01 Feb Only The Classics
When we were growing up, Shaun was closer to a brother than a friend. He must have spent more time at my house than his own. My parents knew Shaun’s home life wasn’t exactly, uh, well it wasn’t in any danger of being adapted into a Hallmark movie, that’s for sure. So they let him spend the night any time he needed to or come over for dinner whenever he wanted, even spend the weekend. But my parents didn’t realize just how terrible Shaun’s home was, not until it was too late to help him. They didn’t know how ugly his world was because I never told them and I’ll carry the weight of that omission with me for the rest of my life.
Shaun’s family moved in down the street from mine when he and I were both ten years old. By eleven, we were so close you could hit one of us and the other would feel it. Lord knows it seemed like I could feel it whenever Shaun would turn up to school with fresh bruises on his arms, his legs, his ribs. You see, Shaun’s dad had the low cunning of all cruel things. He knew how to hide, to blend, to deflect. I was the only one Shaun told how bad it was but he made me promise to never tell. I think he was worried if people knew, someone would come take him away, leaving his mom living with a monster and no one to protect her.
I know now that I should have said something, should have told someone. But we were eleven, and I loved him like a brother, and a promise back then felt so heavy and solemn.
Shaun spent his twelfth birthday at my house. By then, my parents knew his family wasn’t going to celebrate anything, so my mom made a cake and my dad picked up pizza and the four of us had one of the best days I can remember. See, Shaun and I had an unusual obsession: old monster movies, especially the black and white Hammer Horror pictures. We watched them on repeat any chance we could find and we spent the whole afternoon into the evening marathoning Wolfman and Frankenstein and the rest.
Even though we’d seen the old black and whites a million times, Shaun never got tired of them or wanted to watch any of the new stuff.
“Only the classics, Joey,” he told me. “People remember the classics. They’re unforgettable, you know? They never fade away.”
I’ll never forget that last birthday of his. I hope it was bright point for Shaun. Even as a kid, he had the oldest eyes, soft blue and cracked with worry.
Two weeks after he turned twelve, Shaun and his mom were both dead. The police caught up with his dad at a gas station in Easton. He confessed but never gave a reason for why he did what he did, why he decided to take my friend away. I think people like him don’t need much of a reason; some people just like hurting people.
We all took Shaun’s death hard but I was physically sick for weeks after. Part of it was grief but there was also guilt. If I’d spoken up, I’d be sitting on the couch with Shaun watching Van Helsing stake Dracula instead of watching them lower my friend into the ground on a bitter, bright winter day.
A promise is a sacred thing but silence in the face of malice only profits the monsters.
Shaun’s death drained a lot of the color out of the world for me. I let fear in, not just let it in but built it a home. My mind was clouded with nerves like tripwires. I stopped trusting and I began cultivating the worry in my soul like some grim garden. For a long time, I struggled to see any good in the world, any light.
Then I met Andi. Ginger, freckled, always grinning, Andi.
It’s cliche to say that falling in love can change your life and alter the way you see the world. But every cliche is grown from a root of truth and Andi gave me a gift; she restored some faith in me, made me wonder if maybe, just maybe, people are inherently good and that the world can be a fine place, like Hemingway said, or at least worth fighting for.
Andi was the best thing that ever happened to me. Then our daughter Emily was born and I found myself waking up with a stupid smile nearly every morning, not sure how one man could be so lucky. But always, in the back of my mind, there was the shadow of Shaun. It weighs heavy, the absolute certainty that monsters exist and that innocence isn’t a shield, but a beacon.
Still, for a long time we were happy. The world was quiet, it made sense. I began to relax. Then, one cloudy, cold December afternoon, I heard my wife scream and I instantly knew the world had come to collect on all the happiness I’d borrowed.
Andi had never screamed like that, not when she broke her leg or found a snake in the garage. I knew, with a father’s certainty, that something had happened to Emily. I tore through the house, from my office to the kitchen in seconds. Andi was at the window. She turned when I thudded into the room.
“He took her,” she told me, voice like the last breath of a drowner. “A man just grabbed her. She was right there, in the yard.”
I looked out the window and saw a dark red sedan already at the corner of our street. It screeched into a turn. Someone had snatched our daughter out of her own yard, 30-feet from her house, and I was watching them take her away. She’d been building a snowman. Cold spread in me, dread sinking like a rock into the well of my stomach. The evil that I knew was in the world brushed past me again, snatched up my life and sped away in a beat-up piece of shit Ford. Ugly, random malice.
