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I wake up from the dream uneasy.
My boyfriend, Jim, is holding my shoulders and assuring me it was only a dream. There is no woman; no one went over the edge of our sailboat. I’m disoriented because I seldom remember my dreams, but this one was vivid. I saw a woman wearing a shorty—a wet suit with short sleeves and cut-off legs—fall over into the water off the side of our boat. I didn’t know who she was.
We’re right here, Jim’s telling me. Karen, it’s me; there’s no one else here; it was just a dream. I must have dozed off, I realize—no matter how much I’ve sailed, the sea air still gets to me.
Slowly, I cross over the hazy line into consciousness again, and Jim’s voice brings me all the way back out of the nightmare. I relax, and soon our gentle progress up the Gulf Coast of Florida lulls me back into sleep. I’m glad that I’m still tired enough from our travels to slip right back over that line, and am happy to drift away again.
Two days earlier, on Monday, September 26, 1994, Jim and I had boarded a red-eye flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tampa, Florida, Jim’s original stomping grounds, then chartered a thirty-seven-foot Island Packet sailboat out of St. Petersburg and started our way up Florida’s western lip. The announcement two months earlier that Jim’s younger brother Ken was getting married on the opposite corner of the continent had given us the perfect excuse for this trip. Jim and I had been seeing each other for less than two years but living together half that time, attempting to merge two families into one: his three kids, ranging in age from eight to thirteen, and my two youngest kids, aged twelve and thirteen, in a modest hillside home in Anchorage. Jason, my twenty-year-old son, lived in his own apartment with his girlfriend, Traci; Bonnie, my eighteen-year-old daughter, had moved out to live with my ex-husband, Gary, where she could have a room of her own. The decision crushed me, but I understood it. She was a young woman who wanted her space, something in short supply in my house. Adam, my thirteen-year-old son, and Samantha, my twelve-year-old daughter, did week-on, week-off between Gary’s place and mine.
My relationship with Jim is far from perfect, but it works well enough. We’ve gone away together a couple of times before, both times to Mexico, where he owns some property. While we’re gone, my kids stay with Gary, and his kids stay at his ex’s place.
We have a few days to enjoy St. Marks before the wedding on Saturday. On Sunday, we will sail back down the coast and then fly home to our regular lives in Anchorage, where Jim works as a firefighter and paramedic, me as a Realtor and reserve police officer, each of us navigating the strange chapter of our midforties, finding happiness in each other and trying to steer our kids along decent paths.
After two days of enjoying the calm of the boat and the freedom of the water, we neared our destination: the port town of St. Marks, population three hundred, home to the locally famous Posey’s Oyster Bar, “Home of the Topless Oyster.” It’s ironic, then, that it was on the front edge of an oyster bed where we inadvertently grounded ourselves while navigating up the channel into St. Marks. It was the middle of the night, and there wasn’t a soul around to help. Jim told me our only choice was to wait for the tide to come up. I had no better solution. With each wave, we heard the scratching of our hull against the oyster bed. We weren’t in any danger, since the water was shallow enough to stand in, should it come to that—not to mention warm, unlike the waters in Alaska—but the feeling of helplessness, and the sound of the boat being damaged, dampened the light spirit we’d shared all day. Eventually, with nothing else to do, I fell asleep.
“The stars are moving.”
Jim’s voice startled me awake. I wasn’t sure if I’d been asleep for hours or minutes.
“The stars are moving. The tide’s come in!”
He was right—we were floating. Jim turned the motor on and slowly backed us into the channel. He grew up diving for bottles in the St. Marks River and zipping up and down it in power boats, but we both realized we still shouldn’t have done this after dark.
By the time we arrived at the St. Marks Marina, it was almost morning. As Jim and I settled into our berths, he told me that the spot where we were grounded was smack in the middle of Alligator Bay. I didn’t know whether he was joking, but we smiled at each other, and, soothed by the rocking of the boat against the dock, fell asleep.
On Wednesday morning, September 28, Ken and his bride-to-be, Valeri, drive the twenty miles from Tallahassee to St. Marks to meet us and spend the day. We lunch, walk, and shop. Jim’s father—also named Jim—and his stepmother, Mary, join us for dinner. It is my first time meeting them. As the stranger in the group, I feel a bit on the outside, but Valeri is a sweetheart, Jim Sr. and Mary are lovely, and there is lots of joking and kindness. I eat grouper for the first time. Everything is pleasant, fun, and serene.
After dinner, the six of us part ways. Jim and I drive to a historic local lighthouse, said to be the first in the New World, which sits at the mouth of the St. Marks River six miles from town. Though it’s late by the time we get back to the boat and the sun has long since set, the thick Florida humidity still hangs heavy, and the small fans on the boat provide little relief. By the time we settle into bed, Jim in the V-berth, me in the quarter berth in the back of the boat, we’re both irritable. A silly argument about nothing takes root, but we both see that each of us is reacting to the heat and the hour. We apologize, kiss, and go to sleep.
