In 1997, Keith Chambers took a gun to the swimming pool where Megan Ridgeway, his ex-girlfriend, worked. He murdered her, then he killed himself. The proper term for this crime is a "murder/suicide." But it was described in newspapers at the time as a "Romeo & Juliet story." Yes, it was just like that classic Shakespearian romance wherein Romeo stalks and murders Juliet because she wants nothing to do with him. That's how that play went.
"You all need to take your knave asses to a theater."
Our source today, "Ken," was a friend of Ridgeway. Here's what he has to say:
This was the town of Simpsonville, SC, outside Greenville. It wasn't small enough that you knew everybody, but it was small enough that if you did something especially embarrassing, everybody knew you. During the summer breaks (this one was '97), I had roughly two options: spend all day ducking my father, or go to work outside in the 90-degree fog of biting insects that constitutes South Carolina in May. I was a lazy 16-year-old, and chose the first option, disappearing daily to the neighborhood pool. I kept myself occupied by swimming, reading, and desperately trying to avoid swimsuit-related catastrophes.
The pool lifeguard was named Megan Ridgeway. She attended Mauldin High, a grade above me. She was pretty and outgoing; I was pimply and girl-shy. For these reasons, we never spoke at school, and we didn't talk much during the afternoon swims either, but on weekday mornings, we were the only two there. I'd try, and fail, to look mysterious over there by the pool -- staring at books about goth music while simultaneously not understanding irony.
She and I ended up friends anyway. We never talked about anything serious; it didn't seem like anything serious existed. Instead, we'd joke about which little kid was probably peeing in the pool right now, about how my fumbling in the water barely qualified as swimming, about my terrible music tastes. I made dorky jokes, and she'd laugh.
Really, anything to keep our minds off the tsunami of toddler urine we were floating in.
One Sunday, I noticed her up on the lifeguard stand, talking to a strange guy. He stood out to me at the time because he was all disheveled and wearing jeans in summer. At the pool. But aside from that, it was an ordinary Sunday -- bored housewives, screaming eight-year-olds, dads hoping somebody would notice they'd been working out in the garage.
I headed back to my house for a bit and then returned, plopping into my pool chair six feet from the lifeguard stand. Megan and the guy from earlier were still there, and now seemed to be arguing. Some kids started splashing in the pool, and when I heard two pops, I looked around, annoyed. I thought someone had lit firecrackers. Then I turned around and saw the lifeguard stand.
It wasn't firecrackers.
I'm recalling most of this through two decades of fog, but this part is seared into my mind: I noticed how clear the sky was, how intensely white the few clouds were, how it was hot but not muggy. I remember looking down as the disheveled guy collapsed, watching his blood flow out like tiny rivers snaking across the pavement. I squinted up at Megan, and saw red color the back of her hair; it started slowly, just a few drips running off her ponytail, but then began pulsing out.
One guy in the pool was staring incredulously while casually wading. A little girl jumped out of the pool, pointed, and screamed "Mommy!" Me, I just stood there watching. And then, when chaos started to erupt, I didn't take charge or rush to Megan's side. I fled. And on the way home, I vomited on the side of the road.
I did come back, with my mother, in time to see policemen and paramedics at the scene. Both the disheveled guy -- his name was Keith Chambers -- and Megan were alive at first. I consider myself kind of Christian, so I'm ashamed to admit it felt good to see that they ignored him so they could work on her. He died quickly, but she lingered on, brain dead, for about a week.
The movies don't really show the part where you spend a week waiting for a miracle that isn't coming.
Keith, 20 years old, was Megan's ex-boyfriend. It turned out my older sister used to babysit him. He had an explosive temper, and had been violent toward Megan before. After she broke up with him, he made his room into a creepy shrine to her, decorated with notes, photos, gifts, her baby pictures -- just like Romeo!
Sorry, but romanticizing this crap strikes a nerve.
The day after the shooting, my mom thought it would be good to get me out of the house, but we couldn't leave my neighborhood without passing by the pool. Some guys were there pressure-washing the concrete. They were cleaning brains away, and I kept thinking that this was somebody's thoughts, dreams, memories, literally a life going down the drain.
Still later, after Megan died officially, trauma counselors organized an event in her honor. They decided it was a good idea to hold it at the pool house. That is, 20 feet away from where she was murdered ... the previous week. Most of Megan's friends turned up, as well as her parents. And Keith's. Who thought they, of all people, should be the ones to speak:
"We all know that if Megan was here today, she'd forgive Keith for what he did," said his mother. "He was not a bad person. It was the steroids that did this to him ..." (He took a lot of steroids, and the possible effects of this became a major point of debate.) "It wasn't his fault. The important thing is that they're in heaven together now."
Without getting too theological, it seems like that theory might have just a few teensie holes.
Megan's parents didn't speak. Probably because they were speechless.
"He wasn't that bad of a guy" was a common refrain.
"It was an intense relationship," others would say, whatever that means.
He was a popular, athletic kid. This was how they justified his actions.
Though it seems like the yearbook contained plenty of other popular athletic kids, but only one murder.
When I went back to school, my classmates asked if it had been gory (it was) and what it felt like (I didn't know). My French teacher knew Megan and wanted to hear my story. So I sat after class and told her while she sobbed. The first time I really felt anything was when I was assigned a textbook for English class. They had us open up the book and sign our names, as did every previous owner of the book. The last name I saw there was "Megan Ridgeway."
She was the last one to hold the book. She took it home with her, she flipped through its pages. It felt personal, real. I cried for almost a week.
In retrospect, maybe the school should've shelved that particular copy.
I graduated in '98 and moved to Seattle. I can't say Megan was the only reason I left town, but she was why I relocated to the direct opposite of Small Town, South Carolina. I was eventually diagnosed with depression, took a few too many antidepressants one time, and ended up being further diagnosed with PTSD. That doesn't feel right. I'm not a soldier; I wasn't kidnapped and tortured. I'm not comfortable putting myself on the same level as people who have real PTSD.
[Editor's note: Most people with PTSD say the exact same thing. Suffering isn't a competition, and you don't have to "win it" to be worthy of treatment.]
I used to go to church and feel like God was there. I don't do that anymore.
When I look back at that summer, I remember plenty. I remember those stupid clouds, and the color of the sky. But not her face. Those were the days before social media, and I have no pictures of us together. Years later, I did end up typing her name into Facebook and stumbled on a memorial page. In the photo up top, she smiles at me. I don't recognize her.
You know all those facts you've learned about psychology from movies and that one guy at the party who says, "Actually ..." a lot? Please forget them. Chances are none of them are true. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, the one famous psychology study people can name. It was complete bullshit. Funny story actually, it turns out that when you post flyers that say, "Hey, do you wanna be a prison guard for the weekend? Free food and nightsticks," you might not get the most stable group of young men. So join Jack O'Brien, Cracked staff members Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim, and Psychology Professor Martie G. Haselton of UCLA as they debunk Rorschach tests, the Mozart effec,t and middle child syndrome, so soon you can be that person at the party who says, "Actually ..." Get your tickets here!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Weird Realities Of Suicide (Thanks To Twitter) and 5 Creepy Things You Learn Cleaning Up The Scene Of A Murder.
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