The newspaper story said that a bone had been found in the woods in Washington, and that it had been identified as belonging to Mike Riemer.
The thing was that that Mike Riemer had long been thought to be a killer. In 1985, he had taken his girlfriend, Diana Robertson, and their daughter, Crystal, to look for a Christmas tree. Later, Crystal was found wandering around a department store without her parents, but she was too young to say who she was or what had happened. She was later identified after her photo was placed in the newspaper. Mike and Diana had vanished without a trace. Two months later, Diana's body was found deep in the forest. She had been stabbed. There was no sign of Mike. Police believed him to be responsible for her murder. Now they realized he was probably a victim, too.
I couldn't stop thinking about what might have happened. And what it would be like to grow up thinking your dad probably killed your mom - and then to learn that wasn't true at all. I started working on my version of the story right away, but a few things intervened, like other deadlines, starting a new series, and taking care of my mom while she was dying. I took chapters of it to my critique group, but it didn't meet very frequently, so I made slow progress.
But the story stayed with me. It's about half-written. I moved the story to Southern Oregon, where I grew up. I put my mom in as the next door neighbor, named her after my mom, and even read it to her while I was with her. I figured out the answer to my imaginary puzzle, and it's surely not going to be the answer that happened in real life. I treat real-life inspiration the way Law & Order did - you might recognize the initial set up, but that's it. This spring, I gave my agent a short description. What follows is about half of it.
The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry
I used to be a little girl.
Now I’m 17 and an emancipated minor.
I used to be blonde.
Now my hair is brown.
I used to be named Ariel Benson.
Now all of my ID says Olivia Rinehart, the last remnant of an adoption that didn’t work out.
I used to have a mom and dad. And then I had a long string of adults who wanted me to call them some variant of that.
Now I’ve got no one.
I used to think I was the child of a killer and a murder victim.
Now I know I’m the child of two victims.
I used to hate my dad and pity my mom. Now I only have one desire: to find the person who killed them both.
I was three years old, dirty, covered in scratches, and all alone, when a sales clerk found me curled up in a Wal-Mart, sleeping on a blanket of white cotton “snow” underneath an artificial Christmas tree.
The authorities didn’t figure out who I was until someone recognized me from a photo of a family missing nearly 200 miles away, in Southern Oregon. A mom and a dad and a little girl, who had gone out in the woods to look for Christmas tree. When they asked me where my parents were, all I could tell them was, “Mommy’s dancing.”
Two weeks later hunters found my mom’s body in the forest. She had been stabbed to death. And my dad—who had never been married to my mom and sometimes fought with her—was missing. Later, his truck was found parked at the Portland airport, wiped clean of prints. Everyone figured they knew what had happened: my dad killed my mom, dropped me off, and then ran away.
Today, nearly fourteen years later, the cops came to tell me that they had finally located my dad.
And he wasn’t hiding out under an assumed name. All these years, my dad has just been a body in the woods, like my mom.
Or not exactly a body. Not that they can find, anyway. All they have so far is his jaw bone.
And what everyone knows to be true has changed.
This is the truth. The real truth.
Someone killed both my parents. And whoever did it must have thought I was too young to tell on them. So they dropped me off at the Wal-Mart instead of killing me, too.
I had to have spent several hours with the person who murdered my family. But I don’t remember a thing—not about my parents or what happened that day in the woods.
But I’ve started having these dreams. Dreams filled with blood. What if I remember more than the killer thought? And will the person who murdered my parents kill again to keep their secrets hidden?
My agent showed my editor. And this was the result: