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Girl at the Edge
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–Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
He’s now spent over a decade on death row, and his daughter Evelyn – who doesn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t an infamous killer – is determined to unravel the mystery and understand what drove her father to shoot those innocent victims.
Evelyn’s search brings her to a support group for children of incarcerated parents, where a fierce friendship develops with another young woman named Clarisse. Soon the girls are inseparable, and by the beginning of the summer, Evelyn is poised at the edge of her future and must make a life-defining choice. Whether to believe that a parent’s legacy of violence is escapable or that history will simply keep repeating itself. Whether we choose it to or not.
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My father went to sea, sea, sea
To see what he could see, see, see
But all that he could see, see, see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea
My father is a murderer.
When I say it out loud, it sounds like a set of dishes thrown on the kitchen floor—all that porcelain clattering, all those shards and slivers arranging themselves against the cool tile, an exploded mosaic. If you look long enough and hard enough, you can put them back together in your mind's eye. If you look long enough and hard enough, you can see where all the pieces fit.
Six months before I was born, my father walked into Ponce de Leon Mall in St. Augustine, Florida. When he walked out, eleven people were dead.
My father is a murderer.
When I say it out loud, something inside me gets bigger. I let it move around my insides until my entire body is swollen with it, my arms and legs inflated with the words. My father is a murderer. I feel my rib cage expand, as if I'm breathing in as deeply as I can, only it's not air that I'm full of—it's something else. Sometimes it feels cold, and I imagine mercury pooling inside me, liquid that makes me heavy and dense. Other times it feels hot like a grease fire, flames running through me until I'm bright as the Burning Man.
I don't know my father, so I don't know if murder fits him, the way a certain type of clothing fits a certain type of body. I do know that my father was married to someone else when he met my mother. When my mother became pregnant with me, his wife found out about us—my mother and unborn me—and she left him, and so he moved in with us.
When I was a kid, my imaginary friend was actually a father I'd invented. His name was Calvin, and I'd named him after a scented slip of paper I smelled at the perfume counter at Dillard's. I decided that Calvin sounds like the name of a father who isn't on death row at Raiford, the Florida State Prison, which is where my father is.
Old Sparky used to be kept there, but they don't use the electric chair anymore. It's all medical now, a shot in the arm, a syringe of sodium chloride that stops the heart. Inmates can still choose electrocution if they so desire, but no one has done that since Tiny Davis was put to death in the electric chair in 1999, blood appearing all over his white T-shirt, streaming from his death mask as he shook violently, his arms and legs trembling against the leather restraints as he moaned.
On death row in Florida, it's mostly men, and they're mostly murderers. I think of my father on a ship with many oars, and the men are lined up, shoulder to shoulder. My father is rowing, the muscles in his arms tensing and pulling with each stroke. My father is rowing toward death. He began rowing the morning he kidnapped his wife from the jewelry store in the mall where she was working, forced her into his car, and started driving south. At some point during the drive, he shot her in the head. Before he drove off with his wife, he killed eleven other people in the mall, but that, as my mother says, is another story for another day.
Where was my father going when he got into that car and began driving? Everyone knows you can't escape Florida by heading south. You'll drive through deep swamp, through the Keys, until eventually you'll hit water with nowhere else to go. When you reach the southern end of Key West, there's a large concrete buoy painted red and black and yellow. The buoy says 90 Miles to CUBA, and it's considered the southernmost point in the continental U.S.A. Tourists have their pictures taken with it, handing cameras over to strangers so they can pose with the cement slab. But my father didn't make it that far, to the crystal-blue waters of the Florida Keys, those little islands dotting the ocean just beyond the tip of Florida on the map we studied in elementary school. The police apprehended him near Crescent Beach, a place named for a sliver of moon. They tracked him by helicopter and barricaded all the roads until he had no choice but to stop.
They had been talking to my father on his cell phone, trying to convince him to spare his wife's life, promising him that everything would be okay if he would just stop the car and let her go. Everyone makes mistakes, they told him. We can help you, the police told him. But my father didn't believe that. He knew they wouldn't help, couldn't help. He knew that no one could help him but himself—he just had to finish what he'd started. He couldn't ever turn back, would never turn back.
By my sixth birthday, my mother and I had moved west, to the other side of the state, to Pass-a-Grille, a small beach town on the southern end of St. Pete Beach, three and a half hours and two hundred miles from the yellow stucco apartment in St. Augustine, which is the oldest city in the United States and my first home on earth.