It’s three in the morning when I feel the boat lurch. I’m startled by the sound of footsteps—the third time in two days that I’ve been jolted out of sleep. I jump out of the narrow quarter berth and alert Jim, who scrambles to his feet.
Suddenly, there’s a knock on the companionway, the door separating the upper deck from the cabin below. I ask who’s there.
I slide the trio of panels up and out of their grooves. Ken is looking down at Jim and me. I wonder what he’s doing there, what could be important enough that he’d drive back to the marina at such a late hour.
The answer is obvious on his face. Ken is normally the kind of person who smiles by default. During our day together, he’d been even happier than usual, a man thrilled to have found his other half.
Now, his face has changed as completely as the difference between the sunset I’d loved the night before and the darkness that had followed it. His eyes are misting, and he has the kind of expression no one ever wants to see on someone else’s face. It is the kind of expression that says, “I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”
Every parent knows that you live in fear from the moment your child is born. At first, you just pray they’ll keep breathing every night and wake up again in the morning. Later, you worry that they might fall in with the wrong crowd, do something dumb to fit in, get in the car with a stranger. Sometimes you let your mind go to the darkest places, maybe only as a way of being able to shove the bad thoughts aside and remind yourself it won’t happen. You live in a safe town. You’ve taught them to make good decisions. They have sensible friends. You falsely convince yourself of their immunity every way you can. The bad thoughts invade your head, you let them in temporarily, and then you violently push them out, a little less at peace than you were before.
You do it a hundred times, a thousand. Every time you hear a terrible news story, or tragedy touches an acquaintance. All the while, you watch your children grow, thankful to God or whatever you believe in, endlessly grateful at the miracle they represent. When they experience pain, you hate it, but you say the same thing every time it happens: if this is the worst, it isn’t so bad. They fall off a slide and get a scrape, then cry and hug you till it’s better. They miss the winning shot or let in the winning goal—you hurt like hell for them in the moment, but you know they’ll get over it and be stronger in the end. A girlfriend or boyfriend dumps them, and you see heartbreak in their eyes for the first time. It tears you apart, but you know they have to go through it, and you say to yourself, again, if it’s the worst thing they’ll ever experience, it’s not so bad. You count yourself lucky. You can sleep again that night.
“What is it?” I ask Ken.
“It’s Bonnie,” he responds, his voice cracking. “She’s . . . she was in a hiking accident.”
Everyone reacts differently to bad news—or, more specifically, to the moment before you’re about to get hit with it. Some people get mad. Others get sad or afraid. What I feel is offended and angry, because I can’t figure out why Ken would drive such a long way in the middle of the night just to tell me such a terrible lie. He’s obviously gone off the deep end. Or someone is playing a cruel joke on me, through him, and he’s been gullible enough to fall for it. It’s obviously a mistake.
The fact that he just keeps staring at me and saying “I’m sorry” is getting under my skin even more.
“Who told you that?” I demand.
Ken holds out a yellow Post-it with something scrawled on it, but I don’t take it from him. No matter what your reaction is to bad news, we all do one thing similar: we keep it at arm’s length for as long as we can. We keep it outside the realm of reality by refusing any evidence. I could keep Ken’s words at bay if they were just words. People lie all the time, for plenty of reasons. But this Post-it is something with the potential to break down my refusal to believe. I don’t want to look at it.
“I’m so sorry,” he says again, the bastard. “An Alaska State Trooper called me.” He’s still holding out the evil yellow Post-it, like something poisonous that he wants to get out of his hands. “He told me to get the message to you. This is his number.”
I don’t want to take it, but my hand reaches out. Once the Post-it is in my hands, I don’t want to look at it, either—but I look. A meaningless name and an unknown phone number.
Each of these moments happens in slow-motion. My senses are amped up, and at the same time, everything collapses inward. I feel both chilled and overheated, like a sudden wave of the flu. I feel exposed and at the same time claustrophobic. From a strange place outside of my body, I see myself shaking and my legs going at the knees.
“No, not my Bonnie. How do they know?” I hear myself say. I don’t know why I’m even implying I may actually believe Ken’s lie.
“I don’t know,” he says. “They just told me to have you call them.” I want to beat some sense into him.
Jim and I dress while Ken and Valeri wait in the cockpit above. I have no idea what I’m putting on. I’m still trying to figure out who’s behind this awful joke and why.
We climb off the boat. I’m still holding the sickening Post-it. With only a radio on the boat, we find a pay phone outside a small store near the dockmaster’s office. I try to dial the number, but I can’t hold the phone because my hand is shaking too much. Jim dials instead and reaches a switchboard operator. He gives her the number on the Post-it and the name of the trooper, then hands me the phone, rubbing my back.
