She held a blank, desolate look on her face when she told me about having to go to the neighbours’ houses for food, and having to make up excuses for her parents when they were away.Lisez l’histoire de Andrea Lanouette
Surrey , BC
I learned about the Aboriginal Arts and Stories contest just a few weeks ago, actually. I seen a flyer hanging on the bulletin board in the aboriginal room at my school, and I thought I was interesting, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enter. I was too busy, and I probably wouldn’t win anyway. A few days after that, I was in my last class of the day when my creative writing teacher, Ms. Turpin handed me the same flyer and told me I should give it a shot.
I was sceptical at first, but she was adamant; so I gave in. I started researching things that had to do with aboriginal culture, looking for events that would make for an interesting story. My dad was the one that suggested writing a story about the tragedies that have occurred along the Highway of Tears. I liked the idea, but I wasn’t sure how to write about tragedies I could barely fathom.
The goal I had in mind when I was writing this piece was not to make it too depressing. I knew the likelihood of having a happy ending was small, but I wanted to express a variety of emotions. The most obvious way to follow through with that was to make it a love story. I wanted to turn the faces of the women we see on the news who died hitch hiking on Highway 16 into characters we could relate to and love. I wanted my readers to remember that the victims had lives, and friends, and families just like ours. I also wanted to make this a tribute to the loved ones of the native women who passed so horrifically, because it must be awful to have someone torn away from you so suddenly.
Sitting here is this worn-out, faux-velvet recliner when I’ve got my cigarette in hand, I always find myself feeling a bit nostalgic. I end the day here every night and as soon as I sit down it seems my Caroline is always the first thing that comes to mind. It’s almost become a ritual. Re-living every moment I spent with her, searching for some kind of closure.
I met her back in high school. She was sixteen at the time. I was the new kid in town; my dad scored a better job in forestry there and so we dropped everything in Vancouver and headed north into the damp, foggy mass that was Prince Rupert. By then it was just the two of us. My mother died in a hit-and-run when I was just a baby. She had my older brother in the back seat – Dad said his name was James.
At eighteen I was tall, and fragile boned. Standing next to my father I more closely resembled a pipe-cleaner than a human. Worse still, I was a white pipe-cleaner with a crimson afro. Think Napoleon Dynamite, minus the glasses. Orange freckles dotted my face and shoulders, my eyebrows were transparent, my pants were about four inches too short and overall it was just a catastrophic combination of features for a boy.
Caroline was born and raised on the coast, and she was just as wild and unpredictable as the ocean that surrounded her. She was well-known around town for being the sweetest thing you ever saw. The men called her Bambi, for her soft brown eyes and smooth copper skin. Females spat her name in hushed voices when she walked by, unaware that their animosity only made her even more appealing. Her hair was always tossed effortlessly around her shoulder in loose chestnut waves down to her waist. Though, I think the thing I remember mostly clearly is the cigarette that hung loosely between her fingertips. It seemed she couldn’t exist without it.
Her parents were both alcoholics. I used to take her on long drives when she was upset and her parents were drinking. I’d park the car off the side of the road somewhere on Highway 16, and she’d tell me awful stories about when she was little and both of her parents would leave her alone for days when the welfare check came around. She would be spewing tears of rage one minute, and then a moment later she’d be a silent. She held a blank, desolate look on her face when she told me about having to go to the neighbours’ houses for food, and having to make up excuses for her parents when they were away. Then she’d blow me away by flashing a huge, sudden smile. She’d tell me how the neighbours knew she was lying the whole time. They kept her secret because native communities were “pretty much just like big families”.
“My secrets were theirs too,” she’d say. She couldn’t decide whether the closeness was the best or the worst part of living in a town filled with people who look, speak, and dress exactly the same. “Sometimes it’s great, but when it comes to meeting cute boys it’s a little ridiculous,” she said once, “You can’t focus on flirting when the thought of one day finding out he’s your cousin keeps floating in and out of your mind.” I’d try to smile then, sort of. I found it hard to wrap my head around the speed and ease at which she slid from one emotion to the next. Neither my head nor my heart could catch up to her.
One night she’d already smoked about a half a pack of smokes, and my car was filled with smog to the point that I could barely make out her silhouette huddled in the passenger’s seat. I wasn’t a smoker then. I knew all too well what it would do to my lungs, and so I opted to crack the window a bit.
