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The Children in my House’s Walls

The children in my houses walls


Estimated reading time — 31 minutes

The head in the wall was crusted and decayed, mummified in its plastic shroud, the withered face open-mouthed in a scream—or maybe the jaw had loosened as the muscles decayed. The plastic is what held in the smell, though I do vaguely remember sometimes an odor permeating, especially during steamy summers. (I was always told the smell was garbage.) Alongside the head, other parts sat similarly stored in plastic bins. When I finally saw the corpse from the wall reassembled, it was hard to believe that anyone would do this to another human being…. Harder still to imagine it was my own father who committed such horrific acts.

When asked why he’d done it, my father always gave the same answer….

As I recount the story now, I picture him in that interview room. How he must have looked facing the police. Victor Chen was a small, nervous, almost delicate man. He must have been petrified, his eye swollen shut and his lip bleeding, his hands rubbing and rubbing, nails digging deep into the flesh of his wrists and palms as they peppered him with the same questions over and over: Why? Why children? Why in the walls? Why—

“I had to.” Tears running down his cheeks, this was all he would say: “I had to.”

“—Why little kids, you sick bastard?” I imagine the officer’s sneer, imagine how my father cowered as the man struck him. “We know what you did to them. Why you wanted them—”

“N-no! I never did anything to them! I just killed them.”

“You just killed them.”

“Yes.”

“You expect me to believe—”

“I had to!”

If the interrogation went anything like my father said, that officer beat him within an inch of his life. Only after he was on the floor, groaning and at the brink of unconsciousness, did the second officer intervene, pulling back the violent one. They hustled my father back into his chair. The calmer officer spoke in measured tones: “Now Mr. Chen, tell me what happened to Mary Louis, Kaylee Jenson, Kyle Sanderson, Terri Choi, Evie Connor. You obviously put a lot of thought into everything. Packing them into the walls takes a lot of materials and preparation. You must have had a reason for choosing them. What was it?”

But he would not say.

When I confronted him, it did not go much better at first. He wouldn’t speak for ages. Just at there with his head down and tears dripping from his eyes. Finally his gaze lifted.

“I suppose you think I’m a monster,” he whispered.

“Are you?” I asked.

He burst into sobs. Through his hands, his muffled, repeated line: “I had to!”


***


My father’s crimes were not motivated by any of the reasons commonly ascribed to serial killers. They were not sexual in nature, and while most of the victims were minors, they ranged in age from eight to eighteen, and he also murdered his own brother. Regardless of who they were, all bodies received the same treatment—dismemberment, plastic wrap, concealment in the walls. Some were childhood friends of mine, though none of them close. He chose carefully, it seems, meticulous with his murders as with his blueprints (he was an architect—a trade that served him well). And yet growing up, I never had the slightest inkling of what lay within our walls. Indeed, I could not have imagined it.

My father was shy and soft-spoken in public, warm and kind in private. What I remember most about him is his laughter. The way his eyes would crinkle. He was devoted to the memory of my mother, who passed away when I was so little I could not remember her. In later years I often saw him with dark circles under his eyes, and his smile became rare. Our relationship was strained by my teenage rebelliousness. But one thing I was certain of growing up: he loved me more than anything or anyone in the world.

Yet when I look back now… I can see that there were always hints of his darker tendencies.
For example: when I was seven years old, he taught me to butcher a pig.

Now, to my mind, this is not something to expose to a small child.

But there we were, a pig splayed out on the basement table, its eyes glassy and mouth gaping, blood dripping from its severed head onto his shoes. He explained that rather than buy meat in expensive packaging, we could save money by butchering and freezing the meat ourselves.

Of course I shrieked hysterically.

He clicked his tongue, chopping off its trotters and dropping them in a bucket as he reminded me how I loved bacon. And pretending the bacon just magically appeared in an aisle in the grocery store was a kind of dangerous magical thinking that allowed all sorts of atrocities. “You can do anything evil,” he declared, “if you sanitize it in plastic.”

A chilling statement in retrospect.

Then there was the time my uncle came to work for us.

My father did not like Uncle Rudy. I have a better understanding of why now, but at the time, all I knew was that Uncle Rudy was perpetually borrowing money. At the urging of my grandparents, my father (who was never rich but made enough to live comfortably) hired Uncle Rudy to do some work on the exterior of the house. There were strict parameters my uncle had to follow. Some of these were sensible, such as not to consume alcohol. But other precautions struck me as especially harsh—for example, my uncle was only briefly allowed to come inside for bathroom breaks, and at all other times (even for lunch or water breaks) he had to remain outside in the sweltering sun.

But as was often the case in those days, my father was not always present to enforce these rules.

One day when I got into trouble at school, my father could not be reached. It was Uncle Rudy who picked up the phone and agreed to come and get me. At home, he gave me a coke (my father only let me have soda occasionally, claiming it was bad for my teeth), and told me the girls who bullied me were a bunch of “shitheads.” I giggled, reveling in his rebellious language, and feeling immediate kinship with him.

Thereafter, while my father was away at work, I would invite Uncle Rudy to sneak inside to watch TV with me. He was always smiling and chummy. And when he started drinking beer while I had soda, it was our little secret—we were both breaking my father’s rules.
Then one day, as we sat watching TV on the sofa, he squeezed me and told me what a special little girl I was. Didn’t I know how special?

