THE FIRST TIME I killed a man it was an accident.
He didn’t have any identification on him. He was white, probably in his midfifties. Average build, average height. Smoker. No tattoos or distinguishing scars. His fingerprints matched those found at a thirty-year-old crime scene in North Dakota: a family murder, both parents, son and two daughters, all killed one night at the dinner table. Nobody was ever arrested.
A real estate agent with the unfortunate name of Poppy Treasure found him three days after I killed him. She opened the back door of an empty house to air it out before her clients arrived, and there he was, facedown on the lawn, dead. The police released a description and pleaded for information, but nobody came forward. Nobody admitted to seeing him. They didn’t even know how he had gotten to Evanston, much less how or why he had ended up dead in the yard of a foreclosed house in the Backlot. There wasn’t a mark on him. The medical examiner blamed the death on a heart attack, but the “unusual circumstances” of where he was found made them suspicious.
They meant my grave. There was a hole in the backyard of that empty house, about five feet long and eighteen inches deep, and in that hole they found hair, blood, fibers. Everything I left behind was too degraded for identification purposes. That’s what you become when you die but don’t manage to do it properly: too degraded.
This is how I killed him:
I woke in the dark, choked on a mouthful of mud, and I panicked. I clawed my way through the soil and sod until I found air, and there was a pair of hands, his hands, scooping the dirt away from my face. He was murmuring as he dug, “Oh, you’re perfect, you’re beautiful, you’re perfect.” There was dirt in my ears, packed around my head, but I could hear him. His voice was breathless, excited but quiet. “Calm down, sweetheart, calm down.”
He cupped his hands around my head and tugged at my hair. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want him touching me. I grabbed his wrists, and I pulled. I didn’t make a decision. My mind was blank with fear. Everything was wrong, twisted and nauseating. There was something foul in him I wanted to destroy, a dark quivering thread stretched taut between us, and I broke it.
He died. He died, and two things happened.
And all of the man’s memories about the murders he had committed thirty years ago flooded into me.
I remembered children slumped over their dinners of pork roast and potatoes. The littlest girl had fallen out of her chair. Blood soaked the tablecloth, the carpet, streaked the wallpaper in bright splashes. I felt the kick of the shotgun and my bloody hands slick on the knife. The winter wind was cold and howling through an open door. I smelled rosemary and beer and piss. The children had wet themselves. The woman took her last breath. It gurgled in her throat, and she was gone.
I remembered it all as though I had been there.
I still remember. It’s faded now, but the memories I steal never disappear entirely. That family, whoever they were, they died almost fifteen years before I was born, in a state I had never visited, but I am the only person left in the world who knows what happened to them.
Their killer was there when I woke up. He was dead before I saw his face. I know what he did, but I don’t know his name.
It was an accident, the first time I killed. It was an instinct I didn’t know I had. I never made a choice.
The second time was on purpose.
IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON and a storm was coming. The wind was picking up, and there were towering thunderheads stacked high in the west. Down the interstate lightning flashed through a black curtain of rain. I was sitting outside a truck stop west of Omaha, Nebraska, perched on a low brick wall that enclosed a bed of wilting flowers. I had my backpack hooked around one arm, my skateboard at my feet, my eyes hidden behind a pair of pink heart-shaped sunglasses. I watched strangers stop, park, head into the convenience store or the restrooms, return to their cars. They frowned at the storm and drove away.
I couldn’t decide who to approach. Families were out of the question. Nobody invited a stranger into the car with their kids, not even a stranger who looked as harmless as I did. Same with most elderly couples. Young couples or groups of college students were a better bet, the right mix of careless and sympathetic. Some of them would give me a few bucks or offer to let me use their phones or buy me a meal. I took the money but turned down the phones and the food. I didn’t have anybody to call, and I don’t need to eat anymore.
I wasn’t the only suspicious teenager hanging around. Across the parking lot, a short guy with black hair and black clothes and a lot of piercings was approaching drivers at the pumps and outside the restaurant. He talked to them for a few minutes, handed over a blue paper from a stack, walked away with a thank you and a smile. In between conversations he tucked fliers beneath the windshield wipers of parked cars.
I watched him work, not all that curious, until I realized he was watching me too.
I looked away. I didn’t want to attract any attention, but it was too late. The guy wandered over, taking his time. He looked like he couldn’t decide if he should speak or not. His face was round and pink cheeked and spotted with acne. He had a soft gray shadow around him, the kind of shadow I could feel but not see, but I didn’t think it was a killer’s shadow. It was too feeble for that.
“Hey,” said the kid. His voice was deeper than I expected, but his smile made him look all of twelve years old. “You seem like you’re in some kind of trouble.”
