[img_assist|nid=8231|title=Break in the Armor by Brian Griffiths © 2011|desc=|link=node|align=middle|width=400|height=266]
Grace Churchill’s daughter died for the twenty-seventh time. It was the same room as always, bare white drywall under humming fluorescent lamps, a long wood table and stiff, squeaky chairs. The interview room, designed for discomfort. Grace listened along to the recording she now knew by heart, watching the lawyers across the table as they drummed their fingers and pretended to take notes and avoided her eyes. They never looked at her while it played – fear, she assumed, of seeing a mother in anguish.
There would be no tears. The lawyers heard Katie speaking from the grave in the recording. Grace just heard Katie.
Wilson Ross, the district attorney, had sat with Grace countless times to revisit the recording in the interview room. Today a younger attorney, a blonde woman named Emily, joined him. She wore glasses and a neat gray skirt and a serious expression as she listened. Grace knew it was the first time she’d done so when, twenty minutes in, Emily gripped the arm of her chair so tightly that her fingers grew whiter than the tips of her French manicure.
Twenty minutes in is when the shrieking begins.
They had offered at one point to give Grace a copy of the recording – a 911 call, captured from Katie’s cell phone nearly three months before, during That Night. Ross said it would be highly unorthodox (his words) to do so, but given her interest in hearing it repeatedly, he would make an exception. Grace came to the office three times a week, often more, asking to listen, drawn by the promise of her daughter’s voice. She wanted to understand why it happened. She needed to suffer with her child.
Grace did not want to bring the recording home. She thought it should never leave the interview room. There it was safe, stowed away in a small laptop computer, stored in a steel cabinet, and locked behind a sturdy wooden door. Outside of the room, she knew, it would follow her everywhere. Katie’s muted breaths, her shaking voice, begging to be heard, her mother obliging.
The tape faded to silence. Ross stood from his chair and hunched over the computer, closing the file and folding the screen down. He was unusually somber, moving with a tentativeness that was far from his normal head-high swagger. Ross was what her father used to derisively call Country Club, a man who lined his closets with monogrammed shirts, who whitened his teeth and darkened his hair and always had lighter skin around his eyelids from the tanning bed. He went to Stanford and mentioned it often. Whenever he’d approach Grace, he would briefly look down before meeting her eyes with a reassuring frown, as if recalling steps from the manual of dealing with Surviving Relatives. He thought of her as a nuisance, she knew, but he enjoyed seeing his name in the newspaper far too much to not be directly involved.
Ross sat down at Grace’s left. He gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
"We’ve got to give it to them," he said.
Grace said nothing. She looked from Ross back to the folded laptop on the table in front of her. Katie’s voice tucked away in its shiny black shell, marbles in a jar. Once released, it would spread uncontrollably.
"The judge issued her final decision this morning," he continued. "The tapes are public record. We’ve got no legal rights to keep them under wraps any longer."
"Who wants it?" Grace asked.
Ross paused. "All of them," he replied.
There are bumps, perpetual motion, as if the moment were recorded in a dryer at its lowest setting. The operator asks about the emergency, whether anybody is there, Hello? The dry rumble continues, then a muffled whisper, inaudible. Then, she speaks. Ray, please, she says. Ray, turn around. We can sit down and talk about it. You don’t have to do this. You’re not alone.
Ray says nothing.
There was a woman in a support group Grace attended whose daughter was abducted from a parking lot. She was a college student, and had been shopping at a department store for a television stand for her apartment. On security video, the girl could be seen walking out of the store and across empty asphalt, her outstretched arms wrapped around a large box containing her new assembly-required furniture. A man in a dark shirt and a baseball cap followed twenty feet behind her.
