Lena Rhodes was the first girl. The original. The one that started it all.
I remember Lena well, and not in the way most people remember dead girls. Not in the way distant classmates make up stories to seem relevant, the way former friends post old pictures to Facebook, rehashing inside jokes and shared memories, omitting the fact that they haven’t actually spoken in years.
Breaux Bridge remembers Lena solely by the picture chosen for the MISSING poster, as if that one moment frozen in time was the only moment she ever had. The only moment that mattered. How a family chooses one picture to encapsulate an entire life, an entire personality, I will never understand. It seems too daunting a task, too important and simultaneously too impossible. In choosing that picture, you are choosing her legacy. You are choosing the solitary moment that the world will remember—that moment, and nothing else.
But I remember Lena. Not superficially—I really remember her. I remember all her moments, the good and the bad. Her force and her flaws. I remember who she really was.
She was loud, vulgar, cussed in a way I had only ever witnessed when my father accidentally hacked the tip of his thumb off with a hatchet in his workshop. The filth that spewed out of her mouth was at odds with her appearance, which made her all the more mesmerizing. She was tall, slim, breasts disproportionately large compared with her otherwise boyish fifteen-year-old figure. She was outgoing, bubbly, her hair a sunflower yellow that she kept pulled back into two French braids. People watched her when she walked and she knew it; attention inflated her the way it had always deflated me, the eyes gazing in her direction making her glow even brighter, walk even taller.
Boys liked her. I liked her. I envied her, really. Every girl in Breaux Bridge envied her, until her face appeared on the television screen that awful Tuesday morning.
One moment sticks out in particular, though. One moment with Lena.
A moment that I will never forget, no matter how hard I try.
After all, that was the moment that sent my father to prison.
I turn the TV off and stare at my reflection in the dead screen. Every one of those press conferences is the same. I’ve seen enough to know.
The mother always takes control. The mother always keeps her emotions in check. The mother always speaks evenly, steadily, while the father grovels in the background, unable to lift his head long enough for the man who took his daughter to look him in the eyes. Society would have us think it’s the other way around—that the man in the family takes control, the woman cries silently—but it’s not. And I know why.
It’s because the fathers think in the past—Breaux Bridge taught me that. The fathers of the six missing girls taught me that. They’re ashamed of themselves; they think what if. They were supposed to be the protectors, the men. They were supposed to keep their daughters safe, and they failed. But the mothers think in the present; they formulate a plan. They can’t afford to think in the past because the past doesn’t matter anymore—it’s a distraction. A waste of time. They can’t afford to think in the future because the future is too terrifying, too painful—if they let their minds wander there, they may never return. They may break.
So instead, they think only of today. And what they can do today to bring their babies back tomorrow.
Bert Rhodes had been an absolute wreck. I had never seen a man cry like that before, his entire body convulsing with each tormented moan. He used to be a relatively attractive man in that rugged, working-class way: toned arms that made his shirt seams bulge, clean-cut jawline, amber skin. I barely recognized him on that first televised interview, the way his eyes sunk into his skull, drowning in two pools of purple. The way his body slumped forward, like his own weight was physically too much to carry.
My father was arrested at the end of September, almost three full months after his reign of terror began. And on the night of his arrest, I thought of Bert Rhodes almost immediately—before I thought of Lena or
Robin or Margaret or Carrie or any of the other girls who had vanished over the course of that summer. I remember the red and blue lights illuminating our living room, Cooper and I running to the window, peering outside as the armed men barged through the front door and yelled, “Freeze!” I remember my father in his recliner, that old leather La-Z-Boy that was so worn in the center it was soft like felt, not even bothering to lift his head and glance in their direction. Completely ignoring my mother in the corner, sobbing uncontrollably. I remember the shells of sunflower seeds, his snack of choice, stuck to his teeth, his lower lip, his fingernails. I remember how they dragged him, his walnut pipe tumbling from his lips and staining the floor black with ash as that slender sleeve of seeds cascaded across the carpet.
I remember how his eyes locked intently on mine, unflinching and focused. Mine, then Cooper’s.
“Be good,” he said.
Then they dragged him through the door and out into the damp evening air, slamming his head against the cruiser, his thick glasses cracking in protest, the flashing lights turning his skin a sickening shade of crimson. They ducked him inside and shut the door.
I watched him sit there, quietly, staring ahead at the mesh metal divider, his body completely still, the only decipherable movement the trickle of blood creeping down the bridge of his nose that he didn’t bother to wipe away. I watched him, and I thought of Bert Rhodes. I wondered if knowing the identity of the man who took his daughter would make things better or worse for him. Easier or harder. It’s an impossible choice to be faced with, but if he had to choose, would he rather his child be murdered by a complete stranger—an intruder in his town, in his life—or a familiar face, one he had welcomed into his home? His neighbor, his friend?
In the following months, the only time I got to see my dad was on television, his framed glasses, now fractured, always cast down to the ground below him, his hands cuffed tightly behind his back, the skin on his wrists pinched and pink. I pressed my nose to the screen and watched as people would line the street that led to the courthouse with homemade signs scribbled with horrible, nasty words, hissing as he walked past.
Murderer. Pervert. Monster.
Some of the signs featured the faces of the girls—the girls who had been on the news in a sad, steady stream over the course of that summer. Girls who weren’t much older than me. I recognized all of them; I had memorized their features. I had seen their smiles, looked into their eyes, once promising and alive.
Lena, Robin, Margaret, Carrie, Susan, Jill.
Those faces were the reason I had a curfew at night. They were the reason I was never allowed to walk alone in the dark. My father had been the one to enact that rule, spanking me until my skin was raw when I stumbled home past dusk or forgot to close my window at night. He had injected pure fear into my heart—a debilitating dread of that unseen person who was the cause of their disappearances. That person who was the reason why those girls had been reduced to black-and-white pictures glued to old cardboard. That person who knew where they were when they took their last breaths; what their eyes looked like when death finally took them.
I knew it when he was arrested, of course. I knew it from the moment the police barged into our home, the moment my father looked into our eyes and whispered: Be good. I had known it before then, really, when I finally allowed the pieces to fall into place. When I forced myself to turn around and face the figure I could feel lurking behind me. But it was in that moment—alone in my living room, my face pressed against the television screen, my mother unraveling slowly in her bedroom, and Cooper shriveling into nothing out back—it was that moment, listening to my father’s ankle chains rattle, watching his blank expression as he was moved from cop cars to prisons to courtrooms and back. It was that moment when the weight of it all came crashing down, burying me alive in the debris.
That person was him.