Never Look Back – Alison Gaylin

“IT WAS THE girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.” Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer, Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners—the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears. The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976, he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest—the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone. Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?” “Yes.” “But you blame April.” “Yes.” “Why?” Reg stayed quiet for several seconds. Quentin resisted the urge to fill in the dead air. This was a trick that often worked in interviews, the subject finally relenting and spilling his guts—anything to put an end to that awful, uncomfortable silence.

Quentin listened to the hum of the air conditioner and the whoosh of a passing truck. Just outside the shaded window, a bird shrieked—a blue jay, Quentin thought, or some other similar species put on this earth to destroy radio broadcasts. He was glad Summer had talked him into the cardioid mic— it was so much better at cutting out background noise than the omnidirectional he’d planned on taking. You’d be surprised at how many distracting sounds there are in a typical living room , Summer had said. And she’d been right. Of course, if Summer had seen this place, she’d never have called it typical. Reg’s living room was a time capsule, from the faded plaid earth-toned couch, to the Formica coffee table, to the avocado-green ashtray and matching coasters that looked as though they hadn’t been unstacked since the premiere of the very first Star Wars movie. There was a coffee-table book of photography—The Best of Life Magazine—and a few dusty TV Guides, one of which had Fonzie on the cover. It was as though Reg Sharkey had attempted to stop the clock on June 19, 1976, before his family had crumbled into a billion pieces. Quentin took in the line of photographs on the mantelpiece—almost all of them of Clara and Kimmy, holiday photos and vacation shots, birthday party pictures, mother and daughter, smiling and young, forever hopeful, just we two .

Quentin’s jaw tensed, a tiny, bitter seed taking root at the pit of his stomach. He took a deep breath, willing the tension out of his body as he’d learned in the holistic yoga class his husband, Dean, had forced him to take. In with the positive energy, out with the negative . God, Dean could be so Californian sometimes, but it was better than nothing. Worse than downing a globe-size martini, or putting one’s fist through drywall. But better than nothing. “They’re all I have,” said Reg. “Those pictures you’re looking at. They’re the only family I have left.” “Well .

” said Quentin. “You know what I mean.” “Yes.” Quentin struggled to keep his tone neutral. “I know what you mean.” But the truth was still right here with them, hanging in the stale air and coursing through Quentin’s tensed muscles, showing itself in his narrow face and his slight overbite and the thick black lashes that used to get him teased when he was a kid. No matter what Reg Sharkey thought he meant, the truth was with them. It had nowhere else to go. Reg and Clara had another daughter, a girl ten years older than Kimmy. At the edge of the mantel stood the evidence, a faded professional photo of the Sharkey family: Kimmy as a baby in Clara’s arms, posed between Reg and that older daughter, Kate.

Quentin stared at the ten-year-old standing next to her mother, a skinny kid with a pained, bucktoothed smile, a puffy-sleeved pink party dress that seemed to swallow her whole. Thick lashes behind plastic-framed glasses, dark eyes identical to his own. He gritted his teeth. One picture. Out of this entire gallery, just one picture of Kate in a bent, cardboard frame. Anger bubbled within him, the kind a healing breath couldn’t fix, and Quentin had an urge to point that out—just one fucking picture of her—but he kept his mouth shut, remembering Reg’s rough voice over the phone. How he’d relented, finally, to thirty minutes and not a second more. Quentin needed those thirty minutes if this podcast was going to work. He needed to keep calm. Quentin cleared his throat.

“Back to my original question,” he said. “What did April Cooper do to make you think she was the real killer?” “She didn’t do anything.” “I’m not sure I understand.” Reg sighed heavily. “Gabriel LeRoy was all over the place. He was firing at everybody in that Arco station. He was consumed by rage. Out of control.” “Okay . ” “She wasn’t.

” Quentin nodded slowly. “She could have stopped him, but she didn’t.” “Yep.” “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but I’m really trying to understand this. Can you explain to me why that makes a fifteen-year-old girl guiltier of murder than the legal adult who actually killed everyone?” He drew a long, weary breath. “Think about a house on fire. It’s your house. Burning to the ground, taking with it everything you own. Everything you love. April Cooper—a fifteen-year-old girl as you point out—is standing next to the firehose, but she doesn’t make a move toward it.

