According to the last sign I passed, Payne is about fifteen miles away. I traveled maybe two or three more miles before pulling into this rest stop. My plastic bag of clothes is on the sink next to me, along with a cheap pack of razors, and a small can of shaving cream I bought with the money I had left over after gas.
This is the first time that I’m free to feel clean. I can splash my face and feel the water wash off what isn’t me anymore. I can shave without worrying that Teddy is going to make me cut my skin. I’m free to enjoy something as simple as this. It’s routine to many people, but to me, it’s everything.
Every moment without Teddy is like learning to breathe again, after being fed oxygen for most of my life. I was existing. No. I wasn’t even existing. I was a ghost who made people’s nightmares a reality.
Even with all the newness I feel, I know what I’ve done. I’m preparing myself for the consequences, because once they start, they won’t stop.
I just need these few minutes to enjoy every breath of air, every splash of water, and the cold burn of the shaving cream as I apply it onto my mess of facial hair. This is my last stop. And then the consequences will start.
The peace that I feel doesn’t change the sadness passing over me. It lets me know that I’m never alone. But, I still miss Marcy, especially as the quiet of this house reminds me of how just last night she called for me. It almost makes me expect to hear her call for me again.
Janet is sleeping soundly on me. She fell asleep after our long talk. She now understands what still has me in awe. It put her in the same place and then lulled her to sleep, like a baby being rocked back and forth by protective arms. It put me to sleep for a little while, too. I dreamt I was holding Marcy. I was feeling her kisses on my cheek, her little body tight in my arms, and her sweet little voice telling me how much she loved me. It felt so real.
And then I woke up. And I remembered that the hug I gave her this morning was the last I’ll ever give. And I’ve been lying still ever since, trying not to let the sadness stick, trying to hold onto the warmth of knowing I’m never alone.
But, the quiet can be lonely. It can be filled with the sadness you’ve outrun all day, reminding you that it still hurts. No matter how good God is, it still hurts. It will hurt for a long time. Life was never promised to be easy. And when this hits, the sadness does stick. It can stick for a long time. It can actually destroy you—
I can’t let the sadness stick to me. I’ll always miss my little girl, but I know there is a reason for this. I know there is more than just pain in this situation—there already has been. I will not revert back to the man I was last night. He was the man who had replaced Jesus with his daughter. He was the man who found strength in her alone. That isn’t me anymore.
The quiet can be a stage for stories to be told. It’s a place where doubt can spin a tale and convince you it’s truth. Instead of focusing on what I have gained, it shows me what I have lost: just last night you were still a father.
Yes, I was.
But also, just last night my wife was a lifeless shell. Just last night I was a man filled with bitterness, slowly dying from the poison inside. Just last night I had Marcy, but nothing else.
The longer I stare at myself in the mirror, the more I realize how much I want to run. I will never be ready to face the consequences for what I’ve done. I am a coward. I want to be free without having to face what I’ve done. It’s selfish. And I know that I can’t follow it. But, the desire is still there, still strong, still something I’m imagining: I could still bring M back without turning myself in. I could leave her outside on the lawn and then disappear.
It’s only a thought. It’s only pictures in my mind. It won’t happen. There is only one direction I can go. No matter how scared I am, there is no turning back. I have had these few moments to clean this dirty face, to wash the cuts on this body, to change these dirty clothes, to shave away the last part of the man who is no longer me. And now it’s time to leave. I will never be completely ready. Some part of me will always want to run. But, this freedom I’ve been given means nothing without the consequences. And if I did run, where would I even go?
There is no purpose for me outside of this. If I ran, I would lose all that I have gained. And what I have gained is so much more valuable than these few moments in front of this mirror…
The hardest times are not going to be under this house with Janet. They are going to be around the people of this town, because…
… Life goes on. At least it’s what people expect. It’s what they say. So, it becomes a role to play, because people don’t want to see your pain. They don’t want to see how you hardly smile anymore or how all your conversations somehow always come back to your pain. They tolerate it for a time and then they just stay away.
I’ve experienced it before. And I’m expecting it again, because not tomorrow, but soon, I’ll have to step back into my routine. And when I do, I can’t be quiet and distant. I have to be a functional supervisor. It doesn’t matter what has happened, because life goes on…
I’m parked outside of M’s house. It’s 11:54 pm. I know what comes next. I know what I have to do. I look at myself in the rearview mirror one more time before opening the door. There is no turning back.
I open the backseat door and grab M’s body. Her skin is cold and her small body is heavy in my arms.
I’m not afraid. I’m calm. I expected this to be a fight to the finish. Instead, it’s a simple walk to the front door. No shaking in my body. No falter in my steps. I’m ready for this. I never thought I would be. But, I am.
My steps are long. I’ve taken five. Maybe four remain. The freedom I have wanted for so long continues to find me at different levels. Every time I think I have experienced freedom, I’m shown that it’s only the beginning. These few steps are the deepest level of freedom I have experienced yet. It’s the freedom of choice, the freedom of knowing that I could run but don’t.
And now, it’s the freedom to knock on this door…
I’m trying to fill my head with songs, because the quiet can bring sounds, like soft knocking on the door downstairs. It’s what I want to hear, especially now that it’s almost midnight and my eyes are heavy. I want to believe that I won’t have to go to bed tonight, wondering if I’ll ever see her again. I want her to be returned as suddenly as she was taken, so that we can say goodbye.
I hear it again. Louder this time. Janet’s eyes open slightly. She hears it too.
“I have to get up, sweetie.” I whisper as I slip out from under her. She doesn’t reply. She just resituates now that I’m no longer on the couch and falls back to sleep.