No, I thought. Anything but Emily.
“Call the police,” I told Andi. I was already moving. The brake lights from the Ford were still fading as I moved to the door. For one sharp, panicked second I couldn’t find my keys in the bowl on the table. Then my hand closed on them, and I was outside, and I was driving.
This isn’t happening, I thought.
You heard about terrible things on the news, random shootings, tragic accidents, kids taken in parking lots while their parents were loading groceries. It happens, you know that with a certainty, but with equal certainty you refuse to believe it could happen to you.
But there I was, racing down my quiet street, desperately searching for the red glow of brake lights in front of me. I’d seen the Ford take the first right as they sped away from my house. I whipped my car into the turn, skidding on the icy road. It snowed earlier in the week and the steel-wool colored clouds promised even more snow. I prayed the weather would stay clear just a little longer.
After I made the turn, I felt a fresh wave of panic rise in my stomach. There was no sign of the red Ford. There was only the empty street that branched off into three different turns. It began to snow, gently.
I made a sound somewhere between snarl and whimper. I bashed my fist into my steering wheel once, twice, but I kept driving. Even if I didn’t know where to go, I couldn’t stop. At least I had a chance of picking the right turn; if I stopped, if I froze, the Ford would be gone. Emily would be gone. Unwelcome flashes of what could happen to my daughter if I couldn’t catch them danced across my mind. She was six. What if six years was all that she got, all that I got with her?
I was crying, ugly, rasping sobs but I was still driving.
Please, I prayed. Please God, please anyone that’s listening, don’t let her go. Please help. I don’t know where to go. PLEASE.
I was coming up on the first turn, a left. I hesitated.
It was a thought so subtle it was barely an inclination, most likely my imagination. But I had no other guidance or ideas, so I clutched onto that gossamer thought like a falling man grabbing at a thread.
I was at the second turn. I took it without hesitation. The snow was falling harder but I began to speed up. I took the turn, I was committed to the path. All I could do was drive fast and trust I was headed in the right direction.
I didn’t slow down for turns. My weird, internal GPS would give me a nudge before a necessary turn approached. I’m not sure how long I drove. There were a few close calls with slipping when I took turns too quickly. Luckily, my tires were good, my brakes were better, and the weather was keeping most sane drivers off of the road.
here. Another nudge. here…here…here
It was possible I was losing my mind, that Emily being taken had caused a breakdown and I was chasing my own hallucinations. But I had better options than to chase phantoms, and at least my hallucinations had a certain conviction with each little push.
I came very close to wiping out into a ditch banking through a sharp left turn. As soon as I wrestled control back from the road, I looked ahead and I cheered. Not more than 200-yards in front of me, the red Ford was cruising along. He must not have realized he was being followed or thought he lost me. I guessed he was doing almost exactly the speed limit, maybe even a mile or two under out of deference to the ice.
And to avoid attention. It would have really ruined his day to make a clean escape just to get pulled over for speeding. So he drove on, unremarkable, like he didn’t have a care in the world.
I pushed my accelerator all the way down. He was about to have a lot to care about, real fucking quick.
I was nearly on the Ford’s bumper before I think he noticed something was up. The car sped up. I followed easily, about one car length behind. The Ford was old and wasn’t in great shape. I doubted he could lose me now. However, there wasn’t much I could do besides follow. I’d left the house in such a rush that I had completely forgotten my phone.
It was becoming difficult to see ahead through the snow but I was close enough that I could memorize the Ford’s license plate if nothing else. We were driving fast and he was starting to drift across the center-line. Sooner or later I knew we would draw attention, hopefully police attention, and the mad chase would be all over. All I had to do was stick with him, to stay near Emily.
I barely had time to register that he’d slammed his brakes before our cars collided. At the last second I tried to swerve around the Ford but couldn’t clear him and clipped the left of his bumper hard. We both spun out in opposite directions and went off the road, him to the right, me crossing lanes and going off the left embankment. I’m not sure what he was thinking, hitting the brakes. Whether he was trying to make me back off, or scare me, or if he saw something in the road, I don’t know. My last conscious thought was a prayer that Emily was wearing a seat belt. Then my car crashed into a tree and my vision went black.
That nudge, again, stronger now. A white light, small as a pin prick but expanding, cut through the blackness.
I came to, vision blurry and the taste of copper in my mouth. My car had impacted a large evergreen. My head must have hit the window. The airbag was pressing me back into my seat. I suddenly felt claustrophobic and scrambled to get out of the car.
It was more than a nudge now, it was a voice. I listened. I breathed. I undid my seat belt and stumbled out of the door. The cold hit me almost as hard as the accident. An icy wind ripped through the trees around the road, shaking the branches and whipping the snow. Even though it was early afternoon at the latest, the clouds had grown swollen and dark as fresh bruises. Visibility was shit. To top it off, I hadn’t taken a jacket with me and the cold clawed through my shirt and set my body shivering.
I had no phone, no coat…but I listened, I kept moving. The Ford wasn’t far away, across the road maybe 100-feet ahead of where I’d stopped. It was also pressed into a tree. I let out a little sigh of relief when I made my way over and saw that the impact was on the driver side. Both of the Ford’s doors were open. The car was empty. I looked for tracks but the wind and still falling snow obscured the ground. The panic began rising again. I swallowed to keep it down. Shivering, arms wrapped around my chest, I searched for any sign of where they’d gone.
To my right, ahead in the forest, I saw a light flash for a moment. It was bright white against the shadows in the woods, yet grainy, like it was coming through a filter. With no better options, I set off, trudging through the snow towards the light. Whenever I came close to where I’d seen a flash, a new light would flicker nearby. I kept following and as I went, I felt the cold peeling away. There was a new energy in me, a resolve. The farther I went into the woods, the stronger I felt. I was committed to the path.
Not far from the second or third light I spotted blood on the snow. In the fading winter light, the blood looked smudged, dark red like the Ford. I let out a ragged breath and hoped the blood wasn’t from Emily. There was more blood up ahead trailing towards a tight copse of trees. The light flashed again from the other side of the trees. I headed that direction as fast as I could trudge through the calf-high snow.
I made it through the trees and there was Emily. A tall man I’d never seen before was dragging her by the arm. He was limping and had a red stain all down his tan jacket. Emily looked shaken but not hurt. For the first time since she’d been taken, I felt a swell of relief. She was maybe twenty feet away, a small shape in a purple jacket against a field of white.
Then the man looked back over his shoulder and saw me. He jerked Emily’s arm hard, trying to get her to speed up. The relief I felt was immediately doused and replaced by anger.
Anger is not really a fair word for the emotion I felt. This stranger had stolen my child, could have killed her in a car crash, and now he was hurting her, trying to drag her away. Anger isn’t the right word at all. Rage doesn’t do it either.
I consider myself a, more or less, normal guy. I haven’t even been in a fight since the seventh grade. But when Emily turned back, tried to run to me, screamed, “Daddy,” I felt something uncoil deep in my chest and then I was yelling and I was running. And I was fast.
The stranger looked back again, stumbled and fell in the snow. Emily slipped away. The man tried to scramble back up but I was on him. I think there’s an animal, an ancient thing, that lays its lair in the heart of every parent. No matter how civilized we become, no matter how soundly that inner-animal sleeps, seeing your child threatened has a way of pulling that creature out and it comes out ugly.
“Please,” the man said as I hit him again and again and again. “Please. Stop. Please.”
It was like painting a portrait in reverse. Every time I hit him his features lost a little detail, began to blur and smudge. I think I was still yelling. A small, rational part of my brain took an inventory and noted that both of my hands ached, that my shoulder hurt from the crash, that I was shaking from rage and the cold.
But the whispers from that rational piece of my mind were drowned out by the roaring hate punctuated with every impact of knuckles onto a rapidly softening face. The stranger looked much younger than I would have pictured, pale, early 20s with a pretty sorry excuse for a beard.
“Pleess,” he struggled to slip the word out through shattered teeth and swollen lips. “Sthuap.”
My mind was an empty theater playing a slideshow of every bad thing that could have happened if he’d gotten away with my daughter, every way he could have hurt her. A nerve-ripping shot of pain finally pierced the black fog of rage. My left hand was broken. I let it dangle at my side and kept swinging with my right. I stopped screaming long enough to spit out a few words.
“My. Daughter. You fuck. MY DAUGHTER. MY,” another wet, red impact, “DAUGHTER.”
That black fog kept getting heavier and heavier, choking out the rest of the world. There was no room for anything but the need to hurt this man. Then, slowly, light began to fill my vision. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned, suddenly, painfully aware that my daughter needed me. But instead of Emily, the hand on my shoulder belonged to a flickering ghost.
“Shaun,” I said.
