The landscape of western Kansas lends itself well to conspiracy theories and apocalyptic visions. The plains, vast and windswept, bending imperceptibly to the horizon. The small towns, unmoored from the highway, like ships cast adrift on a fathomless sea of grain, with silos and brick church steeples their only masts.
I saw a lot of it as my parents drove me back and forth after the divorce—my mom moved to Kansas City, my dad to a little town north of Boulder. “The kind of place where you can still get your teeth knocked out by a cowboy, if you put your mind to it,” he liked to say. They split custody, so I spent a lot of time in the passenger seat of one car or another, driving those long, blank miles that stretched between the relative civilization of Topeka and Denver.
I spent the school year with my mom, my dad driving into town for the occasional weekend, when we would stay in a hotel and eat ice cream and waffles for just about every meal. During the summer or on holiday breaks, he would pick me up and take me west, stopping at gas stations along the way to buy slushies—“Don’t tell your mom,” with a conspiratorial wink in my direction—or at the dinosaur museum in Fort Hays. When mom was driving me back, it was never anything but my forehead pressed against the cool window glass, watching the alternating signs condemning abortion, promising eternal damnation, or advertising sex shops.
When I was a little girl, we had lived in one of those tiny towns that we passed along I-70, with their football fields pressed tight up against the highway. I could remember a house and a yard, a tire swing hanging from the branches of a tree, the golden sunlight and skin-flaying wind that came with life out in the western plains. I could remember my older sister Danielle, only barely. She was a blur of brown hair and freckles, as tall as my mom, with a barking laugh that seemed to echo.
I was six years old when she died, and my parents divorced within seven months. Years later, I would look up the divorce rates for couples who have lost a child and find that it was much lower than I had been led to believe by counselors and self-help books. Only about sixteen percent, and most of them said that there were problems in the marriage long before the child died. Were there problems in my parents’ marriage? I never asked and they never told me.
Of course, Danielle didn’t just die, either. That would have been one thing. This was something much worse.
• • • •
While snake handlers and the like tend to stay down in Oklahoma and farther south, western Kansas has been home to more than its fair share of fire-and-brimstone revivals, to preachers spewing admonitions about the end of days, not to mention less prosaic cults. The people who planned the bombings of abortion clinics in Wichita in 1993 got their start here, and so did Edward Murray and his “dynamo-electric messiah,” and the Increase Brothers, who claimed that the Garden of Eden had, in fact, been located just a few miles outside of the little town of Lebanon, Kansas.
And, of course, most infamously, Damien Hesher and the Spiritus Aetum Sperarum, which Hesher claimed translated to the Breath of the Spheres, though that’s probably a little loose. The Spiritus would have been a nothing cult, a footnote in the history of the region’s odd beliefs, had it not been for one afternoon in 1987, when Hesher and a bunch of his cronies kidnapped a bus full of seven high school kids and their coach as it was on its way back from a debate championship in Manhattan, Kansas. One of those kids was Danielle.
Hesher and his followers forced her and the others into a beat-up RV, leaving the bus driver where he sat on the shoulder of I-70, with the added gift of a sucking chest wound from a double-barreled shotgun. Then they drove to a little rest stop west of Topeka, situated on a limestone outcropping where I-70 split, its top crowned with spidery scrub trees.
That rest stop was where my sister died, and we drove past it every time my parents ferried me back and forth from Kansas City to Colorado. By that time, though, the turnoff leading to it had been stoppered with blue wooden sawhorses and concrete blocks that had previously been highway dividers; the brown sign that once said “Rest Stop” plastered over with other official signage, white with black letters spelling out two simple words: NO EXIT.
• • • •
Maybe it would have been enough if Hesher and his followers had just killed the handful of kids they took from that bus. Certainly, it would have made the national news, maybe even gotten a few books written about it. But it probably wouldn’t have closed down the rest stop forever. It took something special for that.
The kids weren’t just killed. They were torn apart. Limbs and guts and heads and whatever else strewn all over the place, like something from a Halloween haunted house. They say that the blood soaked into the parking area and wouldn’t ever come clean.
At least one of the kids threw themselves from the limestone cliff and smashed on the rocks below rather than face whatever reckoning was taking place at that rest stop. The coach managed to crawl some twenty yards from the parked RV where the slaughter began, albeit leaving parts of his legs behind as he did.
