It was a scene from any missing persons movie ever made: the mother of the missing in tears on television pleading for whoever took her child to return them safely to her arms. Cameras flashing, microphones in her face, journalists standing around eagerly with their clipboards – it was as cliché as it gets.
“I’m trying not to think the worst. It’s plain and simple hell. Not knowing where your kids are is horrible,” were the words Penny Boudreau uttered through her tears, pleading for the return of her 12-year-old daughter Karissa. I remember my dad saying there was something off about the way her mother was pleading on television, something that just didn’t feel right.
I only met Karissa once. I’ll never forget her face in that moment. She had just moved to Bridgewater from out of town and she was being introduced to her classmates. I didn’t say much other than the obligatory “Hi,” and she, being the new kid, said the same. I didn’t talk to her again after that, but in the subsequent series of events, that simple moment between two kids would be seared in my mind. She went missing a few weeks later.
Everyone thinks that nothing ever happens in their small towns. By the time I reached Grade 6, I had lived in Bridgewater for six years and made friends whom I would shortly cut ties with when we moved to the school next door. We had a small school in a small town. The saying that “in a small town everyone knows everyone else’s business” is true. Nothing serious goes unmentioned. No family falling out isn’t gossiped about. When a significant portion of your town is filled with the elderly and you have a Tim Hortons around every corner, word gets around. This kind of community also suffers more deeply when something awful happens.
King Street used to be filled with all of the main shops pre-2000s, but now even the Bridgewater Mall is filled with a sense of what was, with at least half of the shops doors permanently shut, leaving a feeling of dread. After Walmart and Staples came, downtown seemed like a ghost town, and that feeling never really went away after Karissa.
They told our Grade 6 class that Karissa had gone missing. How do you tell a Grade 6 class something like that without freaking them out? The rumour was she had drowned in the Lahave River after walking across the ice. When they told us this, I was staring out the window wondering why someone would attempt to cross the river in the first place.
They found her body in the river a few weeks later. Her pants had been pulled down. It was apparent to police she’d been sexually assaulted. Word got around as it often did and this was widely accepted as fact. Grief counsellors were set up at our school but I don’t know if anyone actually went. I know I didn’t. It felt weird that all of this happened to a girl I barely knew.
Bridgewater was never the same after that. I was only 12 but not immune to the feeling of fear that overcame our community of 10,000. One day not long after, I was waiting outside for the bus, only two houses down from my own home, and feeling an intense fear that I would be kidnapped by the same person who took Karissa. It was an irrational fear, but it was still very real to me. Experiencing something like this when you’re so young almost gives you a protection from the harshness of the world because you don’t understand what’s really going on.
Karissa’s close friends were interviewed and I watched it on television, but the reports of her body being found would not be the last time Bridgewater would be on the news. It turns out it wasn’t some random kidnapper who murdered her. It was her own mother.
My mother, who worked at the Superstore with Penny, had comforted and consoled her, and the store itself had set up a fund to help support the search for Karissa. Penny Bourdreau manipulated everyone, my mom included. Bridgewater’s sense of community and trust shattered after that. It broke the unsaid trust between parents and their children – the trust that they love each other and could never be capable of doing something like that. It broke a fundamental part of the community – the trust between families. Everyone in Bridgewater held their families a little closer when they found out what happened. I know my parents did with me. It was like there was a permanent cloud over the entire town.
She had done it because the man she was seeing at the time had given her an ultimatum: either him or Karissa would have to go. So she chose Karissa. The police caught her by going undercover and saying that if she killed for them, they would get rid of the evidence against her. She confessed to the entire murder. She’d tackled her by the side of a road, and strangled her with twine while kneeling on her chest. According to her mother, her last words were, “Mommy don’t.” That hit everyone in Bridgewater hard when it was published on the front page of the Bridgewater Bulletin. I didn’t learn all these details until much later when I was old enough to understand them.
While nearing elementary school graduation, I was in the library signing out a book. As I opened the book and flipped to the back, I saw Karissa’s name. The fact that she was just a girl like me who had read the same books I did made me feel something akin to survivor’s guilt. Why did she get the terrible parents and the terrible life and I got a great family who would do anything for me? We lived in the same small town, went to the same school. We were the same age.
She should have graduated with us. I’m not going to say that her death brought my grad class closer together like some movie, because it didn’t. Not that we didn’t feel her death deeply, but we were so young we just kept going. As the yearbook editor, I had it dedicated to her, and our valedictorian talked about her in his speech.
She was just like everyone else, just a girl who loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian.