In the fierce February cold of Spokane, Washington, it was hard to imagine there could be such a thing as fire; hard to imagine the winter would allow it. But there I was in front of a small house, half in ashes and half still standing in the blistering cold. The house itself looked contagious. It looked like evidence. It looked like a place to run from, but I dont remember wanting to run. It was my family falling into the pit. My blood narrative spilled in this home. I wanted to get closer.
The windows were boarded with large pieces of plywood. A soft grey leaked out of the edges like slept-in mascara. From the sidewalk, my eyes followed footprints in the grass crisscrossing the front yard. A dewy frozen map of the events. Something to decode. The dull noise of the highway and strip mall just over the fence to my left was a steady atmospheric hum. I should have been on a distant planet.
But as I write this now, Im not sure about the footprints. The timeline doesnt add up. I stood on that sidewalk days after it happened. Could those traces still have lingered in the yard? If not, why do I recall them so vividly? Why would I make it up?
What I can remember, unmistakably, is feeling as though if I listened hard enough, I should still be able to hear it. Somewhere just under the present was the unquenchable echo of screams and flames and firefighters and police and reporters still existing in an altogether different kind of time.
Time had collapsedall events being suddenly layered, as death has a way of doingand the footprints, or the memory of the footprints, helped me understand the feeling that I was gliding uncontrollably between genera of time that had suddenly become distinct. They held me to a linear march of events. They divided yesterday from today. They helped me hold the incongruency of what cannot happen verging into what has happened.
Even when all detail is diligently washed away from memory, smell lingers.
My aunt stood next to me on the sidewalk looking at her burned-out house. I could see on her face that she could feel it too. That overwhelming pile-up of time gave her a blank, confused expression. She was standing on the sidewalk with me while somewhere she was watching her twenty-year-old son, Tanner, be carried out of the smoldering house in a black bag; and somewhere he was a baby, and she was teaching him to walk; and somewhere she was laughing with him in the kitchen as he made her breakfast. In the face of it, she had not only slipped between times, but she had decided to live in any time except this one. On that day, and for years after, she was utterly elsewhere.
We were there to retrieve some of my aunts belongings, whatever had not been destroyed that she might still wear as she stumbled through the first few days. I followed her to the front door, and we each took a side of the plywood covering the entrance. It came away gentlyalmost welcoming, or maybe just pathetic. She walked into the house ahead of me because it was still her home and she had nothing left to be afraid of. To our right was a living room and the echoing dark of a cave. A vertical swath of grey sunlight came through the ceiling just above the kitchen where fire had eaten through the roof. A dusty tunnel of light, alive with moving particles like the deep ocean.
As we moved through the living room toward the hallway, I felt the kind of guilt one has when they fear touching the body of a newly dead loved one. It was the kind of guilt I would feel a week later standing over a coffin, terrified to touch the mass of flesh repurposed for mourning, ashamed that I could no longer recognize it as family.
Nothing had been touched since it happened. The coffee table, TV, couch, armchair, plants, coatrack, bookshelf, and every book on it was covered in a layer of ash. Any sense of home had been sucked out and replaced with the hollow sound of silence just after screaming stops. The walls must have been covered in blood, but I cant remember them that way.
My mother remembers the bloody walls vividly, but somehow, they have been scrubbed from my memory. The details available to me are shrinking. Perhaps they had already been cleaned, but who would have cleaned them? They could have been taken for evidence somehow, but a wall? There are pieces and there are holes. Writing this now creates more holes; the memories become more unreliable when they are fixed with the wrong words, and they are always the wrong words.
My aunts bedroom was at the end of the hallway. When we approached the open bedroom door, we saw that everything in the room was covered in the same grey layer of sediment, but underneath were little hills. Each dresser drawer had been emptied and its contents tossed about the room. It occurred to me for the first time that he had gone through her things. He spent time in her room.
As I write this, I can remember the sentence he spent time in her room, but I have trouble recalling the experience of seeing her room in disarray. Such is the benefit of finding words to weigh down the memory. Such is the cost.
But I remember the smell of smoke. Even when all detail is diligently washed away from memory, smell lingers. Nothing from the house on Elm Street would ever fully escape the smell of smoke. The various storage units my aunt used over the years to keep items salvaged from the house would all smell of stale campfire. The black-and-whitestriped cardigan I wore into the house that day would be relentlessly saturated. I never could bring myself to wear it again. Neither could I bring myself to get rid of it.
