Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 4: The Great Mystery | Part 2)
BY THE MIDDLE of November, Lissa was spending so much time on the case that her apartment had fallen into neglect. If Shauna stopped by to visit her mother, she found the laundry unfolded, the shower unscrubbed. The kitchen floors were tacky with spilled sugar, and bowls sat dirty in the sink, where the hard remnants of meals had blossomed into mold. Paper accumulated like fallen leaves, forming loose piles on the desk and on the floor of the hallway into the bedrooms. Lissa had not lain in her bed in weeks. If the boys saw her asleep, it was at her desk, mouth agape. This was not exactly unusual. Lissa claimed to prefer chairs to beds, and the apartment had long ricocheted between states of chaos and order. But now it seemed there was no order, and the boys, sensing their mother had little time to worry as to their whereabouts, came and went as they pleased.
It had been months since Lissa attended her addiction recovery meetings, having relinquished her leadership role to another woman in the group. Even to the sweat lodge, she was going less and less. Instead, she spent so much time on the phone that the boys took to imitating her. Obie, now fourteen, would coolly enter the apartment, while Micah, thirteen, pretending to be on the phone, would wave wildly for his brother to be quiet and then storm into a bedroom and slam the door. Shauna, now twenty-five, was less amused. “Our mom cares more about a stranger than her own kids,” she complained. She had moved to Fargo to see her mother—recently, she had relocated to an apartment next door—and now it seemed that on the rare occasion she discovered her mother at home, Lissa had no time to talk. Lindsay, twenty-two, sympathized with Shauna, while their brothers swung between their sisters and mother, defending Lissa one day and harping on her the next.
The tension between Shauna and Lissa had risen not long after Shauna came to Fargo. While working full-time, Shauna had enrolled in classes to finish her undergraduate degree. Lissa encouraged this and offered to watch her kids—an arrangement that suited them both in the beginning but over time strained their relationship. Shauna could be sullen and critical of Lissa, who reacted by refusing to watch her grandchildren, deepening Shauna’s resentment.
“My older kids are very judgmental, accusatory, disrespectful,” Lissa wrote one day in her journal:
CJ called me a “pill head” and told me to go back and lay in my room and pop some more pills. I believe “addict” and “junkie” were thrown in there a few times. But it doesn’t matter. All in all, basic old argument. I always owe him. Owe him for the awful life I gave him. I owe, I owe, and I owe. It seems no matter what I do I will never make up for the past. I fucked up here and there but the past is the past….No matter what I will never be good enough for my older kids. The damage is done. They can continue to hate and ridicule me all they want. They can do it AWAY FROM ME.
Now even Lissa’s younger kids were seeming bothered by her work on the case. One evening in November, Micah told Lissa he believed a spirit had taken up residence in the apartment. He had been napping on the couch after school when he felt the blanket he was lying under lift and fold across his chest. He thought for a moment that his mother adjusted the blanket, but when he realized Lissa was nowhere around, Micah leapt up and ran to his bedroom. After that, strange things kept happening. Obie noticed them, too. They would be alone in the apartment when a cupboard would open or a shampoo bottle would drop to the bathroom floor. It was not a coincidence, they insisted, and their stories confirmed something Lissa already suspected—that KC had been visiting her, as well.
She had been raised to believe in spirits, whose existence few in her family questioned, but Lissa’s sense of how spirits behaved was shaped less by her culture than by her own inquiry.
Her first real encounter had come while she was in prison. Dakota Women’s was located in an old Catholic boarding school, which several of Lissa’s uncles had attended decades earlier. Lissa noticed the spirits as soon as she arrived, clinging to other inmates like masks, possessing them, making them say strange things. The spirits scared Lissa, and one day, she told a priest about them. Though she had been raised Catholic, she had not yet been confirmed. The night before her confirmation, she had stolen a bottle of her grandfather’s liquor and drank most of it herself. The reservation priest had rescheduled, but Lissa missed that date as well. She never had much use for religion, believing it a ploy of white men to control the behavior of Indians, but what the priest at the prison said surprised her. While the Catechism acknowledged the presence of spirits, it warned against delving into the spiritual realm, since although God created spirits, like people spirits had free will and like people they could turn away from God. The spirits Lissa had seen among her fellow inmates were real, the priest said. He believed Lissa had a gift for seeing, but he told her to be careful.
After that, Lissa developed her own theories about the way spirits occupied the living world. She wondered if they did not drift in the air as she once thought but instead took shelter in everyday objects—in doorknobs, hot dogs, cigarettes touched to lips. In needles sunken in the crooks of arms.
