Amy Cushing was an impeccable Girl Scout. She exuded sprightly warmth, had a knack for cookie peddling, and wore her brown and green uniform like it was made for her. I attributed much of Amy’s success to her mother and our troop leader, Kristine.
Kristine preferred we call her by her first name rather than Mrs. Cushing, because she saw us as equals. She always made sure Amy’s badges were perfectly sewn on her sash, always offered me a ride home when my mom was late, and always put two freshly baked brownies in Amy’s lunchbox, one for her and one for her lucky friend that day. Sometimes there was even an “I love you” note written in pink on Amy’s napkin. I wanted so badly for Kristine Cushing to be my mom.
My mom “did the best she could.” That’s what people often told me, which was a strange thing to say to a child. Unlike Kristine, my mom didn’t use a needle and thread to sew my badges to my sash. Instead, she experimented with a combination of super glue and staples, twenty minutes before the annual Laguna Niguel Parade. And despite how hard I marched and waved and smiled alongside firefighters and drill teams that day, every few blocks another one of my badges fell off. Fabric Arts, Baking, and My Best Self were all trampled on by the miniature ponies behind us.
If this wasn’t humiliating enough, I was also That Kid at School who frequently didn’t have a lunch. I usually ate from the “Up for grabs!” table, which should have been called “Sad, inedible things!” I was never allowed to complain about this either; my mom made that quite clear.
It wasn’t my mom’s fault we were poor; it wasn’t her fault my dad didn’t pay child support. Decidedly, it was also not her fault she liked to drink. My mom had a nightly ritual: She filled a glass to the brim with The Cheapest Chardonnay and drank all of it, again and again and again. When we splurged and went out for Taco Tuesday, my brother and I weren’t allowed to leave the Americanized Cantina until she finished every last drop of every last glass. Our drives home were dicey. On at least two occasions, she crossed the median into oncoming traffic. It was an accident of course. An accident.
No one would have been surprised if it was my mother, Kathleen LeFranc, who shot her children to death in 1991. But it wasn’t. It was Kristine Cushing, the super mom.
I never could remember nine multiplied by seven. It was so frustrating learning my nines, even after my teacher taught me a trick with my hands. Math was not my strong suit. The lights flickered on and off in class, and I put my hands on my head to show I was no longer working. Pavlov’s Dog at play.
Dr. Grigg, our tall, bee-hived blond principal, stood before our third grade class. Her eyes looked worn and her bottom lip quivered. I searched for my teacher, Mrs. Angel, and spotted her in the corner of the room, her back turned away from us. Dr. Grigg glanced up at our class, then promptly read from a prepared script: “Boys and girls, a very sad thing happened to one of our students… Amy Cushing, and her younger sister, Stephanie, passed away last night. These things are very upsetting and we encourage you to talk to your mom or dad.”
I took my hands off my head. Were they still on my head? I couldn’t remember. I stared blankly at Amy’s empty desk. These things are very upsetting. These things are very upsetting. Amy and Stephanie were dead. That’s what “passed away” meant. Dead. Amy: eight years old. Stephanie: four years old. Four was half of eight. I knew that much. Amy’s brand new colored pencils were still tucked safely inside her desk’s cubby. They would remain in their bright yellow box, never sharpened, never chewed on, never used. These things are very upsetting.
This was not my first experience with losing a friend. Two years earlier, Nathan died. He was a boy I sat next to in first grade. He was also my first crush. The school planted a tree in his name and his parents asked me to speak at the ceremony. I’m not sure why they asked me. Maybe he liked me back. I don’t remember what I said about Nathan. I only remember that his sudden absence made me sad.
And yet, it was only a few weeks later when I pointed to a spot on our school’s soccer field and told some kids that this was where Nathan collapsed and died. It was true. His heart had stopped. Just like that. And for some reason, I decided to reenact the whole thing. I ran around the field, just as I imagined Nathan had that day, then grabbed my chest dramatically and fell to the ground. A teacher with dark hair and even darker lipstick yanked me up from the grass, “What do you think you’re doing?” My mind went blank. She shook her head with disappointment, “This isn’t funny, you know.” I nodded. These things are very upsetting. She asked me why I would do such a thing, and forced me to contemplate this question while I sat at an empty lunch table. I never found an answer. After that, my mom gave me a book that was supposed to teach me about death: The Fall of Freddie the Leaf.
Freddie was a young leaf afraid to die, but all the other leaves on the tree told him it was a natural cycle. His passing brought on a new season. Eventually, Freddie was the last leaf on the tree, until he too fell.
I hated the book. It made death seem fair. Children were supposed to hang on through all of the seasons before they were let go. Children were not supposed to be yanked off the tree. Children were not supposed to be murdered.