“I’m sorry; I don’t recognize that name,” she says. I repeat the request, more insistently, and her tone stiffens. She asks me for my patience, reminds me it’s eleven P.M. in Anchorage, and suggests I call back in the morning.
“I’ve just been told my daughter died in a hiking accident,” I tell her. There is a pause.
“One moment, please,” she says. I wait on the other end of the line, as if this situation was no different from a regular conversation on a regular day. When you’re suddenly faced with information that throws your entire world out of whack, it’s the most mundane acts, like a phone call, that seem the most bizarre. The news that my daughter is no longer alive doesn’t match up with the need to be put on hold. None of it fits.
Finally, a different voice comes on the line. “Hello, this is Sergeant Mike Marrs of the Alaska State Troopers. Is this Karen Campbell, Bonnie Craig’s mom?” Although we divorced two years ago, I still use Gary’s last name, while Bonnie has my first husband’s name.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Campbell. Bonnie’s body was found out at McHugh Creek. She fell off a cliff, Mrs. Campbell. She’s dead. I’m very sorry.”
If everyone acts differently in the way they brace for bad news, the same is true of how we react when it’s no longer possible to deny. In my case, as I speak to a trooper telling me that my eighteen-year-old daughter is dead, I snap into detective mode.
Outside of my day job selling real estate, I’ve spent the previous two and a half years as an unpaid volunteer undercover reserve officer with the Anchorage Police Department. I’ve gone through the police academy and earned the right to pick assignments. I’ve worked drug raids and undercover buys. I regularly choose the toughest shifts in the worst areas. I’ve been an adrenaline junkie since I was cut out of my mother’s womb, and it’s never gone away. My parents sent the police to look for me five or six times when I was a kid because I was out wandering, looking for something to give me a rush. I spent time as a news reporter, getting a thrill out of being in front of the camera, and I still wanted that thrill.
The Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers share mutual contempt; each agrees that the other doesn’t know its ass from its elbow. My instinct is already to ask for the case to be handed over to the APD. I know the homicide guys there, and they’re good. I could get things done.
I’ve helped collar some bad people. Not the kind who give up grudges easily. My mind threatens to go to a very bad place, but I refuse it because there’s no point in allowing myself to consider that possibility at the moment. I’m in the first mental stage of doing what I’ve become so used to doing: trying to solve a puzzle.
“Who was she with?” I ask.
“No one, Mrs. Campbell. She was out there alone.”
Sergeant Marrs’s voice is flat and serious. I wonder, how many other calls like this has he made before? He must have talked down a dozen mothers like me, a hundred. He has his script and his instructions to stay composed and not let the shocked person on the other end let him get worked up, which would only be counterproductive. I’ve never done one of these calls myself, nor a live visit to deliver the news. Either would be a nightmare.
“How did she get there?” I can feel my voice coming back into my body. I’m used to this kind of exchange. “She doesn’t drive, so how?” I’m happy to start poking holes in the story. I wonder how long it will take to show that they have the wrong person, that it isn’t Bonnie at all. McHugh Creek is ten miles from her bus route, for God’s sake.
“We don’t know, ma’am.”
“What time did you find her?” I wish I had a notepad.
“About two-thirty this afternoon,” says Sergeant Marrs.
“No,” I say, trying not to scream at this fool. “She would have been in class. She’d never miss. How did you identify her?”
“She didn’t have a wallet or any ID on her,” he says. “Her name was on her class ring, and we pulled up her state ID. We identified her from that picture.”
A class ring could easily get switched. He sounds harebrained.
“Has Gary or anyone identified her?” Gary may not be Bonnie’s biological father, but he’s the dad who raised her.
“No—we were going to wait for you.”
Another hole in the story. No one who really knows Bonnie has even seen the body of this poor girl, whoever she is. What an incredible mix-up. I consider calling Bonnie’s boyfriend, Cameron, who will no doubt know where she is. Even though he left Anchorage a few months earlier to study architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, the two of them still talk or e-mail multiple times per day.
Sergeant Marrs is asking me to calm down. I don’t know why he’s saying this, since I feel very focused. But the part of me that’s still on the outside looking in can hear me cry and scream.
“Could she have been raped?” I don’t know why I ask this question. I’m mad at myself for saying these words, and I want to take them back.
“No, Mrs. Campbell. All her clothes were on. Nothing was ripped or torn. All her buttons were done up, as was her zipper.”
“That doesn’t mean someone wasn’t raped!” Sergeant Marrs’s refusal to be logical is making it hard for me to concentrate. “I work with the Anchorage Police Department. I was just involved in a big drug bust before I left.”
“Ma’am? I’m sorry?”
“I work with the police department. We just did a big bust. Maybe they thought it was me? Bonnie looks just like me.”
“No, Mrs. Campbell. She died from a fall off a cliff. Up at McHugh Creek, as I said. It was over thirty feet, ma’am. I’m very sorry.”
I want to climb through the phone and throttle him until he stops saying Bonnie is dead. It sounds asinine. I want to talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. “If it’s Bonnie, it’s not a hiking accident. It’s got to be murder!”
“No, ma’am. It was a hiking accident. If it were an act of retribution, they would have used guns. Or there would have been duct tape, something binding her. We know how those kinds of acts are carried out and what they look like. This wasn’t murder, or rape, Mrs. Campbell. I’m afraid it was just a tragic accident. She fell from a great height.”
The detective inside me is still pressing forward. If they don’t think it was murder, they won’t have investigated it as a crime scene. They’ll have investigated it as an accident, which means next to no investigation at all.
“Did the troopers at the scene collect evidence?”
“There was no evidence to collect, ma’am. As I said, we ID’d her from her class ring. There’s nothing else to look for, I’m afraid.”
First Ken drives over in the middle of the night to give me this awful story about Bonnie being dead. Then I’m forced to talk to an inept switchboard operator who could only complain about how late it was in Alaska. Now this trooper doesn’t seem to know which end is up, telling me that the person they’d found was wearing Bonnie’s class ring and that she’d mysteriously fallen off a thirty-foot cliff at McHugh Creek. A stumble and thirty-foot plunge, just like that—no explanation? The poor girl, whoever she is. It’s like a conspiracy of incompetence.
“I’m in Florida,” I say. “I’ll be on the next plane back.”
I hear myself on the phone with my ex-husband Gary, telling him that none of it is making any sense. I hear him agreeing with me that whatever happened couldn’t have been an accident.
I’d been mad at Gary already, and that anger now multiplies. Late last week, I had called his place, where Adam and Samantha would be staying while Jim and I were gone, only to find out from Bonnie that Gary had taken a sudden business trip to New Orleans and wouldn’t be back for a week. I was furious. He and I had a clear agreement never to be out of state at the same time. Gary had known about my vacation with Jim for Ken’s wedding weeks in advance, yet his trip now meant he’d still be away when we left for Florida.
Bonnie, confident and proud in her ability to handle babysitting her younger brother and sister by herself for a few days, had defended Gary, not wanting me to get into a fight with him over it. “It’s all right, Mom,” she’d said. “Don’t worry. Come on, I’m eighteen.” I’d felt my temperature rising as I’d agreed she was perfectly capable, but that that wasn’t the point. The point was that it wasn’t appropriate for her to be asked to look after her brother and sister when their father was supposed to be there. When he’d agreed to be there.
“Everything’s fine, Mom,” Bonnie had said. “Don’t worry. I love you. Just enjoy your vacation. I’ll be fine.” Now people are telling me these are the last words I will ever hear her say.
As I think these thoughts, I slip out of my comfort zone as a detective and back to being just a mother, and it’s nearly intolerable. Part of me is threatening to fly away, but I try to stay anchored to Gary’s voice so I can take in everything he’s telling me. The divorce hasn’t made our relationship any easier. He’s more annoyed with every child-support check he has to write, and I’m annoyed that it bothers him, since it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what he makes. We see each other at the hockey arena for Adam’s games, and he barely acknowledges my presence. By association, he doesn’t like Jim, and the feeling is mutual. But we know we have to put our differences aside now. What’s more important is the exchange of information.
Gary tells me that a pair of Alaska State Troopers had knocked on his door around ten that evening. He and the kids had already been wondering why Bonnie wasn’t home. Seeing the troopers’ serious faces, Gary feared the worst. Samantha had heard Bonnie leave early in the morning for her 7:00 A.M. English class. But she hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. As Gary tells me the story, I take cold comfort in hearing that he and the kids were together.
I hear myself tell Gary that I need to call my parents. I see my hand place the phone back in its cradle and then pick it up again to dial the number for St. Catharines, Ontario, a little town of parks, gardens, and trails along the Niagara River, a stone’s throw from the world’s longest peaceful border. I feel no peace inside me. I feel a knife sinking into my soul.
The words coming out are vague as I tell my parents that people are trying to convince me their granddaughter is dead. I think I can hear the cries of denial coming from my parents on the other end. “I’ll call you when I get to Anchorage,” I hear myself say. I hang up the phone again. I feel like I just want to keep making phone calls. I need information.
We are back at the boat and I am watching myself stuff clothes into a duffel bag. Jim is trying to console me, but he is not packing a bag of his own. I feel confused at the thought that he is planning to stick me on a plane back to Alaska alone. I see myself ask him. He has arranged to get me on the next flight out, he says. It is not an answer.
