I am no storyteller, but I photograph my wife every day.
One of my favorite photos of Anne shows her sitting on our bed, face stretched and beaming, with the little white pregnancy test stick in her hand. Her freckles glow in the picture. Her eyes jump at will between green and brown. Most indoor photos give them a darker tint, but not this snapshot. Her single dimple, left side, is deep and at its face-cheering best. Anne’s dark curls wear sun-bleached highlights because it dates to late summer, only six months before the first death in Vermeer Park.
I took the photo one month and six days before Anne’s latest miscarriage.
Anne and I decided we wanted to have children on a walk through Vermeer Park, and we have tried for three years. We’ve spoken with a fistful of doctors, burned stacks of money, and heard everything from low sperm count to “hostile vagina.” We’ve suffered three miscarriages together and face the reality of drifting into our thirties without a child. Our friends—all married couples—have one or two of their own. The Wollcotts are having a third.
“Number three’s on the way,” Jason said over the phone.
He called me hours before we both met in the park amid the snow and trees—me to snap photos and he for his police work.
You see, I photograph the dead too.
She is—was—a student at the university, a girl of 19 with brown hair, blue eyes, a fake driver’s license, handful of crumpled bills, birth control pills, and a can of pepper spray in her purse. Her arms are tucked under her body with the purse lumped under her abdomen. Her butt is in the air, knees bent. She looks like she could have fallen if not for her arms bending at such an unnatural angle. There are no signs of struggle, only faint scratches on her face, arms, and neck—none of which broke enough skin to draw blood. She hadn’t used her pepper spray.
She simply died three days after Christmas, and the snow fell, covering everything.
The city had installed streetlamps earlier in the year, vintage-looking black metal poles topped with rectangular glass boxes. They look like old gaslights, the kind which filled cities in the 19th century and were hand-lit, something out of a Dickens story. The lights were installed after my childhood treks through the dark—too late to calm my fears—but they should have made a difference for a 19-year-old girl that winter.
Should have, but she was murdered—I use “murdered” because I don’t know another word—murdered and dumped, as garbage in the snow, all under the bright glow of the new lights.
When I was younger, having children seemed far away, a decision I wouldn’t need to make, but now, now with Anne’s miscarriages—the last after implantation—cold reality has robbed us of the choice. It’s different, choosing or being robbed of a choice.
But Anne loves me. She says she does and smiles enough for a woman broken from the inside. She sleeps through most nights. She’s tired all the time, closing her eyes as early as 8:30 on some nights. She rolls away from me and simply goes to sleep. When I touch her, spooning her close to feel her warmth, I find none. Anne is cold. Anne doesn’t know how long I hold her at night, hoping for some spark. Any spark.
She doesn’t know how much I think about the dead girl in Vermeer Park. She doesn’t know how it feels to take photographs no one should ever see.
A boy from Anne’s school finds the second body in early February.
He was an older man, a member of the local Rotary club and a retired banker. He is found much like the first: hunched over with his arms awkwardly tucked under his body and butt in the air. There are scratches, too, just like the girl, tiny marks on his face and exposed hands and forearms. These scratches, like the girl’s, are on the surface only, little pink lines.
I take photos. I do the work the police ask. I snap shots of the walk, the trees, and the late-winter shadows for the paper. We won’t print the body, just sterile images of the area where the body was found with police tape circling a group of officers in winter coats. This is how we publish deaths in the paper or post them to our website—photos of the area but never the crime, the setting but never the story.
Two deaths within two months, both bodies found in the same park, just to the east of the sidewalk… these details must mean something.
“Not good,” Jason says to me as we stand under the arching trees in the park. “Not good at all.”
The camera dangles from my neck, heavy and solid like a stone-tied leash. I rub numb fingers together for warmth and say, “Any leads? Any clues to what’s going on?”
Jason’s smile is half-formed. “You know I can’t tell you anything, Pete. You know I can’t show you too much.”
It’s a game we play. He always shares too much, but I play along. “A college co-ed and then this old guy… not much link there except for the location and manner of death.”
Jason coughs. His eyes shift toward me.
“Something about the manner of death?” I ask. “What about the girl?”
Jason glances over his shoulder. A shudder shakes his body. Something has him spooked, at least a little, conjuring memories of our childhood fears. I know images and faces and every expression Jason makes. “You know this is hush-hush, right?”
“Scout’s honor,” I say. I was never a Boy Scout. “What’s wrong?”