I’m standing at the top of the stairs, looking down. I hear it again, as loud as before. The darkness in the entryway matches my fear. The knocking terrifies me. I want Marcy to be on the other side of that door. But, I also don’t know how I’m going to handle it if she is.
I hate the knocking, because no matter who it is, I’ll always want it to be her. It could be anybody on the other side of that door. It could be a different officer wanting to ask me more questions about Ms. Brands. It could be just my exhausted mind playing a prank. But, it always could be her. And I know that no matter how many times it isn’t, I’ll always prepare for it to be.
I flick the switch next to me, lighting up the entryway. The light doesn’t give me any comfort. The quiet of this night has pulled apart my defenses, leaving me a weak and tired man. Until she is returned, I will never be able to walk down these stairs easily. It will always be hard.
I start stepping down the stairs. I can feel the pressure of tears building deep inside of me. I can feel the pangs of realization hammering into me like nails. The hardest part is knowing that this will happen every time. I will always prepare myself for it to be Marcy. Until it is her, I will always go through this…
I’m at the bottom of the stairs. I’m ready to face this. I’m ready for it to be her, even though it probably isn’t. I grab the doorknob and turn…
The door is opening slowly. I’m not shaking. Not even now. I’m ready. As the door opens, I can see the inside of the house: carpeted stairs that continue up to a second level, a well lit entryway—Matthew Mills.
I can only stare at his face. He’s looking at me with eyes that have no words. One is almost swollen shut; the other almost looks blank. Does he even have a heart left? The pain I see on him could take me to my knees. It’s because of me that he looks empty. Because of me…
I want this to be a dream. I want to wake up. Now that she’s here, I don’t want her to be. I don’t want this to be reality. I thought it would be easier to say goodbye, to know that she was truly gone, but it isn’t. My little girl is just a dead body in the arms of this man. She’s just a dead body. All life is gone from her. All love. All warmth. All joy.
I feel like the life has been drained from me and I’m in hell, moment by moment drifting farther and farther away from all emotion. I know of God’s love, but I can’t feel it. I know His warmth exists, but I only feel cold.
The events of today feel like they happened years ago. All purpose that came from them is lost on me. I’m looking at my little girl’s body and I see no miracles, no silver linings, no happiness. It feels like she is all there is in my life. And with her gone, it feels like I’m gone too…
I know this is a lie. But, it’s the only thing that feels true. I know I had to lose Marcy to get back my relationship with Jesus, and Janet, and myself. But, what I know isn’t what I feel. And what I feel is hopelessness.
I don’t have questions to ask this man. I don’t have words to say. I just want my little girl back. I put out my arms to take Marcy.
“She helped save my life.” he whispers as he hands her over…
Matthew’s face changes immediately. He doesn’t grab M from my arms. He freezes midway, now just looking at me with wide eyes.
“How?” he asks quietly.
“She was kind to me.” I whisper. “She cared about me. She told me that Jesus wanted me to know the light wasn’t gone.” my words seem to hit him like stones. His eyes aren’t just wide anymore, but wet. “Those words changed me. Even after every unforgivable thing I’ve done, Jesus still loves me? And he forgives me?” my eyes are wet, too. “But, I don’t expect you to forgive me, Matthew. I wanted to bring you the message of how Jesus set me free, how He used your little girl. I thought it would give you hope in your pain. But—”
“It has.” he says as a tear falls from his healthy eye. He steps forward and takes M from my arms. He looks at me for a moment more and then steps inside. The door closes…
Marcy is so heavy in my arms. She is no longer just my little girl, but the whole weight of this situation: the clarity of a much bigger plan, the sting of my own selfishness, and the reality that it was always meant to happen.
I’m exhausted. I’ve used all of my strength. Nothing remains. I fall to my knees, too tired to stand. I look down at my little girl. But, I’m too tired to cry, too tired to feel any of this. Her weight in my arms is so heavy, yet it comforts me completely. I can close my eyes now. I can fall asleep, knowing that she is right here.
I saw hope in Matthew before he closed the door. I saw relief. He grabbed M like she was a weight he was ready to carry, like she was a reality he was ready to face. But, he also grabbed hold of her like she was a piece of him being put back in place.
This is the best it will get. This is the quietest it will be. The other families will not react like Matthew did. They have had the burden of time attached to their loss. All of their hope is gone. And all they will want now is justice.
I want the same thing for them, because I am not that man anymore. I am enemy to him. What he did is not something I want to run from anymore. What he did is something I will face, no matter how much it will hurt.
I don’t know where the police station is in this town. So, I’m walking back to the Buick to sit and wait. I know they’ll be here soon…
My girls and I are finally going on our picnic. There is a beautiful park back in our hometown of Anderson. We haven’t been there in a while.
Janet is my faithful passenger; Marcy is my little chatterbox from the backseat. She’s telling me about a man. “This man, daddy. He was lost. He was hurt. Jesus wanted me to help him.”
“Did you?” I ask, keeping my eyes on the road.
“Yeah, I did, daddy.” she smiles at me. “Daddy?”
“Yeah, sweets. What is it?” I glance in the rearview mirror.
“Take care of mommy.”
My eyes open. Janet is crying, sitting on the bottom step. I fell asleep with Marcy in my arms. I don’t even know what time it is. How long has she been down here? How long has she been crying alone?
“Janet.” I whisper as I lift Marcy toward her. “Hold her.” she pulls her from my arms and wraps Marcy tight in hers.
