Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Two

“My strength did not come from lifting weights. My strength came from lifting myself up when I was knocked down.” ~Bob Moore

Three weeks later . . .

Lara cringed every time she heard the news anchors’ stinging words. Their character assassination of her dad was appalling. Where was their objectivity? Where was their compassion? They were uninformed, and yet they drew unsubstantiated conclusions about his integrity. What was there motivation? Didn’t they understand that harsh words hurt the people who knew and loved Charles Townsend? Did they care?

In the days following her dad’s disappearance, she’d tried to recall every word of her last conversation with him. It was painful to remember just how waspish she’d been that morning. Thank the good Lord she’d rallied and told him she loved him. When she’d blown Charles Townsend a kiss, she’d had no inkling that the dreaded history test was only a minor ripple in the turbulent events of the day; that her dad would never reach Atlanta or that she and her mother, Susan, would become a family of two instead of three.

The next day, and every day until the end of the semester, it took every ounce of stamina and courage she could muster to get out of bed, get dressed and face the day. Despite her grief, hurt and disbelief, she managed to keep her emotions in check and to somehow muddle through final exams. Her end-of-the-year test scores were nothing to brag about, but she managed to end the year with B’s.

In deference to her mom’s wishes, she steered away from medication as a crutch. It would have been so much easier to dull the pain with sedatives, to sleep rather than to get up and get out of the house. Not only was she freaking out over the glances and insensitive remarks of strangers and friends, she couldn’t sleep. She started each day tired and sulky. She avoided crowds and recoiled when she heard unexpected or loud noises. She checked and rechecked the locks on their front door before turning in for the night.

Her mom’s life was even more harrowing than her own. The police continued to grill her, and mean-spirited reporters hounded her for juicy tidbits of information that could be diabolically spun into a scandalous story.

Blessedly, now that the school year was over, Lara could breathe more easily. She’d cleared one hurtle, but others loomed on the horizon. How could she survive the long and lonely summer days ahead?

Music relaxed and soothed, but was a temporary elixir. When the feelings of doom and gloom resurfaced, she dug out her sketchbook and worked on the illustrations for Misty’s Surprise, her newest short story for children. The story’s main character was the mischievous, but loveable, tabby cat that gleefully ruled the Lawrence household.

Lara liked to think that her characters possessed winsome personalities. True, the animals in her stories tended to be a little on the rambunctious and stubborn side. Wasn’t that part of their appeal? In many ways, Misty’s quirky personality was a reflection of her own. Misty was stubborn, and so was she. She couldn’t deny that there were times when she was fiercely determined to have her own way.

Usually, she found peace in the world of make believe. She instinctively knew that children, and the animal characters she created, needed love, security and acceptance.

Following her dad’s disappearance, her seemingly endless flow of ideas mysteriously dried up. For years, her dreams and fantasies were so vivid that they almost seemed real. Now, the bitter realities of life crowded out the carefree world of make-believe.

The latest drawing of Misty, chasing a ball of yarn, lacked the personality and vibrancy needed to capture the interest of young readers. Lara envisioned an adorably lifelike and mischievous bundle of fur, but her sketches didn’t match the illustrations that she envisioned. Unless she could overcome the debilitating depression that clung to her, Misty’s story would never be told. Lara snapped out of the fog of despair when her mom’s footsteps sounded in the front hall.

She tried to hide her foul mood, but failed. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hey, sweetie. Dare I ask about your day?”

“I could lie and tell you that everything is hunky dory, but you wouldn’t believe me. The truth is . . . the last few days have been painfully long. I was wondering how I was going to get through today, when I passed Principal Kitterman in the hall. He apparently sensed that I was at a breaking point. He granted permission for an early dismissal. Thank God for Mr. Kitterman and thank God that I don’t have to set foot in another classroom until fall.”

Susan walked over and pulled Lara into a tight hug. Her voice trembled with emotion. “I wish there was a miraculous cure for grief. If there is, I haven’t found it.”

Lara blinked away the tears that threatened to spill over. “I know, Mom. It would be easier if everyone would forget the platitudes and leave us to grieve in peace . . . but that’s not going to happen. Every time I turn around, there’s another reporter with a microphone stuck in my face.

"It infuriates me that media people make excuses for petty criminals, and yet they don’t think twice about destroying the reputation of an upstanding citizen like Dad. Some of the newspaper articles could have been written about the devil himself. Why did this happen to our family? Why to a great man like Dad?

“One day the latest speculation is about Dad’s criminal activity, and the following day the hot topic is his questionable family life. ‘Is he just one more dissatisfied family man’ they ask. ‘Is he a womanizer? Is he gay?’ Anything that hints of scandal. You’d swear that they were writing for the Enquirer.”

“Scandals drive the news, Lara. When reporters get their teeth into a story, a person who isn’t available to defend his or her character is fair game. Reporters and newscasters are spin masters. Unfortunately, they use actual statistics as their justification for unfair speculation. Lt. Traynor keeps reminding me that seventy-five percent of the missing person reports filed are the result of family conflict. Financial instability also ranks high. Ergo . . .your dad’s disappearance has to fit the template.”

Lara frowned. “Statistics are just one small part of the story. It’s difficult to trust people who care more about the story than the people who are hurt by false allegations. Reporters lack compassion.”

“Be fair, Lara. Lt. Traynor can’t control the media. His team of investigating officers have an extremely difficult job. The only thing they know about us is what we tell them. They’re more sympathetic now that they’ve finished reviewing our personal bank accounts and your dad’s office records. There were no questionable debits in our accounts, and his office files were in order.”

“I’m aware that interrogation is part of their job, but objectivity should be too. Reports being released by the police should be noncommittal until there is evidence to back up the information that is released to the public.”

Her mom sighed. “The public screams about transparency and objectivity, but what they really want is scandal.”

“Exactly my point. I don’t understand that kind of thinking.”

“I know it seems as though we are being thrown to the wolves, Lara, but I’m convinced that the police are attempting to get to the bottom of your dad’s disappearance.”

“Maybe, but Dad’s reputation has been irrevocably damaged. When a picture, true or false, has been drawn, it’s almost impossible for the existing mental image to be erased. Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that some of the speculation could have been avoided if the police’s statement hadn’t referred to him as a man of unknown character.

“Why did they question his character? People were coming out of the woodwork to give Dad character references? Dad’s co-workers and friends expressed deep concern from day one. They informed the police that his work ethic was impeccable. Both co-workers and clients referred to his head-on approach to tackling issues. It always amazed me how Dad could remain calm and collected when a loud-mouthed competitor ranted and raved. He was an extraordinary man. Why can’t they see that?”

Her mom remained silent. Lara needed to vent.

“I wish that I hadn’t been such a trial to Dad. I tested his patience the morning he left for Atlanta, Mom. He was on a tight schedule, and I was argumentative. He remained his usual placid self even when I brought up our unscheduled family vacation plans. He promised to put a date on the calendar before the weekend was over.”

“You have nothing to blame yourself for. Your attitude and your Dad’s disappearance are not related. As difficult as it is to remain positive, we need to be. There’s still hope that your dad will be found.”

“You don’t really believe that do you, Mom? It’s been three weeks. We might not ever find out exactly what happened to him, but we have to accept that he’s not coming home. You and I know that Dad isn’t the kind of man to walk away from his family or his job. So, what’s left? He’s either been kidnapped or someone wanted him dead.”

Susan cringed. “I no longer know what to think, Lara. I admit that we were struggling to find time together, but our relationship was as strong as ever. On the other hand, it seems far-fetched to believe that anyone with your dad’s character would have an enemy who wanted him dead. He’s well-liked by his friends and co-workers.” She paused before continuing, “People don’t just disappear.”

“I don’t buy the media’s depressed theory. Dad was the least depressed person I know. Let the reporters twist the truth to sell newspapers, but they won’t be able to produce one shred of evidence to back up their claim of depression. He was fine the morning he disappeared. In fact, he was more than fine. I was nervous about a history test, and he took time to calm me down.”

“Be grateful that you spent time with him that morning. I wasn’t there to say good-by. My only solace comes from knowing that your dad had no reason to doubt our love.”

