Childhood memories. There’s an undeniably fickle aspect about them. I can say with confidence that I have just as many long-forgotten memories as those that will remain etched into my brain until the day I pass on. There’s one that will always stand out more than any other.
As long as there have been suburban neighborhoods, there have been curmudgeonly old men shaking their fists at the neighborhood kids. The cartoonish versions that exist on television are rare, but these guys do exist. I don’t recall ever encountering this guy in my old neighborhood. Instead of the curmudgeon, we had a lady. She was a rather pleasant lady who shook her fist in very subtle ways.
You might be looking for a description of a middle age lady with a lazy eye and a house full of cats. There’s none of that here, either. I can’t say she would have stood out to anybody passing through the neighborhood. She was just a woman in her mid-forties with long, slightly curly red hair. My friend Seann had a crush on her and would repeatedly tell me about things he planned to do with her on their first date. Not only did I not think she was particularly attractive, but I couldn’t understand why an eleven-year-old would have a crush on an average-looking forty-year-old. At least find a hot twenty-year-old to crush on. I was sure he was trying to gross me out.
Truth is, to everyone in the neighborhood, this woman was just a single lady who kept to herself while still having a generous heart. Her name was Ms. Graham, and she would eventually be known as the Gingerbred Lady by my friends and me. I’ll explain that and the spelling later.
Each year, about a week before Halloween, she would sit on her porch and give out cookies and gingerbread to the neighborhood children. Adults weren’t allowed, so some parents would request that their kids bring them some gingerbread. Why the bread? The cookies were good, but nothing in particular, stood out. The gingerbread, however, was beyond amazing. It was so good that the kids would be lined up in front of her house before she could finish baking. This was a regular part of my life from age four until age eleven when she vanished without a trace.
I remember standing in line with my friends Seann, Ralph, and Becky. We were talking about random kid stuff until Seann raised an interesting point. The conversation probably didn’t go exactly like this, but this is how my adult brain remembers it.
“Hey, did yall ever notice that the ginger lady only offers her special bread to other redheads?” Seann asked us with narrowed eyes.
“She gives it to the kids who do good things around the neighborhood,” I said. “Simon volunteers at the shelter every year, and he gets a few slices every year. His hair is black, and his skin is darker than Ralphie’s.”
“Seann is just jealous that he’s never good enough to get any,” Becky said.
Seann was by no means a slouch. He was one of those kids who appeared to be blessed by the gods. He had been a star player on his little league football team for years, playing several positions on offense and cornerback on defense. When we played video games at the mini arcade in the bowling alley, he would destroy us. Ralphie was the only one who could keep up with him on certain games. Seann also had brains, sometimes to the point of overthinking things. He was on the honor roll and always came up with odd projects for us during the summer. I think the little go-cart we put together is still in his parents’ garage and works to this day.
“I don’t sweat stuff like that.” Seann rolled his eyes, but we all knew better. “You guys always give me some of yours anyway.” Seann jabbed a thumb at me while talking to Becky. “What you all don’t realize is that this little dork always gets the best bread. I know because I’ve tasted some from all of you.”
I was the only one in the group with red hair, but, like I said, she gave slices to all kinds of kids. “Don’t pay attention to him, Beck. He’s just being an ass again.”
“OK,” Seann said. “When we get up there, you’ll notice that she cuts from two different loaves. Pay attention to which one she cuts when she gives you a piece. She does the same for all the gingers.”
“I’ll bet you five dollars and your Tribe CD that you’re full of shit,” Ralphie chimed in.
Seann glared at him. “Bet, but you don’t get the CD, just five dollars.” Seann stuck out his hand, and they shook.
As we got closer to the porch, we could see two loaves beside Ms. Graham. There was one girl with red hair and freckles a few spots ahead of me. Ms. Graham had been cutting from the loaf closest to her as the line shortened. When it was the girl’s turn, the Gingerbred Lady cut a slice from the other loaf. Seann nodded his head toward the porch before eyeing each one of us.
“Mean’s nothing, dude,” I said. Still, I felt a lump forming somewhere in my gut.
After Seann, Becky, and Ralph each got their cookies, she only gave Ralph and Becky a piece of bread. Seann, who always has something to say about everything, didn’t question why he didn’t get any.
“So, how’s your dad doing these days,” the amiable woman asked Seann.
“He’s fine,” Sean said before immediately retreating from the porch. He made sure he maintained a line of sight with the tray of bread.
“Look at you, Robert,” the Gingerbred Lady said to me. “Every time I see you, you’re growing stronger and stronger.”
I was pretty scrawny at that age. I certainly hadn’t grown much since the previous year. In our little group, only Ralphie was smaller. Seann looked like he could already be in eighth grade.
Ms. Graham picked up a different knife from the one she used to cut the last two slices. Just as Seann predicted, she reached over and cut me a piece from the same one she cut for the freckled girl. The lump felt like a rock sinking into my bowels.
We all walked over to Seann, who wore cookie crumbs and a broad smile on his face. “Pay up, numb-nuts,” he said to Ralphie.
“I don’t have it on me,” Ralphie said sheepishly. “I have to get some money from my mom. Come by later.”
As we walked down the sidewalk, I could only stare at the moist, delectable block in my hand.
“Are you gonna eat that?” Sean asked. “If not, give it to me.”
“Knock yourself out,” I replied.
Becky scrunched up her face. “So, you’re not scared she put something in it?”
Seann shrugged. “If she did, what harm would it do? We’ve been eating this shit half our lives and haven’t dropped dead yet.” With that, he reached over, grabbed a chunk, and shoved it in his mouth.
My mouth watered, but I didn’t want to eat any. It’s not likely that she would poison food and hand it out to children in person. What if something was wrong with it. People had used the phrase redheaded stepchild in derision for years. What if it was stale or had started to mold?
“MMMM mmmm!” Seann exclaimed as he audibly swallowed the bread. “Delicious as al–” He suddenly grabbed his throat and started gagging. His eyes crossed as he stumbled into the street and back to the curb. He spat a brown gob onto the sidewalk before falling awkwardly onto the nearby lawn.”
“Seann, stop assing around,” I said.
He was motionless with his face to the ground. We waited a while, in silence, for him to get up, ending the gag.
“Seann?” Ralphie inquired.
“Seann!” Becky screamed as she practically dove on top of him. She shook him, but he didn’t respond. When she rolled him over, his eyes were closed, and he wasn’t breathing. “Seann, this isn’t funny!”
By that time, we were collecting a crowd of kids who had left the line. Some were kindergartners who clearly looked distraught.
“Stop playing,” Becky’s voice grew frantic. She tried shaking and tickling him without a response. His face gradually turned bluish. “Robert! Ralphie! Come over here and help him.”
Ralphie nor I moved. I don’t know why.
“You gotta do CPR,” somebody suggested. Another person said, “Go tell Ms. Graham to call an ambulance.”
Becky started pressing on Seann, but it looked like her hands were on his belly more than his chest.
Seann let out a gasp, followed by an eruption of laughter. “That tickles. Oh, my god. I couldn’t hold it anymore.”
Becky slapped his face surprisingly hard before getting up, teary-eyed.
“Ow,” Seann said, grabbing his cheek. “What’d you do that for?” A few of the kids nearby laughed while others were clearly unamused as the crowd disbursed.
Becky was running down the sidewalk before we could say anything to her. Her cookies and cake were scattered on the grass next to Seann.
“Anybody gonna help me up?” Seann asked.
“You’re a dick,” Ralphie said.
“As much as you prank people, you’re calling me a dick?” Seann replied while rising from the grass. The owner of the lawn we occupied peered out the window. One of the other kids reassured him that Seann wasn’t about to die on their lawn.
“Incredibly dickish,” I told him. “She’s the one who found her dad choking in the kitchen last year. She didn’t know what to do, and he almost died.”
“How was I supposed to know that?” Seann said, palms upturned. “All I heard was he had to go to the hospital for something.”
“I’m pretty sure we told you about it,” I chided.
“I’m pretty sure you didn’t. I practically have a photographic memory. I definitely would remember something like that.”
“Yeah, you remind us of that every chance you get.” I shoved the rest of my bread in a wadded-up napkin at Seann’s chest. “You can have the rest of it. Later, dude.” Ralphie and I headed to Becky’s house to make sure she was OK.
I’m not sure what transpired between Becky and Seann the next day, but the day after, Becky was back to her old cheerful self. Seann was in an odd mood that I hadn’t seen before. I asked Becky what had happened between them, but very little was said outside of his apologizing to her. She had already calmed herself down enough to accept it without much fanfare.
My curiosity was piqued a couple of days later when Seann and I walked past the Gingerbred Lady’s house. “Howdy, boys,” she greeted us.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Graham,” I responded. Seann didn’t say a word. He wouldn’t even look at her. After we got to the house where he had caused a scene the other day, I asked him, “What gives, man?”