Take care of mommy. I will, sweetheart. I will. But, I have to let you go. I have to say goodbye. I have to be okay, even though you aren’t here anymore. I want to have you forever, but I can’t. Jesus wanted you to help that man. And you did. And I’m so proud of you. I will take care of mommy. I promise.
Janet’s face isn’t buried in a tight hug. She is now cradling Marcy, looking down at her the way she did when she was born.
“You brought me so much joy, baby girl.” she says with a sad smile on her face. “I’m sorry you didn’t see more of it from me.” she looks at me and shrugs while slowly shaking her head. She doesn’t know what to do next. She doesn’t know what to say.
“Say goodbye.” these words hurt to say.
Janet just shakes her head. “I don’t want to.” she pauses as new tears trace over the old stains on her cheeks. “I neglected her, Matty. I wanted you to love me like you loved her. I was so jealous of her. I wasn’t a good mom. I was just com-competing.” she stutters through her tears.
“That’s not your fault, sweetie. It’s mine.” these words hurt, too.
“How can I say goodbye, Matty? It’s only now that I realize how much I’m going to miss her. It’s only now that I see how much joy she gave me. I couldn’t see it before. I was blind to it. How can I say goodbye? I’m not ready to say goodbye. I’m finally ready to love her like I should have. But, she’s gone.”
Take care of mommy. These four words are like the five Janet was given by Jesus. They are helping me keep my eyes on something else. Not the devastating reality, but the responsibility that I still have.
I have enough strength to stand and join Janet on the bottom step. I brush her matted bangs from her face. “It’s going to be okay.”
She looks at me with eyes that are searching.
“Keep looking up at me, baby.” I pause. “Remember what you saw when you heard those words?
She nods her head.
“Keep holding onto that promise.”
“How?” her whisper is child-like, a question emptied of all direction.
“You need to know that our little girl did not die in vain.” Her eyes search mine immediately. “She helped save a man’s life. She helped him find Jesus. He was the one who brought her back.”
She looks down at Marcy and back up at me. “Does that help you?”
“Yes.” I say as I wipe away a falling tear. “It preserves the memory of our little girl. H-her kindness led that man, the very person that took her away, to Jesus. It gives me hope, sweetie. It gives me something to hold onto. She’ll never be this life-lifeless body. That isn’t her, Janet. That isn’t our Marcy. B-but who she was is who that man saw: a light that was so bright, he couldn’t help but see Jesus shining through.”
“Yeah.” her bottom lip is trembling like mine. We aren’t two separate people right now. We are one. My pain is hers, her pain is mine. There isn’t a distance between us anymore. Instead there is a connection that we have never had. A closeness we’ve never shared. This isn’t pulling us apart at the seams. It’s weaving us together. “Matty?” she whispers.
“For what, sweetie?”
“For helping me see who our little girl was.” she’s smiling despite her tears. “She was the brightest of lights.”
More and more of who I was before Teddy is coming back to me. I remember a story dad told me when he took me camping. I was still little. Five. Maybe six. He told me why they named me John. He told me about a man named John the Baptist. He said he was a voice in the wilderness, that his purpose in life was not to be accepted, or liked, but to live only for Jesus Christ. Then he told me my purpose in life was the same.
Something changed in Janet’s eyes immediately after she called Marcy the brightest of lights. They regained the certainty she had been carrying throughout the whole day.
But, when she looked back down at Marcy, they deflated again…
I know what I have to do. I have to call the police. I have to let them take her away, because the time to have her here has passed. I only have to look at Janet’s eyes to see that.
I pull the phone from my pocket. Janet’s eyes follow it.
“It’s time, Janet.”
“I know.” she answers quietly.
These memories aren’t random. They are guiding me, like footprints in a desert. A path has been laid out before me. Jesus is speaking through these small memories. I was born to live only for Him. Even after everything I’ve done, somehow that truth remains. Somehow that is still my purpose.
“You have given me a purpose that I’m not worthy to have. There is someone so much better than me. The testimony of how You set me free doesn’t erase what I’ve done.”
The testimony is your purpose, John. His vibrant voice is loud in my mind. I close my eyes. The majority of the people will hate you. They believe that a depth exists that I won’t go down to. But, they can’t begin to fathom how deep My love runs. It is not conditional, like theirs. Your purpose has always been to tell the world that no one is too lost for Me.
“Who will listen?”
Are you the only person who has committed murder before? Is it you alone who has wanted to be free, but felt you were too lost? John, your testimony is for the people who think they can’t be forgiven, the people that this world has already written off as hopeless. But, they aren’t. I know the hearts of my children. I’ve come to tell them that they can always be forgiven. And you’re my voice.
I’m sitting in His presence. There is nothing like it. It’s waves that pulsate and dance around me. It’s warmth that wraps me completely. It’s a place where fear doesn’t exist. Everything I’m about to face seems so small, because In His presence, I am complete—
Tap! Tap! My eyes open. The flash of red and blue is the first thing I see.
“What are you doing out here, Sir?” an officer asks as he shines a flashlight on me through the window.
I roll the window down with my left hand. “I’m turning myself in.”
“What did you do, Sir?”
“I kidnapped Marcy Mills from the school down the street.” I pause with a slow blink. “She was the fifteenth child I’ve kidnapped in the last twenty six years.”
He’s alert immediately. “Put your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t move.”
I do what he says.
I was told to lay Marcy on a flat surface. I was told to distance myself from her. The man I talked to didn’t want me to further contaminate the scene. He used cold, professional terms. She didn’t have a gender. She didn’t have a name. She was body or the deceased.
