When I was nine years old, a girl from the next neighborhood over was abducted, raped and murdered and found in a river hundreds of miles away. I misremember her name sometimes – was it Alice or Alyssa? No, it was Elissa, the last name is right, still – but I never forget her face. The two photos that were splashed all over the local news for weeks were her school portrait, stiff and washed out with an icy blue background, and one of her in her softball uniform, blue and gold like the colors of the school I would have gone to if my parents hadn’t decided to send me to the school one parish away, instead.
My high school boyfriend had gone to school with Elissa. He’d been in her class. He cried about it sometimes when he got drunk, but then, he cried about a lot of things when he got drunk. He told me over and over again that the man who’d done that to her had been executed for it.
Our parents moved us closer to our school after that, and two years in a new house is almost enough to make you forget the murdered girl. But we didn’t, and then another girl got murdered, too. And then another. And by then, we weren’t allowed to walk the block and a half home from school anymore. It would have been faster to walk, but instead our godmother picked us and her kids up from school in her dowdy, un-air-conditioned van and drove us home. I don’t think she argued about it. It was a thing that parents understood.
None of my friends knew any of the dead girls, but we heard their names and saw their photos daily. We’d heard how the bodies were found and traded stories about them like gruesome playing cards filled with gossip far more horrible than anything anyone’s ever said about who you did or didn’t sleep with.
One of the girls had been tied to a tree and died from exposure; the other, found wrapped in a blanket in an alleyway with her fingernails ripped off. We might have been repeating the information in an effort to distance ourselves from it. There were kids like us, and there were the kids who got murdered. We were not the same.
Our parents, too, could instruct us to be alert and never speak to strangers, but deep down they must have had the same terrible thought: At least it wasn’t us. At least it wasn’t mine.
Eventually, the girls became stories, and then the stories became names, and the names became things you didn’t talk about anymore. But you knew them, still. You knew Elissa’s sideways glance. Angie’s hair. The funny way Cassidy’s last name was spelled. And they become less like cautionary tales about what happens when you’re careless or small or a girl, and more like susurrations that you will not forget their names. You can witness all of the cruelty of an adult life and never feel more awful than you do when you recall the way they were found. You can dip your toes in the river where Elissa washed up and know in a dark part of your brain that this is not something you should enjoy. When you watch the news and see new school portraits of new kids, frozen, smiling, broadcast to millions for ugly, horrible reasons, you will murmur their names – Elissa, Angie, Cassidy – in the subconscious hope of calling to them like saints, begging intercedence for other lives you know less intimately, now that your parents only tell you to be careful maybe once a month over the phone, and always while they’re busy doing something else.