Blog Tour: The Good Daughter | Alexandra BurtHello folks, elcome to my stop on the official blog tour for 'The Good Daughter' by Alexandra Burt. I am lucky enough to have a wonderful guest post from Alexandra. It's a wonderfully lengthy piece so as always I suggest you get yourself a brew, get comfy and enjoy.
The Summer of Evil
June, 1983. School is out. We are seventeen and we live for the summer. For the next two months I will leave my life in the country behind and stay with my friend in the city. During the day we will lather ourselves in coconut-scented sun lotion, at night we will sneak out to roam the streets with no specific goal in mind. For thrills, nothing more. This summer is my first taste of freedom and more important than the next ten years to come.
The apartment building is on a busy street with four lanes of steel and tires bumper to bumper. The traffic moves through the city like blood flowing through veins and the neighboring houses sit in neat rows like books on a shelf. There is a brewery nearby from where a grain-like scent wafts toward us. There’s a train station with graffiti on concrete walls. Garbage blows about and beyond the tracks are park-like areas littered with drug paraphernalia and homeless people pushing carts.
On the fourth floor of my friend’s apartment building, we sneak down hallways, tiptoe past doors, surrounded by walls made of thick red bricks. The wooden screeching stairs have nothing on our determination to spill into the night. During those hours, dark as velvet, we smoke and drink and kiss boys in dark alleys with no concern for tomorrow. We return home before the sun comes up, like vampires we avoid the daylight. We are wild and carefree and we are invincible.
When we return after our nightly excursions, we leave the window open to allow cool air to spill into the room. One night, we awake to strange chirping sounds and wings flapping against the ceiling. We switch on the light and a strange fluttering bird departs through the window—it is leathery and lean and its skin is stretched tightly over its body—and we realize it’s a bat. We are undeterred, we want to live dangerously. A bat is a symbol of rebirth after all and the nightly intruder has nothing on our resolve to let in the darkness.
At night, I lie awake and listen to the sounds of the city. There’s a rumble and I wonder if it’s thunder but then lights spills through the window and the noise increases by the minute—a train approaches from the distance. First there is a chugga chugga chugga sound, then a horn. As the carriages rumble over the bridge a stone’s throw from the window, the wheels on the tracks go clink clink clink. The train makes it across the bridge and the sound fades and then there is silence until the next train approaches. All night, in perfectly timed intervals, they pass by, their roaring sounds like freedom to me, and the honking horns and sirens add to the overall excitement that passes through my veins.
My hometown, even though just ten miles away, is a different planet altogether. My house is a mile from farms dotting the hills. My town sits on top of a rolling hill and there are no factories, no trains, and there’s hardly any traffic. I can stand on top of the hill up by the church and at night I can see the lights of the city below me. From my room I hear roosters crow and birds chirp on a nearby wire. I am seventeen, yet looking back at that summer I could have sworn I was much younger. I just felt so much more vulnerable than I should have been at seventeen.
The next day we spend in a small yard between buildings where, for a few hours in the morning, the sun reaches a patch of grass. We spread out on towels, play the radio, and gossip the time away. Soon, my pale skin takes on a honeyed-dew glow and freckles appear on my cheeks like constellations in the night sky. With the gusts of wind making their way around the maze of buildings we shiver.
My friend disappears into the building and when she returns she is out of breath. “A girl’s gone missing,” she says and points in the general direction of the bridge. “Right over there.” She names the street. It sounds familiar.
I don’t remember my reply, but given the fact that we are teenagers, we probably went about our day, not thinking much more of it. There are boys to chase and we believe the missing girl will be found, returned home safely after having wandered off on a whim.
The next day the rumors unfold in the neighborhood; the missing girl is five years old and went to play in the courtyard of her house in the late afternoon. An hour later her parents find the courtyard abandoned and she is gone. They call the police. A search team is deployed, police, firefighters, volunteers. She had begged her mother to go outside and play. Her mother had given in. Just until dinnertime, she had told her, supposedly. We can’t be sure. There’s a lot of talk, speculations of what could have happened. Getting lost is one. Over a friend’s house is another. I have a sinking feeling. Mothers grip the hands of their children tight, turn away from us and wipe their tears.
They first spot her abandoned tricycle. They find her toys and her clothes in the gardens behind the building. A firefighter discovers her body in a culvert less than a mile from her house.
We ask endless questions no one has an answer to. We get bits and pieces; she was raped, someone tells us, beaten to death. There are stories we hear from the other tenants in the building; they say the father went mad the second the police told him. Grown men wept at the sight of her body, and that he will strike again. He took on a menacing vision in my mind of a monster with bloody fangs and a limp as he roamed the streets of the city.
