This could be anywhere. This complex with its speckled tan and earth brick, khaki sidings, and hollow chocolate metal doors has a uniformed look. Just like the rest of this city. Flower Mound, Texas: affluent, religious, and white in polite smiles but never in the straight forwardness of a conversation.
Our home is in the only apartment complex in this suburb that we can afford to live. My wife and I do not mind being low-income in the Mound. We take pride in our kids attending good schools and in the absence of gunshots in the nights. Privileged communities have safety. Across the street is the public school administrative buildings, and a green belt with a duck pond, where we often go feed the memories of our three children. We are the happy that comes from being able to tread water. Paycheck-to-paycheck poor. Overlooked and underestimated, not any different from the other tenants of the Timber Creek Apartments. Here the daughters are not the cheerleaders. They are either the quietly ignored or the soon-to-be teenage mothers.
Brittany Munoz was sixteen and pregnant. Her boyfriend was twenty-year-old, Garret Cole Gower, who her mother Judith would say, “frequently spent the night.” These two mismatched socks fell in love in a three-bedroom apartment in building sixteen of this anonymous place. Buildings, twelve and sixteen share a large oval courtyard. We live in building twelve.
My family spends hours out in the courtyard and the open patio connected to our front door. The kids of the three or four buildings surrounding it bellow with youth, as they run from the gravel pit playground to the edge of the parking lot. The happiness of their young lives does not remember what past crimes occurred in this innocence. Our front door looks right into what was Brittany’s bedroom. The place where her sister and she planned for new arrivals and dreamed of love that lasted forever. I can still hear the Latin pop-music that reverberated out of their windowpanes. That unit was remodeled when her family moved out, made the picture of perfection. Now, that apartment is the model home they show all the new prospective tenants.
“We have a quiet family community,” I hear the agents say, when they climb out of the golf cart, preparing to sell the dream of this complex. Every perspective resident is inundated with this mantra. I sit on my patio and smoke, observing the endless spectacle. Day after day, so much, so that the words have become a common breath, the phrase has no life or texture. We have a quiet family community.
I often think of Brittany: her long brown hair, the natural shade of lip-gloss she wore that my oldest daughter loved, and her contagious smile. There is such promise in the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl, misguided and rebellious. I see that promise in my own teenage daughter. I caught Olivia once, in her bedroom practicing being an older girl, wearing the shade of lip-gloss that she had admired on Brittany. I thought Brittany a good example for my daughter to imagine herself becoming. Simple and beautiful, not overdone or fake. Brittany seemed so happy and kind. She presented herself in a way that said, “The world is in front of me.” She would pass by the patio, walking around the buildings in the evenings. We never talked. We always grinned.
Every time I see strangers walk through her home, I feel they are intruding. From my patio, I stare into the dark crevices of the mini blinds into the window that used to be her bedroom. The darkness is frozen in time, unable to let go of that day almost one year ago.
My first inkling of the horror was a note that arrived, on front door, at five in the afternoon. A statement from the management in the leasing office. It read:
We have had a tragedy today in our community. This is an isolated incident do not be alarmed. We will answer any questions you have please do not hesitate to contact the leasing office by phone. We ask that today you keep your children inside as the police are conducting an investigation on the property. We ask for your prayers for the Munoz family. With respect for the family at this time, this is all we can say.
Distracted by our own lives, we had not noticed a thing. That evening there were red and blue lights on the two main driveways of the property. Their shadows echoed through the buildings like the questions of the housebound youths. By the time I went to work, shortly before six P.M., the large kid-worn field opposite our building was a tangled mess of yellow tape. Black uniforms caressed every space of ground with their eyes, as if a needle lay within their reach.
Eight hundred and thirteen women have died as victims of domestic violence in Texas since 1998; one of them was sixteen year-old mother-to-be Brittany Munoz. This could have been anywhere. We never thought this could happen here.
My wife spent the evening walking around the pool area, at the edge of the tape, talking with the other mothers who worried about the safety of their own homes. By the time, I returned home from work, the lights were gone. Everything had returned to normal in the absence of the panic. As I sat in my chair and ate my dinner, my wife filled my empty belly with the gossip of our neighbors.
