While talking to the colonel about how to administratively process Nicole’s death, I volunteered to walk through the house where she was murdered. We started the conversation sitting on opposite sides of the executive desk in his office. A bookcase stood against the wall facing us. Plaques from his previous commands and a rack filled with dozens of commander’s coins that he’d been awarded over his multi-decade career sat on the shelves. He had a large, hovering presence even while seated, but the power dynamic between us was the least of my concerns. Nicole was all I could think about.
“Contact HRO,” the colonel said, “to find out who Nicole’s next of kin is.”
“I’m sure it’s her sister,” I said.
“I think you’re right. When we know for sure, we can reach out and walk her through the benefits she’s eligible for.”
“And someone will have to go to the house to see if we can get any of her equipment back.”
When Nicole joined the Army National Guard, she borrowed a laptop, a load-bearing vest, a rucksack, and other tactical gear, which must have been somewhere in her rental home. I didn’t understand why the supply sergeants responsible for maintaining accountability of our equipment couldn’t file Nicole’s gear as a loss. The U.S. government wouldn’t miss a couple thousand dollars of stuff. But it seemed the colonel wanted someone to go anyway.
“I want to do it,” I blurted.
“You’re too close to the situation to have to see something like that,” he said, “especially if you’ve never seen anything like that before.”
As a second lieutenant, I should’ve said, “Roger that, Sir.” I knew walking through a murder scene wasn’t the type of experience I could prepare for, but I was certain I was strong enough to see whatever was on the other side of Nicole’s front door. I had to defy the indirect order. “Sir, I can handle it,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Alright then,” he said pensively. “Take a battle buddy with you so you’re not alone.”
When I walked out, I thought about the gravity of what I had asked, maybe a little unsure after all. I wondered how anyone would see something like that for the first time. I suddenly realized that on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where some of my coworkers had been more than once, death is forced into a soldier’s line of sight, and then it’s forced into their nightmares. I had never gone to war. I had never seen the kind of battle that spilled a friend’s blood.
I didn’t want to look away from Nicole’s murder because I wanted to test the depths of what I was capable of feeling. When I was four, my brother’s sudden death knocked my world off its axis. Weeks before his high school graduation, he died from a form of heart disease, of which death was the only symptom. I spent my entire life living in the shadow of a dead boy. Death was an ordinary part of my life. I thought about it often and anticipated its arrival. As a kid, the joy of getting a new toy quickly evaporated the moment when I realized that I could die at any moment too. The deaths of my grandmother, cousins, and uncle equate to more dying than most people will ever experience, but for me, those experiences were as ordinary as seeing shadows cast from moonlight.
Two decades later, one of my closest friends was dead. Nicole’s death, unlike the others, was hard to believe. I could still see the blonde strands falling from her bun as she zipped around our office building from one errand to another. I could still see her bunny teeth as she chattered in laughter about a new guy she was dating. I felt pain now in ways that I’ve never felt before, but I thought it might be a fluke. Experiencing the death of my brother so early in life taught me how to die before I learned how to live. I was afraid my reflex would kick in, and I would get over the loss as quickly as the people who had only known of her. A part of me hoped seeing the crime scene would make my pain last.
Within a few days, the Burlington County police released the crime scene, so a coworker and I hopped into a government-owned vehicle and drove 30 minutes west from Fort Dix to Mount Holly. The South Jersey towns we drove through moved from sweeping farmland to suburban expanse. The houses we saw along the way looked like Monopoly pieces spread across green islands.
When we pulled up to Nicole’s street in Mount Holly, I looked out the passenger window, realizing I still had a chance to look away. The houses on the block looked different from the others I’d seen on the way. Here, the houses lay nearly on top of each other, divided only by mismatched fencing. They had the same vinyl siding and over-flowing gutters. The sidewalks were broken and ripped up in places where weeds sprouted. Although it was February, it didn’t seem like greenery lived on that block in any season.
I thought about being at the house a few weeks prior. That night had been one of the few times when Nicole and I made plans that we actually kept. Before heading to a local bar, I stepped inside to meet her boyfriend and her father. Both men were polite and soft spoken. We exchanged a few pleasant words, and then Nicole and I left, not knowing that in a few weeks two people would be dead, and the other would be the murderer.
At the bar, Nicole and I shared drinks, laughed, and took a few photos. One image is tattooed in my memory. We sat cheek to cheek, smiling ear to ear. The background was a cacophony of vibrant reds, blues, and greens. I could still hear the clattering glasses and drunken conversations. We were both safe from jealous boyfriends, troubled parents, and the grind of everyday life because, in the moment, none of that mattered. Nicole didn’t have to complain about her boyfriend’s rage and I didn’t have to wag a finger at her insisting she leave him. We both felt free.
Staring at Nicole’s house now spoiled the sweet memory. A feeling of dread hung onto my shoulders and weighed me down. I walked up to the threshold knowing that on the either side of the door Nicole’s boyfriend had bludgeoned her and her father with some object the police wouldn’t name, while her teenage sister lay asleep in the attic. She woke up the next day, walked downstairs, and found her family laying in pools of blood. Nicole’s boyfriend was still in the house. When her sister saw him, she ran outside with her cell phone and called the police.
At the door, Nicole’s family-friends greeted us. They had been at the house for hours, getting rid of trash and recovering personal items the family wanted to keep. There was no turning back now. The front door opened into the living room. The couch where Nicole’s body was found sat in the middle of the room. Blood was splattered on some of the cushions and soaked into others. Heaps of clothes were strewn across the floor. This is when I realized the police don’t clean up crime scenes; they just take what they need and leave the rest for someone else to figure out.
I followed the narrow hall that connected the living room to a stairway on the left followed by a small bedroom and then the kitchen. A headboard leaned against the wall on my right. It came from the room where Nicole’s father slept. The headboard was pale green and had splatters of painted flowers and blood.
I walked up the misshapen steps to the second floor. I was careful not to graze the walls. In Nicole’s bedroom, there was blood splatter on the walls and on light fixtures and soaked into the carpet and into blankets. I didn’t know the details at the time, but after the murders were complete, Nicole’s boyfriend walked up to the bedroom with a knife and tried to kill himself too.
I stood in silent horror. My coworker walked in from behind me. He cursed under his breath, disgusted by the damage done to an entire family. I wished he would keep quiet. The moment we were standing in was already horrible. No one needed to speak the obvious truths. I don’t believe in god, but I needed silence—to pray, or, to just send as many loving thoughts to Nicole as I could. I had no room in my heart for anger toward the murderer. Instead, I wanted to fill that space with love for Nicole.
After sifting through a dresser to see what we could find, we walked to the closet. The door was ajar, so my coworker opened it. Nicole’s military gear spilled out. We realized we would have to trash it all. The equipment was blood-stained. I couldn’t believe the splatter reached inside the closet. There was nothing about Nicole’s murder that made sense.
That night, as I lay in bed, my thoughts rattled in my head. I wanted to know the particulars about Nicole’s murder. I told myself that knowing the why and the how would somehow help me find peace. I believed knowing would be better than wondering. I realized that, after learning the truth of my brother’s death, I had nightmares. I saw my brother’s heart, like armed guards, blocking his blood flow. The blood had nowhere to go, so in a desperate rage, it strangled his lungs, forcing out his last breath. I still can’t look away from that painful knowledge. I suddenly understood I didn’t need war to prepare me for anything that doesn’t already haunt me.
Susette Brooks is writer, editor, and educator. She is a graduate from the MFA in Nonfiction program at Goucher College and is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories. Susette is working on a memoir in essays about the lies she’s told as defense against childhood traumas. Visit her website: www.susettebrooks.com.