She believed spirits were around all the time, and it was at night, when things got quiet, that it became easier to register their presence. The first time spirits entered her dreams had been in the summer of 2010, on a camping trip in White Shield with her relatives. They had erected a canopy by the lakeshore and gone fishing. One evening, Lissa climbed a bluff above the beach and found several large stones arranged so deliberately she was certain they were an effigy. That night, as she fell asleep, a man and three women came to her in a dream. Lissa was on a bluff picking sage when she noticed them standing on a far hill. Each time she glanced up at them, they moved impossibly closer. She picked frantically, arranging the sage in a circle around herself, and when she looked up again, the man and women were standing beside her, their eyes cloudy and white.
Later, she sent a photograph of the stones to an anthropologist, who told her they were shaped like the constellation Auriga. She also told the story to the Lakota holy man she knew, and after that, she paid more attention to her dreams. None would be so vivid as the one that came to her that night by the lake, but when a spirit began visiting her dreams in the fall of 2012, Lissa had no doubt it was KC. “I don’t know why but he likes it here,” she wrote Jill one night. “I’m sending him to pester u cause I’m wiped out. I just offered my pipe up and I talked to him.”
If Jill was bothered that a woman who had never known her son was claiming to have spoken to his spirit, she did not let on. Once, when Lissa wrote, “It’s him keeping me up but I’m going to ignore him tonight,” Jill replied without a hint of sarcasm that her son could be “persistent.” Jill, as Lissa put it, was “more open-minded than your average white girl.” She often visited a psychic, whom she believed had communicated with her son. Lissa distrusted psychics. They preyed on desperate people, she thought, whom they gutted of all ability to reason. Jill received frequent messages from psychics offering services for a fee, and Rick had even spoken to one who propositioned him to engage in something called “astral sex.” Rick was creeped out, but even he was more open-minded than most white people Lissa knew. “You know,” he mused one night, “before this KC thing happened, I was fine going through life drinking beer and hanging out with my buddies.” Now, he said, “It’s like God smacked the shit out of me. He’s like, Listen, you’ve got to wake up to what’s going on.”
Rick meant “God” not in a religious sense but in a spiritual one. “Everyone says, ‘the Bible, the Bible, the Bible,’ ” he said, “but everyone interprets the Bible different. I choose to have my own relationship with the Great Mystery. I’ve been ostracized by my family for that. Once, I was like, ‘Hey Uncle Bobby, if you don’t take Jesus as your lord and savior, are you going to hell?’ And Uncle Bobby said, ‘Yes.’ He’s fucking sixty years on the planet and he believes that bullshit? I’ve kind of gone anti-religion, even as far as, like, pagan ritual, the old yin-yang version, where they chop heads off lambs and put them on the altar. It’s all ridiculous when you get down to it.” Rick was done with God, he told Lissa—at least with the one he had known as a child—but into the space made vacant by his doubt had come a new way of seeing that was, he thought, more holy than the way he had abandoned. Rick believed in spirits. He believed people saw only what they allowed themselves to see: “God ain’t going to show you nothing that you can’t fucking comprehend yourself. I’m sorry to cuss, but I’m passionate about it. We’re talking about what’s wrong with the world, here. We’re talking about why people suffer. Because God can’t give them a fucking answer.”
IN THE DAYS after Lissa posted the video, she monitored the number of views obsessively. In less than a week, the video had been seen 120,000 times. Eighty-five percent of those who shared it were women, a majority based in North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming—states many oil-field workers hailed from. Lissa even sent the video to James’s parole officer, noting in an email, “This man is on probation under your watch.”
About a week later, the video vanished from the Internet. On Jill’s Facebook page, a black box occupied the space where the video had been, and the YouTube link opened to an error message. Lissa wondered if someone had contacted law enforcement to have it taken down. She posted the video again.
James had never been active on social media, and Sarah had deleted her Facebook account, but now others appeared on Jill’s page in their defense. “I do not know where KC is, but I know for a fact this mother has twisted SO MUCH of the info on this site,” one man wrote. The man, whose name was Brian Baker, wished to correct Jill’s story: “KC said he would be back in 2 weeks. I don’t think James or Sarah knew anymore than that. James and KC were good friends, they never had a fall out or argument of any kind!…Blackstone did end up finding out that KC and Rick were working for the other company. But there was nothing ‘shady’ going on. Rick told Blackstone he just wanted to be paid more, so all that stuff he says does not make since to me.”