Apparently, it was Brittany’s sister who found her in her bed with blood stained covers pulled up top her neck. Peaceful and serine. The same way my daughters look after I kiss their foreheads and turn off their bedroom light. Brittany’s sister, Crystal was hysterical, screaming and flopping around in the open courtyard like a balloon with a slow leak. Similar to the dazed fear of Olivia, when she awakens from a nightmare and seeks the comfort of my safe arms.
“She just kept saying she is dead, she is dead, and there was blood all over her arms and chest.”
By the time the news came on that night, everyone in the complex knew what had happened and who had done this disgusting thing. The police were looking for a twenty-year-old male who had been allowed to date, have sex with, and impregnate a sixteen-year-old high school student. They ran the footage of the sirens, the tape, and police officers standing around with cups of coffee and casual smiles in front of the building where a murder occurred. Our home. The one we thought was away from the violence of where we came from. Captain Wess Griffen took center camera.
“Both families are in agreement about the fact that it appeared to be a normal teenage relationship,” he stated as if unaware to the fact that teenage domestic violence is more normal than we think. As if a twenty-year-old man sleeping with and knocking up a sixteen-year-old girl was something normal, accepted, expected here, as if it’s acceptable anywhere.
My mother was Brittany’s age when she met a Garrett of her own. Married at seventeen, the nightmare of teen pregnancy soon turned into a dependence on a husband who had to be more like a father. With only a GED and no real training, my mom’s only place was home, growing up with her child. The quality of man willing to date a young girl runs the line of predator. If my mom would have known of the violence to come and the struggle that the rest of her short life was to be, I wonder if she would have made a different choice about being a mother. I wonder the same about young, dead Brittany.
Brittany wanted to be a mom. She was not broken as the fourteen year olds in hoochie shorts on The Maury Povich Show just wanting someone to love them into security. We all long for this sensation at the core of our being. That longing amplified in the heart of a teenage girl can be a very devastating emotion, when given to the wrong subject of affection. In her small understanding of how this large world stitches together, when you are in love and pregnant, you get married. Garret’s three months of sporadic attention was forever to her. She was dreaming of the possibilities, shopping for baby clothes with her girlfriends, escaping the shared bedroom of the past sixteen years, and having a family. Being in love. He was thinking, why is this girl ruining my life?
“The police have a murder weapon. Garret Cole Gower, 20, of Ft. Worth is a person of interest,” concluded the anchorperson.
The sterile flavor of the news was not the reality of the investigative reporting going on among the residents. Neighbors would later tell us that, “Brittany’s face was so bloody and bloated from a beating you could not recognize her.”
The medical examiner would calculate the cause of death was blunt force trauma. The apartment complex would send out two more notes over the course of the next four days urging tenants:
Please do not talk with the reporters and news crews. That kind of attention is not respectful of the family. Thank you for putting their needs ahead of our own.
This had to be said as several of our neighbors took the opportunity to claim a few moments of local fame, feeding off the misery of others by posing for the news crews.
It took three days to find Garret, who was arrested in a mental health facility in the next town over. He was reading her obituary in the paper when the authorities entered his room. His jury took ninety minutes to deliberate. He killed his girlfriend and their unborn child because he could not tell his family that she was 16 and pregnant. A life sentence without possibility of parole was a judgment of mercy extended to him. What use is forgiveness to the dead?
It took two weeks for the news crews to move on and the kids’ laughter to once again sound normal in the late autumn sun. I imagine the well-to-dos commented openly at the restaurants of the dangers lurking outside their proper brick walls. Brittany’s family moved shortly after the casseroles were eaten.
A quiet family community, here three lifetimes ended before they began. This could have been anywhere, an isolated incident. As a father, I hope this is as close as my children ever come to domestic violence, that the bad dreams that wake them up at night will never become realities. I pray for my daughters to remember the lessons of a happy girl with a contagious smile. I pray for my girls to find friends before they find lovers. As a son, who survived a home filled with domestic violence, I know the heart pumps a passion, which causes both pleasure and pain. I do not believe in isolated incidents. This can happen to anyone, anywhere. I pray for those two mismatched socks— each discarded for not making a perfect pair.
Originally published Parenting Issue of Pank Magazine, 2012.