His breath stank of beer, and his sweaty, hairy arm draped over me. I didn’t like his face so close but didn’t know what to do or say, and he kept rubbing my back, his hand sliding under my cotton shirt, his fingers hot on my skin. He leaned his head close to mine, his lips against my ear, speaking softly like he was trying to make me feel better, only he made my insides squirm.

That was when my father came home. Uncle Rudy withdrew immediately as the door opened, but my father must have suspected something because his eyes narrowed to slits. He sent Uncle Rudy outside to finish working and right away sat me down to ask me what happened.

“Oh… he was just asking me about school…” For some reason, I felt compelled to protect my uncle.

My father’s eyes honed in on the beer. “Was he drinking?”

“… only a little.”

“Sadie love, I promise you are not in any trouble. No, no, no trouble, you hear? But it’s very important that you tell me the truth. Did he… was he sitting very close to you? Touching you?”

I couldn’t meet my father’s keen eyes. I nodded, biting my lip. Feeling like I’d betrayed Uncle Rudy. But also… I hadn’t liked his closeness, his beer stinking breath. My father was always clean and smelling of cologne or aftershave, and not sweaty and breathy like Uncle Rudy. I explained, “He was rubbing my back.”

“Like this?” My father rubbed my back.

“… under my shirt,” I admitted.

He went pale. But just as quickly, his expression smoothed over. “Well sweetheart, we’ll talk a little more later, hm? Thank you for telling me. You’re a very bright girl. And the girls at school who’ve been bullying you are all stupidheads.”

I giggled. “They are. Big dumb stupidheads!”

“The biggest and the dumbest.” My father poked me, which made me squeal, and then told me to go on up to my room, read some books and we’d go get ice cream later. “I just need to have a quick word with Uncle Rudy about the yard. All right? Go on then.”

I went upstairs, smiling. But I knew he was putting me on, and so I snuck back downstairs to eavesdrop. As I neared the office door, I caught my uncle’s booming protestation:
“Wha—Jesus flipping Christ, I was comforting her, that’s all! What the hell do you think I was doing?”

The screech of a chair against the floor. Through the gap in the door, I could just see my father lunge, gripping my uncle by the shirt. My father was, as I’ve mentioned, a slight man, especially compared to my bullish uncle. And yet whatever it was my father hissed into his face, it made my uncle go pale with fear, recoiling as if my father were a spitting cobra.
“Fuckin’ crazy!” burst Uncle Rudy, breaking his grip and storming out. Both of them saw me, but Uncle Rudy just flared his nostrils and bouldered past.

I stood awkwardly in the hall, trembling. The feral rage vanished from my father’s face, and he rushed over.

“Oh, Sadie, I’m so sorry… I should’ve known better! Your grandparents… they begged me to help him. I thought if I had rules… I’m so sorry, my darling—”

I didn’t really understand at the time why he was so distraught. My uncle had done nothing but rub my back and tickle my ear with his whiskers and disgusting beer breath. I didn’t know about the other things my uncle had done that my grandparents had hushed up, protecting their eldest son. And even though I’d come out of the encounter unscathed, I think my father still felt the deepest regrets.

Things became very strained between him and my grandparents after that. He stopped taking me to visit them. We were isolated, a family of two—another reason, perhaps, that no one suspected what he hid in those walls for such a long time. There was no one in our lives except us.

If it’s hard for you to reconcile this paternal figure with the bodies dismembered and wrapped in plastic… well… imagine how hard it was for me, when I finally figured out what he’d been up to all these years.


***


The first disappearance happened when I was in second grade.

I had a sleepover just before my eighth birthday (celebrating early because my birthday fell on a school night, and my father was very strict about the importance of school). Four friends came over, and we were slicing the cake when a little girl knocked on my door.

Her name was Mary, and she lived up the street. During summers when school was out and my friends were on vacation, there weren’t many other kids on our block, so Mary and I were sort of stuck with each other as playmates. But once school started up again I’d usually shun her in favor of school friends until the next summer.

She knocked on my door to invite me over, but seeing I was having a sleepover, she got very excited.

I didn’t want her joining us, and gave her some white lie about how we didn’t have enough cake (I am not sure how, just shy of eight years old, I already had a facility for white lies—or what this says about the example my father set). Mary’s face reddened at my rejection, and she was about to sulk away when my father told her of course she could join the party.

When she refused, he offered to at least get her a party gift bag. Mary looked at the toys my school friends had gotten in their gift bags and temptation won over pride. She waited while he prepped the bag. He gave me a look—the look he’d give when I hadn’t done my chores or did poorly on a test or otherwise disappointed him. Then he brought the gift bag out to Mary.

Certain he’d reprimand me later, I stuffed myself with cake—as if, by eating as much as possible, I was somehow proving my right to have everything my way.

Later, my friends and I were in my room in a sea of beds laid out on the floor, with a tent for me, and fairy lights strung up all around. I was feeling in good spirits by then, so when my father came in to wish us goodnight, I asked him if Mary liked her gift bag. Rather than the reproach I was expecting, he actually flinched. Mumbled good-night, and served us all bedtime hot cocoa. I didn’t finish mine because I’d had so much cake.

In retrospect, this is probably the reason I woke up.