Lissa had not heard of Brian Baker before. Oddly, neither had Rick. Brian had no information on his Facebook page, and his name was too ordinary to summon with a Google search. Then, one morning in early November, Brian wrote to Jill directly:
You can’t be trusted!…You don’t want help, you only want money. James and Sarah would gladly help you. You’ve never reached out besides for money, why don’t you publicly apologize and see where that gets you?
Jill forwarded the message to Lissa, asking if “Nadia” could post a reply. Lissa logged in to Nadia’s account and wrote to Brian, who replied immediately. She responded in a private message: “How could you be so mean to a mother that is missing her son?”
“I was never being mean,” Brian wrote. “I’m sorry you thought that….I want answers just like you do and everyone does, I want to help!”
Lissa considered her opening. “Who are those people to you anyway?” she asked. “You sound as though you take everything personal like they are siblings of yours or something.”
“They are very dear friends I’ve known for years. What is Jill to you?”
Better to stay as close to the truth as possible, Lissa decided: “I met her through the page, and I flew to North Dakota to meet her when she went there with a lady from the reservation to look around.”
If Brian believed “Nadia,” he did not say. He was concerned, he wrote, that Jill had targeted James and Sarah when neither were yet “suspects.” He had no idea where KC had gone, he repeated, and he mentioned the anonymous caller who told KC’s grandfather that KC was working in Montana.
Lissa baited Brian: “I pulled James’s criminal history and…he is a drug dealer, a thief.”
“Why would you think he’s a drug dealer?!”
“You obviously have never seen his rap sheet.”
“Yes I have, and better yet I know him.”
“Well why won’t they take a polygraph to shut everyone up?”
Brian did not respond right away. After eleven minutes, Lissa assumed he had abandoned the conversation, but then a new message appeared: “They were given legal advice to never take one. And a lot of the time the results are not admissible. And the police said they were very helpful….Doesn’t that make since to you?”
Since instead of sense. It was the second time Brian had made this mistake.
“I mean NO disrespect for Jill what so ever!!!!” he continued. “But she doesn’t even know KC was missing for 4 months. KC told many people he didn’t like his mom. I’m not trying to be rude. I can imagine her hurt, but he told people that.”
“And you’re real tight with your mom?” Lissa replied. “Don’t a lot of people have resentments towards their parents? I don’t talk to my mom very often. Resentments. You know. You haveta know. That’s why you’re way far away from your home.”
“I’m close with my mom, maybe a week or two could go by. But never 4 months.”
“Good for you. I can’t say the same. I have nothing against Sarah. She seems like a nice person, young, a lot going for her, but she needs to lose that loser! That girl would be better off without him. You watch! The minute she tries to gain some independence from him, she will be missing, too, or beat up. People like him are predictable. It’s just a matter of time.”
“I know them both, and James is not a loser. He does not look good on paper but he is a good person, he’s helped anyone who’s asked! And Sarah is very very sweet and kind, always putting others before her.”
“What do you think happened to KC?” Lissa asked.
Brian didn’t know. “It’s driving me nuts!” he wrote. “I feel like there has to be some sort of clue….What do you think?”
Lissa took several minutes to compose her reply. “I think James killed him or had him killed cause KC knew things about James and about that business. Also I think Sarah knows something about it after the fact. But I also think that money is a terrible demon. I think KC will be found soon and everything will come to light. James is a sociopath and he has most people fooled, including his wife, and including you.”
“Wow, you’re very opinionated ha ha,” Brian wrote. “I don’t believe at all James killed or had KC killed. There’s nothing to know about the company….James and Sarah are very open with books and checks and there’s nothing weird going on.”
Lissa printed the conversation with Brian and reread it several times. Then she printed all the incriminating information she had gathered on James and called an investigator she knew in Minot, a North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent named Mike Marchus.
They met one day in early December on a street near the Minot police station. Mike remained in his car as Lissa handed him the criminal record. He was pudgier than she remembered, with arched eyebrows and military hair. “A friend,” she called him, though he had helped send her to prison. For years he had monitored her when she lived in Minot, kept track of her drug deals, until one day, in 2005, officers had acquired a warrant and raided her house. Still, Lissa trusted Mike more than any other cop. Even while he surveilled her, they had spoken often on the phone, and once, when a little girl disappeared from a house next to Lissa’s, and Mike was assigned the case, Lissa had tried to help him. The girl was never found.