It was a statement, not a question. Even though he seemed washed out, drained and filtered, it was so clearly my friend just as I’d last seen him. He looked young. The light around him blinked and faded. Looking at him was like watching an old movie, something black and white.
I heard his voice in my head, the same voice that had guided my turns. It was louder now, distinctly familiar.
Shaun smiled and nodded to his right. Emily was wrapped up in the fetal position, head covered by her arms, trembling. As quickly as it had hit, the anger drained from me, replaced with a bone-deep shame. She was trying to block out the sounds and sight of her dad killing a man in front of her. I rolled away from the stranger, stumbled, made my way to Emily and hugged her close.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,” I whispered, my forehead against her brow. “I’m sorry, it’s okay, you’re okay now. Emily, you’re okay. I love you.”
I choked on the last words, exhausted, sick from the adrenaline dump, the enormity of what I’d nearly lost crashing over me. The injuries and the cold caught up to me then. I was only just able to turn away before I threw up all over the fresh snow. I felt a small hand on my arm and then Emily was hugging me tightly.
“You found me,” she whispered into my shoulder.
I cried. I forgot my injuries, the cold, my anger. I forgot my fear and everything else that wasn’t her face. I held her and I cried, huge, racking, beautiful sobs. I was given my world back, and I cradled it, cradled Emily, close.
I’m not sure how long we stayed that way, father and daughter holding each other in the snow. Eventually, I looked up and found Shaun watching us, a sad smile on his face.
“Thank you,” I told him.
He nodded. Then his smile slipped away and he looked down at the stranger. The man was still breathing but his face looked like a smashed pumpkin. The snow around the stranger was stained scarlet, a short, red road showing where he’d moved. He’d been trying to drag himself away from me, still on his back. I think he’d made it about four feet.
She shouldn’t watch, Shaun said.
I nodded, hugging Emily and turning so her back was to the stranger.
You shouldn’t watch, Shaun said.
I shouldn’t…but I had to. After a moment, Shaun, flickering in black and white, turned to the stranger. Where my anger had been a rabid thing, Shaun’s was still and cold as a dead star. He stood over the stranger, who started to raise one hand weakly. As I watched, Shaun put a hand over the man’s mouth. The stranger gurgled, trying to scream, but Shaun seemed to be melting, pouring himself over the man like liquid lead. Shaun dissolved, his grainy light spilling over and into the stranger. The man was thrashing and making choking sounds. Whatever Shaun was doing, it must have hurt.
The light became too bright and I had to jam my eyes shut. When I opened them, Shaun and the stranger were both gone, leaving nothing but red stains on the snow. There was one last flicker of black and white, a fading echo of my friend.
“Wait,” I yelled. “Don’t go.”
There was no reply but something did linger. Some of the pain in my hand and shoulder eased, the sharp edge of the cold lessened. I knew that Shaun wasn’t completely gone.
“Thank you,” I said to the empty snow. “I’m so sorry I didn’t help you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t-”
The phantom of a reassuring touch. I knew he forgave me, knew he never blamed me at all, even though I didn’t think I’d ever forgive myself.
“Who was that?” Emily asked me. “Who was the boy in black and white?”
“That was your Uncle Shaun,” I told her. The snow still fell, the wind still shook the trees, and the sun was draining into the horizon, but I felt warm there in the woods. Safe and looked after. “Let me tell you about your uncle.”
A State trooper found Emily and me sitting there not long after sundown. Someone had reported the crashed cars and the trooper had followed our tracks. There were a few places where the snow had covered the footprints, he told us, but he’d seen a flash of light and found us there.
I did my best to explain what happened. I must have sounded like I was in shock. The trooper gave me his jacket and radioed for help. The woods became a swarm of police and activity. There was even a helicopter. They never found the stranger.
The official story was that I’d fought the guy off and he’d run. My wife was afraid that he’d come back. But she believed me when I told her we would never, ever need to worry about that man again. She didn’t ask any questions but there was a savage love in her eyes when she looked at me. I knew Andi had her own sleeping animal, coiled and waiting if anyone ever came for Emily again.
The world can be a dark and awful place. There are monsters everywhere and the worst of them are often the best at blending in. Whenever the news is too bleak, or my fear starts to get the best of me, I gather my family together and we watch old movies. Only the classics, like I used to watch with Shaun. I sit with Andi and Emily and sometimes I talk about him and it’s almost like he’s there with us.
Because Shaun’s a classic. And the classics are unforgettable.