She just watches the flames and smiles.” Reg ran a hand through his hair and leaned forward, eyes blazing. “Who are you going to blame for all that destruction—the fire? It’s a thing of nature. It can’t exist without burning.” Quentin took too big a gulp of the iced tea Reg had brought him—lukewarm and bitter. Hard to swallow. Everything you love. “Kimmy was just eleven years younger than April Cooper,” Reg was saying. “She could have been her little sister, but that . that girl just stood there.

Her boyfriend shot my daughter in cold blood. He took away everything I loved and April Cooper stood there, like she was watching a movie. Do you understand me now?” Dark thoughts whirled through Quentin’s brain. He tried another of Dean’s deep, healing breaths. “Yes,” he said. “I understand.” “Good.” Quentin pulled his steno pad out of his pocket. With shaking hands, he thumbed through the pages he’d covered in notes from the hours he’d spent online, reading old issues of the San Bernardino Sun. “I haven’t seen one of those since I was still working.

” Reg gestured at the pad. “I did the books for a Ford dealership in La Quinta. Spent twenty-five years in that same office, one secretary the whole time. Sweet old lady named Dee. I bet a kid your age wouldn’t even know what shorthand is, but Dee was sure good at it.” Quentin cut him off too quickly. “Tell me about June twentieth, 1976,” he said, reading from his notes. “It was a hot day, right? Close to ninety degrees.” “Yes. It was.

” “And it was a Sunday. Did you guys go to church?” “Yep.” “How soon after church did you and Kimmy go to the gas station?” “We went home, had lunch. Kimmy asked if we could go for ice cream. The gas station was a quick stop first. But Kimmy loved it there.” “She loved the Arco station?” “Yeah. There was a mural there—I think the owner’s kid painted it. Noah’s Ark, with all the animals.” “That’s sweet.

” “It was.” Quentin asked Reg to set the scene—to describe the sights and sounds and smells at the Arco station once he and Kimmy arrived. He wanted him to remember it in full, to the point of crying, so that listeners might feel something for this man. That he might feel something for this man . Reg obliged, his voice soft and contemplative and weary. Good radio, though Quentin couldn’t get himself to concentrate. “. steam coming off the pavement,” Reg was saying. “His shouts. They echoed.

The boy wasn’t in his right mind. He was drunk or stoned. Maybe both. He was swaying on his feet. I told Kimmy to get down, and she did. But . she was holding her favorite plastic horse. The shiny black one. She dropped it. It made this clattering sound on the pavement, and then LeRoy just .

he just . ” A tear trickled down Reg’s cheek. “I begged her. I looked right into April Cooper’s eyes and I said, ‘Please make him stop . ’ But she didn’t. She . she gave me this look. Like she expected this to happen. I think she might have smiled.” Quentin closed his eyes for a moment.

“You okay?” Reg said. Don’t say it. Don’t say it . But he said it. He had to. “Everything you love.” And it was as though Quentin stepped off the edge of a cliff, years and years of pain and anger spread out below. “What?” “The burning house,” Quentin said. “You said it takes down everything you love.” “That’s right.

” “What about your other daughter? What about Kate? She wasn’t taken down. LeRoy and Cooper didn’t get her. Are you saying that you didn’t love Kate?” Reg wiped the tear from his face with the back of his hand, jaw squared, eyes turning to ice. There would be no more crying, Quentin knew that much. He’d mentioned the elephant in the room about twenty minutes too early. “That isn’t what I—” “Have you ever wondered about Kate? Tell me, sir. Have you ever felt bad about ruining her life?” “You are nothing but a sleazy, fake-news journalist.” “Do you know what it’s like for a child to grow up, completely ignored by her own father?” “I will not be ambushed.” “Did you ever think about how that might affect her as a person, as a mother? Did you ever think about how it might make her treat her own son?” “You said this was going to be about the Cooper and LeRoy murders,” Reg said. “That’s the only reason why I agreed to talk to you.

