The girl I killed
By Billie Loewen
HALEY PULLED ON A pair of black skinny jeans, rainbow-striped socks, a pink top and a black sweater. Her short hair — jet black and pink this week — hung over her eyes. Two black rings pierced her lower lip. Haley’s face was a little chubby, with pale skin marked by light freckles, not like her mother or grandmother, whose faces are defined by their high cheekbones.
Her grandmother, Karina Kayser, looks young enough to be Haley’s mother. She participated in triathlons and wished Haley would try sports. Unlike acting and writing, sports had never been Haley’s thing. During an entire semester of Thursday night roller-skating with Karina, Haley only let go of the outside wall once, which ended in a trip to the hospital for a hurt wrist. She tried bowling for a season, but never bowled over a 100, and held her pants up with one hand while she bowled with the other.
The morning of March 29, 2009, Haley was at her apartment in Everett, Wash., where she lived with her mother, Serenity Salvador, and sometimes Serenity’s boyfriend. It was the Sunday before spring break, marked by a gray sky and drizzle. She promised her mom she would check in later and left on foot to a friend’s house.
That night, I killed her.
I WAS IN SEATTLE to visit a friend for my first college spring break. It was 10 days before my 19th birthday. I picked up a friend, Jessica Meacham, in Woodinville, just south of Seattle, and we headed North on I-5 around 8 p.m. It was dark, and the rainy day had soaked the roads and made red brake lights reflect off the water. Traffic was heavy across all five lanes.
We saw her as we came around a bend just past the glowing pink sign for the Everett Mall. She jumped the guardrail about 200 yards ahead of us, and we both gasped audibly. She sprinted into the road without looking. She seemed so desperate; I looked to see if someone was chasing her. Her pink shirt and hair were striking against the night. Otherwise, she wore black. She was short and a little chubby, but she moved quickly, almost gracefully, holding her pants up with one hand.
There was only one car ahead of us by about 100 yards.
She had plenty of time to run across the first three lanes of freeway, stop for a moment to let the car ahead of me pass her, then cross the final two lanes long before my car would have reached her. All she had to do was stop running for a second.
But she didn’t. The car in front of me hit her.
We screamed. I watched her go up 30 or 40 feet in the air and start to fall. I knew she was going to land in my lane, but there was no time to swerve. Her body hit the asphalt, and I closed my eyes and felt my car pass over her body.
I pulled off the road, opened the door and vomited. People were running toward her. Traffic stopped.
I thought, “There is no way she is alive.” Hopeful, I told Jess to grab the blankets in my trunk. Then I ran to her.
I passed the first car that hit her. The windshield was shattered, and the wheel well on the driver’s side was cleared of white paint — the bent metal showed an impression of her body.
I expected her to be mangled, but there was just one gash above her left eye and her leg stuck the wrong direction. A man put two fingers on her neck. He couldn’t feel her pulse. Five people who stopped to help, including me, rolled her to her back. Her body was still warm. Blood dripped from her mouth.
“Do you know how to do this?” a man asked me.
I nodded. We took turns performing CPR.
Jess covered the girl in blankets. EMTs arrived. I walked to the guardrail and vomited again.
EMTs cut open her shirt and tried to revive her with a defibrillator. Cars inched by, passengers peering out their windows at her body, lying there open chested. Her shoes and rainbow striped socks were scattered in the muddy road. I picked them up.
An EMT covered her body with my blankets, then put white sheets on top. I set her shoes next to her.
The family driving the first car was calm, and they huddled together away from the body. They didn’t speak English. It was as if they had been in a light fender bender.
“Jess,” I said, “How can they be so calm?” She didn’t respond for a moment.
“I don’t think they ever saw her,” she said. “They didn’t hit her. She ran into them.”
She just didn’t stop running.
I looked toward where she was running. The sign of JR’s Sports bar glowed. Otherwise, there were no lights, no indication of where she was going.