Sean cast his gaze downward. It had been a while since I had heard one of his jokes about motorboating Ms. Graham’s breasts. “Nothing,” he said dryly.
“C’mon, man. I know when something’s up.”
We were near the end of the block before he spoke again. “I think that witch snitched on me.” Seann really had a thing about people telling on him, especially if it was something he didn’t do. The only fight we had was when he thought Ralphie had lied on him. He confronted little Ralphie, who decided to take an ill-advised swing at Seann. Seann really let him have it. I immediately jumped on Seann, who easily took me down. The fight ended when Ralphie nearly knocked Seann out with his book bag. We vowed to never, ever fight one another after that. At least not a fight where actual anger was involved.
“Why would you call her that? She’s the nicest lady in town.”
“That’s no lady,” Seann sneered.
I began to wonder if she had done something abusive to my friend. “What makes you say that?”
“Come over to my house later. I’ll show you.”
“Nah, I’ll come over now.”
When we got there, Seann had pepped up slightly. I entered his characteristically tidy room. I believe that had something to do with both of his parents being in the military. While sitting on his bed, I was graced with several stories he had printed off the internet. He had also gotten some microfiche printouts of old papers from the library. All of them had in common the subject of dead or missing people, and all were redheads.
“Dude, why can’t you act like a normal kid? Some lady tells on you, and you try to pin some of the most gruesome murders imaginable on her? And what’s with your sudden obsession with gingers?”
“I’m probably the most normal person you know. Now, I know we joke around a lot, but this is serious. I need you to listen to me. Have you ever heard about the Ginger Murders?”
“No. And I don’t want to, but I’m pretty sure you’re gonna tell me.”
And he did. That afternoon, I learned about a series of unsolved murders of redheads across several states. The bodies were sometimes missing different parts like legs or arms. Later, people would just come up missing altogether. Investigators believed the cases were connected, but there was no way to prove it without bodies.
“So there’s a serial killer still roaming around one of the nearby states or this one,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic. “What makes you think Ms. Graham is the killer? Wouldn’t she have been just a kid our age when the first murder happened?”
“Well, I figured she wasn’t the original killer.” Seann had that look of being in deep contemplation. “She might have been the daughter of the original killer and just continued his legacy.”
As a gullible kid, it didn’t take long for me to start believing. “Or maybe she’s much older than she looks.”
Seann smiled. “I don’t think we should be going all supernatural with this, but she might be involved in some kind of occult stuff.”
“Tell me again why you think she’s the one.”
“Because of the redheads that have gone missing in this county since she moved here. All of them went missing in late summer, a couple months before Halloween.”
“A bunch of people go missing around here every year. The chances that one or two will be a ginger is pretty high. We do happen to be in demand right now.”
Seann stared at me with concern before handing me another piece of paper. “Read the highlighted part.”
I read the innocuous-looking sentences: ‘At one of the crime scenes, believed to be a place used by the killer, a fine powder was found near the body parts. After the powder was tested, it was found to be a homemade meat powder, sometimes used to add protein to meals or bake into pastries. Years later, more advanced testing revealed that the meat powder was human, with traces of DNA from one of the victims.’
I felt a burning sensation in my throat as the taste of bile entered my mouth. I dry heaved.
“I know,” Seann said. “I barely made it to the bathroom after I read that.” He didn’t seem the least bit concerned that I might vomit all over his carpet.
“I still don’t think you can say for sure this lady was involved. So, you’re going to the police with it, right?”
“What do you think would happen if I told the police?”
“Look, you gotta get over that snitching fear so–”
“I already told my mom. She laughed and told me my imagination was getting the best of me. But she did acknowledge that actual serial killers sometimes turn out to be people who blend in well with the masses. If you go to the police with no actual evidence, they’ll just knock on her door and say: ‘Ma’am, we received a report that you might be murdering gingers and feeding them to people. Mind if we have a look around your house.’ All she has to say is ‘no’ and later get rid of any evidence in her house.
“So what are you gonna do?”
“Mom said the police need evidence. Probable cause. So, we are gonna get it for ’em.”
“What do you mean we?” I asked, heart pounding.
Seann pointed his finger at himself and then at me.
“I know you’re not expecting us to break into a neighbor’s house and sneak around looking for incriminating evidence.”
Copyright 2022, Darrell Winfrey