It was the scream that jolted me awake.

I shot up, gasping. Eyes wide, goosebumps prickling my arms. Vaguely, I wondered if I’d only been having a nightmare. Pushing the covers off, I set my feet on the floor. My friends were all sound asleep.

Light shone under the bedroom door.

Careful not to step on any of my cocooned friends, I tiptoed to the door and peeked out into the brightly lit hallway.

“Dad?”

Silence.

I padded down the staircase.

In the shadowed living room, remnants from our party lay scattered around the sofa. That was unusual. My father was very tidy and never left a mess overnight. Light poured from the kitchen door, and I went in, observing the mound of dishes stacked by the sink, cake crumbs and frosting crusting the plates. At the far end of the kitchen, the basement door was ajar. And from below… rustling. The crackle of plastic. The chest freezer opening and closing.

Then the tread of footsteps on the stairs. I stood frozen, a deer in the headlights as the door hinges creaked and my father emerged. He was dressed in what looked like baggy, throwaway clothes from Goodwill, with an apron tied around his waist. An apron soaked in red. And his face bore an expression I’d never seen before—a peculiar, manic gleam in his eye.

“Dad?”

He stopped in his tracks, voice hoarse. “Sadie?”

I just looked at his bloody apron.

He quickly removed it and bunched it into the sink. “Sadie, what are you doing awake? It’s three in the morning!”

“Is that blood?”

His eyelids fluttered. Then he said, “Go sit at the table.”

I sat. I heard the kitchen faucet turn on, and the sounds of scrubbing. The flicker of the stove. A few moments later my father came in with a cup of hot cocoa, which he insisted I drink. I became drowsy even before I finished it, and all but collapsed in my chair, only vaguely aware as he lifted me and carried me upstairs. I remember feeling sick—partly from the drink, but mostly from the smell. He smelled so strongly of blood…

In the morning, I woke to an empty bedroom.

My father told me my friends were all at school, but he hadn’t wanted to disturb me. I was feeling groggy and unwell, so I believed him when he said I had a fever. By afternoon, I was better, and the next day went to school as normal.

You might wonder why I never suspected anything. But when I saw all my friends the next day, they all teased me for being gluttonous and eating too much cake, and they exclaimed about the fairy lights and gift bags. That was all. Everything seemed normal. Besides, it was not long after that incident—the very day after the party, in fact—that my father showed me how to butcher a pig. And so the image of my father in a bloody apron became firmly associated with pork in our chest freezer. If I had any recollection of screams in the middle of the night—well, I assumed it was a pig.

A few days later, my father did some renovations, tearing open the space under the stairs and patching it up over some “leaky pipes.” When a garbage smell permeated the walls, he told me it was sewage, that it was the pipe problem, but that it would go away soon.

It did.

And when I finally wondered again about Mary, after she didn’t turn up to play for weeks—well, the story of the girl who went missing on our street seemed a tragic cautionary tale. Sad, but unrelated to our house. My father acted very sorry when he found out. He sent flowers to the family, and always referred to her as “that poor, sweet girl,” and wouldn’t let me wander our neighborhood alone because of what happened.

Is it any wonder I was completely taken in?


***


But WHY did my father butcher my playmate?

There are many theories. Some claim my father had dissociative identity disorder—a classic split personality.

Or another theory. Victor Chen was given to visual and auditory hallucinations. He heard voices dictating what he should do, and believed that if he did not obey, terrible things would happen to his family. And so he succumbed to these violent delusions, though they were merely products of a damaged brain.

Or the most popular theory—that he was just evil. That his mild-mannered persona was a front, beneath which lurked a scheming Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. This theory, by far the most popular, is the one that makes the least sense to me. Because you would not think such a predator would make an exception for his own daughter. Typically abusers target those closest to them. And yet, I never saw this side of him that people claim was his “true” self. Only the occasional, mysterious glimmer of desperation… and the sense, especially throughout my teenage years, that some sort of shadow was devouring him from the inside.


***


The next two disappearances happened in my tweens.

The first was a girl from school who was supposed to come over for a project. She never showed. Police interviewed me and my father several times, but since I truthfully reported that I never saw her, I think the suspicion that might otherwise have settled on my father was deflected.

The second was the first and only boy among his victims. Kyle Sanderson had been blowing spitballs and pulling my hair on the bus to school. When I complained about it to my father, he questioned me intently—the boy’s name, where he lived, where he was picked up by the bus. He said he would call the school. A few days later, Kyle was not on the bus. I assumed my father had somehow made arrangements to rearrange our bus pickups, but when I asked, my father admitted he’d been too busy and hadn’t contacted the district. He promised he would soon.

But of course, Kyle never returned to the bus. We children were once again put under strict watch and ordered never to walk alone in the streets. Mary Louis, Kaylee Jenson, and now Kyle Sanderson—somewhere in our quiet burb lived a predator.

Each time a disappearance happened, that garbage smell would return—just a faint whiff that wouldn’t let up—and my father would forbid me having friends over, making excuses that the pipes were bad or an animal had died in the attic. Soon enough it would fade.

It wasn’t until the most recent time, when my father was finally caught, that I saw his true, monstrous nature—because I was the one who caught him.


