By Whitney Jackson
The day I walked into the hair salon, sat down in the spinning, black leather chair and cut off the majority of my long, brown locks was the best I felt in a long time. Unlike most girls my age, or girls in general, I felt no heartache for the loss of my hair as my aunt stood behind me, cutting off the long strands. I watched as they floated past me, covering the floor at my feet and tickling my toes on their way down. Finally, I felt ten times lighter.
The next day at work I received more compliments than I could count on my new, shorter style—from strangers nonetheless. Of course, every third or fourth customer would ask me if I missed my long, brown mane, to which I replied with comfortable ease, “No.” Every so often, a regular at the town grocery story would unload their week’s items one at a time out of their cart and onto the slick, black conveyor belt I stood behind, waiting patiently for the pace to pick up. He or she would look at me carefully and ask me why I had chosen to cut off my beautiful hair. “Shame on you,” they would say, as if I was a dog who had eaten out of the garbage can and not an adult woman who had made a hairstyle choice.
I tried to take these comments in stride, replying as best I could without an edge in my voice as I explained how I chose to cut off all the bad that had happened in the past year, and that I didn’t regret it. While saying these words with the sweetest tone I could muster, I ended my response in such a way that the period at the end of the sentence punched you in the stomach so hard you were encouraged to say no more. The total was given, the bill was paid, and I greeted the next customer.
Had I known the summer before that frigid January day where I sat down in the spinning, black leather chair and cut off all the bad was going to be the last special memory I had of my great aunt Martha, I would have said more to her. I would have told her how much I loved her. I would have asked her to tell me things, things I didn’t know about her, and finally, I would have asked more questions about that stupid game of pinochle, the one everyone in our family seemed to be able to understand, except me. But this was and is now my favorite memory of Martha, so I’ll leave it alone.
I remember she sat beside me, leaning over the picnic table inside the small, wooden cabin. She was smiling, like she always was, writing numbers down vigorously on a yellow legal pad, not even pausing to do the math in her head. She glanced at my cards and then whispered in my ear what to play next, easing my confusion. Someone yelled something, loudly, and my initial puzzlement regarding the game nestled itself cozily back inside my brain. I wanted to give up, not knowing what move to make next, but before I could run, there was Martha in my ear again and I was okay.
The air was heavy and hot, and Martha was getting annoyed with all the men at the table, who had been drinking and were now saying things that didn’t need to be said. Annoyance wasn’t an emotion you saw often on Martha, if at all. In fact, I only know of this moment because my older brother noticed it on her, not me. Personally, I never saw Martha be anything but happy. I never saw her cry, I never saw her yell, and quite frankly, I never saw anything less than a sweet smile on her face. So that’s the way I imagine she went, maybe not at first, but that’s how she ended up in heaven, alongside three of her grandchildren.
November 18, 2012 is a day I can play over perfectly in my mind. Without fault, not missing a single detail, I can see the events of that night transpire like an IMAX movie inside my head. Except this is a film you don’t want to watch. It’s a scary movie and you are strapped to your seat, trapped inside the theater. “Well, I like scary movies,” you might be thinking before the credits start to roll. Not this one.
The night was approaching its end, dark but not too dark, cold but not too cold. Kmart lacked everything from customer service to an adequate display of nail polish. It was nearing closing time but not quite, and with only a couple of hours of operation left, the store was a ghost town. My mother and I checked out with a cartful of unnecessary items and headed home to our new house of just over six months. The previous hours in the day are now a blur, and I have no recollection of what had happened before listening to that voice mail.
My father was working late that night, till midnight at least, so it was just my mother and men at home, along with our two dogs and the nearly silent pitter patter of the cats. I unpacked plastic bag after plastic bag, each one holding something girly and new. My mother stood easily in the fluorescent light of the kitchen, unwrapping the packaging that enveloped our gourmet frozen pizza. I sprinted out of the kitchen and down the stairs into the darkness that spread out evenly into our furnished basement, the location for my new room.
The answering machine blinked a blood-red number ‘1’ as I clicked the silver PLAY button. My grandmother’s voice, shaky and out of breath, ran out into the silence as she asked for my mother, her daughter, to call her when she could. I sprinted back up the way I came and caught my mother halfway out of the kitchen, the aroma of pizza already in the air.
“Mom,” I said. “Something is wrong. Call Grandma.”
