Did you ever notice how in the grocery store checkout line tabloids are always put at just the right height for children to see them? Adults have to look down to see a tabloid, and may not notice if they’re distracted unloading their cart. Children, however, can’t help but read the headlines of tabloids. Looking back on my own childhood, it seems like every time I had to wait in line at the grocery store I was eye-level with your glossy face. I would read the headline each time, and it was always some version of your mother killing you, your father killing you, a stranger killing you. I was eight at the time, and until then had not been fully aware of the fact that children died, and that adults were often to blame.
In 1996 and 1997 my world was changing at a faster rate than I was comfortable, and I found myself perpetually anxious. My aunt got a divorce, and moved in next door to us with my two cousins. My parents took me out of school because of my seemingly precarious health, and schooled me at home. I spent a lot of time by myself. I had an overactive imagination that often turned toxic. I saw rows and rows of your face in the checkout line every week. I was learning about the fragility of the lives we create, and the lives our parents make for us, but I didn’t have the words for it at the time.
Do you think it’s creepy that I’m writing to you? I know about the man who wrote poems about you and built a shrine for you in his home. Some people thought he murdered you. I know about John Mark Karr, and how he claims to have been with you the night you died. DNA proved, then disproved, that he murdered you. But the day after Christmas, 1996 these men were already men, and I was a little boy who didn’t understand why someone wanted you dead. I suppose I’m writing to you now because I’ve been thinking about how much the world has changed since then, but you and your murder continue to exist outside the confines of time.
We are both supposed to be adults now, and I am not supposed to know who you are. Your pageant videos should only be home movies for your family, and strangers should not be leaving flowers outside the home where you once lived.
I suppose too that I wanted to write this letter because I still think about a conversation between my parents I overheard one night shortly after your murder. They were watching your parents on the news, and your mother was telling the country to keep their babies close. I loved listening to grownups talk. Did you? Everything they said seemed interesting. That night I sat on the stairs and listened to my parents talk about whether or not they would cover up for each other if one of them murdered me. My mother said she wouldn’t, my father said he would. They talked about it like they were deciding what to have for dinner that night. They spoke so matter of fact that my already anxious brain kicked into overdrive, wondering if I needed to worry about my parents murdering me. It’s more of joke now in my family that the thought even crossed my mind, but in the last days of 1996 it felt as though all bets were off.
If I were you I’d be angry about becoming a footnote in my own death. Come to think of it I’m angry on your behalf that this has happened. The constant stream of footage showing you in pageants, the way your parents acted like they didn’t want the case solved, the theories about why there was undigested pineapple in your stomach—all of these elements overshadow the fact that a child was hit in the head, then strangled and left in her basement, and there were suddenly thousands of other children, myself included, who were afraid.
Maybe it was all a freak accident. I tend to believe it was an accident with lifelong consequences for your family. Perhaps there’s a logical explanation for all of it that was lost in a contaminated crime scene. But at the time it was more sinister—it was suddenly dangerous to be a child. And then it never stopped.
A Kid Like You,
Patrick Thornton is a writer and editor living in Chicago. He earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and completed a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center. He is currently the managing editor of the online literary journal and small press Ghost Proposal. His nonfiction and poetry have previously appeared in Figure 1, Redivider, Entropy, The Collapsar, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Ranker among others.