***


I was seventeen, and excited for a weekend trip with my best friend Miki. We were planning to go swimming and have a bonfire party at Miki’s cousin’s house. My overprotective father had never once allowed me to stay out past an 11pm curfew, so to go unchaperoned through the whole weekend felt like the most liberating thing in the world. Frankly, it was odd he’d agreed to it, but I figured all my rebellious sniping had finally worn him down. His manner was almost mechanical when he warned me against the use of alcohol and reminded me to text him when I arrived. As he was walking me to Miki’s car, he also warned me to be careful about boys at the party—plenty of friends, he said, had dark secrets and couldn’t be trusted, especially after a few drinks.

Rolling my eyes and promising for the umpteenth time that I’d be safe, I left.

But during the long drive, Miki and I got into a heated argument. I don’t remember what it was about now, just that I called her silly and shallow, and she called me selfish and melodramatic. Before I knew it, I was on my way home—in a taxi, since I couldn’t bear the shame of both bailing on the trip and having to be collected like an immature baby by my father. I cried all the way back, so I supposes yes, I was being pretty melodramatic. It was well after midnight by the time I finally entered the house, and I was greeted with the sound of banging.

THUD! THUD! THUD!

I stopped in the door, mouth agape. My father hadn’t told me of any renovation plans. But the lights were on upstairs, the banging sounds coming from my bedroom.

“Dad?” I called.

Immediately, the banging stopped. The rustle of plastic, and hurried footsteps. My father came out, shutting the door to my bedroom just as I reached the top of the stairs. “Sadie?” He looked panicked. “What are you doing here?”

“Why are you in my room?” All I wanted was to fling myself on my bed, scream into my pillow, and cry about my spoiled trip. The last thing I needed was my father to be in one of his house rearranging moods. Especially not in my room.

“R-renovations. You weren’t supposed to be back until Monday!”

“Miki was being a bitch—” I tried to push past him, but he blocked my way.

“No—there’s—asbestos. It’s dangerous to breathe.”

“You’re not wearing a mask.” Suddenly suspicious, I felt a flash of anger, incensed he’d violated my privacy by entering my room. And maybe—just maybe—the suspicion of some darker secret sparked in me. A spark of fear—uncertainty—because why was my father lying about asbestos? What was he hiding in there?

I grabbed the knob.

“NO!” His hands gripped my arms. “Go back downstairs, take your bag, and leave.”

“Ow! Dad—”

“Leave!”

His grip was like talons, so tight it felt he might break the skin. Tears started into my eyes. His brusque manner, the wild gleam in his eye—all of it set my heart hammering. Panic gave me strength to break loose and shove him. He slammed, hard, against the wall. I grabbed the knob and rushed in.

“No, no, no! Don’t! NO!” His warning dissolved into a wail, and I glimpsed him biting his fist to control sudden sobbing.

I slammed the door and locked it behind me. Terrified. I’d never seen him in such a state.
And then I turned and saw what he was hiding.

My eyes raked across my belongings, arranged in one corner of the room. These were all the items from my closet, I realized, carefully sorted and stacked—far neater than the slovenly pile I usually left. The closet door was open, and the framing of a false wall lay partially constructed at the very back, shortening the walk-in space by about a foot. Shoved into this area were plastic bins and plastic bags. But my father had not finished stuffing them all back there. One of the bags, tightly wrapped and swathed in layers of plastic, lay on the floor at my feet, as if hastily dropped when he heard my call. I bent down to lift it, turning it in my hands, and then I gasped.

The bag fell from my fingers.

… hair? Was that… a head of black hair?

There was another bag nearby, a simple plastic shopping bag from Hot Topic. It contained a rumpled girls tee, torn jeans, a jacket—none of them mine. Another bin contained a pair of doc martens, well-worn. I looked down to the bag I’d dropped with the hair. Pushed it with my toe.

Through the thick plastic, I could just see wide eyes gaping out at me, the ghostly impression of a face.

I screamed.

I don’t know how long I stood there, screaming, before my father’s hands try to pull me away. I broke free and ran—

—out of the house—up the street.

I should have pounded on a neighbor’s door. Should’ve screamed the whole quiet little cul-de-sac alert. But I didn’t. “Oh God Oh God,” I sobbed, over and over, trying to come up with a plan. Trying to conceive some explanation other than the obvious. Something that might account for the strange smells, the walls torn open and replaced. A hallway shortened here. A closet sealed there. The rotting garbage smell.

Oh God. Oh God oh God.

In the end, I went back. Because as shocked and stupefied as I was, even then, with the proof right in front of me, I never believed I was in any danger. It didn’t even occur to me he might hurt me. I walked right upstairs. The bedroom door was closed. From beyond, the whirr of a drill. Rustling. Shuffling. More drilling. He must have heard my return, yet he continued his work. I sat down with my back against the door, picked up my phone from where I’d dropped it in our struggle, and dialed 911. Speaking very quietly, tears dribbling down my face, I related what I’d seen to the dispatcher.

After the police arrived and my father surrendered, I went to stay with my grandparents while the house became a crime scene.

