Note: This story includes sensitive content, including references to murder, substance use, and child and animal abuse.
My world ended when the police slipped the photos across the table to me.
There was no way my son, my boy, could have committed the terrible, atrocious scenes they were showing me. The ones forever scarred into my mind. These crimes had to have been committed by someone else, anyone else, just not my son.
The photographs deafened me to the questions the even-toned investigator asked. All I could hear were a thousand voices screaming this had to be a sick, cruel joke from my fantasy football league. Wasn’t Dave a detective at this branch?
“Sir?” The investigator leaned forward, her eyes soft, but her voice firm.
She set a styrofoam cup of black coffee beside the photographs for me. Its bitter steam drew me away from the screams.
Hands before me reached for it. My hands? My hands. It’s mad, isn’t it? The details, the minutia we pick on in crisis. It’s as if reality itself is morphed to fit through the barricades of our minds, desperate to shield us from trauma.
The other investigator’s lips moved. I knew he’d asked me a question, but I couldn’t hear him over the construction site that burst to life inside me. I could feel the workers building bridges, moving moats, and destroying drywall to spare me from these invading images laying siege to my subconscious.
“My son?” my voice started. With a shaking extended finger, I slid the corner of a photo toward me.
As my eyes soaked in the details of the body’s shredded skin, I heard the investigator on the left say, “Sir, we know your son did this. He confessed. We need you to tell us if there are any things that happened in his past that might have suggested he would do something like this?”
“Like this? No.” I shook my head so hard my glasses slipped down my nose. “No, no. Not my son.” I shoved the photo away, losing it in the bottom of other similarly gruesome scenes. “W-what do you mean suggest? Do you mean to say that did we, his parents, see something horrible and not report it? No, God no. He was always a good boy, I mean, he didn’t have stellar grades, but he was always really smart. He’s starting his own business now, and when he was growing up, he was never into anything weird, like weird-weird, you know? Like, just normal boy stuff, like learning about how to make fires for survival…”
The investigator on the left scribbled in his spiral notebook while the other on the right asked the questions. “Was he ever in any kind of trouble growing up?” Her thin shoulders lifted as she said, “Like was he ever caught shoplifting or caught being a voyeur?”
She might as well have dropped my car on my head. “A voyeur? A petty thief?” I scoffed so hard, I’m certain my spit rained upon the photographs of those poor people. Sucking in my quivering lip, I felt worse than I had all night after spitting on victims.
God, I’m the monster.
I picked up the coffee and took a quick sip. My tongue stung from its hot, bitter bite. “No,” I answered. “Nothing like that…” I tapped my fingers on the table as a faint memory rose to the top of my mind. “The neighbors did blame him for years for their lab’s death, but, there’s just no way. We always thought it was a bully in the neighborhood, someone the other kids on our street talked about, but never told us who it was.”
The inspectors exchanged a look that made my blood as hot as that black coffee.
My hands curled into fists. “That was the only time, the only real time he was so much as suspected of anything.”
“Sir,” the investigator on the right started. “Were there any situations where you might have felt…intimidated by your son? Even now?”
“Intimidated?” I shot my gaze to the other investigator, but his eyes were locked on the moving point of his pen. “I am not a coward. I’ve traveled all over this world and I’ve seen some things, but no, I was never intimidated by my son.”
The investigator continued, “Was there ever a moment where you or your wife may have overreacted to something that he or his younger brother did?”
I slammed my hand on the table. “You’re accusing my son of murdering seven people and you’re asking me if I overreacted to something? What a joke. I promise you, if my son did this, this is not my fault.” The last word choked me. It wouldn’t fully escape my lips. So I shoved out more. “If anything, anything, I’d be talking to my ex-wife if I were you. God, she was brutal toward our boys. She said she had to be with me traveling so much for work…but they were boys. She had to be firm, but God…” I sank deeper into my seat, the volume of my voice coming down with me. “What if she did something…horrible to them?”
“Sir, no one is casting blame here. We need your help to understand your son, Mr. Barry.” The detective’s voice became so soft her tone tossed me through one of my mind’s walls and into my son’s bedroom, twenty years ago.
He was just a boy. Six? No, seven.
He’d wet the bed…again.
His nana, my mother, was comforting him while my then-wife was throwing a fit so great it made our toddler’s tantrums look like a cozy vacation getaway. The last time he’d wet the bed, I’d been deployed, so I wasn’t able to address the situation, but this time, my mother, God rest her soul, spoke to him the way the detective just spoke to me. She whispered words of comfort to my boy. Calling him “Mr. Barry” as she told him there was no reason to be afraid of the dark hall at night if he needed the restroom. She kissed his cheek and told him that he was as brave as me.
Sitting before the detective with tremors running through my body, I didn’t feel brave.
I felt like a failure.
How could I possibly believe that this wasn’t our fault? Especially, my ex-wife’s. Unlike her, I never missed a Christmas. I never acted like a child in front of our children. I’d never even so much as spanked my sons or hit my wife, though she certainly nearly pushed me to that extreme when I caught her buying drugs from the pizza guy that one time.
God, my son. A murderer? With a mother like that, how couldn’t he be? But a…a…
I gulped, shoving the words down my throat.
Mr. Barry?” The detective’s sing-song voice called once more. “I know this is a lot. But the more you can tell us now, the better we’ll be able to understand your son to provide him the treatment he needs, ok?”
My stomach rose into my throat.
“That’s what his mother called it.”
The investigator on the left twirled his pin around his fingers. I know I was testing his patience, but they were taking my son from me.
I could feel sweat tickling along my receding hairline. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a napkin, dabbing it against my face.
“Treatment,” I whispered. “I was a civilian working for the Navy my entire career, so I traveled a lot for long periods of time. My wife, my ex-wife, used to call her methods of discipline for our boys while I was away, ‘treatment’.”
Sick rose to the back of my throat. I braced my knuckles against my mouth, trying to keep my carne asada tacos down where they belonged.
If only I could do the same with the memories that were arising like a flood amid my mind’s walls.
“She told me over the phone one time, I was in Beijing I think…” I could still feel the weight of the receiver in my hands as her words passed through the line: “I caught him looking through my unmentionables before he went to school. So I waited until he was taking his bath later that night and then I smacked him over the back of his head. He wept and asked me what he’d done. He was playing stupid. He knew…he knew.”
Sitting under the fluorescent lights of the police station, my stomach flipped up through my throat. I reached beneath the table for a trash bin my mind imagined, spilling my mostly digested tacos across the concrete floor.
The acid stung at my throat, making my nose sting. My eyes were already watering.
“I’m so sorry.” I gasped, my chest sinking in and out. I pressed the napkin to my lips.
The officers seemed unmoved by my trauma spilling across their floor. I probably wasn’t the first person to vomit as guilt ripped their insides a part.
As I sat up, the images on the table of what my son had done seemed to glow as bright as those humming lights above.
It’s funny what the mind picks and chooses to highlight and what to hide. My son’s demise had been in front of me for decades. I may never have missed a Christmas, but I missed everything else.
I wasn’t there to defend my boy, my sons from her.
From their own mother.
Turning my tear-filling eyes to the investigator on the right, I whimpered, “It’s my fault. This is all my fault.”