Chapter 3 Little trip to heaven
“Some more pictures-” The TV was on; a home movie was playing. On the screen was a young girl’s room: white walls covered in pictures, and cabinets lined with stuffed animals. “This is Peggy’s room, her bed. She even got TV in her. Ain’t she lucky?” a little boy’s voice said as the camera panned clumsily around the room.
“What if he doesn’t remember me?” Peggy said. She sat on their maroon couch next to her husband, Brandon, in their darkened living room.
“Well, you’ll never know if you don’t go there, and your mother sure as hell can’t make that trip; it has to be you.” He sighed and put his arm around her. “I wanna go with you, but I’ve got work. You know that.”
“The birthday girl,” the boy on the tape said. The camera swayed into a canted angle on a young woman smiling, sitting at a table with her family. “Aint she beautiful?” Sounds of indistinct conversation could be heard as the camera swept through the room. “And here is her brother, Johnny.” The camera jerked as the boy aimed the lens at his own face. He gave a semi-toothless grin and a direct view into his nostrils.
Peggy fidgeted in her seat on the plane, taking long breaths and playing with Saint Christopher hanging around her neck.
She had gotten the earliest flight she could, terrified but also eager. She’d never left Texas before, never mind the country. Her heart raced. She felt as if she was being carried along by a sense of immediacy she couldn’t explain. She had to see him and touch him and kiss him and know he was OK or...
She couldn’t sleep, not on the flight and not in the two days before it. Her heart wouldn’t let her; it beat and beat and it wouldn’t stop until she knew it was real and wasn’t a dream.
The plane was crowded. She didn’t remember picking her seat. It was an aisle seat in coach. She couldn’t focus on anything, couldn’t keep her eyes on one thing or another. No faces were clear. She felt like she was in a doctor’s waiting room. Something about not moving but still moving set her teeth on edge and it made her want to walk the whole way to Spain. She took a mirror out of her purse and poked at one of her eyes.
Peggy was a fairly pretty Texas flower with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and maybe just a little too much eye make up to cover up the lack of sleep. Her eyebrows were so thin they looked drawn on. She had a strong Nordic-looking face and jawline that she softened with flowing bangs, and she had a dimple in her chin. She looked tired though and she knew it. She was just past thirty and the lack of sleep did nothing for the sagging under her eyes. Her mouth was slightly downturned with a touch of natural lipstick
She couldn’t see out the windows. Everyone around her was either asleep, eating or watching a movie: three things that it hadn’t crossed her mind to do. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was in a box. She barely noticed the plane taxi-ing for takeoff, only the tight feeling of her heart sinking into her seat as the plane took off.
It was a night flight so as soon as they got going the staff turned off most of the lights.
She laid her head back, closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
It didn’t work.
“I’m the recorder, the director and everything else of this movie.” The camera in the home movie panned around a bedroom. “This is Johnny,” he said as he pointed it at himself. The video cut and the little boy was playing on the ground, bouncing around like a little kid.
It panned over to his mother watching him, smiling. Then he was in the mirror, filming himself. He combed back his short blonde hair with his free hand.
“Put the lighter down,” a female voice said from behind the camera.
Johnny was holding a lighter in front of his face, clicking it on and off and watching the flame closely. Behind him, an old woman was sitting at table, talking to a man who was obscured by Johnny’s position.
He smiled as his blue eyes lit up with the flame.
Peggy disembarked at Federico García Lorca Airport. She’d packed one bag. She didn’t expect to be staying long. Her flat shoes clicked on the shiny terminal floor.
The air smelled different. It was less crowded here than in an American airport. There was a single terminal which was just a long white building with large curved glass doors. When she found her way out of the departure lounge, a man and a lady approached her. They were wearing suits and they looked official. The lady was a pretty brunette with a warm smile who introduced herself as ‘Andrea’. The man was the driver and considerably more formal. He introduced himself as Milton Dammers, Vice Consul of the Embassy.