“We couldn’t reveal too much, you know, confidentiality and it’s not all that newsworthy.” His gloved hands press together. “She just died.”
“I took pictures, Jay. I know she was dead.” My voice lowers, knowing it needs to hide. “What do you mean, by ‘just died’?”
“Like a heart attack, but she was nineteen. Fit. The docs couldn’t really explain it. It’s like her heart just quit. Like her body just gave up.”
“Drugs?” I ask, knowing the answer.
Jason wags his head. “No. No booze, no narcs, nothing. Nothing we know of anyway. Nothing we can trace.”
I touch my cheek with cold fingertips. “The scratches?”
“Big mystery. They’re spaced just about right but not fingernail marks. At least that’s what the coroner said on the girl. But this guy… shit. I don’t know.” He clears his throat and nods toward the body. “They couldn’t be nail marks. They’re tiny.” He coughs. “Look. We didn’t have this conversation.”
“Hush, hush,” I say, and the shiver finds me. The words “tiny nail marks” spark in my brain.
“Right. Hush, hush.” His eyes drift skyward toward the branches overhead, and I follow suit. A moment passes between us, a moment of frozen air and long-ago thoughts. “The trees are still creepy. Unnatural. Remember that game we used to play?”
“We’d count,” I say. “We’d count and see how fast we could run through the park.”
“But never off the sidewalk.” Jason scratches his lean chin. “If we did, they’d get you.” He shivers. I’m sure it’s the cold. Jason is a practical man, a man of law and logic.
“Child’s play,” I say. “Used to scare the crap out of me, imagining something hiding in these trees.”
As a boy, I feared the park. Maybe it was the meandering sidewalk and trees-tall, groping trees and the lack of anything else between the community building in the north to 12th street two blocks to the south. The paved path curved slightly, a concrete ribbon looping past century old oaks trimmed high above the ground. No small bushes or other trees were allowed to grow near the path. Darkness owned the park at night.
Jason pulls his collar close to his neck. “I don’t like this, Pete. I don’t like things being broken like this. Two dead in the same place within two months. This town isn’t big enough for shit like this.”
We turn and walk toward the lot, following the same path we ran as children. Silence hangs between us and grows to an awkward, ungainly thing. I want to ask what happens when we find a third body. I can’t.
“Yeah. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you guys. Everything all right?”
“Nightmares,” I say. “She’s having nightmares.”
Jason coughs. “Since when?”
Another photo is ten years old, another bed shot—her with disheveled hair, “crazy hair” like she called it. Her smile is there, though, and while not as big as the pregnancy test photo, her dimple and wrinkled nose tell the story. She’d just woken. She was happy. She was in love with me, and the world held wonder. I imagine her dreams that night were big and beautiful.
Her dreams are haunted now.
Now she knows only nightmares.
Dr. Redding claims her fertility cocktail—Follistim and Lupron and God knows what else—shouldn’t have any effect on Anne’s dreams. The nightmares haven’t listened to Dr. Redding. Coincidence, although not causation, always makes a strong case. Anne’s nightmares are real, visceral things. She thrashes her arms and speaks gibberish. She often wakes with glassy, trance-like eyes, sometimes in her sleep, leaving the bedroom for the long hallway and stairs.
“What were you dreaming?”
“Horrible things,” she says. “Horrible things.”
The way she looks at me freezes my stomach. I want to hold her, to do something meaningful, but my hands are cold and arms feel stiff like rubber. She’s a mile away on the other side of our bed. The dim dawn light paints her face blue. Her eyes are black, but glassed over with a film of tears. The ice doesn’t thaw in my gut, but it does splinter. Shards drive through my heart. I ache.
“What kind of things?” I ask. My voice is small and dry.
“The trees,” she says. “That park where those people died. There are children trapped in the trees.”
I fell in love with Anne because she broke another girl’s nose playing rugby in college. You could hear the snap on the sidelines. We’d been friends before, and Anne had invited me to watch. We made love for the first time later that night, after beers, after laughter, after I re-taped Anne’s sore knuckles. I still have the team photo from that day—I was the unofficial photographer. Anne’s usual smile was instead a snarling mask as she tried to make a face befitting the blood stain on her jersey.
She was a fighter. She is a fighter.
Now she fights in dreams. She fights the invisible reality that she might never have a child of her own. She fights me without fighting. She never wanted to move here, back to my hometown, back to the university town in which we’d built memories, but I convinced her. I convinced her to live here, and now she has nightmares, and no baby.
Now I imagine children born of Anne’s mind trapped in trees.
