by Ashley Brim
She’s mine. I have Sarah Mertleton.
This was posted March 17th at 1:11 am next to her Thumbnail. It was a close-up picture of her smiling; her wide, straight-toothed grin up to her round, high cheekbones. Her eyes were light blue, deep set under thick but perfectly manicured eyebrows. Her light brown hair layered straight onto her shoulders, parted on the side. She was pretty in a common way. We actually looked a lot alike.
The morning I first saw this posting on her wall on Facebook, I didn’t think anything of it. She often changed her picture and her status to quotes, silly short phrases, quips from the day. It wasn’t weird. The change that is. Most people change their status updates constantly. The message itself was somewhat startling, but if you read it one way or the other, you could maybe see it as philosophical or disarming. Some people responded directly to the post. Lauren Mifler commented “Yes I will! Drinks tonight??” with a smiley face. Carrie Bendroit commented, “you cant have her shes already mine lol!!” Norah Mertleton wrote, “Hello Sarah, What does this mean? Love, Aunt Norah.” A few people “liked” the comment, which showed up as a thumbs up.
Shortly after this post, all of her pictures, including her profile picture and photo album, were deleted. All that remained was a blue question mark. Her pictures had been of her smiling with friends, drinks in hand, making silly faces, at bars, on city streets, hiking in the woods, holding her nephew, hugging her friends. They showed all her happy moments. The image she wanted to portray to the Facebook community. To her friends. To her family. I couldn’t view any these photos anymore, as if she had been untagged from every picture. At first I thought it was a permissions issues. She, for some reason, had just blocked my right to see her photos. It wasn’t until her profile pictures were populated again that I realized it had nothing to do with me.
It was a series of 33 photos. They were all in black and white. And, they were all of Sarah. Sarah from a distance. One was a picture of Sarah sitting inside Starbucks Coffee reading a book and drinking tea. This was obviously taken from outside Starbucks. Another was a shot as if taken from a couple of stories up of Sarah walking down the street to the Metro station. Another one was of Sarah laughing, head tilted back, with friends in the backyard. This was a close-up of her face. The next was the same picture zoomed back of her still laughing, but it was if it was taken through a hole of some kind. Sarah was biking in one. Sarah was walking down the street, back to camera, arm linked with a friend in another. One was of Sarah making breakfast. One was of Sarah brushing her teeth. One was of Sarah sleeping.
I clicked through every picture. It started off so normal, but then they became difficult to look at. Something didn’t feel right. Was this art? A commentary on stalking? Perhaps she was comparing this online social networking with the old school style of stalking? But, it seemed so unlike her. It was too close. She looked too unaware in the pictures.
It wasn’t until her Facebook photo was updated that the situation became clearer. Sarah appeared in a bra, jeans, no socks, gagged, stomach on cement floor, the shadows not quite hiding the wide eyes and gash on her forehead, her arms and legs tied together. She looked like a pig being led to slaughter.
The people that Liked the earlier comment Unliked it. Some of the people that commented even went back and deleted them. Evelyn Mertleton commented that she should call her immediately. Mike Comers merely wrote “WTF?!” There was a cascade of written concern from far away keyboards.
Even her Thumbnail picture was edited. It focused on the position of her arms pulled back and tied to her ankles, bound in some sort of knot with a loop that insinuated hanging.
But people were still uncertain at this point. Maybe this was a stunt. A practical joke. People probably tried calling, but out of her 441 friends, how many were truly people capable of calling? I wasn’t. So I watched. As others did. From a safe distance. Then the picture was flagged along with all of the other black and white shots, and they were removed from the Facebook community. In the profile picture’s place returned the large blue question mark.
I ventured on to our to mutual friends’ pages to discover something, anything. We had 23 mutual friends. None mentioned Sarah. I noticed some had recently been online as shown through their Recent Activity, but I had no idea if they had navigated onto her page. Out of all the people she was friends with, I am sure most had not been to her page. There were always so many friends to keep up with. If she had failed to return texts or e-mails or voicemails, I was unsure. Her page was inactive for two days, but on March 19th at 3:33 pm there was another post.
