The longer this story gets, the more difficult, I assume, it must be to review the former parts. So, at least for the time being, I am going to maintain this page to post the entire story to date in one place, including the most current post.
The following story is fiction. The characters, situations and settings are imaginary.
Untitled Iowa Horror Story
Excerpts from the records of Joshua Symonds, MD
This patient has been retained at the Iowa Criminal Psychiatric Institute in Iowa City for nine years. Described as withdrawn and uncooperative by my predecessors, I felt intrigued by the bizarre nature of his crime and wished to discover what might have driven him to perform such a peculiar murder.
Our first sessions were unproductive ― following the pattern recorded of his interaction with previous psychiatrists. Upon leaving his last session prior to this record, however, he suddenly turned and spoke to me, off the record so to speak, saying with noticeable sadness in his voice that he had really wanted that job in Mantorville. Thus opening the opportunity to reach him…
May 5, 2002, 2:10 pm
I hadn’t had many offers, he told me. Many? Hell, I’d only got two, three interviews. And neither of those seemed headed toward anything I’d want.
He looked at me expectantly. I didn’t want him to expect anything of me whatsoever, so I waited.
Okay, he continued abruptly, I don’t think they were headed anywhere for me at all. I just wasn’t what they wanted. And one was not for me. So when… ― Mantorville came up, and they actually made me an offer, I took it.
― You did have an interview?
The interview. Yeah. I remember that. It was mid-July. I was still hankering after the first job ― but that’d been almost four full weeks before. They weren’t going to offer it to me. He turned thoughtful, his expression slackening.
…Big school. 4000 kids. Huge tax base as well ― helluva a campus, massive facilities. Sixteen-to-one pupil:teacher ratio. Nice little suburban community. New construction concluding that summer, and I’d have my own classroom in the new section. It would have been great.
― But you weren’t going to get it?
Nah. I was too experienced. Can you believe it? They wanted someone who cost them less, somebody just out of school or, well, with less than ten years anyway. Contract there said they’d pay for up to twenty years tenure, but I noticed everyone I met seemed under thirty. Real young staff. Oh yeah. Real young.
No. They were looking for another kid, no matter what their contract hinted. Sometime in August I got the letter: “youthful enthusiasm and current methodology were the determining factors.” Yeah right, and about twenty thousand less a year.
― But by then you were already committed elsewhere, to this other job. I tried to not lead him too much.
Well, I had a kinda iffy feeling about it all as I drove back home. They hadn’t talked money very clearly with me ― like maybe they didn’t care all that much about my interview in the first place.
― So you investigated a second job?
Yeah. I should have known. The ad’d appeared the week I got the first interview. They made it sound easy, admitted the pay was just average, and ― the part that caught my attention ― offered fifteen years experience to start. They wanted someone who knew what he was doing. But the pay sucked. Even so I sent in my letter and résumé. But I was thinking more of the first job. I really did want that first job.
― But you didn’t get that one…
I never had a chance. I knew that at the interview. That’s why I went to the second one. They liked me; I could tell. But it was just pathetic. Pathetic. Old building, staff cuts ― deep ones ― in just the last five years, big administrative turnovers. It looked sick to me. I didn’t want that job, not unless I absolutely had to. Pathetic.
― Which made the third interview (I had to get him on topic here) …interesting?
Yeah. Interesting. Mantorville…
― Maybe even, …exciting?
Hey. I needed a job. I had to get some job. And by the time they called, it was July. I don’t remember, sometime around the tenth. I know the Fourth was over, I remember how I spent it… He wasn’t making this easy.
― Oh? How did you spend it?
Alone. That’s how I spent my last Fourth of July. Alone. Sitting in my apartment packing up the things I owned so I could move to a job I didn’t have because the job I’d had for the last twelve years was gone. I spent the Fourth sitting among a bunch of damn boxes that every time I started trying to pack, I’d begin shaking and trembling… and I’d start to cry. ― Satisfied?
― It was only natural.
Yeah, sure. Thirty-five year-old-man, high school teacher, sitting alone in the middle of a shag carpet crying. ― Happy? He looked aggressive suddenly. Isn’t that the kind of stuff you guys like to hear?
I wasn’t going to take that bait.
― You had to move. Your old job was gone. You’re a teacher. You had to move to get a new job.
Huh. Who’d ever have thought they’d just dissolve a school district that size.
― No, big-city schools just seem to go on forever.
Think you’re funny, huh?
― No. I’m sorry. I just knew that issue was on your mind, and I was wondering what effect it might have had on you, and it just… slipped out.
Thought I was the one on the couch here.
― You are. Go on…
Okay, I guess maybe I was just scared, a little, to check out real Chicago or Milwaukee jobs. All those stories of gangs and violence and guns in the halls… I didn’t want to face that. My first dozen years had been a breeze, really. The district seemed solid, and we were suburban enough, if you know what I mean. Compared to tackling what big-city teachers face. So I wanted to focus on places about the size of what I’d been used to, towns over thirty thousand at least.
― Bigger was scary but too small was…?
Downright rural, okay. I’m a city boy.
― But in the end the size didn’t matter at all?
In the end I had to get a job, and well, I kept telling myself a little bitty town like that had to be, uh, secure.
― You felt it would be safer than a truly urban or inner city school.
― But it wasn’t? Safer?
Hell, worse. If I could do it over again, I’d choose some ghetto slum school over a small town in Iowa any day. He thought about it a little more. Any day.
― Maybe you had better continue, then. Tell me all about it?
What do you want to know. It was horrible. Evil. Like I told the patrolmen. ― When they arrested me. Back then. It should all be in your notes… Right?
― Yes, but I have a different set of motives. They were just after evidence, a confession.
And I gave them a doozie.
― Yes, you did. And now you’re here and it’s all this time later. I wonder what your memories of it all are…
It was horrible… His face blanked as the memories washed into him again. ― Maybe I don’t want to have to remember all over again.
― Whatever you say, Mr. Arkham. But I can easily see you’re remembering it all anyway.
Yeah. All the time. …Maybe you’re right. ― Yeah, sure. What do you want to know?
― Whatever you want to tell me. But I am interested in that interview. Your first day in that town. Your first impressions.
Hah. My first impression was that it wasn’t there.
― Pardon me?
The morning I drove in for my interview I had stayed overnight in the town nearby, Bear River Falls. There’s a Super 8 there. And the drive from home ― …I still think of it that way… ― was about four hours. I wasn’t all that far west of Chicago; that had been one of the better parts of my original job.
I figured I’d have to sleep over on one end or the other ― day before the interview or that day, and the superintendent, Howard Phillips, wanted the interview to start at 9:00, so that meant, the way I wake up most mornings, the night before. It wasn’t a bad motel, and not too noisy, considering all the business they had (being that close to five riverboats, gambling) ― of course, on the other hand, it was a Wednesday night…Who all wants to go gambling on a Wednesday night or Thursday morning? Huh. Me, I guess.
― You? You went to one of the casinos that night?
Nah. But that interview. That was a gamble. Rolling the dice for the third time and hoping my luck had changed. But it hadn’t. Although I didn’t know that at the time. He paused again and his face took on that slack look as he remembered something again. He was making this interview intolerable. ― But it all looked fine that Thursday morning. Bright sunny day. I remember it clearly. Not too warm. We’d come through a real heat wave the week before, but the weather broke on Monday night, and this week had been great.
That morning I woke up about six-thirty, seven. I guess I was excited. It was only about fifteen, twenty minutes to Mantorville. But I had to get this job. I wouldn’t admit that to myself. Not then. But it was my last chance. Mid-July, and I still didn’t have anything to go to when school started late August. Pretty much, it was this or nothing.
I got up, showered, got dressed. Just like the perfect candidate, in my one and only suit with a colorful but not too wild tie (no Richard Leakey prehistoric skulls, no Jerry Garcia, just in case they recognized whose design it was and the Grateful Dead summoned up all the wrong associations in Mr. Howard Phillips’s mind), blue buttondown oxford shirt. I kept checking myself in the mirror, but that was nothing. Big mirrors always catch my attention. I never look at myself so much as when I’m in a hotel. I looked good, really good. My hair lay flat for once. And my spring and summer of hell had kept me from eating. I think I’d dropped fifteen pounds since Christmas, and it looked good. I really felt ready for this one.
I decided to have breakfast. They always say eating a good breakfast makes all the difference. I don’t usually eat anything, but this time, well, it seemed like the right thing to do. There was a McDonald’s right next door to the motel, right on the highway actually with the motel out of the way behind it, but McDonald’s seemed, well, not the thing I wanted. I’d eaten that for supper the night before. I decided to see if there wasn’t a restaurant or local diner in town. There almost always is. I packed up my suitcase and inspected the room to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind and checked out ― all before seven-thirty. Got in the car and drove up the highway, Main Street, of course, toward the turnoff for Mantorville.
I’d checked out the route through town the previous afternoon when I’d arrived. I didn’t want any surprises in the morning, and I was pretty sure I remembered a diner along the way.
And I was right, even though I hadn’t really been paying attention to that kind of thing when I’d driven through. The Eagle’s Nest. Corny name for what it was ― a classic little Iowa diner. Found out later the Eagles were the Bear River Falls team. I bet the building was an old gas station, enlarged somewhen along the line, and the current owner wasn’t the one who made the adaptation to a restaurant.
According to the folks around there, that’s always the way it goes. Some gas station goes broke, closes down, somebody buys the building (or the bank unloads it finally, since the gas station owner was probably into the bank big time, and they had to be satisfied with the property when the business went bust), and they make it into a new kind of business ― these days it seems it’s always a restaurant or an ice cream joint, one or the other ― and survive for only about a year or so, just long enough for the bank to get back a good part of the loan they extended the guy to take the property off the bank’s hands, and then after a year, sometimes longer, another food entrepreneur opens just what the town wanted, another cheap place to eat familiar food cheaply. Sometimes the joint has something special (here it was gyros ― either the new owner or the cook must be Greek), but nobody ever eats it ― at least nobody local.
