Keeping Warm – Part 4

Beelo woke in his bed. He dripped sweat and his heart pounded in his chest. He sat up and looked around. He was confused at first, then felt relieved to be safe in his bed. Then came the sadness as Beelo remembered he would never see his brother again. Sadness to think that Tara would never be the cheerful, talkative person she was before that evening’s watch.

Beelo swung his legs over the side of the bed. Kintu snored softly and rolled over, pulling the blanket and sheets to her side of the bed. There would be no more sleep for Beelo tonight. He put on a long shirt and made his way down to the main floor. He decided to make a cup of tea to clear his head. Afterward, maybe he could lie down next to Kintu until it was time to wake up and get ready for the day.

When he reached the living room, Beelo saw that Tara was awake. She stared at him from the rocking chair.

“He is gone,” she said. Those were the only words she said anymore.

“Yes,” Beelo said. “He is gone.”

Beelo put a brass pot with a varnished wooden handle into the wash basin. He reached towards a brass spigot that jutted from a pipe on the wall and lifted a stop valve. Cold, clean water flowed from the tap into the pot. Beelo released the ceramic handle of the stop and the weight of it seated the valve tightly which caused the water to stop. Beelo carried the pot to the stove and placed it on a flat surface next to the flume. He dipped his finger into the water and he felt the icy cold cut through his flesh like a knife. He took a step back to watch the flames dance behind the amber glass set into the front of the stove wile he waited for the water to heat up.

Beelo’s grandfather and great uncle were master craftsman. The two brothers built efficient and beautiful stoves, doors, and sinks. Their metalwork and glazing were the centerpiece of many domas and Beelo’s father often spoke of how proud he was to see grandfather’s handiwork in the homes of people he visited.

Beelo’s father was industrious as well. He specialized in valves and mechanisms powered by springs or pneumatic and hydraulic pressure. The latching mechanism on the main door of Beelo’s doma tree was an example of his father’s command of art and science. Opening the door was nearly effortless because of precision hinges with a pneumatic counterweight hidden in the jamb. Unless the door was held open, it swung shut under power of compressed air. As the door closed, some of the pneumatic power was used to automatically seat a heavy latch. The effect was such that anyone could open the door from inside with little effort and anyone leaving the doma could be confident the people inside were safe.

Another innovation designed by Beelo’s father was a pump that used the heat of the stove and the rising air inside the chimney to feed vaporized sap from the doma tree into the firebox. The stove could be started with a small fire of a few sticks and then would burn indefinitely on the liquid fuel. A small valve controlled how much power was fed into the mechanism from the chimney and could be used to control the temperature. A special pipe fed deep into the trunk of one of the trees that formed the doma supplied enough sap to warm Beelo’s home and to cook in the oven.

The sap from the doma trees was quite flammable when in a liquid form. Beelo inherited his father and grandfather’s ingenuity and had made use of the doma sap to design the powerful incendiary devices used to drive away slinks. The sap was mixed with a liquid made from fermented and distilled grain which formed a sticky gel. This was encased in a thin ceramic ball. A dark gray paste, made from crystals found in nearby caves, was carefully painted on the outside of the ball. This chemical was known to burn at the slightest spark and was covered by a two-piece ceramic shell which was glued together. The outer shell was specially made with minerals that spark when struck. A special paint applied to the outside prevented accidental ignition.

The combination created a portable device that was very stable, light enough to be thrown, but dense enough to have momentum to break on impact. When the outer shell cracked, it created a spark that ignited the chemical painted on the inner shell, which in turn set flame to the gelatinous sap from the inner shell. The resulting fire was hot and burned for a long time. The gel was very sticky and impossible to wipe off. The blaze was the perfect weapon against the slinks and Beelo spent a good part of each summer making them for his own supply and to arm the rest of his tribe.

Beelo’s tribe of tree dwellers called themselves the Téchni. Each family held the responsibility to make something useful for the whole tribe. Someone in need of anything they couldn’t build themselves would find it provided by another member of the tribe. It was the pride of the Téchni that each doma had everything necessary to keep the inhabitants warm, safe, and fed. Summers were spent in collaborative work. Adults would craft or repair with assistance of older children. Some would gather food or raw materials as well as hunt for game. Younger children were looked after and taught by older adults whose fingers or eyes were no longer strong enough for work. The young people learned history, art, and science from their elders and formed a deep connection with their teachers.

A noise broke Beelo from his thoughts and he tore his eyes away from the flames. The pot of water boiled and droplets spattered as they fell onto the hot stove. Beelo took the wooden handle in hand and carried the pot to the counter. He placed the pot on ceramic potholder and dropped two brown spheres into the steaming water. The spheres absorbed the water and expanded. Two leaves uncurled from the round objects and a small blossom inside opened up like a budding flower. The water took on a light brown color and the scent of the tea was carried into the air.

Beelo closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. He let the smell of the tea push away the remnants of his nightmare. He opened his eyes and took two ceramic mugs from a cupboard next to the basin. He deftly ladled tea from the pot into each mug, careful so that the leaves and blossoms remained in the pot. He picked up a mug in each hand, and carried one to Tara. She took it without looking and held it near her chest.

Beelo watched as the steam rose past Tara’s face and caused the wisps of hair above her forehead to curl. He turned his eyes back to the fire and drank his tea in silence.

With about an hour left until sunrise, Beelo returned to bed. He curled up behind Kintu and put his hand on her waist. He laid there and listened to the soft noises she made while she slept and and he enjoyed the scent of her hair until sunrise.

Keeping Warm – Part 3

A scream woke Beelo. He was startled to find himself in the rocking chair in the main room. He blinked and looked around and heard another scream, this time louder and closer.

Beelo bolted for the front door. Both of the coat hooks next to the door were empty. He undid the latches and furiously pushed the door open.

The last notes of Tara’s scream still echoed between the trees and the nearby hills. Beelo could smell smoke and when he followed the scent out into the limbs of the tree, the scent grew stronger. It was the familiar smell of burning pitch tainted with the stench of burning hair and flesh.

Beelo ran along the large branch and peered through the thinning leaves of his tree, most of which were yellow, red, and brown with the changing of the seasons. Today was the 4th day of autumn. Beelo had been on watch with his brother Baro the last three evenings. Earlier, as they prepared to go outside for the watch, Baro suggested that Tara take Beelo’s place. Members of either sex were expected to take turns at the watch, as with any job or role in their society. Beelo accepted their offer and had dozed in the rocking chair.

Still following the burning scents, Beelo jumped down to a lower limb and down to another. One more jump and he’d be on the forest floor. He was about to leap when he saw Tara. She was buried her to her chest in doma leaves. Beelo realized she must be on her knees and that is when he heard her sobbing. A few feet away from her was an oblong patch of burning leaves. The smoke curled up in to the half-defoliated branches above before disappearing into the fog above.

Beelo leaped to the ground. His fall was cushioned by the pile of fallen leaves. He walked carefully towards Tara. His hand went instinctively to where the pocket of his coat should be and Beelo became suddenly aware of his situation. He was totally exposed to the elements and radiated heat like a beacon to any beast that might still be nearby. And he was completely unarmed.

Tara’s shoulders shook with sobs and her head was bowed. The hide of her coat was the color of the bare branches of the doma tree with streaks that looked like moss. If she was in the limbs of their tree, she would be nearly invisible. However, where she knelt in the leaves she stuck out like a tree stump. Beelo was relieved to see that her breath wasn’t clouding around her and figured she must have kept her mask on or put it back after screaming.

Beelo scanned the forest floor and peered into the branches of the trees. He couldn’t see any other movement. There were no enemies to be seen but there was no sight of his brother either.

Beelo arrived at Tara’s back and gently placed his hand on her shoulder as he crouched behind her. She startled and fell to the side. She kicked her feet at Beelo and began to scramble away before she realized who he was. She looked into Beelo’s eyes and pulled her hood back. The mask slid from her face and her shuddering breath came out in puffy clouds of steam.

“Th-th-there were two of them,” she stuttered.

“Two?”

Tara nodded her head and pointed at the smoking ground where the burning had died down and the leaves simply smoldered and smoked.

“Baro…”, Tara started before she lost her words to another series of sobs.

“Where is Baro?”

“He saved me,” she shook her head. “The coat was too big, the mask wasn’t fitting well and my breath would sometimes come out. We didn’t think it was a big deal, being so early in the season. But one was waiting for me, clinging to the underside of a tree branch. It grabbed me and took me to the ground.”

Beelo knew too well what had grabbed Tara. His people called them slinks. Tara took a few panicked breaths. Reliving the ordeal brought back her panic and Beelo grew anxious about the clouds of steamy breath that lingered above their heads. Their combined heat would bring trouble from miles away if they didn’t return to the tree soon.

Beelo stood and held out his arm for Tara to take his hand. However her gaze was held by the smoldering leaves and didn’t see.

“Baro tossed a blaze at the one which held me in his jaws. The light and the heat were incredible and I was stunned. The creature rolled in the leaves, the smell was horrible but I couldn’t move. Baro pulled off his hood to call to me, to get me to run.”