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***


Ultimately, seven bodies were found in the walls. Most of them minors, though there were two adults—Hot Topic girl, just turned eighteen, as well as my Uncle Rudy. The fates of Mary Louis, Kaylee Jenson, and Kyle Sanderson were at last known. While the community reeled, all eyes turned to me. Wondering. How could I have lived in that house, and not known? Indeed, I have wrestled with that question myself every night since I found out, wondering how I could have had such a very ordinary girlhood, playing with other children in our quiet little cul-de-sac shaded by oak and sycamore trees, wrinkling my nose at the smell of putrefaction in the walls, and just not known?


***


But there’s another question. The more important one: Why? Why did he do it?

My father wouldn’t tell anything to investigators. There was only one person he finally consented to speak to. And so I was summoned. After a briefing with police and prosecutors, after assuring them of my cooperation and that I, too, wanted to know the truth, they arranged for me to visit with my father.

When I came into the small, spare room for our interview, I was shocked at the sight of him. Filthy. Battered. His face a bloodied mess, one eye swollen closed, and his arms raked with scratches that he seemed to have put there himself, dragging his nails through his skin. He was fidgeting when I entered, head down, unwilling to make eye contact.

Finally his head lifted, just a little. He blinked. Slowly wiped the tears from his eyes. Dropped his gaze again.

“I suppose you think I’m a monster,” he whispered.

“Are you?” I asked.

He burst into sobs. But after they’d passed and he composed himself, after he’d asked how I was doing and whether I was going to finish school and how my college applications were going, after I finally told him none of that was why I was here… finally… finally!

He told me why.


***


The murders began long before my memories of the disappearances. Began before I was born, in fact. It was my mother who was first afflicted.

He told me he never knew where the affliction came from. Just that after I was born—mere days after—she tried to strangle me. He saved me just in time, and she was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis. My father bottle-fed me, my sole caretaker during my mother’s intensive treatment.

She came back restored, and their lives returned to the normal joy of newlyweds with a cherished infant…

… until the evening he found her bleeding out in the bathtub, and me unresponsive, drowned beside her.

Frantic, he scooped me out and rushed to revive me. Wept when I finally coughed and drew breath. Screamed at my mother, while desperately trying to bind her wrists, but she grabbed hold of him and said, sobbing, “I tried… I tried… all I wanted was an ordinary, normal life…” Then she whispered something to him that, in the moment, he assumed must have been a sign of her madness. She bled out before he could save her.

“What did she say?” I asked, sitting across from him in the cramped interview room where he confessed to me.

“That she was sorry, but it wouldn’t let her die without…” His next words were mumbled so quietly I missed them.

“’It’?” I echoed.

“It made me do all this. I had to or it… it wanted me to hurt you.”

“Dad, what is ‘it’? You’re saying you’re possessed? That it’s some kind of demon?”

He sighed. Ran his fingers, dark with blood from picking at the scabs on his arms, through his unwashed hair. It was strange to see him in such a filthy state. He was normally so well kept, almost effete. “A demon. Yes,” he said tiredly.

“So why didn’t you try an exorcism? Call a priest, or something?” The whole demon excuse sounded like bullshit.

“I tried!” he burst. “Don’t you think I tried? It started right after your mother died—these small, tiny urges. Almost insignificant. I’d see you, sleeping so soundly there, and I’d think… what if I put the pillow over her? What if I… squeezed her tiny little hand until it bled? What if instead of tickling those little toes, I just bit them off?”

“Dad!” I recoiled, disgusted.

“I didn’t want these thoughts!” he shouted, fingers curled into claws that he raked across the back of his neck. “I didn’t want them! They came in. And they got… louder. More insistent… I couldn’t tune them out. I don’t know what it was, or… I thought it was just a sickness in me. I went to doctors. Psychiatrists. I doped myself up. I tried priests, prayer. And yes, I did a fucking exorcism!” My father never swore. It was strange to hear coming from his mouth. “I tried all of it! But it wouldn’t stop… the only thing that made the voices still was…”

“Was what?” I asked, as he got this faraway, haunted look. And I knew he was reliving something. Reliving what though? Killing children? Taking apart their small bodies? Burying them in the walls? I shuddered, sickened. “Was what, Dad?”

“Giving in,” he said finally, eyelids fluttering closed. He dropped his head in his hands.

“Giving in,” I repeated. “So, what, you just started stalking children?”

“No! It… i-it was gradual… I… I started with animals…”

“The pig,” I said, color draining from my face as I remembered his first attempt to teach me butchery, at age seven.

“No… no, long before that. I started with chickens.” He sighed. “I discovered that killing—any kind of killing—left me free for a while. But… within a few months, the whispers would come back louder, and I’d have to escalate. Like… like upping a dosage.” He rubbed his eyes. “Finally I understood the strange, black moods that gripped your mother, brewing until she… he—”

“Don’t you blame her!” I growled, clenching my fists. “What happened to her was tragic. Don’t you dare pretend you’re like her!”

“Oh, Sadie…” He shook his head. “Of course I’m not like her. If I were, you’d be just another family secret, buried like your dead aunt or like what Uncle Rudy did to that girl, conveniently forgotten so your grandparents could pretend to have perfect families. Your dead mother was a pretty picture on your dresser, tragically ‘passed from illness,’ they always said. But it wasn’t like that when she was alive. She was funny, smart, charming—but also deeply, deeply difficult. Since you’re asking for a confession, Sadie… the murders in our family didn’t start with me. Everything began with her.”