We all pile into Ken’s truck on the way to the Tallahassee Airport. It is the early hours of the morning. Jim is beside me, holding my hand. There are intentionally few streetlamps in this part of Florida, so it is very dark. I see that I am still holding the Post-in in my free hand. I am still irritated at Ken. I am still aggravated with the useless dispatcher. I am irate with Jim. I am furious at the trooper for trying to tell me Bonnie slipped off the edge of a cliff, fell thirty feet, and will never breathe again.
At the airport, a few red-eye customers mill about, and a handful of weary-looking staff manage the desks. Jim is speaking with a ticket agent. I am at a pay phone, making another call. I hear the voice of my friend Cara, saying, “Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” I’ve called her out of desperation. Cara is a local news reporter. She is connected. She’ll know what’s happening.
My body starts to shake again, and then my knees go. I’m in a heap on the floor, screaming into the receiver. “Cara, please pick up!” I am shouting in the middle of the nearly empty airport. “Cara, the Alaska State Troopers are telling me Bonnie is dead! They’re telling me they found her out at McHugh Creek. Oh, my God, Cara, please pick up. Please check it out. Find out if it’s really Bonnie, please, I need your help. Please!”
I hear myself tell Cara a version of the same message I’d given the trooper. “I’m in Florida. I’ll be back later today.” Then I am pulling myself up and making another call—to another friend, Michelle. She will know what’s going on.
Again the phone rings and rings; then I hear Michelle saying, “Hi, I can’t come to the phone right now . . .” and I buckle a second time. As I gaze at the ticket counter, I see Jim look my way. He watches me there on the floor, under the pay phone, the handle dangling from its cord above my face. I see him turn back toward the agent and ask for a second ticket.
I am in a dark airplane in the early-morning hours with only the soft drone of the engines invading my thoughts. Beside me, Jim’s head rests against his shoulder, a small blanket bunched against the side of his head. He has tried to stay awake for my sake, but the fatigue has overcome him. Maybe a dozen other people occupy the plane, most asleep.
I see myself sobbing, shaking my head, rubbing my hands together. I feel paralyzed by remoteness from the truth. Mostly I rock slowly in my seat, up and down, wondering what in heaven’s name is going on and when I will wake up from what must be a nightmare.
Part of me insists that when we arrive at the airport, Bonnie will be there, ashamed that she’s caused us to return for a silly mistake. She’ll tell us how it happened, it will all sound logical, and despite the inconvenience of coming home, we’ll have a laugh about it, because it will have been a result of something out of her control. She’ll still feel guilty about it, because that’s the kind of kid she is. I’ll tell her again and again that she did nothing wrong; it’s just the cost of a plane ticket, inconsequential as long as she’s okay. Mix-ups happen, nothing to get upset about. She’ll give me one of her great hugs and it will be done.
My mind goes back over certain moments again and again, unable to let go of the possibility that my police work may have drawn the wrong kind of vengeance from the wrong kind of people. I see myself a few years earlier, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter for KIMO 13 News, an ABC affiliate, covering the police and courts, compelled by that world, listening to the police scanner out of fascination even when there was no story to follow. In the newsroom, they teased me about my obsession with the scanner and my desire to be first on the scene for the next big story. One of my colleagues asked me if I turned the scanner off during sex.
I think back to a couple of years earlier, to my first pivotal conversation with Captain Tom Walker of the Anchorage Police Department, who told me the department was in need of female officers and that I’d make a great candidate. I recall telling Gary that same evening that I wanted to do it. I’d already taken the criminal justice and EMT courses; I knew my stuff and could hit the ground running. He agreed I should go for it; but, in retrospect, I wondered if it was because he was confident I wouldn’t make it.
When I joined the police academy, Gary realized I could handle it, and as I neared graduation, he told me he didn’t want a gun in the house and wasn’t comfortable looking across the bed at a trained killer. He said he’d rather see me come home in a body bag than find out I’d killed someone. I asked if he’d really rather see the mother of his children dead than learn that she’d offed some scumbag, and he said yes—that he couldn’t live with the idea of my having killed another human being. Our marriage, already shaky by that point, couldn’t survive the situation.
The day of my graduation from the academy, in September 1992, Gary told the kids we were getting a divorce. Jason was eighteen, Bonnie sixteen, Adam eleven, Samantha ten. “Mom, you gotta do what’s important to you,” Adam told me, his preteen wisdom and selflessness warming me.
I joined the Patrol Unit for that first exciting shift, twelve hours’ worth, driving through the worst neighborhoods in town. Given the choice of shifts, I chose Friday and Saturday nights, when the real action happened. I was chomping at the bit to get out there. With few women in the department, I was often called to the hospital to see women who’d been assaulted. I got called out on Special Details, Search and Rescues. Soon, after working the streets enough and learning the ropes out on patrol, I was asked to join the Metro Unit to carry out undercover drug buys. I felt important. I felt productive. I felt like I was making a difference.