Tara turned to look at Beelo’s hand. At first she appeared not to know what she should do, then she took it and pulled herself to her feet. Beelo held his sister-in-law by the shoulders to keep her from falling back to her knees.

“The second one was above him. It dropped on Baro and they both fell to the ground. The first beast was no longer aflame and he grabbed Baro by the leg. Together the creatures dragged him away. All I could do was scream.”

“Can you walk,?”

Tara nodded.

Beelo held the shaken woman’s hand and guided her to the trunk of the nearest tree. He boosted Tara up to a series of hand-holds designed to look like fungus. She furtively climbed to the first tree limb and stood there, waiting.

Beelo climbed onto that lower limb and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Careful not to startle Tara, he reached into her coat and grabbed a round earthenware ball. He turned his body to throw the blaze at the slink that was only three or four feet behind Tara.

The beast drew back onto its hind legs, ready to pounce as Beelo threw the blaze. The ball struck the slink in the chest, just below its throat and cracked like an egg. A burst of light and heat made the animal curl back and fall away into the air below them. Tara stumbled and landed on her backside, lucky to stay atop the tree limb.

But Beelo was not so lucky. The momentum from throwing the blaze carried him off his feet and he fell, facing up with his body parallel to the ground. Time seemed to slow, which gave Beelo time to watch Tara spin away from him. He turned to look at his left arm, which slowly rotated as he flailed for a branch to grab on to, his fingers ready to wrap around any branch that came into reach.

Only a few feet past Beelo’s grasping fingers was the slink. Its front paws desperately attempted to swipe the sticky, flaming contents of the blaze from its chest. The creature didn’t make a sound but the pouches on the side of its head that held the eyes were wide open. Beelo noted that outside of the black pupils, the beast’s eyes were white. Beelo had never looked at one so closely. He momentarily forgot he was falling to his death and studied the creature.

Short, thick limbs sprouted from a flat body. The hide was scaly and black, but did not shine. Beelo knew from stories told by his father and grandfather that their people did not make a blade that could pierce that hide. There was a ridge that ran from the back of the head to the stubby tail. The front paws had long, hooked digits that ended in sharp talons and the back paws were flat with shorter claws that looked perfect for climbing. The head was squat, with the wide eyes on the side shielded with bony protrusions that could be pulled down to completely cover the vulnerable organs. The nose was rounded with slits for nostrils that could also completely close to keep out dirt when digging in the tunnels in which they lived. The mouth was wide and when it opened, revealed rows of pointy, yellow teeth.

Beelo was about to make an attempt to look closer when the slink hit the ground with a crunch of leaves and broken bones.

At almost the same time, Beelo’s world went dark.

Keeping Warm – Part 2

Beelo sat cross-legged on the rug and watched his family finish their evening meal. A delicious stew filled his stomach and warmed him from the inside out. A brass stove on the other side of the room filled the air with a glowing warmth. The combined effect of the food and the heat made Beelo drowsy and he smiled sleepily at his son and watched as his youngest child tipped his soup cup and set it on his head. Kintu took the bowl away from the young boy and wiped the soup out of his orange, curly hair.

Beelo haltingly rose to his feet and bent over to collect the other dishes from the rug. He had to step carefully around his sister-in-law to get the dishes to the kitchen. The woman had hardly touched her soup, but Beelo was not surprised. Tara had spent most of the autumn in a daze. She would eat only a few bites at every meal and sat in the rocking chair all day while she rocked and stared at the stove. She only ever left her chair to relieve herself or to open the door when Kintu was not able to.

Beelo put the dishes in the wash basin and started cleaning them. Kintu walked up behind Beelo, wrapped her arms around his waist, and laid her head against the space between his shoulder blades. He felt her lean to one side and soon they were swaying to a song that that must have been playing in his wife’s head. Beelo rinsed off the last dish, set it on a wooden rack to dry, and turned in Kintu’s arms until they faced each other. He wrapped his arms around his wife and held her close. He rested his chin on top of her head and breathed the scent of her hair deep into his lungs.

“You must be exhausted,” Kintu said.

“I am a bit tired.”

Exhausted was a better word for how he felt. A long day spent preparing the tree for the winter and a cold evening spent watching the tree had depleted him.

“Go and get ready for bed, I’ll tuck in the kids and fetch a blanket for Tara.”

Beelo nodded and kissed Kintu’s forehead. They let go of each other and Beelo made his way to the rug. He got down to his hands and knees to kiss his children. Batu, their daughter, laughed and playfully tried to escape from her father’s affection. Keelo, their son, gurgled and waved his chubby hands in the air. Beelo somehow got to his feet again and walked up the spiral staircase to the bedroom.

The doma tree in which Beelo’s family lived was in fact four trees that grew together, intertwined and wrapped around each other. The people of Beelo’s tribe all lived in similar trees. Most doma trees held two or three generations of family members and some were large enough for multiple families.

Beelo’s tree had belonged to his family for six generations. The first ancestor to make a home in this tree made use of natural gaps between the individual trunks, sealing off the space from the weather and making it air tight. Back in those days, there was one room with an open fireplace. In the time since, Beelo’s family expanded up into more and more empty spaces, building a system of staircases and passageways between each area. A brass stove, built by Beelo’s grandfather and great uncle, warmed the system of rooms and created a draft that drew fresh air from a series of small openings in a lower chamber and allowed the warm air to escape high in the branches of the tree. The exhaust from the stove and the cooking oven was also vented way up in the tree, which gave the smoke time to cool before it joined the outside air. Another recent addition was a cistern that provided running water in the kitchen and washroom with basins plumbed to drain down to the roots of the tree to mask the smell and warmth.

Controlling heat was of the utmost importance. If heat from a stove poured directly out of the house, it would be visible for miles. There were many animals in the forest and hills with the ability to see heat the way Beelo’s people see light and color. Even the coats worn while on watch were designed to retain and camouflage body heat. Each hood was fitted a mask that circulated exhalations into the coat to keep outgoing breath from fogging the air and glowing brightly in cold autumn air to any animal with the eyes to see it.

Beelo reached the top of the spiral staircase. There was landing at the top and three passageways. The first passageway lead to the chamber shared by Beelo and Kintu, the second belonged to the children, and the third was supposed to be used by Tara and her husband. However Tara now spent her nights in the same rocking chair she occupied during the day. Occasionally, when Beelo rose early, he would find Tara curled up on the rug in front of the stove.

Beelo entered his bed chamber, took off his outer garments and climbed into the bed. He was asleep in seconds, long before Kintu was done tucking in the kids.

Keeping Warm – Part 1

Beelo shivered. The south wind whistled through the bare limbs of his tree and seeped through the seams of his ankle-length hooded coat. The chill was uncomfortable but it kept Beelo alert and focused. This would be the last year he could wear this coat. The one his mother made him. Kintu, Beelo’s wife, would take the reusable parts of the hide to make a smaller coat. The seams would be tight and the insulation thick and warm. It would be a perfect coat for one of their children, may they grow big enough to take their turn at the watch.

Beelo heard a noise behind him. He turned to see Kintu walking carefully along the damp tree limb on which Beelo stood. Kintu carried a ceramic mug and steam escaped through the lid. She wore a long, thick robe and her breath fogged the air as if she also was filled with hot liquid.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” Beelo said with concern in his voice. He turned his head to scan their surroundings to make sure it was safe.

“It is much too cold out here,” Kintu said. “Please, come inside.”

Kintu walked up to Beelo and held out the cup.

Beelo sighed and took one last look around. The sun had set for the second time more than an hour ago and it was definitely cold enough. It would be safe to go inside for the night.

Beelo took the cup and the couple walked single-file down the limb towards the massive trunk of their tree. The circumference of the limb grew as they walked and eventually they were able to walk side-by side. They held hands, fingers intertwined, while Beelo caressed Kintu’s finger with his thumb.

They both stopped when something moved above them. With a scratch and a rustle, a leaf fell between the limbs and branches. Like all the leaves from this tree, it was very big. Beelo could have lain outstretched on it’s surface and neither his toes or his fingers would reach either end of the leaf. It must have been one of the last leaves left on their tree. Beelo frowned as the leaf raced past them. Kintu sighed and squeezed her husband’s hand.

“It will be winter soon” she said.

“Yes,” agreed Beelo. “Soon.”

The limb on which the couple walked ended against the trunk of the massive tree. The rough bark of the trunk was laced with strands and curtains of stringy, green moss. Beelo took one last look around, then nodded. Kintu reached out and pulled one of these curtains of moss aside to reveal a wooden door.

The door was made from planks of wood joined with brass hardware and sealed with caulking. Light shined dimly through a window set with amber-colored glass. There was no handle on the outside of the door. Kintu rapped on the glass twice, then knocked three times on the wood. The amber window darkened as someone inside peered through it and a moment later, the door swung out.

Heat, light, and the smell of dinner welcomed the pair. Beelo placed his hand on the small of Kintu’s back as she passed through the door. After they were both inside, Beelo pulled the door shut against the cold, dark night. As the door seated into the jamb, two brass latches automatically fell into place in the floor. Beelo reached overhead and levered another latch into place on top. Between the latches and the heavy brass hinges on which the door swung, the entrance seemed secure enough to hold back anyone, or anything, that tried to force it open.

Beelo removed his long coat and hung it on a wooden peg next to the door. There was a second peg next to the one he used which was always empty. The sight of it made Beelo frown.

Beelo turned and looked at his home. Everything he held dear and everyone he cared for were safe and warm. He would spend every evening of this autumn watching the tree to make sure they stayed safe. For Beelo, winter could not come fast enough.

Decibels

​The measure of amplitude or power of sound waves is expressed in decibels (dB). For most of the things we measure in life, we use linear scales. Assume you place something that measures 15kg (roughly 33lbs) onto a scale and then added an  identical item. The combined weight would be 30kg (66lbs). However, the dB scale is logarithmic, which means it is not directly additive when combining quantities. 

Assume you have a device that generates 60dB of sound pressure, which is the normal volume of a television in the home of someone under the age of sixty or the peak volume of a polite conversation amongst sober people over the age of twenty-five. If you turned on an identical machine, the sound pressure level would double. Linear logic would lead you to believe the combined noise would measure 120dB but that is wrong. The measurement would only rise to total 63dB. The doubling of power in a sound wave results in an increase of 3dB. This is the case for all physical devices that create sound with one exception: children. More specifically, boys.

Assume you have one boy, who is making noise at 85dB, which is the same sound pressure level of your average freeway from 10m (32.75ft) away. If you add a second boy making noise at the same sound pressure levels, the normal rules of acoustics would dictate an increase of 3dB. However, in the case of boys, the increase of sound pressure level is closer to, but not exactly, 15dB. Meaning two boys are capable of a sound pressure level similar to that of a jackhammer without even trying. What gets harder to explain is when you add a third boy. Adding a third boy capable of the same noise as the first two will increase the sound pressure level by another 30dB. I don’t mean 30dB total, I mean 30dB in addition to the 15dB added by the second boy. This means three boys, with very little effort, can generate a sound pressure level that reaches the pain threshold of the average human ear and, at the prompting of a good fart joke, can be as loud as a jet airplane leaving the runway. Add a fourth boy and mention the word “poop” or “butthole” and you’ll be lucky if you don’t suffer instantaneous, irreparable hearing loss. 

This message is meant as a public service announcement. Please take care of your ears and wear proper hearing protection devices if you’ll be around more than one boy at a time. The headsets worn by airport workers on the tarmac should suffice, unless one of the boys burps.

Page Turner

I sat on the edge of my son’s little bed. I thought how I would be hard-pressed to sleep on it without most of me spilling off the edges. He was only five so he had room to toss and turn. Many mornings I would find him sleeping upside down or diagonally and I had to wonder what he did in his sleep.

We were in the process of putting on his pajamas. I had just pulled the top of his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jammies over his head. His blonde hair stood up from static electricity.

He wrinkled his face with the effort of pushing his arms down the sleeves. He had just finished producing his left hand when he asked me, “Daddy?”

“Yeah, buddy,” I said.

“Are we in a story?”

I tilted my head like a cartoon dog and looked at him in confusion.

“What do you mean?”

He finished getting his right hand out of the end of the green, fuzzy sleeve and his eyes searched his room for something to look at. Children often don’t look an adult in the eye when they talk but my kids usually did.

“Well,” he started. “I think that we are in a story. Like we are maybe in a book or a movie or on the TV?”

My first instinct was to laugh. Both of my kids had a fantastic imagination but my son was full of stories.

However, with the last couple of words, his eyes finally found mine. His eyebrows moved together in a little volcano shape above his nose. His eyes were brilliant and blue. He was not messing with me or telling one of his jokes. This was serious.

“I don’t know, little man,” I said and scribbled my fingers through his ionized hair. “I’m pretty sure this is real life. The stuff we see on TV and read in books is not real like we are.”

He looked down at his toes, which were digging into the fibers of the carpet. Around his feet were scattered remnants of the day’s play. Army men, ninja turtles, and cars of numerous makes and models were strewn about as if a bomb had gone off in the toy aisle of a department store.

“I know that they’re not real like us,” he nudged a small, orange pickup with his big toe. “But, I thought maybe if we were in a story there is someone watching us and we’re not real like them either.”

I could tell he was uncomfortable. What he told me was either hard for him to put together or the idea made him uneasy. I scooped him up and put him on my lap. He was small for his age and I could wrap my arms completely around him until he was cocooned.

He pushed against my chest and pretended like he wanted to get away so I squeezed him harder. It was a game we played whenever I cuddled him after a scraped knee or when his feelings were hurt. A moment of tender closeness ending with a squeal and giggle while he fought against my grip. It almost never failed to break the gloom and when I set him down he would usually run away, laughing.

This time when I set him down, he started to run and stopped suddenly. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder.

“Daddy, are you sure?”

I squinted at him and said, “Sure I’m sure. Besides, who would read our story? Its not exactly a page-turner.”

I pointed down the hall, towards the kids’ bathroom, “Now go brush your teeth.”

He bolted down the hallway with the stride of a video game action hero. Moments later I heard the sink running full blast like he wasn’t supposed to do and his sister was yelling at him to turn it down.

Later that evening, after tucking in the kids, some TV I didn’t really watch, and some conversation I don’t really remember, it was time for bed. My wife had been fighting a cold and went to ahead while I put the dog in his crate and locked the doors. I was not surprised when I came to the bedroom to find her snoozing. Her iPhone laid on her chest and displayed an unfinished game of Sudoku. I set the phone on her nightstand and plugged it into the charger.

I turned off the bedside light and kissed the softness of her cheek. I whispered into her ear, “I love you,” and walked to my side of the bed.

I lay on my back and stared at the textured ceiling while my son’s words echoed in my head and the concerned look on his face floated in my thoughts. The logical side of my brain knew that the life I was living was real. My two kids, my beautiful wife, could not be characters in a book. Our life was nothing like a movie. Not one anybody would pay to watch anyways. But for some reason I could not get that question out of my head.

Are we in a story?

I was less sure than earlier.

The light from a passing car seeped through a gap in the blinds of our bedroom widow. The dim blade of yellow light swept across the ceiling, briefly illuminating the tiny stalactites that hung there. The light faded as the car took the corner out of our cul-de-sac. I realized I had been laying there a long time, silently contemplating my existence. I realized how absolutely exhausted I was and how heavy my eyelids had become.

I rolled onto my side to minimize my inevitable snoring and I allowed my eyes to close. While I drifted into unconsciousness, while the world outside my eyelids floated away, I imagined I heard… No, I actually heard, if only faintly, the distinctive sound of someone turning the page of a book.

Why I Stayed – Part 24

The mountains that border Kiln Valley rise high above the south side of town. The peaks are so tall that in the dead of winter there is a week where my town does not actually see the sun. The only evidence we have that daylight has come is a gentle lightening of the gloom. At noon, if you were lucky, you saw the briefest suggestion of the sun in the form of an orange glow crowning the peaks of Silver Ridge.

Growing up in the shadow of those peaks and the more modest range to the north, I always felt a sense of confinement. Going west to Coeur d’Alene for shopping trips felt like emerging the jaws of a giant beast. Escape was all I could think about as my senior year of high school was taking shape.

Most of my classmates felt this same constriction. Some kids attenuated the pressure with beer or stronger methods of self-medication. Some kids acted out and got in trouble. Others would embrace the role in which they found themselves and seemed to strive to become the embodiment of the cheerleader, the drama geek, or the grunge punk. They would don their costumes every day and surround themselves with other people dressed like them in a sort of tribal defense. They used lipstick, outgoing personalities, and pierced noses to make them stand out as individuals. The irony was, these affectations only made them blend into amorphous groups like a herd of zebras or a flock of birds.

Nicole and I always watched the kids around us and their attempts at dealing with life in a small town with a sort of detached amusement. We never felt compelled to participate in the posturing and pretending that seemed to so important to our classmates. Our aloof attitude was just another defense mechanism but it seemed to serve us a purpose. We didn’t need to find ways to deal with the small town life in Kiln Valley because we were getting out.

Between the two of us, Nicole was always the one with the ideas. She came up with the plan in middle school.

“We’re both smart,” Nicole said one afternoon. “Probably smarter than most of the people in this hellhole.”

“I guess,” I said. “I don’t really know that I’m that much smarter than the next guy.”

“Whatever,” she said. “ I wouldn’t hang out with you if you were another mouth-breathing Neanderthal like Kevin Richardson.”

I laughed but the look on her face was dead serious.

“Here’s what we need to do. We need to get the best grades we can so we can get into college.”

“There’s no way my family can pay for college.”

“Duh,” said Nicole, rolling her eyes. “That’s why we need to get good grades. Kids with good grades get scholarships. Plus, you can get student loans to cover the rest.”

