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An Index of How Our Family Was Killed

A brother, a father, a mother, a sister.

A family, to begin with. 

A family, whatever that is. 

A list of evidence, compiled in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance, rather than in the order in which I gathered these clues. 

A message, left on my answering machine and never deleted: My sister’s voice, telling me she’s okay, that she’s still there. 

Absence of loved ones, never diminishing no matter how much time passes. 

Accidents happen, but what happened to us was not an accident. 

Acquittal, but not for them, and not for us. 

Alarms that failed to go off, that have never stopped ringing in my ears. 

Alibis, as in, everyone’s got one. 

Ambulances that never arrive on time to save anyone. 

An index is a collection of echoes, each one suggesting a whole only partially glimpsed. 

Animal attacks are unlikely, but worth watching out for. 

Arrest, to bring into custody. 

Arrest, to bring to a stop. 

Autopsy, as a means of discovering the cause of death. 

Axe, as possibility. Also, other sharp objects, other combinations of handles and blades. 


Ballistics as method of investigation. 

Blood, obviously. 

Blood, scrubbed from the floor of bedrooms and barrooms and hospital beds, sometimes by myself, more often by others, by strangers, by men and women in white clothes unaffected by the crime at hand. 

Brother, memory of: Once, my brother and I built a fort in the woods behind our house by digging a pit and covering it with plywood. Once, we put the neighbor kid down in that pit and covered the hole. Once, we listened to him scream for hours from the back porch, where we ate cookies and milk and misunderstood what it was we were doing wrong. 

Brother, murdered. Murdered by a woman, a wife, his wife, the wife he had left but not divorced. Who he had left for another woman, a woman who could not protect him even with a house clasped tight with locks. Murdered in his sleep, with a knife to the eye. Murdered beside his new woman, who woke up screaming and didn’t stop for days and days. 

Bruises so black I couldn’t recognize her face, couldn’t be sure when I told the coroner that yes, this is my mother. 

Bullets, general, fear thereof. 

Bullets, specific: One lodged in my father’s sternum, another passing through skin and tissue and lung, puncturing his last hot gasp of air. 

Bullets, specific: Pieces of lead, twin mushrooms clattering in a clear film canister. Sometimes I shake them like dice, like bones. When I pour them out onto my desk they tell me nothing, their prophecy limited to that which has already come. 


Call me once a day, just to let me know you’re still safe. 

Call me X, if you have to call me anything at all. 

Camera, fear of, need for. To document the bodies, to show the size and location of wounds, to produce photographs to explain the entry and exit points of weapons. 

Car accidents, as in, it is easier to say that it was a car accident than to tell our friends what really happened. 

Caskets, closed. 

Control, impossibility of. 

Crimes, solved: Murders of father, mother, brother. 

Crimes, uncommitted (and therefore as yet unsolved): Murder of sister, murder of self. 

Curse, as possible explanation. 


Death, as punishment, but not for us, or at least not officially. 

Death, by electrocution, by gas chamber, by hanging or lethal injection. 

Death, obviously. 

Dental records, consulted whether you claim the body or not. Just to be sure. 

Detectives, who I have gotten to know on a first-name basis. 

Do not. 

Do not ask for assistance. 

Do not associate with one-armed men, men with tattoos, men with bad teeth or bad breath or bad dispositions. 

Do not answer the phone. 

Do not believe everything you hear. 

Do not be the messenger, for they are often shot. 

Do not break down on the side of the road. 

Do not call out for help—Yell FIRE instead. It will not save you, but at least there will be witnesses. 

Do not cheat at cards or darts or pool. 

Do not cheat on your spouse. 

Do not cross the street without looking. 

Do not date, no matter how lonely you get. 

Do not disagree with people with loud voices or short fuses. 

Do not discuss religion or politics. 

Do not drink in bars. 

Do not dress in flashy or revealing clothes. Do not ask for it. 

Do not fight for custody of your children. Better they see you one weekend a month than in a casket. 

Do not fly in airplanes. 

Do not forget that you are doomed, that your family carries doom like a fat bird around its neck, that it is something you will never be rid of. 

Do not forget to set the alarm when you leave the house, when you go to sleep at night. 

Do not fuck around. 

Do not get divorced. 

Do not get in fights, in bars or otherwise. 

Do not get married. 

Do not go looking for trouble. 

Do not go outside at night or during the day. 

Do not go skinny-dipping in dark ponds with anyone. 

Do not hire a private detective. They may find what you are looking for, but they will also find out about you. 

Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers. 

Do not have acquaintances. 