What I remember most about the yellow stucco apartment is the front door, which was painted dark green. My mother liked to take photos of me in front of the door, and my favorite is a picture that lives inside a photo album that lives inside my mother's closet—a candid shot of my mother holding baby-me in one hand as she unlocks the dark green door to the apartment with the other. Written on the back of the photograph are the words Evelyn comes home in my mother's small handwriting. In the photo, I could be anyone's daughter. You can't tell what my father did just by looking at me. I'm just a tiny figure swaddled in a hospital receiving blanket, white with the patented pink and blue stripes, just like all the other babies born in the year 2000, a leap year, and the start of a new millennium, the hysteria of the Y2K bug safely behind us.
What my father did is public knowledge so I'm sure that many people know more about it than I do. My father is famous in his own way, his name a part of the permanent record of the world. Anyone with an Internet connection can sift through the police reports describing the gun he used, the ammunition, the clothing he wore, all the way down to his socks and shoes. Anyone online can watch videos of survivors sharing their accounts of the deadly events of that day. Anyone online can read the names of the victims or listen to recordings of the multiple 911 calls made from inside the mall that afternoon. In the vast electronic archive, that invisible wireless cloud, lives a maze of articles and timelines, my father's name scattered to the digital wind like seed—in court transcripts, beneath mug shots, recorded on prison medical logs.
I'm sure there are people who maintain websites about my father, people who edit his Wikipedia page, people who write to him in prison, searching for his side of the story, desperate for his words. They catalog the evidence, replay the testimony, assemble the crime scene photos, the markers laid down by police to track where the shell casings fell, where the blood splattered to make abstract patterns on the floor.
I'm sure they are fascinated by his power—the power of the murderer. They paste hyperlinks at the bottom of the page, clickable pathways to the killings, the trial, the sentencing, the profiles of the victims, who were mothers and fathers and brothers and nieces and cousins, all people who were alive once, until my father decided they shouldn't be alive any longer.
These Internet groupies are just trying to make sense of the senseless, or maybe they admire the audacity it takes to simply walk into a space and claim twelve souls as your own. Maybe they envy him not asking for permission, not asking for forgiveness, but rather just going out and taking and taking and taking until there is nothing left, like Templeton, the greedy rat in Charlotte's Web, who will work only for the promise of reward, scavenging for food, his belly inflating as he eats his way through the fairgrounds after dark, feasting on anything sticky or savory or sweet.
They are using my father's full name when they refer to him—always first, middle, last, the way most murderers are known in America. Does it bring some sort of satisfaction, using all three names, like reprimanding a disobedient child? Does it make the victims' families feel better—to ignore the preference of a nickname, to take away a person's power over how they wish to be known? Do we feel safer when we execute Allen Lee Davis instead of Tiny Davis?
I can't pinpoint the exact moment I started to know about my father, the precise hour I learned what he did. There is no sit-down-and-have-a-serious-talk-with-my-mother memory in my mind, like the sex talk or the period talk.
How do you know how you know anything? It's difficult to trace the origins of knowledge, the beginning of learning. Do you remember learning the color blue or the number seven or the difference between hot and cold? Do you remember learning about pigs, pencils, butter, sneezes? Can you recall when you understood that rain was wet and cold?
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his pioneering work in child development. We learned about him in child development class in junior high, when I was still going to regular school. Child Development is a popular elective that many kids take for the famous end-of-term parenting project in which you carry a sack of flour around with you all day long, wrapped in a receiving blanket, a little knit cap on its flat head. Your task is to keep the "baby" safe and alive. So you bring it to class with you and tend to it regularly. You keep of log of how you care for it. You record all of your activities: when you pretend to feed it, when you change its diaper, when it lies inside its makeshift crib at night. You clean up after the pretend child, the thin coating of soft white flour it leaves behind, a trail of dust that appears everywhere the child has been, a kind of map to trace its movement around the house.
Piaget considered himself an epistemologist, meaning that he was interested in theories of knowledge—the ways in which justified belief is distinguished from opinion. He wanted to know all there is to know about knowledge. He wanted to learn about how we can really know things. Piaget understood that knowledge isn't something we're born with. He knew that the truth can't be seen all at once, even if we believe we've found it. Knowledge is slippery, a fish you try to hold in your hands in spite of its desperate wiggling, the slick scales that slip through your fingers.
We're lucky if we can ever truly know anything, lucky to glimpse, even if fleeting, that flash of smooth fin as the body breaks the water, like an older couple on the ship deck of a whale-watching expedition, a certain thickness of mist surrounding them.