An eight-grader who thought farther into the future than dinner was pretty rare. Nicole, at twelve-years-old was thinking about college. She made it sound so easy that it didn’t take much for her to convince me to play along. From that day, we both put forth our best effort in classes. We studied together, read together, and collaborated on projects whenever we could. By our sophomore year, both of us had straight A’s and had earned the respect of our favorite teachers.

Then, I started playing football. Most of the guys on the team weren’t what you would call good students. Many of them wouldn’t pass their classes if the teachers didn’t allow a certain amount of wiggle room for them. My father even made a joke one night at dinner when I told him I’d made the varsity team.

“Now you don’t have to study so hard and you can have a little fun,” he said through a mouth full of mashed potatoes.

I looked at him in confusion while my mom shot him a disappointed look. I wondered how he could think that. I imagined he thought I was only studying so hard because I didn’t have anything better to do.

I loved my father but I felt like he didn’t know me very well. He spent so much time on the road that when he was home it was like a holiday or a special occasion. There was a nice meal and he would tell us about what happened on his trip but there was never time for any serious conversation. I never went hunting or fishing with him like some kids. We didn’t have anything to connect us besides our genes. Everything I achieved at school went without his acknowledgment until I started playing football.

When I made the varsity team, my dad was suddenly very interested in my life. I was at first a little put off by his sudden involvement. I was upset that he could ignore my success in school but be so excited that I was playing some stupid game. Eventually I found myself enjoying the attention and the praise. Dad started cutting business trips short so he could see me play. He started putting money into the KVHS booster club and my parents proudly wore their red sweaters to the games. The sat on red bleacher cushions that only the booster club members could get. By my senior year, the admiration my father gave me for playing football became one of the reasons I tried so hard on the field and at practice. I got good grades for Nicole, while I played good football for my dad.

One evening after practice, coach said something that made me realize that both endeavors could play into our escape plan.

“Good practice, men,” Coach called to the assembled team. “Our homecoming game on Friday is going to be especially important. For three reasons.”

Coach held up his hand, three fingers pointing to the darkened sky.

“First, it’s homecoming,” he said putting one finger down.

A few boys whooped and most of us laughed. The coach quieted us with a stern gaze.

“Second, we’re playing Tall Timber. They are a tough team and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.”

The coach put another finger down, his index finger stabbed straight up in the air like a flag pole.

“Third, I know for a fact that there will be college scouts at Friday’s game. Some of you might use their presence as motivation to show off or do something cocky but believe you me, nothing impresses a scout like someone that plays a solid game as a member of a solid team. Do you hear me?”

The players would always respond to that question in unison, “Yes coach!”

However the response was broken and half-hearted. Every junior and senior on the team that dreamed of playing college football was already thinking about Friday night and how they could stand out to the scouts.

“Hit the showers,” coach said to dismiss the players. “Griffith, Kinsey, to me!”

Jerrad and I looked at each other. I shrugged and Jarred winked. We both walked over to the bench where coach was picking up his clipboard and his jacket.

Without turning around he said, “You guys have your work cut out for you on Friday.”

“What do you mean, coach,” asked Jerrad.

“I mean you have a tough team to beat and you’re surrounded by a bunch of cocksure teenagers bent on proving they’re good enough for college ball.”

Coach turned around and looked first at me and then Jerrad.

“You two are the only ones that are ready for that level of play. The other guys will never play another official game of football after this season but I see the two of you going on to play for a good school.”

Coach took off his hat, wiped the sweat off of his forehead and looked back at me.

“I understand that this might be your best shot at getting into a decent school and making a good life for yourself. Don’t fuck it up.”

As often as our coach would yell at us, throw his clipboard into the grass, and send us gasping into another round of gut drills when we disappointed him, I had never heard him swear and the word hit me in the face like a slap.

“You can go,” he said and went back to gathering his things.

All week I had been wanting to tell Nicole about the scouts. I wanted to tell her what coach said about getting into a good school. This whole time I had been busting my butt to get good grades for a scholarship, I never once though that I could actually play for a college team and possibly get a scholarship for football.

But Friday came and I had not seen Nicole once. When I got to my first period class, my head was in a fog. I had so much to tell Nicole and I never had to wait so long to talk to her. My mind drifted back to the last time I saw her. I played the evening of Jerrad’s party over and over in my head. I was certain I did something wrong but I couldn’t tell what it was.

The bell rang for the end of first period. I had been in my head the whole time and I couldn’t remember what the classroom topic was. I picked up my book, grabbed my backpack and made my way to the door. I glumly walked toward my second period classroom. A kid gave me a playful punch on the shoulder.

“You ready for Friday night,” he asked in overly-aggressive tone.

“Yeah,” I said halfheartedly. “I’m ready.”

The kid looked let down. He watched in confusion as I turned and walked away without the normal high-five. Halfway to my next class, I felt someone watching me. I looked up from the floor in time to see a girl turn her head and look away. Something about her seemed familiar but I didn’t see enough of her face to recognize her. I put my head back down and moped the rest of the way to second period.

Second period went by in a blur and I found myself trudging to third period. Normally I would cross paths with Nicole between second and third period. I looked left and right as I walked but nowhere did I see Nicole’s black jacket and tattered blue jeans. I looked for her gray hoodie. I looked for her chestnut hair banded with the yellow Walkman headphones. I stood in the middle of the intersection of the two main halls of our school. Students flowed past me on either side. Hundreds of faces went by but none of them were the one I wanted to see. I gave up and made my way to third period.

I sat in my desk and didn’t hear a word the teacher said. I resolved to find Nicole at lunch. If I didn’t see her at lunch, I would skip my afternoon classes to drive back to our cul-de-sac and knock on her door.

The bell for the end of third period rang. I went to put my book in my backpack only to find I had not even taken it out. I lugged my heavy backpack to my shoulder and walked out the door and to my locker. I usually exchanged my morning books for my afternoon books so I didn’t need to come to my locker again for the rest of the day. Instead, I put my whole backpack in my locker and shut it. I scanned the hallway for Nicole. Not seeing her, I made my way to the cafeteria. I hoped to find Nicole waiting for me outside like she often did. When I arrived to the noisy lunch room, I was focused on the doors on the other side of the sea of teenagers. I almost didn’t hear someone call my name.

“Kinsey!”

The shrill voice cut through the tumult of lunch trays, silverware, and excited conversation. I turned my head to look towards the sound. At a table about twenty feet away sat four girls. I immediately recognized one of them as Jerrad’s girlfriend. She waved at me and smiled. The two girls on her left were cheerleaders who I had known since grade school but who I had never really talked to and didn’t particularly care for.

When I looked to the fourth girl, the clamor of the lunch room suddenly died down. My peripheral vision blurred and the only thing that was still in focus was this girl sitting at the table. She wore a navy blue cardigan over a powder-blue t-shirt that came down to a blue-and-white plaid mini skirt. Her legs were covered with gray tights and she wore dark blue Mary Janes with thick, chunky soles. Her hair was pulled back in a bun except two strands that framed her face. Shiny, silver hoop earrings dangled from her ears. Her neck was encircled with a choker necklace in the shape of white flowers.

The girl had been looking at the sad food on her lunch tray and raised her eyes to meet mine. My mouth fell open and I stared. The only thing about Nicole that was not changed was her piercing green-blue eyes. She looked at me, into me and I was completely stunned. Her face seemed stern and then one corner of her mouth went up in a half smile.

“Have a seat, Kinsey,” she said. “Its lunchtime.”

Why I Stayed – Part 23

I woke to the smell of coffee. My eyes drifted open and my surroundings came into focus. The color on the walls and the slant of the ceiling was familiar but but I felt out of place. My waking thought was, this used to be my home but I no longer live here. As the rest of my brain woke up, I remembered where I was and why.

The last time I was woken up, I laid in my own bed in my own apartment. My cell phone rang and my groggy hand knocked it off of my night stand in a failed attempt to make it stop. I rolled out of bed and hunted for the phone under my bed by feel. I could not lay hands on the phone, which was ringing for a second time. I laid flat on the floor so I could see under the box spring. The glow from my phone’s LCD screen was visible in the gloomy darkness under my bed. I grabbed the phone and brought it close enough to read the caller ID. The number had the prefix for a Beckham County phone number. I flipped open my phone and answered sleepily.

“Hello?”

“Detective Kinsey,” the voice on the other side asked.

“Yes, this is him.”

“I am Officer Thompson with the Kiln Valley Police Department.”

My heart began to pound. My mother still lived in Kiln Valley. My breathing began to quicken to match my pulse. I felt dizzy so I propped myself against my bed for stability.

“I am calling you on behalf of Sergeant Hoskins,” said Thompson.

“What does Hoskins need with me at this time of night?”

“He asked me to call you because we have a suspect at a crime scene and the uh,” Thompson searched for the right words. “The uh, circumstances of the victim and the suspect are such that we could use your assistance. I am told you are familiar with the suspect.”

I felt a little relief since I was reasonably sure they were not talking about my mother.

“Um, yeah,” I said as I ran my fingers through my hair.