“My mom?” she yelled as she was already around the corner and grabbing the next available cordless. I didn’t even have time to reply as she was on the phone in seconds, pacing from the light of the front hallway to the darkness of her bedroom. I was halfway from the kitchen to her bedroom as I heard her gasp, loudly, and turned on my heel in just enough time to see her clasp her hand firmly over her mouth in the stillness of the shadows.
“What!” I yelled as every possible horrifying thought came to my mind.
Martha’s casket was closed. My great uncle Harley never got to see his wife again after he dropped off his grandchildren at home and drove into town. He returned half an hour later after a phone call told him to “Get back here now.” Harley’s world turned upside down that day.
They say,time heals all wounds, but not this one.
The funeral was in New Town, North Dakota, at the Bethel Lutheran Church, of which Martha was actively a part, and where the social hall of the church is now named in her honor and remembrance.
“You couldn’t know Martha without being a friend,” I remember the pastor’s wife saying on the day of the wake as we waited for family to arrive. I stood outside the room, staring stoically ahead at the bouquets of flowers that nearly covered Martha’s casket entirely. I was scared to enter the room, as if my foot crossing the threshold would mean it was all real.
People gathered afterwards to share stories, memories, and the like. My family sat silently, fighting back tears with great strength, as individuals stood and shared what they thought we should all know. Nobody stood from our table, but laughter erupted in time as my uncle reminisced about a water gun fight years before against Martha and Harley, one that he wasn’t ashamed to say he lost, and as we all kept the memories that were ours, only ours.
The church was packed the following day at the funeral. School was cancelled, and TV cameras followed our every move into the building. Not a pew seat was left open. A tissue box was placed innocently at each opening. I held my mother’s hand tightly, looking up only for a few short moments during the entire service. Nobody made eye contact. We all just shared each other’s pain.
The nine-hour drive to North Dakota alone made me cringe all on its own, with its spindly arms and legs outstretched for miles into nothingness and a thin black cloak of despair hanging grimly overhead. The flat, desolate land and freezing November air aided well in turning my previous cringe into a snarl. Being here just months before in Rock Lake for my great-grandmother’s funeral was not scoring any points with me either.
The drive to the gravesite was unlike anything I ever experienced before. It was quiet; tissues were passed back and forth over center consoles and the low sound of country music. Police cars escorted us, with more vehicles following behind than I could count. On the way up the curvy road to the cemetery, several cars stopped, passengers got out and held their hats over their chests in respect, and I bawled.
My father, brother, uncle, and a friend of Harley and Martha’s carried the casket to the grave. I stood shivering in the bitter wind, looking up once at Harley and the two grandchildren, Ava and Christian, that made it out alive. They were frigid with cold. I looked up once more at my brother, catching the tears falling from his face in sheets, and I felt sick. I looked away, but my mind traveled somewhere I did not want it to go.
Images from the night we got the voicemail from my grandma play back violently in my mind, only these images have sound and I can hear everything.
Click. My mother’s hand is clasped firmly over her mouth as she tells me through my grandma’s words that great aunt Martha and three of her five grandchildren have been killed. I mimic her response, gasping and clasping, and then in seconds I am on the floor. A vision of a horrible car accident runs through my mind at full speed.
Click. My cell phone is ringing and I answer. It is my brother, a current resident of North Dakota for well over a year now, who has been living comfortably in Martha’s family farm house, a mere thirty minutes from New Town. Silence is exchanged as he knows I have heard, but I ask what happened anyway. His words ring out, and still do, as I listen to him tell me that someone walked through the front door to Harley and Martha’s home and just started shooting. My head hits my hands, and I listen to labored breathing on the other end.
The harsh and startling wind whips my long and now tangled hair around my face as the pastor says a prayer, but the images keep coming.
Click. I am on the phone with my father, waiting for someone to transfer the call. I hear his voice clearly in minutes, but I cannot speak. Words form without my knowledge and exit my mouth, and some are said in response, but I cannot comprehend them. The call is over, but all I can hear are sobs, breathless and violent, and I know this sound is coming from me. I call my friend next, one who had just met Martha at the small, wooden cabin the summer before where I learned and then forgot the game of pinochle. We cry on the phone together and hang up when words fail.
