Longform

Femme Fatale

Page 7 of 9

It wasn't unusual for Brenda's family and friends not to hear from her for days, even weeks, because she craved her time alone. When she didn't answer the phone, they knew that she was studying or didn't want to be bothered. She'd hide away in rollers and fluffy slippers, doing her nails while she listened to a book on tape and worked on the computer. "She just had this full life with her own company, and she could really accomplish things that way," Kathleen remembers.

Much of Brenda's time on the computer was spent talking to her daughters -- now teenagers. Even though she only saw them a few times a year, they talked and e-mailed often. Brenda saved a long Internet chat she and one of her daughters had late one night. She still loved punk, Brenda told the girl, but she missed the strong, in-your-face women who are now all dead, strung out or burned out: I think it's sad there are still so few women in the biz that you can look up to.

She told her daughter that she was gorgeous and warned her against dieting, confessing her own teenage anorexia. When her daughter, a straight-A student, listed all of her extracurricular activities, Brenda asked if she was pursuing her heart. I love you so much! she typed once out of the blue. I'm sad, and always have been, that I was too messed up to be there for all your "1sts."

Kathleen and all of Brenda's friends knew how much she loved her daughters. "I just think she couldn't be in complete control of herself all the time," Kathleen says. "She knew that over the long term they would start to see elements about her and not think she was the strong person that she wanted her children to think she was. I think she knew the way she lived was completely unhealthy for children and probably didn't know another way to live."

By the end of 2004, Brenda saw herself as in the midst of a major transition and it scared her, Kathleen remembers. She was two semesters away from graduation and trying to pick a graduate school. She wanted to go to New York City, but she didn't know if she could make it there. She'd always put all her energy into school, just working enough to fill in between loans. In Denver, she knew how to get through the month, but New York would be different. She also had an assault charge, for pushing a former landlord and scratching her across the face, that she feared would threaten her acceptance to a top school. "She just worried so much that where she came from and what she's been through and where she was going weren't going to ever fit," Kathleen says. "The past was never going to stop interfering with her."

To help counteract these feelings -- and also knowing it would look good on her resumé -- Brenda decided to volunteer at the Gathering Place. She liked the shelter's mission of assisting women and children, and would come home exhilarated after helping someone get out of a bad situation. Though the staff knew little about her personal life, they found her to be compassionate and approachable. She worked two two-hour shifts a week, twice the norm, in the computer lab, helping women look for jobs and create their own resumés.

The only time Brenda took a break from volunteering was when she had knee-replacement surgery on December 27, 2004. The operation, her tenth, was supposed to solve all of her knee problems. Her mother talked to her at the end January 2005, the day before Brenda, still on crutches, would start a new semester. "I think she was ecstatic," Marilyn says, "looking forward to a good new life."

Kathleen was supposed to help Brenda get around while she recovered. In early February, she called Brenda and rambled on about her day, neglecting to ask Brenda how she was or if she needed help. It pissed Brenda off. Kathleen tried to apologize before leaving for a vacation in Arizona, but her calls were never returned.

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Jessica Centers