely gone. I’m afraid because that means that Sarah and Jenn and Katie and Mr. Cassell and everyone else has been forgotten. I don’t want to forget. Ever. They have shaped who I am and the memories are a part of me. Although it’s painful to think about those days, I still smile at the good times. The throbbing hurts every day and it’s almost comforting to know that they are still there. They are still a part of me. Still a part of my life. They aren’t just a memory that will fade in time.
When all is said and done, a person hopes that they can one day forget all of the pain that they have experienced. But, somehow, the events of your life keep creeping up on us and slapping us in the face.
Three days before Christmas in 2002, the local newspaper published an article rehashing all of the tragic events that had stricken our town. The article was spurred by recent events when a pit bull had mauled a young man (who resided in our town) to death. I was amazed at how free and fresh the tears fell. Over six years had passed and the pain was so easily refreshed. As an outspoken English major and one who already dislikes the press, my first reaction to the article was to write an editorial speaking out against the timing of the article and it’s frivolous nature. I felt better after writing down my ideas and feelings but the tears still fell, cleaning my soul of my rage.
In an odd way, I don’t want to forget. Ever. My junior year formed me. It defined my strength and courage. Without experiencing those horrible days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, I wouldn’t be me, the girl who loves to write and the woman who wants to touch lives. Losing friends was the most arduous experience of my life but it made me who I am today. And, I am stronger, braver, more loving, and less trusting. I’m not happy they are gone. That’s not possible. But, I am a different person as a result of those events.