“Not really,” I said. I didn’t offer anything else. If he was a thirty-year-old creep hanging around a truck stop pretending to be a fresh-faced teenager, I didn’t want to encourage him.
“Sure, okay,” he said with a shrug. “But if you are, here.” He peeled one of his blue papers off the stack and held it out to me. “I’m not saying you need it, because you’re not saying you need it, but if you’re heading west and you need a place to stay, it’s an option. They’re good people.”
I took the page from him. NEED HELP? it asked in all caps printed across the top. Below, in smaller letters, it encouraged me to visit the Church of the Prairie. There was an address, a little square map with a star marking the spot in western Nebraska, and the promise of a bed, a shower, a hot meal. At the bottom, a Bible verse: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35.
I folded up the paper and shoved it into my backpack.
“Just tell them Danny sent you,” the kid said. He said it like he had said it a hundred times, reading from a script that didn’t particularly interest him anymore. “Not Daniel. Daniel’s somebody else. Not that it matters—he’s a good guy too—but I’m Danny.”
“Thanks, Danny, not Daniel,” I said. I didn’t even try to make it sincere. “But I’m fine.”
“They’re not, like, Jesus freaks or anything,” Danny said. He shook his black hair out of his face. “I mean, they are, but they don’t care if you aren’t. They won’t ask any questions. They’ll just help you figure out what to do next.”
“That’s nice of them,” I said. I wanted him to go away. He wasn’t offering a ride and he wasn’t a killer; he didn’t have anything that interested me. “I’m still fine.”
Danny waited. Maybe he wanted me to give in and admit that I had no money, no ride, no one to call. Maybe he could tell just by looking at me that it had been ten days since I’d managed more personal hygiene than a cold water splash in a gas station bathroom.
I let him wait. I stared at him until he shrugged and he said, “Suit yourself.”
He walked away. He looked back a few times, like there was something he wanted to say. I felt a pang of worry, but I ignored it. I looked suspicious enough for perfectly ordinary reasons: a dirty teenage girl in stolen clothes and stupid sunglasses, lurking around a truck stop, alone. He didn’t recognize me. It had been over a year, and what had made the local news in Evanston was of no interest in Nebraska. He was just a kid who got paid a few bucks to hand out church fliers in his free time. I lost track of him and went back to searching for my next ride.
I didn’t have a plan. I hadn’t had one since I left Chicago. My first ride had taken me south to Indianapolis before I decided I wanted to go west instead. I hitched a ride with a friendly stoner heading to Iowa City to pick up his little sister from her first year at college. He smoked joint after joint and listened to Phish bootlegs for the entire five-hour drive, and when we got to Iowa City he gave me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to enjoy life. After we parted ways, I hung around a big interstate gas station, looking as helpless as possible, until I met a gray-haired trucker named Dottie. She grunted with disinterest when I told her my made-up life story: I was a college student whose roommate and ride home for the summer had copped out at the last minute. Dottie only said, “You don’t look like trouble,” and she said, “You’re too young to be out here alone,” and, “I can take you as far as Omaha, then my route turns around.”
The cab of her truck smelled of cigarette smoke, stale coffee, fast food. She didn’t say much during the hours I rode with her, and when she did talk, she talked about her son, who was twenty-nine years old and missing. In December he had taken a business trip to Pittsburgh and never came home. The cops didn’t bother looking. Dottie had taken time off a couple of months back to go and search for him, but she didn’t know anything about his business, didn’t know his friends or girlfriends or enemies. She spent two days driving aimlessly around Pittsburgh in the slushy gray winter. Her son was gone and she didn’t know why.
Drug dealer, I decided. Being uncharitable toward a stranger made it easier for me to avoid thinking about my own mother and what she didn’t know.
“You can’t trust anybody anymore,” said Dottie. “Not even your own kid.”
Her voice was rough, her eyes sad. Her hopelessness felt like an empty space beside me, a hole eating away the fading echoes of a life. I was relieved when she dropped me at the truck stop and drove away.
As the thunderstorm gathered in the west, I rested my feet on my skateboard and rolled it back and forth, back and forth. Across the parking lot Danny was in conversation with a white-haired old lady. He was smiling and she was charmed; I looked away when he glanced toward me. A few more hours and the gas station employees would notice I was still sitting outside. I had a story ready, but I didn’t want to linger. I wanted to keep moving.
A few minutes later, my ride showed up.
I felt him before I saw him. The sensation was sudden and unmistakable.
It was a busy truck stop, dozens of cars passing through, and it took me a moment to pinpoint him. Second row of pumps, number five. His car was a blue Corolla. Minnesota plates. He had an eye on the approaching storm as he filled the tank. He didn’t clean the windshield. When he was finished, he ripped the receipt from the pump and got back into the car.