For breakfast, according to the greasy, laminated, oversized menu, I could select from a variety of five different breakfast plates, each featuring eggs fixed in one of four ways, bacon or “pork pattie” or sausage, hash browns or American fried potatoes or “breakfast spuds,” toast or English muffin with jelly, juice and coffee. Milk was extra. They also had omelets, my preference ― mushroom, cheese, Denver, Western, plain, design-your-own (each ingredient fifty cents) with either toast or English muffin or “potatoe.”
He spelled it for me. Silent E and all.
D’you think they learn somewhere along the line to spell it like that? Small town people?
I wondered how he could remember all this, or if he were simply inventing it as he went along. But his eyes had that glazed look of someone entirely involved in recollection, almost oblivious of his surroundings, and although we weren’t quite on target even yet, I feared what an interruption might evolve. I just let him talk.
I ordered the Denver omelet with plenty of onions and green peppers, whole wheat toast, milk and coffee. It only cost $5.65, and it was good. That morning I didn’t think I’d ever eaten anything quite so good. Wasn’t until I got in the car to go on to the interview that I thought the onions and peppers might be a mistake. …Wasn’t though, was it? He looked at me suddenly, then drifted away over my head. That wasn’t the mistake.
I ate that meal a lot in ten months. Usually for supper after school. Every time it reminded me a little of how I felt that morning ― like a king or a young god or something, as if everything were going exactly right for me and I was in control of everything. Even that day it was a damned illusion, a lie.
He stopped again, his expression drifting off, his eyes more unfocused than before. And then, as if someone threw a switch inside of him, click, he looked at me.
I finished eating at 8:20. I paid right away, even tipped the waitress.
I’ve always been a huge tipper. Girl I dated in college worked tables in the local country club, bar and restaurant. She was good-looking, very. I felt lucky just to be dating her. The golfers in the bar must have felt lucky to have her bend over their little tables to place their watery drinks because they gave her good tips. Not so good in the restaurant: families out, golfers together with the wives and often the kiddies. There she’d be lucky to get better than the spare change from the bill. She told me that’s the way it always is in hometown restaurants. Local yokels never tip. Grandpa thinks a quarter is good money thrown away when he leaves it behind on the table. Gramma picks up anything more than that quarter while the old man’s in the can draining his colon. And the teenagers don’t even know enough to leave anything other than their chewed gum. But the divorcees need the job ― even if only to pay the daycare while they’re away.
Like I said, it’s less than fifteen minutes from Bear River to Mantorville. At the Eagle’s Nest I was just less than a mile from the intersection. You have to make a left turn going east on 54 to pick up 41. It’s the damnedest intersection (have you ever been there? No. Funny. I figured everyone I’d meet from now on would have been through there): it’s a three-way stop ― southbound on 42, westbound on 54, and northbound from the bypass (and that doesn’t quite match the rest of the intersection, it’s about 200 feet east of 42). Only eastbound and turning from the west onto 42 don’t have to stop, but that turn is like uphill across the westbound lane and on up onto 42. Sheer hell in the winter. I’ve seen pickups slide all over that intersection.
But it was a great day, and I just cruised right through and on 42. I started fantasizing the interview. …Phillips would be tall and fiftyish, maybe wearing a rug, and he’d like my credentials. Maybe he’d gone to Luther, too, yeah…
I had the radio on, of course, and something good must have started playing when I’d gone about a few miles, because, well, this is what I was saying… I just drove right on through Mantorville northeast to Machen. It had to be the song changing that woke me up. I didn’t drive the whole way to the river, but I had gone, oh, a good ten miles past town before it started to dawn on me that I should have gotten there by now. It was 8:40.
I wasn’t sure what I had done, but I took a chance and turned around in a little lane to a cornfield and headed back. At 8:48 I saw the big sign on the north side of the livestock business: “Welcome to Mantorville.” I realized how I could miss it, spaced off in my own thoughts as I had been. The town was basically all off the highway to the east. Water tower and the school on a big hill to that side of town. What had once been downtown too, right on the north end. Really, if you weren’t paying attention, it was easy to just cruise on through without really noticing you had even entered a community. …I never did that again though.
Maybe it would have been better if I never turned around that morning.
He dried up again and looked forlorn, getting ahead of himself in his thoughts, remembering the ugly stuff. We’d get there, but I had to get him going first.
― And the interview? Were you late?
I made the appointment. Barely. It was 8:54 when I walked through the front doors of the school, and thank God, the superintendent decided to be there waiting for me because I wouldn’t have found his office for at least fifteen more minutes.
That building is a labyrinth. It took me probably two months to start sorting out my way around. Three and three-fourths storeys, old Howie Phillips liked to say. It’s what he did say when he took me by surprise standing right inside the front doors, short, fat and full-haired, and only just forty-five. I liked the old fart right off. He was a windbag and lazy as hell, and I could tell both qualities within the first fifteen minutes. But I liked him.
I guess he was kind of like me. An outsider. “Not a local boy,” as the Quetzal County folk like to say. Of course, hardly anyone counted as a local boy in their view. You could live in Mantorville for thirty years, raise two generations, and be the biggest taxpayer in the county, and they’d still give you that look ― that “you’re-an-outsider” look. I couldn’t understand that attitude, even though I’d had it in a smaller way in Jackson. But part of that had been being a teacher. Teachers are never local boys, always outsiders, never at home. After all, you give the kids homework. And get the summers off. Makes you seem unnatural to the locals.
Nobody knew your parents. That’s always a big deal in little farm towns. You’ve got to be able to calculate someone’s family back three generations to “know” them. It’s like people aren’t really real unless half the county’s related. My cousins are real back where my dad grew up because the family’s been there since 1878, and I’ve never quite been that real myself anywhere else.
But Howie and I had that lack of reality in common. He had it in common with few others on that faculty. It was a little disconcerting to realize, first day of school, just how many of these teachers were locals. There were twenty-three on that staff and only Howie, me, and the other new teacher weren’t raised in the area. Hell, four-fifths were raised right in Mantorville.
That alone should have warned me.
It had taken a while, but he’d gotten to the starting point.
― So the interview went well?
Yeah. He showed me around. Explained a few things about the building, old fossilized maze that it was. Showed me my room, the lunchroom, teacher’s lounge, the gym, office complex. We talked in his office. Tiny little place, actually, off in a corner on the second floor. One hell of security mess, but old-fashioned like so much in that district, in that whole county.
He offered me the job before the interview was done.
― That day?
Less than two hours after we’d met. I was the first person he talked to. Flattered me. Later I learned he just hated doing interviews, hated sending rejection letters even more. But we did like each other. Hit it off that day and became friends once I took the job. I miss him, you know…We were in touchy territory now. I almost held my breath waiting to see what this subject might do. They got to him, that’s all there is to it. They got to him.
I wanted to ask, “They? Who are they?” But I knew I’d better not push it. He had to find his own way to the abomination. Just as he had done when it happened. Unfortunately, it was now 3:10: our session was past over. I didn’t know if we would actually have time enough for him to find his way through everything to his personal little heart of darkness. I told him we were done for now. He looked a little surprised, but shrugged, got up and walked out. The guards were waiting outside the door.
May 6, 8:15 am
Waking me up early, huh? Think you’ll catch me off guard. Actually, yes.
― Actually, yes.
Seriously? I thought you guys were supposed to work at establishing rapport, trust…
― Okay. I tried to sound honest and sincere, the way I felt. ― So shouldn’t I be honest with you?
Okay. But why admit you’re manipulating me?
― I’m not.
You are. You just said you were trying to catch me off guard.
― Yes and no. I like morning sessions because people often come to them fresher, less defensively than at other times… Deliberately I let that trail away.
You can trick me into saying what you want, huh?
― No. I don’t know what I want you to say. I let that hang for a moment or two; he looked at me, mildly, school-teacherishly, with patience. So I finished for him. ― But you know. And for some people, in the morning, they feel more like letting go of what I think of as afternoon defenses.
Afternoon defenses. I like that. That sounds real. You ever taught? I shook my head I didn’t think he meant the kind of postgraduate academic work I had instructed. Not even as a grad student? Not that anyone would call that collegiate stuff teaching. Ha. So I had called that attitude correctly. Maybe I like mornings because in the morning I more often win. Think I’m right about that? …Yeah, sure. You just sit there… That’s your job isn’t it?
― What’s yours?
Ooh. That’s pushy! …I’m a teacher, aren’t I? I felt I heard a hint of an actual question in that.
― Are you?
Yeah. That’s exactly what I am. Was.
― And from what you told me yesterday, as of last summer you had permitted yourself to remain in that profession. He looked blank. ― You’d gotten a job. He still looked at me, expressionless. Now it was my turn to be tested. I caught on. ― Huh. Teaching’s a bit like counseling, isn’t it? I permitted a lot of questioning into that question.
Naturally. Both deal with modifying the human being, don’t they? Was a question back communication or mere mimicking mockery?
― Were you counseling as a teacher, then?
No degree. Not trained. An easy answer. But, yeah, kids sought me out often enough, wrote things in their journals I never expected. Yeah. I got more counseling in the job than I wanted.
So did I.
How about you? You get more teaching than you want, doing this?
― I can’t permit it. I’ve got to keep to basics, simple psychology.
Sure. Simple. He waited. But I was done doing his talking for him. We had to get back to basics here, now. And for him that meant telling me about what had brought him here. Or at least the background.