It was a short call. And when it was over, I took Marcy from Janet’s arms, carried her upstairs, and laid her on the couch. Janet didn’t try to follow. She didn’t say another word. She looked at me with grateful eyes, like I was taking away a burden.
I kissed Marcy’s cold forehead once and then covered her up with the throw from the couch. I didn’t stay with her any longer. I joined Janet at the bottom of the stairs and held her close…
Even now that the knocking has started, I haven’t let her go. She needs to know that this isn’t going to break us.
“We’ll get through this, sweetie.” I whisper as I stand up. “I promise.”
It’s Jesus within giving me the strength to stand and walk toward the door. It’s the promise of the five words He gave Janet; and the responsibility of the four Marcy told me. I have to hold onto what I know.
I’m opening the door for them to take her away. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s the very thing I avoided when my dad died. I was there for all three years of his battle. But, when he took his last breath, I had to leave. That small boy still exists in me. He still wants to leave, to hide away, and to avoid this reality at all costs.
He still exists in me, but I am not that small boy anymore. I’m opening this door, because I trust that everything is going to be okay. Despite the questions I have, and the deep pains I feel, and all uncertainty that remains, I trust in Jesus. He’s my Rock as the rest of my world crumbles beneath my feet. He’s my joy. My peace. My comfort…
Two men are waiting at the door. One is a cop, the other a coroner.
“Have you said your goodbyes?” the coroner asks.
I can only nod my head as I look back at Janet. She nods the same with a sniffle.
I’m like garbage in the backseat of this cop car: my very presence causes disgust. The officer cuffed my wrists, read me my rights, and then said nothing more. He already sees me as filth. And he doesn’t even know how dark it goes. He only knows that I kidnapped fifteen children. He doesn’t know that fourteen are dead and buried.
If he did, I don’t know how he would react. He won’t look me in the eyes as it is. I’m already a monster. Already. And he has only heard the beginning. If this is how he sees me before knowing everything, what will I be after? If I’m already a monster, what’s left?
He’s talking to someone else over his handset about the situation: the Mills girl was deceased upon arrival; another officer is with the family; the coroner is examining the victim’s body; the culprit is in custody; I’m bringing him back to the station now—
As the car pulls away, my eyes scan over the remains. The red and blue lights make everything look hollow. The white van parked in the driveway is there to take M’s body away. This is what I leave behind. I take happiness away and leave nothing. The Mills’ home is now just a crime scene…
The only way I know I’m awake is because I’m not reliving last night anymore. It still feels like I’m sleeping. Or it feels like I’m awake, but from a terrible nightmare where I lost my little girl. It feels like I could leave our bedroom right now and find Marcy watching Saturday morning cartoons in the living room. If I let myself, I can even hear it. And if I let it, it could make me incredibly sad.
What I’m feeling is too familiar. After I lost dad, every day was a struggle to feel anything at all. It was easier to exist in a state of suspension, where time didn’t move and life didn’t continue. It was easier to hate God than to trust Him…
I’m faced with the same choices now. But, I understand so much more than I did after dad died. The Lord didn’t take my little girl to hurt me. He took her because He had become a footnote in my life. He took her so that I could finally see the poison that’s been slowly killing me. He took her because of my wife. He saw what Janet had become to me. And he saw what Marcy had become to her. He took her to save that man. There are so many facets, so many reasons why.
But, it doesn’t make it any easier. My little girl is gone and isn’t coming back. I can’t change that. The only control I have is over what choices I make: Will I trust that Jesus has me secure in His hands? Or will I get lost in the sadness?
It’s not even a choice anymore. It’s a necessity. It’s my only hope. He is my waking thought. He is in every breath I take. And If I don’t trust Him now, I never will. I can’t make that mistake again. I can’t listen to the sadness, that’s telling me that I’m completely alone, and that all the things that have been repaired are just going to break again: my marriage isn’t going to last; my faith isn’t going to be strong enough.
It is easier to hate than to trust. It is easier to slip under the waves than to keep a heavy head above water. In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about easy: easy is the road that leads to destruction; but, narrow and uninviting is the path that leads to salvation…
This is a new day. But, I don’t know how to navigate it. Where do I begin? Just one step after another? Part of me still thinks I’m going to see Marcy in the living room. And even though I know she’s gone, it doesn’t change my expectation.
How do I navigate through this, Lord? I’m split in two. I’m a dual person. She’s gone, yet I still expect her to be here. How can I fully trust You if half of me is still telling lies? How can I know that losing her was necessary yet want her here so badly?
Take care of mommy. It drops into my mind like a heavy stone. I look over at Janet. She’s sleeping sound, but the sadness from last night has left a deep crease in her forehead. When she wakes up, she needs to see that she’s not still second to Marcy, because a new day can erase any progress that was made the day before. I made her a promise last night. This new day isn’t going to change that.
I want to see her smile again. Not a smile that falls away after a moment, but something that leaves an imprint in her, something that causes random reoccurrences because she knows she is enough for me. I remember when she used to smile like that before the first miscarriage. She hasn’t smiled like it since.
I remember the way she smiled when I woke her up with breakfast in bed the day after Marcy was born. I scrambled the whole carton of eggs, made probably a dozen waffles with our waffle maker, fried up a whole package of bacon and poured her a very big glass of orange juice. I was so proud of her. She had worked so hard to get our little Marcy into this world—
I’m going to make her breakfast in bed.
I’ve always believed that freedom happened in a moment, that the chains would fall away, never to weigh on me again. I never realized it was a daily choice. I never realized that every day was a new beginning for either freedom or bondage…
I saw Teddy last night. He was at the foot of this small bed. He wasn’t a bear anymore, but a mouthless man with a face full of eyes. He looked like me, but different. Deformed. Soot colored. And bleeding from many places.