“It’s a classic RICO case,” Lissa now explained to Mike—a conspiracy eligible for federal prosecution through the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. If James was guilty of theft or fraud or trafficking drugs on the reservation, as his record suggested he might be, then the case “could go federal,” to the FBI and U.S. attorney.
“I’m not federal,” Mike told Lissa.
“I know,” she replied. But perhaps he could share the case with a detective who was. She suspected there was more to James’s crimes than the record she had found online contained, and she planned to find out. Jill had invited her to Washington for Christmas, and since the courthouse in Bend, Oregon, where James’s arrest records were kept was five hours south of the town where Jill lived, they intended to make a trip. Lissa promised to bring Mike these documents, as well.
IT WAS BELOW zero, the highway dusted in a powder of snow, when Lissa departed Fargo with Obie and Micah on the evening of December 21, 2012. The boys had been reluctant to miss Christmas with their relatives, but Lissa had offered to take them to see the ocean and had added that perhaps they might lure west whatever spirit was haunting the apartment. So, they had packed the van with changes of clothes and driven to Bismarck, where they spent a night with a cousin, before continuing on to Washington.
Jill’s house was no larger than a double-wide trailer, on a cul-de-sac at the edge of a forest. It was modest, loosely cared for, with latticework around the front and gardens gone to seed. After Lissa and the boys had settled in, Jill served beef and barley soup for dinner and fretted over what they would do the next day. Obie and Micah were eager to see Seattle, but the idea upset Jill, who said things wouldn’t be right the day being so close to Christmas. So Lissa waited for Christmas to pass before she took the boys out.
She could recall seeing the ocean three times herself, first with her mother in 1971, when she was three years old. They had been living in Los Angeles, Irene one of forty students selected to attend a new Indian Studies program at UCLA. One day, Irene and Lissa took the bus to San Francisco and a ferry to Alcatraz Island, which, when they arrived, had been occupied for more than a year by Native American activists. AIM would later lead similar occupations—of Mount Rushmore; of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.; of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where, in 1890, a cavalry massacred around three hundred Lakota men, women, and children—but Alcatraz was the first.
By then, Irene had met a Yakama Indian from Wellpinit, Washington, named Willy Phillips, who had been hired as an undercover spy to sleuth out drug users among students in the Indian Studies program. Irene learned this only after they started dating, though it had not mattered anymore, since Willy, a decorated Vietnam veteran with PTSD, was fired for drinking too much. They married and moved to San Jose, and then Willy took up with another girl, and Irene did not see him much anymore. One night, in an Oakland bar, Willy was stabbed to death. This Lissa remembered—how suddenly Willy was gone for good; how Irene, after three years in California, phoned the reservation and said she was ready to come home; how Lissa’s grandparents, Madeleine and Willard, appeared in San Jose with a station wagon and, while their daughter packed, took Lissa to the beach.
That was the second time Lissa had seen the ocean. The third time she remembered had been in the winter of 1997, when she was twenty-eight years old. She had been two years into her addiction by then. Her house had been raided, and her children, Shauna and CJ, taken and placed in foster care. Lissa had been desperate to get clean, so she and OJ had fled Minneapolis in a hurry, rented a car and pointed it west until they came to the edge of the continent and could not drive any farther. The beach had been flat, cold, vast—somewhere south of Seattle. Lissa had taken off her shoes and socks and waded into the frigid water. Then they had driven to Portland and rented a motel room on Division Street, which OJ had wanted to leave as soon as they arrived. One day, Lissa returned to the motel and found him high, laid out on the bedcover. He screamed at her, acted crazy. She took him to the emergency room. That evening, when they returned to the motel, OJ beat her brutally and then left on a bus for Minneapolis.
Lissa remembered wandering a wide boulevard on the east side of Portland. She entered the first strip club she came to. It was a lingerie modeling shop, under renovation. The proprietor took one glance at her bruised face and said she could not dance looking like she did. He found her a room in a hotel nicer than the one she and OJ had been living in. When she said she would not sleep with him, he had told her this was okay, and when he left, she lay on the bed and cried. The proprietor was kind to her. While Lissa waited for her bruises to heal, he tasked her with monitoring cameras in the club, keeping an eye on the dancers as they greeted clients. He paid her forty dollars at the end of each day, and when he realized she had a knack for business, he invited her to partner with him. He even gave her a car for her birthday and hired an attorney to get her kids back, but Lissa told him she could not stay. At the end of that summer, she went home.