What happens next is the stuff movies are made of: The police begin a search spanning the entire neighborhood. They stop every car passing by on the busy road in front of the girl’s house, every male between the ages of age fourteen to eighty is suspect. The police go door to door interviewing potential witnesses. They come to my friend’s house but there is no interview; she lives with her mother and women aren’t suspects.
For the next couple of days we sit glued to the TV. We watch the neighborhood we roam at night on the flickering screen and we are glad for commercials to disrupt the trance we are in. In between news segments we can barely follow the movie plots. We don’t laugh at the funny parts. We are curious and we come up with a plan: let’s go see the house, look at the courtyard. We want to know how it feels to stand in front of the building. We want to see the culvert. We are convinced if we close our eyes, the face of the monster will materialize.
We have walked by the building hundreds of times before on our way into the city, yet here it sits, a witness to a horrible crime. The building is rather unassuming, painted in a pale yellow, somewhere between vanilla, lemon chiffon, and butter. It is three stories high and a large gate leads into the courtyard. Every corner and every angle of the building seems to be in a semi-shadow. The cheerful color, compared to the white and gray buildings beside it, showcases ornate windows with stucco designs.
I try to conjure up some sort of image of how it happened. I see the girl at the gate, just standing there in the square opening, looking left and right, unsure if she should move away or remain in the safety of the courtyard. Maybe she was defiant, didn’t listen to her mother, ventured out to dark places where she has no business being. I imagine her skipping down the sidewalk, and by then I am sure she defied her parents’ rules and left the safety of the courtyard without permission. Did the monster happen to walk by, spot her and make an impulsive decision to take her? Did he walk up to her, smiling. “Are you lost?” maybe he asked. “Let me take you back home.” Did he reach out and she willingly extended her hand and together they walked through the courtyard and out the back into the gardens, and from there to the culvert?
I try to remember how it felt to be five. It was a time of defiance, when I was not obedient, I remember refusing to come to dinner when called, ignoring requests to pick up my room, and running ahead despite my mother’s rule about never leaving her sight. There were so many rules and all of them longed to be ignored. I task myself to imagine the horror of her last moments. It’s the least I can do, standing there, my very own punishment for rubbernecking. I have no reference point, I can’t imagine the panic, and the fear she must have felt. I can’t be her, all I can do is imagine the killer, kneeling over her dead body, his eyes cold, unwavering in his pursuit to kill.
The summer passes and we go back to school. The images of the girl remain in my head, have a grip on me. Everybody has a story about that summer of 1983. I was on vacation, I visited my grandmother, I took the train to Paris. I was so close to where she died and I wonder what I did the moment the monster shoved her body into the culvert. I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world. Evil does that, it does something to us, even if we are not directly involved. Evil reaches far and wide, it clings to us, it changes us.
The horrendous death of a five-year-old girl in the summer of 1983 remains unsolved. There is no arrest. Not in the days to come, not ever. There are no witnesses. There is just an abandoned tricycle, discarded toys and clothes, a beaten and abused body in a culvert, and a phantom of a killer. The police assume she knew him, given the fact that she so willingly abandoned her tricycle and followed him behind the house and toward the sprawling gardens.
In 1983, forensic science was still years away from DNA testing solving crimes, particularly those involving sexual assaults. There would be DNA recovered years later, once science caught up, but there wouldn’t be a match to any profile. The killer’s DNA remains in a box somewhere on a shelf and the fact that police have part of the killer yet he remains elusive is mindboggling.
The girl’s mother moves away, unable to remain living where her daughter was so brutally killed. Her father’s story is as cruel as it is tragic and the rumors we heard are true: he is committed to a mental institution shortly after her death where he dies two decades later.
I finished high school and went off to college in the city, less than a mile from where it all happened. On a nice day, we opened the windows and when the traffic died down, I heard the trains crossing the bridge in the distance. The sound still started out inconspicuously, with an almost hypnotic clickety-clack in the distance followed by metallic raucous shrieks as the carriages made their way across. Sometimes I caught a waft of fermentation of the nearby brewery and immediately I was transported back to the summer of 1983, the summer of freedom that had turned into a summer of lessons learned: safety was an illusion; children didn’t always make it home. There were no safe spaces anywhere. Parks seemed menacing, what looked inconspicuous one moment, was hidden by the darkest light the next. For all I knew that summer saved my life. Something shifted inside of me; barely lit tunnels and venturing out into the night were now a sure guarantee for life to take a dark turn. I was ever aware of evil, it appeared in the aroma of beer, the sound of a train approaching, the scent of sun lotion.
Gabriele Schmidt. I thought you ought to know her name.