“I’d be happy to help,” I lied.

“Would you be able to meet us at the following address as soon as possible?”

I glanced at the rocking chair near my bed. My jacket hung over the back.

“One sec, let me get a pen,” I said and got off of the floor.

I walked over to the chair and pulled a small notebook from the inside pocket. There was a short pen clipped to the spine. I flipped to the first blank page, clicked the tip of the pen out, and put the pen to the paper.

“Okay, I’m ready,” I said.

“The address is,” Thompson continued but I had no reason to write down the address.

Here in my familiar room, I sat up and looked at window. The blinds were closed but sunlight leaked around them to gently illuminate the room with the quality of moonlight. I could make out the posters on the wall, still where I hung them back in high school. My desk was still in the same place, adorned with a few trophies and framed photographs. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and put my feet on the wood floor of my old bedroom.

I took a deep breath and rubbed my neck. The pillow I used when I was eighteen years old was not as supportive as the memory foam one I had in my apartment in Coeur d’Alene. The ache along the upper part of my spine reminded me that my neck wasn’t in as good of shape as the last time I used that old pillow. There was no mistaking the smell of coffee that drifted up the stairs. I pulled on my pants and threw on the white t-shirt I wore last night and prepared to go downstairs.

After the call from Thompson, I drove to Kiln Valley. I arrived at the familiar address and I helped the police there bring my oldest friend in to custody. Although I had wanted to stay and help her, I was forced to leave her in the care of the KVPD and the Beckham County Sheriff’s Office. I got into my car, started the engine, and almost put the car into gear when I realized I didn’t know where to go.

It was obvious that I would be no further help to Nicole here at the station. I wracked my brain, trying to think of what I could do for her. I was reminded of the criminal justice and forensics conference I attended in Spokane a few months ago.

There was a defense attorney who headed a panel that discussed the responsibility of the police departments in handling domestic violence incidents. The same attorney went on to speak to the entire conference about the ideas that he and a group of attorneys across the country had regarding changes to the legislation around murder. They proposed changes to the law that allow for more equal treatment of women, specifically those women charged with assaulting or murdering the men who had abused them.

When the speech was over, I approached Robert Otis and we talked for a while. I invited him to the cafe in front of the convention center for a cup of coffee. I had been lobbying my department for better resources for victim services and recently the chief had put me in charge of training our officers and detectives on the methods of properly handling and documenting cases of domestic violence as well as rudimentary counseling and advice that could be provided to the victims to help them cope as well as to help them make changes to avoid being a victim again.

I was proud to tell Mr. Otis about my program and the progress we had made. Recurring calls to the same addresses for reports of domestic violence had been reduced by half and more women were showing up for the free counseling provided by the department at the community center.

Mr. Otis was interested in seeing how our efforts worked out over time and said if I ever had any questions or needed his help to call his cell phone. He handed me a business card, which I put in my jacket pocket. Later, as I got into my car and prepared to drive home from Spokane, I put the card in my glove box.

As I sat in the Kiln Valley Police Department parking lot, I remembered that Mr. Otis’ card was still in the glove box. I popped the door open and pawed through the contents until I came upon the white, glossy card.

The back of the card had a color photograph of Robert Otis with a thoughtful look on his face. The front had his address, desk phone, and his cellular phone number. I dialed the number and listened to it ring while I stared at the face on the back of the card. The line stopped ringing and I was sent to a voice mail greeting.

I hung up and dialed again. Otis’ phone rang again until the same unemotional voice mail greeting snapped into my ear. I hung up and dialed once more. A groggy but confident voice answered.

“This is Robert Otis and this better be important.”

“Mr. Otis, this is Detective Kinsey. I work for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department and I had talked to you for some time at the,” I started.

“The CJS conference,” said Mr. Otis interrupted.

“Yes,” I said excitedly. “You gave me your business card and said I should call you if I found a case you would be interested in.”

“I guess when I said that I had not thought you would call me at,” Otis paused. “Four thirty in the morning.”

“Right, I’m sorry to bother you so late. Or early. Anyways, I have a case you might be interested in and I would like to hire you.”

Otis needed more information but after I told him Nicole’s history and what she had done earlier that morning he agreed to take a look at her case. I tried to impress upon him some urgency because I had history with the KVPD and I did not trust them to handle Nicole or her case properly.

“I will get there to visit her as soon as I can. There will not be a judge available for a few hours so I have a feeling she will be in holding for a while,” Mr. Otis told me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Detective, you know I don’t take every case because these cases can be very difficult and expensive.”

“Yes, I know that.”

“I will call you tomorrow when I know more.”

“Thank you, Mr. Otis,” I said but he had already hung up.

I sat in my car for a minute after talking to Robert Otis. I was exhausted and I did not feel like driving over the mountain pass and to my apartment in Coeur d’Alene. Instead, I put the car in drive, exited the parking lot, and drove towards my old house in the cul-de-sac where I grew up.

I tried calling my mom on the way but she was a pretty heavy sleeper. I turned into my old neighborhood and parked my unmarked cruiser in the spot where I had parked my parent’s old station wagon countless times.

I got out of my car, grabbed the small shaving kit I kept in the glove box, and shut the door. When I turned towards my house, I could not help but look at the house next door. The house where Nicole had lived when we were younger was in need of a coat of paint. The yard was in decent shape, but only because my mom took care of it to stop the weeds from overtaking her own. There were no lights on but I caught a glimmer of light reflected off of the cut glass in the old front door and I was reminded of all the times I watched Nicole look at me from the other side of that window.

I walked up the steps to the front porch of my parents house. I rang the doorbell and then immediately knocked. I could not remember if my mom had fixed the doorbell since the last time I visited. The old porch swing hung to the left of the door. The chains that suspended it creaked as a soft breeze pushed the seat back an inch or two.

I started to knock a second time when my mom opened the front door and looked at me through the screen door.

“Trevor, what on Earth are you doing here?”

“Sorry to wake you mom, it’s been a long night and I wondered if I could sleep here instead of driving all the way home.”

My mother opened the screen door immediately and reached for my face with both hands.

“You look so tired, of course you can stay here. You’re always welcome here, this is your home.”

I let my mom pull my face down where she could kiss my cheek. She turned and walked into the house and I followed her in. I shut and locked the door behind me. My mother stood in the kitchen with one hand on the counter next to the fridge.

“You don’t have to tell me anything now,” she said with a look of concern on her face.

“Thanks mom, I’ll fill you in after I get a little sleep.”

“Sounds good, honey.”

She walked up to me and held her arms out to hug me. I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a squeeze. She patted my back like she used to when I was little and then backed up. I gave her a half smile and made my way up the stairs to my old room.

It seemed that now that my body had gotten a little sleep that it was time to go down and give my mom the explanation she had been waiting for all morning.

I opened the door of my bedroom, walked across the hall to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was visibly tired. Blue green crescents hung below my eyes, the whites of which were run with red. My face was covered in stubble and my hair was a mess. I turned from the mirror and used the toilet. I turned back to the sink, washed my hands, and splashed some water on my ragged face.

I left the bathroom and made my way down the stairs. The bottom of the stairs fell between the living room and the dining room. My mother sat in a recliner in the living room in a robe and slippers. The television was tuned to CNN with the audio muted. She had a cup of coffee on the end table next to her and was holding a newspaper up with both hands.

“Hey mom,” I said. “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee, do you need a warm up?”

“No, honey I’m fine.”

I walked to the kitchen, poured some coffee into my cup and opened the fridge. I grabbed a half gallon of whole milk, opened the paper spout, and poured some into my coffee. The milk disappeared into the dark coffee and then rebounded in curling cloud. When the color of my coffee looked right, I stopped pouring and replaced the carton to it’s shelf in the fridge.

I carried my cup to the living room. I walked past my father’s chair and took a seat on the couch nearest my mother. I took a drink of coffee and set the cup down on the same end table as my mother’s cup. I leaned forward, put my elbows on my knees, and rested my face in my hands.

“I haven’t read a newspaper in weeks,” my mother said. “But I was hoping to find something in here that might explain your late night visit.”

My mom folded the paper and smiled at me. I doubted the paper would have anything in it about what happened the previous night. The police would not release any information to the press until they had to and the neighbors’ reports of the emergency vehicle activity would probably not make it into today’s edition.

“Did you find anything?”

“No, nothing but the same worthless stuff they always print. Which is why I haven’t opened a paper since the day after Thanksgiving.”

“Nicole killed Jerrad,” I blurted out.

“Oh my god,” my mom said. She reached for her coffee cup and I could see that her hand was shaking.

“Hoskins called me to help bring her in to custody. She was still sitting on the body when the cops showed up. They needed me to talk her down so evidence didn’t get ruined.”

“Well, I can’t say he didn’t deserve it.”

I looked at my mother.

“You and I both know that,” I said and sat back in the couch. “But she will have a hard time explaining it to a jury. I have a feeling she will be going to jail for a long time.”

“Is there anything you can do?”

“Well, I know of an attorney that helps with those kinds of cases. I called him and he said he’d look into it.”

