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.
My heart, limp and lifeless, began to beat again.
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.