After discovering a photograph in a book of a little girl killed by her own mother, a woman becomes preoccupied wondering how anyone could kill their own child. One hot summer day the answer becomes all too violently clear. A short psychological thriller from our Fingerprints line.
She wished she had never picked up the book in the first place. Wished she had never gone into the bookstore and lifted it from its shelf. But there was the morbid curiosity thing: that stopping to look at accidents on the highway compulsion from which we all suffer.
The book was a collection of crime scene photographs, with notes from a New York homicide detective, who was now retired. These actual scenes of death had no glamorous patina that some thriller movie would give them. The blood was real; the suicide victims with their heads blown off real; the burned bodies real; the executions real…clinical in black and white; sad demises recorded without one whit of sentimentality or sympathy. It made her realize that death was just as mundane, and ugly, as eating a piece of cabbage or taking a shit.
And then she came to the little girl. Oh God, she wondered, hand trembling, match’s flame wavering as she brought it to the tip of her cigarette. Oh God, why did I have to turn the page? Why did I have to see that photograph?
It was just one of many. There among the murders, the decapitations, the lovers’ quarrels that had ended in a way that ensured no one would ever love again. All of these were shocking, she could give them that much, but they were so outrageous, with all the blood, the grim display of brain and other interior matter, that they managed to keep her at a distance. She couldn’t get emotionally involved.
But then she came to that page.
That one photograph had burned itself indelibly into the soft pink tissue of her brain. A kind of branding…. As much as she would try, she knew she could never forget it. Almost of its own will, the photograph would rise up in memory, painstakingly detailed, as if she were doomed to open the book again and again to that same page, reliving the nausea for the rest of her life.
The little girl had been seven years old. She lay on a concrete floor: a women’s restroom near Coney Island. Her hair, looking light brown in the stark black-and-white forensic photograph, lay in ringlets. Her pale limbs, straight, thin, with no womanly development, were as white as marble, contrasted with the grimy floor. Cigarette butts and Kotex wrappers lay nearby. She was just another piece of garbage.
And her little outfit! It never failed to bring tears to her eyes to remember those clothes. She remembered wearing outfits like that herself as a little girl, circa 1965. Her outfit, she thought, biting her lip to hold back the sob/hiccup she had produced when she was first assaulted by the image…her little outfit evoked tenderness. It inspired her imagination, causing her to wonder about the mother’s hands who had dressed the little girl in it that morning.
“There, don’t you look pretty? Turn around for me.”
Polka dots. A summer outfit, made from cotton. Who knew the color? Everything had melded into the unsympathetic gray of a crime scene photo. A tiny ruffled skirt and matching sleeveless midriff top. The skirt had white polka dots, while the top contrasted, with polka dots the color of the solid part of the skirt, on a white background.
She wore white patent leather shoes. Anklet socks, rimmed in lace.
And she had been strangled.
The homicide detective’s notes said that the little girl had been strangled by her mother.
She stared at the photograph for longer than she should have. Maybe if she had flipped to another page, horror and sorrow making her recoil, she would not be a prisoner of this image. But she had stood in the air-conditioned chill of the bookstore, unable to tear her gaze away from the little girl lying on concrete, lips parted and eyes staring at nothing forever.