It’s funny what you remember as a kid. I don’t remember my 5th birthday or my first day of school. But I remember very clearly the day my dog died. It’s been 12 years now, and it’s still the most vivid memory of my childhood.
My sister Ashley and I were typical twins. Always hatching diabolical plans and getting into trouble together. On this particular day, we had colored our cat, Pongo, blue. Even though my mom tried to punish us separately – me on the stairs, Ashley in the dining room – we were still making faces at each other and giggling. She was just about to scold us when the doorbell rang.
My mother gave us both a you-better-not-move-a-muscle look as she went to answer the door.
Standing on our stoop was a tall, lanky blonde man wearing a red tracksuit. I remember he had shifting, watery eyes. He noticed Ashley and I immediately.
What we noticed was that he was holding our dog, Rocky under one arm like a sack of flour. Ashley called to Rocky softly, but the dog didn’t move. The man began to talk lowly with my mother. She cupped a hand over her mouth and I heard him say “Do you mind if I use your hose?”
My mother rushed us upstairs to our room and we watched out the window as the man rinsed off his fender in front of our house. It was our first taste of death and we cried for two days. We were six.
My parents, deciding to use the sad occasion as an opportunity to teach us about death, held a funeral in our backyard for Rocky. Ashley and I cried as we read a poem we had written together the night before.
My mother held us as my father hammered a white, wooden cross into the ground bearing Rocky’s name. Even our older brother Eric was there, which was nice because he was almost always next door playing video games and smoking something smelly with the neighbor kids. I think I saw him tear up a little. We had loved Rocky.
That was only two months before it happened.
What I remember much less clearly was the night that Ashley disappeared.
My parents had thrown a going away party for Eric, who was leaving for a semester abroad in Japan. Ashley and I had begged them to make it a pool party and we’d finally worn them down after much pestering. The pool had only gone in three months before and it was our official christening party!
Oddly, I remember only bits and pieces of that night. My father was drunk. My mother was giving tours of our newly remodeled house to everyone, whether they wanted to see it or not. My brother was in the living room with his friends playing video games. And Ashley and I were in the pool playing mermaids, which was our favorite game.
My uncle Cliff gave us rubber bands which we used to bind our ankles together. We then swam around the pool pretending to be mermaid princesses. Just after it got dark my mom called us for dinner. We both jumped out of the pool and ran around the edge before my father yelled at us.
“Rachel! Ashley! No running, or you’re going inside for the night!”
My mother handed us our burgers and people cooed and admired our matching bathing suits. We were always matching. Together we sat down on the pool deck to eat. Afterward, we got back in the water to play mermaids, again.
At some point my mother called us in to bed. We pretended to cry and begged her to let us stay up a little later. She didn’t fall for it. We stomped up the stairs and went into the bathroom to strip out of our swim suits. I remember we decided to switch beds and dress in each others pajamas so we could play a trick on Mommy in the morning. It was our favorite prank and she deserved it for making us go to bed early when we weren’t tired. Nevertheless, we fell asleep quickly.
The next morning, I woke up alone. I don’t remember getting dressed or eating breakfast. What I do remember is spending what felt like forever walking around our house looking for Ashley. The new renovations had yielded new hiding spots and it took me awhile to check them all.
I finally went to ask my mom, who asked my dad, who had just returned from dropping Eric at the airport.
“Paul, please tell me you took Ashley with you to drop Eric off?!”
“No, why?” My dad’s face paled instantly.
“Oh my God. Paul, we’ve looked everywhere, we can’t find her.”
My dad was already moving from room to room in the house checking all the places I had checked. By the time he returned, my dad was crying.
“Diane, call the police. Now.”
That was the day my mother turned into something else. She never smiled or cried again.
But I did.
But I never cried as much as I did when when Rocky died, which always made me feel bad and confused.
I remember a big police man talking to me, asking me what I remembered, had I heard anything in the middle of the night. He even asked if I liked having an identical twin sister or if I hated it. That question confused me for many years.
The days turned to a week and still no Ashley. I slept alone in my room, switching from bed to bed, some nights pretending I was Ashley and it was Rachel who was missing.
Lots of men with dogs came and went into the woods behind our house. Reporters were parked outside everyday and overnight. My parents wouldn’t let me watch TV. The policemen tore up my bedroom and the rest of the house. I thought they were looking for a goodbye note. I thought Ashley had run away. I was so mad at her.