That was the last time she had seen the ocean. Obie and Micah were not yet born. Now they drove as far west as they could go, to the edge of the city, and parked beneath an overpass, a highway roaring overhead. Obie was acting sullen and refused to leave the car. It was afternoon, the shadows of homeless men shifting in the almost-dark, and when one approached for a cigarette, Lissa gave him a whole pack. “Keep an eye on my son,” she said. The man brought over a chair and sat, looking dutiful as he smoked.
They rode the Ferris wheel, lights spinning over a boardwalk, and then stood on a pier that jutted into the sound. The day was damp, the water the color of clay.
Lissa’s phone blinked with a message from Jill: Were they sure they wanted to go to Oregon the next morning? Jill was broke and hated for Lissa to cover the cost of gas and court records. She hoped they were having a good time. She had saved them leftovers.
“We are going tomorrow,” Lissa replied. “Regardless end of story.”
LISSA HAD BEGUN to lose patience with Jill. The intimacy they had found over the phone had waned upon her arrival in Washington. Still, they acted close, and this posturing made Lissa feel claustrophobic. At the house, Jill hardly took her eyes off Lissa, asking where she was going if ever Lissa stepped outside. After days of this, Lissa was glad to leave for Oregon and would have preferred to make the trip alone had she not planned another stop after the courthouse requiring Jill’s presence—Sweet Home, the town where KC’s grandfather, Robert Clarke, lived.
Jill had not seen Robert in years. He was the father of KC’s father, who had long been absent. It was no secret KC favored Robert over Jill, and it was for this reason, Lissa suspected, that KC had been missing for months before Jill even emailed Robert. Jill and Robert had spoken intermittently after that, trading what information they had. Robert told Jill about the anonymous caller who had claimed KC was in Montana, and he sent her the last emails he exchanged with KC a day after Christmas in 2011:
You are my thoughts, you are the fireplace on a cold morning, you are the constant reminder that I still have a life. So much for sentiment, all is true. Wishing you the best, Love Gramps
KC’s response had been no less sweet:
I feel the same about you. You have done more for me and cared more than anyone else on the planet. Still lots of work here. I got a sinus infection and been sicker than shit the last few days. I’ve been taking antibiotics and getting better though. Love you with all my heart.
Reading those emails had to hurt, Lissa thought, but in reply, Jill had sounded strong. She suggested the anonymous caller was, in fact, James, and she worried Robert was in danger.
Now as Lissa and Jill drove to Oregon, Jill did not seem as strong. When they arrived at the courthouse in Bend, they found it under renovation and were forced to sit cross-legged on the floor as they read the pages Lissa had requested, sorting them into piles for the clerk to copy. They would have more time to read later, but Lissa could not help herself. When she came to a document that excited her, she handed it to Jill, who showed little interest.
The next day, they left Bend and continued west toward Sweet Home. When they came to Sisters, a piney enclave on the east side of a range of mountains, Jill’s phone blinked with a message from Robert. He was “sicker than hell”—they better not come. Jill wanted to turn around, but Lissa refused.
The boys had fallen asleep. Snow fell. Their wheels spun on a slick of white. The banks on either side of the road were taller than the van and the trees so laden with snow that they formed a tunnel through which Lissa drove. The snow seemed to calm Jill, and when they reached the top of a pass, they stopped and got out together to photograph the trees. Then they descended through a mossy valley, so green that they might have entered another world.
They found Robert’s trailer some distance out of town, on a thin lawn beside a creek. It was getting dark, but there were no lights on inside. Lissa knocked gently at first, then harder. Jill looked like she might cry. “We came all this way,” she said, forgetting her earlier reluctance.
“Is he hard of hearing?” Lissa asked.
“Yes, very. Yes. I forgot that.”
Lissa knocked again and waited. A minute passed. Then she heard footsteps, and the door opened revealing a man with stooped shoulders, long ears, and white wisps of hair retreating from his forehead. His jeans hung on a pair of suspenders. He did not look pleased to see them. “Huh,” Robert said. “You’re here anyway.”
His trailer was crowded, boxes stacked on the surfaces as if he was preparing to move. “Find someplace to sit,” Robert said. “Can’t believe what it’s like living in one of these when there’s nowhere to put anything.”
“At least you got somewhere to put something, right?” Lissa said.
“Some people got, yeah…” Jill said, trailing off. She was breathy, talking to herself.
Lissa pushed aside a box and sat at the table. She noticed a set of photographs and reached for them, listening quietly as Jill and Robert spoke. In one photograph, KC was no more than five, smiling largely on a leather sofa in the crook of his grandfather’s arm. In another, taken some years later, the two of them stood in a parking lot against a backdrop of forest, a camera slung around Robert’s neck.