We are born without knowledge—our brains just vessels open for programming, clean slates waiting to be muddied with the dirt of cognitive development, the nutrient-rich soil of knowing. I wasn't born knowing anything about who I was or where I came from. I was spared all of that, a trick of human nature, the ability to be born into blissful ignorance, for how awful would it be to come into this world with all of the knowledge of what came before you?
But then again, there are some things that we know without remembering how we arrived at that knowledge. Siblings separated at birth can still grow up to have similar interests, similar methods for making their way in the world. That's where genetics comes in, that complex system of what makes us who we are in the first place. And sometimes, in the dark of night, when I'm trying to fall asleep, my body remembers what it is I fear the most, what I won't allow myself to consider during the bright light of day—those inescapable molecules, the acids, the substances that remain a mystery to most of us, in spite of the fact that they are the building blocks of life.
This is what I've gathered so far: a collection of anecdotes, found receipts, a piece of an old photo, his name written inside an otherwise empty notebook under my mother's bed, a mix CD with my mother's name written on the mirrored surface in thin black Sharpie. A kid who sat next to me in reading group in first grade who whispered in my ear, My dad says your dad killed people, a kid in third grade who pinched my arm in the lunch line and got scared when I became angry and turned around to glare at her. Don't kill me! she said loudly, and some of the kids looked at me and laughed, and others pretended not to even notice. My mother drunk and crying in the bathroom, her girlfriend, Shea, begging her to open the door, and my mother screaming in a guttural voice I've only heard her use that night—fuck him, fuck him! She screamed until Shea finally picked the lock with a bobby pin and joined her inside the echoes off the bathroom tiles, and I ran into my room and played The Lion King soundtrack, which was stuck inside my purple CD player at the time, the little tray frozen and refusing to open.
I've carried this information with me, this unraveling archive that has never reached an end, for my father is still alive and his story continues, even as he rows toward death. His actions are a rock thrown in the water, creating a wake, circles of motion emanating from the center out, ripples in the surface. His actions ended ancestral blood lines, tore lovers apart, left children without mothers and fathers, made orphans and widows with each squeeze of the trigger. And now his actions overshadow him. He's reduced to a mug shot, a name on a list—of mass murderers, mall murderers, death row inmates.
Over time, I moved beyond what happened at Ponce De Leon Mall on April 4, 2000, and I started moving toward why it happened. When my father was dressing himself in what would be the last items of clothing he'd wear as a free man, when he was preparing the gun and the ammunition, when he was doing all these mundane and awful things, did he feel some sort of trip wire activated, like a mouse stepping toward the cheese and triggering the mousetrap, that mechanism of death, the animal's skinny neck snapped in an instant?
The question resounds within my body. It lives and breathes and moves inside me. It always has. Sometimes the question is fluid and travels down my throat to my stomach and then down to my legs, pulsing toward my feet, all the way down to my toes. Sometimes the question is released from my body, but it inevitably returns, usually in the cooler air of dusk, approaching sunset.
The question remains and remains, tumbling like sea glass in salt water. I'll ask myself, and I'll ask myself, even though there is no answer. But every now and then, I hear a response in the distance of my mind, an answer that is really just another question, another voice from another room. Why don't you ask him?
My mother stands in the ER waiting room at St. Pete General, shivering under a fleece blanket, her fever having spiked on the way over. It's late January, but the reception area and waiting room are still decorated for Christmas. Green paper wreaths hang from the ceiling, dangling by invisible threads. They sway ever so slightly from the current of the air-conditioning. They dance to music only they can hear.
A child's coloring book page is taped to the glass of the receptionist's window. It's a full-length image of Santa Claus, smiling gently in his red suit. He has a sack slung over his shoulder with cliché toys peeking out of the top: a baby doll, a stuffed lion, a jack-in-the-box. I can see the spots on the picture where the artist applied more pressure, all the gradient of shading, dark red and light.
The receptionist slides her little window to the side and asks how she can help my mother. As Shea explains, the receptionist's fingernails tap the information into her keyboard. My mother tries not to talk above a whisper, her throat on fire from suspected strep, her second bout with the infection this month. My mother is more prone to strep than others, and being a preschool teacher doesn't help since the close quarters and exposure to children blend to create the ideal conditions for the contagious disease to spread.
I like the way everything echoes in here, all the hard surfaces receiving our sounds and then sending them back to us. Shea's voice is familiar, but slightly strange, amplified by the echoes.