Months went by and I grew lonely. I was excited when my birthday came. My mom cried from morning to night that day so my dad took me out for pizza. But he was quiet the entire time. My brother fell in love with a local and decided to stay in Japan. Since he was 18, my dad couldn’t stop him. My mother missed him and Ashley and drank wine and slept all the time. My father tried to be there to support me but he was suffering in his own way, I think. He upgraded Rocky’s wooden cross to proper stone when I asked why Ashley hadn’t had a funeral. I think he knew I needed a place to grieve. We all did.
One day he came home with a new dog which I named Naughty Boy. I hated Naughty Boy. He was trying to be Rocky and no dog could ever be Rocky. He eventually ran away. No one looked for him.
Four months after Ashley disappeared my father filled in the pool. I remember sitting in my room (which felt big and cavernous and cold) and watching them drain the pool. It took two days to fill it in with dirt. The pool had been the one last happy thing in my life. And my father had taken it away. He had taken my brother away too. He was the taker of things.
One afternoon, I was flipping through channels on the TV. The remote dropped from my hands when I suddenly saw my face on screen. It was a show called Unsolved Mysteries. My mother walked in then and saw what I was watching. I was afraid I was in trouble but she just gave me a blank look and walked right back out. I turned the TV off.
My parents began to yell at each other when they thought I couldn’t hear. Their marriage was strained. There were so many phone calls from witnesses who reported seeing Ashley somewhere. But they were almost always just seeing me. Whenever this turned out to be the case, which was often, my mother would give me an accusing look, like I had purposefully raised her hopes and then kicked the chair out from under her. Every false lead seemed to kill her a little more.
It was around then that I realized why no one liked me anymore. I was like a ghost, an echo of my sister. A pale shadow following around her mysterious disappearance. My parents could barely look at me. I know they think I didn’t notice, but I did.
We eventually had a funeral for Ashley, but I don’t remember it very well. At least, not as well as Rocky’s funeral. I just recall thinking how stupid it was to have a funeral for an empty box.
After a year, my mother filed for divorce. I still remember their very last fight. They were so far gone by then that they didn’t seem to care that I heard.
“My brother would never hurt my children. Christ, what the hell is wrong with you, Diane? You can’t just go around casually accusing people of serious crimes like kidnapping!”
“She’s not kidnapped anymore, Paul, is she?” She spat at him. “She’s dead! But I’m starting to think you already know that.”
“How dare you say something like that to me. I love Ashley. I loved all our children!”
“Yeah, I’m sure you loved Ashley a lot. How much did you love her, Paul? Do I need to keep Rachel away from you, too?”
I recoiled like it had been me he’d hit. I didn’t understand what my mother had said. Tears poured down my face. Stupid Ashley. Why couldn’t she have just stayed in bed? Why did she have to go wandering off? Where did she go? Why had she done this to our family?
My thoughts were interrupted by a whisper from the next room.
“Why did you fill in the pool, Paul?”
I ran then. I didn’t understand that question. I didn’t want to understand.
Years went by. My mother met a new man named Bobby and moved out of our house. My dad and I maintained a strained but quiet home life – I avoided him at all costs. I spent more and more time at friend’s houses and he spent more and more time in his study. The following summer, Dad built a deck over our filled-in pool. He never bought furniture for it.
When I was 13 I learned that my mom was living with Uncle Cliff, my dad’s brother. I hated going to their house. Cliff had an above ground pool, and always tried to get me to go swimming with him. He even bought me swim suits, little bikinis that made me uncomfortable to look at. They would be laid out on the bed whenever I came to visit.
But I never went swimming with Uncle Cliff. I hated pools now. Soon they stopped inviting me to their house.
My dad was now spending every night shut up in his study, which he had moved to the room at the back of the house. He kept it locked and he would never let me inside.
I moved out when I was 18. My dad hugged me the day I left. It was the first time he had looked at me, much less touched me in seven years. He whispered that he loved me and then turned around and walked back into his study, closing the door behind him and locking it. I left.
Three weeks later a police officer showed up at my apartment. He sat me down and told me my father had been found dead.