Rarely did I feel in danger—even when the inevitable curveballs made improvisation a necessity. I remembered one buy when I was wired and hiding my 40-millimeter Glock on the small of my back under my plainclothes outfit. After picking up the informant, I saw the undercover car behind lose track of us. I continued on to do the deal and played dumb, but I knew that if something went down, I’d be on my own. Then I picked up the dealer and handled the transaction at a bowling alley on the south end of town. (The point wasn’t to bust him; it was to gather evidence with the goal of bringing down the entire ring.) I loved the rush, never really felt nervous. The adrenaline obscured the nerves.
The same thing happened during a bust outside a hotel where I’d arranged a buy from a known dealer. We had a sharpshooter stationed on the parking-garage roof, and two other undercover officers—the bellman and the guy unloading luggage from a car, posing as a guest. I was supposed to sit in the passenger seat, get the drugs, then remove the key from the ignition, signaling the others to move. But what we hadn’t talked about was what to do if there were other people in the vehicle—like the dealer’s kids, which was exactly who he showed up with in the backseat. I wasn’t sure whether to abandon the deal, but I decided to get the drugs, then pull my gun and announce myself as police. The others jumped to it, backing me up, and the dealer was taken away. No one was hurt. The arrest was successful.
But I also remember the one night when a fellow officer, Officer Dan Seeley, responded to a simple domestic-disturbance call. Seeley’s wife, who worked in dispatch, heard the call. At the house, an estranged husband, crazed and armed, shot and killed Officer Seeley in the line of duty, then chased his own family to a nearby house, shot and killed his two young kids, shot his wife, then put a bullet in his own head. I’d gone to the ER after Officer Seeley was pronounced dead and stood honor guard alongside his body. I had trained under him, shared meals with him. My heart broke for his wife and family.
But bad guys don’t exist in isolation. Bad guys know other bad guys, and they have long memories. I stare out the airplane window into the black early-morning sky. Soon I hear the pilot’s voice announcing that we are starting our descent. Tallahassee to Chicago, Chicago to Anchorage. We have passed through the entire continental United States and slanted through the Canadian Yukon. I pray I will see my beautiful daughter and be able to wrap my arms around her. Please, God. Please.
The flight attendants have been made aware of our situation. With awkward sympathetic looks, they shepherd me and Jim off of the plane ahead of the other passengers. We nod blankly at the pilot and cabin staff as we disembark and walk along the jetway into the quiet cavern of the terminal.
Despite my prayers, Bonnie is not there to hug me and tell me it was all a big mistake. She is not there for me to assure and forgive. Instead, Bert McQueen, the police chaplain, greets us, along with Sergeant Marrs, who is much larger in person than I imagined from our phone conversation.
Jim and I both know Bert well. He hugs me and asks us to come sit down and talk in one of the terminal’s makeshift conference rooms.
After we sit down in the hard plastic chairs, Bert says, “Karen, Jim, I’m so sorry. It’s a terrible tragedy for Bonnie to go in this way, in a hiking accident.”
“It’s not an accident,” I snap. “If it’s really Bonnie, it’s got to be murder.”
Bert looks back at me with a different expression. “Karen, I want you to know how terrible we all feel. The thoughts of the entire community are with you. Everyone is here to offer their support.”
He is trying to comfort me, but not to correct me. He believes what the troopers have told him about Bonnie accidentally slipping off a cliff, in a place where she never went and could hardly have reached by herself.
“Mrs. Campbell,” says Sergeant Marrs, “I hate to discuss practical matters with you, but there are some things that need to be done. First, a picture of Bonnie is required. As you know, it’s standard procedure. And, of course, you’ll have to come down to the funeral home and . . .”
He can hardly bring himself to say it: ID her. I stand up and walk out of the room, Jim trailing. I think I can hear Bert saying “Karen . . .” My head is swimming.
Bert and Sergeant Marrs catch up to us, and numbly we walk with them out of the terminal and into the cruiser. I’m in a fog during the drive to Gary’s house, staring out the window. Bert and Sergeant Marrs may or may not be saying things to me.
We reach the house, and I rush to the front door. My kids, Jason, Adam, and Samantha, are all there. They throw themselves into my arms and erupt into sobs. Gary is behind them. We repeat the same things over and over. It doesn’t make sense. It cannot have happened. Not Bonnie. No. No. No. We are sharing the first wave of pain that will continue to loop back through us forever.
Samantha fills in more details for me from the previous night, when the troopers came to deliver the news. Hearing the knock, she and Adam had taken a secret spot at the top of the stairs to watch the conversation between them and Gary on the front porch. Then they’d seen their dad drop to his knees and scream, “Not Bonnie!” People’s worlds explode at different moments. For me, it was the moment on the boat when Ken held out the Post-it; for my kids, it was watching their father’s heart get torn out of him.
