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Bone Music (Burning Girl #1)
Author:Christopher Rice

Bone Music (Burning Girl #1)

Christopher Rice

They didn’t plan to kill my mother.

She wasn’t like the other women, the ones they stalked and captured. The ones who came to in a cold root cellar miles from where they’d been abducted, hog-tied and disoriented, their faces pressed to the dirt floor.

My mother wasn’t like those victims. She was an accident. A flat tire and a rainstorm conspired to place her in their path. And by the time Daniel Banning had reached through the passenger window of her Celica and placed his stun gun to the side of her neck, they still hadn’t noticed the baby in the back seat. When they did, their choices narrowed. Leave me by the side of the road, along with all the forensic evidence that might involve. Or add a nine-month-old girl to their list of victims.

People have made so much of the fact that two of the most notorious serial killers in American history couldn’t bring themselves to kill a baby. It blinded them to what the Bannings really did to me, which on some days seems much worse.

Did I cry that night?

I still don’t know if my infant brain sensed their evil, sensed the wrongness in the sounds my mother made when the electricity surged through her body before she went rag-doll limp across the steering wheel.

To this day, to any interviewer that will listen, Abigail insists I didn’t. (Daniel hung himself in prison before he went to trial.) She’s told three of her biographers I was silent and docile as she peeled me out of the car seat and shielded me from the rain with one open flap of her coat.

To hear her tell it, I barely cried at all during the seven years she and her husband groomed me to be a killer.

I remember the mobile made of stars and half-moons they hung over my baby bed.

I remember them carrying me across the cow pasture, pausing so I could run my hands along silky flanks and marvel at how oblivious those great beasts seemed to the touch of my tiny fingers. There were horses, too, but their long, angular heads and great huffing breaths frightened me, and I didn’t feel the same affection for them as I did for the cows.

I remember Daniel taking me to a wooded hillside so blanketed with ferns he used them as a kind of slide and sent my little body gliding downhill. It felt almost like flight, and I squealed and threw my arms skyward into the diamonds of sunlight filtering through the dense branches above.

I remember the day I sneaked out of the house, ran clear across the pasture, and, after stumbling a few paces into the woods, came across the root cellar for the first time. I remember the explosion of force from someone throwing themselves against the other side of the door half-buried in the hillside; I remember the low keening sounds, the whispers, the begging; and I remember thinking that it made no sense for someone who sounded grown-up to be begging for anything from a child as young as me.

Then Abigail came running. She scooped me up as if I weighed nothing and carried me back toward the house. I would like to believe there was some desire in her to protect me from the horrors taking place on that farm, but she was simply biding her time until she could present those horrors in the correct way, in a manner that would allow me to find my own role and purpose in them.

That day, the day I found the root cellar, is like a tent stake that anchors a swirl of memories.

Because it was around that time that the lies started, and the burnings.

People came at night, they told me. People came at night while we were sleeping to steal the cows. And sometimes Daniel and Abigail would have to chase these people, and when they chased them, sometimes these people dropped their belongings. Their purses, their watches, their phones. And their rings.

Because these people had come to steal something of ours, it wasn’t right for us to return their belongings to them, was it?

It was time, they said, for me to start learning about the wrongness of other people, the badness of people who came to harm the special place we had on the farm.

It was time for me to start using the incinerator.

Abigail placed a plastic tub of wallets, watches, and jewelry in my small hands and followed close behind me as we crossed the field.

Until then they had taught me to steer clear of the strange machine, which looked as if someone had removed the smokestack and front part of a locomotive and set it just behind the barn. That first time Abigail picked me up by the waist so I could drop the tub’s contents inside the chamber. Then she turned and held me up to the control panel so I could start the burning.

The second time a stepladder was waiting for us when we got there, and she stood back, beaming with pride, as I dropped two leather wallets and three slender gold watches into the chamber below. A spread of photographs in plastic cases slid free of one wallet as it thunked against the chamber’s bottom. When I peered farther in to see who the pictures were of, Abigail jerked me back. She didn’t want me to look too closely at the life she was compelling me to erase.

She was so proud when I was done that she picked me up and kissed me. I remember the feeling that I was contributing to the specialness of our home. That I had somehow helped keep it pure. That I had kept the cows from being stolen in the night.

There was no way for me to know that the nickname that would follow me for the rest of my life was born in that moment.

Imagine witnessing a murder before you know what death is.

When parents explain death to their children, they are, even if they don’t intend to, giving every life equal value, equal weight. They’re saying we all end the same—no matter who we are or what we have acquired in the interim. Even a seven-year-old can understand this.

Daniel and Abigail Banning didn’t do that for me.

Instead they taught me that all living things could be broken up into three groups. Those that provided us with something—the cows and their milk, for instance. Those that provided us with nothing and could be extinguished without thought—like the bluebird whose neck Abigail broke with her bare hands while she and Daniel studied my reaction. And then there was a third group: the corrupters. The living things who would try to steal from us, take from us, turn us against our better selves. Like the people who came in the night to take the cows, the ones who dropped their watches and purses in their haste to get away.

It was their job as my mother and father, they said, to teach me how to deal with all three.

In some respects they were like other parents. They masked what they thought to be hard truth inside a fabric of comforting lies. In their view, the corrupters were not cow thieves. They were the women Daniel Banning blamed for his abominable appetites.

Women like Lilah Turlington. They followed Lilah and her boyfriend, Eddie Stevens, for two days as the couple backpacked along the Appalachian Trail before approaching their campground around dusk, posing as two hikers in search of company, earning their trust, before beating Eddie to death with a large rock and binding Lilah with nylon rope. Women like Cassie Murdoch and Jane Blaire, the two road-tripping University of Georgia students they struck up a conversation with at a roadside diner so they could find out which motel cabin they were spending the night in. They broke into their room while they slept and beat Cassie and Jane so swiftly and savagely the poor girls might have mistaken the first few seconds of the assault for a nightmare before they were knocked unconscious.