The following story was written as an exercise for my writer’s group. The mental illness refered to in this story is an actual illness I have read about.
Manhole covers stream rising.
Bitter breeze finding small gaps along my coat. Shivers.
Cold streets bitter wind downtown middle of night and I.
I would rather be in bed, with Nora, down coverlet pulled above my head, eyelids drooping in drowsiness, oblivion on the verge, listening, oh how familiar and comforting, to Nora’s light sleep breathing. Instead, I hunch into the fleece collar of my bombardier jacket, out on these streets because of a promise. A drunken promise made years ago, largely forgot. Until now.
Phone rings. Nora stirs in her sleep. I heave off bed cloths, leap into darkness. Nightstand. Toes. Muttered curse. Again, when arm knocks handset off archaic phone. should buy a cell phone. Hate cell phones. I grab out into the dark, entangle fingers in spiral cord and pull handset up. Then, sotto voce, “Yes.”
“Dane?” It is a voice remembered from college. “It’s Rick.” Frat parties. Adolescent alcoholic binges. Foolish stuff. And a promise largely forgot.
“Rick?” Alarm clock on night stand reads 12:36 AM. 2:36 his time zone. “What’s up?”
“I need you, Dane. Remember our promise?”
I remember. Two stupid kids chugging beer and gulping peanuts. Saturday night at our Frat house: Psi Sigma Theta. Believing our words eloquent, our sentiments profound. Last weekend before graduation. Rick leaving to be Junior Partner at a significant Orlando law firm. Me, moving to Greeley to pursue a doctorate at the Colorado Teachers College.
“If you need me,” I had slobbered through alcoholic fumes, “I’ll be there. Anything, Rick. No matter when, just call and I’ll be there for you.” I remember my promise far more clearly than it possibly could have been spoken.
“Me, too,” blubbered Rick profoundly. All forgotten by dawn, largely, as our stomachs voided themselves of our indulgences, as bathroom tile became penitent bed to sleep off our drunk.
Graduated. Then off on our separate ways. Rick being best man when I married Nora. Then I the same for him when Rick married Jennifer. Then just years of Christmas letters keeping us in touch. Rick going on to become senior partner. I, to becoming professor at my college. No mention of the promise at any time. Largely forgot.
And yet…there I was on cold streets. Steam rising. Breeze blowing. Searching for a girl I didn’t know. Rick’s daughter. Because of a promise.
Again, I thought, “I should call the police.”
“No police,” Rick was emphatic when I first made suggestion. “They will take her to a mental facility and hold her three days. As soon as she’s found, I want to take her home, get her the care she needs. No police if possible.”
So I first drive the cold streets, the wisps of steam rising, dispersing. Too many shadows, dark corners, hidden places. I abandoned my car. Now afoot, I prowl these streets, not to eager now to meet police under these circumstances. “What are you doing, 1:00 AM, on deserted downtown streets?
I again take out the picture Rick sent to my email. 8 1/2 by 11, 20 pound bond, breeze-flapped where fingers don’t control it.
Julie. Rick’s nose. Rick’s smile. Jennifer’s eyes and long brunette hair. Hint of papillion behind her eyes.
“Not a runaway,” Rick tells me. “Student at D.U. in cultural anthropology. Apparently some mental condition. Didn’t know anybody. Didn’t recognize anything. One night, before we could get there, she walks out of her dorm, never comes back. Searchers come up empty until tonight. Tonight, her roommate is in Greeley for a party. Leaving downtown eatery, sees Julie. Calls her name. Julie doesn’t answer, doesn’t look, just turns into an alley and is gone. Roommate calls me. Now I am calling you because of our promise.”
After an hour on foot, my search seems hopeless. I’ve searched Lincoln Park, behind the civic center, down side alleys, out by the train depot. Too many places a girl can disappear into. She could be up around Island Grove or down by the university. Maybe the police should be called in? I turn back to my car.
I am passing a public lot when I think I hear a sound, faint, uncertain. Perhaps a trick of the breeze? Perhaps a feral cat? I listen. Perhaps only my overwrought imagination?
I strain to see into dark corners, a distant street light throwing less illumination than a candle at this distance. I must know, must investigate.
I walk towards a row of dumpsters on the far end of the lot. All is silent save my foot falls. No cries for help. No yowls. No wind moaning. Nothing.
But someone is there, behind the smaller dumpster. Sprawled. Tattered jacket, jeans her meagre protection against the cold. Halo of tangled hair framing her face. I glance between photo and person. Beneath the dirt, despite matted hair, Rick’s nose, Rick’s mouth. I assume Jennifer’s eyes as I stoop to rouse her. Rank, unwashed odor assaults me.