You want to make this into some . some kind of family thing.” “The Cooper and LeRoy murders are a family thing.” Reg glared at the open laptop on the coffee table, the cardioid mic plugged into it, capturing every last word. “Turn that off,” he said. “Kate was a victim. She not only lost her sister and her mother. She lost her father too. You. You were never there for your daughter, and it ruined her.

Jesus, you blame April Cooper for just standing there while horrible things happened in front of her. What did you do during my mother’s entire life? You just fucking stood there.” “Turn it of .” Reg lunged for the laptop, but Quentin was there first, unplugging the mic, closing the lid, slipping it back into its case. “Get out of my house!” Quentin gripped the case, his palms slick from sweat. He headed for the door and Reg followed him. “There is no podcast, is there?” Reg said. “Your mother put you up to this.” Quentin turned. Stared him in the face.

Reginald Banks Sharkey. His grandfather. He’d never laid eyes on him until today. And until today, he’d never realized how little he was missing. “We were both better off without you.” Quentin headed out the door and into the late afternoon sunlight, the old man shouting at his back. “YOU’RE HOME EARLY,” said Dean. Quentin checked the time on his phone. “Yeah, I guess I am.” It didn’t feel early, though.

In fact, the ride from San Bernardino to their South Pasadena bungalow had seemed to last a lifetime, with Reg Sharkey’s angry voice looping through Quentin’s brain, along with his own angrier one, that interview playing out over and over, to the point of where he was flipping around the radio—NPR first, then Howard Stern, alternative rock, ’80s punk, the Soulful Sixties Station, anything, everything —just to drown it out. What had he done? Quentin wasn’t normally a combative person. He took hits from his interview subjects without snapping back, and during rare arguments with Dean, he always made sure to listen carefully before responding. Hell, even Quentin’s tweets were thoughtful and even-handed. He’d worked on that. He’d spent years learning to tamp down the rage that sometimes pressed against his skin, his throat, the backs of his eyes . Man, he’d fucked this one up, though. The podcast he was working on was called Closure. And what had sold the station’s director of content on the idea was the personal aspect of it, how the Inland Empire Killers, both of them dead for forty years, continued to impact the lives of survivors and their descendants, including—and especially—Quentin himself. The reunion with his grandfather should have been tender and surprising—a chance for Quentin to forgive his neglectful, damaged mother and the man who did such a terrible job of raising her and leave the past behind at last.

If the interview had worked out the way he’d hoped, Quentin and Reg would have taken a road trip to Death Valley, where April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy had perished in a fire at the site of their last attempted murder—a compound owned by a survivalist family called the Gideons. He’d envisioned his grandfather and himself, reunited after twenty-seven years, watching the sun set over the craggy rocks. He’d imagined them making peace with the ghosts of the murderers, with Kate, with each other. Closure, the podcast living up to its title in the most satisfying of ways. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, Quentin had engaged in a two-and-a-half-minute-long yelling match with his mother’s father—a dumpster fire of an interview that was more Maury Povich than NPR. When Quentin had finally arrived home, “Candle in the Wind” was playing on whatever station he’d most recently found. That was his mother’s favorite song and proof positive that God had a sick sense of humor. He felt his throat tightening, tears beginning to well in his eyes even now in his comfortable home with his sweet husband watching him, concern spreading across his face. Seems to me, you lived your life .

Mom would sing it when she was high, in her cracked, broken voice. Just that one line, over and over, never finishing the sentence . “What’s wrong?” Dean said. He couldn’t lose it, not now. Instinctively, Quentin reached for his sunglasses—vintage Ray-Bans that Dean had given him their first Christmas together—but his shirt pocket was empty. “I lost my sunglasses,” he said. “Quentin.” “The ones you gave me. They’re gone. What the hell is wrong with me?” “You’ll find them,” he said.