***


My father met my mother at an event at the Chinese Culture Center where both their families were occasionally involved. Neither my father nor my mother were much interested in the goings on, and the pair of them escaped together to spend the evening walking and chatting, lost in each other’s company. They fell very quickly in love, and conceived me out of wedlock—much to the chagrin of both their families. They married to appease the older generations. But by all accounts, they were happy.

Happy, that is, except for the shadow that descended over my mother.

One night, my father told me, as she lay in bed beside him, her belly round and heavy with me, she asked him if he was superstitious. Did he believe in spirits? Demons? What about the idea that twins could feel each other after death?

“No,” he said. “I don’t believe in any of those things. Why are you asking?”

“I bet,” she said, with a strange and strained smile, “you didn’t know I had a twin sister…”

He didn’t. In fact, he thought she was joking at first. He only confirmed the existence of her twin later, speaking with her grandmother, who admitted that the twin had drowned tragically at the age of twelve in the neighbor’s swimming pool. The family was devastated. How she’d drowned in relatively shallow water, with a floating pool toy nearby, when by all accounts she was a skilled swimmer, was a mystery. It was also strange she’d been found alone, given the twins were usually inseparable. As for my mother—to have her twin ripped away from her at such a young age was like losing half her soul. She burst into tears whenever her sister’s name was spoken to her. Yet, when she finally recovered, she blossomed like they’d never seen. And then she met my father.

“Dad… really?” I said. He never spoke much of my mother when I was growing up, and though I knew she’d died young after a struggle with mental illness, this was the first I’d heard of a sibling. “A twin? A twin you’ve never told me about, who you’re implying she fucking drowned?”

“Language, Sadie.”

I could’ve smacked him. I glared instead, enunciating each syllable: “Bullshit.” As his brow knit, I added, “Even if Mom had a sister, why would you assume there’s some deep dark secret here? You haven’t told me anything that would imply it wasn’t an accident. Mom probably wound up with postpartum psychosis because she had unprocessed grief from losing her twin—”

“Not just hers,” he said, his voice suddenly devoid of inflection.

“What?” I blinked. When he did not explain, I demanded, “What do you mean? Who else has a…” I paused, blood running cold.

Family secrets.

His dark eyes leveled with mine.

“Dad,” I said, heart quickening. “Dad, who else has a—”

“Check your birth certificate.”

“You’re lying…” I would’ve known. He would’ve told me. Someone would’ve told me. This all had to be some… elaborate concoction, warping our family history to shift blame.

“She didn’t have postpartum psychosis,” he said. “I caught her just in time—to save you. Just you.”

“You’re lying!”

I don’t know why I fought so hard to discredit this particular part of his account. Especially when it could be so easily verified by a glance at my birth certificate, which I had at home. I suppose because it shattered the image that I’d had of our family. Like biting into a perfectly red and beautiful apple only to find that inside it’s black and rotten. Everything I knew about my parents was a lie—really, was a carefully curated image. And while I’d already given up on having a good father, I didn’t want to lose the ideal I held of my mother, too.

I couldn’t actually remember her, of course. There were only photographs of a beautiful young woman with an angelic smile, always with a flower in her long, glossy hair. Growing up I used to kiss her picture good-night, entranced by the tale of a young woman dead of a tragic illness. I suppose I imagined that she would have been the perfect parent had she lived. My father, who raised me with enough loving kindness to almost match my imaginary version of my mother, never disillusioned me about her perfection.

Until now.

His lips pursed, head cocked at my denial. Then he said, “Excuse me.” Turning away, he slammed his fist so hard into the table that I heard the crack of his knuckles as he broke them. I gasped, recoiling, as he hunched over his broken hand with his teeth clenched at the pain, eyes tearing, saliva and blood bubbling at his mouth. Then he sat up, cradling the broken hand, and said, “It was telling me to smash your face in.”

“Shit,” I breathed.

“Now then. The children. Why did I start killing children. That’s what you really want to know?”

I didn’t. I didn’t want to know. But the officers who were monitoring our discussion would be appalled if I abandoned the interview now, just as he was approaching the critical point. So I told him I needed a bathroom break. I fled, and leaned over the bathroom sink, splashing cold water on my face from the faucet. I closed my eyes and put down my head, pretending for a few minutes that I was anywhere but here, interviewing my serial killer father about secrets I wished I’d never unearthed. Finally, I forced myself to look in the mirror. Into the face that had my mother’s high cheekbones and my father’s narrow eyes. The pair of them really had been a picture-perfect couple—what other rot would I expose if I dug deeper? Finally, I marched back out to the interview room to face the monster in my father.


***


“I nearly suffocated you when you were five years old,” he said without preamble.

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“What?” I had no memory of this.

“You were asking me a question. Just some innocent question. You had thousands of questions in those days. And sudden rage seized me and I just grabbed your face, cupped my hand over your nose and mouth, like this.” He mimed the action, his broken hand cradling the back of an invisible head and the other hand cupping over an imaginary mouth and nose. “The voices. They were loud that day. Deafening. Like… like church bells… They kept telling me to squeeze, so I held while you flailed and turned purple until you went limp.” His hands squeezed tighter.

In spite of myself, I felt my heart pounding. Felt myself counting the seconds. He kept squeezing, not looking at me, but at some distant memory. And then, abruptly, he let go. I exhaled, not even realizing I’d been holding my breath until his eyes flickered up to me again.