“Have you heard from him since?”

“No, but I’m not sure he can even get in to see her. She has to declare her lawyer to the police or they will arrange a public defender. That will take hours if not a couple days.”

My phone rang and I was startled to find it was still in my pocket. It was an Eastern Washington number, I recognized it as Robert Otis’ cell phone. I stood up, walked to the window that looked out into our back yard and answered the call.

“I was able to pull some strings and spoke to Nicole a few minutes ago,” said Mr. Otis.

“How is she?”

“She is alright. I introduced myself and instructed her not to talk to the cops or sheriffs without me.”

“Good, thank you. Can I do anything?”

“This is never an easy conversation to have since it usually happens during times of an already difficult circumstances.”

“You need to know how you’re going to get paid,” I said.

“Well, yes. I have reviewed the police report and from what you told me last night this is exactly the kind of case I want to take. I think for now we should just talk about covering my expenses and we can talk about fees later.”

“No problem. I have a credit card that I can use to pay for your expenses.”

“Excellent. I need to get to work, as I’m sure you do too.”

I was about to say thank you again when I noticed that Robert had already hung up.

“Lawyers always have to talk about getting paid,” my mother said. “Don’t take it personally.”

“Thanks mom,” I said.

“Do you enough money to pay him?”

“He said he only needs expenses now, I can use my credit card for that.”

“When it comes to fees though, that’s where it will be bad.”

“Yeah, I’ll figure something out.”

“Well, your father didn’t leave me much but he did leave this house. Bought and paid for. If it means getting Nicole the best defense lawyer you can find, we’ll just get a loan on it. I’m old enough for reverse mortgage or we can maybe do some kind of equity loan.”

“Mom, that’s really nice but I don’t think it will come to that.”

“Well, if it does you just ask me and we’ll go to the bank right away.”

I looked at my mom and tried to smile. But the stress and the fear that had been pushing me onward collapsed. The relief I felt at knowing that Nicole had a decent lawyer and that we had funding if it would come to that left me deflated. I looked at my mom and tried to blink back the tears that had been building after my phone call with Mr. Otis. The tears fell anyway. They left cool tracks down my cheeks and dripped onto the legs of my pants.

My mom sat forward in her chair and put her hand on my knee.

“It’s going to be okay, honey. We’ll take care of Nicole.”

Why I Stayed – Part 22

I stood in front of the closet in my bedroom. It was covered by two sliding door panels. When you opened one, it would either hide behind or pass in front of the other panel. One panel to my closet was always open. The hanger rod on this side of my closet held my many t-shirts and hoodies, a few pull-over sweaters, and a warm Army-surplus coat. The floor was covered with a few pairs of boots, all in black, and a couple pairs of Chuck Taylor rip-offs from the cheap shoe store in the mall in Coeur d’Alene. On the shelf above the hanger rod was a stack of old toys and the blanket I used to sleep with when I was a baby.

The other side of my closet was almost never opened. The only time this side of my closet saw the light was after Christmas or my birthday. On those occasions I would unavoidably get clothes from my mom and from her mother before she died. They always bought me “nice” clothes. To them, they were clothes that would look pretty on me. To me, it was clothes that would make me look like every other girl in my school. Every item was much too colorful, too tacky, or too trendy for me. Whenever I would unwrap one of mom or grandma’s presents, I would smile and say thank you. Later, I would take the clothes to my room, hang them carefully on a hanger, and put them into the side of my closet that I never opened.

I took a deep breath and started to slide the door panels to the left. The colors of the shirts hanging neatly on the right side of my closet all reminded me of the clothes I saw at the party earlier tonight.

As Trevor and I left our neighborhood, I sat and steamed in the passenger seat of his car. I was so angry at my father for leaving my mother alone that I couldn’t even talk to Trevor, who had tried to start up a conversation with me a couple times. As we made our way through the Fur Trap, it occurred to me that I had left my mother too. I had left to go drinking with my friend. The realization came to me as we passed The Old Mill, which was one of the places my dad would often go to drink beer and hustle tourists on the pool tables. I turned my head to look into the big windows that faced the street but I did not see my father. My anger turned to sadness and guilt.

Trevor saw my attitude change and he apologized for not being able to give me a ride after school. I told him not to worry about it and then I told him about my mom. I told him about her arm. I told him that I thought my father did it. Trevor didn’t really know what to say, but he asked if my dad had ever hurt me and it made me feel good to think he was concerned about my well being.

He turned on to the road that led up the side of “snob hill” and the engine revved with the effort of the climb. The higher we climbed, the houses got bigger and farther apart. When we reached the top of the hill, Trevor turned into a cul-de-sac that was packed with cars. There was only one house on the right side of the street and every window was glowing with bright light. I could see people walking up the street toward the party. The house on the left looked dark. Many of the people that lived here only occupied their houses in the summer so it was very possible the neighbors weren’t even home.

We drove all the way to the end of the street before we found a spot large enough for Trevor to park the station wagon. I grabbed the bottle of schnapps from the glove box, stuck it in the pocket in the front of my hoodie, and got out of the car.

I stood next to the station wagon and listened to the engine adjust to the cool night air. The pings and ticks of the cooling metal blended with the music and laughter that drifted from across the street. I had never been in a house that big and I marveled at the size of it. I knew from school gossip that Jerrad was an only child. That meant Jerrad, his mom, and his father were the only occupants of the house that was easily five times the size of my home. My parents’ house was a veritable hovel in comparison. I was struck with a sudden urge to get back into the car and go back to our neighborhood.

“This place is huge,” I said. “Are you sure you want to go in?”

Trevor was already halfway across the street. He turned, smiled at me, and said something back. I couldn’t actually make out his reply. My heartbeat had increased in volume and I could barely hear his voice over the thrum of the blood moving through my circulatory system. I didn’t need to hear Trevor’s words. I read the smile on his face and the look of excitement in his eyes.

For me, this party was an obligation. For Trevor, it was vindication. He was finally in the “cool guy” club and he could not wait to join the party. I jogged across the street to meet him on the curb and we both walked across the lawn towards the front step.

We passed a group of kids smoking weed and I couldn’t help but wonder if the dope they were smoking was bought from Tim Morneau, David’s brother. One boy took a huge hit and I watched his eyes bug out as he tried to hold it in for effect. The pipe was passed and the next kid held it to his lips and struck a Bic lighter. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those kids. They were desperately trying to be cool but they were more likely to share a respiratory infection.

We made it to the front step and Trevor exchanged hand shakes and palm slaps with a couple other jocks. I made a remark about how latently homosexual that stuff was. Per usual, it completely went over Trevor’s head.

As we walked up to the front door, I could feel the music in my chest. The music was accompanied by a constant chatter of teenage voices. I was reminded of the cafeteria at school. There was a collection of adolescent male voices boasting and fronting the manhood they desired to project. There was a chorus of piping female voices trying to be heard above the din, tempered with the attempt at sounding like they couldn’t care less. When Trevor and I entered the front door, we were slammed in the face with the sight, sound, and smell of a hundred teenagers trying desperately to fit in and stand out at the same time.

I looked at Trevor and I saw his face change from excited to nervous. I’m not sure what he expected to see when he walked into this place but I think his senses were bombarded with a sudden deluge of dancing, music, and perfume. I saw his eyes scan the room and I noticed they landed on the sliding glass door that led from the dining room out onto an expansive patio.

Trevor took my hand and began to lead me through the crowd of children and over to the freedom of the open door. As we passed the crush of bodies, I started to recognize classmates. It was difficult to reconcile the faces I saw to the people with whom I went to school. The women I saw dancing to the beat of the music were older. They wore makeup and revealing clothing that would never pass the dress code of Kiln Valley High School. The men wore the hard expressions of someone that had worked all day and had come to drink and compete with other men for the attention of a woman. It was like I had accidentally stepped through a time portal and arrived at my twenty-year high school reunion.

The tragedy was that these kids were not twenty years past their prime. They were in their prime. They were living the times of their lives and all they wanted was to look older. To be older. I smiled to myself at the idea that in twenty years, all of these people would be trying to look younger and would be wishing they had more thoroughly enjoyed the years of high school before being tossed onto the slag heap of adulthood.

We arrived at the back porch and the cool air was welcome relief to the press of humanity behind us. I had just started to relax when I realized the host of the party was right before us.

Jerrad Griffith leaned against the railing of his porch. His arm was around a girl I should know from school. Her face was unrecognizable beneath the makeup and the bored expression she wore. Jerrad was talking to an older man. I eventually recognized the older man as his father, Jonathan Griffith.

Jonathan Griffith was the richest man in town. He came to Kiln Valley at a time when the mine’s profitability was starting to falter and real estate values were low. He started an investment firm that bought up property around the town, including the mountain above the mine. When the mining business started to falter, Mr. Griffith was there to buy up the mine’s property for a song. The mountain above town was now the Silver Ridge ski resort and the property that Jonathan bought for cheap was developed into condos, restaurants, and shops that catered to the people that came to Kiln Valley to ski and snowboard.

