Originally published in the July 4, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is now back to his old routine, working the aftermath of a massacre, this one bigger and more terrible than he’d ever experienced before. But he hadn’t sought it out. It found him. Miller and 8-year-old Carleen were traveling through Missouri when it happened, and now everyone Miller’s met along the massacre circuit has descended upon Marquette — including Heffner, who has a score to settle with Miller. Over the years, Miller has comforted (and conned) survivors through a variety of means, with animal therapy, with spiritual profiles and later with “mediums” who could conjure the dead by digging into their personal data. But now, with Carleen, Miller has tapped into something else.
They were a week into the Cedar Creek massacre when Heffner came out of the Liberty Diner, wiry and lantern jawed, his big, buzzed head jerking this way and that as he scanned the street and sidewalk. Miller was parking the rental, Carleen perched on her seat beside him, prepared to jump out the second he killed the engine. Heffner looked up and down the street, walking right toward Miller and Carleen. If he pulled a gun or reached for Carleen’s door, Miller would punch the Hyundai up over the curb, either killing the man or buying enough space to back out of their spot and away.
Everyone who’d ever been to a massacre was in Marquette, where Cedar Creek had been located before the shooting and bombing reduced it to rubble. Miller craned his neck as he inched the car back, and when he faced forward again, Heffner was looking right at him, still coming. Miller jammed the gear shift into drive, ready to blast out. But there must have been glare coming off the windshield, because Heffner kept walking — right past them, not three feet from Carleen’s window.
Miller exhaled, settled into his seat.
“We’re going to be late,” Carleen said.
“We’re not going to be late,” Miller said, watching Heffner recede in his rearview mirror. He realized he hadn’t been breathing.
“We have to set up,” Carleen said.
Heffner stopped on the sidewalk in Miller’s mirror, his big head bobbing as he looked this way and that.
“Hold your horses,” Miller said.
Heffner resumed walking away.
“I don’t have any horses,” Carleen said.
He’d appeared in Rosedale four months ago, wanting a refund for the Cumberland massacre. Miller couldn’t remember what for — a donation to an advocacy group maybe, or an online action fund. Definitely not for the Echo program, which Miller never would have let him enroll in, Heffner the type who’d demand his money back after a thousand tweets and posts and comments had been invested in animating his lost son — not to mention the dough Miller would have had to lay out for the data. But he’d been everywhere in Cumberland, furious, rabid, popping up at the Marriott, collaring Miller at a vigil, ambushing him in the hotel lobby on what would become his last night in town. “What,” he said, “my money’s no good?” and Miller said, “It’s not about the money, man,” and Heffner said, “What’s it about — man?”
People had a right to be unhinged, especially if they’d lost a kid.
“Doing what we can for each other,” Miller said.
He heard how ridiculous he sounded.
“So do something for me,” Heffner said. “Mrs. Aeillo told me you bring kids back to life, like Houdini or something — not that I believe in that crap.” He looked at Miller, half pleading, half sneering. “But my wife will take whatever she can get,” he said, “even if it’s not real.”
“I don’t bring people back to life,” Miller said.
“Of course you don’t,” Heffner said, wheezing. “But you can help my wife pretend.” He pulled out an inhaler and hit it, his eyes never leaving Miller’s. “Even if pretending hurts her.”
“I don’t think the program would hurt her,” Miller said. “But it’s not for everyone.”
“Who’s it for?” Heffner said. “Everyone but me?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“I don’t want your goddamn program,” Heffner said, hitting the inhaler again. “I told you — it’s for her.”
“Okay,” Miller said.
“Okay,” Heffner said, clenching his jaw.
Miller took a step back.
Heffner balled his hands into fists and worked them back open.
“All right then,” Miller said.
“All right then?” Heffner said, hatred coming up hot in his eyes.
He twitched and Miller flinched.
“You make me sick,” Heffner said.
Heffner made Miller sick, too.
“You think I wanna need you?” Heffner said.