Grace remembered it well. The girl’s name was Libby Miller. Her body was found near a creek about a week after she disappeared from the department store. The last time she was seen alive was in that video when, in the far left corner of the screen, the man appeared to offer his help loading the box into the car. The grainy video of him grabbing her – the entire sequence, beginning with her leaving the store – played in an endless loop on television newscasts for weeks, always preceded by a stone-faced reporter warning viewers that what they were about to see was upsetting. An introduction designed to draw more eyes to the screen, to the tragedy unfolding on the blurred black-and-white security footage. Even after police caught the man responsible, the networks still found reasons to air the images, running stories about parking lot security or self defense or "stranger danger", but always – always – referring back to the video of Libby and her abduction.
The mother – her name was Sarah – said she no longer turned on the television for fear of seeing the footage again. Someone once told her the clip was on YouTube, under the title, "Abducted Girl’s Final Moments – Disturbing." It had received more than two million views.
"I couldn’t tell," Sarah said, "whether that last word was a warning or a suggestion."
Sarah couldn’t comprehend why Grace kept going back to hear her own daughter’s tape again and again. Neither could her family, her friends, the other parents in her group, or Ross, who only allowed her to do so because the psychiatrist said it would help her cope. When they listened to the recording, they heard only death. Grace heard it as well. Those final minutes, the screaming and fighting and choking, stained her memory the first time she heard it. Every quiet moment – at night in bed, or at home between the steady visits of condolence – it rang in her ears, inescapable as breath. She tried to drown it out with old VHS tapes from Katie’s school plays and cheerleading performances. But the voice from the 911 call shouted everything else down. When Grace thought of her daughter, the echoes of her murder smothered every other memory.
A week after first hearing the tapes, she asked to listen again. They sat her down in the interview room, set up the computer, and double-clicked the file. She closed her eyes and imagined herself in the backseat with Katie, where Raymond Jonas had forced her to lie after tying her hands and feet with strips of bed sheets from his room at the Gabriel Institute for Boys. Katie’s phone was in her front pocket, the investigators told her, and she had been able to call 911 by reaching around and using the speed dial. Grace whispered into Katie’s ear to stay calm, to relax, that her mother would protect her. She ran her hands along her daughter’s smooth face. She told her she loved her and that everything would be OK.
Grace returned the following morning and again a day later. Each time she listened, tense and nauseous, unable to turn away. She felt terror, anger, pain – what she imagined Katie felt while bound in the car. Joining in this suffering brought comfort somehow, as if her daughter hadn’t died alone after all.
"You’ll feel differently," Sarah once said after Grace attempted to explain her connection to the tape.
"When?" Grace asked.
"When the vultures get a hold of it."
No one responds to the operator’s questions, just a mild rumble, and the in-and-out fade of Katie’s voice. It’s difficult to hear what she says through the bumps in the road. The operator says to stay on the line, to be calm if you can’t talk, we’ll get you help, where are you? We’ll find you …
Grace and Katie had a tradition. On Sunday nights, the two put on pajamas and curled into the couch together, a week’s worth of reality television shows ready for viewing in the DVR. They made sundaes and hot chocolate, girls at a slumber party, gossiping and talking about their lives: Katie’s too busy with grad school and work for a boyfriend, Grace’s new supervisor is a bitch, did you hear about Linda’s daughter down the street? Grace secretly hated the television they watched so religiously – narcissistic garbage, she thought – but looked forward to Sundays regardless, to spending time alone with her daughter like they had when Katie was a little girl.
It had always been just the two of them. Grace nursed Katie, caught her after her first steps, taught her to ride a bike and throw a softball and braid her hair. The mom and the dad, rolled into one. Katie’s father was a man Grace had dated briefly and barely knew. She’d been past thirty, recently divorced and enjoying independence for the first time in her life when she realized one queasy morning that she was several weeks late. He did not have to know, she’d decided. Grace would love her baby enough for two parents.
She did once try to reach out to the father. This was after Katie began asking questions that couldn’t be answered with a simple sometimes god decides a mommy is enough. Grace made some phone calls and went to Google, uncovering an address about an hour away from their own. She wrote a letter, learned he had a family of his own, that he did not want to risk the turmoil Katie’s sudden existence might cause. Any further attempts at contact, he wrote, should be directed toward his attorney.
