Friday, November 21, 2014

A Tragedy in a Small Town

Excerpt from HOW I GREW UP

     How I Grew Up is a novel based on an actual event which took place in the mid-twentieth century in a small town in the Southeast. In a town which seemed the safest place in the country, a disturbed husband and father entered the home of his wife’s parents and shot three people. His  mother-in-law was killed outright, his father-in-law lived for a few hours, and the husband of his wife’s sister lingered in agony for some three months.
     It was my home town, and there was a third daughter in this family almost destroyed by the horrendous tragedy. Anita was eighteen and a senior in high school, and she was one of my closest friends. I lived through the trauma with her.
     This happened the weekend before our high school was holding auditions for the annual high school musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, and Anita planned to audition for one of the three female leads.
     The directors of the production waited a week, but Anita auditioned a week after burying both her parents. She won the leading role of Julie Jordan and went on to give a polished and moving performance which affected all of us who worked with her and the audiences who attended the production.
     A mutual friend remembered all these years later, “There was so much emotion in that auditorium.” Of course everyone there knew what had happened. It was an experience I never forgot, and decades later I wrote the book in order to tell Anita’s story. Sadly, she died young of breast cancer. Since her voice had been stilled, I attempted to write the story as she might have recalled it.
     In Chapter 3, “Melanie,” the name by which I called the protagonist since this is a novel and a work of fiction, has left after a family dinner to see a film. As she often did, she went by herself, walking to a nearby movie theater. All the other members of her family were in the house; “Tony” had left her husband “Allan” and along with her two sons was staying with her parents. “Alice” and “Steve” and their two little girls were there for dinner as well.
     Here are excerpts from this chapter of the book. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and e-book and also can be purchased at