“And, he didn’t disappear because he was disenchanted with his job. He liked his job, and he was rewarded for his efforts. He never minded travel, and he didn’t foresee any issues with the Atlanta deal.” Lara shuddered. “Someone else is responsible for his disappearance. He never arrived in Atlanta, so obviously, something happened on the highway or at the airport? It’s hard to believe that no one saw anything suspicious.”

“Life can turn on a dime, anytime and anywhere.”

As an afterthought, Lara asked, “If he was kidnapped, wouldn’t the kidnapper have demanded money by this time?”

“Lt. Traynor has eliminated kidnapping. If the person responsible wanted money, your dad wouldn’t have been a target. We’re financially sound, but by no means wealthy.”

“Aunt Maddie is.”

“Yes, she is. But, she hasn’t had a book on the best seller list in four years. When you are out of the news, people forget about you.”

Lara’s rage boiled over. “It’s not fair!”

“Life rarely is. As for the police, they are stymied. What are they supposed to do when there are no clues? Disgruntled or not, I think that we should co-operate and hope for the best. One of my greatest fears is that the investigation will drag on for months, or even years.” She paused before adding. “Your dad trusted the justice system, so for now, I think we should too.” She wiped away another tear. “He’d want us to be strong, and he’d want us to hold our heads high.”

Lara nodded. “I agree, Mom. But, we need to be prepared for a few difficult months.”

“We’ll deal with it. If we let fear paralyze us, we won’t be able to think clearly or positively.” She paused and then changed the direction of the conversation. “There are too many reminders of our loss in this house. A change of scenery might help. I talked to Nana Sloan this morning. She offered to let us use the lake house if we want to get away from the scrutiny.”

“Sooner or later, we’ll have to deal with the pain and with the repercussions from the negative publicity. The vicious scuttlebutt isn’t going to miraculously go away, Mom. I doubt that being at the lake house will change that. Besides, vacationers usually stay in the news loop. Maybe they won’t read the Hazelton Times, but they’ll see highlights of the ongoing investigation on the evening news broadcasts.”

“Think of our visit as an opportunity to regroup. We need time to toughen up, Lara. Here in Hazelton, we keep knocking off the scab. Between the press and our memories, we can’t heal.”

Lara shrugged. “What about Aunt Maddie?”

“She’s happier in familiar surroundings. While we are away, I’m make the drive to Hazelton once a week, and Leah will keep us updated. Before we leave, I’ll need to put frowny faces on her calendar.”

“What do you mean put frowny faces of her calendar?”

“Haven’t you ever seen her calendar?”

Lara shook her head.

“After the accident, Leah and your dad began updating Maddie’s calendar weekly, so that she wouldn’t have to keep asking about when her doctor’s appointments were. With her short-term memory loss, the calendar helped. When your dad was going to be out of town, he put frowny faces on the days when he would be away, and a happy face on the day he planned to return.

“He also wrote little notes of encouragement on her calendar. When Maddie began jotting down bits of information she needed to remember, we knew that she was getting better. For the past year and a half, she has put the reminders on her calendar. The calendar has become her security blanket.”

“So, she knows exactly how many days Dad’s been missing.”

“She does.”

“Do you think she understands that there’s little chance that he will be found alive?”

“Lara, even though your Aunt Maddie has trouble recalling names and dates, she hasn’t lost her ability to think.”

“So, I guess what you’re telling me is that she understands that the odds of finding him are slim to none.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“It’s been months since I’ve seen her. Does she talk about Dad?”

“No. She is as close-mouthed about your Dad as she was about her books in progress.”

“I miss the woman she was before the accident. She could be a little dictatorial at times, but she was still fun to be around. The accident changed her.”

“When our lives aren’t as chaotic, maybe we can both spend more time with Maddie.”

“I think that’s a great idea. Dad’s absence will be a big adjustment for her. I didn’t mean to get sidetracked by mentioning Aunt Maddie. When do you want to leave for the lake house?”

“Why don’t we drive down Friday afternoon. If you’d like to invite one of your friends to go along, that’s fine by me.”

“I don’t think so. I’m not good company right now. Will Nana and Grandpa Sam be at the lake house?”

“Not until the first of July. Dad has a consulting job that will keep him tied up until then, and I see no reason for him to walk away from a commitment.”