I knew details, mostly because my mom didn’t know how to whisper when she was talking on the phone. I knew their bodies were found in their mother’s room—Stephanie in bed, Amy on the floor nearby. I pictured Amy in her Rainbow Bright pajamas—the same ones she wore at our sleepover a few weeks before. I imagined Stephanie in her oversized bunny t-shirt, cuddling her big sister. I doubted it was routine for them to sleep in their mom’s bed. Kristine must have invited them. I bet it felt special, getting to sleep in an oversized bed made for adults. Every once in a while, my mom let me eat Burger King in bed with her as we watched TV, and every time it felt extraordinary.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that Kristine shot Amy and Stephanie in their heads before turning the gun on herself. She missed herself. I didn’t know what to think about that. The bullet went straight through Amy and Stephanie’s heads, but only grazed Kristine’s. My mom said a drug called Prozac was to blame. It made Kristine see things. Bad things.
“Why did she take something that made her see bad things?” I asked. It didn’t seem like a very good idea.
“She didn’t know that’s what would happen,” my mom said. “It was supposed to help her.”
“Help her with what?”
My mom sighed, exasperated, “She was going through a divorce. Her husband cheated on her.”
“Oh,” I whispered. I understood cheating. I understood divorce. I also knew how upsetting it was to moms.
Amy never talked to me about her parents’ divorce. I never told her about mine either. We weren’t best friends. She loved horses and I loved Ninja Turtles. She loved braiding hair and I loved comic books. We were different, but we made each other laugh.
“If Kristine didn’t want to hurt Amy and Stephanie,” I asked my mom, still baffled, “then why did she?”
“Lauren.” I watched her exhale deeply, which usually meant I was exhausting her. “She just—she broke. Something inside of her broke.”
I nodded as if I understood, even though I didn’t. I knew glasses and vases could break, even toys. But I didn’t know mothers could.
Everyone from our Girl Scout troop sat together at the funeral, us girls in front, our moms behind us. It almost looked like we were posing for a mother-daughter photo. My palms were sweaty and my black tights kept digging into my stomach. I tried my best to act like an adult, serious and restrained. There were two small caskets with a picture of Stephanie on one and Amy on the other. The same picture of Amy was placed in our elementary school yearbook to honor her life. I wondered if she liked that one. The white and yellow flower details on their caskets reminded me of a music box my dad had given me for my birthday. Whenever I opened the box, The Beatles’s “The Long and Winding Road” played. Amy and Stephanie had a closed casket service, which my mom seemed happy about.
My Great Grandma Bell’s casket was open. Everyone lined up to have a few private moments with her body, as if we were waiting in line at Disneyland. When it was my turn, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stared. She looked like a turtle with pearls on. All dried up and thirsty-looking. When I peeked inside for a closer look, I realized she wasn’t wearing any shoes. I couldn’t believe it. She had on a nice blouse, a nice skirt, even stockings, but no shoes?
As mothers and fathers walked to Amy and Stephanie’s caskets to pay their respects, I found myself suddenly worried that their feet would get cold once they were in the ground. But then I remembered it didn’t matter. None of that mattered anymore.
The girls’ father, Marine Lieutenant Colonel John P. Cushing Jr., looked at us with tears in his eyes. His big arms took five of us girls in at once. I could feel his heavy, concentrated breath against my hair. My face was smushed into the back of my friend’s head and one of the buttons on his polyester shirt dug into my ear. A group hug seemed like a better idea than it was. A moment later, his belly growled. He must have been hungry. “We miss them, too,” was all I could mutter, as if I needed to mutter anything. He nodded and turned away, his hands clasping and re-clasping each other.
That night, I woke up to a jarring sound coming from inside the kitchen. SNIPSNIPSNIP. I felt panic rise inside my chest. I glanced over at my pale pink clock. It was late. I decided to be courageous, or stupid, I wasn’t sure which, and slipped out from under my blanket to check it out. I got on all fours to make myself small, and crawled out of my room and around the corner. That’s when I saw her—my mother—frantically cutting out coupons. 25 cents off your next purchase. Two for one. Buy one, get one free. The strips of paper fell haphazardly to the floor. I didn’t understand why she was looking for a deal at this hour. She suddenly stopped. I backed away, trying to stay hidden. She threw the scissors down and let herself crumple to the floor. I watched her shoulders heave up and down, and heard a strange noise gurgle from inside her throat. Oh god, I thought, this is what it looks like. She’s breaking. My mother is breaking.
A week later, my mom announced she was taking over for Kristine as troop leader. A tingling sensation radiated in my hands. This meant she had to pick up the Girl Scout supplies from Amy and Stephanie’s house. Their house—I didn’t want to go anywhere near their house. She spoke about it so casually, “We’ll just swing by real quick. You’ll stay in the car.” Something felt wrong. This felt wrong. But she was the grown up, and I was the kid. I had to do as she said.
Every house on their block looked identical—the same pink stucco exterior, the same two-car garage, the same manicured front lawn. The only noticeable difference was the crime scene tape covering Amy and Stephanie’s front door. “How are you gonna get inside?” I asked.
My mom put our Volvo in park. “One of John’s Marine friends will let me in.” She took a deep breath before opening the door. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Can I listen to the radio?”