The crime scene photos were all dark and blurry. They reminded me of photos of Bigfoot or cattle mutilations; nothing in them identifiable except by its vague shape. The RV parked in the lot of the rest stop, and on its door, painted in what looked like blood, an image of a circle being pierced by a line from above.
Not all the bodies were ever even accounted for, and there was a period of time when the police entertained the idea that some of the kids had managed to escape, that they might just show up, bloodstained and in shock, standing by the side of the highway. A time when Danielle was simply “missing” instead of “presumed dead.”
It’s impossible not to wonder how the story would have gone differently if Hesher and his crew had survived to stand trial, but when authorities arrived, they found Hesher and all of his followers dead inside the RV, symbols carved into their skin, their throats cut.
“Murder/suicide” was the official conclusion, though I found a coroner’s report that had been excised from the public record—performed, according to the official account, by a junior medical examiner who had been too shaken by the grisly scene to render an accurate verdict—that said Hesher and his people had died sometime before most of the other victims.
Even leaving that report aside, it was difficult to square up the crime scene with the murders themselves. Though obvious acts of cannibalism had been performed on the victims, no human remains were found in the digestive tracts of either Hesher or his followers. For a while, the authorities sought other accomplices who had fled the scene rather than participate in the cult’s mass suicide, eventually chalking the partially-devoured state of the bodies up to the depredations of scavengers.
My parents never talked about what happened—not with reporters, and not with me. If they ever talked about it between themselves—as I know they must have—I never overheard it. I would wonder later if they were trying to protect me by never speaking of it. The Satanic Panic was still going strong when the murders were committed, and there was a media frenzy surrounding the slaughter for months, with local and national news stations trotting out stories of animal sacrifices, kidnappings that predated the murders, and, of course, other, more salacious stuff. A few years later, Unsolved Mysteries even ran a segment and called my parents, who refused to comment or appear on the show.
Being in the crosshairs of that kind of hyperbolic attention would be hard enough on grieving parents, let alone a confused kid. Maybe by the time public interest in the murders faded, my parents had decided that it was easier to ignore what had happened than it was to face it, leaving me alone to take the opposite route.
The proximity of the murders was what kept me at KU when I went to college, even though my dad could have gotten me reduced tuition at CU Boulder, where he was teaching by then. From KU, I could go around to those local stations that were still extant and go through their archives for any old footage about the murders. I probably read every newspaper article ever printed on the subject; police reports, autopsies, anything that I could get my hands on.
When my parents divorced, my mom switched my name and hers back to her maiden name, and though she changed hers again when she married a man named Dale years later, I kept the old one, so there was nothing left to tie me to Danielle in most peoples’ eyes. I could check out books about the murders from the library, request newspaper stories on microfiche, ask around at news stations, and nobody would think I was anything but a morbid kid with a curiosity about a grisly local crime that had taken on the proportions of urban myth.
Most of the time, anyone who reported on the killings was content to conjecture wildly about Hesher’s motives and the beliefs and practices of the Spiritus Aetum Sperarum. Hardly anyone bothered to read the admittedly nigh-unreadable book that Hesher had written and self-published, under the unhelpful title Wizard’s Ashes.
The book cover was simple, dominated by a drawing of a red circle being pierced by a line from above, done in a style like calligraphy. That was on the original edition. After the murders, it was picked back up by a small press called Hex Books and reissued under a new title—The Breath of the Spheres: Secrets of the Spiritus Aetum Sperarum—which attempted to market it as a “true” book of dark spirituality, in order to cash in on the notoriety generated by Hesher’s crimes. That book’s cover featured a blurry and distorted photo of Hesher himself, as he had been found by police when they raided the RV: A cow skull on his head that had been denuded of its horns and carved out inside so that it covered his face like a mask.
That was the version I read, complete with typographical errors and pages that didn’t always line up correctly with the margins. It contained a brief, and completely fictitious, biographical sketch of Damien Hesher in the “About the Author” portion at the back of the book. In reality, Damien Hesher had been born in Topeka, and had lived his entire life in Kansas. Starting out as Jeremy Miller, he had legally changed his name when he turned twenty-one, the same time he started the Spiritus Aetum Sperarum. All that I learned from other sources. From his book, I learned that the place where my sister was murdered hadn’t been chosen randomly.
While Hesher’s book didn’t lay out the specifics of the killing spree, it was full of distressing hints. Hesher was clearly obsessed with the rest stop, which he referred to in the book not only by number but by latitude and longitude. He called it a “thin place,” and said that it was somewhere that “communion” was possible, if the proper sacrifice was on hand.
