The Last Full Measure

“Two oh two: Come to the door with your hands in the air” said the heavyset middle-aged man in the dark-blue uniform, his amplified voice echoing up and down the quiet, darkened streets. After a short pause, the command was repeated exactly, then repeated again. For the next three hours, this scene played over and over, every fifteen minutes, until someone up the chain of command ruled “enough,” and they went in.

When twelve police cars, three ambulances, and two fire trucks show up in your front yard, sirens blaring, it gets your attention. Naturally curious about what was happening, I walked over to the nearest patrol car, one of those newer SUVs they assign to shift supervisors, to ask what the fuss was all about. At my approach, the officer behind the wheel, a mild-looking blonde fellow in his early thirties, put down his smart phone and slipped into command mode. He informed me, not all that convincingly, that he didn’t have any information and that I needed to remain in my house. I considered his instructions momentarily before ignoring them, choosing instead to approach a neighbor standing nearby to ask if she had heard anything. She said she wasn’t really sure, but something someone yelling shots fired this or that or somethingorother standoff.

In such a situation you immediately start going over all the possibilities. Your thoughts automatically veer straight to the dark side, where they they dwell on the worst scenarios imaginable. Home invasion, robbery gone wrong, hostage situation. You imagine wild-eyed desperadoes raving madly as their captives cower or lay dead in their own blood. Alternatively you consider that maybe some poor fellow had a meltdown after a rotten day, and that now, after an ill-fated outburst, things had gone, very publicly, from bad to much worse.

Naturally, I was concerned, but the more immediate preoccupation was that my driveway was completely blocked, potentially derailing carefully laid plans for this Sunday evening. As I considered this inconvenience, in response to some kind of change in the situation the police tightened their cordon a little, condensing around the house that was the focus of their attention, unseen around the corner. This development left almost but not quite enough room to squeeze out should I decide to leave.

At this point there seemed to be some very mixed signals being given. On the one hand there was an awful lot of hardware assembled, which suggested that something big was happening. But on the other hand there was also a very visible lack of urgency. Lots of milling around, standing with hands in pockets, waiting. Nobody seemed all that concerned.

After a few more minutes, the blockage around my driveway cleared completely as the security cordon condensed even further, so now I had a decision to make: Go as scheduled for Sunday beer and burgers with my old friend Tom, or wait around to see what happened. There seemed to be some kind of pause in the action so  I opted for “go.” Whatever this was, it was big enough that I would probably hear about it on the news or read about it in the paper the following morning.

The road was no longer blocked, so I decided to turn right, toward the commotion, to see what I could. Ground Zero turned out to be the Ensle’s old house, a few doors down from mine, recently sold and now occupied by people I had never met or even knowingly seen. A ribbon of crime scene tape enclosed the yard, bathed in the glare of very powerful floodlights. A full-sized fiberglass buffalo sculpture, somebody’s droll joke, sat stolidly in the middle of it all, staring at nothing.

I had actually been in the house a few times. The last time, in October of 1998, it happened to be filled with waist-high floodwaters from nearby Williamson Creek, through which a number of us waded as we helped the Ensles carry a few of their belongings to higher ground.

Returning home about three hours later, it was obvious that there had been some kind of resolution. Police and individuals in labcoats came and went through the front door. An SUV labeled “Crime Scene” was parked in front. A crew from one of the local TV stations stood on the nearest corner, preparing for a live broadcast, the Ensle’s house in the background. A van bearing the logo of another local news station sat parked in front of my house, a young woman behind the wheel taking notes. I rapped on the passenger-side window to get her attention. Looking up, she met my gaze and smiled wanly, a hint of sadness in her expression, as though she had recently received some rather unfortunate news. After a brief pause to collect her thoughts she said something like “The police aren’t saying much, but evidently they found the bodies of two people and a dog.” Murder-suicide. Double murder-suicide. I winced at the inevitable visualization of it. Why did he have to kill the dog? was all I could think. Without even knowing exactly what had happened, I hated the weak, cowardly bastard who had committed the atrocity.

The investigation took the better part of the night, and official vehicles were still parked in front of the house at five-thirty the following morning when I went to check. But by the time I headed out for work around nine they had wrapped it up. From the outside, you couldn’t tell that anything at all had happened; the crime scene tape had been removed, the porch light was on as always, the doors closed and latched, the cars in their usual places, fiberglass buffalo placidly enduring.

As I was about to leave, I spotted a neighbor out walking her dog. We exchanged “hellos” and segued into the usual pleasantries, pointedly avoiding any talk about the crime in our midst. But when her gaze drifted for a moment in the direction of the house, I took it as a cue to push the conversation to that painful but unavoidable subject. She confirmed that it had been a murder-suicide. Man, woman, dog. And then she said what everybody who knew about it must have hoped: “I hold it in my heart that maybe she was really sick and ready to go.” I nodded agreement, and said yes, maybe it had been a mercy killing. I did not say out loud what I was thinking: A mercy killer wouldn’t also have shot the dog.

By early in the afternoon the details had come out and had been reported in the local news media. There were interviews with neighbors and police, fleshed out with background from other sources. The man and woman turned out to have been a long-married couple, both in their 80s. He was a retired University professor, she a homemaker. She was gravely ill with a terminal cancer. He had been deeply depressed. Their dog was very old and in failing health.

They were, by all accounts, the very paragon of a close couple. In the few months they had lived in the neighborhood they had become a fixture, known for their frequent walkabouts, always holding hands, faithful dog always in tow. For a while before the fatal event no one had seen her at all, and him only sporadically. During one such rare appearance the husband let slip to a neighbor that his wife was no longer able to walk and was in a very bad way.

I realized that I had actually glimpsed them once, a few months before, while driving past one day. They were getting out of their car and their backs were turned, but it was obvious that they were elderly. I assessed them and instantly judged that they were probably there to visit whoever now lived in the house. I had imagined the new residents to be a young professionals from one of the Coasts, as newcomers to the neighborhood usually are these days.

Thoughtfully, he had called the emergency number. He told them that he had killed his wife and dog and was about to kill himself; “You’ll need to send someone over,” he said in a quavering, indescribably weary voice thick with sorrow. The 911 operator tried to engage him, keep him on the line, but he was done. There were a couple seconds of fumbling as he jostled the phone back onto its cradle, followed by the click of disconnection.

He left the front door unlocked, as he told them he would, so when they finally decided it was time to go in, all it took to gain entry was a turn of the knob and a little push.

The police had done their homework, checked the databases, talked with neighbors, read between the lines. So by the time they went in they had a pretty good idea what they would find. They followed the protocol, as they had to, but with a certain informed nonchalance. They carried their guns loosely in relaxed hands, almost like props. They shouted commands, all but certain there would be no answer. They moved through the house at an unhurried pace, calling out “clear” as each room was passed without resistance, tone of voice neutral, betraying no urgency. It didn’t take long to find them. Even though they were obviously gone, life-saving measures were attempted anyway, but in the sort of perfunctory way people have when they are merely going through the motions.

Friends and neighbors all attested that he was a decent and thoughtful man. Loved his wife. Loved their dog. Judging from the care with which it was all carried out, you knew that he had thought it through. And in doing so he would have had to realize how very, very hard it would actually be. And so you wonder, as you must, how he summoned the terrible resolve.

Their dog would have had to go first. Come here, girl. A long lingering look, gently rubbing the beloved companion’s ears, flecked with gray now–she always liked that. You were such a good dog. Gazing for the last time into her eyes, cloudy with age, trusting as always, yet full of questions because she knew, as they somehow always do, that something was terribly wrong. Look over there, girl. The smallest movement of a finger, a tiny voluntary motion requiring every bit of will. A deafening report, startlingly loud in the confined space. The little being, loved and cared for her entire life, transformed in an instant to a mere thing, a heap on the floor. A bell rung that no force in the universe could un-ring.

In shock, head swimming, ears ringing. This is not a drill! A few paces to the wife’s bedside, each step its own unique agony. Beholding her, his beloved helpmate and lover, mother of their children, a lifetime’s companion, now a wasted, empty shell, moaning in a pain beyond the reach of any drug. We were quite a pair, weren’t we? Another final lingering look, emotions and memories flooding his mind. Stroking her hair for the last time; gazing at her face, once lovely but now a mask of torment; murmuring words of comfort and farewell. Goodbye sweetheart; I’ll see you very soon. A second minuscule, annihilating flick of a finger, a second terrible report followed by deafening silence.

Ears really ringing now, horrific lingering images crowding away all other thoughts. Stay focused! Make the call to 911–wouldn’t want the kids to find all this two weeks later. The door will be unlocked. Clock ticking for real now. Can’t quit! Can’t quit!

In only a couple of minutes the sound of sirens in the distance. Time to go. He stops for a few seconds to consider the macabre practicality of this final task, feels the pressure of having to get it right, harder than you might imagine; flinch at the fateful moment and you are worse than dead. A last look around, a deep breath, eyes squeezed tightly shut, barrel placed just so against the skull, finger taut on the trigger, mind suddenly ablaze with unexpected, exquisite awareness. What happens now? Would he simply dissolve into nothingness? Or would he awaken a timeless instant later to find her waiting?

From my kitchen window I can see the light of the entryway still burning like a beacon for those who will never return. Somebody came and got the cars, cancelled the newspaper, picked up the last bit of litter from that night. The fiberglass buffalo still stands, stolid and unruffled, on its small patch of earth. To look at the place you would never know.

They don’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything. Which is probably as it should be, because a house afflicted by tragedy becomes a kind of pariah, a thing cursed, irreversibly tainted by the blood spilled within. Those who know avert their gaze as they pass, mutter under their breath, or cross themselves. It would be nearly impossible to sell.

In the end it won’t matter, though. The house and a couple dozen others also in the flood plain are scheduled to be purchased by the City and demolished. Most likely it will be torn down before the year is out. Its every trace will be removed and the land allowed to return to its natural state. There will be no monument, no marker for those who lived and died there; only the faint rustling of leaves in the wind, like a whispered secret, to remind passers-by of the frail but determined man, who through a fog of pain and grief somehow summoned the strength to grant to those he dearly loved the last full measure of pure devotion.

 

 

 

© 2016 By Scott P. Snell

Right to reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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