Friday
Mar092012

Villains

Eugene Cross




By May of 2007 I had finished school and moved home to Erie, Pennsylvania where I had just completed my first year of teaching at Penn State Behrend. I was using the summer to write and had also picked up a section of composition. In between the teaching and the writing, I tried to spend a lot of time with my mother and grandmother. My father had passed away in 2005 and even two years later we were all still adjusting, learning how to live without him. My grandmother was in her late eighties and independent. She lived alone in rural Waterford, in the house her and my grandfather had built before he died. On the afternoon of May 30th, I was leaving class when I got the kind of call I had come to fear. My grandmother had taken a fall and hit her head. My mother and various aunts and uncles were with her at the hospital. I drove there immediately and after the initial shock and concern had died down and we knew that my grandmother was going to be okay, I drove my mother home so she could get some rest before returning later. When we were nearly back, my mother turned to me and told me that she'd heard a girl screaming in the ER.

 

"Not for herself," my mother said, the look on her face pained. "She wasn't hurt." I remember the exact spot we were at when she said this to me. In a flukish way it seared itself in my memory. We were on West 38th Street near the zoo, right before you reach Glenwood Park Avenue.     

"Then why was she screaming?" I asked her. "For what?"

"I don't know," she said. "But that screaming. It was horrible. It was…" her voice trailed off. She looked out her window and we drove the rest of the way home.

At the time, my sister was an assistant district attorney in Erie, a job she'd worked hard for. She dealt with all of the child abuse cases, which was what she had wanted. Predators, baby-shakers, child abusers and pedophiles: these were the people she prided herself on prosecuting. She herself was pregnant for the first time. It had been a long and difficult process but finally with the help of fertility doctors she had gotten pregnant with, what none of us knew at the time, would prove to be healthy triplet girls. The same day my grandmother fell, my sister had been called out to a crime scene, a routine part of her job, to ensure that police and paramedics followed protocol. When we all met later to discuss my grandmother's health, she informed us that this crime scene had been different. Two little girls had drowned in a man-made fishing pond; one was two years old, the other twenty months. When my sister arrived, the girls had already been pronounced dead. Paramedics and police had overrun the house. Some of them, grown men, stood in the yard crying at what they had seen. The suspect was the girls' babysitter, a 19-year-old college student who had been napping while she was supposed to be watching the girls, one of whom was her step-sister, the other her neighbor. Later we would connect the dots and come to realize that this was the girl who my mother had heard screaming so violently in the hospital, raging against the grim reality of that day. But right then, all we could do was sit and stare.

Erie is a small town and in addition to dominating the local news, the story gained national attention. Facts came to light. The babysitter had been drinking at a bonfire party the night before the drowning's. In fact, the reason my mother had seen her at the hospital was because a state trooper had taken her there to have her blood drawn for its alcohol content. She had not left the party until after dawn, sending a text to a friend between 7 and 8 am that read "OK im finally done drinking and im rocked lol". Arriving home around the same time, she began watching her stepsister. When the neighbor arrived with her own little girl she found the babysitter asleep, her stepsister crying. The neighbor volunteered to wait there while the babysitter got some sleep and she did, about thirty minutes worth. When she woke she insisted repeatedly that she would be fine, even when the neighbor asked her over and over if she wanted her to call off from work and stay with the girls.

In the weeks that followed the drowning's, other facts were revealed. The babysitter had lied to police, initially claiming she had gone inside to answer a ringing telephone when the girls drowned, when in fact she'd been sleeping on the couch as they left through the open garage door and made their way down to the pond. After the drowning's the girl was temporarily released by the police. Having been kicked out of her house, the girl went out dancing that night at Pecadillo's, a local club. The babysitter was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter among other crimes. In the days following the incident she asked friends from the bonfire party to lie on her behalf. The tragedy was already unimaginable and still there was more. The two-year-old neighbor girl who had drowned had been something of a miracle. Her parents had married late and the mother had undergone fertility treatments for three years and suffered a miscarriage before becoming pregnant with her. She was their only child.  

            The story became a part of our town. It divided our town. It seemed everyone knew someone who knew the families involved. Our hearts ached for them. For the mothers and the fathers and the two little girls. But not for the babysitter, the girl who had so carelessly handled the two young lives placed in her care, who had been so irresponsible and selfish. The girl who went dancing the night her sister died. The papers painted her as a villain and in time the prosecutors would do the same. In truth it did not take much to do so. It was by no means a stretch. How could she be so irresponsible and stupid? And after the drowning's, how could she be so heartless and motivated by self-preservation? Lying to police, asking others to do the same. How could she dance the night two little girls died, a direct result of her neglect? And yet, I couldn't stop thinking about it, about her. I knew something the papers had not reported. I knew about the screaming. Had seen the way it haunted my mother. And perhaps more importantly, I had heard about it before I knew its context. That horrific screaming, all that pain and sorrow, had already registered in my mind as an independent occurrence. Only later did we understand the circumstances. And in addition, I had done so many stupid things in my own life, had been so reckless, as had my friends. My college roommate and best friend, the oldest of five, sometimes fell asleep while babysitting his younger siblings. And we drank, and sometimes drove drunk or high, and knowingly let others do the same. How many times had we narrowly escaped death and destruction? Or almost brought it to bear on others? How many times had we almost been her?

I couldn't escape it. It wouldn't leave me alone. And so eventually I wrote a story, about her, that babysitter. I wrote it in the second person because it's what the story asked of me. I tried to imagine what was on her mind that day, or whom. I tried to imagine how she loved her sister, all the ways that would never be told because sometimes one wrong, if it's bad enough, outweighs all the good a person can do, all the good they can have inside them. I tried to imagine how a villain can be a person, and also the opposite, how easy it might be to be her.