…So, yeah, I got the job. Howie hired me on the spot, and the pay wasn’t bad for a little dump in Iowa. Noticeably less than most anywhere in Illinois, but then I didn’t have anything left in Illinois, did I? Always with the questions. He wasn’t confident in himself. At least not on this subject. I had liked Howie from the interview. He really warmed up to me, too, I felt. It would be good to go into a strange new place with someone who could become a friend in charge. I didn’t regret signing the contract right then and there in his office; that kind of made me feel secure too.
So I had a job.
I drove back down to Bear River about noon and started looking for a place to rent right away.
― So it was your choice to live in Bear River, not Mantorville?
I never even thought about it, to tell the truth. I just never even looked in Mantorville. Got back in my car and drove off, and when I got to Bear River, I realized I was going to need a place to stay. The drive didn’t seem bad, but I didn’t even think about that. It’s just nine or ten miles. According to the signs, nine miles headed north, ten miles going back. Funny, isn’t it? Highway Department’s as screwed up as anything in Quetzal County.
― Probably measuring from different points.
Yeah. Must be. Never thought of that.
Was I going to spend this entire relationship getting him to notice what he never thought about then? I’d rather find out what he did think, what drove him to do what he did.
Anyway, I went to a drugstore downtown, bought the local paper ― it comes out twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. I got Wednesday’s and went right to the classifieds. There were more ads for places to rent than I’d’ve expected. What really took my notice was that there were houses to rent. Somehow that appealed to me. And the prices weren’t really much higher than apartments. The whole setup was almost half what I’d been used to paying, so it seemed like I’d fallen into a cup of cream.
― Cup of cream?
Yeah. Hadn’t you heard that one before? My favorite aunt always said that. Like you’d gotten into something good, cozy, comfortable. But I was dead wrong, of course.
There, he’d gone and said it. Again. Always with the little hints. He knew where this was headed.
So I checked out a couple of places. It‘s hard finding your way around a new town, even a small one. And Bear River’d grown in three directions at different times under what must’ve been a couple dozen different contractors. Streets’d head one way, then stop at an intersection, but you hadn’t gotten to the address you wanted yet. But if you whipped around a couple of blocks ― or a half dozen or so ― and headed back in line, you could usually find the street had started up again, just skipping the numbers for the blocks where it wasn’t. Nice grid layout to the place, but inconsistently developed.
Back where I came from, they tried harder’n’hell to avoid that predictable grid, winding stupid streets around nonexistent hills to create some kind of Spielberg-silly suburbia out of what should have been fields growing corn. Here, they just didn’t plan enough.
― So you didn’t like how they laid out the streets, then? Getting impatient.
Nah. I did. That’s the thing. It was hard to figure out ― I don’t know that I ever did, really ― , but I liked it. It was… real, you know? Even that day, looking for a place and not finding it, it seemed… actual. I dunno, solid? Real. Like I could count on it, weird as it may have been.
And I did find a place, too. I noticed three that sounded really interesting. The first was just north of town on 42. I called and checked it first, thinking that being that little bit closer to Mantorville would be advantageous. But it was a real dump. I think drug dealers had been the previous residents. Or someone equally filthy.
The second place turned out not to be a house at all but just the upstairs. Nice enough, I guess. It was as big as my own place, except I had two bedrooms and this just had one really huge bedroom. I told the landlady I’d call her later if I wanted it.
The third place was it. Trees in the yard, front porch screened in, hardwood floors. It wasn’t the greatest ― there was red linoleum in the gigantic kitchen and old, painted, probably handmade cabinets; the rooms otherwise were small. But I kind of liked the stairway to the second floor. I don’t know. Somehow it just seemed like home.
― This was your residence on Ashton?
Of course. I only lived there. It was in those six rooms that I lived, corrected papers, and uncovered the secrets of Quetzal County. Far enough removed from Mantorville to see it for what it was.
And just what was it? I wanted to ask that question in the worst way, to make him tell me, to let me understand why he did the horrible things he did. But that would have to come from him, him alone, and only in his own good time. He had to find his way back there for himself.
I moved in three weeks after the interview. I’d been there overnight, even a couple of nights in those weeks, while I was moving myself and my stuff. But it was three full weeks before I was out of Jackson and my little upstairs apartment of twelve years and into my new house on Ashton Street in Bear River Falls.
I’d visited the school several times as well, checked out my room, gotten to know the secretaries in the office and eaten lunch with Howie a few times as well. He even offered to help me move, and did his bit unloading two different days, too. I really enjoyed that, not just because he was my boss and actually seemed to like me, but because I liked him. He was a good guy, Howie, funny and friendly, interested in things, companionable. I looked forward to the promised invitation to visit him and Sonia for dinner. I expected she had to be as much fun as he was…
Anyway, it took me three weeks to get everything from Illinois to Iowa. I didn’t really have a lot when I though about it, just a bunch of books, clothes, some furniture, a few personal items that meant something to me. But my twelve years in Jackson hadn’t produced a hell of a lot to indicate my life was meaning anything.
That took me aback. I’d felt happy in Jackson. Sure, I worked a lot, like a workaholic maybe. Who else went in nearly every day over the summer? I never took a real vacation. Unless you count those two summers in Louisiana getting my Masters.
Used to be, I had dreamed of going to Europe, South America, Australia. When I was in college, travel seemed the ideal for my future. But once I was earning some money and could save to get away, I didn’t do it. I stuck around the school in my free time and did work. It gave me a purpose, a sense of being. An illusion in the end. They sacked me like bad potatoes. With or without a nonexistent silent e.
Moving, I resolved that this life was going to be different. A new state, a new lifestyle. It was time I took time to have some fun. I hadn’t exhausted my savings. The best thing about teaching is that you still get paid for the summer months after they dump you. My state pension was still in place. If I wanted to put it into the Iowa retirement program, I had time for that. For now, well, it could rest where it was. I decided I could afford some activities. I could have some fun.
Was any of this relevant?
Of course, I didn’t. Have much fun, that is.
No you didn’t, buster. But I can’t tell you that. Not yet.
― So what did you do?
Going right up front with it, Doc?
― No. What did you do to have some fun?
I bought some stuff. The typical American thing. Consume. I bought books I had been looking at but hadn’t decided to afford. Music. I upgraded my audio system, bought CDs, new ones, ones I had on record or tape. I branched out in my musical interests, if you really want to know. I bought jazz. I’d never owned any jazz before. Oh, some Spyro Gyra, Weather Report, some Wyndham Hill guys. But I jumped for the real stuff ― Bird, Ellington, Miles Davis, Coltrane. There was a smooth jazz station out of Chicago we could just pick up back in Jackson. I think that got me interested, but the new stuff, the smooth stuff really just kind of bored me. The old stuff rocked.
― Swung, I think.
― Swung. They used to say good jazz really swings.
Yeah. And Kenny G just kind of blahs. Yeah. Anyway, music. I’d always listened to a lot of music. Living alone, you just get into it.
― Music rather than TV?
Oh, yeah. I was never a big TV person. That’s one of the worst problems about being in here. The only thing you guys provide for us is TV, and I just don’t watch it.
― That’s right. The reports, they said you didn’t have a TV.
No VCR or any of that stuff. Makes me odd, huh?
Yes. But television is usually part of the pattern in your kind of behavior. So what gives, Arkham?What makes you into the TV-overdosed stereotype?
Major pause. I got you thinking, huh?
I couldn’t say any of that out loud.
― So your new-job end-of-summer fun was buying things?
Yeah. I went out to eat a bunch. Every night it seemed that last week in Jackson, saying goodbye in my way. Funny, after all those years, with school over, there really wasn’t anybody ― any person ― to say goodbye to. Sad, isn’t it?
Well, yeah, Ithought. Pathetic really. ― Could that solitariness explain some things? Kind of a classic profile when you think of it.
And I was checking places out around the area once I moved to Bear River. Drove around the area… up to Dubuque, down to the Quad Cities, over to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Found some places I liked, places to shop. I bought new clothes!
It was like a new start. From being all bummed out, getting sacked, I was energized. I got to really looking forward to this new job, enjoying my new home, my own little house, I thought of it as, having always lived in my one apartment in Jackson ― and that motel for the M.A. down in Louisiana.
A real fresh start. I even made some friends. I put some effort into being neighborly, at least at first. There was a good-looking woman who lived across the street. That’s what started the neighbor stuff: I wanted to meet her. And she turned out to be single, too. We never really got together, but we were friends.
That would be Emma Court. She turned him in finally. Some friend. On the other hand, he needed to be caught. If only I could get him to talk now.
And Howie, of course. He was the true friend. He helped me move some of my stuff, not what you’d expect from a superintendent, but Howie wasn’t ever just what you’d expect.
Good. We were back on Howie.
He even took me around to some of the other towns. Said it gave him a chance to avoid the chores his wife had planned. Although I know he loved Sonia like everything, he probably meant that. She cracked the whip around their house. I don’t know if she ever really liked me.
Well, she certainly didn’t like you now.
Local girl, Sonia. That was the problem. Although she’d gotten to know Howie, she still saw most newcomers as outsiders. That was me, still the outsider. With Sonia and every other good citizen of Quetzal County.
― Sounds like there should be a newcomers support group.
Should be. But the locals would never allow that. Newcomers are second-class citizens in their book and don’t deserve such fine services. “Let ‘em suffer.” That’s the Quetzal County attitude.
― Which Howie didn’t share?
He was a newcomer too.
― But married to a local girl. Didn’t that make him belong, so to speak?
Not on your life. The only locals were born and bred there for generations. That was the problem. That’s why I’m here.
Was he going to tell me? ― Okay, so why are you here?
Because I killed Howie. Isn’t that right?
Well now, wasn’t that easy? (I didn’t say aloud.) We got it out in the open in only two sessions. And to think I was considering cutting this one off there about twenty minutes ago.
Naturally, that’s when he clammed up, and although I let the session continue for another nine minutes, he said not one more word. He remained silent for the next two full days. In his room, he didn’t even read, his normal pastime; he just lay on his bed, rising only to go to the bathroom.