“Do you have a key?”

Her mom nodded. “Opening the lake house after it’s been closed for the winter is a major undertaking. I assured Mom that the physical labor would be good for both of us.”

“What is it Nana says? ‘Idle hands are the devil’s playground?’ If that’s true, then maybe a spring-cleaning job is just what the doctor ordered for the two of us.”

Her mom nodded. “I sleep better at the lake than anywhere else in the world. I don’t expect a miracle, but a good night’s sleep and fresh air might help. Both of us are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.”

Lara said, “It’s been a long time since I have slept through the night.”

She started to rise, but slumped back down into her chair. “I can’t believe how much my priorities have changed. A month ago, my greatest challenge was getting through exams. Even when things spiraled out of control, I could relieve the stress by disappearing into the world of make believe. Now, I can’t even do that. Since Dad disappeared, my thoughts are so scattered that I’ve lost my desire to write and sketch. I’m going to have to rethink my career path if I can’t get past the creative block that I’m experiencing.”

“Try not to panic. Blocks are an inevitable and frustrating part of the creative process. All forms of creativity require inspiration. Right now, you’re depressed, and depression is inspiration’s enemy. Give yourself a break, Lara.”

Lara clutched her mom’s hand. “What about your music, Mom? I haven’t heard you play the piano in over month.”

Her mom said quietly, “You’re right, I haven’t, but that is going to change. While we are at Shafer Lake, I’m going to use the time to get ready for my fall concert.”

Lara’s eyes widened. “That’s wonderful news. When did you decide to do the concert?”

“I signed the contract the morning of your dad’s Atlanta trip. I thought seriously about canceling, but I need something positive to focus on, a reason to get me up in the morning. The only problem is that it’s been years since I performed with the symphony, and I’m not sure that I can be mentally ready to perform by fall.”

Lara hugged her mom. “Of course, you can. It’s all about the two p’s. Isn’t that what you always say, Mom? Poise and practice. Practice and poise. I think that the concert has come at a good time. Practice will take your mind off the investigation.”

“That’s what I’m counting on.”

“Dad would be proud of you, Mom. He’s been urging you to perform publicly for years. I can see your name on the marquee, Guest Pianist: Susan Townsend.”

“I like the sound of that. When I start questioning my sanity, I’ll picture that marquee.”

Susan glanced at the caller ID on her smartphone. “It’s Carolyn Meyers, your dad’s administrative assistant. I need to take her call.”

Lara didn’t usually eavesdrop on her mom’s phone conversations, but Carolyn’s call had to be about her dad, and Lara was hungry for news about him. Her mom’s end of the brief conversation was unrevealing, but she was obviously upset.

As soon as she put the phone down, Lara demanded, “What was that about?”

“Paul Weston, the new vice-president, will be moving into your dad’s office Monday. I knew that it was going to happen, but this move means that the company has given up hope.” She paused long enough to take a deep breath. “I agreed to pick up the personal belongings that your dad kept in his desk drawers. We can stop by on our way out of town.”

Tears rolled down Lara’s cheeks. “Eighteen years down the drain. There goes his legacy, Mom. How many people at Albrights will remember him this time next year? His job will be filled by another person quickly and easily, maybe even a person who is equally qualified. Why do people work so hard to make a name for themselves? In the blink of an eye, careers end and people are forgotten.”

“You’re wrong, Lara. Work didn’t define your dad’s life. No one can take his place in the hearts of the people who loved him.”

“Sorry, Mom. I’m just so angry. People shouldn’t go missing.”

“Bitterness will get you nowhere. Unfortunately, trauma and grief are as much a part of life as triumph and joy. Tragedy happens, and no one is exempt. Would I like to rewrite the past few weeks? You bet, but it doesn’t mean that our story won’t have a happy ending.”

Lara remained silent.

“Don’t ever forget that life is a precious gift. Your dad’s warmth and good humor touched hundreds, if not thousands, of people. As long as any of those people are alive, he will be alive.” Her mom took a moment to garner her thoughts. “On the days that it’s difficult to get out of bed, I think about your dad’s smile, his positive attitude and his joy of life. You should too.”

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