The helicopters are out in force again. The whir of propellers has become so commonplace since the morning of October 7th that the sound has faded into the background, a white noise machine only heard when the power’s cut.
Today it’s two news helicopters, and they’ve hovered over a field a couple miles due west of my house from mid-morning until nightfall, a field I’ve driven by daily since 3-year-old Sherin Mathews disappeared. I pass by her neighborhood, an enclave of McMansions one subdivision northwest of where I live, each time I mail a letter or go to the grocery store. If I look south while crossing the railroad tracks I can see the tree beside which Sherin’s adoptive father apparently made her stand at 3AM as punishment for not drinking her milk. It stands maybe fifty feet from the track, clearly visible from a busy street, in an area coyotes often roam. People leave flowers and balloons and hold prayer vigils, though the police dogs have all but proved she was never there.
It doesn’t matter that the smiling little girl seen in the news reports isn’t white or that she was born in another country. It doesn’t matter that she has developmental issues or that she has a limited ability to speak. She’s the community’s daughter now and the air grows heavier with each passing day she isn’t found. Things like this don’t happen in this area of Dallas, at least not in the twenty years I’ve lived here.
We’re all holding our breath.
When police reported one of the family’s three cars had been missing between 4 and 5 AM on the morning of Sherin’s disappearance, I gave up all hope she’d be found alive. “That proves it,” I said to my pre-teen daughter. “He killed her and removed the evidence.”
“You’re jumping to conclusions, Mama,” she said. “Isn’t it possible that he searched near the house, didn’t find her, and then took the car out to look?”
I’ve run the toddler-gauntlet twice and know that any three-year-old left alone outside at night would scream loud enough to wake the neighbors. Any father, upon finding his child gone, would at the very least wake his wife, who reportedly slept through the whole ordeal. He’d call the police and pound on neighbors’ doors, organizing a search party. He would not, as he claimed, do laundry and wait for her to turn back up. For five hours.
I bit my tongue, though, because my daughter asked a valid question. It WAS possible he had an innocent reason to leave the house, just as he had a plausible reason to attempt to give the girl milk in the middle of the night. (Her developmental issues required her to eat often.)
My daughter and I had both heard every publicly known detail of the father’s story. One of us was willing to suspend disbelief enough to objectively consider all possible motives. The other will not easily be convinced the man does not deserve to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
As a mother, I’m horrified by what has likely happened to this child.
As a writer, though, I’m intrigued.
Why would a wealthy, highly educated man tell such an easily disproved, self-incriminating story? Is there a grain of truth embedded in the lie? Perhaps it was his night to ensure Sherin ate, and he got angry when she resisted the easiest option at hand? Perhaps he lashed out and it was all a horrible accident? Perhaps he feared, being a minority man, he’d get an unfair trial in a death penalty state? Was it premeditated murder and he hoped confessing to an act of child endangerment would lead the police astray long enough to prevent a body being found? Was he protecting someone else? His wife?
I’ll likely never know the answer to these questions, but any of these scenarios could spark a compelling novel. A novel I can’t write.
As writers, we are hard-wired to untangle the motives and intentions of our characters, to give meaning behind things that, at first glance, might seem inexplicable. We attempt to inspire sympathy even when characters behave despicably . It’s a bit like method acting, and most of us have a few dark pathways into the human mind we’ll do anything to avoid exploring, much less remaining in for a year or more. Some might argue those are the very places we should shine a light into – waving at Don Maass – and I know I’ll be forced to walk some of them in my next novel, but there will remain one shadowy alcove I’ll pass by with eyes firmly closed.
There are some things I don’t want to understand.
Over to you. Have you ever found yourself imagining a novel you knew you could not write? Under what circumstances might you change your mind? What dark pathways do you avoid?
Note: Since writing this post, there has been a heartbreaking development in the case. At around 11:00 AM on 10/22 the body of a small child was discovered in a culvert under a bridge by the intersection of Spring Valley and Bowser Road in Richardson. The child’s remains have now been identified as Sherin Mathews. This intersection is maybe a quarter mile from the child’s home. Due to the close proximity of the crime scene to my house, I learned of the discovery from frantic neighbors about 90 minutes before the RPD press conference. On 10/23, Wesley Mathews and his lawyer showed up at the Richardson Police Station and he offered an “alternate story” from what he originally told police. He has confessed to giving the child milk in their garage and when she resisted, he “physically assisted” her. She then started to cough and choke and died. He further confessed to removing the body from the home. He has been arrested and charged with Injury to a Child (a first degree felony). Police have said this charge may change and that other arrests may be made depending on where the investigation leads them.
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