May 8, 8:10 am
He asked to see me finally. I decided I had pushed him too fast, thus prompting the withdrawal. He needed to initiate further conversation, not me, to put the burden of release firmly onto and within himself. So I waited, and he withdrew, and it only took just less than forty-eight hours to bring him back to me, ready to talk about something. And today I resolved to just let him talk, whatever he wanted, no guidance at all.
So I actually finished moving about three weeks before school started. The final move was pretty boring. Rented a truck, packed my entire life into it, drove it to Bear River while pulling my own car like a trailer, unloaded box after box after box into the new place, drove the truck and car up to Dubuque where I turned in the truck and dove my car back down to my new home. I spent those weeks checking out the area, like I told you. At home, nights, I just kind of relaxed, listened to music, read, did some late-night walking around town, trying to get to know the place. Howie and Sonia had me over a couple of times, kind of cementing our friendship.
A pause there, fairly lengthy. He must have started himself thinking about it all. But he pulled himself together and went on.
I ate at the Eagleʼs Nest quite a bit, enough that by school starting the morning waitress recognized me and kind of anticipated what Iʼd order. Sally Ann, by her little gold nameplate. Cute older woman, maybe ten years olderʼn me. I kind of thought she fancied me a little bit…
Sally Ann Thrale. They had interviewed her, along with the few others who could be said to be knowledgeable about him. She said she didnʼt even know his name but recognized his picture right off in the paper when the news broke; called him “coffee black, three-egg Denver omelet, solid fifteen percenter.” She thought he seemed pretty harmless; she even tried mildly flirting with him, might even have gone out with him if heʼd asked, before he stopped coming round for breakfasts.
Anyway, those were three pretty good weeks, stacked on top of the three weeks moving. The sense of change, of freedom in a way, made what had started as the worst summer of my life into what felt like one of the best. Bear River was novel for me, being so rural, but it didnʼt feel… wrong… like Mantorville.
I knew there was something odd the first day of school. I actually got a weird feeling during the teacher work days, but I ascribed that to the difference in school size. Like I said, this place was really rural. I felt that maybe I was being odd, at first.
I told you, didnʼt I, that most of the faculty was local in one way or another? Straight out of Mantorville High School themselves, or at least born and raised in Quetzal County. Not Howie, although he was married to a local girl: Sonia was class of ʼ78. Not the other new guy, either ― math and junior high science. Although, come to think about it, he had a local connection, too. His family had moved out of Machen a generation earlier, so in a way he was nowhere near as foreign as I was. I guess I always knew he had cousins round about.
Anyway, all those local folks just gave me the eye.
― The eye?
Funny looks, distant. I arrived just a bit late to the opening dayʼs first meeting. Coming down the hall, I could hear them laughing and chatting, but the moment I stepped through those library doors, silence. And they all looked at me. Sure, sizing up the new guy could explain it some, but that didnʼt cover the whole thing. I was just not a part of it, an outsider. And to be really honest, that never changed: I was always the outsider. Me, and Howie, too.
Anyway. It only lasted a moment. Howie was there, and he strode right over and told them who I was and how recently heʼd finally found his new English teacher. Then he got it all started by having everyone go around the room naming themselves and telling something about what theyʼd done that summer. An amazing number of them had gone on church retreats to Mississippi or Massachusetts, not mission trips but retreats. The new math guy, Chuck Swanson, had graduated from college and heard about the job while visiting cousins in Machen back in June. I said my old school had been canceled.
They all just looked at me, fish-eyed, left me laughing at my bad little joke all by myself. Until Howie joined in, saying something about how that wasn’t going to be a problem in Mantorville.
It didnʼt get much better when we broke for lunch. Howie went home for his; he lived in a school-owned house right across the street. Chuck and I tried to get with some of the other men (things really seemed to divide on gender lines in that school and community), who were headed into Bear River for pizza. They accepted us, but then never really spoke to us, exchanging instead lots of inside jokes and references to long-gone kids that we knew nothing about. The pizza buffet was under-served and mostly cold. Chuck and I talked to each other, but he seemed to know more about those inside-joke kids than Iʼd have expected and related to the other guys better than me.
Afternoon sessions didnʼt improve things much. I left promptly at the end of the day and went home, making lesson plans and doing some of the paperwork I had to complete.
The next two days werenʼt much better, except people knew my name. I didnʼt remember most of theirs; Iʼve always been bad with names (not a good trait each fall in a teacher). Chuck had chosen to rent a cottage in Machen (river towns love to feature waterside tourist stuff, and he, raised in Nebraska, I think, went for it hook, line and sinker), so he and I went our separate ways when each day ended.
I tried to focus on being prepared for that first day of school and my new classes and meeting the kids. I worked in my room, getting a bulletin board all set up, arranging chairs into work areas, getting myself organized on the computer and with textbooks (the school used some really small-time publishers I was unfamiliar with, so I had a lot of reading to do to be ready for classes, too). Periodically a fellow teacher or someone ― custodian, secretary ― would stop by or ask me to their office for some piece of business, but overall I was just left on my own.
On my own. No other phrase could describe my position at Mantorville High better. They left me out of… everything. Almost from the first, I felt like there was some strange current moving behind the scenes, underneath the conversations ― a flow of power I was unable to comprehend. The other teachers were attuned; even Chuck came to seem like the rest as the fall dragged along…
I was the outsider. I was the one who was different, strange. Only Howie seemed possibly as outside as me. Howie. He was also the only one who really tried to talk to me, who got to know me. Was that because he felt as alienated as I did? Or did he just feel sorry for me?
Anyway, I tried to focus on the imminence of school.
But those kids in the classes, they gave me the same feeling. “Outsider.” No one said anything, no one did anything definite, but there was a sensation somehow. Something emanating from them, like determined mistrust. I felt it directed much more strongly at me than Chuck: he gained their acceptance much more easily, perhaps due to his familyʼs local connection. The only ones as ostracized as I felt myself to be were the couple of new kids in the school ― six elementary ones I never did know and two high school kids.
Those new kids had my sympathy from the start because just standing in the halls I could see how their peers immediately reacted to them. I had been sensitized by my own experiences with the faculty, but those teenagers kept the new duo at bay with clear and antagonistic behavior. When I pointed that out to Chuck on that first day of school, he just muttered something about in small schools it was difficult to fit in quickly.
They opened the year with an all-school assembly. If there was a point to that assembly, I donʼt remember it. The only purpose it served, as far as I could see, was to introduce those of us who were new. And that wasn’t very impressive to the kids sitting on the bleachers. First they introduced the new faculty, me and the math guy. No one ― not even my fellow faculty ― especially not the kids, seemed very impressed to meet me. However, a couple of kids I could hear comment about being related, however distantly, to “that-air math guy,” as they put it. Then it was time to introduce the new students. This was when it got really strange. This is when I first felt really sorry for these new kids and got over feeling sorry for myself ― which is where the assembly had led me until then.
There were two new students in the upper grades, a girl and a boy: Edie Allan and Frank Long. Both came from families brand-new to the area. Neither was related to each other nor to any other families in the area, so of course that made them, like me, Outsiders.
Here’s what happened at the assembly. Howie had taken charge of introducing the new teachers, but once that part was over (thankfully from my perspective), he turned the meeting over to his secondary principal. As I guess in many small communities, Howie as superintendent served as elementary principal. Our principal was a good old boy from Quetzal County, of course ― Roger Davis, who appeared not only to know every detail about every kid in the school but also about everyone in the county. Pretty much everyone.
Davis had been snickering as loudly as any kid during introduction of us new teachers ― especially, you probably guessed it, at me. I hadn’t liked him from the in-service days. When Howie ran the meetings, things got done. Our meetings with Davis were pretty worthless, and me starting a new job and buried under the paperwork and preparations for classes that meant, I didn’t feel I had time to waste. I’m pretty sure he sensed my antagonism. Being a real good old boy, he didn’t hide his feelings much, although he never hesitated to slap me on the back and laugh in my face. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. And probably I was too citified for him. Our Mr. Davis prided himself on being just about as rural as you can get ― big hunter, had his own farm, worked for the seed company in the summer even. Just a good old country boy.
It didn’t help that he talked like a yutz.
He was okay about Chuck, just smiled and nodded with the things that Howie and Chuck himself had to say. And Chuck played to the crowd, emphasizing his local relatives and the supposedly fun times he’d had when he’d visit during the summers here in good old Quetzal County. Howie teased Chuck about his youth ― being fresh out of college, the guy was just twenty-two, and he suggested that the kids needed to take it easy on this “kid.” I don’t know if Chuck liked being a kid or not, but he smiled and when handed the mike, talked about his youthful enthusiasm and how he hoped to get close his students but also to keep them on track to really learn some higher mathematics. Then it was my turn. Howie joked about me correcting his grammar (the oldest, tiredest joke English teachers always have to hear) before letting me say a few words about myself. I talked about how I hoped to get the best from every student in each of my classes and how much fun we could have in English (that got a vast laugh ― especially from Roger Davis). Then Howie wrapped it up, suggesting the students make the most of all their opportunities ahead this school year, and let Roger take over.
Even though we were a pre-K through twelfth grade district all in one building, meaning that we had kids as young as four years old at that assembly, Roger Dodger thought it was appropriate to cackle about the kinds of opportunities the football team would find on Saturday nights if they did good (that was his exact phrase, by the way, “did good”) on the gridiron Friday nights. And he whooped it up as loudly as the big guys I assumed were the football team, sitting right down front on the outside edge of the bleachers.