You can delete the pictures, but you can’t delete the truth.
No one Liked this post. I didn’t really understand it. What the truth meant. I hoped there would be a smiley face of some sort at the end of that post. Friends commented. Family too. Or at least I assumed family as they had the same last name. These posts were more frantic. More confused. One said, “Sarah, this is not funny anymore. Please call me immediately.” Another said, “You’re scaring us.”
When I looked under her Information, I saw that she still was living in Washington, DC. I saw that she was “married” to Jonathan Krunket. But I knew she wasn’t really married. Jonathan had failed to post. Wasn’t he concerned about his “wife’s” cryptic page?
I wanted to know more about her. I hadn’t seen her for almost a year. We had met just after college at a party and had grown close due to our mutual love of independent films at the E Street Cinema. But time and life had separated us. I looked at her Info.
Sarah Mertleton updated her picture again at 3:33 pm on March 21st. It was a close-up, this time of her face. It showed her light brown hair matted with a deep, crusty red. It showed small cuts all over her forehead. Blues and browns lined her cheekbones, teeth were missing. Her one eye was shut. Her lips were parted due to swelling.
The Thumbnail again was edited to focus directly on her mouth, parted, swelled, bleeding. A thick substance crusted around and up the left side of her face.
It was removed almost immediately. Her picture went back to the large blue question mark. No one dared to write on her wall. But activity started. A group was formed. It was called “What Happened to Sarah!?” Most of our mutual friends joined. Her mom joined. So did her aunt, a few cousins, her brothers. Her mom pleaded for her daughter’s page to remain up. She commented: “Thank you for your support. We are working with the police department and remain hopeful that Sarah will come back to us. We will keep you updated. At this point, we have asked that Sarah’s page remain up as this is our only communication with her attacker. We plead that you don’t post anything to the page as we don’t want anything to provoke the attacker. Thank you for your continued support.”
Conspiracy theories went around about the times of the posts and the way the thumbnails were edited. People commented on the group page. Mike Comers wrote, “What a sicko. What is with those odd numbers!?” Carrie Bendroit wrote, “Sarah, we love you. Come back to us!” Melissa Smith wrote, “Stay strong Sarah and the Mertleton family.”
Then, Sarah Mertleton joined the group on the March 23rd at 5:05 am. Sarah Mertleton wrote, “This is cute. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you updated on what happened to Sarah.” The group was deleted from the Facebook community.
I checked back on Sarah’s page. It had now been eight days since the first post. Nine days since her disappearance. Thinking about that many days made my throat knot deep into my stomach.
Her family posted on Sarah’s page on March 24th at 4:40 pm. They tagged her in a picture and posted it on her wall. The picture was from the Christmas before with the entire family. Her father, mother, aunt and uncle stood behind her brother, two cousins, Sarah in front, her dog at her feet. They tagged everyone in the picture. Everyone in the picture commented on the picture with their favorite memory of Sarah and what they wanted to do once she was back safe. Her brother said, “Remember right after that picture it finally stopped snowing? We ran outside like we were 10 and built a snowman. you were doing a snow angel and I bombed you with snowballs. Can’t wait for next Christmas. We’ll build an even better snowman.”
That same day at 5:55 pm, Sarah Mertleton commented, “It will be hard for Sarah to build anything in the condition she is in.” There was a smiley face at the end of that post. No one commented back. The picture was removed.
Why couldn’t they find her? Couldn’t they just trace the IP address? Trace her cell phone? Find out what computer he was using? Question her friends? Go to her apartment? Take samples of the grass tracked into the house and match it with the grass around where she was being tortured? Do scientific analysis on the times and numbers used to somehow figure out the location? Find signs of a struggle and do DNA matching? Couldn’t they analyze the pictures, expand them, focus on the details, and trace them to her? Do all the CSI stuff you see on TV? Why couldn’t they find her?
