The Forensics Teacher

Alastair Murdoch
Featured Image: Found Around the House © Apreal Sevilla 2019

Moontown’s still a logging town to us, and it always will be, even if the last sawmill died years ago. Pam and I grew up here. We were Irish twins, which everyone thought was funny, what with our red hair, pale skin, and summer freckles. By 11th grade, Pam had matured into a young woman, and the boys couldn’t take their eyes off her. Least of all our friends Mark and Wayne. I remained a straight-up, straight-down, skinny rake of a girl, and a tomboy at that, until the end of high school. I went away to college after that, and by the time I came back, I’d grown up too, and again I looked just like Pam. She’d stayed in Moontown while I’d gone away, but it didn’t matter. Even though we’d been apart for four years, we were as close as ever. We shared clothes, shoes, make-up, everything – even notes about the boys we dated. When I check myself in the mirror each morning, it’s Pam’s eyes I meet, still pleading with me.

I joined the Moontown Police Department straight out of college, and became one of the cops that Pam, Donna, Wayne, Mark and I used to hide from as teens, drinking and getting stoned. Donna and Wayne ended up together—Pam and I had known they would since elementary school. Mark, though, the fifth member of our gang, didn’t arrive in Moontown until 9th Grade, which made him a rare outsider, with no local family connections. Until I married him years later, that is.

I had to leave the PD less than three years after graduating the Academy. I’m a middle school science teacher now. Every day I stay in this town is as raw as the gouges on Pam’s chalk-white body the day they found it cooling in the damp sawdust on the floor of the mill. I wake every night in a cold sweat, my hair sticking to my face and body the same way that Pam’s long red curls and trickles of drying blood formed a lacework veil over her corpse. But I’m not leaving Moontown until I’m done. For my sister’s sake.

Donna’s with me right now, teetering crazily on one of the same middle school chairs we had in Mrs. Reilly’s science class all those years ago. I’ve called her in to talk about her daughter, Millie. Not to talk about Millie’s grades, which are fine, but I do need to talk to Donna about Millie. Urgently.

Getting Donna into school after hours, when it’s quiet, wasn’t difficult. She works all day in the salon, then does the early evening shift in the diner, so any appointment is going to be at an inconvenient time. I offered to stay extra late for our parent-teacher meeting. After slipping the janitor a twenty, I promised I’d lock up when we were done. I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be disturbed.

A mess of mascara frames Donna’s red eyes. Her tinted hair flies crazily under the cold classroom lights as she shakes her head No. She insists she doesn’t know, or that she can’t be sure. But she knows. Of course she does. I’ve already told her I know it isn’t Wayne. She doesn’t want to tell me who it is, but she has to, and I’ll make her stay until she does. This is my classroom. She’s too shaken to run, and she knows I learned enough at the Police Academy to take her down physically if I have to.

Six months after they found Pam in the sawmill, I got myself thrown out of the Department for going off on the Chief and his useless detectives, including Mark. Mark had joined the Department a couple of years before me, and had only just gotten out of uniform at the time. We were secretly dating, which Pam always said was a bad idea; I suspected envy. Mark’s now one of the detectives who still hasn’t found Pam’s killer and never will.

The Chief was pretty good about everything, considering I broke his office window with the brass and wood plaque I ripped off the wall, just missing his creased, sweaty head. He understood. He was there when I arrived at the mill after hearing the call on my radio, and he held me back behind the tape, away from my sister’s body. Mark was off-duty that day, and wasn’t there to help. I just wanted to get to Pam. I don’t know if the Chief was more worried about protecting me or the integrity of the crime scene, though given his lack of progress in finding Pam’s killer, and given where I am now, it wouldn’t have made any difference either way.

I kicked up a storm at work every day for six months during the initial investigation, constantly barging into the incident room, and fighting Mark and the other detectives as they tried to bundle me right back out. By the time I forced the Chief to dismiss me, I knew what I would do next.

I went back to school, got my teaching degree, became a substitute middle school science teacher in the next town over, and waited for Mrs. Reilly at Moontown Middle School to retire. I was a shoo-in for her job when it finally came up: local and ready to start immediately; and I told the principal, Mr. Castle, that I’d gee up the outdated science curriculum by teaching some of the forensics I’d picked up at the Police Academy. I called my project “CSI-Moontown.” Mr. Castle laughed and gave me the job on the spot. Mark was happy for me. He seemed relieved. Maybe I was moving on? I couldn’t tell him I wasn’t, of course.

Donna’s still holding out on me, weeping. Lumps of mascara streak her face like an open coal seam. I’ve been gentle, sympathetic, because we’re old friends. When she first said no, which came as no surprise, I promised I’d keep things to myself. I promised I wouldn’t judge her. She has nothing to be ashamed of. It happens a lot in towns like ours. No big deal. And I would never threaten Millie, because none of this is Millie’s fault. But by the time it’s all played out, Millie will be another victim, and I’m pretty sure she and Donna will have to leave Moontown.