Survivors often had the power of repulsion, their grief becoming unbearable, but Heffner was the most repulsive survivor Miller had ever encountered, maybe because what was coming off him didn’t feel like grief so much as hate and hurt and a hunger to hurt. They made an appointment for the following week, when Miller would be gone, and for several months Miller forgot about Heffner, until he showed up in Rosedale looking for a refund, looking for revenge, looking for who knew what, a stench rising off him like rot. Thank God Wade had been there to lay him out. But Wade wasn’t in Marquette.
“Are we ever going to get out of this car?” Carleen said.
Miller had been so lost in thought he hadn’t seen Heffner disappear. He looked up and down the sidewalk, killed the engine. Carleen opened her door as Father Mike arrived to help them unload doll supplies into the church basement, where two moms and a dad were waiting to help set up. They’d spent days and hundreds of dollars assembling the sewing kits, Carleen’s idea following the last animal session. She’d seen lots of Cedar Creek kids in the past week, especially Fiona, and now as they arrived, she greeted them by name. Parents sat in folding chairs around the sewing tables in the middle of the room.
Miller kept his eye on the door, waiting for Heffner.
Carleen welcomed her students, her friends. “You can make lots of things,” she told them, “anything really.” She held up a mermaid doll as she talked, then a cowboy with stuffing sticking through his stitches. She held up other dolls, passed them around, a man in a top hat, a stern-faced woman with blonde hair, a peapod mom with peapod babies in a pouch on her belly. She held up patterns of people and cats and horses and ducks, and showed her students how to make their own patterns. “Just starting points,” she said.
“Can we make a rocket,” one kid asked, and Carleen said, “Sure you can, Cody.”
“Can we make cryptids,” another kid asked.
“I don’t know what that is,” Carleen said.
“It’s like monsters,” someone else said. “But real. Like Bigfoot. Or a Kraken.”
“You can definitely make those,” Carleen said. “Or you can make Laura Ingalls Wilder or Spiderman.”
“Can we make people we know,” another kid asked, and Carleen said, “You can, Michelle,” and Michelle said, “I’m gonna make Steffi,” and a woman against the back wall made a sharp sound like a gasp or a sigh or a moan.
“Oh,” she seemed to say.
Everyone looked at her.
She put her hand to her mouth, trying to hide or pretend nothing had happened. Parents on either side reached for her. She nodded, blinking, covering her mouth.
“A beautiful idea,” Father Mike said, moving toward Carleen.
“I’m sorry,” the blinking woman said, her hands fluttering away from her face.
“It’s okay,” Carleen said.
Father Mike touched Michelle, who looked like she might cry.
“You could also make Narcissa Whitman,” Carleen said, handing Michelle the stern-faced doll. “I have some of her hair here — which is almost two hundred years old.” She held up the plastic bag that had gone missing from Whitman College. “My dad can tell you about her.” She looked at Miller, who nodded, the case of the missing Narcissa hair solved.
“Come on everyone,” she said, “up here — grab a pattern, search the boxes.” The children rose and ransacked, gathering buttons and yarn and fabric. There were eighteen in all, maybe twenty-five parents, some of whom seemed to be survivors, a woman crying, but silently, holding hands with a man to one side of her and a woman to the other, who were perhaps lucky enough to still have living children. Miller watched the door for Heffner. Over and over he’d seen the pain of losing a child, first his nephew, then children all over the country, parents destroyed by their children’s deaths. But he’d never felt it as deeply as now, as he watched Carleen move from one child to the next, these few survivors, so many hundreds dead. He had an appointment to look at houses in Columbia at the end of the week, but maybe they would stay around Springfield. Heffner would leave once the massacre faded, and then they could settle into their lives. There wasn’t any reason to leave now, especially since Lizzie had gone silent, though she’d come around soon enough.
The door swung open — another kid. Everything was fine. The door swung open again, a parent this time. Heffner had no way of knowing where they were. Miller was so proud of Carleen, such a sweet, good girl, helping these kids, even if she had stolen Narcissa’s hair. The parents came out of their chairs to watch the kids stitch and cut and stuff and sew, the basement a hive of activity, Carleen the center of it all.