Do not have friends. 

Do not hope too much. 

Do not leave trails of breadcrumbs showing which way you have gone. 

Do not leave your phone number written in matchbooks or on cocktail napkins. 

Do not linger outside of buildings. Do not smoke or wait for buses or cabs. 

Do not look back when you should be running away. 

Do not love a man with a temper. 

Do not love men at all, or women either. 

Do not make enemies, if you can help it. 

Do not meet strange men or women you find on the Internet in coffee shops or bars or motels. 

Do not play with fire. 

Do not pray for salvation, for protection, for deliverance. 

Do not push your luck. 

Do not put your trust in security guards, in the police arriving on time. 

Do not raise your voice in anger. 

Do not sleep, for as long as you can avoid it. 

Do not smoke marijuana, as you are paranoid enough already. 

Do not take any drugs at all. 

Do not take shortcuts. 

Do not take the same way home twice. 

Do not telegraph your punches. 

Do not telephone home and say you’ll be out all night. 

Do not think that not doing any of these things will be enough to save you. 


Evidence as symbol of a crime committed, of a deed done. 

Evidence, locked away in locked cabinets inside locked rooms. 

Evidence, still not harmless, even behind all those locks and doors. 

Ex-wives, as likely suspects. 

Eye, as in, keep an eye out. As in keep your eyes peeled. 

Eye, as point of entry, as wound. 

Eyewitnesses, reliable enough for the courts, but not for me. They never tell me the things I need to know. 


F, tattooed on my left bicep, the first initial of a father lost. 

Family, as in mother and father and brother and sister and me. 

Family, as something broken and lost. 

Family, as something destroyed by external forces deadly as tornadoes, destructive as wildfires. 

Fate, as explanation, as probable cause. 

Father, memory of: Always I see my father walking out doors. I see him shutting the door to my bedroom, refusing to leave the light on, even after he gave me something to be afraid of. I see him shutting the car doors, locking me in for delirious summer hours while he drank in the bar, sitting near a window so he could keep an eye on me. I see him walking out the front door of our house, suitcase in hand, vanishing forever. 

Father, murdered. Gunned down by a complete stranger, outside a bar, in Bay City, Michigan. They had not been fighting, nor had they even spoken, at least according to the murderer. This murderer, he said he didn’t know why he did it, why he felt compelled to pull the pistol out of his jacket and shoot my father dead. We didn’t know either. We hadn’t talked to our father in five years, didn’t even know he was still in Michigan, waiting to be killed. 

Fingerprints are hard to get a hold of, but not impossible. I have spent a fortune to get these cards, these five-fingered imprints of the men and women who have torn my family to shreds. I have placed my own fingers over theirs, but they do not match. I am not accountable, at least not in this most surface of ways.

Fingerprints: Once you know your own, you can dust your house, can prove that no one has been there but you. 

Fire, as possibility, since it did not claim any of the others. 

Forensics, as method of investigation. 


Girlfriend, brother’s. Calls over and over, crying into the phone. One reason to get Caller ID. 

Guardian angels, nonexistent, as far as I can tell. 

Gunpowder, smell of: My father’s face, when I bent down to kiss him in his coffin. 


Hair samples, stored in plastic bags inside folded manila envelopes. Labeled with name, date, relationship. Fragile, dangerous to handle. 

Her, the only one of them that still remains. 

Her, who has separated herself from me, for her safety, for my own. 

History, familial, patriarchal and matriarchal: This is not just us, not just my mother and father and brother and sister and myself. This is uncles killed in poker games, aunts smothered in hospitals. This is babies exposed in vacant lots and brothers holding sisters underwater until the ripples stop. This is history as an inevitable, relentless tide. 

History, of an event, of a series of events. 

History, personal and also partial, as in this index. 

Hospital: The place we were born, the place we go to die, the place we will be declared dead. 


I, alone. 

I, without them. 

Identity, as in, Can you identify this body? As in, Is this the body of your father/mother/brother? 

Identity, as in, If I could identify her killer or my killer, could I stop our murders from taking place? 

If I can’t have him, no one can. Words overheard but ignored. A lesson about the importance of warning signs. 

Index as excavation, as unearthing, as exhumation. 

Index as how to find what you are looking for. 

Index as method of investigation. 

Index as task, as thing to be completed before I die. 

Index as time capsule, as guide to understanding the collected evidence of a life, of a history, of a family tree. 

Index as understanding, however incomplete. 

Inevitability, as a likely end to this story. 

Insurance policies, as in, Good luck getting one, if you’re me. They never tell you that being from a family of murder victims is a risk factor, but it is. 