Grace told Katie she could not find him.
There was resentment – Katie rarely failed to mention her missing father during an argument – but Grace recognized it was never enough to damage the bond they shared. They were partners, working together on school science and home remodeling projects, splitting chores, seeking the other’s ear to vent frustration and air good news. They even looked alike: brown hair (Katie’s long and straight, Grace’s short and graying), chestnut eyes, tall and athletic. When high school began to pull Katie away – boys, cliques, activities, that first taste of teenage emancipation – Grace felt as if a part of her was being stolen away. Yet through graduation and college, through Katie’s taking the counseling job at Gabriel while weighing her grad school options, Grace could always look forward to Sunday evenings with her daughter.
That night in August, Katie called to say she’d be working her normal day off at the institute and would not be able to make it. Grace did not watch the shows they’d saved. She never would.
Ray? Ray, look at me. Where are you taking me? Ray?
The reporters first asked for the 911 tapes the day Katie’s body was found. She’d been left in a brown, weed-choked field behind an abandoned gas station on an empty road about 20 miles from Gabriel, where she’d last been seen the previous evening. Katie worked there for about eight months, her first job after graduating from college.
The rationale the newspapers and television stations used centered on the dispatcher who received the call. They said it was in the interest of the public whether the people answering emergency phone calls were doing their jobs, whether procedures had been followed. They wanted to know if Katie could have been saved, and if so, what could be done to prevent it from happening again.
This is what they said. Grace knew better.
The greater good was not their concern. Neither, she believed, was Katie’s well-being or memory. What they wanted was pornography, a sound byte with which to tease the 11 p.m. newscast, horror and violence and death their viewers could enjoy from comfortable couches, driving up ratings. Titillation. Like Libby Miller, unwitting star of cable and broadcast and World Wide Web, a life summed up in a cautionary tale, years of smiles and laughs and hugs and tears obscured by a blurred black-and-white video.
Grace understood the fascination.
Her father had been a soldier in Korea, and kept photographs from the war in a cigar box at the rear of his top dresser drawer. Inside the box, among snapshots of grinning young men holding guns and cigarettes and cans of beer, were photographs of dead bodies. Korean soldiers with gunshot wounds to the head. A pile of charred bodies near a ransacked village. A leg, attached to nothing, its foot wearing a sandal, lying undisturbed on a dirt road. She had discovered the photos as a child and returned to them often, unable to look away despite the horrors they depicted.
Once, when Grace was eleven, she slipped the old photos into one of her schoolbooks and secreted them to class. She showed them to her friend Mary on the bus, then Mary’s brother Robert when he saw the girls huddled around something in Grace’s lap. Robert, a seventh grader, brought two of his friends to see the photos once they’d descended the bus stairs into the schoolyard. A buzz soon electrified Walt Whitman Middle School, classmates and students she’d never before spoken with whispering during class and approaching her in the hallway, asking for a glimpse of the snapshots, the forbidden images burning between the pages of her history book. Some wrinkled their eyes and noses in disgust, looking away, then turning back for another peek, as if their first instinct required a second opinion. Others pulled the photos close, eyes widening, mouths slack, intensely studying the images. More than one grinned. Grace basked in the new found attention her father’s photos brought, eating with the older kids at lunch, standing by the basketball hoops at recess, where fifth graders never went. She laughed along with jokes about the people in the pictures. That’s the worst case of sunburn I’ve ever seen! You think he’ll be able to buy just a left shoe? She promised to look for more to bring the next day, even though she knew there were none left to uncover.