He gave a nod at us two newbies on the faculty (his words again: “newbies on the fackle-tee”) and then launched into about three minutes on the kinds of nonsense that uptight prigs often thought was best for their little minions in some of the less “valluhbuhl ree-quired courses. Guess we’ll jus’ hafta show our newbies what’s what, what?” And the crowd went wild on that one too; even Chuck looked a little green having his expectations cut out from under him like that.
Then Davis moved on to new kids. There were several in the elementary ― one younger brother of the new girl upstairs and a kid from a third new family entirely, a couple of transfers ― open enrollments from other schools in the area. For the youngsters, he just made them stand up as he said their name and something about where they’d come from and what grade they were in. Motherly and grandmotherly elementary teachers kept close watch on their kids through these introductions, usually holding a hand on the little ones as they stood.
The high-schoolers got handled differently. Very differently.
First up was Frank Long, who owned his name. First, he was the most open, honest and sincere kid I ever taught ― completely frank in every situation (which was going to count against him at that assembly and every single day at school). Second, he stood about a head over six feet, tall, lean and topped with a mop of sunbleached auburn blond hair, worn casual and long. He liked large T-shirts and baggy shorts ― unfashionable in contrast to the sports gear, jeans or camouflage looks favored around Quetzal County. (A good portion of our girls dressed as if they hadn’t heard the Eighties ended a long time back: big curly hair and lots of wedges boxing out their dresses.) And even more unfashionably ― flip flops. He looked like a very cool surfer and would have fit in perfectly where he came from ― southern California. Here, somewhat appropriately, he was a fish out of water. They knew it and the differences mattered. He knew it, too, and did not care.
Evidently Roger D was going to rectify that situation.
Our esteemed principal called Frank out on the gym floor to stand beside him. Old Rog took wicked delight in pointing out that “Frankie boy” ― as he insisted on calling the kid ― didn’t look like “good material for our football team.” Really funny observation, right? He also spent a long time exploring the fact that Frank had moved in from Southern California, “and he looks it, don’t he?” That remark got the kids started, pointing out the ways poor Frank looked effete and wondering what kind of stupid ideas a kid from those parts must have. The football guys seemed to lead the heckling; Rog just smiled at them with every wicked comment. Frank, standing embarrassed in front of the entire student body, writhed, turning deep red, even his knees, visible in his surfer shorts ― increasing the crowd’s vocal amusement.
About this point, Howie looked troubled and headed out of the gym. I guess he knew it was only going to get worse.
Frank turned to his principal, who should at least in my opinion have been his support and not the leader of the attack, and asked if he could sit down now. Davis smirked, “What? Gonna leave the little missy ― that little new girl ― all alone?” So Frank grimaced and stayed in place uncomfortably.
And Rog the Dodge waved Edie Allan to the gym floor, out in front of the entire cackling crowd.
Where Frank Long and was tall and fair, Edie was abbreviated darkly. She wore her hair short in some kind of bob, and it lay close and flat to her pretty, small-chinned face. Her large brown eyes gazed at the world with childlike wonder and apprehension. Sometimes, like now, moving skittishly beside Davis at that assembly, she looked scared. Rightly so.
Davis announced her name, adding that he figured she’d be managing the Lady Serpents as no one her size was going to shoot many baskets ― pretty rude since she’d already tried out for volleyball and had been made manager there. Edie, looking very small, just kept her eyes on the gym floor and stood very still.
“So what do you say we check out these two on their knowledge of good old MHS,” Rog asked his crowd of stooges. Big roar.
“Initiate! Initiate ’em! Initiate ’em!” Even the elementary kids were joining the chant. Hell, even their teachers were.
So he started in: “What’s the Mantorville mascot?” He was looking at Edie. Too scared to think (he’d just said it insulting her height), she stuttered, “Snakes?” And the mockery from her peers was rude. Frank called out the right answer ― Serpents. Stupidest athletic mascot I had ever heard, although some art student about a decade earlier had whipped up a dangerous-looking cobra emblem that was plastered on the walls around the gym. That kid had been killed in a car crash his senior year.
“And when did we become the Serpents?” Neither kid knew, of course, but we all learned, after the now customary catcalls, that up until 1975, they’d been the Meteors. “Why’d we change?” got identical ignorance from both to ignite more raucous preening from the students. Even elementary kids were joining the attacks. Rog took the road of immense-but-tried patience as he explained: they had changed mascots when a teacher had promoted a different creature ― pointing out that meteors flamed out fast. That teacher had died in a terrible accident and the change had been made in his honor. Rog snootily pointed out that these new newbies could have learned about that if they had looked at the Roll of Honor display case in the hallway outside the gym.
Yeah, in addition to the usual display cases for athletic trophies ― and their football boys had done well for about ten years in the Seventies and Eighties (evidently not so well these days) ― the school had a special display for some of those who had passed on, not all during their time at MHS. Examining that case later, I felt a little freaked at how many were memorialized within.
Most schools have memorials to students who have died during the course of their education. It’s always sad when a young person is taken before even having a chance to fulfill his or her real potential. Some schools memorialize favorite teachers when they pass on it (interestingly, administrators don’t usually rate that kind of posthumous recognition). I know in Jackson there was a water fountain dedicated to a freshman who’d been killed in a car accident. Just a little plaque over the water fountain, but a daily reminder of someone none of these kids knew a thing about ― or me for that matter; he had died in 1963.
But Mantorville’s so-called Roll of Honor stretched at least thirty feet all along the western wall of the hall outside the gymnasium. I couldn’t bring myself to count but Edie told me sometime later there were 97 memorials, mostly students, about a dozen faculty. Apparently all sudden deaths ― accidents, car crashes, a few suicides ― stretching back about fifty years.
Of course there were more to come.
Quetzal County seemed an unhealthy place to reside.
But our esteemed principal wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. Humiliation was his specialty, and he loved performing for a crowd. Question four: Who is the all-time passing leader for the Serpents? He let the crowd chant the answer, Kevin Wilson class of 1976, when neither victim could respond. And he went on. But I don’t remember everything else.
Then he turned on Little Edie alone again, saying, “Now let’s lob a softball to the lady here.” I could see that Edie seemed ready to cry. “What’s the motto of Mantorville High School?” She just looked blank, breathing quick and shallow through her little open mouth, moist eyes darting all around, finding no reassurance, no help, anywhere.
Rog was merciless: “Come on, little lady, it’s right in your student handbook.”
The crowd chanted venomously, “Student handbook! Student handbook!”
Roger added pointlessly, “First page. First thing on the first page.”
The chant shifted to, “She don’t know! She don’t know the motto!”
Edie began to cry, per head dropping, shoulders shaking, whole body lurching to her sobs. The jeering from her fellow students increased.
And Roger sneered, “I know you have your student handbook, little lady. I gave it to you myself when you came to registration. Didn’t you look at it? Didn’t you study your student handbook? Little lady.”
Edie turned those huge, tear-filled eyes to her principal, mascara etched wetly on her cheeks, seeking some kind of solace, but he just took a step away and made a gesture identifying her as something like dirt. And Edie ran out of the gym into the hall, earning derisive hoots from the students and a mocking headshake from Davis.
I should have done something. It was hideous, cruel, abusive ― the worst form of bullying by an adult. But I was frozen, stunned, unable to believe, I guess, that this was really happening. I was hopelessly ineffectual.
Unlike Frank. The also embarrassed boy stared for a few moments at the door through which Edie had vanished, then turned with an unbelieving expression on his face at the crowd before turning on Mr. Davis. He took two steps, grabbed Davis by the shoulder, shouting, “What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing?”
Everyone could hear him, even over the shouting which instantly silenced, except for a few overly enthusiastic little kids whose elementary teachers shushed them.
Davis, a bull-terrier of a man, former football player and currently the assistant coach, shook himself free and took one step back from the furious boy.
“Frankie boy, that’s not how you address your principal. You’ve just earned yourself a visit to my office. Now. Go.”
Frank Long seemed to hang for a moment like a tall human missile about to close the gap between them. Roger Dodger sublimely pointed at the door and glared. Frank turned and as the crowd exhaled finally, walked out of the gym.
That’s when I finally got my nerves back. I started after them both.
Rog’s voice beckoned me back, ”Mr. Arkham. The assembly is not finished yet.”
I kept moving but said, “I’ll just make sure he gets to your office, Mr. Davis.”
Both kids were in the hall, Edie collapsed against the memorial display with Frank crouched over her trying vainly to comfort her. I went over to them, starting to say something — I don’t know what — consoling. But right away out marched the longtime PE teacher, Collins, a bulletskulled pinhead and the head football coach, Rog’s closest companion. He grabbed me by the shoulder, pulling me back. “That’s enough, Arkham. I’ll see them to the office: you might get lost, being just as wet behind the ears as they are.” Then he pushed Frank aside to actually grab Edie by the shoulders, dragging her to her feet, still crying.
“Pussies. New kids. Just a pair of pussies,” he said, not even under his breath, pushing them off ahead of him, officewards. Like a coward, I just trailed behind. I—
He broke off, dazed himself, having gotten completely caught up in that memory.
Can we quit for today? I don’t want to talk any more.
Our hour was up a while since. I let him go.
Comments, Joshua Symonds, MD, following May 8 session
Is he still stalling? Is any of this relevant? After all this silence, nine years, he can’t just be playing games. Can he?
Should I have let him go on like that? My plan was to let him ramble and I would listen (and record). Was that more rambling than I wanted? Or was it important? Is he playing with me?
I need to study the trial transcript and all supporting documents more closely. Are these teenagers important? The way he talked today, apparently so.
I must investigate to see if they entered into the arrest or trial evidence. And soon. Perhaps I had overlooked them or their testimony in the huge file of material that attached with his medical/psychiatric record.
Other issues. Can he really remember all this in such detail? Is he inventing, fantasizing? Howie Phillips only came up briefly. Is he trying to avoid that subject — his crime?
