"Rainbow Hat" by Edo Rosenblith / edorosenblith.com

In late May of 2001, the day I got out of seventh grade for the summer, the After School Strangler claimed his eighth victim. Her name was Casey Krupke, and she was a 24-year-old waitress at Roy’s. The air conditioning at her house in Canoga Park had gone out in the middle of the day and she’d fallen asleep watching TV with the windows open, waiting for the HVAC technician to show up. When he finally did, an hour later than scheduled, he found her body on the living room floor.

At a press conference in front of the West Valley station, the cops said the same thing they’d been saying since Christmas—that they believed the killer was white, balding, and that he may be driving a dark green Toyota Camry—but this was all they claimed to know. The HVAC guy was not a suspect.

The Strangler’s moniker came from his tendency to commit his murders in the afternoon, around 4 p.m., rather than at night. He targeted women, but didn’t seem to choose them by any special set of criteria. The suspense between victims became nearly unbearable. It was like a dull, jumpy headache that everyone had at once.

 My mom and I were living in a third-floor apartment off Victory Boulevard, just a couple of miles from Casey Krupke's house. Since divorcing my dad, my mom had become high-strung and prone to fits of morbid anxiety. She kept the TV playing all night, just to hear the noise, but I think that all of the local news and the Unsolved Mysteries had seeped into her mind while she slept. In the middle of June, she convinced herself that I was fated to become the After School Strangler's next victim.

"You look just like Casey," she said. "He's going to get you."

I knew she was wrong. I didn't doubt that I would be murdered—in fact, I was nearly certain I would. But I just didn't think anyone as illustrious as the After School Strangler would take an interest in me. I figured I'd be killed by some shapeless dream demon who would pull me out of my desk at school and drag me into a closet and down into hell, and that my teacher wouldn't even notice I was gone. Nobody on the front page of the paper was going to bother killing me.

In July, my mom was forced by the state of California to enter a rehab program, and I was sent to Encino to stay with my dad. He had recently moved in with his new wife, Stacy, and my stepbrother Steven. I usually only saw them on holidays. I didn't like my dad very much, but their house was huge—a big stucco mini-mansion with polished travertine floors.

Stacy was hellbent on proving to me that they were a lot more fun and easy-going than my mom. She thought I was a feral child she was going to save. I was determined not to give her the satisfaction of thinking my living conditions had improved.

"On Sundays we go to the mall," she said as I unpacked my stuff. "It's very laid-back!"

"Oh wow, what's a mall?" I asked.

Stacy frowned.

Steven was only a year younger than me, but he was a full foot shorter. He was pale and wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a lot of allergies. Their dog Bobo had recently died while he, Steven, was attending a special summer camp for kids with asthma, and he liked for people to think that the loss had made him reckless and wild with grief. Stacy let him swear as much as he wanted because she believed he was in mourning.

"Where's my pussy dick inhaler?" I heard him muttering on the night I moved in.

He was also obsessed with celebrity magazines. His favorites were People, US Weekly, and Star. Stacy had gotten him subscriptions, and each week when they showed up, he spread them out on the dining table and devoured them one at a time, chuckling to himself at the paparazzi photos and the parties and the Botox gone awry. When I think about Steven now, this is how I remember him—hunched over a glossy spread showing Demi Moore's plastic surgery transformation. Finally! the headline screamed—Demi finally got her knees done!

The After School Strangler was still at large. The cops had detained an old guy named Harris Tuttle who owned a massage parlor in Van Nuys, but were forced to release him after he furnished a watertight alibi for the afternoons in question.

One afternoon, when my dad and Stacy were still at work, Steven finished reading a profile of Russell Crowe in the new issue of People and asked me to take him to the Blockbuster in Reseda so that he could rent Gladiator on VHS. It was rated R, and you had to be eighteen to rent it, so he wanted me to impersonate Stacy by showing them her old driver’s license.

"You're not allowed to watch Gladiator," I said. "I heard your mom tell you."

"I don't give a shit," mumbled Steven.

"It's rated R," I said.

"Okay," said Steven. "You sound scared."