Excerpts from Chapter 3

     The movie was Rhapsody, starring Elizabeth Taylor. I loved it. She played a girl who went to Switzerland to be with a violinist she thought she was in love with, but she met a piano student at the conservatory there who fell madly in love with her. The music was incredibly beautiful, and I kept wishing Krissy and Ellen were both there with me. The piano concerto at the end of the film was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard.
     It was about a quarter after nine when I walked home. The streets were already mostly quiet at that hour, as usual. I had glanced at my watch when I left the theater. It was almost exactly 9:15 p.m.; time in my world was about to spiral completely out of control.
     As they often did, scenes from the film I just watched played out in my mind as my feet found their way home by instinct. The wonderful music was echoing in my head and I thought I would have to see this film again. Maybe Krissy could join me and we could go over the weekend.
     Then a sight straight out of a movie jolted me back to reality. Just before I got to our house I saw two police cars parked right in front. Then I saw the tape across the front door. Something very bad had happened here. My heart seemed to drop down to my feet. I knew something had happened because of Allan and my nightmare had come true.
     I stopped walking; I wanted to turn and run away. My heart started to beat so hard and fast I was sure the young police officer standing outside the house could hear it. My heartbeat was so loud it felt like it was roaring in my ears.
     The officer walked to me. The expression on his face scared me even more; he looked like he knew what had happened in that house was more than awful.
     I knew it, too.
     “Are you Melanie Stewart?” he asked. His voice was very gentle. I couldn’t even speak. I just nodded. I had my hands clasped tightly in front of my waist. That seemed to be the only way I could keep myself from falling. This isn’t happening, I thought. This can’t be real.
     “Please wait here,” he said. I noticed his name on his uniform coat. Officer Miller.
      “What’s happened? Can I please go inside?” I could hear how badly my voice was shaking.
      “Your sister is inside. She’ll be out to speak with you. I’ll bring her right out.”
     He went into the house and was back with Tony very quickly. I was so relieved to see her. Tony wasn’t hurt. Allan hadn’t killed her. So what had happened? Did he kill the boys?  Where were Momma and Daddy, and Alice and her family? The officer stood at a distance while
     Tony came and hugged me for a long time. I said, “Tony?”
     “I need you to be really brave, Mel,” she said, in a voice so quiet I could hardly hear her. “Allan came here tonight.” She had to stop for a minute, but then continued, “He had his gun. He shot Steve and Daddy. Then he shot and killed Momma.”
     I pushed myself away and stared at her, and said, “What?” She could not have said what I thought I had just heard. Why had Allan killed Momma and Daddy, and especially Steve?
     Tony was crying. “I’m so sorry, Melanie. I never thought he would do something like this, no matter how angry he was.”
     I staggered and almost fell, and Tony had to help me stay on my feet. My world had just been completely torn apart. This could not be real. It wasn’t happening. I was not standing outside my house, listening to my sister say these things. I wanted it to be earlier, for all of us to be inside the house talking and laughing. If I didn’t go to the movies, would everything still be the way it was then?
     “No no no no no no,” I barely whispered. My throat felt tight. Tony held me close.
     “Melanie, I need you to be really strong. Steve and Daddy are at the hospital and Alice is there with Steve. I have to stay here with the children. Can you drive yourself to the hospital?”
     I shook my head no. I was crying so hard I couldn’t even see. I started to shake as if I were freezing, even though it wasn’t a terribly cold night.
     “I will take you, ma’am,” the police officer said. I just looked at Tony. I shook my head. “I can’t go there, Tony.”
     She said, “You need to go, Melanie. Daddy needs you.”
     Officer Miller had the door open to the rear passenger side of one of the police cars. Now there were three of them; another officer was just getting out of the third car. Tony walked me to Officer Miller’s police car, hugged me again, and helped me inside. She was crying but tried to smile encouragement. I clung to her for a moment, not wanting to leave her, but she gently pulled my hands away and said, “Please go, Mel.”
    (At the hospital) Alice told me what had happened. It had been getting late for the children, especially the girls, but they knew I would be home soon. Alice and Steve decided to stay a little longer so the girls could say goodnight to me. They were having coffee with Tony and our parents, and the children were playing on the stairs.
     They heard someone kicking the front door and they all knew it had to be Allan. Alice ran upstairs with the children and Momma, Daddy and Steve all stood up. Tony was nearest the door. Allan quickly kicked in the door and was pointing his gun at Steve. Alice heard loud yelling and then five shots fired. Tony started screaming. 
     Alice told the terrified children to stay put, and went back down to the living room and saw the horror. Tony was on the phone talking to the police. Allan was gone. Daddy and Steve were on the floor. Steve was groaning in pain. Momma was sitting on the sofa, but her head was back at an odd angle and her eyes and mouth were open.
     Alice went closer to them and saw that Daddy was moving slightly, but Momma was completely still. Alice knew she was dead. It looked as though she had been shot through the heart. I kept waiting for her to say there was blood everywhere. She didn’t. I heard that later, from Tony. The police arrived almost immediately, followed by two ambulances. One of the ambulance attendants went to Momma, checked her, and shook his head. They put Daddy and Steve in the ambulances quickly. Tony told Alice to go with Steve in the ambulance, so she did. She didn’t know what happened after that and she didn’t know how bad Daddy was.
(Later, Melanie’s friend Krissy comes to the hospital, accompanied by Krissy’s father.)
     I don’t have any idea how long they stayed, but the nurse came in and said my father was being brought in soon and they would have to leave. I managed to stand up and hug Krissy and thank her for being there with me. Then she was gone. The nurse asked me to step out for a few minutes while they brought Daddy in and did what they needed to do. I was so tired I felt like I was floating when I tried to walk.
     I was so tired and lightheaded I put my hand out and leaned against the wall. Pastor Jackson put an arm around me and asked me if I needed to sit down. The nurse came for me, and they both took me into Daddy’s room. He was so still and pale. There were tubes and machines. I saw a bag with a tube going to his arm, and knew it was a blood transfusion. Seeing him was a terrible shock, worse than I had expected. I’d never seen Daddy look like this. For one awful minute I felt a wave of dizziness that was so bad that I thought I might faint. The nurse put her arm around my waist to steady me.
     I could hardly believe the man I was looking at was my father. I touched his hand and said, “Daddy?” but his eyes didn’t open. Please look at me, Daddy. Look at me and smile. Please, Daddy. Please don’t die.
     Dr. Morgan was there. He put his hand on my shoulder. “We did everything we could for him. He was shot twice, and he lost a lot of blood. There was a lot of damage. I wish I had better news for you.” I just nodded my head. He was telling me my father was dying as I stood there next to him. I couldn’t continue to stand up.
     Dr. Morgan asked me if I would like to lie down for a while and try and get some rest. I shook my head yes, and the nurse took me into the room next to Daddy’s. I put my coat on a chair, slipped my shoes off, and lay on the bed. It was hard to move because I hurt all over. She covered me with a blanket, then flicked off the light and left, closing the door very gently behind her.
     I lay there for a while, wishing with all my might that someone would hit a rewind switch, and everything that had happened over the past few hours would be reversed. I imagined myself getting out of the bed, backwards, going into Daddy’s room backwards, everything happening backwards, the policeman backing the police car up from the hospital to our house, me walking backwards into the theater, and then the rewind ended, and I watched the movie and then walked home where there were no police cars or tape on the front door, no Officer Miller standing outside my house, nothing bad had happened, and I went inside and the children were in bed, and I said goodnight to my family, went upstairs to my room and got into my own bed. With that thought I closed my eyes and thankfully, mercifully, fell asleep.