According to Hesher, it wasn’t the first time that blood had been spilled on that very ground. In the book he told a story about a family called the Millers—no accident, perhaps, that they shared his own born surname—who had diverged from the Oregon trail and found themselves on that same limestone outcropping where the rest stop would eventually be built.
By Hesher’s account, their wagon wheel broke on that spot and they didn’t have another one to replace it. What led them from that predicament to what came next is unclear, but he wrote that they took the broken wheel and laid it on the ground, and from there they drew lines, extending the spokes of the wheel outward and outward, decorating them with orbs, sometimes drawn in the dirt, sometimes represented by the smoothest rocks they could find in the surrounding cliffs and gullies. Then, they sat down among the lines and spheres, and they ate themselves. Not the desperate, no-other-choice cannibalism of the Donner party. Intentional, premeditated anthropophagy.
The why of it was tougher to pin down than the what. Hesher’s writing was rambling, inconsistent, littered with typos and odd grammatical choices, the voice constantly changing, as though the book had been written by diverse hands. What was clear was that Hesher believed that the earth was filled with what he sometimes called “abysses” and other times “spheres.”
“Not hollow,” he wrote, “as an egg might be hollow, but carved out, digged full of holes, as a cork, or a nest.” There was no heaven or hell, according to Hesher. No higher power, and no lower one, but in these holes there were entities who could do things, and sometimes they would whisper to those of us who lived above, as they had to the Millers, as they did to him.
These were what he was planning to “commune” with when he killed my sister and her classmates. “Eternity is a cruel thing,” he wrote, “but long lastingness is within our grasp, if we are willing to sacrifice much. Being a man is a thing that we can easily cast off, if we are willing to reach past our own bodies to what lies beneath.
“What scuttles in the shadows when the light of the sun is turned off? Why would we dream that we have seen but the tip of its great limb? It is in the shadow of the world, and it is in the shadow of our hearts. If we open ourselves up to the breath of the abyss, we will hear it whisper our name.”
• • • •
Given my preoccupation with the circumstances of Danielle’s death, I don’t know why it took me so long to go to the crime scene. By the time I did I had graduated from college, taking a job as a file clerk at a Kansas City law firm, pushing wheeled carts down long aisles in the dim basement of a tall building. My dad had been in and out of the hospital with colon cancer, and I had driven my old Passat out to Boulder easily more than a dozen times to visit him, passing by the rest stop and the NO EXIT sign each time I did.
I think maybe I put off visiting it because I knew that there wouldn’t be anything left after that. Danielle was gone, Hesher and his people were in the ground. I had read everything I could find, watched everything there was to watch. My parents never spoke about it, and I never got up the nerve to ask. The rest stop would be the last place I could go to feel closer to Danielle, to make her something more than a fading memory.
“Legend tripping” is what they call it, I guess, and I could tell before I saw much else that I wasn’t the first to make the journey. I moved the blue painted sawhorses but parked my Passat next to the chunks of concrete, hiking the rest of the way up to the top of the limestone hill, topped with a line of scrub trees that circled it like a crown.
From the highway, the restroom building and the rotted remains of the picnic shelters didn’t look much different from their brethren at other, less-neglected stops. Up close, though, I could see that they had been visited by graffiti in all its varied forms, from pentagrams and inverted crosses to swastikas, declarations of love, and crude drawings of male and female genitalia.
Some aspiring graffiti artist had even done their homework. A red circle pierced by a line was spray-painted onto the sidewalk directly in front of the restrooms, in the spot where you would stand to look at the map behind the plexiglass—if such a map were still present, instead of an empty box with webs in the corners and the dried-up bodies of dead spiders collecting at the bottom.
In the light of the setting sun, I could see stains on the overgrown parking lot, though whether they were made by oil or blood it was impossible to tell. Some of the picnic shelters were missing their roofs, others their picnic tables. All of them had suffered more from the years of neglect than the restrooms had, the wood splintering and breaking apart while the tan brick of the restroom building simply faded.
The door marked “WOMEN” was oddly difficult to open—like there was something behind it, holding it shut, but not anything substantial. Shining my flashlight into the dark on the other side, I saw why.
