After finding a stranger’s severed finger in one of my father’s keepsakes, I decided I had to investigate further. Whether or not my father knew the finger belonged to someone else was a mystery, but there was no way I was getting any answers out of him. I needed to start from the beginning: the night Jessie died.
After tracking down one of the EMTs listed in Jessie’s accident report, I made my way to her suburban home, and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman answered, wearing sweatpants. She was out of breath, and I immediately felt guilty for interrupting her workout. I didn’t know how well she’d take my visit, considering I was there to ask her about the night that made her quit her job so many years ago. Taking a nervous breath, I introduced myself, and explained the situation as quickly as I could, hoping she wouldn’t slam the door in my face. I left a few things out, of course.
A look of fear and sorrow appeared on the woman’s face. I could feel her tensing up, yet she was courteous enough to invite me in and offer me a glass of water. We sat in her cozy living room. Photos of her children lined the walls, along with several trophies of their accomplishments. I admit that I was relieved to see she had lived a normal, well-adjusted life, and that she seemed like an average person. It helped soften the blow and bring credibility to the tale she was getting ready to share. I felt like it would be a disservice to her to try and interpret what she said, so allow me to tell you in her own words, from what I remember of our conversation.
“My partner and I were havin’ a slow night workin’ the graveyard shift. We were enjoyin’ a cup of coffee at the diner-y’know, back when coffee meant coffee and not some mocha cherry frappuccino. The only call we’d gotten that night was from old man Stevens, a frequent flyer who wanted company. We were about to order pie when someone reported a crash on a back road leadin’ outta town. Back then, people didn’t have cell phones. Accidents in rural areas could be reported HOURS after they happened. We just had to pray it wasn’t too late.
“We were first on the scene. I knew just from the look of the shredded truck that shit was gonna be bad. There was glass and metal all over the damn place. I could see a branch goin’ right through the driver’s side of the windshield.
“There was so much blood splattered everywhere. You don’t usually see that much, y’know? First thing was to see if there were any survivors. The passenger door musta gotten loose on impact, ‘cause it was wide open, so I slipped in through there. The victim…shit…it was horrible. I couldn’t see her head at first. It was danglin’ upside-down, hangin’ from a few remainin’ muscles. I wasn’t ready for it…I think I was in shock. I tried to take her pulse, even though there was no way she coulda survived. Yeh, flatlined as a pancake. S-sorry. Just uh…just gimmie a sec, okay?”
At that point, the ex-EMT stood up and walked over to the window, peering outside into the quiet suburban street. I could see her cringing, as though she didn’t want to think about it anymore. She took a moment to compose herself, and then continued the story.
“Listen…I know this is gonna sound crazy…but there was somethin’…wrong about the scene. I dunno…maybe I was tired…maybe my brain was havin’ trouble assemblin’ ‘er shape back in order…what ever it was…I coulda sworn there were more limbs in the car than there shoulda been. I mean…there was only one head and torso, y’know? But…I swear, I kept countin’, and at some point, I coulda sworn there were three feet instead of two and an extra forearm…but…only one head means just one person, yeah? I dunno. It freaked me out. I know the medical examiner didn’t even try to put her back together…they just zipped ‘er up and incinerated her, at her dad’s request. I couldn’t handle what I saw that night. That…that head…that fuckin’ head…lookin’ at me while swingin’. I still got nightmares because of it.
I took a sip of water, mulling over the information in my head, before thanking her, and getting ready to leave. The woman signaled for me to wait. She bit her lower lip, and it seemed as though she was trying to decide whether or not to add to her tale.
“I don’t wanna imply anythin’, okay? But…the victim’s dad-your gramps? He showed up at the scene really damn quick. Like, way too quick. We hadn’t even identified the body, and he was roamin’ around, howlin’ about wantin’ to cremate the girl. It struck me as weird…”
It seemed pretty suspicious to me, too.
The more I looked into Jessie’s death, the more questions arose. How had she sent a gift to my dad years after her death? Whose finger was in the Russian nesting dolls? How did my grandpa know about the accident before they even knew who the victim was? Since grandpa was dead, my only hope was to ask grandma about it.
The lock on grandma’s cottage home had always been tricky. You had to really force the key in and wiggle it the right way to get it to budge. I always worried my grandma’s arthritic fingers would fail her one day, and she’d wind up locked out in the cold of night. With grandma’s favorite cake as a peace offering, I sat at her dinning room table while I waited for her to come home from Bingo. I never noticed before how many hand painted decorations she had in her house. They were all in the exact same style to that of my dad’s Russian nesting dolls, and equally as disturbing. In the kitchen was a cookie jar depicting some sort of witch burning scene, a cookbook holder with a picture of the lord holding the remains of a baby, and a ticking cuckoo clock with what looked like Satan ripping wings off of angels. I was most disturbed by a completely different set of Russian nesting dolls that kind of looked like my wife, watching me from the rafters.
Before long, I heard the familiar jingling of keys. I ran over and opened the door, escorting grandma inside. Her feeble frame could fool anyone into thinking she was defenseless, but I’d seen firsthand how she could bring a grown man to tears. The poor bloke who stole her parking spot at the community center could attest to that.
Grandma wasn’t one for false pretenses, so I cut right to the chase. While serving her a slice of cake, I explained everything that had happened, right down to the DNA test on the finger in dad’s nesting dolls. She listened, nodding and swaying peacefully, never letting her solemn smile leave her wrinkly lips.
When it was her turn to speak, she looked at me, running her fingers over a gold crucifix around her neck. There were three souls that died that night, she told me. Her piercing grey eyes stared straight ahead as she continued. Jessie, her boyfriend, and an unborn bastard child all died the night of the accident.
Without an ounce of sadness, she explained how Jessie and her father had fought. How he had lost his temper. How he’d taken his axe in a fit of rage…and what he did to them. My stomach turned, but this time, I’d been wise enough not to eat: I didn’t want to find myself throwing up again.
Grandma explained that my grandpa had loosely collected their remains, thrown her boyfriend in a pit out back, and staged an accident with what was left of his daughter. The gruesome scenario repeated in my mind like a DVD’s title screen. I could feel myself trembling with fear.
When I asked about the finger, she answered that they’d taken it as a keepsake, but neither of them had realized they’d gotten it from the wrong person’s hand. In order to hide evidence of foul play, and to avoid people figuring out that the body in the car was a mix of two people, grandpa had insisted on cremating Jessie’s body as soon as possible. No one had a reason to suspect what had really happened.
I never thought it possible to be afraid of a little old lady, but my grandma scared me. The fact that she could share all of this without remorse was incredible. I couldn’t help myself, though. Even though I no longer wanted to know the truth, the questions escaped my lips. How had the Russian nesting dolls gotten to my dad? Why did they depict such awful scenes? Grandma’s answer made my heart stop.
“Confession is good for the soul, you know.”
Ten years after Jessie’s death, she’d found the set of Russian nesting dolls in her daughter’s closet, with a note for her brother. She repainted them to confess her sins, and had given him what she thought were Jessie’s remains.
I couldn’t help but look at the horrible decorations in grandma’s kitchen. There were dozens of gory scenes all over the place. Confession is good for the soul, and Grandma had confessed to a lot of things.