"I'm not scared, it's just hot out and I think it’s a dumb idea."

"My mom said you're scared of everything."

This was transparently manipulative, but it worked, so I put on one of Stacy's blazers and some lipstick and took the bus down to Tampa with him. The jacket was shiny pink polyester and several sizes too big, and I was sweating profusely. I noticed the other passengers looking at us askance. I was thirteen and flat-chested and nobody could ever mistake me for someone who would reasonably wear a blazer. Steven was twelve but looked about eight. He had insisted on wearing a floppy beanie that he thought gave him an air of danger, but in reality made him look like he was suffering from some sort of tragic childhood malady.

"I love the bus," he whispered. "I like to ride with the hoi polloi."

At Blockbuster, the clerk miraculously didn't even glance up when I handed him Stacy's expired ID. We rented not only Gladiator, but also Sgt. Bilko, and Me, Myself & Irene. Steven was ecstatic. As we stepped back onto the steaming asphalt in the parking lot, he yelled "Yeah, baby!" and pumped his fist in the air.

The temperature had breached a hundred degrees, and we walked too slowly and missed the bus going back up Tampa. We were both dripping with sweat. Steven took his beanie off and rubbed his face with it. A truck went by pumping toxic-smelling exhaust into the air and Steven started coughing.

"I think I'm having an asthma attack."

"No, you're not," I said.

We debated finding a pay phone and calling Stacy to pick us up, but Steven claimed to be too tired to walk any farther. I was about to leave him sitting there and go call her myself when a car slammed on its brakes by the curb next to us and an automatic window purred down. The driver leaned across the passenger seat and yelled, "You kids need a ride?"

"Yes!" cried Steven, leaping up. "We're going to Encino."

"Climb on in."

His voice was scratchy and nasal. I leaned down to peer in the window. He was a middle-aged guy, skinny with a dark tan, wearing stained khaki shorts and a faded Hawaiian shirt. I could only see the bottom half of his face, which looked weathered and strung out.

Steven called shotgun and pushed me out of the way to open the door. I hesitated on the curb.

"Wait," I whispered. "You don't know him."

Steven pointedly ignored me and started buckling his seatbelt. Someone behind us honked and Steven slammed his door shut. The car started to pull away. Panicking, I leaped forward and slapped the trunk and yelled for them to wait, then jerked the back door open and jumped inside, clinging to our Blockbuster tapes. The car smelled like hot vinyl and air freshener. There was a Thomas Guide shoved under the passenger seat and a melted pack of gum in the cup holder. I reached for a seatbelt, but it was wedged in the door I had slammed.

"Miss the bus?" asked the driver, peeling out onto Vanowen.

"No, my Camaro ran out of gas," said Steven.

The driver laughed. It was a cold, thin laugh. I noticed his big hands resting easily on the steering wheel.

"Anyone know where you kids are right now?" he asked.

"No," said Steven. "They don't give a shit."

Oh god, I thought.

“Well, my name's Gary."

"I'm Steven."

"Uh huh. And what’s your girlfriend’s name?" he asked, pointing at me.

"She's not my girlfriend—she’s my sister."

"Ah," said Gary. "Hey," he called over his shoulder. "I'm lovin’ that jacket."

I couldn't tell if he was making fun of me or not. I reached up and fingered the lapel of Stacy's blazer, staring at Gary's profile as he drove. He had a receding hairline and a tall, sweaty forehead. He lifted a bandana from the seat between his legs and dabbed his head dry.

"She's not my real sister," said Steven. "She just lives in my house.”

"Mmm. You ever kiss her?"

We were cruising south down Reseda Boulevard and I wondered if we would hit a stoplight so I could jump back out of the car. I nervously rubbed the spine of the Sgt. Bilko tape that was sitting in my lap.

"She just moved in," said Steven. "Things haven't really heated up yet."

Gary laughed again, that strange, anemic laugh. We turned left onto Ventura, and Steven gave him our address.

"It's by the reservoir," he said.

"Ah," said Gary.  "My cousin lives up there. He shoots pictures for magazines." He looked up into the rearview mirror and caught my eye. "You ever look at dirty magazines?"