They’d never seen their dad cry before. Then they’d watched him break apart. Crumpled on the floor, he’d sobbed and screamed, repeating Bonnie’s name. The trooper had stood unemotionally, asking questions, repeating how sorry he was to be the bearer of this news. Samantha tells me that she and Adam stayed watching from the top of the stairs and prayed that Bonnie was still alive. They were hoping it was just a bad accident, she said, and that the trooper had gotten it wrong. When the troopers asked how to get in touch with me, Adam and Samantha had given him Jim’s ex-wife’s number, and she had in turn given them Ken’s.
Eventually, Jim and I accompany Bert and Sergeant Marrs to the funeral home. I know that the only way to prove that the girl who died at McHugh Creek isn’t Bonnie will be to look into her face. It will be awful, but it is the only way. I am silent in the cruiser, again looking out the window, wondering what’s going on. A day ago, I was on a sailboat in Florida, relaxed and untroubled.
Approaching the door of the funeral home, I feel a wave of nausea. Another thing I’ve never had to do in my volunteer police work is participate in this dreadful exercise, though I’ve imagined it often enough. The people from the home talk to me. I don’t listen. They are saying something meant to prepare me and calm me down. Not a word registers. I see them turn, and I follow them into a room where a white sheet covers a body on a metal gurney.
You try to keep it at bay. You deny it at first. You get mad; you disbelieve. As the evidence starts to become real, the feeling builds. A Post-it, a conversation, a class ring. Everyone around you is trying to convince you of something that can’t be true, because if it’s true, you won’t be able to handle it. You don’t let it in; you refuse it with everything you have. Then the sheet is pulled down, and it is your daughter’s face you see there, perfectly still, unmoving, unbreathing, and refusal is no longer possible.
What people say is true. You have only two choices: go on or don’t. It isn’t a conscious decision, at least not at first. It’s a reaction, based on, I suppose, a variety of factors. As I look down at my daughter’s face, the knowledge that she is dead hits me fully. I can no longer refute it, no matter how badly I want to. A part of me departs instantly, never to come back. It is the part that was my beautiful baby girl.
It is not false mysticism to say that when one of your children dies, part of you dies along with her. Your child is a component of you. She is part of your spirit and your energy. When you hear a parent describing a time when his or her child almost ran into traffic and saying “I nearly died,” it isn’t a lie. Any parent knows that at those moments, you feel a tangible part of your soul drain away. “I nearly had a heart attack,” people say. “It took a year off my life,” they joke. None of the statements are figurative. Each near miss is a small death inside.
The part of you that is connected to your child dies the moment she dies, or at least the moment you can no longer pretend she’s alive. That part, sadly, is not up to you. There will always be a hole in your heart, which nothing can close.
But the rest is up to you.
I make the decision without knowing I’m making it. Trying to solve the puzzle is easier than accepting that Bonnie is gone. Why Bonnie? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? The questions come, and I can’t avoid them, and there is no answer. The funeral director is telling me I can come back tomorrow with my family to spend time with Bonnie—that she isn’t ready yet, whatever that means. Jim and I are escorted to the cruiser and taken to the police station to talk further with the troopers. We sit at a desk.
Before they have a chance to speak, I say, “It has to be murder.” I start asking questions. I tell them Bonnie would have been carrying her book bag and keys. She had pepper spray on her key chain. I ask if there was any evidence of its having being used. They assure me that if it had been used, there would have been residue evident at the scene. It would not have washed off even in the glacier-fed water of McHugh Creek. That’s true. Pepper spray is oily—you need detergent to wash it off. They insist there was no evidence of the pepper spray being deployed in any way.
I question how Bonnie was discovered, surprised to realize it’s taken me so long to ask. A young woman was hiking along the creek taking pictures, they tell me, when she saw a body floating in the water. She raced back to her car, drove back toward Anchorage, and pulled into a weigh station, where she told the attendant she needed to call the police.
That’s all I learn at the troopers’ headquarters. The rest of the conversation is a blur. As Jim and I leave the police station, I feel like I’m moving through a vacuum. But within minutes of returning home, I am assaulted by an unending stream of phone calls from, it seems, every media outlet in Anchorage. People elsewhere in the country tend to see Alaska as an outpost, but Anchorage is a city with a population similar to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or St. Louis. Big enough to have major media but small enough that word spreads fast.
Though out of the media now, I’m still tight with a lot of news reporters in the city. Many of the people who are calling for interviews know me, which they feel gives them extra license to ask. But no one has to twist my arm—I want to talk, and I want people to listen. I say yes to everyone who requests my time, and in the hours and days that follow I hear myself repeating the words “It’s murder” again and again. I’m only partly aware of who I’m talking to or what station or newspaper they represent. I know instinctively that the media is one way, maybe the best way, of helping find out who did this. I will talk as long as they will let me.