“Fine,” she said, her mind elsewhere. I watched her walk to a Man in Uniform and shake his hand. I wondered if he was a Marine Lieutenant Colonel like John P. Cushing Jr. Once she was inside, I cranked up 102.7 KIIS FM and waited. Paula Abdul was on, then Color Me Badd, and after that Boyz II Men. Fifteen minutes passed and the car was getting hotter. I wasn’t allowed to turn on the air conditioning, because my mom said it guzzled gas. I imagined dying of heat stroke, and wondered if my mom would go to prison if I did. Would they find my body partially melted to my mom’s torn up black leather seats? Would she plead “temporary insanity” like Kristine? Would it work? Ever since the funeral, I found myself envisioning the various ways I might die. Death by heat was a new one. Usually I was murdered. The weapons changed frequently; it was most often a gun, but sometimes it was a knife or a baseball bat; once I was even smothered by a pillow. Lately, I was cut to pieces with scissors. And even though the weapons varied, it was the same person who did it every time: my mother.
One of the newspaper headlines about Kristine read: “Calm Façade Belied Woman’s Inner Storm.” But my mom didn’t have a calm façade. She spread our family drama around town like wildfire. The only secret my mother kept was her temper. Chickenshit-bitch-stupid-shutup-leavemealone-ungrateful-gotoyourroom-I’mtrying!-don’tyouseeI’mtrying!?
Sometimes I wasn’t sure I meant anything to her. When I got straight As, my mom forgot to tell me she was proud. When I had a soccer game, my mom was rarely there. And yet she worked hard to provide me with food and clothes and shelter, none of which I could’ve done for myself. Was I allowed to expect more? She was my mother and she loved me. I knew that, I did. She did the best she could. Shouldn’t that be enough? Still, it haunted me. Amy and Stephanie were dead because their mom was depressed. My mom was angry. Wasn’t that worse?
“Pop the trunk,” I suddenly heard her say. She was hustling toward me from Kristine’s house with a heavy-looking plastic bin. I watched her struggle to haul it into the back. She mumbled a couple “fucks” before slamming the trunk, then flung open the driver’s side door and hurried into the car. I waited for her to turn on the ignition, but she just stared straight ahead, unmoving.
“Mom?” I asked hesitantly.
She didn’t respond. Silence was unusual for her. I eyed her hands. My mother had a habit of touching her thumb to each of her other fingers when she was nervous, but this time her hands remained frozen on her lap. I looked to where she was looking—straight ahead—unsure what else to do.
“It was full of junk,” she whispered finally. “Kristine’s closet was a mess.” Then she started the car and we drove away.
I kept rubbing my fingers on the purple balloon to hear the squeaky noise. Part of me wanted it to pop—to make the sound of a gunshot. I tucked my Special Card into my pocket as we walked deeper into the forest. We were planting a tree for Amy and Stephanie. It was our mothers’ idea. They didn’t know what else to do for their living daughters, and they had to do something. These things are very upsetting.
We found a spot among some brush and picked up our shovels. I didn’t like the feeling of shoveling up the ground and tossing it aside. Something about it didn’t feel right. Nathan’s tree was already planted by the time I saw it. I liked that better. But I kept at my task, and about twenty minutes later, we had dug a decent-sized hole for our young tree. As I grazed one of the tree’s sprightly green leaves, I noticed dirt under my fingernails, and wondered why everyone plants trees when children die. It was an offensive reminder—look at how sturdy the trunk has become, look at how it’s aged and blossomed, look at how it will continue to live on. I wiped my hands on my jeans and pulled the card from my pocket. I carefully attached it to the string of my balloon and held on tight. I didn’t ask to look at my other friends’ cards, but I know what mine said.
Dear Amy and Stephanie:
I think my mom might kill me, too. Please send help.
Love always and forever your friend,
Lauren Kathleen LeFranc
All the other girls released their strings. I locked eyes with my mother. She gave me an awkward smile, then nodded for me to let go, and so I did. I squinted into the bright sky, trying to follow the path of my balloon. The glare of the sun forced my eyes to water, but I kept them open anyway. I needed to make sure my note reached Amy and Stephanie. I followed my balloon until it disappeared into the clouds. Good, I thought. Good. Then, slightly off key, we all began to sing our favorite scout song.
Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.
A circle is round,
it has no end.
That’s how long,
I will be your friend.
A fire burns bright,
it warms the heart.
We’ve been friends,
from the very start.
You have one hand,
I have the other.
Put them together,
We have each other.
Silver is precious,
Gold is too.
I am precious,
and so are you.
You help me,
and I’ll help you
we will see it through.
The sky is blue
The Earth is green
I can help
to keep it clean.
Across the land
Across the sea
We will always be.
A hand squeezed my shoulder. I turned and saw my mother looming over me. Her cheeks were wet. She took off her sunglasses and I saw her eyes were, too. “With all my might,” she said.
I looked up at her, curiously, “What?” I mumbled.
“I love you with all my might.”
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.