Originally published in the July 11, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Carleen may not be Miller Cane’s daughter, but like him, she’s found herself called to help the survivors of this latest American massacre: 500 dead, hundreds of kids not much older than 8-year-old Carleen. Miller, meanwhile, is seeing familiar faces everywhere, people he previously met working the massacre circuit, including Heffner, whose grief and anger have found a target in Miller. For her part, Carleen’s doll-making hobby has found new meaning as therapy for the town’s kids like Fiona. For months, Miller and Carleen have been traversing the West in a motorhome — uncertain when Lizzie, Carleen’s mom, might get out of jail and fearful that Carleen’s dad, Connor, might finally find them. But for the moment, amid all this grief, none of that matters.
That afternoon, Carleen went to Fiona’s house, where she’d be spending the night. Miller did not want to be away from her, afraid that Heffner would find her, but maybe she’d be safer there. They hadn’t spent a night apart since he’d picked her up on the Fourth of July, nearly four months ago, and he couldn’t help but worry, though he knew that being with a friend, building a friendship, would be good for her. He’d met Fiona’s mom, Tammy, at Laura’s house the day of the massacre, and he’d met her dad and sister earlier in the week, when he picked Carleen up from a play date. They were a nice family — devastated, but lucky too, because they were intact, and probably feeling guilty because of it.
After the doll session, Fiona and Carleen plotted their sleepover, which would be fine, Miller said, but Fiona had a therapy appointment first, and Miller and Carleen had plans to go to Baker Creek for lunch and a walk through the pioneer village, which meant they’d have to leave town and come back again through all the cops and press and protesters and parasites. There were already bastards on television claiming the massacre was a hoax, that the 500 dead were not really dead or had never existed — and if anyone should be massacred it was them, smearing the dead with their lies. You could hardly buy an assault weapon in Missouri or Kansas, every store sold out, though new shipments arrived daily. Hundreds of wrecked parents and students and survivors of previous massacres were in Jefferson City, demanding gun reform. Others were demanding looser restrictions so that everyone could conceal carry everywhere. The only way to stop the slaughter, it seemed, was complete annihilation. Protests erupted in Kansas City and St. Louis, D.C. and Chicago, New York, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, eleven survivors immolating themselves in Golden Gate Park — and none of it made any difference whatsoever.
Outside the church basement, Heffner was not waiting on the sidewalk when Miller and Carleen emerged. They loaded the car and headed toward their campsite on the other side of Springfield, nearly an hour from Marquette, where Carleen fed Waffles and packed an overnight bag with some clothes and her notebook, her Barbie Care Clinic and some bonnets.
“You did a good job today,” Miller told her as they drove toward Baker Creek.
“Justin lost his sister,” she said. “Kailee lost two sisters. Everybody lost somebody.”
“Not us,” Miller said. Not this time, anyway.
“My mom’s mad at me,” Carleen said.
“She’s just worried,” Miller said.
Carleen looked out her window. “Mrs. Zellman asked if we could come make dolls at her house with some other families. Benton’s dad asked if we could come to the farm. They have cows and horses and a stream we can wade in like Plum Creek.”
“It might be good to take a break for a few days,” Miller said. “Get out of town.”
“I don’t want to take a break,” Carleen said.
Miller pulled into Baker Creek, an heirloom seed farm in the middle of nowhere, with a restaurant featuring Asian food. It felt like a Krishna joint, except the people who worked there wore pioneer clothes. There were no prices — you paid whatever you wanted to pay, which Carleen thought should be a hundred bucks. Miller recognized a group of parasites from a previous massacre at a table in the corner, attorneys who organized class-action lawsuits. He’d seen people he knew all week, hucksters and grief specialists, survivors of other massacres in town to help the Cedar Creek survivors. Carleen filled their cups with cucumber water as the food arrived — Lo Mein and salad and ginger pancakes, all of it excellent. “We should pay two hundred dollars,” she said.
Miller handed her a fifty, which she deposited in the donation box by the door.
“You can have the rest of mine,” Carleen said. “I’m not hungry.”
She sat across from him, flipping through her notebook.
“Have you ever looked in my book?” she said.
“No,” Miller said.
