Survival (Part I)

Editor’s note: When William Masters first submitted “Survival” to us several weeks ago, we were naturally shocked by its content. Was the author really confessing to murder? And why do so on our little blog? In the interest of full disclosure, in the weeks to come we will publish our lengthy correspondence — with the author, the San Francisco police department, with bottled water experts (oh yes!), with friends, and each other — about the claims made in this story. But for this week, we present you the original story without comment.

by William Masters

The author as a young man

The author as a young man

At sixteen, my older brother Mike was tried as an adult and sentenced to a year in the lock-me-tight for splitting from the Scottish fast food joint without paying for his order. After a month’s incarceration, he gained 11 pounds. For the first time in two years, he no longer went to bed hungry each night.

At eleven, as soon as the cast came off my younger brother Sam’s left arm, he hopped a freight train to St. Louis. After a month, most of his cuts and bruises healed and faded enough so that he could wear a short-sleeved shirt without having to answer questions or attract unwanted attention.

At fourteen, panicked at being left the sole target for my parent’s attentions, I drained the brake fluid from their car on Thursday night. Desperate, and hoping to survive until Friday morning, I locked the door and barricaded myself in the empty pantry.

The next morning, I heard my parents shout obscenities, blaming each other for the empty coffee canister. One of them threow the canister against the pantry door… followed by an uncanny silence, during which my body shook as I watched the pantry doorknob move from right to left.

“Oh Steve… come out, come out so I can punch you good-bye,” my father said.

“Oh Sweetie… come out, come out and give mother a kiss good-bye before the house burns down.”

I climbed up on the canning table that stood beneath a port sized window and waited… I waited until I saw my parents finally leave the house and climb into the car.

As soon as I saw the car drive away, I released myself from the pantry and rushed through the great room, which reeked of the beer my parents had substituted for the missing coffee , walked out the front door, sat down on the porch swing, and watched the car drive past the first turn.

With sober anticipation, I imagined my father’s surprise as he tried to apply the brakes to the first hair-pin turn as he drove down the steep mountain road. As soon as I heard the explosion, I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few minutes later, too far away to see any flames, I watched a plume of smoke appear, straighten out and rise vertically into the sky. The smoke congealed into a single, dark grey mass, split in half into a pair of clouds, then floated together along the line of the horizon until the November breeze snuffed them both out.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon when two cars arrived, one from the sheriff’s office and one from Child Services. Still hungry, after eating a can of tomato soup and a small packet of saltine crackers, the only food left in the house, I asked the sheriff if he had a candy bar. His deputy pulled a tootsie roll out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to me. I thanked him.

Child Services looked at both the policemen, then scanned a file folder, and then looked at me. “You don’t want to spoil your dinner with that candy bar, do you… Steven?” Then Services blandly informed me that both my parents had been killed in a car crash that morning.

My body twitched as I concealed my joy in the confirmation.

Then Child Services gave me an empty box with a lid. “You have fifteen minutes to pack one suitcase and fill the box with your belongings before I transport you to a temporary holding area pending your assignment to another location.”

Ten minutes later, I stood silently, holding all my clothes and possessions in my mother’s suitcase. Standing absolutely still in the main room and kitchen area, I felt trapped between the empty frying pan on my right, and the sight of Child Services I saw through the window on my left.

As I touched the back pocket of my Levis to make sure I had my tiny address book, I gripped the suitcase and moved through the front door which Child Services held open for me, and headed to the police car. Like an act of telepathy, the deputy opened the car’s trunk for my suitcase.

Child Services vigorously protested and waved a paper at the two policemen, demanding that they move my suitcase into its trunk and escort me to the backseat of its car.

Silently I stood my ground. I looked the sheriff in the eye, belligerent and pathetic. The sheriff opened the back door of his car for me and told Child Services, “I’m just following protocol.”

Apparently, though still a minor, I needed to make a formal statement at the station and had the right to make calls to anyone I chose to ask for assistance before Child Services could claim me.

As I sat in the backseat, my muscles relaxed and my respiration returned to normal. Ignoring further protests from Child Services, the policemen got back into their car. As the deputy started the engine and shifted the car into gear, the Sheriff offered me a bottled water.

“Here kid, you look like you could use a drink.”

About the author

After the incident, the author spent four years in a group home, then received a scholarship to UCSB, and lived happily ever after, so to speak. No one ever found out about the brake fluid. He lost the copies of the death certificates that were given to him when he reached 18yrs old. “Survival” is part of William’s unpublished anthology, Portraiture: A San Francisco Story Cycle. About 14 stories from the anthology have been previously published in various magazines.
So, readers, what do you think? Please weigh in in our comments section below…


  1. If you intended to contact the police department, why not warn me first and offer lme the chance to pull the story? It seems you wanted the thrill of ” possibly exposing an old crime” and exonerating yourself as a publisher by contacting the police. Sounds like upside down ethics to me. I wonder… what your readership will think of that ?