The older man greeted Trevor and the men talked about football. I didn’t really hear a word of it. I gave Jonathan Griffith my best uncertain look and pulled the bottle of schnapps out of my hoodie pocket. I took the plastic wrapper off the neck and handed it to Trevor.

Mr. Griffith seemed to become uncomfortable all of a sudden and excused himself.

I opened the cap, took a swig, and turned my uneasy eye on the younger Mr. Griffith. Jerrad Griffith was wearing a tight t-shirt that showed off the musculature of his shoulders. His hair was dyed blond and spiked in a Californian surfer style. He on had a stylishly-loose pair of jeans that probably cost more then my family spent on groceries last week.

“Damn, homegirl,” said Jerrad. “I didn’t know you liked to party.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes. The bored girl encircled by Jerrad’s right arm outwardly rolled her eyes.

Jerrad introduced his girlfriend to Trevor. I was relieved when Trevor neglected to introduce me.

The bored girl said something about dancing and dragged Jerrad away to the crowded house. Trevor and I watched them make their way to the dance floor. We were having another conversation about the latent homosexuality inherit in football when I noticed that Trevor was still watching the other couple dance.

“Ugh, they might as well be fucking in front of everyone,” I said.

“They’re just dancing,” said Trevor.

“You call that dancing? You want to dance with me like that?”

Trevor opened his mouth to reply but stopped himself. He looked at me and I saw a confused expression momentarily flicker across his face.

“I don’t really like to dance,” he said.

“Huh,” I said and took the schnapps bottle from him.

I took another drink and then handled the bottle back to him.

“I have to pee,” I said.

I turned and walked across the porch. I entered the kitchen, gave a disdainful look at the dance floor, and turned right in search of a bathroom. The truth was, I didn’t really have to use the toilet. I had taken a few drinks of the schnapps in a short time and my head was swimming with the effect of the alcohol and the anxiety of being around so many people. I was also a little bothered by the look in Trevor’s eyes when he watched Jerrad dancing with that girl.

I have not worn anything as revealing as that girl’s shorts since that day in my parent’s front yard when Trevor and I were running through the sprinklers. I felt betrayed by Trevor’s interest in that girl’s butt, which was barely covered in her cutoff jean shorts.

I found a bathroom but there was a line of people outside. Since I didn’t really have to go, I just walked past and found myself in a hallway with doors on either side. These were probably bedrooms, although one was likely to be a linen closet. I found myself at the end of the hallway. I was shielded from the onslaught of the sound system and there weren’t any people here so I leaned against the door at the end of the hallway for a few minutes. After I collected myself, I decided to return to Trevor and hoped that he was still on the porch where it was cool and less densely-populated.

I wandered back through the kitchen and out onto the porch. Trevor was still there. He was holding out a match to light a cigarette for Jerrad’s girlfriend. She reached up and took his hand in hers to bring the match to the tip of her cigarette. They looked into each other’s eyes while she puffed the cigarette to life. When she leaned back, I swore I saw a look of yearning in Trevor’s eyes. He enjoyed her touch. He enjoyed her closeness. I was disgusted.

I walked up quietly in my imitation Converse and reached into Trevor’s coat pocket to find the pack of Marlboro Reds. I tore open the pack and handed the plastic wrap to Trevor. I snatched the matches out of his hand. I tried to light one of the matches but it died immediately after the white fuel on the tip burned off and I didn’t have time to get the flame to my cigarette.

Jerrad Griffith walked up to us and put a cold beer on the back of his girlfriend’s arm.

“Looks like we’re out of Diet Coke,” he said and smiled.

I tried to light another match, but this one wouldn’t even sputter to life. I angrily tossed the useless match over the balcony railing and got a third match ready. It sputtered to life and I managed to singe the end of my cigarette with it but I was unable to actually get it lighted.

“Here,” Jerrad said.

He reached into his pocket and produced a shiny Zippo lighter. He opened it and lit it with a flourish. I leaned in to put the tip of my cigarette to the flame and puffed until I felt the hot smoke erupt from the filter and into my mouth.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Anytime,” said Jerrad.

I can’t say for certain, but I think he winked at me. If he didn’t wink at me, he looked like he wanted to. His smile was wide and his blue eyes looked into me in a way that made me feel simultaneously nervous and excited. Jerrad put the lighter back into his pocket and I saw that his girlfriend’s face had changed from bored to spiteful. I glanced at Trevor’s face. He looked sad or concerned. I grabbed the bottle from him and tipped it up as if I was taking a large swig. In reality I took only a little sip. This evening was proving to be more dangerous than I had assumed it would be and I needed a clear head.

Trevor and Jerrad talked about football. The bored, sneering girl and I looked everywhere but at each other. After the football conversation had exhausted itself, Jerrad excused himself for the the bathroom. I felt a wave of relief when I hear Trevor say we were about to leave.

“So soon,” Jerrad protested.

“Sorry man,” said Trevor. “I have to help my mom around the house tomorrow.”

“I hear you,” said Jerrad but I doubted he ever had to help his parents around the house.

Trevor and I left the party. We drove down from snob hill in silence and listened to the air rushing past Trevor’s open driver side window. When we pulled up into his drive way, he cranked up the window and sighed.

“Well, that was fun,” I said.

Trevor looked at me and smiled.

“Seriously?”

“Well, I didn’t have to deal with any cheerleaders.”

“Um,” Trevor said. “Jerrad’s girlfriend is a cheerleader.”

“Of course she is,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing,” I said.

I opened the passenger door and stood up into the cool night. Trevor got out of the car and carefully shut his door so it wouldn’t wake his mother. I followed suit and shut my door quietly. I walked around the hood of the car and approached Trevor.

“Did you want to sit on the swing for a while,” I asked.

“I wasn’t lying when I told Jerrad I had to work tomorrow. Mom wants all the leaves raked up before dad gets home.”

“I see,” I said.

We stood there in an awkward silence for a few minutes. Trevor looked at me like he wanted to ask me something but he never did.

“Alright,” I said. “Have a good night.”

I hurried away from Trevor and jogged to my front door. I opened it and walked into my house to find it dark and quiet. I shut the door and walked quietly up the stairs to my room. When I opened the door to my room, I walked up to my closet and kicked off my sneakers. I took off my hoodie and hung it on an empty hanger. I pulled off my jeans and stood in front of my closet in just my t-shirt.

I looked at the door panels that hid the other half of my closet. I lifted my right hand, pushed both panels open, and looked at the colorful clothes hanging inside.

Why I Stayed – Part 21

I read somewhere that everybody dreams. People who say they don’t dream simply do not remember the dreams when they wake. Light sleepers and people who wake naturally are more likely to remember their dreams. If you use an alarm clock, you are snapped immediately from dream state to waking state and your mind doesn’t have time to commit the dream to memory. For most of my life, I slept like I was dead. Sometimes my alarm clock wasn’t even enough to wake me and my mother would have to come up the stairs to get me up for school. I rarely remembered my dreams.

When I moved in with my first boyfriend, I was completely unprepared for how it would effect my sleep. He lived in a condo and everything was different. The smells, sounds, and lighting were so unlike my old room in my mother’s house that I hardly slept. Things did not improve after we were married and we moved into his father’s house. In fact, I had nearly gotten used to the environment of the condo when I suddenly found myself in a strange house with all new scents and distractions. I would wake in the early hours of the night and sit up in bed. My eyes would be focusing on the walls of our bedroom while my mind was still living out some strange scenario from my dream.

Sleeping in this jail cell should have required yet another adjustment. It seemed almost ironic that I slept better on the hard bed, surrounded by concrete and steel then I ever did next to my husband. Perhaps it wasn’t so much where I slept that made it easier to come to rest. Perhaps the restlessness from which I suffered for so long was gone because I was mentally free from the pressure and fear of which my married life consisted. Physically I was locked away in jail, but mentally I was completely free of the prison that contained me for the last six years.

In my cell, I laid down and slept easily. I woke up when my body was done sleeping and I remembered my dreams almost every time. I kept having one dream over and over.

In my dream, I was lying on my bed in my parent’s old house. A strange noise would drift up the staircase from the living room and I would get up to go investigate. I would open my door and the noise would get louder. Every step I took down the stairs would carry me closer to the source of the noise but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the sound was. I would make it to the landing at the bottom of the stairs and notice that the sound I heard was static coming from the television. From where I stood, I could see a beer can on the end table next to my father’s chair and the remote control on the arm rest. I would cross the living room slowly, the white noise from the TV getting more intense with every step. The air would seem to thicken and as I got closer to the easy chair, my steps began to take more effort. I would summon all of my effort to take one more step and bring me alongside the recliner. I would slowly turn my head. And I would see that my father’s chair was empty.

This is when I would normally wake up in my cell. I would sit up, momentarily surprised at the papery clothes on my body. After I realized where I was, I would try to hold on to the memory of the dream. I would sit with my back against the wall of my cell and try desperately to hold on to the vision so I could figure out what happened.

Eventually the memory would fade. The sound of the television and the faint smell of cheap beer would dissipate. I would have to give up on my dream and either turn my attention to the bleak surroundings of my cell or to the story I was writing in my head.

I sat in just this way when I heard keys jingling outside my door. The door swung open and the young cop from the other day peeked into my cell. He pulled the door the rest of the way open and I saw Robert Otis standing behind him.

“Nicole, it’s time for your initial court appearance.”

I stood up from my bed and stretched. My slippers made a soft shushing sound as I walked out to meet my lawyer in the hallway.

“I have a change of clothes and some food for you in the interview room. We can go over what will happen and what you need to do after we get some food in you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Mr. Otis gave me a funny look like he was not used to hearing that word.

“You’re very welcome,” he said.

We walked behind the young policeman, who led us to the interview room. I felt a flush of pride when I remembered how I handled myself in the face of Detective Demarco and I was hoping to have a chance to tell my attorney how well I did. Robert opened the door to the interview room for me and I was suddenly very hungry. On the table was a white paper bag. In the center of the bag was the brown image of an owl, slyly winking one eye.

“Oh my god,” I said. “That smells amazing.”

“I was told that is your favorite,” said Mr. Otis. “Dig in and we can talk when you’re done.”

I tore open the bag. Inside I found a cup of crispy tater tots and something big wrapped in white paper. I took the cup out of the bag, set it in front of me, and in a matter of seconds had eaten half of the crunchy potatoes. I reached into the bag to grab what was wrapped in paper. Grease had saturated the paper in places, making it translucent. I unwrapped the parcel and found a cheeseburger dripping with grease and The Brown Owl’s special sauce. My first bite was so big that I almost couldn’t close my mouth to chew it. I somehow managed to take smaller bites going forward and finished the burger. I sat back in my chair and smiled.

“You have quite the appetite,” said my lawyer.

“I haven’t been eating much lately, I have some catching up to do.”

“Well,” he said looking at his watch. “We have about twenty minutes until you’re due in front of the judge. I am going to step out into the hall and let you put on the clothes I bought.”

Mr. Otis pointed to to a black plastic bag that sat on the table.

“You brought me clothes?”

“And shoes,” he said offhandedly. “Your house is still locked up so I couldn’t get you anything of your own to wear. I guessed at your size, so hopefully it all fits okay. After your hearing, you’ll be transported to County Jail. They’ll take these clothes and put you in a uniform. They’ll let you have these clothes back whenever you leave for trial.”

The food suddenly felt heavy in my stomach. The idea of going to jail put damper on the happiness I felt from the food and I was momentarily not sure if it would stay down.

“I’ll step out into the hall while you dress, knock on the door when you are done.”

Mr. Otis opened the door and pushed it closed behind him. I swallowed a bit of my lunch that had started to come up and washed it down with a can of Diet Coke I found next to the empty white bag. I leaned across the table and lifted the black plastic bag over the greasy remains of my cheeseburger and set it on my lap. Inside was a soft purple sweater and a pair of gray slacks. A red shoe box was in the bottom of the bag. I opened it to find a pair of shiny black flats. I looked at the door to make sure the little window was closed and cast a worried look over my shoulder at the one way glass on the other wall.

I wouldn’t put it past Hoskins to sit in the room on the other side of that glass to watch me change. The thought gave me goose bumps but I calmed myself by thinking my lawyer would not allow anyone to be in that room to violate our privilege to privacy.

I took all the clothes out and set the shoe box on the floor. Underneath the shoe box was a pair of nude-colored knee-high stockings, a comb, a nude-colored bra, and a makeup kit. I made a mental note to thank my lawyer for being so thorough even though I knew I’d see every penny of this on an expense list later. The expense of my legal representation made me think of Kinsey. I had no idea how he did it but he had arranged for a capable lawyer to take my case. That couldn’t have come cheap and I could only imagine the debt he would owe after this was done.

I tore the tags off of the bra and checked the size. It wasn’t perfect, but it would fit. I slipped the paper shirt off and put the bra on as fast as I could, just in case. I lifted the purple sweater and noticed it was a tunic-style sweater that I had seen hundreds of women wear downtown. It wasn’t something I would buy for myself but when I slipped it over my head and looked into the mirror, I saw that it fit nicely. I pulled off my pants and put the slacks on. They were a little big but I preferred that to too small. I pulled on the stockings, put on the sensible flats and crossed the floor to knock on the door.

Robert opened the door and gave me a quick look up and down.

“They seem to fit,” he said.

“You did a great job,” I said.

“Actually, it was my secretary. But I’ll tell her you were happy with her choices.”

I nodded, returned to the table and picked up the comb. I turned to face the mirror so I could watch as I combed my hair.

Robert went to the table and sat down. He used a pen to slide the greasy wrappers out of the way and opened a small valise. He took out some sheets of paper and set them side by side. I watched him in the mirror and saw him straighten each one so it was square to the other sheets as well as to the edge of the table.

“The state of Idaho does not have an insanity defense,” he began.

“That’s fine because I am not insane,”

He sighed and shook his head.

“I know that. What I mean is we can’t plead temporary insanity. We have two choices at this stage in the process and I need you to understand the implications of both of them before you decide.”

I did as much as I could with my hair, which was limp and a little greasy. I walked to the table and set the comb down. I picked up the makeup kit and got close enough to the mirror to use it for my face. When I got close enough, I could see the rough outline of chairs in the room on the other side. I was relieved to see that both of them were empty. I looked at Mr. Otis to see he was watching me with an expectant look on his face.

“Go on,” I said. “I’m listening.”

“Our first option is to work out a plea agreement with the prosecution. If we plead guilty, we could likely talk them down from a murder charge to manslaughter. Manslaughter takes the death penalty off of the table and carries a much shorter prison sentence than murder.”

I took my focus off of my eye shadow to tell him, “Okay.”

“Our second option is very difficult and most likely impossible.”

“And what is that?”

“To plead not guilty and convince the jury that you had no choice but to kill your husband. It would be a justifiable homicide defense built around self defense.”

I had just finished putting on some pale lip stick. I turned and looked at him.

“Why would that be so impossible? I can sit in the court room and tell them all under oath that my husband was going to kill me. It would not be a lie. It was only a matter of time until he pushed me too hard or choked me for too long.”

“That might be the case, but that is hard to prove in court without history of abuse. Without medical records or police reports to corroborate your story, the prosecution is going to make you out to be a cruel bitch who got sick of her lazy husband and killed him.”

I was suddenly very angry. I slammed the makeup kit shut and walked over to where my lawyer sat at the table.

“That man was going to kill me. He very nearly killed me earlier that night!”

“I see,” he said and nodded his head. “You don’t know this but there is a reason Mr. Kinsey sought me as your attorney.”

“I assume he looked in the phone book under ‘slime ball defense attorney’ in the yellow pages and you had the biggest ad.”

Mr. Otis laughed.

“Not exactly. Mr. Kinsey attended a conference at which I was one of two keynote speakers. He came to me after my presentation and told me how impressed he was with my ideas.”

I looked at my attorney with a skeptical expression on my face.

“My presentation was about methods of representing women who were abused by their husbands. I spoke about the need for change in the law because it does not provide equal protection to women. I spoke about how when women find themselves in a position where murder is their only way out of an abusive relationship, they are overwhelmingly sentenced to longer jail terms than their victim would have gotten for killing the woman in a drunken rage. After my presentation was done, Mr. Kinsey sought me out and we talked for a while. I gave him my card, which has my cell phone number on it.”

My anger abated and I sat down in the other chair. A few years ago, Trevor was given the chance to leave the Kiln Vally Police Department for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department. Coeur d’Alene was a much larger city and had the resources for the kind of police program that Trevor had tried and failed to implement at KPD. He was currently a detective for CPD but he headed an unofficial department of “Victim Services” officers that specialized in helping the victims of crimes, especially domestic abuse.

“When he left you at the station the other night, Mr. Kinsey called my phone four times in a row. I very nearly didn’t pick up but my wife urged me to answer. I’m glad she did.”

“Why,” I asked.

“Because your case is exactly the kind that needs help from someone like me.”

I put my elbows on my knees and almost put my face in my hands when I remembered my makeup.

“So,” he started again. “I need you to understand that I am not your friend. I am not here to tell you what you want to hear and I will often say things that will make you angry and make it sound like I am not on your side. But keep in mind that I am the only person that can help you.”

I looked at him and nodded again.

“You were telling me that you knew your husband was going to kill you and that you had to do what you did to prevent that from happening. That is self-defense, if you ask me. However the law is not so forgiving and we run a huge risk by pleading not guilty.”

“A huge risk?”

“Yes, a huge risk. If we plead guilty to manslaughter, they will sentence you to fifteen to forty-five years in prison. If we plead not-guilty, go to trial, and you are found guilty you will either be sentenced to death or life in prison.”

“Okay, that is a huge risk.”

“Are you prepared to take that risk?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good,” said Robert and picked up his next set of papers. “Let’s get ready for your first appearance in court.”