My mother signs her name when instructed on the electronic pad. She presses gently at first and then harder and harder until her digital signature appears, an extra curl in the M in Mira for good measure.
Just last week, my mother finished the course of antibiotics from the first infection, but this morning, the pain returned, and by the time we'd finished dinner, her sentences were punctuated with sobs, as if she were swallowing glass with each breath, and then we all went into the bathroom and I watched in the mirror as Shea inspected my mother's throat. My mother stretched her mouth wide while Shea pointed a mini Maglite flashlight inside to illuminate the situation. My mother said ahhhhh, holding the note clear and steady until Shea was done, a musician waiting for the conductor to signal the song is over.
"Yep. They're back," Shea had said, referring to the little white spots on my mother's swollen tonsils.
"No, they can't be!" My mother looked at her own reflection in the mirror for a long time, wiping tears from her cheeks with her palms. "I'll be fine until tomorrow. I'll go to the walk-in clinic before school, or I'll just call out…" Her voice got softer and softer as Shea grabbed her hand.
"No, Mira. Let's go to the ER tonight and just get you checked. If it's strep, let's get the meds started. Get you fixed up." I saw the sadness in my mother's eyes as she faced the inevitability of another throat culture, another round of antibiotics, another round of fear that overusing antibiotics will create superbugs, strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment. While my mother doesn't allow hand sanitizer in her classroom, most people who work with children stock up on extra-large tubs of the stuff, walking up and down the aisles, doling it out like communion, the children's hands cupped and waiting for the clear gel to anoint them and make them holy and clean. I can't help but feel bad for the bacteria. They are only trying to survive, after all, only changing themselves into something strong enough to resist what surely feels like the threat of mass extinction.
After checking in with the receptionist, we sit on hard chairs and watch cable news on a small, bubble-screen TV mounted behind Plexiglas so you can't change the channel. Hospital waiting rooms can knock you over with their sadness, and this one is certainly no exception. An elderly woman naps in her wheelchair as her possible grandson looks down at his phone. He glides one thumb on the surface of the glass in an upward motion again and again, sweeping through information that glows from the bright white screen. A twenty-something father paces in a small circle, holding his possible daughter. She sucks on a green pacifier, pressing her blond head against his shoulder.
I like to invent backstories for strangers, but then it makes me imagine the backstories strangers might invent for me and my mother and Shea. I consider the clues they might notice about us, ponder the relationships they may conceive for us. I'm comforted by the fact that they would likely never guess my actual backstory in a million years. I'm comforted by the fact that, although it feels so burning and obvious to me on the inside, there are no signs or signals on the outside of me detailing my origins, no keys to decode where I come from.
A metal rack of brochures and pamphlets lives on one wall of the waiting room, a rotating display with tiny compartments for each stack. After we've waited for a while, my mother starts to feel restless, her nerves kicking in. She walks over to the display, the fleece blanket wrapped around her shoulders now. My mother reaches for the rack and sets it spinning like a wheel of fortune. When it stops, she pauses and then picks up a brochure and folds it into her pocket.
Eventually, a voice calls my mother's name, and we are ushered into triage—a sea of mostly empty beds draped in disinfected cotton, everything washed in shades of blue and green. After her vital signs are measured and submitted for the record—blood pressure, temperature, heart rate—my mother breathes deeply, inhaling and exhaling while the nurse listens to her lungs. After the throat culture is procured—my mother's tongue tamed with the wooden tongue depressor, the long swab rubbed on the back of her throat and around her tonsils, the sample of possible bacteria collected—my mother reclines in the mechanical bed, and the nurse opens and then closes the pale green privacy curtain. The small metal bearings along their small metal track make a bright pinging sound as the nurse leaves us alone to wait for the doctor, who will eventually swish the curtain open again, removing the thin barrier between us and the rest of the room. But for now, we have the illusion of being alone, just the three of us.
"It's probably me," Shea says, her palm on the top of my mother's head, smoothing her hair gently. "I'm probably a strep carrier. I've read about it. Some people are carriers. Why else haven't I caught it yet?" The room feels subfreezing and smells antiseptic, an aggressively sanitized igloo.
"Evelyn hasn't caught it yet either," my mother says, motioning toward me with one hand and then closing her eyes. "You're probably both carriers. I would be so lucky." My mother forces a blind smile and then settles herself into the flat pillow. "Kids have been dropping like flies for weeks now. It's making the rounds."