Grace glowed with celebrity as she walked home from the bus stop. She spotted a neighbor girl, Annie, who was a few years younger and went to a different school. Looking to maintain her high, Grace called the girl over, promising she had something amazing for her to see. They sat on a curb, Grace pulling out the book, opening its pages and slowly presenting the pictures, a ringmaster introducing the main attraction. She’d developed a routine, telling the jokes she’d heard throughout the day while unveiling each image. The burned bodies. The gunshot man. The leg. It wasn’t until Grace had finished that she saw Annie’s face: red, streaked with tears, mouth shut, choking back sobs.
"What’s the matter?" Grace asked.
"What happened to them?"
"They were in a war. My dad did it," she lied.
She couldn’t find an answer. Annie wiped the tears from her face and walked away, leaving her alone on the curb with the photos. When she got home, Grace placed them back in the cigar box, never to look for them again.
Grace hadn’t thought about those photographs for years before Katie died. Now, she couldn’t help wondering about the mothers of the men in the snapshots. Whether they’d been told how their babies died. If they’d had any contact with their sons in the weeks, months, or years spent off in battle. How they would feel if they knew that, in a cigar box halfway across the globe, photographs of their dead children were kept as souvenirs.
I don’t think she can hear me. Can you hear me, honey? I don’t understand …
Grace learned quickly what the reporters were truly after in the days following Katie’s murder. She spent nearly a full day about a week after it happened with Emma Stuart, a journalist from Channel 9 News in the city. They paged through yearbooks and photographs in Katie’s bedroom, reading her poetry, telling stories like the one where she skipped her junior prom because a friend was having a difficult time and needed support. Stuart held her hand, tears welling in her eyes. Grace cried at some point, and called Raymond Jonas a monster, a monster who should burn for what he did. It was a momentary lapse, words she wasn’t even sure she fully meant. But it stuck. After all that, the stories and keepsakes and memories, it was those tears and those words that made the two-minute clip on the evening news.
She stopped taking calls from the press, but the stories continued. They investigated how 16-year-old Raymond Jonas came to be held in a minimum-security facility like Gabriel when he’d been arrested for viciously attacking his female cousin. They questioned why it had been so easy for Jonas to slip past guards, across a lighted lawn and into the facility’s parking lot, completely undetected, and how he had gotten the knife he used to surprise Katie after she’d completed a rare weekend late shift. But it always came back to the tapes: Those 31 minutes that began when Katie reached her hand around to press a button on her cell phone and ended with her rape, stabbing, and strangulation. The police first offered a detailed explanation of the circumstances surrounding the call – how the operator was limited in her ability to send help because she couldn’t speak directly to Katie, that they tried to trace the call but couldn’t pinpoint its location. A transcript of the recording followed to give reporters a play-by-play account. When the press went to the courts, a judge offered a compromise: a pool of reporters could listen to the recording and describe what happened. The response was always the same. The public deserved the right to hear for themselves, they said.
Two months after That Night, in the interview room where Katie’s voice was safely locked away, Grace learned that the courts agreed.
Ray, are we stopping?
"I understand it’s difficult. But it’s the public’s right to know." Emma Stuart sounded surprised to pick up her phone and hear Grace’s voice. Grace had surprised herself by calling, in all honesty. She had left the District Attorney’s office only a few hours before, after learning the 911 tapes would be released to the media that afternoon. In her car on the way home, talk radio hosts discussed the court decision, with one promising listeners that portions would be aired later in the day. A friend called to tell her that an article had appeared on the local newspaper’s web site praising the tapes’ release as a victory for open government. They’d all be competing to get Katie’s terrified voice onto the airwaves first. Dialing Emma’s number was an act of desperation, Grace knew, but it was one of the few acts she had left.
"I’ve heard the call," Grace replied. "The woman did nothing wrong."
"Not everybody believes that."
"I do." Grace had met Shirley Jackson, the dispatcher who received Katie’s 911 call, at one of the court hearings. She’d been on a leave of absence since That Night, haunted, lying awake at night going over the scenario again and again, trying to determine what she could have done differently. Grace hugged her and told her she shouldn’t listen to what they were saying in the news, but the words slid right off the woman.
"I wish there was more I could do." Emma sounded like Ross, blowing Grace off under the pretense that she was trying to help. "The call will go to air. It’s not my decision."
"And if it were?" Grace asked.
She had no reply. Grace continued, "No good can come from airing that tape."
Emma remained silent for a moment, then briefly inhaled and held her breath, as if steeling to utter the next words. "I’ve been told you listen to them quite often."
The statement took Grace by surprise. There was an accusation in her voice, as if Grace’s desire to hear the recording somehow existed on the same plane as strangers in search of thrills. The judgment angered her – here was a girl not much older than Katie, who probably believed good was being done by putting that 911 tape on the evening news. Too young to know that ratings trumped public service every time.
"You’re not her mother," Grace said. "You couldn’t understand."
"Look, we’re not running the whole thing," Emma said. "They’ll cut it off before the … violent part."
Which is the violent part? Grace wanted to ask the question but stopped short, quickly ending the conversation and hanging up the phone. Even if Emma Stuart were on her side, she had been correct about one thing: She could do nothing to stop its airing. On Grace’s television, during the commercial break for an afternoon talk show, an advertisement for the evening news had already hyped the airing of the "dramatic" 911 call in the Katie Churchill murder case. The other stations were also likely doing so, as were the newspapers and everyone else trying to draw attention to their product. The anchors would warn viewers to prepare themselves for the disturbing footage, grim, studied looks on their faces that would disappear moments later during witty banter with the wacky weather guy. The recording would then hit the Internet, drawing millions of hits on YouTube and countless other sites, sometimes in snippets, others in full, unedited form. On the newspaper’s website, anonymous posters would use the comments section in the latest story about Katie’s murder to spout vitriol over illegal immigration and homosexuality and politics. Ross would hold a press conference decrying the judge’s decision, his suit neatly pressed, hair tailored, a practice run for his upcoming Senate campaign. Raymond Jonas would still be in jail. Katie would still be dead.
Grace turned off the television.
They’ll cut it off before the violent part. Her thoughts turned to another photograph, one that ran in newspapers across the country and won numerous awards when she was a girl. It showed a South Vietnamese soldier holding a silver handgun to the head of a Viet Cong prisoner. The prisoner was ragged, bleeding from the lip, hands bound behind him, wearing a checkered shirt that hung off his skinny frame like drapery. His face pursed in terrified anticipation, like that of a boy waiting for the doctor to prick him with a dreaded needle. A second after the picture snapped, the prisoner was shot. There were likely other photos taken after, showing the man’s lifeless body on the ground, a pool of blood and brain and skull. Images considered more violent than the look on a man’s face – the sound of a girl’s voice – when they know they’re going to die.
She wondered whether the boys by the basketball hoops at Walt Whitman Middle School had gotten a hold of that Vietnam photo. They’d probably invented more jokes as they passed it along in a circle, young hyenas smelling blood. It’s not good target practice from that close up! Snickering, pretending that there was nothing wrong with enjoying someone’s death. Their sons might gather in the same schoolyard tomorrow, pulling up Katie’s phone call on their iPhones, making the same cracks, ignoring the icy butterflies in their stomachs.
Grace wished she knew what happened to her father’s old cigar box with the Korean War photos. Maybe they were thrown away after her father’s death. Or, the box could have been lumped in with other junk dropped off at the charity donation center. Maybe it was resold to a customer who had no idea about its contents. That person could have had family in Korea, and recognized some of the bodies as brothers or sisters or fathers or neighbors, and packaged them into little envelopes and sent them across the ocean and back into the hands of the families who’d lost them all those years ago. Maybe they’d found their way home.
Gregory Kane teaches English and writing at a
middle school in Southwest Philadelphia. A former
journalist, his nonfiction work has appeared in numerous daily and weekly
newspapers. He was born and raised outside of Philadelphia
and currently resides in Haverford with his wife.
This is his first fiction publication.