I went to the house that night. My dad had killed himself in his study while sitting at his desk. I finally got to see the room – the body was gone, but the blood remained.
I looked around. The study was basically empty. There was a desk, a chair, seven photos, a notebook and a drawing. The desk sat in the middle of the room and faced the window to the backyard. The photos were of Ashley and I. The drawing was one that Ashley had drawn of our family shortly before she disappeared. The notebook was empty except for the last page.
It said: What happened the night of August 16th, 2002
But there was nothing written below it.
The chair was covered in blood but I was so numb I sat in it anyway. So it had been him. The whispers were true, he had been him all along. Our own father.
“What have you done?” I whispered.
I looked out the window and was surprised to find it situated over Rocky’s grave. The tombstone was almost close enough the read.
“Ma’am? Ma’am, I know this is difficult. But I- I want to let you know that with this notebook we can get a warrant to excavate the yard.”
I glanced up at the detective standing next to me. I knew he was trying to tread lightly. I nodded at him.
“But out of respect,” he continued, “I want to ask you first.”
I looked back out into the yard. I looked at the empty deck my father had spent an entire summer building and then never used. What was buried underneath it? I stood up and looked the detective dead in the eye.
“Dig it up.”
I thought I knew what they’d find at this point. I thought maybe my mother had known it all along. But neither of us were right.
The excavation took 6 days. First, they had to tear up the deck. I stayed at the house that week, in my old room, and watched their progress from my bedroom window. The room didn’t feel too big anymore. It felt small and suffocating.
I had my father quickly cremated and scattered his ashes in a ditch off the 405. I threw the urn in there too.
The first body was found at 11:29pm on a Thursday. I awoke to the sounds of yelling and dressed quickly. I ran down the stairs, through the door and out under the flood lights in the backyard. I darted my way around the mounds of dirt to where the forensics team was gathered. I braced myself and peered over their shoulders.
“That’s not my sister.”
They all turned to look at me.
“What is she doing here?” Someone said so no one in particular.
“That’s not Ashley.” I tried again. Someone grabbed my arm then.
“Who is that? That’s not my sister! Who is that?” I was yelling. I knew I was becoming hysterical, but I couldn’t stop myself from screaming.
They dragged me away from the body. I sat next to the house wrapped in a blanket for the rest of the night. I didn’t understand. Who was that? That wasn’t Ashley. Ashley was me and that wasn’t me. The bones were too big. They were too long. That wasn’t Ashley. Who was that?
At dawn, someone finally came to talk to me.
“Who is that?” I asked for the hundredth time that night.
“Rachel, we can’t say for certain at this point but there’s some strong evidence to suggest that the body might be, well that it could be…your brother.”
“No,” I said flatly, shaking my head. “Eric is in Japan. He’s married. He’s 30 now.”
“Well, do you have an address? Or a phone number?”
“No… I mean…Eric doesn’t talk to anybody anymore.”
“Okay, well the M.E. took the body, so we’ll know more soon. Just hang tight.”
Just hang tight. What an absurd thing to say. The shitty world I had managed to build for myself from the ashes of my former life was starting to crumble.
Who was in the pool? The question haunted me for days. It wasn’t Eric, it couldn’t be. That much I knew. Unless Eric had come back from Japan. But I would know if he had, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t he have come to see me?
I got my answers a few days later. Eric had not come back from Japan – because Eric had never left. Though his body had almost completely decomposed, the cheap, plastic “Good Luck” beaded necklace around his neck hadn’t. The police ruled that he had died on the night of the party.
I didn’t understand anything anymore. My mind refused to accept their findings. I began falling apart.
I wasn’t there when they found the other body in the pool. It was Rocky’s. When I walked into the house, they gave me his bones in an evidence box. It was all they had.
I looked down at the box and the dirty bones inside, and I knew where Ashley was. I knew why my father had moved his office. I knew why he had replaced Rocky’s cheap wooden headstone with a heavy one made of shiny white marble. I knew why he had inscribed it: A Voice I Loved is Still. I knew why the date didn’t match Rocky’s death.
Ashley’s small body was well preserved. When I saw how little she was, I started shaking. I never remembered being so small. He had taken great care in burying her. She was inside a white bag I had never seen before, a special type I had never heard of. It had effectively mummified her. She was laying on her back in a dress with her small hands crossed and her eyes closed. She looked peaceful and beautiful.
I watched them place her gently on a metal board. I watched them zip a different bag over her. I watched them load her into a van. And I watched them take her away. I sat down next to the headstone. It was her resting place for the the last 12 years. I looked through the window and I saw my dad’s desk and his chair. I sat there all night. People brought me water and tea. But I just stared at the empty hole in the ground. Confused, angry and lost.
The excavation team left the next morning. The lead detective on Ashley’s case – a man named Beller – called me around dawn. Because of the state of Ashley’s body, they were able to collect evidence from her. They were waiting for it to cycle through the lab. I asked what kind of evidence. He wouldn’t say.
The day I got the official report is another that I will never forget.
I was on the phone with my mother who I had finally found after months searching. She was in Philadelphia with Uncle Cliff and they had taken up heroin together.
I told her the police wanted to talk to her. I told her about Ashley and Dad. I didn’t tell her about Eric yet. I couldn’t tell her that over the phone.
But she wasn’t all there. She asked the same questions again and again. She repeated what I said. It was hopeless. I took down her number and hung up the phone. Detective Beller could deal with her.
As soon as I hung up, he called me.
“Rachel, we have the results of the autopsies, can you come down to the station?”
I sighed. It was late. After the conversation with my mother I was exhausted and emotionally drained. There was no way I would make it downtown tonight.
“Can you just tell me over the phone? I’m sorry, I can’t, there’s no way I can get there tonight.”
“Where are you? I’ll send a car.”
“Actually, can you please just tell me. I can’t…I can’t go back there. I can’t see their bodies again. I can’t be in that room.”
The detective paused then seemed to come to a decision.
“Rachel, there was semen on Ashley’s body.”
“What?” I didn’t hear that right..
“Yeah… We also found ligature marks on her neck. The Medical Examiner has ruled Ashley’s death a homicide.”
“Yeah, okay, but-”
“There is no mistake.”
“Yeah, but, can you say the first part again? Because I swear you said-”
“Rachel, your sister was raped.”
No, no, no, no, no.
“My dad couldn’t have-”
“The semen isn’t a match to your dad. It’s a match to your brother.”
I didn’t speak. I didn’t move. Until I started to shake.
“I wouldn’t usually be so frank, but you’ve been through a lot and you deserve to know this. Here is what we have pieced together: on the night of August 16th, 2002 Eric went into your room and took Ashley. He then drugged her, raped her and, accidentally we think, killed her by strangulation. Your father walked in on him and beat your brother to death. This all occurred in the late evening or early morning of the party. He then held the bodies for a month or so until he had the pool filled.”
“My-my brother went to Japan-”
“No, he didn’t.”
“But my dad, he killed them-”
“No, he killed one of them. This is a crime of passion and, honestly, I’m not even sure your dad would have done time for it. I don’t understand why he didn’t just come forward.”
I was silent. I knew why. Because of me and my mom. Ashley’s disappearance had broken us but we’d always had hope. Hope that Ashley would be released someday. Hope that she had found a new family. Hope that she would eventually come home. But she had never left.
And Eric, how could we reconcile our beloved Eric with the monster he truly was? My father had borne this knowledge and the burdens of it alone. His sacrifice may have been wasted on my mother but not on me. That hope for Ashley, and love for Eric and my parents had gotten me through so much when there was so little ground to stand on. The cost he must have paid to do this for me – it was unfathomable.
And I had burned his body and scattered his ashes on a highway. He would never be laid to rest with the family he had endured so much to protect. And I had done this to him.
My father wasn’t the monster. I was.
I filled a casket with the photos on my father’s desk and the drawing he had held to his chest when he shot himself. And then I, too, buried an empty casket. I buried Ashley next to my dad, and my mother on her other side two years later. I don’t know what the state did with Eric’s body and I haven’t asked.
So really, this is a letter to you, Ashley. To let you know why this happened and to tell you I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that when the monster came that night he choose you instead of me.
I’m sorry that I thought you ran away, and I’m sorry I never looked for you.
I’m sorry I abandoned the person who loved you the most to his demons. I’m sorry I left him forgotten and alone in a ditch.
I’m sorry I blamed you for destroying our family.
But most of all, I’m sorry that I’m the only one left standing.