“Tell me about the interview.” Quentin took a deep breath, then handed the laptop bag to Dean. “On the bright side,” he said, “Terry Gross can rest easy.” “Oh, honey.” “Use the headphones, okay?” Dean looked at him in that kind way of his, and Quentin could almost see the sentences scrolling through his head, the helpful adages and encouraging words thumbed through and rejected. “There’s a six-pack in the fridge,” Dean said, finally. The most perfect thing he could have possibly come up with. “I just bought it.” “I love you.” As Dean put on the headphones, Quentin went into the kitchen.

He opened the fridge and grabbed himself a bottle and cracked it open—a nice IPA, cold and bitter as Reg Sharkey’s heart. He pulled a bottle of Cabernet out of the wine cabinet, uncorked it, and poured Dean a glass, and brought both drinks into the living room, where Dean was just removing the headphones. Finished already. Quentin said, “See what I mean?” Dean took a long gulp of wine, draining nearly half the glass, which seemed to Quentin more a stall tactic than anything else. “He called you fake news,” he said. “I mean who actually says that when they’re not intending to be ironic?” Quentin sighed. “It’s funny. People are so much more complicated than characters in movies. But that complexity is what makes them so much less interesting.” “What do you mean?” “In the real world, you can be both a grieving father and a complete asshole—as Gramps here proves,” he said.

“But sadly, that combo makes for shitty radio.” Dean looked at him. “Did you ever tell him about your mom?” Quentin shook his head. “You could go back. You could tell him. Not like he deserves to know, but . I mean . He should be told, don’t you think?” “Dean.” “He’ll see how much damage he’s caused.” Quentin cringed.

“I’m not going back. Ever.” “You said you need closure.” “No, honey. You said I need closure.” There was a long pause, Dean with those sad, soft blue eyes, Quentin trying to avoid his gaze. You’re too good for me. That’s the problem. Quentin would have said it aloud, if it wasn’t so true. “I think I may have to pull the plug on this podcast.

” “Come on. There are tons of ways to tell a story. You’ve said that yourself.” “But this is my story.” “It still can be,” Dean said. “You just need a different way in. Isn’t there a book about the Inland Empire murders?” “Only one that’s worth reading. A cheesy paperback put out by a tabloid that came out right after the Gideon fire. They based the TV movie on it.” “So? Maybe there’s something in the book you could investigate.

” Quentin shook his head. “It’s been out of print for years.” Dean sighed. “Oh . Wait.” He reached into the side pocket of the laptop bag, removed the Closure burner phone and waved it around like a prize. It was Quentin’s turn to sigh. He and Summer had one of these for each of their podcasts—a private line for listeners to call in with tips and info. It had been Summer’s idea—a way to keep the information for each story physically separated, should they be working on two podcasts at once. Plus, Summer was a bit paranoid—the only twentysomething Quentin had ever known with virtually no social media presence, not even when they were in college together.

Summer claimed burner phones were less hackable or traceable than a simple line at the office. Why she thought anyone would try to hack or trace a tipline, she’d never bothered to explain, but that was Summer—careful to the point of not even knowing why. Dean said, “When was the last time you checked the tipline?” Quentin brought the bottle of beer to his lips and drank, the cool of it sliding down his throat, calming him. Alcohol did him too much good. Same with the Klonopin he was prescribed, allegedly for plane trips. Allegedly. He settled into the brown leather couch—one of two identical ones, the color and texture of broken-in bomber jackets, that had been in Dean’s old apartment when they first met. Quentin loved them. Loved the faux Tibetan rug Dean had found at a yard sale, the bookshelves he’d installed, the bound Shakespeare collection that had belonged to Dean’s grandfather. He loved Dean’s kind and supportive parents and his aunt’s lasagna recipe, his closet full of soft, shareable sweaters and his positive outlook on life.