“You woke up in just a couple of minutes.”

“I… I don’t remember any of this…”

“Well… you were only five years old.” He paused. “… and I comforted you right afterwards and told you that you’d had a bad dream.”

“You lied to me,” I said, accusing.

He gave me a look. “Yes, Sweetie. I lied to you, rather than explain to you that Daddy was possessed and purposefully suffocated you.”

I glowered and crossed my arms. “Yeah sure. Good call I guess. Dad of the year.”

He actually laughed. Just a short little laugh, but it was the first spark I’d seen of the man I knew before he retreated into his shell again. “I didn’t trust myself with you after that, so I dropped you off with your grandparents. Then I tried to kill myself. A noose, a gun, sleeping pills. But it wouldn’t let me go through with it. I finally understood what your mother went through. Went back to your grandparents, and picked you up. Just like her, I was going to… to…” His voice cracked. He’d been numb telling me about the loss of my mother, but as he described his plans to end my life, emotion finally broke through. He put a hand over his mouth to hold in the sobs, and said, “Because of how I’d choked you, I was expecting you to be afraid, ready to have to coax you, but…”

He shook his head. “The moment I arrived, you just… flew into my arms. You were so happy to see me. ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ you said—so, so excited to be coming home with me! Beaming and smiling. And I just…” He blinked quickly. “I… I knew then that I was going to… to fight it. For a little while, just you were enough to keep away the darkness…”

He was crying now. I reached across, and he squeezed my hand, his fingers dirty and his nails crusted with blood. Then he let go, reached down and grabbed his shirt, pulled it up over his head.

I gaped, shrinking back. He’d always been so proper. Always in a button-down and, usually, a tie. I’d never seen him shirtless, not even at the beach.

His entire torso, front and back, was covered in crisscrossing scars, some deep, some shallow, some very fresh, but most quite old.

Hearing me suck in a breath, he pulled his shirt back on.

“I did try to fight it in all kinds of ways… but…” He shrugged. “It stopped working.”

And then… having finished the account of our family, he told me about how his own murders began.


***


I shall not detail the grisly specifics of each particular murder, which wall he tore open and which implements he used to take which bodies apart—my goal isn’t to titillate with a gruesome recounting, but to understand why. Why in the walls? Why, specifically, children? In any case, my father spared me the worst of the details—that part of his confession he saved for the police. But as to the matter of why, I must begin with Mary Louis.

Her murder was unplanned.

“The voices were particularly loud that day,” he said of Mary. “I really did mean to send her straight home. But she… mentioned her mother was napping, how bored she was so she came over. I realized no one was likely to notice her missing just yet and… um…” He rubbed his face, unable to look at me. “I-I-I, um… I strangled her… hid her in the bushes behind the house until you were asleep, and then I, um… chopped her up and put her in the freezer… that’s when you caught me… when I was… cleaning…”

“Did you black out?” I interrupted, trying not to listen even as every detail burned into my mind.

“No,” he admitted. “No… no, it… It’s more like… a light switch turns off. A part of me just dims. While the voices turn up. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is me, and what isn’t. The fact I can’t distinguish… it makes it worse.”

This explanation didn’t inspire much comfort. Once the part of him that was himself switched back on, and the voices dimmed down, he panicked. Her body couldn’t remain forever in the freezer. Nor did he want to risk burying her in the yard and leaving freshly disturbed soil. But of course, my father was an architect. He was very, very good with compartments and compartmentalizing. As soon as I was back at school, he cleared out the closet under the stairs, walling it in so that the space was a foot shorter on the interior—a difference so subtle you couldn’t even see it with the usual boxes and bins stored under there. What he didn’t mention, but that I remember growing up, is he’d been genuinely fond of Mary. He kept drawings she’d made for him, and a little jar with feathers and some pretty stones she’d collected. I believe it was genuine when he sent flowers and letters of condolence to the family. But at the same time as he appeared to mourn her, he stepped over her body every night going up and down that staircase.

“Eventually… the horror faded,” he said. “I realized I wasn’t going to get caught. And I-I could almost pretend it was someone else who’d done it. For the first time… the very first time in years… I had… quiet…” He closed his eyes and lifted his face toward the ceiling. “The absolute perfection of that quiet… you have no idea, Sadie… how blessed that quiet was…”
I didn’t speak.

His eyelids fluttered open, and he returned his gaze to me. “Afterward… when the voices came back, I… started to plan the murders, whenever the voices got loud. The rest I think you can put together.”

I sat there, perfectly still. Now that he’d stopped talking, it hit me all at once—horror at the nature of his crimes, horror at the reason behind them. I couldn’t process it all. Not right then. There. In that room. And finally I said, “I need to go. I need to… I need to go…”

“Sadie!” He called after me as I stood up.

I looked back, sure that he was going to once again apologize. That he was going to tell me he loved me. That he was going to say he’d tried, and he was so sorry, and beg my forgiveness.

But he didn’t say any of that. He was smiling. And he said, with the most terrifying expression of anticipation that I have ever seen, “I was saving you for last.”

I gasped and fled.