J, tattooed on the inside of my right wrist, first initial of a brother lost. 

Jars, for holding each organ individually after they are weighed and categorized and examined for meaning. 

Jars, full of brains and livers and hearts. They will not give me these things, no matter how persistently I ask. 


Knife, as weapon, if you hold it right. 


Like being torn from the arms of the father. 

Like being wrenched from the bosom of the mother. 

Like closed caskets, like graves all in a row, like the last two plots, waiting to be filled in. 

Loss of limbs is less important to those who will not survive than those who have to see what is left. 

Love, as necessity. 

Love, not nearly enough. 

Luck, as in bad luck, for all of us. 


Madness, temporary, blinding. 

Manslaughter implies that what happened was a mistake. In my family, we do not believe in manslaughter. 

Memory, doing the best it can. 

Memory, failing to do enough all by itself. 

Memory, inconsistent, remembering the wrong things, seeking significance and signs where probably there are none. 

Memory: When my brother and my sister and then finally myself each went off to school for the first time, my mother gave us each a St. Christopher’s medallion. When she placed mine around my neck, she told me it would protect me, that it would keep me safe from accidents, from accidental death. If only what happened to each of us was an accident. If only the word accident could be applied to any of this. 

Mirror, the only place I see my father’s hairline, my mother’s nose, my brother’s ears, my sister’s thin, frightened lips. 

Mother, memory of: Lonely before he left, even worse later. There were men with good jobs and men with no jobs, men with tempers and men with appetites, men who were kind to us and men who used us as punching bags, as whipping posts, as receptacles for all the trash they carried inside themselves. Of all those who have failed to protect our family, she was only the first. 

Mother, murdered. Died strapped into the passenger seat of a car, unconscious from a head wound, from a wound to the head. I have heard it said both ways. Her boyfriend—a man she started dating after our father left but before he was murdered—thought he had killed her with his fists, but was wrong. It was the drowning after he dumped the car that did it. 

Motives are almost the opposites of alibis, but not quite. 

Mug shots: One, two, three, all in a row on the wall of my office. A reminder of who they were. 

Murder, obviously. 

My brother’s dog, which I take care of but do not trust. He failed to bark in the night once before, and he could do it again. 

Mystery, unsolved, even after all this investigation. 


Nothing, as inevitable as an ending. 

Nothing: impossible to index, to quantify, to explain. 


Overprotectiveness is something you learn, but always too late. 


P, tattooed on the left side of my neck, first initial of a mother lost. 

Persistence of fate, of karma, of destiny, of a wheel turning and turning, crushing whatever falls beneath its heel. 

Phones, both answered and unanswered. Bearers of bad news. 

Phones ringing and ringing and ringing. 

Photographs, blown up and then cropped until the wounds disappear beyond the borders of the frame. 

Photographs, mailed to me from Michigan, of my father’s body, as unrecognizable as the distance between us. 

Photographs of crime scenes, always the same series of angles, repeated for each murder. 

Photographs of my brother, dead before he could scream. 

Photographs of my brother’s eye, of the knife wound left where it used to be. 

Photographs of my brother’s lips, pressed together in sleep, then death. 

Photographs of my mother’s face, bruised and broken. 

Photographs of my mother’s teeth, on the floor of the car. 

Photographs of our family of five, and then of four, and then of three. There are no photographs of our family of two. We do not gather. We do not congregate. 

Photographs, plastered like wallpaper until all I can see from my desk are familiar clavicles and jawlines and hands placed palms up to expose too-short life lines. 

Police, as in, I have had my fill of the police. 

Poison, a possibility. Must prepare my own food, avoid restaurants, parties, buffets, and potlucks. 

Pre-meditation, as way of life. 

Prevention: See, GOOD FUCKING LUCK.


Questions, how can there not be questions? 


Risk, always there is risk, that at any moment one wrong word or action might bring upon us who are left what has already been brought to bear on those who are gone. 

Rope: There are so many things that can be done with rope that it is hard to know what to be afraid of. 


Search party, looking for my mother, before we knew she’d gone through the surface of the lake. 

Sister, memory of: Happy in the fourth grade when she won the school spelling bee. Happy at her confirmation, when God promised to protect her forever. Happy at my brother’s wedding, dancing the polka. Happy, happy, happy, until she wasn’t happy anymore or ever again. 