Neither of the new students testified at the trial. No students were called. Principal Davis did appear, for the prosecution, early in the proceedings. His testimony seemed to be mostly procedural, laying a foundation about Arkham’s employment in teaching. One or two questions touched on the defendant’s relationships with students — variable — and a few others on Arkham and Phillips — friendly. Davis didn’t mention these two new kids, either.
Was all this information today a dodge then? Or was there a significance that did not come out at trial?
My predecessors, his formerly assigned psychological personnel, with whom he had avoided interaction almost completely, only listed him as withdrawn, resistant and uncooperative. In his first years in the system, he had spoken to no one, had no visitors and refused to speak at sessions. More recently, he had engaged in social activities with other patients and of course had actually spoken in therapy sessions — just never about Quetzal County, the school or the murder. He had still never had a visitor, although he wrote letters — receiving none — to a Gloria Walker in Ohio, a sister — his only sibling — the records indicated. He had once received a Christmas card, four years ago, signed Ligeia about whom we had no information whatsoever; no return address, the postmark was Germany, United States military.
He had been tested by both defense and prosecution psychiatrists for the trial; his court-appointed defense attorney used a “reason of insanity” defense. Predictably, the defense doctors found in his uncommunicative behavior all the necessary signs of such insanity while the prosecution specialists discovered pretense, evasion and dissimulation. The jury of course had found him guilty but insane. He had not testified in his own defense, and a judge’s note on the trial indicated he showed little interest in or attention to the proceedings. He sat “like a statue”And stared at the emblem on the judge’s podium, evidently almost catatonic. On two separate occasions later on he had to be “awakened” from his trance by the bailiffs to be removed when the proceedings ended on those days. He remained incarcerated throughout, once the police had moved to arrest him about a week after the murder. The trial had taken eight days, and started six months after the crime. The jury had deliberated for just less than four hours, delivering their verdict the same day that closing arguments and judge’s instructions filled the morning session.
The jury had heard from the DCI, presenting a considerable quantity of evidence from the scene, the school and from Arkham’s house. They had tried interrogating him, as he never asked for a lawyer, but he simply did not speak. At all. He never even made requests.
His attorney had somehow gotten in to the defense presentation the two remarks he had made during trial preparation: “They did it, of course” and “But they will make sure I’m convicted.” The lawyer had gotten a change of venue to nearby Jones County on the basis of just that paranoia (evidently) in his client. That and considerable pretrial publicity throughout eastern Iowa (in fact, across the state: I vaguely remember hearing about the murder while a student at ISU). Local papers had run the entire issues on the crime and the investigation. Camera crews and reporters camped outside the courtroom during the trial — reporting every night on the dayʼs activities.
Evidence included the murder weapon, a large knife, of which there was documentation of purchase of at least a very similar item by the defendant, and on which forensics experts found only Arkham’s fingerprints, and no others. The defendant had left a glove near the scene — he must have dropped it from a pocket or his hand — on which tests confirmed a noticeable stain of the victim’s blood. Footprints consistent with the defendant’s shoes — which were introduced themselves — were found by the body. The shoes revealed bloodstains on the side of one sole — provably consistent with Phillips’s blood type.
Phillips had been killed in a wooded area bordering on Mantorville city limits — technically the property of a local church — stabbed repeatedly and left to die. The victim had crawled about twenty yards from the original attack site. Evidence from the scene locating Arkham’s presence was limited to the site of the body — the actual murder spot being quite disturbed, possibly the result of a struggle, although one cop did state on cross-examination that it looked like a number of people could have been there. No one — not even Phillips’s wife — knew why the superintendent might have gone to the woods that evening. She was at church, it being a Wednesday, church night for young people and several adult study groups. She assisted with one membership-preparation group of kids and then participated in a Faith Study that began after the youth session ended. She had returned to their house, across the intersection from the school, about 10:30 and been surprised that Howie wasn’t home. When he hadn’t returned by midnight, she called the sheriff’s office. Deputies located the body about noon the next day, and the investigation led to Arkham by the weekend. He was detained for questioning on the following Monday afternoon.
He was released on Tuesday morning, pending further investigation, but then actually arrested on Wednesday, a week after the crime when he went to Sonia Phillips’s house after school to shout abuse at her. Davis had called the sheriff from that day — observing the activity from his office in the school. Mrs. Phillips had locked the front door and hidden in the cellar. Arkham had kept shouting until the deputies arrived (although no one reported what he was yelling), at which time he meekly accepted arrest and began the long silence that endured throughout and after his trial, conviction and sentencing.
Two witnesses reported seeing a car that could have been Arkham’s departing Mantorville and turning toward Bear River Falls about 9:00 PM. Neighbors, including Emma Court from across the street, reported Arkham’s house was dark with no car in the driveway during the fateful evening. Court said she heard (but did not look to verify) a car pull in about 10:30 — some time before the local news ended.
Bleached bloodstains were identified on a shirt and slacks Arkham had laundered over the weekend. He had purchased bleach at Wal-Mart that same Saturday, and one witness from the laundromat reported noticing the man sending one small batch of clothes through the washer twice.
Circumstantial evidence put him on the scene and in Mantorville at the right time, and evidence of trying to hide his guilt showed a full sense of right and wrong. Even so, his behavior at trial left the jury uncomfortable and willing to include insanity in their verdict.
Right now I wish they’d just followed the prosecution and the whole way and send him to prison for life. Then he wouldn’t be my problem.
May 9, 2002 — 2:15 PM
Moved me back to afternoon, huh?
— I don’t have any appointments after this, so we can run long, like last time, if you wish…
I didn’t wish last time. It just happened.
— What I didn’t understand, was the importance of that first day of school. No response. Should I have learned something in particular? No response. You wanted to talk about that day, Mr. Arkham.
Don’t call me that! Call me James. “Mr. Arkham’s” done with. I don’t teach now.
— All right, James. Once again, though, you asked to start sessions again, and yesterday you chose to talk about that first day of school.
It was all there, you know. Everything important. If I had only noticed.
— Would you like to explain it to me, James?
Explain what? What I could’ve figured out but didn’t? You’d never understand.
— Not without your help.
I did have to explain a lot of other stuff first.
— Explain what you wish. For now, I thought. For instance, I’m curious about those two new students — Frank and Edie. You placed a lot of importance on them.
Wouldn’t you? How they were treated?
— It was all some kind of initiation experience. Wasn’t it all in good fun?
No. No, it was not all in good fun. It was cruel and deliberately demeaning. And that asshole Davis led at all.
— I remember you quoting him that those things were in the student handbooks?
Oh, yeah. He was getting angry about it all again. “It’s all in your handbook, little lady. Didn’t you read your handbook, missy?”
— Well. Shouldn’t they have read their handbooks?
Hell. I hadn’t read the handbook by then, either. And I had in-service days they were still enjoying as summer vacation. And I got paid.
— Then maybe it was meant to — ah — inspire them to study it.
It wasn’t meant to inspire anything at all — except maybe more cruelty from their peers. But they did read the handbook, both of them sure, yeah, and because of that horrible assembly. Heck, they both started while waiting outside Davis’s office that morning.
Note: perhaps I should contact the school and see if anyone was yet there who could report more objectively on that assembly. Nine years, but Arkham said the faculty was composed of long-term locals.
That’s the strangest student handbook I’ve ever seen, too. Not only do they contain a lot of peculiar nonsense like the answers to all those questions Davis asked that the assembly. But the most detailed and strange rules ever. You know, they had two pages of stuff that wasn’t permitted at school. A list. They had a rule stating snowballs could not be thrown in the corridor. The school board had adopted that one the previous March.
— Maybe they had a problem with snowball-throwing inside the school.
Probably. But who solves misbehavior by listing it in your handbook? That’s a lot more likely to give the kids the idea.
Psychologically, he had a point. Lists of specifically for bid and behaviors did tend to suggest just those ideas. I had done an experiment on that principle as an undergrad.
And in all those forty-seven pages not one word about bullying and hazing. And those behaviors were problems in that school. Serious problems.
— Other students picked on the new kids?
Relentlessly. And without reprimand. And plenty of teachers cooperated and instigated it all. Did you hear about Frank’s broken leg?
— No. He break his leg? Was Howard Phillips involved somehow? At long last?
Obviously, yes, he broke his leg. Or rather had it broken. Do you want to know what happened?
Are you going to talk about anything significant otherwise? — If you wish.
After that assembly, and the six detentions Davis made Frank serve after school — beginning that very first day, Frank made up his mind to go out for football. Maybe it was to show Davis. I tried to talk him out of it one day after school. I felt Rog had shamed him into it, but overall Frank showed them all. He made end, and his natural running ability — that he had been unaware of — got him on the field in a game two weeks later, mid-late September. He scored twice and ran for major yardage many times in that first game. And the Serpents won.
I didn’t see him in action that week, or in the next two games, one home, one away. But he was so excited about it all that I decided to go to the game the first week in October. Homecoming was the next week. But this game was away, just not very far — in Preston. A nonconference game because both small schools had trouble filling their schedules — others in both conferences did not play football.
Preston, one county south, on US Highway 64, only a half-hour cross-country, longer if I went south on 61 and then over on 64. Cross-country I could get lost — easily. But south, then east meant driving not just through Bear River but also, at the intersection, Maquoketa, which would take forever — it’s a long town east to west and their traffic lights are the worst.
Way off topic by now, James. No one cares. — But you went?
Yeah. Howie gave me directions. Good ones. I got there in time to eat at some downtown diner in Preston and found my way to their field, where Howie and Sonia met me. So I sat in the stands with them. I even got into some the cheers. Serpents had some very strange ones — including their so-called victory dance the girls and the crowd did when the team won: everybody’d chain up in a big snake dance all over the stands and the field (or court for basketball), even at away sites. Sometimes they’d start the chain during a game — just in the stands though — to inspire the team to go harder.