I remember, from my own days as a reporter, one mother I spoke to after her eighteen-year-old son was shot by an airport security officer. The officer had chased the boy over a long distance, finally hunting him down as he ran from his car only half a mile from his house. Within hours of his being declared dead at the scene, the boy’s mother told me through her tears that her son had never done anything worse than steal a Stop sign. I remember wanting to help let the world know that he hadn’t been a threat—he’d just been trying to get home safely to his mother, fleeing from an enraged officer. I remember wanting his mother to have the chance to defend him and tell her side. He was a good kid, and now he was dead. It wouldn’t do anything to help her heal, but it might help others understand that he didn’t have to die.
I was comfortable inside the trooper station, asking questions, beginning to pull apart the mystery. I cannot absorb the idea that Bonnie is dead, so that was a temporarily acceptable alternative. But my strange, sudden celebrity is jarring me out of that comfortable mode. It is so far from real that I can’t even begin to connect it to what I knew before. The reporters want to know what I think, what my theories are, whether I accept what the State Troopers are telling me. I don’t accept what the troopers are telling me, and I make this known because it is what I feel.
I cry more than I sleep. Taking care of my other kids suddenly seems an impossible task. My pain is threatening to overwhelm me, so what can I do for them? I try to stay focused on the investigation, but the tidal wave of emotion inside me is, like a real wave, unrelenting. I can’t turn off the switch, and I can’t ask the wave to pause while I get myself together.
We hug. We hold each other and squeeze each other and cry. Jason goes home to Traci. I send Adam and Samantha to their dad’s house, out from under the glare of the media. I have said yes to anyone willing to give me exposure and thereby, hopefully, try to unearth information the troopers seem uninterested in trying to find. The kids aren’t used to the media attention, and it’s not fair to them. For now, I just need them to be safe and away from the craziness.
One after another, the reporters file into my home, set up their lights, attach mics to my lapel, and begin their apologetic interviews. They ask why I think it’s murder. They ask what I think happened. I tell them I don’t know what happened, and I’m not making guesses, but I know it wasn’t an accident. The interviews are broadcast and printed. By the next day, Bonnie’s death is a citywide storm, and, before long, word of the case has spread across the state.
Eventually I do sleep, exhausted from pain and tears and the shrieking disbelief in my head. When there is nothing left for that day, my eyes close and my brain takes mercy on me by shutting off, at least temporarily.
I wonder if, when I wake up again, I might forget where I am, or what’s happened. For just a fleeting moment, I wonder if I will be able to pretend.
The moment doesn’t come. I wake up and the pain is waiting there, always.
We go to the funeral home—Jim, Gary, Jason, Adam, Samantha, and I. I am scared for my kids, and my only thought is to protect them from seeing something that they will never get over. I accept that they need to speak to detectives about Bonnie, but I will not force them to look at anything they don’t need or want to. Extra emotional scars are not going to help.
But the kids say they want to see their sister, and I trust them, so I’m allowing it. We all enter the same room I went into the day before. More of the sheet has been pulled down today, exposing Bonnie’s forearms and hands. I’m the first to approach her body. I take one of her hands in mine, put it against my forehead and start to sob. I don’t want to do this in front of the kids, but I’ve never hidden anything from them before, and anyway, I am torn open. There is no way to hold it inside.
As I cry and hold my dead daughter’s hand, I notice something odd about her fingers. The knuckles are bigger than they should be. I slide the sheet farther down, toward her waist. Her arms are bruised in several places.
“Get the troopers back in here,” I say.
“What is it?” Jim says.
I look up at him. “These are defensive wounds.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Campbell?” It is the funeral director, poking his head through the door. “I’m very sorry, but whenever you’re ready, we’re going to need to talk about arrangements. Please take as much time as you need.”
“Just a minute,” I tell the director. “You need to call the troopers and get them back here.” I call the troopers’ office myself and tell them they need to return immediately to take pictures. I inform them about Bonnie’s hands and arms, wondering how they missed her bruises and broken knuckles in the first place. Gary, Jim, and the kids see the condition of Bonnie’s body and are equally startled. Even my twelve- and thirteen-year-old children notice obvious signs of things not being right, but I’m supposed to accept that the troopers just happened to miss how Bonnie’s arms are bruised up and down? Their reaction is weirdly nonchalant. I know all too well that at any time, in any town of moderate size, there is more than one disaster to investigate, and more than one family dealing with heartbreak. But I also know evidence when I see it, and the casual attitude they seem to have toward this crime is baffling.
I call my supervisor at APD and the sergeant in Homicide. I tell them what I’ve seen and plead with them to take over the case. They both tell me the same thing: they wish they could, but it’s a matter of jurisdiction. Their hearts are breaking for me, but their hands are tied.
We pick out a coffin. It is the most surreal thing I have done in my life, as though we are choosing window blinds or a washing machine. The director has his list of questions we have to answer and decisions we need to make. There is no way to describe the strangeness of this conversation.