Freak Speak: The Story Behind Lullaby
The medical examiner kept the photo covered with a sheet of paper, and he said, “I’ll pull the paper back very slowly.”
He said, “Tell me to stop when you’ve seen enough.”
In 1999, the examiner said, my father had been at the top of an outdoor stairway when someone shot him. The bullet entered through his abdomen, bursting the diaphragm as it traveled up into the chest cavity where it collapsed both lungs. This is all evidence stated in court, bits of forensic detail put together after-the-fact by the detectives. After the shot, he dragged himself – or someone dragged him – inside the apartment at the top of the stairway. He lay on the floor next to the woman he’d just taken to a country fair. He must’ve died within a few minutes, the police say, because he was not killed by a gunshot to the back of the neck. What the police called “execution style.” The way
the woman was.
In December 2000, a jury in Moscow, Idaho found Dale Shackleford guilty of both murders. As part of victim’s rights law, the court asked me to make a statement about the extent of my suffering caused by this crime.
As part of that statement, I had to decide: was I for or against the death sentence.
This is the story behind the story in Lullaby. The months I talked to people and read and wrote, trying to decide where I stood on capital punishment.
According to the prosecution, Shackleford returned to the scene of the murders several times, trying to start a fire big enough to mask the evidence. It was only when he broke a window to give the fire some air that the building burned. As the second-floor apartment fell into the first floor, a mattress fell on my father’s body, shielding it so only the legs burned to nothing.
The photo under the sheet of white paper is what was left under that mattress.
The lack of soot or smoke in the throats of both victims proves they didn’t burn alive. Another test, for increased carbon monoxide in their blood, would be conclusive, but I didn’t ask about it. You want to quit while you’re still ahead.
The medical examiners showing me the evidence after the trial is over. I’ve given my statement in court and been cross-examined. Just the two of us looking at the sheet of white paper, we’re in a back office with no windows. The rooms crowded with shelves full of books and bulging file folders. The medical examiner says few families ever want to see more than the first half-inch of an arson victim photo. He slides the paper aside until a sliver of photo shows, very slow, the way you can only see the sun move when it’s either rising or setting on the horizon, and he says, “Tell me when to stop, and I’ll stop.”
When I reach for the paper, I say, “Just show me.” I say, “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.”
He lifts the paper, and my first reaction is how my Dad would hate the way they’d wasted a good sheet of plywood, cutting it into an angled, irregular shape to carry his burned body. The body is face down, the legs burned down to stumps. The skin is gone and the muscle is burned black, the muscle sheathes ruptured with red showing underneath. My second reaction is how much it looks like barbecued chicken, crusted black with sauce under the crust.
A year before this, my sister’s husband had died young, of a stroke while they worked in the garden. At the mortuary, she went into the viewing room, alone. A moment later, she stuck her head out the doorway and whispered, “It’s not him. They’ve made a mistake.