“I know I’m meant to have children,” Anne tells me.
I twist spaghetti noodles around my fork. “We could call the agency. The one my aunt suggested.” My eyes are fixed on the pasta and the shining utensil. I don’t want to meet Anne’s gaze. The dead man, the 19-year-old, the nightmares, and the park… talk of life and death stirs the debate again at dinner. I close my eyes and see the tiny fingernail scratches on dead bodies.
“It’s like a hole inside my body. They want to be born, Pete. They need to. They feel trapped.”
I think of filling that hole with an adopted child. I think of smoothing the lines on her face and damming her tears. Maybe I’m too simple, too forward about it. Maybe Anne understands only as a woman who craves her own child understands. A baby isn’t a commodity. One quick glance at her face tells me her mind is set.
Anne won’t entertain the idea of adoption. She says, “They’re trying to talk to me. My children. I’m going to help them, Pete. I’m going to set them free,” she says. Her eyes burn like the Anne who broke another woman’s nose, but something is missing. Something is wrong.
I love Anne, though, or so I tell myself.
I don’t need to make love like we used to—with passion and energy and desire.
We just need to stay together.
How can I say she doesn’t smile in photos anymore?
I imagine impossible connections between the children she dreams of in her nightmares and the dead bodies with tiny, pink scratches. These are 2:00 AM thoughts, impossible thoughts. But the images are there, flashing in my brain.
The discovery of a third body closes the park.
She’s another college student, a girl of twenty-one with black, curly hair and no identification. She’s found two weeks after the previous body. Unlike the first two, she is discovered on her side, legs bent and tucked close to her stomach in a fetal position. The scratches are there, of course, tiny surface things almost unnoticeable but undeniably there, spaced evenly, four little lines like… I glance at my hand… scratches from a baby’s tiny finger nails. I have no proof, only photos and my thoughts.
And Anne. I have Anne with a vacancy in her eyes and nightmares every night.
“This is it,” Jason says at the scene. “This is a pattern. This shit’s going to get ugly.”
“Ugly? What do you mean?” I ask.
“The FBI, at least. Maybe bigger. Three killings in two months, Pete.” Black rings haunt his tired eyes. “We can’t manage this without help. We won’t be allowed to.”
I’m a child again, running down the sidewalk in Vermeer Park. I want to say something to him about Anne, about my worries, but midnight thoughts and late night fears melt into child’s play under even the dullest winter sun. I’m afraid of the shadows and the dark. I have no rational reason to fear, no photographic evidence save the bodies we’ve found and the changes in my Anne. Would anyone else see fingernail marks where the camera captures tiny scratches?
Would anyone believe me if I told them Anne is a monster?
I will take pictures of my wife every day, but there will be no more favorite photos of Anne. The thought empties my chest with a blade of ice.
When I arrive home, Anne grabs my arms, her hands tight like bands of metal. Her eyes are almost black, the pupils dilated even more and wide and wild.
“They’re trapped, Pete. They’re trapped and they just need help. I’m trying to help them, don’t you see?”
I schedule the first psychiatric appointment that afternoon.
Anne’s meds bloat her. They make her fat and uncomfortable in her skin. Her hair darkens, too, almost inexplicably. I remember it is winter and during winter Anne’s hair darkens, but these memories make no sense with my present reality. Her meds make her complacent. Everything about Anne washes to grey, but the nightmares are gone.
I take the photos, one each day, a record of her life and how I love her.
I am left with photos and the reality that the deaths in the park stop when she starts taking medication, when she gives up her dream of having children. The medication robs me of the Anne who broke another woman’s nose in a rugby game. It steals the dimple from her cheek and her eyes are no longer green.
I wonder about the truth of what I imagine. I wonder if Anne populated the trees with her wished-for children and somehow, in some impossible way, force-fed her fighting spirit into them. I wonder if they were born in those trees, the first place Anne and I spoke of being parents together, and they struggled there half-formed. I wonder if we killed them even as they found a way to touch the world, severed their psychic umbilical cord from Anne with the razor blade of antipsychotics.
These are impossible thoughts.
I wonder about their veracity.
I wonder if it matters. Three people died and Anne will never have her child. Our child.
As a photojournalist, as someone who documents reality, none of this happened as I imagine. My wife did not conjure those things in the park. She did not murder three people with her mind, with her desire to have children. She did not create things in those trees that needed freeing, things that withered when drugs addle her brain.
I wonder if it matters.
© 2014 by Aaron Polson
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