— Did they do that snake dance that night?
Oh, yeah. We won. But they also did it during the game once…
I am not a football fan — not much of a sports fan in general — then, or now. The Olympics, both summer and winter, and that’s about it. But this was a good game. The first half: medium-high scoring, so lots of TDs to cheer for. Good defense, too. All under the bright lights in the dark, chilly night. Clear as a bell but all the stars washed out, invisible. I felt cold, but I was having fun, feeling like a genuine imported Iowan.
Then came the second half. Preston had the first possession. Had to punt. We got it, and the QB, checking the sidelines where Collins’s bullethead and Rog’s Serpents cap bobbed and hands waved signs for some play. A pass. A really complicated pass.
That’s when the cheerleaders started the snake-dance routine. I had a brief idea that the head girl had looked to Rog or Collins for a signal just before they called it out, so we were all up and screaming the stupid Serpent Cheer and hopping all around in the stands as the play happened.
But I did see.
Both ends took off fast, and both doglegged toward the middle downfield. But two of the backs had charged out also and ran their own patterns. The QB threw to Frank, but it went pretty high. He jumped really high after it. But as he went up, the other end and a halfback collided and fell down right where Frank had jumped. Worse, our own fullback came charging in and just as Frank came down, plowed into him in midair, smashing Frank right into the two other guys.
You could hear the breaking bones in the stands.
And they all collapsed in a huge pile, Preston players leaping on, as well. And Frank was screaming. While we all kept dancing around.
Seriously. The cheerleaders just ignored the play and kept it up. I don’t know for a couple of minutes after it happened. It wasn’t like we didn’t know, like we didn’t see, like we didn’t hear.
The refs cleared the pile-up, revealing Frank writhing on the ground, still clutching the football, exposed like something not really human in that horrible, shadowless white glare.
— A really tragic accident.
Yeah. Sure. That’s what I thought. Briefly.
— It sounds like an accident.
It was meant to look like one.
— The play just went awry.
The play went perfectly. The only purpose in all those guys heading downfield was to break Frank Long’s leg. To punish him for being so good and not being a local boy.
— You don’t know that.
Frank knew it. He told me. Later.
— And this is all important somehow?
Directly important, Dr. Symonds.
It had better be, I thought. We seem to be taking routes more roundabout than I could have ever imagined to get to the crime and finally from there to some kind of treatment.
So shall I tell you about it?
—Go on. Go on. The whole purpose of these sessions is to get you talking, mister, no matter how distantly tangential to the topics we really need to explore. Or am I missing something, not understanding the connection, the importance of what you’re telling me so far?
To begin with, I need to explain a little psychological insight I achieved myself that long-ago fall.
Excellent, I thought. Psychological insights from patients are always so profoundly valuable.
As teachers, he continued, we think we know so much about our students. In reality, we know almost nothing at all. I had realized something of this in Jackson, but the lesson got even more startling in Quetzal County. Kids are full of surprises, secrets, angles and perspectives you would not have guessed until they choose to make it visible to you. Frank showed me vistas of humanity I would not have suspected at first. And Edie, too, in her own way…
He was drifting. That empty look hazed his eyes as he paused, noticeably, clearly thinking, remembering something. Then he smiled, not for me, to himself, shook his head slightly, and refocused, his thoughts and attention settling again on me.
I used to be a pretty friendly person, and kids liked me as a teacher. I had more issues with that here in Iowa, but I don’t think that was me so much as those Quetzal County kids. He paused again, considering — probably whether to tell me what he was thinking or not. They all looked alike, you know. Have I told you that already?
— No, you haven’t.
Well, they did look alike. Long heads, narrow faces, lank dark hair. Broad foreheads, narrow and receding chins, loose-lipped mouths, big teeth. Generally long noses with wide nostrils. The girls mostly looked pretty as a rule, but the boys often reminded me of rural-baiting humor, likes the once-infamous Jukes family, and their class performance frequently matched. People in the area used to make jokes about the riverfolk down in Pelham and that area being inbred, but everyone in the county seemed to both resemble and be related to pretty much everyone else. Those riverside families were just more obviously and openly the same.
The look I’m trying to describe seemed like something out of a Tennessee feud movie.
Everyone was related to everyone else, too. I learned fast that you have to be careful what you say in Quetzal County because if you say something negative about someone, chances are that whoever you say it to is that person’s third cousin once removed or something. It was kind of scary, in a way.
And they’re all very conscious of just who’s related to whom and exactly how. For instance, I had never quite figured out all that once- or twice-removed stuff, even though I taught The Great Gatsby my whole career (you know, the narrator Nick is Daisy’s second cousin once removed — I didn’t know but I believed him: he had been the English teacher). But any kid I wanted to ask could have explained it to me…
Creepy kids. That’s all. Looking like yahoos with doltish attitudes. And they didn’t much like me even early on…
Anyway, Frank. I haven’t explained, but he and I shared a bond — probably because we were both new in the area and definitely because we both felt like outsiders. Edie was part of all of that, too, but I don’t want to talk about her now. Both of them were in my Advanced Placement English class last period, and so it became somewhat natural for them to linger after school for at least a few minutes to talk about things. Of course, Frank had football practice once he joined the team, and Edie, as I told you, was managing for volleyball. So none of these little chat sessions lasted very long. Not then.
It was talking after school, for instance, when Edie told me about counting the memorials in the Roll of Honor, and it was after school about two weeks before the “accident,” when Edie wasn’t there, that Frank first revealed what he thought was going on.
Okay, so weʼre retreating in time. Again.
He asked me if I had ever driven around the county. I had gone to Arnhem on 54 and on through Mantorville to Bailey and Cross Corners out of 61. And I had driven the river road from Arnhem to Machen and then on up to Dubuque. And I had taken Q11 across from Mantorville to 61, too, by then, my only actual county road. But I donʼt think I remembered to tell Frank about that one then. In fact, Iʼm pretty sure I didnʼt.
Anyway, none of that impressed him very much.
“Nah,” he said, “I mean getting back in the country hereabouts.”
I admitted that I hadnʼt, and he laughed. “Me neither…” His words hung in the air of my room, pretty close and humid for what must have been the end of September, like I said about two weeks before his incident on the playing field.
“Me neither…” he repeated. “Not until last weekend. Saturday night.” And again nothing more.
You must have felt like I usually do talking with you, huh?
Finally, I asked him, “Did something happen last Saturday?”
He nodded, then looked down at me, sharply. (I told you he was pretty tall, didnʼt I? And I was sitting at my desk, him standing across from me. I remember that.) “Uh, Mr. Arkham, this is just between us, you and me, right? Because it, uh, it has to be. I mean, nothing goes any further, you know…”
“Well, Frank,” I said, trying to be the full professional, “there are things I have to report, you know. I canʼt keep certain things secret.”
He grinned. “Yeah, like abuse and that. Teachers and doctors, you have to report it. — Nothing like that. Donʼt worry.”
“…And there are… other things, too.”
“Yeah, well, I got this far, Mr. Arkham, letʼs go for it.” But he stopped and paced away from the desk. Finally, from thee other side of the classroom, he said, “I donʼt think anyone much cares around here anyway. They all did it when they were young, you know. And some of the dads buy stuff for the team…”
“What are you talking about, Frank?”
“Drinking.” He turned around to face me again. “The whole, team, Mr. Arkham. They go out drinking after the games. And on Saturday nights, too. All of them — us. Pretty much.”
“Ah, yes,” I hesitated. “That would, you know fall under the heading of things I should report…”
Now my pause hung in the air.
Frank grinned at me again. “But…?”
Grinned. Just like you are doing at me right now, Arkham.
“But I kind of figured that, Frank. I figured that was going on. Things people say.”
“So you are not going to report me telling you this?”
“I should, Frank. But considering some of those things people say are jokes Iʼve heard Mr. Davis making to the players…”
“Yeah, Rog is right in there with those other adults. Helping out…”
“Buying beer? Is that what you mean?” I caught him calling the principal by his first name, but that wasnʼt the important element. “Mr. Davis is buying booze for his playersʼ parties?”
Roger Dodger, such a good ole boy. Somehow I knew it. It just had to be true.
Frank looked at his shoes, a long way down from his head, for a while. “Hell, Mr. Arkham, heʼs right there at the parties. At least he was last Saturday night.”
“So you went to a team party, Frank? Where was this?”
“Snake Hollow. Itʼs way back in the boonies. Serpentine Creek runs through there. After a little waterfall down the cliffs on the east side, it meanders out through the valley and under the county road bridge, an old sucker.”
I knew the creek flowed past the town to the east and eventually joined Bear River somewhere east of Bear River Falls.
“They had a big bonfire in the hollow, not far from the falls and about five kegs for everybody. After the game I had Friday night, everybodyʼd been at me to go celebrate. And, well, I didnʼt want to be the odd guy, left out… you know how it is… Yeah. I was there. Sure. How else would I know, huh?”
“So you are telling me… why, Frank? Is this a confession? Are you reporting to me under the Good Conduct Rule? — If Mr. Davis was there, a part of it all, it wonʼt do much good for me to report you to him.”
“No. Nobodyʼd listen to anyone trying to nark on the team, Mr. Arkham. No. What I wanted to talk about is… —is what happened at that party…”
“What? Did something happen? Something bad?”
Glorious! I do enjoy religious value judgments. So useful.
I told him he had better explain such a bold remark. And he did. His story took my loathing of high school sports several notches into the revolted realm. You see, I have never been a sportsy kind of guy…
He trailed off. I sat there, looking at him, thinking to myself, “You didnʼt have to tell me that, Arkham. Just looking at you tells it all.” Slender but soft. You havenʼt joined any games or activities in all your years at Oakdale. To the best of our recordsʼ knowledge, you have no hobbies, no crafts, no contacts with the outside world — except that Christmas card. You qualify as the loserest loserly character with whom I have dealt. Ever. And your dragging this all out isnʼt helping my attitude any.