Then my eyes opened. And I haven’t closed them since. The message is more than clear. He isn’t gone from my life, but he is bleeding. He doesn’t have a voice anymore. He doesn’t have the hold he once did. He is a mouthless memory, a dog with no teeth left to bite.
But it also means he isn’t gone. And if I let him, he can come back again. Just like the memories are footprints, what I saw last night is a warning sign. No matter how hard this gets, I have to keep stepping forward, because Teddy is looking for a way back in.
It’s a familiar fear that I feel. The same fear that followed my nosebleeds. The same fear that Teddy has controlled me with for most of my life. It is in the familiar that I forget the new. I know Jesus has set me free. I also know that I have to keep stepping forward for that freedom to stick—
This walk is so heavy, Jesus. It’s already almost more than I can bear. It’s not just because I’m afraid to face the consequences. I know I’m not strong. And if every new day erases what came before it, how long will my freedom last? If this is just a daily race, how long will it be before I lose?
You are mine, John. You can’t lose. Immediately, these words sit on me like a crown. You were made for the very road you now face, which means I have already given you the strength to walk it.
I always know when Jesus is done speaking. He says exactly what I need to hear. He never leaves me in my worries. He gives me the words needed so I can step out of them myself. He gives me sight past my circumstances. First with Teddy, and now this.
This jail cell is one of three in this room. The other two are empty. The police are just through the door to my left, in a big room divided into small offices. I can hear voices starting to gather. The night crew must be switching over. The officer who brought me here last night said only what was required of him before locking me away. He said that the interrogation would start today, when the officer in charge of Marcy Mill’s case came on duty.
We didn’t have many ingredients on hand: frozen waffles, three eggs, a handful of hash browns, and enough orange juice leftover for a small glass. But, the breakfast is untouched on the tray at the bottom of her feet. She isn’t hungry. I guess it was more the thought that counted this morning. She smiled warmly at my attempt and then told me about the pit in her stomach. She said it’s been there since seeing Marcy’s body last night and that she’s afraid it will be there for a long time.
I can’t stop looking down at the food she won’t eat. It’s a constant reminder of how little I can do. I can’t even take care of my wife. I can’t even make her smile anymore.
The silence is a divider between us. And the only thing I feel is the anger flooding back into me. This is the very reason why Marcy became all consuming in my life. She always needed me. She always lit up when she saw my face. I never wondered if she loved me…
I can’t say the same for Janet—
My marriage isn’t going to last. The thought is like a ghost walking past me. Nothing has changed. The two miscarriages nearly killed Janet. What is Marcy’s death going to do to her? The wife you saw yesterday was a glimpse of who you’ll never have again—
“Matty?” Janet’s voice slightly cracks as she speaks.
“Yeah?” my reply is quiet.
“Can you hold me?”
I nod without speaking and wrap my arms around her. She starts to cry immediately.
“I miss her, Ma-Matty.” she’s struggling to speak. “And I’m trying to hold onto what Jesus told me. But, it hurts—so much. Whenever I think about our little M, I think about what we won’t get to experience. The school plays we won’t g-get to see. The report cards we won’t get to read. The holidays we won’t have t-together.” she pauses. “We won’t see her get married. Or have children. Or-or—
“I know.” I can only whisper. “But we have to keep going, sweetie.” I pause. “Do you know why I made you breakfast this morning?”
She shakes her head.
“The day after Marcy was born I made you breakfast in bed, because I was so proud of you, so in love with you. I made you breakfast today to tell you the same thing: even though our little girl is gone, I am still so in love with you.”
There’s that smile, showing amidst her tears. I’ve wanted to see it for so long. It is the smile I saw when I fell in love with her, the smile I saw when I pulled back her veil at our wedding, the smile that she carried with our little girl, the smile she met me with every morning, and the smile she ended everyday with. It was the smile that always told me she was okay. And it tells me the same thing now.
It’ll be any moment now. The endless ticking of the clock above the door is a constant reminder. Things are about to change. And even though I had to face Matthew while holding his daughter dead in my arms, I haven’t truly felt the pain of my consequences.
But, that’s coming. Any moment now, the officer in charge of M’s case is going to come through that door. He’ll bring me into a separate room and learn everything I’ve done. He’ll see what I no longer am. And then everyone else will see it. And that is where my consequences will truly begin.
When I close my eyes, I can see it: waves of people holding signs to express their disgust, the deafening chant of their inexpressible hatred toward me, toward the monster I will always be to them. Some will hurl questions at me that I can’t answer. Nobody will understand. They won’t care how it started, about the day in the shed, and everything that came from it. They’ll only care about what I became. And what I’ve done—
I think the door is opening. A quiet click has brought a much louder set of sounds: someone laughing, someone else coughing, and phones ringing from more places than one—officers settling into their morning shifts. I haven’t opened my eyes yet.
“I’m in charge of Marcy Mill’s case.” his voice is steady; but, my heart rate isn’t. And I’m starting to shake. “Stand up and walk towards me.”
I open my eyes. The man standing outside of the cell is twice my size. His eyes are flat and empty, like blots of dried ink on dirty paper. He’s a living man who looks like he’s already dead. How familiar…
My shaking has stopped. The fear has settled. I stand up and step toward him. He reaches his hands into the cell and cuffs mine tight. He doesn’t say anything. He just unlocks the cell door and lets it swing open.
