All stories in the “Grimm Christmas Tales” category were written for an annual party of the same name. We all write horror (in the most loose and broad definition) stories and then gather to eat drink and be merry while reading them to one another. Hectic modern life and modern powers of procrastination being what they are, these stories are usually written hastily, far too close to the party’s date, and rarely given the benefit of much if any proofreading or editing. After their debut, they generally sit on a hard drive somewhere, and rarely get thought about again until the following year’s party – or, one several years later. For all the obvious reasons, very short fiction or verse are the preferred forms. So, there you have it – just in case you’re wondering why so much of my fiction writing are rough, unedited, disturbing short stories.
Honor MacDonald – Grimms, 2014. Copyright, all rights reserved, etc.
It began when I went to a computer “recycler” to pick up some back-up systems for a project. When a government agency or business replaces their computers, places like this get to bid on them on huge lots, refurbish them, and then resell them, They’re not cutting-edge top of the line systems, but for twenty or thirty bucks, you can get a system that’s plenty strong enough to do most things.
I picked up three tower machines for twenty bucks each, and a couple broken down laptop systems for parts. Due to some legal technicality, the refurbishers say they can’t sell the system with the old operating system still on it, so they just wipe the hard-drives, and sell them that way. It’s up to the new user to buy a Windows license, or put on some other operating system.
Around that same time, I also had a new data recovery utility, and I felt it needed a good test. When you wipe a hard drive, the data isn’t really gone, automatically. Depending on how you “delete” it, it might be partially destroyed, or it might even all be there, with only the directory structure removed. It’s the difference between burning a book, and just tearing out the pages with the table of contents. In order to really delete the data, you have to write over it with something else, over and over and over again.
I didn’t know what they’d done to delete the data at the recycler’s, so I figured it would be a great test of the data recovery tools I’d gotten to see how much of the data I could recover.
I discovered that what they’d done to clear the machines was precious little – probably just someone clicking “delete”. Once I started looking around, I got curious of course. There’s that sense of petty voyeurism, like looking through someone’s desk or medicine cabinet. We all know the kinds of things we save on our own computers, so it’s interesting to imagine what someone else might keep on theirs.
The first computer was the most powerful of the three, and had been assigned to someone involved in inspecting certain elements of roads and bridges. There were pages and pages and pages of copies of reports on bridges in all parts of the state, detailing the issues each one had and what he suggested be done to repair them and bring them back up to serviceable condition. And there were pictures. Pictures of them whole, and pictures of them in all their various parts, in specific. Beautiful detail shots of loosened rivets, patches of rust and decay, cracked concrete, and dislodged stone.
For a lot of people it would be pretty boring stuff, I know. But, my art uses a lot of photos of details like that, and I found the reports kind of interesting, as well. I recovered quite a bit of the data on that drive, and saved it to another before restoring the operating system.
The second and third desktop computers were the same model, and I guess they came from the same place. The second wasn’t used much at all, really. It was assigned to a person in a management position at Child Protective Services, and was mostly filled with notes on hiring, firing, assignments, performance reviews and evaluations of various agents of that agency.
The third seems to have been assigned to one such agent, a Mary Cavanaugh. The kinds of reports it contained ranged from some that were sad in a mundane kind of way, to others that, while still normal, were much more tragic – and possibly more tragic because they were so normal.
Details of the lives of unwanted children, the abandoned, the abused, the lost and forgotten – forgotten! A child she mostly referred to as Case Number 08-55217, but did mention a name of – Clarissa – was found at the public library in Tempe. After three days, during which the mother quietly claimed to friends and family that the four year old child had run away, enough bits of information were put together to solve the mystery. When pressed, the mother admitted that she’d forgotten Clarissa at the library, and not remembered her until well after closing, at which point she panicked, and came up with the runaway story.
I started work on the third computer around five in the afternoon, and missed both dinner and bedtime. I’d been transfixed, reading report after report, case notes, observations and evaluations, and recommendations. And there were pictures. But, the photos on this machine weren’t the lovely-in-their-way records of decay and weathering – they were a record of human monstrosity. Children’s faces, some hopeful or trusting, some scared, lost, confused. Bruised, bleeding, some with partially healed cuts and contusions. Little arms, legs, hands, feet, also bruised and bloody and scarred and tortured.
But, I kept reading. Maybe it was because of the horror-story aspect – the train wreck or traffic accident you can’t look away from. But, maybe it was because every now and then – maybe one case in a hundred – the notes had much happier endings. It’s not that such horror and tragedy befalls such a huge majority of kids in the system, but how long does a caseworker keep the same computer? Even under the worst budgetary constraints, I’d guess they get a new system every five years or so. In that time, even many of the cases she tracked that might eventually have a happy ending – such happy endings as such children get, of course – only have time to get started. Their story, as I can see it, is just beginning. The case notes end abruptly, on the date the system was replaced. A novelette with no sequel.