You bring so much to a marriage, so much more than just yourself—and what Dean had brought to this one was almost entirely good. “Three months,” Quentin said. “Seriously? Didn’t you buy that phone three months ago?” Quentin nodded. “Well then,” Dean said as Quentin drained the rest of his beer. “I’d say you’ve got a lot of listening to do.” THE BURNER’S VOICE mail was full. Quentin explained to Dean that he’d planned on going through it after he’d finished all his other interviews. But he only said that in order to avoid more raised eyebrows and seriouslys from him. Dean couldn’t be expected to understand. He was an assistant professor of philosophy at a tiny private college in peaceful Claremont, far removed from the world of radio and from the world in general.

But the truth was, Quentin had always considered these tiplines a waste of time—full of crazies and fame-seeking murder fans and elderly NPR listeners, confusing the number for the station’s weekly comment line. The thought of those same calls coming in regarding a crime that had impacted him so personally was unpleasant, to say the least. But for Dean’s sake, he listened. He listened after dinner at his desk while Dean lay in bed with a book; listened carefully, earbuds in, pen poised to take notes. But the pen proved as unnecessary as he’d imagined it would be and before long, Quentin found himself deleting messages within seconds after they started. The few numbers he did take down were from people with incidental-at-best knowledge of the Inland Empire murders. A down-the-street neighbor of Cooper and LeRoy’s third victim, Ed Hart, who admitted they’d only spoken briefly. A former waitress who had served coffee to Carrie Masters and Brian Griggs—the couple’s sixth and seventh victims—two months before their deaths. A true crime buff with a theory that April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy had been murdered by members of the Gideon family in some sort of ritual sacrifice, and that the fire that had burned their house down had been started by the ceremonial pyre. Yes, the voice mail pickings were so slim that he actually took that number down.

When he was close to halfway done, Dean asked him how things were going. Quentin just shook his head. “Well,” Dean said, “it isn’t over till it’s over.” “What does that even mean?” “I have no idea.” Quentin put the phone down and moved toward the bed. “Honestly. Who was the lazy bastard who came up with that expression? It isn’t over till it’s over. He didn’t even bother thinking of a synonym for ‘over.’ He basically just ran out of steam midway through the sentence and decided to repeat the exact same word.” He was beside Dean now, gazing at his soft lips, his twinkling eyes.

“And yes, I’m aware that I said ‘he,’ but I wasn’t being sexist,” he said softly. “I know how patriarchal assumptions bother you academics, but actually, I’m saying that a woman wouldn’t be lazy enough to come up with that ridiculous, inane expression.” Dean smiled. “You’re stalling.” Quentin smiled back. “You’re right,” he said. “And I could think of better ways to stall.” Dean’s grin grew broader. Quentin took his husband’s hand and stared extra meaning into his eyes and started to sit on the bed, his smile turning to something with a more serious intent. He moved in closer, but Dean put a hand on his chest.

“Nope. Not falling for it,” he said. “Get back to me when you’re done listening.” “Oh come on.” “Just listen. If there’s nothing on there, I’m fine with hearing, ‘I told you so.’” Quentin started to protest, but Dean put a finger over his lips. “Either way, you’ll get laid.” He pushed himself to his feet. “Why do you care so much?” “Because no matter how much you pretend not to, I know how much you care about it.

And I know what it will do to you if you quit before you’ve done everything you can.” “Maybe you don’t know me as well as you believe you do. Ever think about that?” Dean looked at him. Quentin’s breath caught. Not the right thing to say. Too close to the truth. “Quentin?” “Yeah?” “You’re stalling again.” He felt a spark of relief and sighed heavily, dramatically. “I’m holding you to the getting laid thing.” “You can hold me to whatever you want.

But you have to listen to those messages first.” Quentin forced a smile. He plodded back to his desk and picked up the burner. Listened to the next message—a woman who went to high school with the actress who portrayed April Cooper in the TV movie. He wasn’t sure he was physically capable of making it to the end of these messages. And then his own phone vibrated in his pocket. He glanced at the screen: Summer. “Shit,” he whispered. He’d never told Summer about the Sharkey interview. “So?” she said after he picked up.

