A short story by Sandra Hutchison
Fair warning: This is darker than either of my novels.
I’M SURE YOU’VE HEARD the story of how my wife killed my kids. Well, John and Daniel. One survived – Jeremy. He’s my little trooper. Anyway, even if you somehow missed it at the time, you’d have a hard time missing the trial coverage right now.
Tracy, my wife, she was one of those women you kind of knew wasn’t coping too well, but you figured maybe she didn’t really need the hospital yet, especially since you knew damned well the insurance company wasn’t going to cover it. Then the police call you at work and you go home and two of your children are dead and one’s on his way to the hospital and she says God told her to do it.
She wasn’t the first mother to do this and I don’t figure she’ll be the last. It’s not a common everyday event, though, and it really fascinates the whole goddamned world. When I finally got home from the hospital my answering machine was full of phone calls from Katie Couric and people like that, trying to sweet-talk me onto their shows so I could answer dumb-ass questions like “How do you feel about your wife killing your children?”
Like shit, thank you. How would you feel? And I didn’t want the questions and the fake sympathy. I already had a feeling about what was coming. How people would start yapping about how could this happen, and didn’t her medical history suggest she might become a danger to herself or others, and why’d you have those kids with her anyway when you knew she was mentally ill? Like I forced her to do it, or like I should never have touched my wife, just driven her to appointments with psychiatrists. She wanted those kids, okay? We both did.
Tracy loved our children. Not enough, when you come right down to it, but she loved them. She never whaled on them, and she never starved them, and she never said, “You boys are making me crazy, go play in traffic!” She kept a close watch on them, in fact. She was always afraid someone would try to kidnap them and do horrible things to them. I don’t think she had a clue it was going to be her.
So yes, at first, I blamed Tracy. I told her she was an awful, awful woman and how could she do that, and I wished I’d never met her. But I felt kind of bad about that later. I mean, obviously Tracy is mentally ill. When I met her, I knew right away that she was not quite right, that she was what you might call a little delicate or fragile or something, but it seemed like a kind of low-level thing, and she was not bitchy or mean like so many other pretty women. Tracy was sweet.
Once, after we moved into the house, she took paint and painted peace doves on every window we had, just so no birds would fly into the glass by accident. But she painted so many that if you looked at the house from outside, it kind of looked like there was a flock of doves swirling around it. I was a little pissed off at first, but eventually I got to like it.
Anyway, when I started going out with Tracy she was just so grateful that I didn’t beat her up or yell at her that it touched my heart. She was so impressed that I was willing to make decisions and work a job and change the oil in the car that she made me feel really special. Those things aren’t really such a big deal unless you grow up in a family where nobody ever does them on a regular basis. I could understand where she was coming from because my family was like that too, until that asshole dad of mine finally took off for good. Maybe because I helped take care of my mama and my brothers and sisters then, I was all set to take care of Tracy when I met her.
Look, people used to tell me I’m a nice guy, before this happened. And I really do try to do the right thing. When she got pregnant with Johnny, I married her, no problem, and we were happy about it, even if the whole thing moved a little fast. But I’m the first to admit that things got weirder than I ever expected pretty damned fast.
Tracy had her first hospitalization pretty soon after Johnny was born. She started cutting herself with an X-acto knife that she had bought to cut out photos for the baby scrapbook. I’d noticed some old scars on her when we first went out, but I guess I just didn’t think too much of it. Old news, you know? Then one night I woke up and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. There she was, sitting at the kitchen table, and her left forearm had four neat slashes across it, each one beaded with little drops of blood. And there was a towel covered with bloodstains, and she’d even laid out newspaper across the table, like she knew it was going to be messy. For a minute I just stood there, blinking. Then I said, “Tracy? Honey? What the hell are you doing?”
She jumped, all guilty and surprised because she thought I was asleep, and said, “Please don’t yell at me, Nat!”
“You’re cutting yourself!” I said, like this needed to be clarified for her.
“Don’t get mad. I need to. It feels good.” And she began to cry, like a little girl who knows she’s been a bad girl and knows she’s going to get a whipping and figures if she cries hard enough maybe you’ll take it easy on her.
“How the hell can that feel good?”
I guess she realized I wasn’t going to whip her. She calmed down, and she said, “It just does. It’s like, ahhh.” And she tried to make a sound like you or I might make if we got a slug of really cold beer on a really hot day, only it was mixed in with some leftover crying so it sounded more like ah-ah-ah.
But I got the gist of it: to her it felt really wonderful to cut herself up.
“But that’s crazy,” I said, like once again I needed to clarify this for her.
