The Stepmother

I knew something wasn’t right about her from the moment I met her. This woman whom my father loved was loath to speak of her past and when she did, she offered little by way of detail. She didn’t even look like her parents. If she had been adopted, no one ever spoke of the matter.

We clashed. Serious, intense, and a big believer in structure, she took to the role of disciplinarian eagerly, and far too quickly. Her clumsy attempts at bonding seemed feigned; they were persistent when dad was around and I often ceased to exist when he wasn’t. Even so, and despite not being very good cook and my repeated nose wrinkling, she insisted on making me breakfast and lunch. After weeks of never feeling well after those meals, I began to wonder why she never made dinner, leaving that to my father, a task that he–an amateur chef–enjoys. Was she drugging me? Slow poison? Breakfast and lunch shared the commonality of my father’s absence. In turn, we argued and gave each other a wide berth. Dad was nonplussed; all teenage girls fight with their mothers and even more with stepmothers. But I hated her and I knew she hated me.

When I went off to college, I had more important things to worry about than the monster that awaited my return. She gave birth to my little sister and when I visited home, she didn’t seem to have as much interest in ruining my life. When I came home for the summer, I spent more time with my boyfriend. He knew of my hatred for her and also of my suspicions. More fights, threats, and inexplicable behavior followed. I passed it all along to the one person I knew that I could trust in gruesome detail. It was hiking one Saturday that he told me about the woman who had married a man in Carnation, killed him and his two small children, and disappeared. He had always been the one to press her for details about her past and he did so now with greater urgency. This only led to her looking upon him with even more disdain.

A few mornings after the hike, I overheard her telling my father that she didn’t approve of our dating. I wouldn’t have her stand between my father and I and then take me away from the man I loved. I needed to know for myself. That night, I typed “Carnation Washington woman murders family” into Google and I was greeted by The Seattle Times, dated August 12 2002. Wendy Merkle bore a resemblance to my stepmother, but not the nearly identical similarity that my boyfriend claimed. I returned to the search and found another interesting link. A girl in Carnation had been suspected of killing her parents when she was 16. The time-frame fit: Wendy Merkle would have been 16 and this girl, her name was Catherine, my step-mom’s name, had never been charged due to lack of evidence. The girl’s parents had died of poisoning. It was so quiet, but I still almost didn’t notice her standing behind me.

“What are you up to?” she asked. Had she seen the search? The moment I realized she was there, I had switched back to reading the latest on WordPress. “Nothing”, my reply as usual. My stomach was beginning to hurt more by the minute. Dad was late at work, she had made dinner. “OK.” She usually had more to say or some stupid fight to pick with me. I called my boyfriend, but he didn’t answer.

“I think she cot me googlng her.” I typed furiously, and waited. My stomach churning, I lay down and waited some more. I must have fallen asleep despite the pain. The next morning, he had not returned the text. That was the first time he had ever done that. I called again, again to no answer. I left a message, panic starting to distort my voice.

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