He rarely did homework on time, but really, the assignments weren’t  that great—predictable questions about essays in the textbook, the usual  Becoming Someone or Discovering Your Voice. Still, he wrote beautifully. He always apologized for the state  of his papers, telling me first that time was tight and then that computer  access was limited and then, eventually, that he was in a halfway house.

The county van brought him to class and picked him up immediately afterwards.

He’d be released mid-fall, hopefully in October.

He wrote that semester about a girl—the one he used to dream about in  juvenile boot camp, the one he’d feel next to him when he woke slowly, before  he remembered he was locked up, marooned on that same thin mattress. He wrote  about her hair, about being held and holding her, about their world of secret  nicknames, and it wasn’t creepy like when other nineteen-year-old boys wrote about  that. He wrote about ending their couplehood suddenly, sharply, the day he knew  they’d be arresting him at school: We  have to break up and you have to stop loving me so much.

Once I let it, the tenderness of his writing made sense. At first I’d  been unsettled by his direct gaze, his body bolt upright in the chair, his  reluctance to mingle with other students. He sometimes repeated what I’d said  word-for-word later in my office or in his writing. He was hungry for this, he  said. He’d always loved drawing, and now he could see the same possibilities  with words, and he was hungry for this.

He disappeared in October. The last time we talked, he told me the  parole board had approved the place he’d found—a cheap one-bedroom in a nearby  flimsy student-apartment complex. Do you need anything, I remember  asking—kitchen stuff? Throw rugs? I knew him well enough by then to know “throw  rugs” would make him laugh, and it did, and he said no. He was fine. Shortly after, he dropped the class.

“Your students just disappear sometimes,” my friend Richard told me when I took the job. “You never know why.  They’re just completely gone. It’s the hard part of community college.”

He started my class again in the spring. “You don’t know much about my  mom. She’s responsible for my goofy side,” he wrote in mid-January, the second  class meeting. “She’d let my sisters do her hair, make it elaborate and huge,  then pick me up from elementary school like that,” trying to ease him out of  his seething when his friends saw her. He knows she was trying to loosen his  hard little third-grade ego, help him worry less about controlling people,  console him for the dad who’d passed his rage on to him and then died young. He  loved her for it, he said, though of course the hair thing bothered him, the  way it would bother most worried sons under pressure in the Midwest.

She was why he couldn’t end his life. He’d tried with razors and he’d  tried with knives, knowing that if he didn’t there would likely be other blood  on his hands, blood far more innocent than his own, which had begun to feel  like rocket fuel igniting at the craziest times. I needed to die, he said. I  just couldn’t bear never seeing my mom again.

Then, in April, his two closest women friends dead of kitchen knives  and screwdrivers and a hammer and his hands. He turned himself in the next day. I don’t feel much like talking, he  said, but I killed those two girls.  Their deaths tore through those flimsy student apartments where we leave  nineteen-year-olds to finish growing up. Ripped open my classroom full of his  friends and theirs, including Betsy, who saw their blood daily on her apartment  door because he knocked that night and two weeks later it was still officially  considered evidence. And Jacob, who packed the girls’ apartment a week after  that because their dads couldn’t—just  look away from all the blood, they told him, as if he could. My students  cried when given half a chance, and I cried too and wanted desperately to tell  them that this is not his whole story. That I grieve the erasure of him as much  as I grieve for the girls he killed.

I’ll draw you anything you want, he said in his first letter from  prison. Just ask me.

Self-portrait, please, when you can, I wrote back.

Heal McKnight holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, and currently teaches composition, literature, and creative nonfiction at a  community college. Her work has appeared in Teaching English in  the Two-Year College and Brain, Child.  She lives in Iowa City with her wife and daughter.