My heart jumped and I kicked the back of Steven's seat.

"I love magazines," he said. "I'm a real mag head."

"Ah, shit," said Gary. "That is loco. Nobody's gonna believe me when I tell them I gave a ride to a beautiful businesswoman and a genuine mag head."

He wiped his head again with the bandana and I noticed him lower it back to his lap and clench it in his fist, his knuckles turning white. I straightened the stack of tapes on my thighs.

"My dad's at home," I said. "He'll be surprised when we get back."

"Huh," said Gary. "Maybe I could help you surprise him."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Gary slowed the car down and made a wide right-hand turn onto White Oak.

"Eh, we could show him something he doesn't expect."

"Her dad's an asshole," said Steven. "My old dog Bobo used to bite him."

Gary hit the accelerator and we climbed the hill quickly.

"Hey, wait," I said, trying to hide panic in my voice. "You passed our street."

"Did I?" asked Gary. "Let me tell you, I am a real fuckerooni when it comes to geography."

I scooted across the seat and pressed my body against the door, sliding my fingers behind the handle and preparing to fling it open.

"Woo!" cried Steven as the car picked up speed. "You could flip a U-ey right up in this driveway!"

Gary extended his hand for Steven to high five and Steven gleefully obliged.

"That, my man, is exactly what I will do."

To my surprise and profound, unbelievable relief, Gary slowed the car and eased into a small, private driveway, then reversed and headed back down the hill. At Coronet, our street, he slowed and turned right.

"Now, Steven," he said. "Let me ask you something else. You ever zip your dick in your pants?"

"Like on accident?" asked Steven.

"Euhhh," said Gary.

"No. I'm actually a very cautious person."

You're not that freaking cautious, I thought.

Steven pointed to our house and I swallowed anxiously, convinced that Gary was going to gun it past the driveway and take us to the big empty lot on the far side of the reservoir. But he slowed down right out front and hit the button to unlock the doors.

He reached his hand out for Steven to shake.

"Good luck with the Camaro, my man," he said. "Good luck with your sister."

We got out of the car and Gary saluted us, then wiped his head again with his bandana. As I watched him drive away, my stomach flipped again and I felt my face grow cold. I stood frozen in the driveway as his car disappeared around the corner. It was a dark green Toyota Camry.

"Steven," I said. "Did you see his car?"


"That's the car that the After School Strangler drives," I said.

"That's the car everybody drives," said Steven.

My hand was shaking as I unlocked the front door. I left Steven downstairs and ran up to my room.

The next day, the After School Strangler claimed his ninth victim. Her name was Irma Gottlieb, a 79-year-old widow all the way down in Anaheim. They showed a picture of her on TV—she was a normal old lady with dentures and poofy meemaw hair. Another open window, just like at Casey Krupke's house. Her neighbor found her body after he noticed that she'd failed to take her shih tzu for its evening walk.

I tried to imagine Gary with his big, tan hands around Irma's neck, but I couldn't get the image into focus. There was something about it that just didn't seem possible. I pictured his bandana in her mouth and his knobby knees getting rug burns. It was all too grotesque to be real. I spent the whole evening in bed.

And then, four days later, the After School Strangler was caught. Stacy started yelling from the living room, and I ran downstairs to see what had happened.

On the screen, Jerry Dunphy from KCAL9 was reading a bulletin.

". . . arrested at his home in Agoura Hills," he said. "Clark David, a software engineer, has been charged with all nine deaths."

A picture of Clark David appeared on the screen. He didn't look like Gary at all. He wasn’t Gary! He was young and pale and prematurely balding, with dark, beady eyes and a wrinkled grey flannel shirt.

"Is that him?" I asked Stacy.

"Looks like it," she said.

"DNA found on the body of Irma Gottlieb matched a sample delivered to law enforcement by Mr. David's wife, who had grown suspicious of her husband after finding Casey Krupke's driver’s license in his nightstand."

"What a pervert," said Stacy. "I hope he fries."

I stared at the TV in disbelief.

“According to acquaintances, Mr. David dreamed of being a professional skateboarder,” said Jerry Dunphy. “But he was never able to learn to skateboard.”

“Ugh, sounds like a dork,” said Stacy. Then, like she had just remembered something important, she turned and looked at me. “Listen," she said. "I want to tell you something I learned in high school. It was true then, and it will always be true." She put her hand on my arm and said slowly, “Losers lose for a reason.”

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If someone seems like a loser, you don't need to feel bad for them. It's their own fault."

"Am I a loser?"

Stacy laughed and winked at me, then picked up the remote and turned off the TV.

Fourteen years later, in 2015, I was back in the Valley, living in Woodland Hills with my boyfriend in a house off San Feliciano. We had converted the garage into an apartment for my mom, who on a regimen of Thorazine and Klonopin had calmed down a lot. Steven was gone. He had died of an overdose while I was in college. My dad and Stacy had split up shortly thereafter. I didn't talk to either of them much. I missed Steven every day.

I was sitting in the kitchen alone one afternoon. My mom was out back in the garage apartment and my boyfriend was at work. There was a knock on the door and my first instinct, deeply ingrained from childhood, was to ignore it and run to the closet to hide. But whoever it was kept knocking and wouldn't go away. Finally, I peered through the front window and cracked the door open without unlocking the ball chain. It was an old man, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He slid a piece of paper through the crack in the door.

SEX OFFENDER, it said, with his photograph under it.

"Sorry to bother you," he said. "I just moved in on Galvez. I'm a sex offender. Gotta tell everyone in the neighborhood. If you have any questions . . . "

"Wait," I said, looking up from the flyer. "Gary?”

He didn't recognize me. I unlocked the ball chain and opened the door all the way.

“Do you remember me? You picked me and my stepbrother up in Reseda once when we were kids."

"Euhhh . . . " he started. "Oh, wait. Weird little guy. And you had a big jacket on.”

"Yeah!" I said. "You freaked me out."

Gary nodded his head vaguely, like he was trying to remember the details.

"Was that '99?" he asked.

"2001," I said. “The summer before 9/11.” I looked down at the flyer again. “So you are a sex offender.”

"Indecent exposure," he said, rolling his eyes. "Just a little public masturbation. To be fair, I was behind the dumpster, but I guess that doesn't count."

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know. You ever see those Bacardi billboards? With the girl in the shorts?"

"Yeah," I said. "I've seen them."

“Well, that's the long and the short of it—shouldn’t hang a giant picture of her with her ass hangin’ out over the public park if they don’t want people doin’ a little jackin’ off.”

"It's so weird to see you," I said. "I really thought you were going to murder us that day you picked us up."

"I probably thought about it," said Gary with a chuckle. "I must have taken a shine to that little dude you were with."

"I loved him," I said.

We stood in awkward silence.

"Well," said Gary. "I still gotta do ten more blocks of this shit. Good to see you. If you spot me near an elementary school, you know the drill. 9-1-1."

He ambled off down the sidewalk, and I watched him head up the block to the neighbors' house. He was even skinnier than he'd been before and his hair had all gone white. I almost ran after him—I don't know what for. Maybe to throw my arms around him. Or to sit him down and make him tell me on the record everything he could remember about Steven.

My mom wandered in through the side door.

"Who was that?" she asked.

I blinked slowly and turned to look at her.

"Some guy telling everyone he's a sex offender."

"Hmm," said my mom. "Isn't it funny that they make them go door to door like Halloween?"

"It's just public shaming," I said.

"It does work," she said. "Makes him look like a big fat loser."

I pushed the front door shut and locked the ball chain. My head felt strangely warm inside and I could still feel Gary's shoulder on my hand. I followed my mom into the kitchen and sat down at the table with her. She took a tangerine from a bowl on the table and began to peel it with the nail on her thumb.

"You know what Stacy told me once?" I asked. "She told me that losers lose for a reason. It was her high school motto or something."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"According to Stacy, it means that if someone seems like a loser, you shouldn't pity them because they ended up there on their own."

"Well," said my mom. "She would know."

Laura Birdsall is from Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a dog named Tuba, to whose lunatic wellbeing she has dedicated her entire existence.