Her cheeks are bright pink, her eyes damp at the corners, tears catching the light. I want to take her picture because this is when my mother looks the most beautiful to me—these moments when she's not thinking about herself, when she's not even aware of her looks. We had left the house abruptly, not enough time for my mother to assess her appearance. She slipped sandals on over white gym socks, her feet freezing from the fever chills. She wrapped herself in an oversized cable knit cardigan that's missing two buttons. I can still see the remnants of this morning's mascara, faint black smudges along the bottom rims of her eyes.
A young doctor appears with the results of the throat culture. Her footsteps echo on the hard floor as she approaches my mother's bed. It is strep, yes, of course it's strep; it's just as we suspected. The young doctor tells my mother not to worry because strep is just very contagious, and they are seeing lots of cases right now. It's the season, she says, and it's not uncommon to have back-to-back infections, especially with such high rates of exposure. The young doctor says she'll send a prescription to the Walgreens down the street, and we can be on our way.
When we return home, Shea puts my mother to bed, covering her with an extra blanket. I stand in the threshold of their bedroom and watch as my mother burrows herself into the pillows and closes her eyes. She disappears into a sea of softness, only the top of her head visible. Shea leans over my mother and kisses her earlobe. Maybe I should feel uncomfortable around these displays of affection, but it's never bothered me. I've always been aware of their feelings for each other. They've never kept that from me.
After tucking my mother into bed, Shea puts her arms around me. "She's going to be just fine," she tells me. She squeezes me tight and then lets me go, pulls her phone from her back pocket, and types an e-mail with her thumbs while she talks. "I'm going to cancel my morning class tomorrow and help take care of her," she says. "My students will be thrilled to get the notification, even though they love discussing modernist poetry at eight a.m. I'm e-mailing them right now." When Shea's finished, she slips the phone back into her pocket and looks up at me. "What's on your schedule for tomorrow?"
"In English, a virtual class on The Great Gatsby. I still need to finish the prereading questions. Must be ready to dazzle them with my thoughts on the decline of the American dream in the 1920s. Then a trig quiz, then a voice chat with my history teacher to review the unit exam we took last week."
"Too much focus on testing," Shea says. She furrows her brow a bit to display her disapproval. Shea teaches literature at a liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. She eschews tests of any kind, preferring to evaluate her students on their contributions to discussions and their reactions to the text, in spite of department guidelines. The beauty of having tenure, Shea often says.
"No worries, the trig unit is cake. And I got an A on the history exam," I tell her. "So we'll just be reviewing my brilliance." I flash my best good-girl smile and then bat my eyes to make Shea laugh, but also to illustrate just how easy it has become for me to handle all of my online assignments. I'm halfway through my third year in cyberschool, and I've settled into a rhythm—wake up, log on, complete reading assignments, prepare for quizzes, schedule teacher chats, sign on to the message boards, post two paragraphs of meaningful interactions with peers (teachers are obsessed with all things meaningful these days), complete activity log, sign off. Most weeks, I've completed all the necessary work by Thursday morning, but I don't advertise that to my mother and Shea.
"Well, I hope we don't get in your way," Shea says. She slides her jeans off, throws them on top of the hamper, and then climbs into her side of the bed, under the covers with my mother, who is already asleep now, breathing with her mouth open, each inhale and exhale flickering like the beat of a moth's wings inside the house, when they become trapped, attracted to the light that eventually leads to their demise.
"Nah, never," I assure her. "Good night, Shea," I say, and she blows a small kiss my way as I turn off the lights and close the door and head down the darkened hall.
- "Dietrich has a writing style that feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that sometimes suffers from a sense of sameness, and her characters and their dialogue are exquisitely rendered. A fine psychological thriller."—Booklist
- "The psychological-thriller genre may be packed with books that sound alike, but this one feels fresh - Memorable and disquieting."—Winnipeg Free Press
- "Original metaphors and nice descriptions bolster this extended monologue of a potential killer... Dietrich's assured prose bodes well for the future."—Publishers Weekly
"Girl At The Edge is a page turner from the very first one to the very end. The statement 'an author has to capture the reader from the very first line' is a perfect fit here with 'My father is a murderer.' Girl At The Edge takes readers into a dark and sinister universe that most of them will never have to encounter."
- "Not easy to walk away from after reading the last page. Readers will find Evelyn's inner turmoil and actions haunting, and will likely never view a news story about yet another mass shooting the same way again."—JHSeiss.com
- "Karen Dietrich can stop your heart with a sentence."—Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Mar 3, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing