Death is not a stranger to me. I have been aware of its presence since the age of seven when I witnessed the aftermath of a murder.
There were two women. They were stuffed into the back seat of a dark-colored Cadillac parked illegally on the curb along a busy boulevard. One was crumpled on the floor face down. The other was lying on the back seat in a fetal position with one arm stretched over the top of her head. There were pools of dark blood on the seat. Pools of dark blood on the floorboard.
Dark crimson strings of coagulated blood stretched from deep gash wounds on the neck down to the floor, as if suspended in time.
So much blood.
And the smell. I remember the smell quite well. It was a musky-sweet, putrid smell that caused me to gag. The kind of smell that made me cover my nose the minute the police officers opened the car doors.
The night prior, these two women were animated, full of life, as they shopped together in the mall. They were surprised by some unknown knife-wielding assailant when they carried their packages back to the Cadillac.
He made them drive to an unknown location, then used his knife to inflict multiple stab wounds. While their husband’s reported them missing, he drove the car around as they were dying in the back seat.
Maybe he had some deep inkling of virtue or Catholic guilt or possibly unbridled bravado. Whatever it was, it caused him to drive the car back to the mall where it all began.
It’s as if he left the car parked illegally at the curb for someone to find. And then he fled. Or at least they thought he did.
Maybe, just maybe, he was now standing with the rest of us. Watching. Waiting. Taunting. Relishing in the reaction of the crowd to his crime.
The scene was akin to a horror film. We stumbled across it when my best friend’s older sister Donna drove us to the mall for ice cream. She was curious about a small crowd gathered near the sidewalk. Donna lead us to the low brick wall, a few feet from the busy street and the dark Cadillac parked there.
The car doors were still closed. The police had just arrived. The first officer looked through the tinted back window, turned to his partner and shook his head.
More police cars arrived, then the Coroner. The news crews were everywhere. They interviewed Donna who crimped her 60’s bouffant and asked us if she looked okay.
My stomach had butterflies. My mouth felt dry. My eyes were fixed in a wide stare as the detectives began to methodically poke and prod the lifeless bodies and search the car.
I already knew bad men could inflict pain on women. I already knew bad men could inflict pain on little girls. But on this day which is burned like an indelible tattoo in my memory, I suddenly knew bad men could do more than inflict pain. Much more.
The bodies, now stiff and drained of blood, were a mixture of pale white tinged with blue. They placed them one-by-one on a stretcher, then zipped the body bags to transfer them to the morgue. There they would be identified by grieving husbands, these mothers and wives. Never again to kiss, to hug, to love.
There are some things to which a seven-year-old should never bear witness.