Where’s the baby, I wondered then, and ran down the hall. I was afraid, but Johnny was fine, just sleeping. Like I said, she never hurt them. Until she did.
x x x
The cutting wasn’t what put her in the hospital, because from the ER they just sent us home with antibiotic ointment and instructions to see a psychiatrist. And okay, I’ll admit I put that off a bit, because what the hell did I know about finding a psychiatrist? I guess somehow I hoped she’d do it. I know, stupid. Then one day I came home from work and found she’d left Johnny in his dirty diapers crying and hungry while she stared at a part of the wall. “See that ripple?” she asked me. “Something terrible wants to come through there and it wants to kill my baby!” That killing the baby idea freaked me right out, so I took her to the hospital again and after that little episode they kept her in a couple of weeks.
Johnny was not hurt, just a little hungry and wet and scared, though maybe that’s bad enough. Sometimes I can make myself throw up just from wondering how scared those poor kids were at home all day with my crazy wife. I think about their final minutes and how terrified they must have been. But overall they seemed pretty happy to me. They would crawl all over me when I got home and give me kisses. And they loved their mommy and kissed her, too. They were very well-behaved kids. They would do whatever she said. But like they wanted to please her, not like they were scared of her. I think I would have noticed that.
So anyway, at the hospital they gave her drugs which turned her into a zombie who looked just Tracy, but at least she wasn’t trying to hurt anybody or seeing ripples in the wall. When she came home she changed diapers in this very slow and steady way, and she talked to me and the baby without ever saying anything scary or particularly interesting either. I kind of missed that little spark of something that made her Tracy, but since I’d also had more than enough of the crazy stuff I was willing to take a break.
Eventually they adjusted her dose down and she reached a point where she seemed like she was Tracy again, only calmer. She saw the therapist for a while, before the insurance company said she’d done enough. That’s something they never tell you about when they report on crazy mothers who kill their kids. How the insurance company told them, no you’re fine now. You don’t need that anymore. In fact, you didn’t need the last three appointments you went to, so pay for them yourself. Just take your pills, lady.
But the pills did help. Those were good times, overall. There was a little spell after Daniel was born, and another longer one after Jeremy, which put her in the hospital again, but they didn’t seem to last too awful long. I thought it was pretty much under control, until just before the end, when I admit I was feeling just a bit concerned. But I was on the look-out for X-acto knives and rippling walls. I never figured she’d hurt them. Never in a million years.
x x x
After Daniel was born we joined a local church, one that advertised how it was friendly to families and open to all. And they really were. They weren’t stuffy, and they didn’t look funny at Tracy if she was having a bad spell, just gave her extra hugs. I’ve never claimed to be much of a Christian, but those folks were so good and kind I felt like, shit, I’ll throw in with them. It wasn’t like we wanted anything to do with Tracy’s low-life family, and my mama was dying, so that church filled a real need for us. You could see they were serious about taking care of people from their casseroles. Tracy made a lot of them herself for people in that church. I guess we got quite a few, too, like when my mama died, and later when Tracy went to jail and the boys were buried, and when I brought Jeremy home from the hospital. It was a help.
They are good people, I know that, and I appreciate how some of them managed to squeeze onto the answering machine and say, “We’re praying for you, Nat! We love you!” They were sweet about the funeral too, which I figured might as well be there since that was where they knew Johnny and Daniel, even though we’d stopped attending about six months earlier. Reverend Jim gave a bang-up sermon, but then I could have predicted that.
This may sound ungrateful but sometimes I blame him for my babies dying. I mean, man, he could fire up a crowd. He’d go on about how Jesus died for us, how he died for our sins. How God loved the world so much he sacrificed his only-begotten son to save us. How we had bathed in the blood of the lamb. BATHED in the BLOOD of the LAMB! And I’d feel like, shit, aren’t I an ungrateful son of a bitch, sitting here thinking about how it would have been a good day to clean the gutters when Jesus died on the cross to save me.
So I’d give a little more than I’d planned in the collection plate, or agree to be an usher or whatever. Then I’d go back to my regular weekday life and think, ah, fuck, I’m not such a bad guy, and I could have used that money, and I hate being an usher, and when am I supposed to get time to clean those gutters? In other words, with me it would pretty much wear off and I’d just be my usual normal self, though still disposed to think they were nice folks, those church people, real salt of the earth.
But Tracy was more impressionable. Sometimes she was just sobbing by the end of those sermons, and this was considered a sweet thing, like she was really special to be so moved by them, almost like she was speaking in tongues or something even though it was pretty clear to me she was having a little breakdown. I see now that it was getting to her: Here we had three healthy boys, while God had given up His only begotten son. I figure maybe she started to feel a little guilty, like she wasn’t doing her share.
