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Murder-Suicide Blues

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

Of all the people I might have predicted would go out in a murder-suicide, my husband’s grandparents who were a happily married LDS couple in their nineties with (not exaggerating) over a hundred living direct descendants would probably have been close to the bottom of the list.

But it was them.

I always think of them this time of year. It happened in the spring, only a few years after we had gotten married. I’d gotten to know his grandparents, who were lovely people. His grandmother taught me how to make dinner rolls by hand. His grandfather loved my corny collection of WWII jokes. I was invited to Sunday supper in their double-wide dozens of times before the end came.

No one saw it coming, not even me as skeptic and outsider. Grandpa was beginning to slip, cognitively. He showed a little impatience, a little agitation. Grandma was a ball of fire who demanded motorcycle rides and told us Glenn Beck was her boyfriend. (I didn’t vomit when I heard that, because I might be a heathen but I am the very least polite.) I have a very good nose for domestic violence and I never got a whiff of it in the house. Patriarchy galore, gender roles like an iron maiden, but no overt physical violence.

Until that day.

The family members who lived closest sometimes dropped their kids off with Grandma and Grandpa while they went to work. Those who went over that day found the door locked and nobody answering. We all expected something might have happened. At their age, even a minor fall could spell doom. Privately, in couples and family groups, we had all said some version of the same thing.

“One will die and the other will follow right after. They’ve been married 75 years; they’ll probably leave this life holding hands.”

Grandma the fireball left this life after numberless stab wounds and a couple of hammer blows to the head. Grandpa was finishing himself off in his tool shed when they found him. He lasted less than a day in the hospital.

The news shattered us. Nobody knew what to say, or even where to look. A 75-year marriage with that many children is not just A Model; in a community like that it is The Model. When I married my husband, his grandfather gripped my hand with the terrible strength of a dairy man and told me we needed to work toward their number of years as our goal. I wasn’t planning to live that long. I guess he wasn’t, either.

Images of it will never leave me. I was one of the few to enter the house after it became a crime scene. I helped my sister-in-law find the clothes Grandma had wanted to be buried in. A knife as it’s raised in the act of stabbing someone multiple times casts off blood with each strike. The numberless stripes of maroon ran upward over the headboard, to the wall, and some to the ceiling. The mattress had to be taken away by a hazardous wastes company. To find her clothes, we slid open closet doors done by Jackson Pollack in red. The familiar and domestic was rendered utterly profane all around us. Her powder-blue prim bathroom an abattoir. The hallway hung with pictures of progenitors surrounded by their half-dozen wives each a hopscotch trail of gore.

I knew that most of them never saw what I saw, but they knew what I knew. The funeral was a gaslight so big you could see it from space. I’ve been to services now for people who have died by murder and suicide, but this is still my only double feature. Sometimes people talk about violence and sometimes they talk about mental health. Some eulogies call for justice and some entreaties are just altar calls to ask you to keep living, not to follow those who opted out.

The murder-suicide of my husband’s grandparents was not mentioned at all during the funeral. The circumstances of their death were completely elided from the proceedings, which were some of the most surreal moments of my entire life. I felt fractured and insane in that soft pastel church (powder blue bathroom) listening to hymns (cast-off blood on the ceiling) “Nearer My God to Thee” was his favorite (the tool shed) and so a beautiful soprano (that must have been where he got the hammer) was singing it up like silk arrows to the rafters (must have been a knife from her own kitchen) while we all sat there like this was normal.

When it ended, the Mormons fed the family a rainbow-colored array of Jell-O salads and some comforting platitudes about how family is forever in the Celestial Kingdom. I thought about that, their version of heaven; where I’d be allowed to live in Heavenly Father’s projects while my in-laws could visit us from the nice Pearly Gated neighborhoods, but we’d never be allowed to visit them.

Forever is a long time.

My best friend listened to me unload the David Lynch dream I’d been through, and then made us a gift that somehow made me feel normal again.

It was a glass-front shadow box. Mounted inside it was a rusty hammer. The front bore a safety-style placard that read in case of marital strife, break glass.