Click. My father walks through the door and hugs my mother, having been let off early from work due to the tragedy. I am a vision with mascara draped in non-parallel smudges from ear to ear as my mother sits quiet, angry, and tearless, searching for a reason behind the horror. She does not believe this could be a random act of violence, which we are later told is the apparent justification for the act. I listen in later as my mother calls her two sisters, one in Washington and one in Chicago, explaining what happened. I hear silence from one aunt and an exasperated and tearful “What?” from the other. No one is willing to take my shift for tomorrow’s work day, so I call in. Nightmares plague my sleep, so I lie on the couch and listen to the television for the next three nights.
Back at the gravesite, the service was over, and I cursed at the wind under my breath as my mother invited us all in to hug my brother in unison. I could not look at his face, but I can see it in my mind when I close my eyes and think of that day. My glance caught Ava and Christian out of the corner of my eye as I wondered what this meant for them. All five grandchildren had been in Martha and Harley’s care as their foster grandchildren for months before the tragedy took four lives.
Ava, only nine years old, had been sledding down a snowy hill in the backyard the moment a meth-infused stranger entered the home of her grandparents and killed her grandmother, two brothers, and sister. A shot was not heard over the television upstairs where it can be assumed Martha’s life came to an end, but the moment a gun was drawn in front of Christian, age twelve, and two shots rang out, killing his brothers, it encouraged him to play dead and save his own life.
Another shot rang out, killing his sister, Julia. That’s when Christian ran to a telephone, dialed 9-1-1, and hid until help arrived.
Benjamin, age thirteen, Julia, age ten, and Luke, age six, were laid to rest at a funeral separate from Martha’s, due to their parents’ requests.
Two baby blue caskets enclosed one bubble-gum pink one, which were bordered by all the family and friends that made the trip to Grafton, North Dakota, following Martha’s funeral earlier in the week. My family and I never had the pleasure of meeting Benjamin, Julia, or Luke before their untimely deaths, as they were grandchildren that came from Martha’s side of the family, from her first marriage. We do now expect to spend family vacations for years to come with Ava and Christian, as they are now solely in the care of “Grandpa” Harley.
Christian’s loud laugh and Ava’s bright smile and wavy, blonde hair are things I am already missing after spending a week with them at the small, wooden cabin this past summer. Ava’s brightest and most influential advice given all summer to me was, “You need a new laugh.” Despite her criticism, the long hug she gave me at the end of the trip when saying goodbye is something I held onto for days. She smiled a toothy grin out the side of her Grandpa’s vehicle, yelling wildly, “See you next year!”
Years before I started hating North Dakota, I didn’t mind it. The summer I turned fourteen, my immediate family, and extended on my mother’s side, vacationed in New Town, North Dakota, at Harley and Martha’s. We spent a week in the hot sun, at the Tastee Freeze, and on the water. Harley and Martha were a perfect example of New Town, North Dakota. Together they were their town, and their town was them. There was no Martha without Harley, and surely no Harley without Martha. There was love in their eyes every chance you took to look, and with that, you would find a smile on each of their faces.
The winter that stranger, who lived just around the corner from Harley and Martha, took four lives, he took so much more. He took a part of a family, he took a part of a peace of mind for a community, he took a part of a town, and finally, he took a part of a little piece of everyone who knew Martha, Benjamin, Julia, and Luke.
Thinking of Martha in my family means catching her smile easily as you sit down to breakfast in the small, wooden cabin. It means watching her as she turns and asks you what shape of pancake you want so she can relay the message to Harley. Thinking of Martha means seeing her in a floppy hat with a ribbon tied around the center as she and Harley jump into their red convertible. Thinking of Martha means putting everyone before yourself and always doing a little extra organizing. Thinking of Martha means you better be smart about which couple you pick a water gun fight with, because you are about to lose.
Even now, a year since the tragedy and past the anniversary of that frigid January day where I sat down in that spinning, black leather chair and cut off all the bad, I think of Martha often. When she comes to mind I think of my favorite memory of her, the one where she is whispering in my ear the best moves to play in pinochle. Even though I want to give up, as I have no idea what move to make next, I hear her in my ear again as I am getting ready to run, and I am okay.
Whitney Jackson won honorable mention in the 2014 Elliott Creative Writing Scholarship competition for “For Martha, and Benjamin, Julia, and Luke.” She is a BSU creative and professional writing major, avid reader, late-night television watcher, and junk food eater. Writing is her home, and she hopes to never leave.