Excerpt from If I Am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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If I Am Missing or Dead

A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation

by Janine Latus

If I Am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 336 pages

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Knee him.

That's right. That's what the gym teacher said to do if you were attacked. Knee him where it counts, even though she never explained what was there for me to knee. But there's no room. He is bigger and stronger, and I am pinned.

He is grinding into me, making animal sounds in my ear while I pummel his back with my flailing fists. I look for the children. Can they jump on his back and help me? But they are huddled against each other against the couch, their eyes wide, staring.

Think.

Then it comes to me, and I do what my father has done to me when he needs to get my attention. I grab the tiny hairs at the back of his neck and yank.

You little bitch, he says. He spits the words onto my face. You little shit.

He rolls off me and rubs the back of his neck, and I scramble to my feet and behind a chair. He glares at me before getting up and slamming out the door.


When the Johnstons return hours later, Mr. Johnston stays in the car. Mrs. Johnston doles out three dollar bills and two quarters for the seven-hour job. I can't even look at her.

I'm fine getting home.

Goodness no, she answers. My husband will take you.

Honestly, I'll be okay, I say. I like to walk.

It's no trouble, Mrs. Johnston says. Besides, your mom would kill me if I let you go alone this late.

I can't figure out what to say, so I walk out to the car, my eyes on my feet as I open the door. The interior light flips on, but I don't look at him. Instead I climb in, close the door, and press myself against it. His hand in the sudden darkness finds my knee, holds it.

We'll never tell anyone what we did, Mr. Johnston says.

I pull my leg away, don't answer, even though he's a grown-up, and sit utterly silent and hard against my door during the drive. I jump out before the car's fully stopped and scurry up the walk, thankful that the front door is unlocked.

My mother will be awake, I know, until each of her children is home and safe. My father will be snoring, his pale chest exposed above the covers. At least I hope so. My mom has told me that when I was little he paced the floor for nights that seemed endless, singing and crooning and patting my back. He changed my diapers, as he reminds me so often and so publicly. He taught me to ride a bike, to swim. Now, though, he disgusts me, still pulling me onto his lap, still squeezing my pimples, still insisting on kissing me on the lips. He tickles me until I cry, and pits the siblings against each other, egging us on to do the same. I dread my birthdays, when he lays me over his knees and paddles me once for every year of age and one more -- much harder -- to grow on, followed by a pinch to grow an inch. He does it in front of my aunts and uncles and cousins, who laugh nervously. Even his side of the family has stopped the birthday spankings, allowing their pubescent children some degree of dignity. So tonight I lean against the wall as I climb the stairs, hoping he's not awake, wanting only my mommy.

Unfortunately, he's sitting up in bed. My parents have just gotten back from the same party as the Johnstons, and they smell of cigarette smoke and gin. Mom's hair is in its party beehive, her blue eye shadow all the way up to her plucked eyebrows. Dad is bleary-eyed and in a hurry to fall asleep. I sit on the edge of their bed and tell my story, how Mr. Johnston had come home, pinned me down, ground his, his thing into me, and how I had triumphed and gotten away. I wait for their pride and sympathy.

There is a long pause as my mom and I look to my dad.

If you tell anyone what happened, Dad says, you'll be known as a slut.

Mom strokes my hair and doesn't say anything. Neither do I.

It is two decades before I learn that she wrote Mr. Johnston a letter.

Stay away from my daughter, it said. And tell your wife what you've done.

Copyright © by Janine Latus

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