Of course, a normal woman would have gone home and looked around and thought, well, everybody else has their sons too, and they don’t seem to feel bad that they’re not being sacrificed or anything. Why should my sons be sacrificed if their sons aren’t? But Tracy wasn’t really into that kind of logical thinking at any point in her life. If she could feel bad about something, she would. It got a little annoying sometimes, but if you told her about it she would just say she was sorry, and mean that too, and maybe cry a little, so there wasn’t much point.
So, I know they didn’t mean it, but I kind of blame that church and that preacher and I even kind of blame God. Was it really necessary to kill off your only begotten son? You’re God, right? Can’t you find another way?
I also blame her doctors. I mean it’s clear to anyone who tries to talk to Tracy right now that she belongs in a mental hospital and probably has for a long time. I’m not a doctor, they are. But even now, if they commit her, how much you want to bet they’ll let her go in a couple years, saying she’s fine? And if I’m still married to her then how much you want to bet the insurance company will say, hey, buddy, she’s used up her lifetime mental health benefit, so fuck you. Even if the goddamned D.A. wasn’t just looking to be re-elected, you could see where going after the death penalty might make more sense from a public safety point of view. Not that I want them to kill her. Well, I did at first, but I got over it.
While I’m on the topic of blame, I blame Tracy’s family, too. Who made her so psycho in the first place? You’d think maybe they’d be embarrassed, but no, it turns out they like publicity. They’ve appeared on every goddamn TV show they can find, and they just love answering dumb-ass questions like “How does it feel to find out your daughter killed your grandchildren?”
I suppose by now you’re thinking, sheesh, this guy blames everybody but himself! But I do blame myself. I blame myself for that last kid, for poor little Jeremy. I figure maybe he was the last straw or something. The truth is, I hoped we’d get a girl. We both wanted one. And to this day, I’m not sure a girl might not have saved us. Maybe there was something about that overabundance of little boys was just too much for Tracy. Maybe once Jeremy was old enough she just felt like she was surrounded or something.
Well, we’ve got no abundance now. Poor little Jeremy survived, but he’s got brain damage and his chances for a normal life are just about zero. You ever watch your own child have a seizure? I guess you can get used to anything, but I can’t say I’m really there yet. But at least he’s alive. Johnny and Daniel are buried next to each other in little graves in the cemetery. People have piled tons of flowers and teddy bears and Mylar balloons and stuff on them. And you know, I’ve gotten to where I really hate those people. Not the ones who knew my boys and miss them, but all the others, the onlookers who get their ya-ya’s arranging their gift store crap all over my sons’ graves. And while I’m at it I could really do without all the women who send me letters telling me how they’d love to comfort me in my sorrow. Also all the people who write to inform me it’s my fault my wife killed my kids.
The saddest thing is when I go to visit Tracy in jail. She’s medicated up the wazoo. She’s their Killer Zombie Tracy. They probably want to make sure she’s not acting too weird so they can pretend she knew what she was doing was wrong. I got her a lawyer, for about ten minutes, but then I did the math and realized I could either pay for her lawyer or I could pay for Jeremy’s home care, and I decided Jeremy would have to come first. Now she has a public defender who is fixing to blame this on me. And she has my blessing if she thinks it will work.
When I went back, after that first time when I yelled at her, I tried to tell Tracy I was sorry, that I knew she was sick. She didn’t seem to take this in. “God loves you, Nat,” she said. She didn’t really look at me. She was looking sideways just above my head.
“You think so.” As you might have figured, these days I have my doubts.
“He loves everybody,” she whispered, like she was sharing a big secret.
“Does he love you too?”
She blinked and looked confused for a moment, then she bent down low and whispered, “God counts the hairs on your head and the sparrows in the brush.”
“Well, that’s nice, Tracy,” I said. Part of me wanted to ask, “Has he counted our sons lately?” but that would just be mean. As it is, I couldn’t touch her because of the glass. I also couldn’t bring myself to say anything too nice, like “honey” or “sweetheart.” Those days are gone for good, I think. Even so, I’m going to be sitting there at that trial behind my crazy wife, and you can all yap at each other about whether I’m a supportive, suffering husband or the worst sort of monster.
And that’s fine, because you know what? I can still remember being you.
This story was first published in Lamplit Underground, an online literary magazine, in 2013. You may share on a noncommercial basis with proper credit to Sandra Hutchison, who retains this copyright, and a link to this page.
The bird art came from all-free-download.com.