The waiting, the watching became obsessive. Every five minutes I would check her page. I didn’t even go to mine anymore. I texted with a couple of mutual friends. They all were doing the same thing. We knew that if the person posted a picture, it would be gone within a half hour of being up, and we needed to see her condition. We needed to know. We were all relieved she didn’t have a blog. We didn’t want to know what sort of twisted games the person would have played within that forum. I wondered how many people were watching.
On March 25th at 9 pm, nine days since the first posting, Sarah Mertleton’s profile picture changed and a new post appeared.
The picture looked like abstract art at first. I couldn’t quite figure out what I was looking at. Then I realized it was her back. I could make out a twisted spine. Skin ruptured exposing tissue, blood, bone. Deep bruises and newly formed ones scattered the surface in a brilliant array of color. Her intestine crisscrossed in random patterns around her back. Cut into her back between her shoulders was a smiley face to which the Thumbnail was edited to focus on. The post just said, “This has been fun. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
It was immediately removed. The big blue question mark again took its place.
Messages flooded Sarah’s wall. Carrie Bendroit wrote, “You will be remembered for everything you did and not what happened to you.” Mike Comers wrote, “I hope they fry that bastard!” I wrote nothing. What do you say to a dead friend within the purview of her killer?
Her account was closed soon afterward. She was removed from the Facebook community.
I still find myself typing her name in Search.
Ashley Brim is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. She welcomes your comments on “Sarah Mertleton Likes This” at ashley.brim[at]gmail.com.
photo by Dani Luri
by Carolyn Murphy
My first boyfriend’s wife just had a baby. Tim’s Facebook status said, “has a son! He’s currently in the NICU for observation, but looking relatively healthy. Holy Shit.” Three people “liked” the post. Twenty two people responded with “Congrats!!! What’s his name?” and “I hope the NICU stay is short and you have good insurance,” and “pics or it didn’t happen.” They named the baby Jake. Jake Sullivan Cromwell, Sullivan being my ex’s mother’s maiden name.
The news was not a shock to me—I had known Tim’s wife was pregnant, ever since he posted on Facebook, “is going to be a father!” with an ultrasound picture. I didn’t believe it at first—the fetus looked like a squid, so I assumed his wife had been impregnated by some kind of space alien. Later it turned into some kind of superhuman squid fetus with a balloon head and a curled fist. Even now I’m not sure what to do with the information. I can’t help but feel he should be getting some kind of comeuppance. Instead he gets a baby boy named Jake.
Tim recently came up in conversation with my current boyfriend. We were at In-N-Out on our way up to Tahoe a few weekends ago when I mentioned that the first time a guy ever took me out, he had taken me to In-N-Out. My boyfriend cringed, asked “How did that go?” I looked around at the red and white palm trees in the tile, watched the guy at the potato slicer turn whole potatoes into strips in one motion again and again. Teenagers and twenty-somethings like us milled about, waiting for our orders. I said, “Oh, I dated him for awhile I guess.” I think my boyfriend expected that I wouldn’t have gone out with him again after that kind of a first date, but it hadn’t occurred to me at the time. I was on my first date ever, with a boy who liked me, and I was different then.
We had chemistry class together, even though he was a year older. I’d started Bio as a freshman and was now taking junior year science as a sophomore. I didn’t notice him at first. I was busy with swim team and trying to figure out what Avogadro’s number had to do with the unified atomic mass unit, and I was quiet. He was kind of nerdy, one of those pain-in-the-ass kids who speaks up when he thinks he’s being funny, but really it’s just annoying to everyone else trying to learn. His tongue always seemed to get in the way when he talked—not lisping, but still awkward. He worked in a pet supply store on the weekends. He was tall with dark hair and a noticeably large nose. When I first met him, he had a tangle of black stitches across his nose. He had been loading a customer’s order into her car. Her dog in the back seat had seen his shadow against the light in the door frame and had panicked, bit the first thing he saw.