But I didnʼt say any of that. Sometimes an analyst hits a stage when the patient seems overwhelmingly annoying. Freud and Jung didnʼt touch on that, just transference. But itʼs a phase a psychiatrist has to watch out for. No matter what happened in sessions, they were going to try your patience well before you got a chance to be helpful. I simply said:
— What did he tell you, Mr. Arkham?
He shook his head at me. I told you before, no more “Mr. Arkham.” That was teacher-me, and I am not that teacher any more. Maybe I already wasnʼt when I came to Quetzal County.
Dodging again, I thought. Always ducking and dodging. I needed to hammer him open. If I could without giving into my own frustration with him. But he was bottling everything, always had. Possibly he always would if our sessions didnʼt get him to crack. So hammer I did, trying the direct approach, for once.
— Tell me, uh, James. I have noticed something. You are telling things from — what? — a decade ago … in remarkable detail.
I am? All innocence and unaware. Yeah, sure.
— Yes, James, you are. Even quoting conversations ten years old in exact detail. …Too much detail, it almost seems.
Too much detail… So? What? Do you think Iʼm making all this up?
Very simply: Yes.
— When my secretary types up the transcriptions of our sessions, she will have to use quotation marks. Thatʼs how excessively detailed you are being.
You record these sessions?
— Of course. Itʼs a normal tool. I thought you realized that. Every interaction here at the facility is on record in some way or another. Do you object?
Why should I object to anything at all? These are your sessions. No, I thought, theyʼre for you. It just seems funny…
Another drifting away. Another pause. Did these give him time to think? What?
He stirred back into focus almost immediately. You want to know why I remember so clearly?
— I wouldnʼt have brought it up otherwise. Possibly too direct with that, Doctor.
Itʼs because I practiced.
Yeah, I practiced remembering. Back then. ʼ93. I decided that summer, once I had moved to Bear River Falls, to start keeping a journal. Things had changed, so maybe it would be interesting. Worthwhile. And I wrote everything down, all about the first days of school and Roger Dodgerʼs antics at the assembly. Frankʼs football injury. And meeting with those two kids after school. I recorded it all. Especially through that winter and into the spring. When everything got strange.
I hadnʼt read anything about a journal in the trial information. Or anywhere else. I told him so.
It never came out, doctor. The day before I was arrested I mailed it off to my sister. To keep it safe. But I had written in it nearly every day until then.
— But why get rid of it? Your defense was that you werenʼt the murderer. Wouldnʼt the diary have helped your case?
Maybe. Maybe not. I realized fast that I had been trapped and was caught as neatly and completely as… — My attorney got me to tell him my version. He decided on the defense. I figured, in Quetzal County, knowing what I knew… I was cooked. I felt that even before they actually arrested me. And I feared they were going to get the journals. I didnʼt want that… I didnʼt want it lost.
— Does this diary still exist?
I donʼt know. I thought I was saving it by getting it out of my hands. And I was right about that. Even before the cops, someone went through my stuff. At home. At school. They didnʼt even try to be subtle. It happened over that weekend.
— What weekend, James?
The big one. After — … after Howie was killed. Before they arrested me. Somebody, maybe several people, tore through my house when I was out on Saturday morning, and I found the same thing on Monday in my classroom. Like they were looking for something. I thought maybe it was my journal because of everything I had written in it. Though I didnʼt know how anyone would know about that. Anyway, it kind of warned me, you know? That maybe I had better protect the notebook. So I mailed it to my sister on Monday after school. Wrapped it in brown paper in the teacher workroom and sent it from the Bear River post office when I got back into town.
— So your sister has it? This diary?
I donʼt know. She never responded, never attended the trial. Not that I wanted her to.
And sheʼs never written to you, has she? No matter how many letters youʼve sent to her. It seemed cruel even as I thought it.
Besides, you probably know… sheʼs never written to me… I donʼt even know if my letters get through. If they moved or something. Well, I guess theyʼve never come back, either…
I didnʼt really know anything about the sister. She had seemed unnecessary, outside of the whole thing. But if she had this diary…
— Do you think it would help to have the diary, James?
Itʼd be better than me having to tell you everything, I guess. Itʼs hard, and I seem to keep getting distracted down blind alleys, onto things that donʼt matter. Probably.
So even he recognized what was going on.
— I had wondered about some of the things you were telling me.
Me, too, doctor. Later, back in my room. But when we were talking, it all seemed… I donʼt know, just what needed to be said.
Yeah. If you were going to avoid getting to the real subject.
— So is anything weʼve been talking about today actually important, then?
Today? Yes. Youʼd better believe it. The whole thing turns on Frank in the end. And what happened in Snake Hollow got me concerned.
— So what happened there in Snake Hollow?
He looked at me, solemn. But then he was always solemn, serious as a judge. A party. Kegger. Celebrating the victory. Frank had made that much clear already. Drinking. Lots of drinking in Quetzal County. As the kids liked to say, “What else is there to do?” But there was still too much, too often. And all the adults turned a blind eye. Like Frank said, theyʼd all done it when they were young. Tradition.
But these football bashes were worse. Frank had already let me know the thing that disturbed me: the adults were there, permitting, participating, guzzling it down with the kids.
Reliving their youth, I wondered.
Hell. No one ever seemed to move out of the county. This is the way it had always been. For the adults, grabbing onto their youth again. I guess. Or never letting go… I donʼt know. He grinned, sheepish, looking oddly youthful, like a boy himself. I never drank as a kid, not until it was legal. College. Not sure why not. Kids drank in my day, my schools, too, just not me. Not my group of friends. And everybody knew the athletes — football team, in particular — had big thirsts. I donʼt know why the Mantorville stuff bothered me so much. But it did. Even then, in the fall. Before I learned about… — other things…
He was doing it again. Drifting off. What did he learn later? Was he ever going to get to the point with me?
But what bothered Frank —me, too; me, too — was the other side of the party. Beyond the boozing. He told me that there were girls there, cheerleaders, predictably, and other girls. Even some eighth graders. Disadvantage of having the whole district in a single stinking building. All those middle school girls who blossomed early, you know, who, uh, got breasts, drew the attentions of the older guys every day. Anyway, the vasity cheerleaders, with Rogʼs help, and the Home Ec teacher, uh, heck, itʼs been so long… He was trying to remember her name. Itʼs in the journal. I listed everybody. Itʼs weird…
I donʼt need her name, Arkham. You could just tell the story, I thought, mentally ordering him back on track. But he needed it. To him it was important. At least for now.
Semanksi! Thatʼs it. Petal Semanski. I knew her first name was odd, but all I could think of was Flower, Blossom, Lily… anyway, Petal was young, fresh out of college the year before. Maybe two. Her folks were farmers in the northern part of the county and raised horses. Did pretty well for themselves, from what I understood. Petal had gone to St. Werburgaʼs, the Catholic school in Machen — only Catholic high school I ever heard of named for a female saint! Where all the girls were supposed to be the prissiest little Miss Perfects around, and the boys all got recruited to play sports (theyʼd pulled one of Collinsʼs best JV running backs over the summer, full-ride tuition). But our guys seemed to like dating their girls and vice versa (of course, rumor had it Mantorville girls were easy, too). Anyway. Petal had been head cheerleader at St. Werbaʼs, gone to college in Dubuque — real stay-close-to-home girl — and not gotten hired for a job at the old high schol when she graduated. Or else there wasnʼt one. Or something.
So now I knew all there was to know about Petal Semanski, Mantorville home economics teacher. Did any of this stuff matter?
Anyway. After living at home with moms and daddy for a year, she took the job at Mantorville, even though she seemed daily to make it known that this was a huge step down for someone like her. And she was cheerleader sponsor, too. But not for football, just the winter sports. School librarian, a fussy old fuddyduddy, was the football sponsor, even though she never went along to away games, just left the girls unchaperoned on the bus with the team.
And Mantorville girls were easy. Got it, Arkham.
Miss Tottenliebe. Whacked old coot. — So Petal was at the party in Snake Hollow, not really supervising her girls, the cheerleaders. Since they werenʼt, I guess, actually her girls anyway. But taking charge of the other stuff. The initiation.
— Initiation? I couldnʼt help it. It just burst out of me.
Yeah, off to one side, back in some woods. They were… uh…
How long was it going to take him to say it? Having sex, deflowering the young ones.
They were branding them.
— Branding? Not what I had expected, and I couldnʼt stop myself again.
Yeah. Frank said there was a bonfire by the water — a stream flows through the bottom there, sometimes called Snake Creek — and they had branding irons heating on one side. Nearest the stand of trees. And they were using them on the girls. The young ones… they were getting branded. On their buttocks.
Petal was running back and forth getting a hot iron for a cold one and carting the new one into the trees. The older girls and the players, and Roger Dodger, had a drinking game going, Frank told me. Pound a pint whenever one of them screamed. And they were putting plenty of cold ones down.
— Initiation ritual? Rite of passage?
Exactly. Once a girl had it done to her, uh, once she “got her snake,” she was a big girl, a real Serpent. …One of the things the guys would say to come onto a girl was to ask to “see her snake.”
— And heʼd show her his, huh?
And there was plenty of that going on down in Snake Hollow, too. Frank had seen his share of beach parties in California. But nothing, he said, like this orgy. The guys on the team had gotten their brands earlier, the new ones at a party late in the summer, before school started, to kick off practice. Smaller little snake symbols. On the base of their thumbs…
Funny. I had noticed some kids with what I thought were bruises or burns on their hands, and later, I realized that most of the kids, particularly athletes, had squiggly scars. I just never put it all together. Too weird. Too sick.
And of course, being a newbie, that night was Frankʼs night.