Imaginary Monsters Chased Jonny Holden All His Life, Then a Real One Caught Him

Jonny Holden would need his sister always, even at the moment he was born in a Houston hospital when she was only 11. His translucent newborn's skin glowed a livid red. His tiny legs worked spasmodically. His body recoiled as his blood metabolized the last of the opiates he had absorbed in his mother's womb. Jonny cried and cried, until they thought his raw lungs would collapse through sheer exertion.

He would need her at 5 months old, when their mother abandoned him, and when their grandmother periodically keened and wept and tore at her own hair. He would need her when the voices he alone heard grew insistent, and when the threats only he perceived grew nearer. He would need her because she was steady, and he could never be. Even when Jonny was a grown man, she would take him into her home in Euless, where she raised her four sons alone on a gas-station cashier's wages. She would feed and clothe him, realizing in the process that two of her sons were more like her brother than she could bring herself to admit.

Jennifer Ciravolo tended to Jonny because often no one else could. Life pressed down on her as she brought up her real sons and her grandsons. Jonny would drift out of contact, back to the Oklahoma backwater hamlets where he was raised. He didn't so much walk through life of his own volition as he was buffeted by it, in sleepless waves of methamphetamine abuse and incarceration for petty misdemeanors. He spent years in a halfway house for addicts and the mentally ill. Jonny hadn't slipped through the cracks of society. He was born into them.

But when Ciravolo brought him back to her North Richland Hills home this spring, toothless and gaunt, his flame-red hair receding at the temples, she thought she had her Jonny back for good. He was 30 years old and clean this time, though he chain smoked, rocked incessantly and conversed with some unseen party. They were coming for him, he would say, but never who or what or why.

Then, one day Jonny vanished, as he so often had, and someone did come for him. This man was powerful, and his mind was sick, like Jonny's, only it was possessed of a shimmering hate. Ciravolo could not know how painfully vulnerable Jonny was in a high-risk Tarrant County jail unit, or that the last moments of his life were agony and animal panic. Her brother was finally discovered after his heart had stopped beating and his trousers were soiled in excrement.

His sister thought he had returned to Oklahoma. She did not find out about any of this until months later, when a relative posted a news story about his murder on Facebook. For the first time in more than 30 years, she looked out onto a world without him. She did not understand how he had met his end in that place, but she knew one thing, if only this: He did not belong in the unmarked grave he was buried in, near Mansfield, in a cemetery for Tarrant County's unclaimed dead. He belonged some 200 miles to the northeast, out past the tin-roofed rows of broiler chicken houses raising poultry for the Tyson plant in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. He should be laid to rest here, with his family, next to his grandmother, whose imperfect love he nevertheless mourned every day since she died.

Ciravolo had come to the tiny Broken Bow cemetery on a rise, beneath the ancient oak whose boughs sagged with acorns on a recent afternoon. She hoped one day to visit with her brother here. Cicadas droned in the dark pine woods, and timber trucks rumbled down the country road. She panned the soil around the empty space where her brother should be with the toe of her Converse sneaker.

She wanted to know how Jonny, a harmless man whose waking world was populated with monsters only he knew of, finally encountered a real one in a Tarrant County jail.

Jennifer Ciravolo opened a one-gallon plastic freezer bag that contained almost everything Jonny Holden had in this world before he was processed into a Tarrant County jail. It exhaled the odor of stale cigarette smoke. "That stinks," she said, waving a hand in front of her nose. Packed tightly inside were some 50 cigarette butts, a black Dale Earnhardt Jr. cap dusted with a patina of ash, and a few packets of mayonnaise and mustard.

That Jonny was arrested with pockets full of cigarette butts did not surprise her. He would forage for them on the street and scrounge the tarry tobacco to make hand-rolled cigarettes. What surprised her was that the jailers would pack them in with all his other things.

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Brantley Hargrove

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