I realize how late this is going up this evening. You can thank Potluck Sunday and a joyful and productive Vacation Bible School planning meeting for that. I appreciate your patience.
Before you read this, I strongly recommend you read the four stories listed below (and also posted on this blog) in order to understand the context of tonight's short story, which you can find after the jump. It's not one hundred percent necessary, but a lot of things will make much more sense if you do.
They say you never completely come back once you start going down that road. It always comes up in the directions when you enter a new address, try to take yourself to a new destination. It teases and taunts you every single time you get in the car and drive.
You almost went there once.
You could go there again next time.
I’d tried to shake the memory of that night, of being ready to pummel the dark haired, olive skinned man sitting on the other side of the railing into an early grave and the woman I’d loved forcing me to step back. Let him go, Jordan, before you hurt someone.
My brother, Nate, was the guy who knew how to make people scream in agony. Investigating and reporting was more my line of work, but outrage had gotten the better of me, and I’d charged into the lion’s den.
If the opportunity presented itself, with nothing standing in my way, I would go after Johnny again in a heartbeat.
I only had one good reason not to follow through at the moment, and it was Sarah. The image of my niece sitting on a bench, straightening imaginary wrinkles and picking at nonexistent pieces of lint on her perfectly ironed pencil skirt kept me rooted in my seat. Sarah sitting there murmuring every strengthening thought she could muster, reminding herself of every reason why she needed to do this. I didn’t want to take this day away from her.
“Why do people keep on telling me it’s okay if I don’t?” she asked me at dinner three weeks ago. We were at a hole in the wall diner a couple of blocks off of Main Street, buried in a corner booth. It was close to work, and I was trying to clear my desk so I could take the time I needed off of work for that morning with a relatively clear conscience.
She’d dipped her last French fry into the giant pool of ketchup that always came with her shaking the bottle too vigorously before pouring, and was stirring it in a tight circular motion – like she was irritated and trying to keep it under wraps.
“They know it’s hard, kiddo,” I’d told her, watching the fry with an eagle eye. The last thing I needed was ketchup flying up and staining my brand new shirt (a birthday present from my fiancée). Leigh knows me well enough to not be surprised, but I’d wanted to keep that one stain free for as long as possible.
“A lot of things people do are hard,” Sarah had said in return as her French fry fell into the ketchup pond. “But it doesn’t stop them from trying.”
Like when you and Dad tried to find me, she didn’t say.
“You’re young,” I’d said, grimacing deep inside as I did. Sarah’s eyes had rolled in typical teen fashion because adults told that her all the time. Usually in the context of a young person lacking in life experience, though. Not a teenager who had spent years in the hands of sex traffickers. “And a lot of them think it might be easier for you to forget and move on.”
“People are dumb,” she’d said, and dug through the ketchup with her fingers for her lost French fry without looking down.
“I’m right there with you.”
Sarah had sighed, stared at her plate, and sighed again as she picked up a napkin with her clean hand and started wiping her fingers off. “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
I could have fed her all of the abysmal statistics, reminded her of how long the odds of finding her dead body in a few years had been, but it never would have changed her mind about the path she had chosen. Sarah’s as stubborn as Nate and I both are (no surprise there… she got it from the same place we did).
And I didn’t want to stop her.
I wasn’t alone in the courtroom that morning. My brother sat to my left, and Leigh to my right, the outline of her ring cutting into my finger as the grip of my hand crushed hers. Aimee, Nate’s wife, sat on his other side, and I knew her hand was going to be as bruised as Leigh’s. My brother wasn’t handling this much better than I was.
Then our attention wasn’t on the circus around the man responsible for everything Sarah would be coping with the rest of her life anymore. The woman of the hour was walking towards the witness stand, eyes trained on her destination. She didn’t mess a step, didn’t hesitate. When she was seated, and she finally had to look at the man behind the table, her gaze didn’t shrink away.
But the way he leaned in, like he still owned Sarah, nearly had me up out of my seat. Leigh’s ring dug deeper into my finger as I squeezed it tighter.
“Jordan…” Leigh’s voice was the lowest of whispers in my ear without being unintelligible.
I closed my eyes, started counting backwards in my head. You can do this. Sarah needs to you stay calm. She needs to you stay calm.
The prosecutor was asking low-ball questions when I opened my eyes. Without turning my head (I’d promised Sarah that if she needed someone to focus on, I’d have enough presence of mind to be that person for her), I whispered back, “Thank you.”
Leigh - my best friend, my partner, the woman I loved. She was the light at the end of the tunnel, the voice gently guiding me back on course when I started back down that violent, anger-filled path, and she was the reason I never planned to take it again.
And her answering hand squeeze was “You’re welcome” enough.