Sister, survivor. She has tried to live a life free of dangers. She follows every rule, every instruction, takes every precaution. She does not talk to strangers, either men or women. She does not talk to children or babies. She does not pet dogs or hold cats or touch any other small domestic animals. In her purse, she keeps both mace and pepper spray, but she never walks anywhere. She has a taser in her glove box, but never drives. If she walks or if she drives, then she will die. If she rides in cars with others, then they too will die because she is with them. There are no knives or forks or shovels or tire irons in her house. She does not answer her phone or check her e-mail or open her door, ever, even if it is me knocking. She has done everything she can, but it will not be enough. I have not seen her in months, but that does not mean I believe she is safe. Sooner or later, my phone will ring, and then I will know that she too is gone. 

Sometimes, I go to department store perfume counters and spray my mother’s scent onto a test card. In the back of my wallet are dozens of these now scentless things, marked only by the splotch stained across the white card stock. 

Sometimes, I think of my father without realizing he’s gone, my heart numb as an amputee’s fingers, as a lost hand trying to pick up a coffee cup over and over and over. 

Sometimes, while I’m petting my brother’s dog, I have to stop myself from hurting it, from punishing it for its failure to bark, to warn, to save its owner’s life. 

Strangulation, as possibility. To be that close to the killer, to see his eyes, to feel his breath, to press my windpipe against his grip—After all I have endured, after all I have imagined, this is one of the most satisfying ways I can see to go. This is a way that at least one question might get an answer.

Survivor, but probably not for long. 


Tattoo of my sister’s first initial, eventually to be inked but not yet necessary. 

Tattoos, as reminders, as warnings, as expectations of loss. 

The sound of a black bag being zippered shut. 

The sound of a brother comforting a brother, ignorant of the doom between them. 

The sound of a bullet making wet music in his organs. 

The sound of a car breaking the surface of a lake. 

The sound of a confession, taped and played back. 

The sound of a gunshot reverberating, echoing between concrete facades. 

The sound of a knife, clacking against bone. 

The sound of a message played over and over until the tape wears thin. 

The sound of a phone going unanswered. 

The sound of a police siren, of multiple sirens responding to multiple events. 

The sound of a sister crying and crying. 

The sound of a sister saying good-bye, saying that this will be the last time you will see her, for both your sakes. 

The sound of a sentence heard three times, that means loss, that means murder, that means another taken from me. 

The sound of a woman screaming for hours. 

The sound of an alarm ringing. 

The sound of sirens, a Doppler effect of passing emergency. 

The sound of testimony, of witnessing. 

The sound of words left unsaid. 

Things that never were, and things that never will. 


Understanding, as in lack thereof. 


Vengeance, but never enough. Always state-sanctioned, always unsatisfying. 

Victim is a broad term, a generalization, an umbrella under which we are all gathered at one time or another. 

Violations of the law symbolize violations of the person, of the family, of the community. This is why they must be punished. 


We regret to inform you. 

We regret to inform you. 

We regret to inform you. 

What it takes to cut yourself off. 

What it takes to defend your family. 

What it takes to hide forever. 

What it takes to kill a man. 

What it takes to see this through to the end. 

What it takes to solve the crime. 

What it takes to take back what is yours. 

Why, as in, Why us? 

Witness, general. 

Witnesses, specific: The other men and women who were with my father that night, plus the other people who were walking down the street when the shots were fired. The bartender and two waitresses, plus the policemen who arrived on the scene. I have interviewed them all myself, months later, after the conviction of the killer. The crime already solved, but not yet understood. 

Wound, as in bullet hole, as in burn, as in puncture, as in slashing, as in fatal. 


X, as in, to solve for X, as in, to complete the equation. 

X, tattooed on my chest, above my heart. 

X, that calls out to him who will commit this deed, to her who might end all that I am. 

X, that marks the spot. 

X, that will come to be. 

X, which could stand for absolutely anything. 


Y, asking for purpose, for explanation, for apology. 

Y, the shape of an autopsy scar zippering the chest of a loved one. 

Y, the sound of the question I cannot answer. 

Y, the sound of the only question worth asking. 

You, reading this. 

You. Yes, you. 

You. You, you, and you. You may not know yet, or maybe you always have, have felt the deed clenched in your heart like a fist. Please, do not wait any longer. I am tired of the fear, tired of the anticipation, tired of the day after day after day. 


Zero, as brother. 

Zero, as identity. 

Zero, as father. 

Zero, as memory. 

Zero, as mother. 

Zero, as name. 

Zero, as self. 

Zero, as silence. 

Zero, as sister. 

Zero: What will remain. 

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall (all Soho Press). A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. His contribution to Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity is excerpted from a novel-in-progress.