***


Despite his attorney’s insistence on a mental health evaluation, my father was declared competent by the courts. He entered a guilty plea and seemed unsurprised—relieved, even—when he was issued a death sentence. His time on death row was mostly spent in isolation. I was permitted occasional visits, but during these brief breaks from his solitude, we conversed very little. He’d ask how I was doing, trying to make sure I was keeping my grades up as I entered college—but then he’d go quiet. The rest of the time would just be the two of us sitting in silence while he bowed his head, slumped against the table.

On my last visit, my father asked me if I believed his account. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t in the habit of lying, and he almost always saw through me anyway. I just looked at him sadly. Finally I said, “I don’t know, Dad.”

“Am I just a monster?”

“Are you?” I wondered.

He sighed and whispered, “I don’t know either. But if it’s genetic you should probably go and get yourself regular visits with a psychiatrist, given the… affliction of both myself and your mother.”

“Already seeing a therapist.” Did he think I wasn’t, after all of this?

He rubbed his eyes. He seemed very tired. Finally he said, “You know Sadie, through everything your mother went through, and now me, the doctors told me demons can’t be real. That if there were ghouls, demons, spirits, ghosts, there’d be evidence. But murderers, child abusers, delusional psychopaths, serial killers—these are all real, and so, I must be one of these evil men. But…” He sighed. “It seems such hubris, to think that if we haven’t scientifically proven something that means it isn’t real. I mean, supposing there were… things… beyond our understanding? Things like I’ve told you? What do you think would happen when someone, who’s got what I’ve got, told the world? No one would ever believe them. And do you know, Sadie my love, that’s the worst part? That’s the worst part…” He put his head in his hands. It always distressed him very much when I didn’t believe him.

“Dad,” I sighed. “What is it you want? Redemption? Forgiveness?” It’s not like I could give him those things.

“You still don’t understand!” he burst. “You think this is about evil! This thing in me, it didn’t want those children!”

“Then why the fuck did you kill them? Dad, if it didn’t make you do it, then why? What do you—what does it—want?”

“The same thing,” he sobbed, “that I’ve wanted for years and years and years…”

As he spoke, for the first time in my entire life, I felt a chill in his presence. A chill that started at my nape and trickled down my spine like ice water. Deep. Gut-clenching. Heart-racing. Fear. Every instinct screamed.

I leaned back, and that’s what saved my life when he lunged, howling, “YOU!”

I fell over backwards, scrambling away while the guards rushed to restrain him. He writhed, screaming at me, spittle flecking his lips: “Get back here! Bitch! Fucking bitch! You’re a terrible daughter! Get back here RIGHT NOW!” He spewed invective, words that no man should say about his own daughter. In my last look at him, it almost appeared as if he was tearing himself apart, blood running down his face from where his hands tried to restrain his mouth. His fingers jabbed into his eyes, blinding him so that he couldn’t see me, so that when he shook the guards off (burly though they were), he groped sightlessly for me. I shrank against the wall as he just barely missed my foot, blood streaming from his eyes like tears until the guards caught hold of him again, and I fled.


***


Victor Chen never completed his sentence. Nobody likes a child molester (which he wasn’t, but that was the prevailing assumption given the ages of his victims). He was found beaten to a pulp and his throat slit. Probably the guards looked the other way and let it happen.
To be honest, I think it was a mercy for him—his long ordeal was finally over.

But… I do think often about what he said at the end. If hauntings are confined only to the experiences of the haunted… how can we ever know? How can we tell the difference between a haunted man and a madman? I’m not sure you can. Certainly the courts and doctors couldn’t.

But whether “it” was real or not, I finally understand what he meant when he said it didn’t want those children. I should’ve figured it out sooner, simply based on what he told me of my mother. First she killed her twin sister. Then her own child—my twin. And very nearly me. All those she loved. As for why she never tried to kill my father—well, I think it’s because she did something much worse, cursing him with the most terrible fate of all. It was in her final words. The ones he mumbled so I couldn’t make them out at first. Her last words to him were, “I’m sorry. It wouldn’t let me die without someone new.”


***


Which brings us to my father’s turn as host. All the children he killed. The ages ranged from 8-18. The last one had recently celebrated her 18th birthday—just as I’d been about to.

They were nearly always, in fact, girls my own age.

You see, this is what he meant when he said it didn’t want them. It wants what you love. It wouldn’t let him die. It wouldn’t let him rest. But, while he succumbed to its evil in every other sense, committing the most terrible of acts and becoming a quite literal monster… still, sometimes I think about the fact that, in the end, he managed never to give it what it really wanted. That in his own warped way, he continued protecting me. Because every one of my father’s victims was really just a stand-in, like stabbing a doll instead of the real thing—each murder just a substitute for me.


***


I’d like to think he won. That he prevented it from getting what it wanted, or passing on to anybody else. That even though he couldn’t kill himself, it lost when his throat was slit, eliminating both him and it from the world.

But…

A couple weeks ago, I saw in the newspaper that a pastor from one of the local churches, a progressive-minded, goodhearted woman known for making prison visits and helping the most unfortunate in society, had been arrested for the abuse and murder of two elderly left in her care. When asked why she’d committed such a crime, this woman who for decades had served the community with kindness and charity, who by all accounts loved her clients very dearly, covered her face and said, with apparent confusion, a phrase that gave me chills in its terrible, intimate familiarity:

“I had to.”

Credit: Quincy Lee

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