She is slow in rousing. “Julie. Julie,” I call, shaking her. Tears squeeze from my eyes as I cradle her head. Part bitter breeze. Part rank odor. Part sorrow. “Come on, Julie. Your dad sent me. He’s catching a redeye. He will be here by noon. Let’s take you home.”
She opens here eyes, uncomprehending. I stare into her dull orbs. No longer Jennifer’s eyes. Voided eyes. No papillion. She looks like a light starved moth.
“Home.” What else is there to say to a lost child, to empty eyes? I pull her into a sitting position. “Come,” I cajole. She doesn’t understand, yet lets me raise her, get feet under her. I put my arm about her, take her hand. I lead and she follows. Lamblike. I shepherd her two blocks to my car.
She sinks into its leather upholstery. I settle behind the wheel. Kick the engine into life. She is already asleep.
Nora is waiting, hot water on stove and two mugs promising hot cocoa. Nora settles Julie into a chair by our kitchen table. She wraps an afghan about her and hands her steaming chocolate. She hands me another.
Julie sips. Her vacant eyes circle our kitchen uncomprehending, flaccid, curiousless. I talk, hoping to draw her out. She sits tacitly. Nora leaves to draw a tub of hot water. She returns, gathers Julie, herds her toward the bath. She soon comes back, Julie’s rags in hand. “Burn them,” she commands. Nora shakes her head. “The girl’s so thin that every rib shows.”
I take her befouled garments. Wince. The thorn of a goat head, caught in the arm of her jacket, impales my thumb. I lay her rags down, looking stupidly at the drop of blood growing on my thumb.
Nora is a long time. Only sounds of splashing water, an occasional moan of wet body sliding against wet tub, and then, after a long silence, the door opens. Nora leads a clean Julie from the bath, one of Nora’s bathrobes hugging the barely awake girl, already the robe dampened by gleaming hair.
Nora leads her to our guest room. She settles Julie between clean sheets. I pour a mug of cocoa for Nora. She takes it from me, grateful in look and word.
“She is asleep, Dane.”
“So should you be, after you finish your cocoa.”
“And you, wandering half this cold night. You need your sleep more than I.”
“But someone must be awake. We must not let Julie leave when she wakes.”
“We will take turns. I will watch first. You sleep.”
I yield. I settle into bed. Before I can think two thoughts, I am asleep.
I wake. Sunlight is falling upon our bed. Nora didn’t wake me at the appointed time. Picturing Nora asleep in the living room, Julie awake and already gone, I bound from bed, this time missing the nightstand. I toss on clothes helter-skelter. I rush down the hallway.
They are in the kitchen together. Nora is pushing bacon around a skillet. Julie is sipping an orange juice, dressed in Nora’s somewhat loosely hanging clothes.
“Good morning Dane.” Nora smiles at my befuddlement.
“You didn’t wake me,” I state most accusatory.
“There was no need,” most unrepentant. “Now wash up for breakfast. And tuck in that shirt tail. It’s disgraceful how some professors pay no attention to dress.”
Nora slips of to bed once breakfast is served. Julie’s plate is heaped with scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, slices of apples. Julie eats, no, engulfs, as if she doesn’t know when she will next find food. Once our plates are clean, I try her again.
“Your father is coming to get you.”
“Father?” At last I hear her voice, soft, small, childlike, yet empty, uncomprehending.
“You have been sick, Julie. Your father is coming to take you home.”
I place her before the TV. children’s cartoons command her attention.
Rick pulls up in his rental car, five minutes of twelve. It is the same old Rick, only heftier, crow-eyed, grayer. But this is no time for “you look great,” or “remember when.” There is only Julie, and the first signs of hope in Rick’s heart-broken eyes. Nora and I hurry him to Julie.
He gathers her into a bear hug, weeping. I am weeping. I look at Nora. She is weeping. Only Julie is dry-eyed. Nora and I move in like angels, arms extended, surrounding them with our feeble support.
Then we hustle Julie to the car, speaking our best wishes to her perceptionless ears. We hug Rick. We assure him of our prayers.
“How can I ever thank you for your sacrifice?”
“No sacrifice, Rick. We made a promise.”
“A drunken, foolish, college frat promise.”
“But a promise, no less. You would have done the same for us.”
As they vanish around the far corner, I speak. “What if it were our Elizabeth? Or our Samuel?”
“Hush,” commands Nora, laying a finger on my lips. “Let us not borrow evil. sufficient unto the day, you know.” Then she twines her arm in mine and gently leads me back into our comforting home.