To the Editor:
I am still here just as Kerrie is still here. She is the reason I survived and that is all I did back then … survive. She is in every breath I take and every thought that passes through my mind. She is my strength when I am brought to my knees and she pulls me back each time. The last month has been almost unbearable. The flashes are relentless and at times paralyzing but it is my reality. I see the most horrible things in my mind. Things I will never describe to anyone because to put it into words would be catastrophic and I would not want anyone to have those images. They are things I have never seen. Things that with the information about the condition of her body and the picture of her laying lifeless that was flashed to me I now can see in pictures in my head. The brain is a very powerful thing. I wonder in these moments how a person could live with the real images with the real truth of what transpired that night. It has ruled my life and my decisions for 30 years. I trust no one. Question everyone. I allow people only so close and then that’s it. I know I do it but I can’t change it. I have been this way longer than I wasn’t.
The “normal” life ceased to exist when I was 14. I was told “They know who you are,” “They could be following you, watching you, waiting to take you” by the police who knew me from questioning me about that night who knew where I lived and on my 15th birthday four months later when my friends gave me a surprise birthday party at my house they showed up to deliver summons to me and my friends. I guess it was a way of saving time to go to a party and deliver a bunch of summons to a group of kids but I can tell you it was the end of that birthday and honestly I hate my birthday to this day. I would bet a large amount of money that is why. My birthday is a trigger. It is the day I would be handed the paper that would force me to sit on the stand and be more broken than I already was by a very cold lawyer and my mom would be forced to watch and unable to protect her child. I wish that parental helplessness on no one. Then when I would go out with my friends I would isolate. Slowly back away and grow silent until no one noticed and then slip away into the night alone. I walked the streets still looking for her and when I couldn’t find her I would grow angry and punch the nearest metal light post until my knuckles were swollen bloody and broken. I didn’t feel the pain. Physical pain eluded me and after several minutes of pounding my flesh into metal I would continue walking hoping they would find me. That is how my brain worked in those days. It was constant.
I hated clocks and broke many of them. I couldn’t stand the minute and hour hands that just continued moving because time stopped for us and I hated that it kept going. I had a clock that I took the batteries out of and left it at 12 o’clock. To this day I don’t own a clock with minute and hour hands yet I constantly need to know the time. I knew my reality but I convinced myself otherwise. The day we received clarification my soul broke into a million pieces. I felt it happen. The life drained from my teenage body in a split second. I could hear my heartbeat and feel the air being pushed through my lungs but it was as if I was trapped and forced to remain. I was a zombie just walking around in someone else’s body. I believed no one, trusted no one and grew fearless because I had a death wish. I was never suicidal. I wanted to leave this Earth but I could not bring myself to do it and therefore I searched for someone to do it for me. I did the most dangerous things and put myself in the most awful situations. To this day I have no idea how I survived except to say that she walks with me and protected me. I cannot describe those things because my mom may read this and she has suffered enough. Thirty years ago she grieved with Kerrie’s parents and watched her children trying desperately to destroy themselves and though she tried with a strength that is unspeakable It must have been almost unbearable. As a parent now I can’t imagine the fear and sadness she endured when she could not find her children in the darkness of night. I was terribly lost and could see no one’s grief except Kerrie’s family. They were the exception because I felt so responsible. There are so many what ifs … but I am not the only one who has those. I have heard many people’s should’ve and could’ve statements … but I dismiss them easily because I was the last person to see her. What I have never heard is the person who actually last saw her… Though that is my title, it is false. Though I accept it as true, it is deceitful. I was the last person that loved her to see her. That is my true title. If I had not gone back, I believe she would be alive. That is my reality and no amount of therapy or words will make me believe otherwise.
It must be torture to know the end of this story and remain silent. It must trigger you when you look at children you love. You must imagine the gravity of your secret and the effects it had on so many people. Well, imagine this. That child or the person in your life that is your person. Your everyday person that without them you would be lost. Imagine they are taken from your life and found in the most inhumane way with the sign of unspeakable things done to them. Live with it every day in your thoughts and your dreams. Carry it until you feel like your soul is broken and then carry it some more. When you stop crying and no longer know how because you have to control it and if you don’t you will curl up and be lost to the world. Live with a rage burning inside you that you know you must contain because if you allow it to breathe you will go crazy. Knowing that every second of every day you are without them. They are missing from you. Know that in their last moments they were tortured and most likely called out for you. Hear their screams and them calling your name and when it is too much, hear it some more. Live with the fact that you do not know what happened and who took them from you. Question every voice and look in every face and live that way eternally because the person who has the answers is silent. It is self-imprisonment and I can’t put into words the power it takes to keep it all under control. What would you ask of the person who could set you free?
The truth will not bring her back but it also will not break us. We know what was done to her. We already have the images that will not be news to us. We don’t know who did this and they are 30 years older and weaker than they were back then. Fear is powerful, I do understand, but I can’t begin to know the fear of taking this kind of secret to your grave. It must be unimaginable. I would not wish for anyone to have the things I carry, the images I see. It is mental torture and sometimes I feel an ache inside me that is beyond heartache. It is a hurt so deep inside of me that it does not exist in my body. It is difficult to explain how it truly feels. The only way I can try to put it into words is to say it is a soul ache. It is beyond any physical pain I have ever known and I have known extreme pain. If I could sit across the table from someone and hear the end of Kerrie’s story I would in a second. I would remain silent and listen to them give us the closure we have waited 30 years to hear. I would be grateful. This may sound unbelievable to you and if it does, be grateful that it does. I have fought every day and every night for 30 years just to remain sane. People tell me to forgive myself and to let go but my brain is wired differently and years later in therapy it would be explained to me… In the moment that phone rang, the one I still hear ringing, my soul took a direct hit and I changed. It was a severe brain injury and my brain wiring was altered. I would look at the world differently. Fear and physical pain would be gone. My brain would refuse to not have the answers and the search for the truth would be endless. It would never allow me to get to the last stage of grief which is acceptance. How can you accept what you do not know? You struggle back and forth in depression and anger just waiting for the answers so you can progress in your 30-year journey of grieving. If it were me, I would give you the answers willingly. I convinced myself that I did not want to know. That it would hurt too much to know but it does not stay silent. I cannot forget or let go or accept it. The only answer I have come to realize is to know. I know what it is to live this life that I have lived but I think of your life, too. I try to imagine what it takes to live every day with her secret and wonder what it takes to not speak it. I wait for you to speak. It will not rest. I will not rest and she will not rest and I suppose neither will you.
Editor’s Note: Nicole Zahorodny is the one of the last people, beside her killer or killers, to have seen 15-year-old Kerrie Ann Brown alive when she went missing on Oct. 16, 1986. Brown’s body was found two days later out near the horse stables. No one has been convicted in Brown’s murder.