The restroom had probably never been very tidy or welcoming. It was the same as the ones in every other rest stop I had ever visited; concrete floors, windows set high in the walls to let in what little light could force its way past the dust-coated plexiglass, a trio of metal stalls and boxy troughs for sinks. I knew such rest stop bathrooms well from my many pilgrimages along I-70, and was familiar with them as homes for dead leaves, dead bugs, cobwebs, and dust. But this one was positively festooned with spider webs.
It was as if the decorator for an old Gothic horror film had gone to town but had never been told to stop. The webs filled the room with such proliferation as to make no sense. No insect could ever penetrate them deeply enough for any but the ones nearest the door to catch any prey, and yet they filled every space, the strands sometimes the monofilament thickness that I was used to in spider’s webs, other times reaching a ropy girth that called to mind alien slime or the webs of mutant spiders from the movies.
These were what had made forcing the door open feel like fighting my way past marshmallow fluff, and as I flashed my light across the sticky strands, I thought I saw something writhing in their depths. Something much too big to be an insect, and too malformed to be human. It let out a mewling sound, and I stumbled back, the door swinging shut behind me.
Or had I gone through a door, after all? The light on the other side seemed changed in some subtle way, the setting sun painting the sky with the radiation glow of a post-apocalyptic future. That wasn’t all that had changed, either. There was an RV in the parking lot that hadn’t been there before. One that looked all-too familiar, down to the circle being pierced by the line daubed onto the door in something too dark to be paint.
All around me, it seemed that the trees were moving closer whenever I wasn’t looking. I imagined them turning upside-down, their branches becoming spidery legs on which they crept nearer, only to plant themselves again, head down in the dirt, whenever my eyes swept across them. For all that I told myself it was a panic response, a trick of the mind, there was no denying that when I looked again, what had been thirty paces from the picnic shelters became twenty, twenty became ten.
With the trees closing in, I don’t know why I thought the RV was a safer place to be, but I found myself standing in front of its door nevertheless.
On the other side I could hear sounds. Voices whispering, and something else. The sound of a dozen blades sawing flesh. The door had a handle, the kind that turns downward, a line piercing a circle into the earth, and I turned it and the door opened outward, and from inside came the reptile house smell of pennies and fresh soil.
Inside was Damien Hesher. On his head he wore that same cow skull, its teeth and horns missing, transforming it into something else, the helmet of a cyclops, the head of an insect. On his hands he wore claws made from the bones of small animals; the same claws he had used, according to the coroner’s report, to tear out his own throat, though I saw now that those claws were unstained by blood.
His neck was still a bloody, ragged wound, though something now moved inside it, working open and closed. “Eternity is a cruel thing,” are the only words he said to me, the sounds coming not from where his mouth should have been, but from the ragged hole in his neck. Then they came for him.
The floor of the RV opened like a series of trap doors held tight by webbing, the seams invisible until triggered. Black limbs rose up from the floor, scuttling bodies like the ones I had imagined attached to the spidery trees. They embraced Damien Hesher, taking him back with them to wherever it was he now resided.
The hand that he reached out toward me was not threatening, but supplicating. Beneath those claws of bone, the pad of his hand was pink and soft. I felt sorry for him, this man who had thought he could peer into a dark well and not be frightened by what he saw. I stumbled back, as more of the dark shapes came surging up from the glowing trap doors, and felt a hand fall on my shoulder.
She stood behind me, still as tall as my mom. She wore the same jeans and hoodie that she had worn when she disappeared, but the hand that touched me wasn’t anything I recognized, and in the dark shadows of that hood, her eyes seemed to glitter, and a seam split her face, running up her neck, up her chin. Her smile was the same, though, and she said my name as my arms went around her and I pressed my face into her shoulder, realizing only as I did so that I had gotten to be just as tall as her, over the years.
When I could no longer feel her arms around me, I opened my eyes, and found myself standing in the parking lot of the rest stop, my shoes on the asphalt. The RV was gone. The sun had set completely, and the night sky was filled with stars, the stunted trees having retreated to their usual distance, though I had the feeling it was only a temporary armistice, not a permanent peace.
When I got back to my Passat and sat down in the driver’s seat, I felt something crinkle in my back pocket. Pulling it out, I found a faded Polaroid of me and Danielle. I was sitting in front of her on the brass bed I had when I was little, and she was braiding my hair and smiling, her face suddenly clarified in the blur of my memory.
Looking up, I thought I saw her watching me from the tree line, those black eyes sparkling, but when I shut off the dome light, there was nothing there. Just the fading hint of a door closing in the rocky cliffside, maybe, nothing more.
Spread the word!