I step out of the cell, immediately lost in his long shadow. The dim light in this room is only hitting him. Through the door ahead, I hear the sounds of the day continuing. Behind me, I hear only his breathing. It’s deep and controlled—which means he wants to lose control. It means he doesn’t know how to react to me.
I step forward, staring down at my feet. I have no shadow; his covers me even when he doesn’t follow. But, I’ve come to realize that there is no me anymore. My identity is my crime. Right now it’s M’s kidnapping and death. But, soon it will be so much more. I’m not even a person. I’m just part of this process: a criminal caught and waiting. I’m at the mercy of everyone else. And it starts with this man…
But, this man will understand. a quiet whisper from within. Just like you, John, he knows what it means to have his life taken from him.
What should he understand, Jesus? The death of those children? I don’t even understand why I killed them. I know what I’ve told myself. But, I should have died instead of killing Thomas. I didn’t have to do it. I made a choice. I was so hurt, and angry, and alone. Teddy made me feel wanted. I was willing to do anything to have someone in my life…
Is that what it really all comes down to? I killed Thomas Aerie to have a friend?
You were lied to from the beginning, John. The thing you call Teddy earned your trust through lies. Your father wasn’t a tyrant; he killed himself the night of your mother’s funeral. When this was hidden from you, all truth was hidden from you.
Does that make it o—
The officer grabs my right arm from the side, forcing me forward quickly. He’s leading me out of this room and into the next. And now he stops me in the doorway of the main room.
“Take a good look, ladies and gentleman!” he’s showcasing me. “This is why a child is dead.”
I have to keep looking down at my feet. I don’t want to see their eyes. I don’t want to see their hate. But, I can feel it regardless. Everyone is looking at me. And the silence in this room is louder than screams. The atmosphere is filled with their disdain. I am on display as a child killer. If they could, they would kill me right now.
I am at the mercy of this man, whose hate towards me is only now fully showing. He needs to show me to others, to share in his hate, because his isn’t enough. It’s like a fire that can only be put out with an explosion.
Except, it’s not being put out. It’s burning hotter. He squeezes my arm as he forces me left of the doorway. His breaths are losing any sense of control. They are shallow and faltering, unable to hide his rage any longer. He’s rushing me to the room, no longer wanting to share in his hate, but to keep it to himself.
What will he understand, Jesus?
The bondage, John.
I’m nearing a door with a faded gold number 1 on it. His grip on my arm continues to tighten. He’s not under control. He’s about to snap.
“You’re broken.” I didn’t mean to speak. The words just came out.
His grip loosens slightly as he continues to lead me toward the door. Those two words didn’t slow him down. But, somehow they calmed the storm…
He opens the door, leading me in.
“Sit down.” he says as he closes the door behind him.
I do what he says.
“I don’t understand a man who takes a little girl from her school, and in less than a day’s time, returns her dead body.” he pauses as he sits down. “I don’t care what your name is; I’m supposed to care. I’m an officer of the law. I’m supposed to follow a specific protocol. A code of conduct. But, I don’t apply it to filth.”
I’m looking down at my feet again. I don’t know what to say.
“When you turned yourself in, you made it clear that Marcy Mills wasn’t your first. You told the officer that you had kidnapped fourteen other children in the last twenty six years. What happened to them?”
I’m shaking my head slowly.
“I was afraid of that.” he sighs. “Fifteen children dead, because of you. You can sit there and play remorseful. You can avoid all questions with that pathetic silence. But the fact remains that you are worthless. A man who kills children is not a man. He’s an animal, who needs to be put down.”
“I know.” I whisper as I look up at him.
“What do you know?!” it slithers from his lips. “You know how to listen and react! You know how to manipulate a situation just the way you want it. You know how to act remorseful. But, you don’t really know what you’ve done. You don’t really know the pain you’ve caused or the lives you’ve destroyed. You are nothing more than a dog who has mauled a child. Your eyes are apologetic, but you don’t really understand the ramifications. Just like an animal, you can’t comprehend the emotion. Or the permanency of the loss.” He makes me feel so small. “The dog kills the child but then looks for the child to play a day later. It doesn’t understand what it’s done. Even when you are about to put it down, it doesn’t understand why.”
“I know what I’ve done.” I whisper. “I turned myself in because I finally can. I’m finally free from it.”
“Free from what?” he asks very slowly.
He smiles slightly, “where do you think you’re going?”
“It’s different. And I know you understand that, officer. I see your eyes. They are empty like mine used to be. You understand prison.”
“You know how to manipulate: I’m broken?” He shakes his head. “But, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of picking me apart. My job is one thing today: find the location of your victims.
“They’re buried under the deck of my childhood home, just outside of Minea, Minnesota.”
“Minea, Minnesota?” his eyes widen.
“What happened to the three boys that jumped from the downtown bridge in 1983?”
“How do you know about Minea?”
“What happened to them?” he ignores the question.
“You won’t believe me.”
“What happened to them?”
“Teddy got in their heads.”
“Who is Teddy?”
“He has been my prison for twenty six years.” I feel naked.
He sighs, “Ms. Brands died yesterday, like those boys did over twenty five years ago.”
“Who is Ms. Brands?”
“The woman who called Marcy to the office. Did Teddy get in her head too?”
“Yeah.” why do I keep thinking about the words she typed? My dead husband burns. So will I. “He said she wouldn’t remember seeing me.”
“The only reason I’m listening to this is because Mr. Mills talked about it yesterday: Minea. The article from 1983. And how it all correlated with the death of Ms. Brands. And the kidnapping of his daughter.”
“How did he know about Minea?”