I lay in a bed that night with the image of the girl’s body flying into the sky replaying in my brain, the feeling as my car passed over her. She was not carrying a cell phone or wallet. Police assumed her to be 18–25 years old, identity unknown. My heart ached; I tried to feel my own pulse, just to make sure there still was one. I wanted to know if she did it on purpose or if she had been on drugs. I wanted to know why she didn’t stop running.
I wanted to know someone loved her — that she had a family.
GROWING UP, HALEY and her mother lived just a few houses away from Karina in Lake Goodwin, a rural area about 30 miles north of Seattle. Haley had a bedroom at Karina’s, and stayed there often.
Before Haley’s death, Serenity was addicted to heroin and alcohol, which she would use with her long-term boyfriend. Haley, Karina said, loved her mom and was constantly striving to have a healthy bond with her, but Serenity was never completely healthy during Haley’s life. While Haley was alive, Serenity failed rehab more than once.
“Haley would call me and say, ‘Grandma, we just had the best day’,” Karina said. “Other times, it was like, ‘They’re getting drunk, come get me.'”
When Karina divorced her husband of 14 years in 2007, she moved to Florida to gather her life. Serenity and Haley then moved to an apartment in Everett, where Haley started her freshman year at Cascade High School. Compared to the lake, mountains, and farmhouses Haley grew up with, suburban Everett was a different world.
Serenity continued to struggle with alcoholism and heroin addiction, but Haley could no longer walk down the street to the bedroom at her grandmother’s.
“I abandoned her,” Karina said. “I often felt guilt because I knew if I had never left, Haley would still be here.”
The week before Haley died, Karina moved back to Lake Goodwin and they had made plans to live together again.
THE I-5 FREEWAY divides Everett into east and west. The night Haley died, she walked from her apartment on the west side, near the Everett Mall, restaurants, and Cypress Lawn cemetery, to a friend’s house on the same side of town. Then, they drove across the freeway to a party on the east side of town, a mostly residential area with a few hotels and sports bars. A walking bridge connects the east and west ends of town. On foot, the journey from Haley’s house to the party would have taken about 40 minutes.
Haley’s cell phone died, so she texted her mother from a friend’s phone. She was good about checking in, Serenity said. Her curfew was 10 p.m. Around 8 p.m. she left in a car with two boys. Her friends assumed they would take her home.
Her autopsy report showed trace amounts of alcohol and marijuana from the night she died. Her friends say she drank a beer that night, maybe two, and smoked a little. However, it was the high level of liquid Benadryl in her system that was a real concern.
In Everett, kids call it “getting fried.” Cough syrup or cheap liquid painkillers, taken in high doses, can give severe disorientation or even hallucinations.
In 2008, more than 800 people reportedly wandered along or crossed the freeways in Snohomish county where Haley was killed.
The boys Haley left with refused to talk, leaving Karina and Serenity with only a theory: They believe the two boys said they would drive her home but instead, drove her to the northbound freeway lanes on the east side of town and told her to cross as a short cut. Haley’s friends said she had never crossed the freeway before.
When Haley tried to climb the small but steep hill to the Everett Mall, she found herself in a tangle of pine trees, alone in the dark. A long, chain-link fence lines the top of the hill. She was probably lost and experiencing what may have been her first high.
She went back down the hill and crossed the southbound lanes again.
Haley had never driven a car. She didn’t know that at 60 mph a car covers 88 feet per second and at night headlights make cars appear farther away than they are.
When Haley didn’t make curfew that night, Serenity panicked.
She called Haley’s friends, who said she had left with two boys around 8 pm. She tried to call the cell phone Haley last texted from, but no answer. It was not like her daughter to not come home, to not call.
Serenity called Karina, and they filed an official missing person report.
The next morning, police called Karina. It seemed likely from Haley’s description — pink hair and facial piercings — the girl on the freeway was her.
“In that moment, the floor falls out from under you,” Karina said. “The whole world spins.”
Haley’s uncle identified her body, and her name was released. Haley Brooks Salvador, 15, killed after taking a shortcut home to make curfew.
Haley’s death was ruled an accident, so police never conducted a formal investigation. The coroner’s report said Haley’s internal organs were all intact. She died from a head injury. Karina wanted to know how her body could be so unbroken, but she still died. In the months that followed, I wanted to know why part of me had died along with her.
I DIDN’T TALK ABOUT IT. The closest I came to admitting what I’d seen and done was the night of my 19th birthday — 10 days after Haley’s death. Using a fake I.D., I drank too much at the James Bar and was kicked out. The shock of her death had put me in a trance, and the alcohol broke it. I lay on a downtown Missoula sidewalk, too drunk to walk, and cried until my brother eventually picked me up and cradled me in his arms. He put my limp body in his truck, then I cried until he got me home and I passed out.
Over the next few months, I’d see girls with pink hair on campus, and I would follow them, wondering if they were anything like Haley. I only knew her by the way she looked on one night of her life, so I filled her personality in with any stranger wearing rainbow socks or with lip rings.
My mother found Karina’s email address in the comment section of online news stories about Haley’s death. They began emailing, hoping to console each other. Karina and I became Facebook friends, where I stalked her pictures of Haley for hours trying to piece together who she was.
The whole first year, Karina said, Haley’s family felt like zombies, numb from the pain. The guilt of Haley’s death sent Serenity into a binge of alcohol and drugs.
“It wasn’t just Haley I lost,” Serenity said. “I lost my apartment, my job, all my things. I was at the bottom.” She was hospitalized three times after attempting suicide.
“I lost my identity,” Serenity said, “For 15 years I was Haley’s mom. Then who was I?”
Karina said it was as if Serenity had nearly lost her soul. It’s like a fairy tale that you live everyday. She doesn’t call, she doesn’t show up at the door, she doesn’t come home.
“I could still smell her,” Karina said, holding a lock of pink hair the coroner had cut for her. “I could still feel her skin.”
Four months after Haley’s death, I traveled to northern Uganda. Even in the midst of starvation, poverty and the pain of war, thoughts of Haley haunted me at night. I dreamed of her, of the night she died, every night for almost a year. I dreamed I killed babies while she watched; I dreamed she pushed my shopping cart through grocery stores, limping heavily on her broken leg. I dreamed I waited for her on the side of that spot on I-5, telling her to get in my car so I could take her home.
Haley was my war — I was fighting to forget her but also to know her. I knew my pain was nothing compared to her family’s. I fought the guilt, knowing I had brought that pain to them.
I was supposed to meet Karina and Serenity at the ceremony on the first anniversary of Haley’s death. Karina emailed me, asking me to come. More than 100 people gathered at the Everett Mall, overlooking the spot where Haley died. They released hundreds of pink balloons. One of the boys Haley left with the night she died showed up. Serenity was drunk.
I was in Seattle to attend, but the guilt and shame I knew I’d feel when I saw Serenity was too much. I sent flowers instead.
The first year of Haley’s absence turned into the second.
“The second year is the hardest,” Karina said. “The first year you have a coating, a protection. Then the fairytale ends. Suddenly, it’s all real.”
Karina lost hope that Serenity would ever be healthy. Haley’s friends and cousins got older, but Haley stayed frozen in time.
“I think about what she would be like now,” Karina said. “She would be maturing into a young woman. She probably would have outgrown the goth stage. We just started to see this change before she died.”
Serenity or Karina would post on Facebook that they missed Haley on Christmas, her birthday, and on ordinary, unsuspecting days and I would bow my head in silent shame. I had witnessed the most intimate moment of Haley’s life, and I didn’t even know her. Two years later, she still haunted me. What I needed was for Haley to be real. To bear carrying her with me, I needed to know her.
Almost two years after her death, I drove on I-5 north through Seattle to meet Karina.
I PULLED INTO THE DRIVEWAY of Karina’s house, a sunset reflecting off Lake Goodwin. She ran outside and pulled me into a hug. I knew Karina and I would bond immediately; from the two years of emailing, I felt I already knew her. We watched Animal Planet and ate pizza while she pulled out boxes of Haley’s things to show me: pictures, the funeral guest book filled with notes from her friends, childhood art, and, most touching, her writing samples.
