Crystal's mother, Mary Jackson, was already angry by the time the police called on Friday afternoon, March 7. Almost two days had passed without a phone call. At 24, Crystal could be flighty -- having a daughter was a responsibility she still hadn't quite adjusted to even though Zaniah was already five years old -- but Crystal always called her mother and let her know where she was. She worked a night shift as a security guard and usually called at about 5:30 a.m. while she was on the bus ride home, but on Thursday morning, Mary didn't get a call.
Maybe Crystal and her girlfriend Britney had gone out of town, Mary told herself. Maybe they'd gotten in trouble and landed in jail. If that was the case, Mary decided, she would let Crystal sit it out behind bars. As soon as she knew exactly where her daughter was -- there was a knot of panic under the anger -- she would coolly inform the police that her daughter would have to take her punishment.
Neither Mary nor Ivan is particularly tall, but Crystal was so short, at less than five feet, and so light, with a weight of only about 100 pounds, that Mary often wished she could find a way to keep her daughter safe and under her roof. "It didn't matter for me. I just wanted to make sure she was okay. I was scared for her to be out there," Mary says.
Crystal never left the house without her makeup, and she loved wearing four-inch heels, huge earrings and long false eyelashes. Ivan would stop her by the front door whenever Crystal tried to leave the house and ask where she was going and who she would be with. Then he and Mary both worried until she came back home.
She was tough, though. Until his retirement, Ivan had worked as a funeral director, and Crystal would go along with him on trips to pick up bodies. The cadavers never bothered her -- she could look at a deteriorating corpse without a qualm, and she would walk into the mortuary in pitch-black darkness, sliding her hand along the wall to the light switch without a second thought.
Crystal was never interested in school -- she made decent grades and stayed out of the principal's office, but that was about it -- and her parents hoped she'd go to mortuary school and get into the business. "She told us that she wanted something different. She said she wanted to do something else with her life," Ivan says.
In high school, she mostly stayed out of trouble -- she got caught shoplifting and tried to explain to her mom with big-eyed innocence how a pair of earrings had left the store. "She told me that she took off her coat and put it on the counter and the earrings got stuck on the coat," Mary says now, laughing and shaking her head. When she got pregnant her senior year, she had to drop out of school and get her GED. The father met Zaniah only a handful of times, Mary says; it fell to the Jacksons to help Crystal raise her daughter.
From there she got a string of jobs. She had a temper and would say what she thought of someone without mincing words, and she lost some jobs because of that. But she could always get something else. Besides, there was a certain restless energy in her. She was always quitting her job for one that paid a few cents more an hour. "She wanted to make more money, to be making $11 an hour, and I'd tell her, 'You've got to crawl before you can walk,' that she needed to be patient and stay put, to show on her résumé that she could be reliable, but she wanted to go right to the top," Mary says.
Crystal would buy extravagant gifts for -Zaniah, although she was otherwise frugal. She would come home with pairs of Air Jordans for her daughter, brushing off Mary's protests that Zaniah would outgrow the shoes before she'd worn out a single pair. Crystal told Mary that she'd always wanted shoes like that when she was a kid so she decided her daughter would get to wear them and Crystal wouldn't even worry about whether the shoes wore out. She loved finding fancy presents for her daughter -- one Christmas, she came home with a small pink jeep with a real motor in it, and every year she made sure there was a big, expensive present for Zaniah under the tree.
She started seeing women years ago, her half sister Laquetia Jackson says. The two would trade relationship woes and talk on the phone or text all day. Laquetia looked up to Crystal and went to her for advice. She didn't care who Crystal dated, but their father told Crystal she was crazy. She'd heard him preach about Sodom and Gomorrah and the evils of homosexuality, so she knew better, he told her. Mary was startled when her daughter said she was gay. "I couldn't help thinking, 'Oh my Lord, my child has come up gay. What are people going to think?' But I realized that past a certain point, I'd raised her best I could and it was her life," Mary says. "She had to make up her own mind. You have to follow your own way."