“He said something from inside Mr. Brands told him.” his voice is quiet; his eyes are searching me desperately. He’s looking for something. “You said you are finally free.”
I nod my head just enough for him to see.
“Teddy wanted me to take Marcy. Like the other children, he picked her out before I ever saw her. He chose children that had light in their eyes. And Marcy’s was the brightest I had ever seen.” I pause. “He told me to say I was an employee at the factory her father supervises. He said she would trust that. So, I lied to her. She didn’t see a hideous man. She just saw Mr. John. Teddy wanted me to kill her there, because he hated the light. I didn’t want to take her away. I wanted to bring her home. But, Teddy didn’t allow that. He would’ve killed me before he let that happen. So, we got on the interstate to go back to Minea. She wasn’t afraid, like she should’ve been. She just said, ‘Jesus wants me to tell you the light isn’t gone.’ And then she died. There was no pain or fear. Teddy never even got a chance to hurt her.”
He’s just staring at me. His face is empty of everything. I don’t know if he believes me or not. I don’t expect him to—
“What happened next?” he asks as he closes his eyes.
“Everything changed. I was pursued by a love that I don’t deserve. I deserve to be put down like an animal, officer. I don’t deserve forgiveness or compassion or love. But, that’s what I’ve been given by Him. He’s pulled me out of the dark, when I didn’t think it was possible. If He can do that for me and give life back to a man dead inside, He can do the same for you. I don’t know what you’re going through. I just know those eyes. I would see them every time I looked in a mirror.”
He breathes heavily as he pulls a small notepad from his back pocket. “It doesn’t really matter,” he pauses. “Just give me the address of the victims. Then we’re done.”
“210 Country Road 18.”
It’s Tuesday today and we’re saying goodbye to our little girl. I’m sitting at the front pew of our church, holding Janet’s hand very tight. We both cried while getting ready this morning. My tears were heavier than Janet’s. I’ve already let Marcy go, but I’m going to miss her so much.
We didn’t wear black today. I wore a bright green dress shirt, with white pants, blue cufflinks and a matching blue tie. Janet wore a dress covered in flower prints. We asked the guests to refrain from black as well, because Marcy wouldn’t have wanted sadness. She was so full of life. We wanted that to be the celebration today: life.
Marcy’s memoriam is in my free hand. I’ve already read it three times. Janet wrote it:
Marcy Ann Mills: The Brightest of Lights.
This is not a memoriam of our little girl, but a celebration of the life she lived. It was short, yes, but it was so beautiful. She loved. And when I say love, I don’t mean how we love. I mean something pure and without judgment. She loved like Jesus loves. And the man who took her, returned her, because of that love. He saw Jesus in her. He saw hope in hopelessness. And that is who our little girl was. She was the brightest of lights, living proof of the love of our Savior.
This is not a memoriam, but a celebration of the miracle Matthew and I were given for eight years. We want more time. We always will. But, Marcy was like a flower I suppose. A flower that blooms for only a time, sharing all of its beauty and joy while it is here. We are saying goodbye for now. But, we are also saying we were so blessed to have her for as long as we did.
Janet used the picture where Marcy got to be giant.
“I love you, Matty.” she whispers as she rests her head on my shoulder.
I can’t speak to answer her. The tears from this morning have tied my tongue to my throat. I can only squeeze her hand as my reply. It’s all I have to give today. The bright colors we are wearing are for the memory of our Marcy. And they are a representation of our faith: the joy of the Lord is our strength, even on this day.
But, how I feel is weightless, like my only tether is Janet’s hand. And if I were to let her go, I would drift off into madness…
We decided on an open casket. Too many people wanted to say their goodbyes, especially our moms. When Janet and I drove back to Anderson and told my mom that Marcy was gone, it seemed like her heartbeat left her body. She just stared at me for a long time, and then Janet. And when the reality finally hit her, she cried loud tears. I asked her to prepare a few words for today. She said she would. And then Janet and I called her mom, who lives about a day’s drive away. We asked the same thing. She said she would, but she wasn’t sure if she could get through it. Others wanted to speak today, but we only wanted the Grandmas.
The funeral hasn’t started yet. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus is lightly playing from the speakers. Red rose pedals are still being spread down the aisle by a few of Marcy’s friends from school. But, nobody is talking. It’s quiet, as it should be.
Only a few people have gone up to the casket to say their goodbyes. I haven’t gone near it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to. The song that’s playing brings tears to my eyes. Turning my eyes upon Jesus will be a daily struggle, a daily decision, because the pain is so much louder than the peace.
I hurt all over. The swelling in my eye and nose has gone down. And the bruise isn’t black and blue anymore, but a pale yellow. It’s still very sore. Janet suggested wearing sunglasses to cover it. I decided to let it be what it is: a sign of pain, despite the bright colors.
I’m in the backseat of a state trooper’s car, on my way back to Minnesota. The state where the crimes were committed is where I will be tried. The stage is being set for my prosecution.
The evidence is stacking. They will have all the pieces of this puzzle soon, if they don’t already. And they’ll want me to put it all together, to give a why to how someone could do this. The result won’t be much different than it was with the officer who interrogated me. He was able to understand enough to listen. But, even with him, nothing really came from it.
I don’t know what I’m expecting to happen. Jesus said that most people will hate me, and that my testimony is for those who think they can’t be forgiven. Those like me. But, everyone else will want my death. Even with purpose, sometimes a consequence is just a consequence.
Many more people have gathered in front of the casket in a single file line. It will be shut before the eulogies begin. I can tell that Janet is getting ready to stand and join the line. My hand is still tight with hers. But, I’m not ready to go with her.