Which isn’t something people like us, the last of the old mountain families, do unless they have to. As hardscrabble as Moontown is, when your roots are set in the mountains, you don’t go far. These are our mountains, and we are theirs. The dead ancestors that fill the local graveyards, and whose names we still carry, could have gone West when there was still easy farming land to be had, or to the cities when there were manufacturing jobs aplenty. Many did go, of course, but our families, and their stubbornness, hold us here to this day. We inherited their homes and land, their pride, and their refusal to quit. We’re down to a hard core now, but at least we have each other, which city folks and suburbanites don’t, as they sit alone in their apartments, or rattle around subdivision homes by themselves. Up here in the mountains we’re all in the skillet together, and we’re staying in it. That’s why I know Pam’s killer is still hereabouts, and that’s why I became a teacher.

My students love “Moontown CSI.” They think it’s fun, pushing cotton swabs inside their cheeks and isolating each other’s DNA. I tell them DNA tells their stories. I tell myself that one day, one of those students’ DNA will lead me to the man who ended Pam’s story.

He must be confident the police will never get him now. Once in a while I still ask Mark if anything new has come up. He doesn’t need to respond; I know the answer’s no, though he still gets irritated every time I ask, avoiding my stare and stalking off. I should let it go, he says.

Before I got myself thrown out of the Department, I made sure I copied a lab printout of the killer’s DNA sequence from the incident room. At least the Department did a decent job there. The killer knew what he was doing, too. He must have used a condom, because there was no semen. No fingerprints, either – not even around the purple bruising on Pam’s neck, so he must have worn gloves. Pam, though, my scrappy mountaineer sister, got in a scratch as she fought back. County Forensics found a trace of what had to be her killer’s blood under one of her fingernails. And tiny as the sample was, it was enough to extract DNA.

Donna’s losing it now. She sweats through her waitress’s blouse, yellowed by smoke, grease, gravy and coffee grounds, but trembles as if she’s freezing cold. I do feel bad for her. I wish this was all over. She just needs to tell me, and it will be. For her, anyway.

Not that I think a middle schooler killed Pam, of course. The kids I teach now weren’t even born when my sister died in the mill. DNA links families, though. Students to parents, to siblings, to cousins, to grandparents, to aunts and to uncles. Generations of families that have been in these mountains, in this town, over a hundred and fifty years.

Ours is a particularly small community, and I’m surprised how long it’s taken to find a student with a DNA match to Pam’s killer. Millie has that match – the first I’ve found in all these years of looking. The link’s on the paternal side, and it’s as close as can be, so it seems it has to be Millie’s dad. Wayne. The friend we all hung out with, drinking beer and getting stoned.

The cops could never find Pam’s killer using DNA, because there’s no match in any of their databases, and that means her killer has no criminal record. That’s why I’m doing the cops’ work for them – because I can build my own database, criminal records or not, using my students. No warrants, no consents, no protocols, no disclosures, no accountability to anyone except Pam. The data is mine to keep and analyze. To obsess over.

But Wayne does have a criminal record. He wrecked his pick-up shortly after he graduated high school, and since he was high, they took blood. The judge gave him the choice of jail or the military, and he chose the military. He did his service, came home and married Donna, but he joined the National Guard after Millie was born, for the extra cash. That’s why he’s in Afghanistan right now.

So Wayne’s blood is in the criminal database. And that’s how I know Wayne isn’t Millie’s father. Or Pam’s killer.

It’s late now, and I’m running out of time before Mark gets out of work. Donna and I have been alone together in this closed, dark school for nearly two hours. God, she’s tough! I know she’s from the mountains, but why won’t she just tell me who Millie’s real father is, and end this for us both?

I’ve one card left to play, and one only, and I play it now. It’ll nearly kill her, I know, but one day I hope she’ll understand. She was Pam’s friend, too, after all. So I tell her the truth about “Moontown CSI.” Whoever fathered Millie raped and killed my sister. It’s fortunate it’s not the man Millie thinks is her dad. Wayne’s a good man. He was just stupid that one time when he was young.

After I finish, Donna looks up at me. She whispers hoarsely. I can’t make out what she is saying at first. I tell her to speak up through her sobbing. I sound like the schoolteacher I’ve had to become.

“It was . . . Oh my God, Carly, it was Mark,” she whispers at last. “I’m so—” then she leans forward to puke, and as she does so she topples over on the chair, falling face first onto the linoleum floor. Blood from her nose runs into the same scuffs we put there as kids.

My phone buzzes. It’s a text from Mark. He’s leaving the police station and he’s heading home. Should he pick up dinner on the way? I unlock a desk drawer, I reach in and I take out the large scissors and the box cutter I let my students use for their double-helix “Who Am I?” poster-board presentations. I put them in my bag and head out, leaving Donna on the floor, lying in the scuff-marks of our childhood. In her own tears, puke, and DNA.

Alastair Murdoch studied Screenwriting at the New School in New York City, and lives in Rye, New York. He is currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. “The Forensics Teacher” is Alastair’s first published story.

Apreal Sevilla likes photography and writing poems. Sevilla always carries a camera alongside with their pen and paper wherever they go. Watching cats, clouds, rain, stars and children are what truly makes Sevilla happy.