I woke from a bad dream and lay in bed, trying to make sense of it in my head. It involved a young girl, her fundamentalist, strict parents, and a madcap adventure in which, through no fault of mine or hers, a day her parents reluctantly let her spend with me turn into a ridiculous black comedy of errors; with one horrible circumstance piling onto another to the point where dark comedy turned to terror.
A missed time of return has her parents calling to put out an amber alert.
A sighting at the local diner has citizens leaping into the fray.
The resulting confirmation results in a state-wide all points bulletin.
The local bureau of investigation gets involved.
All the while, the two innocently and most valiantly are trying to get home….
They miss a turn in bad traffic.
They wind up lost several hundred miles to the south. In a desert.
They run out of gas. Many people who could help instead pass them by.
It rains. It gets dark. It gets cold. They huddle in the car and make jokes about white knights on prancing horses coming to rescue them.
A man stops to help, but he is no white knight. He robs them and leaves them stranded and now, broke too.
A middle-aged couple drives by in the wee hours of the morning and sees them there. Wakes them. Carries them to town, feeds them, buys them umbrellas, and hands them the money to put gas in the carry can (which they also bought). They return them to the car, and stay until they know it’s working, then go on their way.
When we make it to my place, it’s near midnight. I make soup to warm up and we’re having it by the television. I’m picking up the phone to call her parents when I see the local news break in with an amber alert update. I am furious. I am insulted. I am incensed. I call her parents and coldly tell them they are wrong, explain what has happened, and that it is their choice if I bring her home now, or let her sleep and bring her home in the morning.
Naturally, being as they are, they demand her return immediately and further say they not only don’t believe me, that the police will be waiting and both she and myself will be put through a DNA swab test “just to make sure” before I am let go.
Angry to the point of violence for the pain of distrust in the face of innocence, I agree to whatever is required and hang up to pack and return her to her parents. She watches me with a long, sad, and completely understanding face. I just have to endure them. She… She has to live with them.
By the time we arrived, the press had gathered at her house. There was a small crowd of people – followers and neighbors – milling about outside. They somehow know it’s us and immediately set up baying not unlike hounds. The police appear and surround the car, ordering me out one side while they gently extract her from the other. She is ushered immediately into the home. I am led away to wait inside a police car while they talk to her.
The crowd is ugly; things would be much different were the police not here. I find myself feeling ambivalently thankful to and angry at them.
Eventually, the police come out and let me out of the car. They tell me the girl has explained everything and it matches the story I gave over the phone. I bite my tongue as they further explain that the surveillance tapes from the diner also support the story, so it looks like I am free to go. I only briefly ponder how fast our law enforcement moves when it suits them. Black humor.
I say, wryly, “Mind explaining that to the crowd so you aren’t back here in a half hour or less with the coroner to pick me up again?”
They look embarrassed. I do not try and soothe it. They nod and turn to the crowd, ask for attention, and explain. The hoots and jeers eventually settle and the success of the explanation is demonstrated as the mob, discovering no blood where expected and hoped, resentfully turns homeward and disperses, but for one man.
He is a wild-eyed, disheveled; an utterly forsaken being. Violently blue eyes peer from a matted, dirty, and unshaven face. The mouth, a crimson ring amidst a dark thrush of facial hair, moves rapidly as he slurs and half-shouts at me. He is dressed in a tattered, flannel shirt that flaps like a scarecrow in the midnight breeze. His pants are ripped, soiled; thick with dirt. He wears no shoes.
The police, convinced he is out of his mind and violent, have him pushed back to the wall, five of them hold him still, while the sixth looks at me and asks if I want him removed. The man’s eyes, cobalt lightening, lock with mine and he waits as if for punishment.
I say simply, “No.” They shrug disdainfully and release him. One mutters, “Your funeral, lady.”, a dark reference to my earlier statement and his way of justifying himself and relieving the weight of guilt. The man and I ignore him and eventually, they are all gone and only the two of us remain there, on the far side of the street.
The lights in her house go off. I realize no one is in bed, that’s just their signal that I should go away. I realize this because I know how they are and I know that to have them actually speak to me, acknowledge their fault, demonstrate care and a willingness to make it right is just… Beyond them.
The wild man and I walk half a block before I remember that my car is behind us, at the house. I laugh and explain and we walk back to it. We travel to a local diner. We have pie and coffee and conversation.
He shares with me that, some years ago, he had a very similar experience to my own. He shares that his outcome was not as fortunate. He is silent for a time. Then, he tells me how, when he and his young male friend returned, there was no police, no media, no curious followers or neighbors. There are only angry parents and a boy trying to be heard above the din of three adults damn near fighting.
No one noticed or heard the boy move until the gun went off. Then everyone heard. The note he had time to write was on the television. That damned note was heard around the world, “You never listen to me. You never believe me. You never even try. You do not love me. You never loved me. You can never love me.”
Those amazing blue eyes were crying. He was telling me through sobs how it didn’t matter that they were innocent. It didn’t matter who was right or wrong. That he would have happily spent the rest of his life in prison than have the little boy kill himself.
He weeps for a time. I listen and say nothing. Sometimes, silence really is the best answer of all.
Eventually, he sniffles to a stop and picks up the thread of the story. The inevitable tale of police and society; A keystone caper, cops and crowds and courts. Convictions refused; still, the court of public opinion was never more than unruly. Sure, he was acquitted by law, but there is no reprieve from the various opinions, perspectives, and the infamy of the process and exposure.
He calmly tells of how impossible it is to escape your own name. History. The media and their willingness to sacrifice you on the altar of speculation for increased advertising dollars. He sees my look and softly says, “Yeah, I coulda changed my name. Moved away. Started over. But you carry your story with you and this lamed me, dig?”
I had to admit, I did.
We push leftover bits of pie around otherwise empty plates. We’re enjoying the warmth of the communal fire, over a laminate diner table. Shadows dancing all around us, but while cozened and close, there, in the sacred circle called sharing, they cannot touch us.
The magic of the fire remains inviolate. This was the thought that woke me.
I woke from the dream with the lingering cerebral lightening of an epiphany still ringing in my ear. Phantom sound, perhaps, but the feeling of it was real enough. The symbols and markers of my life set into story, woven by sleep into dream, they shimmer and shine like stars in a weave that no one else can ever, truly understand.
I hugged her… Myself… And let the dam break for a time. We stood there, at the flagpole, symbol of ancient ache, timeless pain. We clung to one another and wept for all that was… And all that was not… And all that could never be because of it.
I told her that I loved her; I have always loved her. I felt her nod and heard her hiccupping breathing and felt her tighten her grasp as she said, “I know. I know.”
I felt her melt away. The rocker by the window in the attic, empty at last, is still. It gleams soft, wooden comfort under the streaming moonlight of the corner window. I think for a moment that I shall miss her and then, I realize, that’s impossible.
I sigh and leave the bed to wash my face and then, to come here, and faithfully record the moment.