“So?” He didn’t answer right away, so she said it again. “So?” Summer was set a few speeds faster than everyone else, and often used words as a bayonet, jabbing and jabbing. She was from New York City, and though she’d lived here for eight years now, she still hadn’t gotten used to the more relaxed rhythm. “Talk to me.” “Um.” “Is that a good um or a bad um?” “I’m sorry, Summer.” Dean put his book down. “I’ll give you your privacy,” he said. “No. Stay.

” “I’m right here,” Summer said. Dean nodded, picked up his book again, though Quentin knew he wasn’t so much reading it as putting a barrier between himself and Quentin’s business. Dean always made a point of not invading his space. But Quentin never minded. In fact, he appreciated it, growing up the way he had, almost always alone. “I was talking to Dean,” he told Summer. “Not you.” “Oh. So, what was the problem? Your grandfather wasn’t at home?” “No, he was at home.” “He refused to talk?” “Oh, he talked.

” “Then that’s great!” “No it isn’t.” “Of course it is. If he was home and he spoke to you and you got it recorded, there’s absolutely no way that it isn’t great.” Quentin said nothing—just plugged the phone into his laptop and played her the whole of the interview. He hopped back on the phone expecting a long, awkward silence, or at least a pause. But his coproducer was as unfazed as ever. “His description of the shooting is pretty good. We can use that.” “Summer.” “My job is to be objective when you can’t be.

” “Summer.” “Okay. Look. Your grandfather turns out to be kind of a dick. I know that has to hurt. I’m not completely insensitive. But we’re producing something here, something important.” “It isn’t that important.” “You don’t mean that, Q. You said it yourself.

This podcast is going to change lives, including your own.” “I don’t want to change my life.” Quentin looked at Dean, his tapered fingers tightening on the book. “You know what I mean.” “I don’t want anybody else to hear that interview,” he said. “I don’t want to do this podcast.” At last, the awkward pause. “I thought I could do something,” Quentin said. “Change lives, like you said. Or at least learn from it. But . I think what I’ve learned is that I don’t want anybody to know about my mother, or my grandfather, or my connection to these murders.” “Why?” “Because,” he said quietly, “the one thing I’ve learned is that my only real family is Dean. And I don’t feel like doing a podcast on that.” Quentin took a breath. He could feel Dean’s gaze on him, but he didn’t return it. “Okay,” Summer said. “What if I told you that we could do Closure with hardly a mention of your family?” “That’s not possible.” “It is,” she said. “It’s why I called you in the first place. I’ve found somebody.” “What do you mean?” “Actually, he found us. His name is George Pollard. I forwarded you his email.” Quentin opened his email. When he clicked on his in-box, Summer’s forwarded one was at the top —the only unread email in his queue, George Pollard’s name the return address. He gaped at the subject line. “Oh, come on.” “Don’t judge until you read it.” The email came with an attachment, and Quentin opened that first—a faded, scanned photo from the ’70s of a thin, dark-haired boy in a gas station attendant’s uniform, posing between pumps. “Pollard isn’t insane,” Summer was saying. “I talked to him. He’s actually very respectable— hospital administrator from Duarte, married for thirty years with three kids. President of his local rotary club . ” Quentin enlarged the picture. George Pollard was also movie-star hot in his youth, especially for a guy who came of age before going to the gym became trendy. “He knew her,” Summer said. “He claims they were in love.” “Yeah, and?” “The video? The one he sent us the link to? Hello?” She said it as though he were an easily distracted kindergartner, and she was trying to teach him the alphabet. “I haven’t looked at it yet.” Quentin zoomed closer in, to the handsome teen’s shoulder. His mouth went dry. “Come on,” Summer said. “Have you even read what he has to say?” Quentin hadn’t. But he didn’t need to. Over the shoulder of the young George Pollard loomed the gas station’s sign. It was an Arco station. He couldn’t make out all the details of the mural on the wall beneath the sign, but he could still tell what it depicted: Noah’s Ark and all the animals. George Pollard was standing in the spot where Kimmy Sharkey had been killed. Quentin’s gaze went back to the subject line, a chill at the back of his neck. April Cooper is alive, it read.

.

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