“That Mountrail County sheriff—boy, he was a real ass,” Robert told Jill. “I don’t know what his name was. I don’t remember. He says, ‘Even if I find him, I don’t have to tell you anything. He’s twenty-nine.’ ”
“I got the same story,” said Jill. “I got, ‘Well, maybe he wanted to disappear.’ ”
“After I found out that was a phony call, it must have been two, three weeks, and I still hadn’t heard from KC. That caller told me the only reason KC hadn’t called was there was nowhere to get service in eastern Montana up around the oil fields.”
“Somebody’s trying to throw you off,” Jill said.
Lissa looked up. “Did you ever get the phone records?” she asked Robert.
“No, see, I wasn’t smart enough to save the records. I thought everything was all right. I didn’t—” Robert sounded tired, like he was ready for them to go. “What a mess,” he said. “How’d you find this place?”
Jill nodded to Lissa. “She can find anyone,” she said.
Robert didn’t seem to hear. “I have to take Tom”—a neighbor—“to the doctor once in a while. He’s had hip replacements, knees. Albany—you go down a one-way street, turn, go a block, and think you can go back the other way, but hell, you don’t know where to go.”
“How often was KC calling you then?” asked Jill.
“Oh, I don’t know, probably average once a week, maybe go two weeks without a call. When he was in Texas”—working at the car dealership—“he’d get upset ’cause he couldn’t sell anything and then he wasn’t very friendly. Then he’d have a good week, and he’d call. In [North Dakota] he called me on the road. Sometimes we’d talk for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, but all of it was about the job, and how the job was going, and the hours he was working. A couple times he mentioned that he was saving money.”
“Did he ever tell you he had any problems with James?” Lissa said.
“No,” Robert said. “It was all a big surprise that there were any problems. I found that out from Rick Arey. I was trying to figure out where that house was that Judd and KC lived in. I finally called Judd on the job where he was working, and he talked a little bit, but he had to get back to work. [Then] I called Sarah, and she went into hysterics. I didn’t get anything out of her. She just said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ and hung up. The bawling hysterics, I mean, not laughing.”
“Do you have any other pictures of KC?” Lissa said.
“That box right there is full of them.”
“Can I look?”
“Help yourself. Turn the lights on overhead there.”
Lissa rose, lifted the box, carried it to the table. Once, Robert continued, he visited his grandson in Washington and “took a whole pile of pictures,” which he later gave to KC. “I don’t know if he ever went through them or not,” Robert said. “The people he was renting from, they sent the box to me.” His voice cracked and quieted. “They’re not organized. You can keep any of those you want.”
Jill began to cry. “It’s okay, Jill,” Lissa said. “It’s part of what we got to go through.” Lissa lifted a photograph from the box and handed it to Jill. “Is this you?”
“I don’t know,” Jill said. She had left her glasses in the car.
Lissa lifted another, this time of Robert’s late wife—KC’s grandmother. She had planned to make an album, Robert explained, but then she had surgery and never woke up. That had been a few years ago.
Now night was falling across the windows of the trailer. “I don’t have anything to give you guys,” Robert said. “I’ve got coffee if you want it.”
“We should probably hit the road,” said Jill.
“Would you mind if I did a video of you?” Lissa said. “If you had something to say to KC—”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not very good at that sort of thing,” said Robert.
“If he was alive?”
“There’s no way that he’s alive, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think there’s any use wondering anymore.”
A WEEK AFTER Lissa and Jill visited Robert Clarke, they heard that he had died. This did not surprise Lissa. In Fargo, she loaded onto her computer an audio recording she had made of their visit and listened to it over and over. Even in the distant scratch, Robert’s grief was deep and unmistakable. As Lissa and Jill left the trailer that night, Robert had put on his shoes and followed them outside. “Got to bring the cat food in,” he said. “We trapped a coon the other day and it chewed the cage up so bad trying to get out that it bloodied itself, must have broke teeth.” Lissa had barely heard Robert over the crickets singing in the fields beyond the property, above the wind scattering leaves across the lawn, but in that moment, she recognized in his voice something she had heard in her uncle’s on the day, now more than two years ago, that Chucky told her he had come home to die.
It was not, as people sometimes said, that they had nothing left to live for. It was that the living became too much. It was the living, not the wanting to die, that weakened a person, Lissa thought, and it was this weakness that invited bad spirits. So it had been for Chucky: A bad spirit had taken hold, and he could not let it go.