That school year I turned sixteen. I got my driver’s license, but I didn’t have a car. I was one of the tallest girls on the swim team, my nose and cheekbones tanned and pink-tinged, long bleached-blond hair that frizzed like a halo after practice. I never wore makeup, and usually wore khakis and a polo shirt to school, which complied with the dress code.
Tim was my friend Amy’s childhood friend, which meant we now had something in common other than the periodic table of elements. When they started having lunch together at school, I tagged along. It started with flirting, which to seventeen-year-old boys means poking, tickling, a little bit of pushing and shoving, any excuse to touch the object of one’s affection, preferably in a region that affords the occasional brush with her breasts. I didn’t necessarily find him attractive, but when it was clear that he liked me, I began to find little things about him to like. The way his shirt strained a little across his chest and shoulders and how he smelled like clean pillowcases. Then he asked me to the Junior Prom. I picked out a sparkly tea-length dress, made appointments for my hair and nails and told everybody that I was to going to prom a year before I was supposed to. Then he stopped me before swim practice one day, said his family was really disappointed that he hadn’t asked Amy, so he was going to ask her too. The spring blossoms made my nose itch. Then he also asked this girl Christina, since she didn’t have a date. I was going to the junior prom as part of a quadrangle; but these girls were my friends, and a boy liked me. Pictures were awkward, and the sparkles from my dress got everywhere, but it was nice to have a sort-of date and I didn’t have to worry about being alone with him and having nothing to say.
We did end up dating for awhile, but he got grounded for bad grades, so he couldn’t actually take me out after that. When school ended for the year, we hung out after summer school classes—he was there to make up his failing grades and I was there because I felt the need to brush up on the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto before Spanish 4AP started in the fall.
We made out after school in his mom’s GMC Yukon, the one with a dent in the rear door from where he’d backed into a tree. It had bench seating that reclined, so it was easy for him to pop the seat down and pull my torso on top of him. I always left my hips aside, uncomfortable with the tension between our bodies, until he tugged at my belt loops. “C’mon,” he said, and I said okay, and I slid on the leather, shuffled over until my pelvic bone rested on the bulge in his pants and I tried not to think about what this looked like and where his hands went under my clothes and how my lips pinched between our braces. He maneuvered the straps on my shirt, pulled the neckline down and lifted out my breasts. I couldn’t look at him looking at me. They hung in his face, naked in the school parking lot. “I have to have the car home by four,” he said.
When my junior year began, he insisted on kissing me in the hallways. He pulled me in by the rump, shoved his tongue into my mouth on the steps of the library. I said, “No, not where people can see.” I couldn’t breathe.
“Where can I touch you?” he asked.
“When they can’t see,” I said. “Maybe in the dark.”
“Can I touch you here?” He asked. He pinched my left breast, squeezing the nipple.
“Not now,” I said, pushing his hand away.
“How about here?” he squeezed my left butt cheek.
“Not in front of people,” I said.
“But in the dark? In a movie theater?” he touched me between my legs.
“Not if it’s crowd—” He smothered my voice with his tongue.
Before the last football game of the year, he took me to In-N-Out. His mother said he could if we walked. We sat at hard plastic tables in fluorescent lighting, ate quickly, talked a little. He wanted to talk about anime. I didn’t like anime, but I listened. We finished eating and left, walked down the street and across the bridge over the drainage ditch in front of school, parallel to the road. The headlights on the cars that passed were starting to blink on. They honked, Go Lancers on the windows in yellow and white. A trail of streamers.
He said he was horny. “Please,” he said. I didn’t have much time. I was supposed to be at the game. He didn’t have the car. There was no place to go.
“Here,” he said, pointing out a dark stairwell. Spiders. No, anybody could walk by. “Then here, let’s hunker down in these bushes.” They aren’t big enough, people will see. He tugged at my wrist, pulled me down into the drainage ditch. Dusk leaked through the branches overhead. There were only shadows. It was dry. He said, “Take off your pants.” There was dirt. I asked if he had a condom. He said no…but he’d pull out, he swore he would. I said maybe. I heard girls chattering above, on the road. I said okay. I said no. I said no, the timing is all wrong, there could be trouble.