Two days later, Karina and I drove three hours south of Seattle to meet Serenity, where she was 28 days into an in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I was scared. Serenity and I had very little contact over the past two years. I feared I only represented one thing to her: the girl who killed her daughter. Karina was scared of who we would find when we arrived.
Karina had not gone to see Serenity. She had failed rehab too many times, and Karina wasn’t sure if her daughter would be able to get clean and stay clean. However, Karina said, over the last few months a shift had occurred in Serenity. She had started to smile, to laugh, to communicate and cry. She had begun to feel again. This time, she’d checked herself into rehab by choice.
We pulled up to a multiple-structure compound in the middle of the Washington wilderness. I smoked a cigarette before going in. My whole body was shaking from the nerves. Inside, Serenity looked just like her pictures, but thinner. She ran to her mother, both of them crying, and they hugged and kissed. Then she turned to me and pulled me into a hug.
We sat at a big, square table in the library, a corner of the small cafeteria with one wall of books. Serenity said over the past 28 days she learned a lot about herself — how conditioned she was to lying, how codependent her boyfriend and she had been on each other.
At first, Serenity said, she didn’t see the point of rehab.
“I didn’t want to be here,” she said. “I couldn’t see how anything we were doing was relevant.”
Then she was given an assignment to complete in front of the other 21 patients. She had to address Haley as if she were alive, sitting before her. Haley’s picture was put in a chair across from her.
“It was cruel,” Serenity said. “But there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I never could have done that before, but I did it.”
Afterward, the youngest boy at the facility, who had just turned 18, told Serenity her story had moved him; he never wanted his mother to experience the pain Serenity felt.
“At first, I didn’t want anyone to know I was here,” Serenity said. “But fuck it. I’m proud I’m here. I’m honoring my daughter in a way I never could.”
Serenity said she planned to attend support meetings three days a week after her release. She wasn’t going to see her boyfriend. She decided to stay in rehab 32 days, to be there through the second anniversary of Haley’s death.
“My counselor told me I should be somewhere on that day that I felt proud,” Serenity said.
Although it was raining, we still went outside for a cigarette and Serenity introduced us to the other patients. They all knew who Karina and I were, and the role we played in Serenity’s life. They were eager to tell us stories of how Serenity had helped them here. She made one man pinky promise her that he would stay clean, and that promise was like gold to him.
“I am finally honoring Haley,” Serenity said.
Serenity said she is still searching for her purpose, her calling in the outside world. She knows she has one; she is just digging it out from under years of addiction.
Serenity shared the answers to another assignment with me: With 21 different answers, she completed the statement, “Billie, I need you to know … ”
#4: You don’t need to feel guilty.
#9: You remind me of my daughter.
#12: I was a good mom.
#14: I’m sorry for how much this has affected your life.
#21: I love you.
Hearing Serenity’s forgiveness immediately lifted a burden from me. For the first time, it felt good to talk about Haley.
As she walked us out of the rehab facility, she stopped and looked at me.
“You remind me of Haley,” she told me. “I love you.”
THE NIGHT HALEY DIED an officer on the scene said I should have bought a lottery ticket, since the odds of randomly hitting someone on the freeway was probably as rare as winning the Powerball. It took nearly a year for the dreams to subside and two years for me to talk about Haley.
It was supposed to get easier with time, but that time has yet to come. I still think about Haley every day. But in those three days with Karina, Haley came to life for me. It was as if I could hear her laugh, see her with her friends and understand her personality, just from Karina’s memories.
When Karina and I drove back to her house from the rehab facility, we came around the bend to where Haley had died two years before and a rainbow we couldn’t see until that moment arched the freeway. Two hawks circled above, which Karina said is her spirit animal. It sounds stupid, but in that moment I felt like Haley forgave me. In my heart, I thanked Haley, for letting me experience a glimpse of her family’s love. More than I had in two years, I healed.