Since leaving the newspaper business in late 2008, I’ve started writing fiction. But, lacking publication deadlines, I’ve never really finished anything to my satisfaction. No point in time marked it as “complete, move on.”
I started grad school in September 2013, at the University of North Texas, to learn how to write fiction and to write on deadline again, the only way I know how. But, more importantly, to be among folks who brood on reality, as I do, and try to create from it a world that makes some sense. After more than twenty years of writing newspaper stories and fifty years of living, I am convinced that there are no meanings except the ones we fashion for ourselves. And that is why I write fiction.
In May 1992, when I was a news reporter, a five-year-old girl named Shawnlee Perry disappeared while playing outside her house in Earth, Texas. I drove the two hours from Amarillo to Earth the next day and met with Shawnlee’s parents, who told me with breaking hearts and tears in their eyes about their daughter – her favorite foods, her favorite movies and songs, the cute, funny things she had said and done in her young life. That day I also knocked on the doors of many neighbors, but there was a fog of fear over the neighborhood and only one would speak to me.
I watched as the anguish and guilt of Shawnlee’s parents tore the couple apart. Three months after her disappearance, a farmer, mowing his field about five miles from Shawnlee’s house, found her decomposed body. Her panties had been turned inside out, and she had several broken bones.
A neighbor named Eddie Rowton, who “helped” search parties look for Shawnlee after her disappearance, was convicted of kidnapping and beating the young girl to death, and a jury sentenced him to die. After killing Shawnlee, Rowton also beat and raped a New Mexico woman, and he was convicted of that crime as well. He spent two years on death row before he died in prison, complaining of chest pains, in 2001 at age 48.
Even twenty years later, I have no trouble recalling the details of the case from memory. I do, however, have trouble making sense of the crime. What drove Mr. Rowton to hurt and destroy those around him? Why did the Perrys let their daughter play alone outside? Why did the two men who claim to have witnessed the crime not stop it?
Only through fiction can I find the answers, which are hidden.