If he had driven away, I would have put him out of my mind. I would have watched his blue Corolla leave and felt him recede, a fading murmur under my skin, until he was gone.
But he didn’t. He parked beside the store and went inside. He came out a few minutes later with a soda and a bag of pretzels. He looked so very ordinary, but he felt like a tangled mess of shadows. Weeds and vines and oily black worms beyond the edge of my vision. Dark squirming shapes at the corners of my eyes. The taste of ash at the back of my throat. All of those things and none of them. It made me think about bonfires, graveyards, dark damp holes in the ground, about waking up with dirt packed in my mouth and bruises in the shapes of fingers around my throat, and the excruciating, exultant pain of a beating heart after a year of stillness. It was the best feeling I knew, and the worst.
He wasn’t the first person I had found who felt like that. He wasn’t the strongest, or the sickest, or the most tantalizing. But he was right there.
I looked up and caught his eye.
He stopped, and he smiled.
“Hi,” he said. “Are you waiting for somebody?”
I sighed, loud and exaggerated. “No,” I said. I tried my best to look annoyed with just a hint of worry. “I mean, maybe? I don’t know. My roommate was supposed to give me a ride home for the summer, but she changed her mind at the last minute and decided to go visit her boyfriend in New York instead. Her boyfriend she met on the internet. She doesn’t even know him.”
That’s what had happened to Maria Garcia’s cousin last Christmas break. Two Christmases ago, now. I had missed one. I remembered Maria reading text messages and saying, “That’s what she gets for rooming with such a slut.” Maria had a million cousins and she loved to gossip about them. It was easy to borrow their lives for my temporary lies.
The man asked, “There’s no one you can call?”
“My parents are in Europe,” I said. “They told me to buy a bus ticket but I figured, well, it’s just as easy to get a ride, you know? Save me a couple hundred bucks.”
“Denver,” I said. I had no idea which direction he had been heading before he pulled off for gas. I didn’t know the first thing about Denver. “Well, near Denver. Close.”
The man’s smile grew wider, but he checked himself and put on an expression of false concern. “I’m headed that way.”
“I know this is weird, but it’s a long drive and I wouldn’t mind the company to help me stay awake.”
I pretended to think about it. “I don’t know.”
“Right, I know,” he said, too quickly. “I understand. Do you want money for a bus ticket or something? I don’t have much cash on me, but I hate to see you stuck here.”
I stood up slowly, hooked the backpack over my shoulder. “Where did you say you were going?”
He was headed to Utah to visit his mom, and he didn’t mind taking I-70 through Denver instead of I-80 through Wyoming on the way. He liked the scenery, he said. Prettier mountains.
“I know how much it sucks to be stranded.” He laughed, and it was almost believable. It would have been if I couldn’t feel what he was. “I’m not a serial killer, I’m promise.”
“That’s exactly what a serial killer would say,” I said.
“Good point. But it’s really not safe for you to hang around here. You look like you could use the help.”
I made him wait while I thought about it. I caught sight of Danny walking around the pumps. He was talking to somebody, but he looked over, like he felt me watching. He wasn’t smiling his cherubic little kid smile anymore. The storm was blowing closer, the wind growing stronger. The afternoon was dark enough for the cars on the highway to switch on their lights. Those coming from the west were splattered with rain.
He wasn’t lying about one thing: He wasn’t a serial killer. Not yet. He had killed before, but only once. I didn’t know his story or his real name yet, but I knew he was a murderer.
I couldn’t read his thoughts. It’s not like that, not until they die. I don’t know if they’re bad people or good people, if they enjoy their lives or hate them, if they look forward to every new day or dread it. I don’t know if they’ve been arrested, convicted, imprisoned. I don’t know if it was on purpose or an accident. I can only sometimes feel if they regret it; guilt and regret are such slippery, untrustworthy things. I don’t know if they have parents or spouses or children, if they’re going home to their wives or if they’ve left everybody behind. I don’t know if they ever had anybody at all. I don’t even know if they’re human or not.
But I always know if they’ve killed someone.
It’s not much of a party trick.
“Okay,” I said. I kicked up my skateboard, caught it in one hand. “Thanks. I’m sick of being stuck here.”
The man led the way back to his blue Corolla. I put my skateboard in the backseat and let him open the passenger door for me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Melanie.” I felt stupid as soon as I said it. My real name is Breezy, and I had meant to name one of Maria’s endless supply of cousins, like I had when Dottie the truck driver asked. But Melanie’s name was out before I could stop myself. Saying it aloud felt like a spark of electricity, quick but painful for the moment it lasted.
“Nice to meet you, Melanie,” he said. “I’m Tate. Let’s hope that storm up ahead isn’t as bad as it looks.”