“Good,” Carleen said. “Because it’s private.”
One on the parasites in the corner caught Miller’s eye.
“Do you believe in visions?” Carleen said.
“I’m not sure,” Miller said.
“Me neither,” Carleen said. “But I had one.”
Miller hoped the attorneys wouldn’t recognize him as a massacre colleague.
“Like Sitting Bull’s soldiers falling into camp,” Carleen said. “But mine was children falling into snow. Or maybe it was just from the The Long Winter.”
They’d been reading The Long Winter for weeks.
“Was it a dream?” Miller said.
“Kind of,” Carleen said. “Not really. It was just something I wrote in my notebook.”
The attorneys stood and made their way out, the last one depositing a twenty in the donation box.
“Some of the kids made dead dolls today,” Carleen said, “with blood on them and stuff.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Miller said, taking her hand. It all seemed so awful so often. But maybe making a dead doll was a good thing. Or maybe Lizzie was right, that they shouldn’t be here.
The day after the massacre, he’d had every intention of getting them out of there, but Carleen saw the newspapers in the lobby that morning, the pages and pages of lost kids and teachers and cops, every headline a variation of 500 Feared Dead. She couldn’t stop crying, even after he got her out of town. “We have to get the animals,” she said, crying. “We have to go to the vigil,” she said, crying. “We have to do something!” she said, crying. Maybe they did need to go to the vigil. After all, they’d been part of it — at least peripherally. He found a campground near Baker Creek and they marched that night in Marquette with the survivors, crying and carrying candles, Carleen there with the rest of them.
Lizzie called the next afternoon, the noise on the line unbearable, then perfectly clear. “Are you out of your mind,” she said.
Miller wasn’t sure she wanted an answer. Besides, maybe he was out of his mind.
“I saw her on TV,” Lizzie said, “crying with those kids.”
“The vigil,” Miller said.
“Right,’ Lizzie said. “But you’re supposed to be gone already.”
“The vigil was good for her,” Miller said.
“No it wasn’t,” Lizzie said. “You don’t know what’s good for her.”
He knew more than Lizzie did, since he was with Carleen, since he’d been to dozens of massacres. But he understood why she was upset. He was upset, too — if Carleen had been on TV, Connor might know where they were now.
“I ran into a therapist last night,” he said, “from Scarborough. Carleen’s seeing her right now.”
“Good,” Lizzie said. “But then you have to leave — okay?”
They were hosting an animal session the next day.
“I know you’re not trying to hurt her,” Lizzie said. “But what you’re doing is wrong. You don’t have to be there. Carleen doesn’t have to be there.”
“We do have to be here,” Miller said.
“You don’t,” Lizzie said. “And you don’t know the damage you’re doing.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” Miller said.
“There’s everywhere,” Lizzie said, “anywhere,” and Miller said, “We’re safe here.”
“You’re traumatizing her,” Lizzie said.
As if she wasn’t already traumatized. As if they all weren’t.
“Please,” Lizzie said through the rising, whistling static. “Do this for me.”
He didn’t know how to say no to her. He never had.
And maybe she was right, that leaving would be best. But the next day, two hundred people showed up in Father Mike’s basement to hold twenty-seven cats and dogs. Miller made phone calls, coordinated survivors to drive to Kansas City and St. Louis the next day to haul more animals to Marquette, enough for everyone.
Lizzie called that night. “You’re still there,” she said, but she sounded resigned, beaten.
“Let me tell her about the animals,” Carleen said.
“Why won’t you do what I ask you to do,” Lizzie said.
Miller handed Carleen the phone. “No, Mom,” she said. “We do have to be here.”
But now they would leave, tomorrow, at least for a little while. They walked through the pioneer village, with its jail and bakery and blacksmith shop. They hadn’t heard from Lizzie in days. Maybe she was calming herself, getting used to the idea of Carleen being here. There was no way she could understand what they were going through. Miller drove to Marquette, looking for Heffner everywhere. He dropped Carleen at Fiona’s, kissed her goodbye, and drove back through the massacre. He couldn’t bear the thought of going to the motorhome alone.