So, the rare case that came to a favorable resolution in the timeframe of the notes I had – the sense of joy and relief was amazing. When you read story after story of tragedy, abuse, abandonment, pain, suffering, and despair, even the smallest little happy ending is exaggerated enormously. I cried tears of joy and relief for them, and then waded right back into the sludge of horrors, looking for the next rare, shining gem.
I think that’s why I spent so much time digging into every part of that hard drive, even after the dawning sun chased me off to sleep, and I woke up and went back at it all the next day. It was like the literary version of one of those found-footage movies. Difficult to track at first, but once you started to get the system, you could almost make sense of it. The mind, used to human narrative, struggles to add a framework, make sense of the characters, introduce agency, plot, meaning… Soon enough, you’re making sense of it, and looking for meaningful resolution. I spent all one night, slept, spent the next day, and then well into the next night. Around three am, I ran out of raw material. My new favorite story had ended, and it didn’t end with a clean, well written resolution. Disappointed, I went looking for any scrap of extra material. Like the background stories and character bios you see tacked on to popular books or movies as authors, directors, and producers try to squeeze a few more bucks out of the fan base by tacking on hastily cobbled material with a thin sheen of the original story painted onto it.
I looked for her browser history. Her old email files. Maybe she’d saved other notes in Word documents, notepad documents, something saved by some other application? Who knows what folders those would be in? Who knows what file extensions they might have? Clearly, I had to check everything, carefully, looking for more clues.
It was around eleven the next night when I found it.
A huge JPEG image, in a sub-folder of a sub-folder of a sub-folder, hidden deep in the applications folder of the Windows folder, and inside the resources folder of some proprietary tool called “schedule mate”, under “clipart” inside the “resources” folder, among literally hundreds of normal sized GIF and JPG files of bunnies and smiling sunshines was this one, big, fat, file called “theothers.jpg”, bigger not just than it’s companions, but far bigger than any JPG image had any good reason to be.
I tried to open it, and it wasn’t recognized. I work in computers in general, and in computer graphics in specific, and I knew that sometimes the file headers could get corrupted, so I opened the file in a text editor, just to see if it could be repaired. I saw it actually had another file header entirely. This wasn’t an image file, it was a compressed archive. It took me quite a while to figure it out, because it wasn’t a stand-alone file, but part of an archive split into several files. This was just the first one. There were similar sized files hidden in the subfolders of several applications. After a while spent trying different formats and compression schemes, I finally got it re-assembled, restored, and unzipped.
The folder called “The Others” was filled with text files, image files, even sound and video files. Some of the files were the same format as the other case report files I’d read, but many were created in Word, in Wordpad, or in Notepad. Some were created on some other platform, like a phone or a Blackberry, and then imported during sync.
Some had long file names, and others adhered to the old eight-point-three file format of much older computers, and resided in subfolders with simple names like “03-1193” all within a folder called “carried forward”.
I was ecstatic. It looked for all the world like I’d found the few cases and case notes that Mary Cavanaugh had felt most compelled to save, over the course of years and years. A life’s work, in Cliff notes. Of course, she would have copied this file on to her next computer. Even this wasn’t the whole story.
Still. I was happy to have more to read, so, once I had all the file formats figured out, and the archives within archives, all sorted and restored, I sat down with a fresh cup of coffee to dig in. I never actually drank any of that cup of coffee.
The first folder I opened was “CelesteR”, both because it was the first folder with a person’s name, but also because I remembered the name from the other files. She was one of the stories who both opened and closed, sadly, within the timeframe that Mary Cavanaugh had had this computer. Celeste Ramirez was reported missing, presumed runaway, after having been found in an abandoned building at around two years of age, taken to a hospital and nursed back to health, then placed in a general care orphanage and then placed with a foster family, the Martins, who cared for her from presumed age three until she was lost at just over four.
In this folder, the first document I saw was a copy of a notification given to the Martins, that Celeste was being classified “special needs” and placed with a more qualified caregiver. It was signed by another CPS caseworker, Anne Franklin, and dated around the same time I remembered the file report saying Celeste had run away.
I jumped back over to the other folder and found her files again, and made sure. The same day she was reported missing as a runaway by Mary Cavanaugh, Anne Franklin told the Martins she was being taken away – and took her, presumably – to a “special care facility”. And that was just the first file in the folder.
Next, there was a series of modified text file for an application called “CaseNotes” – I’d learned how to open and read these while exploring the main files. I opened the first one, and saw immediately that the writing style was the same as the Mary Cavanaugh notes. I started reading:
Case Number 09-32661 — Celeste Ramirez.
3 April, 2011 — Nymphomania risk. During routine visitation, subject touched herself (brushed pubic area through dress) more than three times. Have informed FP (Foster parents – I’d learned to read Mary’s work shorthand pretty fluently) subject will need special care. Filled out and used a remand form with the A.F. ID. Will file a missing report when I return to the office, after I take her to 4453.