Without warning she leaned over me, reaching behind my back for the window-dial so she could roll the window back up. She said she was cold, so I didn’t argue. She stayed there for a moment, a little too close for me to keep my cool. I really wish I could crack open a window, I thought. “You smoke?” She asked – her face only inches from mine. “Nope. Never have, never will.” I said, trying to sound confident. She looked down at me with her big doe-eyes then, taking a nice long drag before resting her delicate little hands on my chest. I parted my lips as she exhaled slowly. The smoke burned my throat, but I inhaled anyway because I could almost taste her watermelon lip gloss. Then suddenly, I could taste her watermelon lip gloss. Shocked, I gasped quietly, and to my mild embarrassment I could feel her smirking more than I could see it. I was hooked on nicotine the minute it hit my lungs, but it was nothing in comparison to my addiction to her.
After an immeasurable amount of time, we decided we’d go lay down in the back seat. That was probably the most memorable part of the night, for me. It was nice just laying next to her and talking about nothing. I kept a blanket and some pillows back there most of the time, so it was pretty comfortable. I held her while the rested her head against my chest, and she told me she liked the sound of my heartbeat.
She seemed to be calmed down by this point, so I sat up. I figured I should be getting her home before her dad came after me with his hunting rifle. Everything seemed fine, when out of nowhere she suggested ‘running away together’. I laughed at first, I figured she was joking. One look at her face told me otherwise. Tried to explain to her that it was better we didn’t. That we’d never graduate, we’d end up dirt poor in a homeless shelter in Terrace or someplace, but she wouldn’t accept it. She decided if I wouldn’t come with her she’d go alone. No way was I letting her out of this car by herself in the middle of the night on an empty highway, so I just kept driving towards home. That is, until she started screaming and grabbing for the steering wheel.
“ARE YOU CRAZY?” I screamed. What on earth was she doing, trying to get us killed? I pulled over to talk to her, but she just turned and got out of the car. She shut the door with a slam and started walking in the opposite direction I was driving. Just a stunt for attention, I thought. Nobody’s that stupid. So I didn’t chase after her. I didn’t even get out of the car. I just sat there behind the steering wheel, for I don’t know how long before I somehow fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning the sky was bright grey, which I had to admit was pretty darn good for Prince Rupert. That was when I realized that she never showed up last night. I sickening feeling took root in my gut and stayed there for the entire ride back into town. Please, please, please let her be at home.
The more I thought it through, the easier it was to convince myself she was safe and sound, probably asleep at home. After all, it was just like her to be too proud to ask for a ride home. She’s the type of person that was more likely to do things the hard way. By the time I finally got to her house, it must’ve been about 7:30 in the morning. I walked up the three creaky wooden steps, and knocked loudly on the door for a bit longer than I usually did, no answer. So I went around the back of the shabby one-story house, into the back yard, which was bigger than you expected it to be and peered through the back door; nothing, other than the faint sound of the T.V. in the background.
By the end of the day I had the whole town mad at me, but at least we were working together to try and find her. We had people calling relatives all over B.C. to keep an eye out for her. It wasn’t until three days later, when her parents received a call from the police saying they found her body in the woods about ten kilometres east of Highway 16. Not far from where I’d spent the night. They got a tip from an anonymous source who said they’d seen her trying to hitch a ride south. It was 1969 that year, and she was the first victim in a series of murders that happened on Highway 16.
Something inside me changed that day. I didn’t feel like a naïve teenager anymore. It seemed I aged a lifetime in just one day. People tend to say that I was just a kid when it happened, “eighteen is so young, you can’t blame yourself forever” but they forget that she was only sixteen. Sixteen. That was when I decided I wanted to be a police officer. I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t able to help solve what happened to Caroline.
It took a lot of hard work, but I made it. After a lot gruelling training from the experts and an unimaginable amount of protein shakes, I bulked up quite a bit in that first year. I finished high school a semester early, and went straight into training with the RCMP.
It’s 14 years and 9 victims later, and we still haven’t found the killer. It’s getting harder and harder to drag myself out of bed every morning, but I always manage after what seems like a hundred cigarettes and a hundred cups of coffee. A lot of times I look at the empty side of my bed and try to imagine what it would be like waking up next to her. Most days I just smile to myself because I know that there would be no getting out of bed. Everything I’d need would be in that bed right next to me. Then I need just one more cigarette to clear my head, and as I take that first drag, I think I can almost taste watermelon.