The need for a story is strong and in the stomach. In the aftermath, it pushes out most other needs. The pieces I have to build a story of the early hours of February 28, 2008 in the house on Elm Street are slim and incomplete but braid loosely together to create a nest for the story, if not the life of it.
The fire was reported by a passing stranger who noticed smoke coming from the windows around 4:30 am. Firefighter Jason Atwood describes entering the home in his Observation Report:
Enter front door of the structure with my partner off the nozzle. Went into the kitchen where flames were visible. I then told FF Foster to put the fire out while I checked for possible victims.
Upon finding the first vic I took off a glove and reached down to check and see what I had (wasnt sure what it was). Thats when I realized I had a victim and couldnt believe what I saw but I did confirm an 1106.
I enjoy the phrase off the nozzle as it is written in the report. I assume he means that he was not using oxygen, but I admit I have no knowledge of firefighting whatsoever, so it really could mean anything. I also like the frankness with which he writes. The step-by-step accounting of events. Its approachable and clear. Many of the court documents perch on the boundary between professional and decorative language about the murders. Trust no one, a broken heart, a knife, are symbols on a belt found in a plastic bag stuffed with the bloody clothes and a pair of bloodstained black Nike sneakers… begins the prosecuting attorneys response to the first appeal, leaning unabashedly on the imagery.
We needed a story, so we started to build one.
My cousin is married to a Spokane police officer who heard about a fire at his mother-in-laws address over the radio and set off a chain reaction of phone calls through the immediate family. The woman who rented the basement bedroom of the house on Elm Street was asleep across town at her boyfriends apartment as Tanners blood seeped through the floorboards and covered the blue exercise ball next to her bed. Her cat was the only one living when firefighters arrived and found two dead bodies in the burning home. My aunt was also asleep across town at her boyfriends home. Lucky chances. Lucky nights. She missed three panicked phone calls before she answered one.
As the news spreads and the sun begins to rise, a group gathers outside the still-smoking house. Tanners cell phone will be called with increasing desperation. The restaurant next door will open early to let the family wait out of the cold. Officers will come to the restaurant to confirm there are two victims in the house, but identifications cannot yet be made. Tanners cell phone will be called again as everyone refuses to abandon normalcy in the face of the impossible.
The woman who rented the basement bedroom finally answers her phone and is taken off the list of possible victims. A police officer will come to the restaurant to ask my aunt if she has dental records for Tanner. No one will try his cell phone again. Everyone will gather in front of the home as the first body is brought out of the house in a black bag. My aunt will beg the officers to tell her if her son is in the bag. My mother will hold her sister from the waist both to keep her from charging the officers and from falling. My aunt will ask as though praying, Does he have a tattoo of two music notes on his shoulder? The officer will take pity and nod slightly. My aunt will slip through her sisters arms to the ground.
By midday on February 28, 2008, a young man named Justin Crenshaw was identified as a possible suspect in the double homicide, and the Affidavit of Probable Cause that immediately preceded his arrest was filed the next day. Justins aunt told detectives that on the night of the twenty-ninth she was reluctant to go home because she had a knot in her gut about Justin being involved in the incident on E. Elm. The day after the murders, it was confirmed that the bloody fingerprint on the side door off the kitchen matched Justin.
A month later, a stash of bloody clothing was found in his aunts garage. The pile of evidence was absurdly complete. Justin only weakly attempted to hide what he had done, and as my family converged in Spokane, our suspense was short lived. We had a name and face by the end of the week. But we needed a story, so we started to build one.
Once, while living in Las Vegas, Justin Crenshaw attacked his friend for refusing to lend him his car. He stabbed his friend in the neck, tossed him a rag to stop the bleeding, told him to call an ambulance, and stole the car. Several people recounted this story to me in the weeks after the murders. This story was intended to illustrate his history of violence and his propensity for chilling emotional detachment. This story means: Justin is just one of those people.
The details may or may not be true. It is true that Justin spent eighteen months in a Las Vegas prison for attempted murder before he moved to Spokane. It is true that I was offered a perfect trajectory from his troubled past to a Las Vegas prison to my aunts front door on Elm Street. I would like to reject this offer. I would like to understand but Im certain I cannot, so I would like to ask questions.
I have come here to document and to ask, can I move this way? As in decades?
Excerpted from The Loved Ones: Essays to Bury the Deadby Madison Davis. Copyright 2023 Dzanc Books. Reprinted with permission from Dzanc Books. Ann Arbor, MI. All rights reserved.