  2. Hi William, I’m glad you’ve decided to engage in this conversation.

    Yes, as soon as we got your story we did contact the SFPD because, IF your story is true (as you say it is), then this is a crime (however justified) and we have a moral obligation to report it.

    As I said to you in our correspondence before, we really like this story–the writing is great and the story is absolutely compelling–but it does raise a lot of red flags for us. We sent you at least 6 different emails asking you to verify points in the story and you could produce no proof–you would only state repeatedly that it was true. So we are choosing to give you the benefit of the doubt right now.

    But I think it is disingenuous of you to be upset that this was reported to the SFPD. You are the one who sent US the piece–you ASKED that this piece be published on a PUBLIC blog for all the world to see, INCLUDING the police! So how can you be upset that we reported this to the police when you WANTED this piece to go public? Or did you think that our readership was too small to cause you any problems? Seriously, I would love to know the answer to that question.

    If you are truly telling the truth in this story, as you claim to be, then you should expect whatever comes with the act of public storytelling. FWIW, if you did do what you say you did, no court would convict you for this act, done in reaction to horrific abuse, committed almost 50 years ago.

    • The point remains that you had an ethical ,if not legal, obligation to tell me that if you printed the story you would contact the police. There is no statute of limitations on murder. That you did not give me this warning is an example of publisher hypocrisy: such a sensational story will be good for our blog and the hell with the consequences to the author as the publisher alerts the police to protect itself from any possible litigation. Any reader or judge would ask why I did not just run away. The tragedy of the story remains the fact that this child felt the need for such a revenge.

  3. This story is one of tragedy, William, on that we both agree. Again I repeat: it is disingenuous of you to be upset that this was reported to the SFPD when you submitted it to us to be published in a PUBLIC venue (and even sent follow up emails asking when it would finally go live!). You do realize that when you repeatedly claim a story is true and then ask for it to be published for anyone with a Wifi connection to see, it is very odd to then be UPSET that the story was sent to people (like the police) to read.

    • There would only be a theoretical chance that someone from the police department would read the story and decide to act on it. My willingness to chance that is fundamentally different compared to a report from you to the police. I repeat, if you intended to make such a report, you should have given me notice so I would have the chance to pull my story.

  4. ::reader raises hand::

    When I read the “My Grandma the Poisoner” piece on Vice, the first thing I did was chat online with friends in law enforcement to make sure there would be follow up (there has been).

    I don’t know John Reed, but if his story is true, then yes, his grandmother was a killer and yes, as a reader, I felt a moral obligation to make sure that someone knows this thing happened. My instinct on this one would have been the same.

    This blog isn’t THAT small, Author. What did you *think* would happen?

  5. They say the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime. Fortunately for the author he has no reason to fear being caught. At least, not by the police department.

    There’s only one crime at work here, and it is NOT murder; rather, it’s duplicity. Clearly this isn’t a personal essay; it’s a work of fiction. Who in the hell so nonchalantly submits a “true story” to a blog in which the author confesses to murder?! And by the way, it’s awfully convenient that James lost the death certificate, something that would have been wildly significant to him considering the circumstances. Finally, I find it awfully hypocritical on the author’s part to condemn TUAS for actually doing its due diligence in fact checking a story like this one. I mean, if the author can so matter-of-factly write and submit a story in which he confesses to murder, how can he then question the moral compass of TUAS for trying to verify whether or not it’s true?

    Sounds to me like someone is worried not about the police department, but whether or not his unpublished anthology is now in jeopardy.

  6. If a writer submits a story about murdering someone to a true story blog then whoever runs the blog has a moral obligation to inform the police. Whether the story was published or not the publishers would still have had to inform the police. I think it would have been unethical if they hadn’t.

  7. Interesting. The voice is so stoic, detached. Almost sociopathic. I may not have landed on that third descriptor had I not read the author’s comments above. I’ll double aliapitt’s question: who is Steven? And what does William Masters have to do with him? And while I’m asking questions, what does it matter that he lost the death certificates? Those are as replaceable as a lost birth certificate. A valid ID and $10 will get you another copy. What do I think? I think I’d like more of the story, which I suppose is the point.

  8. Pingback: Survival (Part 2) | Tell Us a Story

  9. This is the perfect blog for everyone who really wants to find out
    about this topic. You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa).

    You definitely put a brand new spin on a topic that has
    been written about for a long time. Great stuff, just wonderful!

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