“Please?” He said, “Please, I’m so horny, I’ll pull out. Don’t you trust me?” Yes, yes of course, but no, we can’t it’s all wrong. I could feel it, the disappointment on his face, the furrowed brow, he was veering away I had to…
“I’ll do…something else.”
“You’ll give me a B.J.”
“It won’t be the same.”
I knelt and closed my eyes. I heard his pants unzip. Pinpoint of a rock in my right knee. I opened my mouth, felt the tip enter, brush my tongue. Something small in the tree above. Then he thrust in a little and he said “Watch the teeth” and there was a rustling to my right and I was trying but he grabbed me behind the ears and thrust until I gagged. He removed himself for only a second before he was in me again and he was fucking me in the head like I was just some hole. My stomach took off like birds. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I said no. I pushed him away.
He stopped. Pulled me up, brushed the dirt off my knees.
“I wouldn’t want you to disgrace yourself.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry.”
“Here,” he said. Popped open the little package of Listerine strips from his pocket. “You’ve got dick breath.” I took one. I didn’t know what else to do.
He said, “I think we should take a break.”
“I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I think we should take a break.” He took my cheek in his palm, thumbed at the flush. “Good, no tears.”
I didn’t know how.
And now, years later, I find out on Facebook that Tim is a dad. He married the first girl he dated after me. He works at Hertz Rent-a-car. They moved into an apartment about a mile from the house where I grew up, and soon after, the superhuman fetus squid turned into a little boy named Jake. Jake with Buddha cheeks. And the best part is, the baby is not mine.
“So what happened with that guy?” my boyfriend asked. “The one who took you to In-N-Out?”
I shrugged. “It ended.”
Carolyn Murphy is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. She welcomes your comments on “A Good Girl” at carolynmmurphy[at]gmail.com.
photo by Mene Tekel
by Robin Heerens Lysne
A swift ride on the early morning train
on my way to the airport
passengers get in and go out
appear and disappear between poems.
A young 30 something Chinese woman
skateboard and helmet
in hand sits next to me
as a feathered phoenix
lighting in her seat.
After she laces her arms through
her back pack straps
she is reading something
for a while then tucks it into
her pants, deftly steps
on the curved end of her board
grabs the up-turned end,
as she readies her departure.
As she leaves I notice
the red dragon painted
on the bottom of her skateboard
the green background
electrifies the dragon.
I think of her grandmother,
wonder if she had bound feet?
A peacock embroidered
on her silk robe? Was she
I wonder how this young woman
navigates the women of her past
as she skates her way among
the hills of San Francisco. She smiles
a quick smile towards me, a woman’s wink,
we can do this now she seems to say,
as she exits the train,
I wonder where she is going as
she snakes through the crowd
as a lightning bolt dragon
flying swiftly away from her
Robin Heerens Lysne, M.A. is the author of three books of non-fiction and has been published in North American Review, Porcupine, Harvest from the Emerald Orchard and numerous anthologies. She is also an artist, having shown her work widely in the Midwest and East Coast. In her paid professional life she is a medium and Energy Medicine Practitioner and offers sessions through East/West Bookstore, in her office in Santa Cruz, and across the country by phone. She resides in the San Francisco Bay area and is currently enrolled in Mills College Creative Writing Program in poetry.
photo by Martin Terber
by Leigh Gardner
the day before
a glass of lemonade
at the kitchen table
me and my brother
A native of Prescott, Arizona, Leigh Gardner received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 2008. She is currently working toward her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Mills College. In 2009 and in 2010 she was a featured reader at the Mills College “Contingency: Reading Between the Genres” reading series. She is the proud 2010 recipient of the Ardella Mills Creative Nonfiction Award at Mills College and the 2006, 2007, and 2008 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Poetry Award at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.