“If you want to stay here, it’s okay, Matty.” she says quietly, noticing my hesitance. “But, will you regret it?”
I nod my head immediately. I can tell myself no, but I will regret it. The last few weeks dad was alive, his body started to shut down. He would sleep for hours, only rarely returning to a lucid place. When I was finally ready to say goodbye, he was too far gone. Dead eyes. Long struggles for air. Just a shell shutting down. And I have regretted it.
I know this is different. It’s not my dad but my daughter. Yet, it feels like I’m both a child and a man, experiencing both losses in one. Maybe there is something from my past that I need to walk through again.
I stand with Janet and we join the line separately. My hands are now buried in my pockets. I am at the back of the line. And my tether is gone… But, I’m not drifting away.
Some people have flowers to lie on the casket. Some have cards. Marcy’s few friends are in front of us. It looks like each one is holding a clay pendant.
“What’s in your hands, girls?” Janet asks quietly and with a smile.
“Everybody in art class made something for M. This is ours.” Her name is Sarah. She always speaks for the group as a whole. “I carved a butterfly and put purple glitter for the wings. Tammy carved a big M and decorated it with all kinds of colors. And Erica carved a small crown, using glitter as the jewels.”
“Well,” Janet pauses. “Thank you, girls.” I can tell she wants to cry. “It means a lot.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Mills.” she smiles, as speaker and head of the group. She’s trying to be the strong one, but her eyes say she just wants her friend back. Tammy and Erica are both crying. They are twin sisters who look nothing alike, but they act the same. Both shy. Both quiet. And both were very close friends to our little girl.
There isn’t much left of the line. The closed half of the casket has a neat stack of cards next to about half a dozen flowers. Mom is saying goodbye right now. Janet’s mom is already back in her seat, wiping her eyes, and crumpling the piece of paper she is holding.
Mom is calm as she walks away, but her eyes are dull red orbs. She’s been crying a lot.
Marcy’s three friends go up to the casket as a group.
“You showed us lots of things, M.” Sarah says softly. “We had so much fun together. Goodbye.” Sarah lays her pendant on the casket and walks away. Tammy and Erica don’t follow. They grab each other’s hand and place their pendants in the casket.
“Bye.” It’s so soft I can barely hear it. And then they walk away together.
I grab Janet’s hand as we approach the casket. We’re going to get through this together.
Marcy’s bright green dress matches the ribbons in her hair. She looks so peaceful—
The pain is immediate. It’s sharp and pounding, like something is being born on the inside of me: misery. And the pain is its constant heartbeat. A constant reminder of this great sadness. It’s all consuming. Even Janet’s fingers with mine doesn’t comfort. I am drifting away—
But, there will always be pain. Pain comes with love. And feeling is always louder than the Spirit, especially today. But, every day the same choice has to be made. Despite what I feel, what will I say?
“I trust You, Jesus.” I whisper. Nothing has ever been harder to say, because every other part of me is saying sadness is all my life will become.
Matthew? my eyes immediately jump to the left. It’s Jesus’ voice. But, it’s not coming from within. It’s outward and reachable, as if He were standing ri—
I don’t know how to describe what I’m seeing. Jesus is stepping out from pure white light and it’s following Him. As He walks, it clings to Him. As He breathes, it pulsates and shivers. It matches what I feel but can’t express. I’ve been waiting to see Him again since I was a little boy. And now that I see Him, my spirit wants to shiver and pulsate in His presence. I want to cling to Him. Yet, I can only watch.
My eyes know what they’re seeing, but my mind can’t grasp hold of it. He is a man, yet He is the Light that can’t be without Him. The very thing that clings to Him comes from Him. He is the Source and the Sustainer.
Even before I made Marcy, I foresaw this day. He says as the light reacts to His voice with twirls and small bursts all around him, as if it were dancing. Dancing like I would be, if I could. She was made for this day, Matthew. As were you. He is holding my little girl in his arms. Has she been with Him this whole time?
I see Him kneel. The light lays flat as a shadow, as if bowing and then pulls to Him again. He whispers something in my little girl’s ear and then lets her down. The light fades away as He steps back into it.
He’s gone but I see her running from where He was. She is the brightest of colors. She isn’t looking at me, or Janet, or anyone else. She’s only looking at the casket.
She stops at the foot of it and starts to climb. She pulls herself up easily. On her hands and knees she crawls across the closed half of the casket, moving through the card and flower stacks as if they weren’t even there. She’s right in front of me but doesn’t turn to look at me. And I can’t move my hands to reach out for her. I can’t dislodge my tongue to speak. I am paralyzed.
She peeks into the open half of the casket and smiles.
“There’s so much more to do.” she says to herself as she crawls into the casket. And like slipping under her covers, she scoots her legs under the closed half and then lays down on top of her body, immediately disappearing into it—
My eyes open. I don’t remember closing them. What did I just see? Was it all just a vision? Her spirit laid back into her body… but, nothing has changed. We’re still saying goodbye.
Janet is next to me, whispering something under her breath as she lightly brushes her hand across Marcy’s forehead. Maybe a prayer? But, I can’t say a word. I can’t even look at Marcy anymore.
Why would you give me a vision like this, Lord? I never expected her to come back to life. I came to say goodbye. Why give me hope of this again? It completely derailed my faith when dad didn’t come back.
Is this just a test? Will I trust You even in this, my biggest disappointment? Why would you give me hope, when I wasn’t even looking for it?
“My God,” Janet’s whisper fills me with shivers. I can feel the tremble in her hand.
“Hi, mommy.” Is this actually happening? “Hi, daddy.”
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