The next note was dated 6 April and was associated with two image files. “Subject wearing ouchmitts, two days. Normal minor injuries, very few on genital area.” Once I decided to look, the first image file showed tiny arms disappearing into what looked like oven mitts, with with sharp wires, like needles or staples, protruding in all directions. The second showed a very young girl, standing nude, facing the camera. Much of her body was covered in small, dark spots of dried and fresh blood, with additional reddening and irritation to much of the skin.
I stared at the screen for a very long time – I’m not sure how long, exactly. Eventually, the desire to know what happened to her overcame my revulsion. What if there were some clue that would allow me to help her?
I read note after note on Celeste’s “specialized treatment”. After nearly a month in the “ouchmitts”, Mary remained unsatisfied. To me, the photos looked mostly like a little kid with mittens of thorns had accidentally touched her own body – as little as she could, I’m sure, but there were still injuries over most of her body. Only the smallest percentage of them were in her genital area, but still, some were. To Mary, this was evidence of wrongdoing.
“Subject continues to show evidence of self abuse. Will have to begin more stringent treatment. Will begin Guilty Finger on Monday.” I had to look elsewhere in her notes to find out what the “Guilty Finger” treatment was.
Subject is placed in a room without distraction, alone with the interviewer, and exposed to graphical representation of the offending behaviour, whether by cartoon, photograph, animation, or show-me doll. Interviewer will then inform the subject that children who engage in that behaviour, the finger they do it with must be cut off. Interviewer will then watch the subject’s reaction. If the subject has been engaging in that behaviour, they will attempt to hide the finger they tend to do it with. After removal of one or two digits, this treatment should theoretically show 100% success.
The file contained photos of Celeste’s small hands, with fingers freshly (and somewhat crudely) amputated – first one, then another, then another, and, eventually, with three fingers missing from one hand, and two from the other.
The next note was abrupt and cursory “Subject’s condition is too advanced for current treatment. Affected areas will be desensitized by cauterization.” There are very few things to be thankful for on that hard drive, but the lack of an image file to illustrate that treatment is one of them. The final note reads “Treatment terminated. Subject moved to the shack.”
I spent all night and all days reading the “normal” case notes on that drive. The hidden notes, I really don’t know how long that took. In each case, a child was removed from foster care on the order of a caseworker named “Anne Franklin”, and in each case, extensive notes on horrific “treatments” followed, as Mary Cavanaugh dragged those children down into torture and madness. The reasons were madly nonsensical.
Elijah reported staring at his foster sister’s naked body on more than one occasion. Treatment for his prurient voyeurism included removing his eyelids with a scalpel. Zachary had both legs removed below the knee, for chronic fidgeting. Stephanie’s eyes were removed, completely, but not with a scalpel. They were burned out with lye, the sockets sutured closed after the lye was washed away. Her case notes said she leered.
In some of the later cases, there were video files. “heat.avi” showed an eight year old boy, Roberto, sitting nude on coarsely piled bricks in front of a roaring fireplace. He squirmed and cried, but every time he moved away from the fire, a woman’s voice screamed at him that he shouldn’t dare to move.
A later file, “rats.mpg” showed a little girl, Elizabeth, with her feet inside two holes in a box. A voice off camera asked if she was sorry for the immodesty of her painted toenails. Through her tears and cries, her apology could barely be made out. A sheet of plywood that separated one side of the large box from the other was hoisted away by a rope, and, after a few moments scurrying sounds, her screams overwhelmed the mic as she jerked violently around as if she were having unimaginable seizures.
Of course I contacted the authorities, once I was recovered somewhat, and able. Nothing came of it. CPS claimed to have no record of either a Mary Cavanaugh or Anne Franklin. They refused to comment on the case numbers. Police and other politicians were of even less help, once CPS had said there was no such agent. I had no way of proving the computer had ever even belonged to them without their cooperation.
As terrible as it sounds to say, eventually, I just forgot about it – more or less. Life goes on. I had to go back to work. I had to pay the bills and live my life. There were nightmares from time to time, more at first, then fewer, later on. Eventually, I almost never thought about it.
Six years later, I saw a status update from one of those peripheral friends. The ones you say “hi” to at parties, but didn’t really seek out to talk to for other reasons. She’d gotten into an accident and was unconscious in the hospital for several days, without ID, and without close friends or family to look for her.
Nobody who knew her knew where she was, and nobody who knew where she was knew her. Or that she had a three year old child at home. And now, she was posting on Facebook about all the red tape that was preventing her from seeing him. Seems the child had been taken into protective care by one caseworker, but then sent to another center by another, and now nobody knew where he was.
As I read all this, the horror of deja vu sent shivers up my spine, and I found I had to ask.
Of course, she said the initial case worker was named Mary Cavanaugh. The officer who’d sent the child into special care? Anne Franklin.