Andrea’s English was good and she made Peggy feel a little more at ease. Other than introducing himself, Milton didn’t say much more after that.
Before she knew it, Peggy was in the car. She was thankful they let her smoke. It was a boxy European car. Looking out the window, the airport, in the distance, looked a little like the Alamo.
The land here was very flat. As they started to drive, she noticed fields on either side of the road, filled with small trees in uniform lines. She couldn’t tell whether they were fruit trees or just there for show.
The road signs were all in Spanish and there was nothing in the car for her to read.
The brunette sat up front, with the driver, letting Peggy have the backseat to herself.
They decided to stop at a big yellow gas station, on the outskirts of the airfield, which had a car wash, a mini-mart and a large car park filled with minibuses and vans.
They stopped for Coke, which was nice. It was something of a surprise that Spain had Coke, but, of course, why wouldn’t they?
She smoked for few more minutes, staring out at that uniform sea of small trees that had followed them from the airport.
When they got back into the car, Andrea began to talk about the countryside, as if she were a tour guide. It helped Peggy take her mind off things. The drive itself only took about an hour, but it felt longer.
When they finally reached the children’s home, it was like a dream. The building looked tiny from the outside: yellow brick. Inside, it was a lot larger, but before she could take it in she was already in the office of the director.
A man with a receding hairline and an older woman in a suit greeted her. They didn’t speak much English, so Andrea translated.
They told her that Johnny was in his room and he’d been locked up in there the whole day; he wouldn’t let anyone in.
Peggy wasn’t sure what to do. The staff at the home had already tried to rouse him a few times, but he refused to open his door. Peggy needed a little fresh air, so she went out through a fire exit. It led her to a big courtyard, filled with kids playing dodge ball. Lots of shouting and balls being thrown. Boys being boys, even here in this alien place. It was a pretty stone courtyard with large, villa-like alcoves all the way around. Stone benches and oversized decorative red planters stood in each corner.
Nevertheless she found a quiet corner and lit a cigarette.
With nothing but the smoke to occupy her fidgety brain, she cast her eyes to her feet and then to the sky directly above her. She stepped out of the little outcropping she’d been hidden under. Her eyes drifted to the ball game, to the walls all around. There were several open windows, several closed, with the blinds drawn fully. She wondered which one was Johnny’s.
She saw a curtain move and called out to whosoever was behind it.
The noises from the ball game stopped. The kids were now staring at the strange gringo shouting at walls.
She didn’t pay them any attention; she was just happy to finally hear herself speak.
She took one last pull on her cigarette and stubbed it out on the bottom of her flat shoe, never taking her eyes off that window. Behind it, a long shadow paced back and forth. Was that him?
She waited a few more minutes, watching for the curtain to move again.
Then she heard soft footsteps behind her on the stone stairs.
He was wearing a big coat with the hood up, a hat and pair of dark glasses. A scarf was pulled up to his chin.
She looked at the glasses and at his nose, then at his mouth and his cheeks, and she stood for a moment in stunned silence waiting for any sign. It was barely a split second before she made up her mind.
“JOHNNY!” she called out, tears in her eyes. She pounced on him, kissing and hugging him and telling him she loved and missed him, and how she had thought she’d never see him again.
He was shy and reserved, and she could see he didn’t like to be touched, but she couldn’t help it. She’d jumped on him and she couldn’t, she just couldn’t, do anything else. It was her brother; she had him; he was here; he’d come back.
The waiting room outside the director’s office was as bare as a dentist’s waiting room. It was a sectioned-off hallway with a coffee table and small couch.
He didn’t say much, but that didn’t bother her at all; she could do all the talking for both of them. She was spreading pictures out on the coffee table and showing him everything he’d missed, all the family he might have forgotten.
“And you thought I wouldn’t recognize you. That nose. You look just like your Uncle Charlie,” she said, smiling and holding up a picture of a man in a cowboy hat. They did have similar noses and that seemed to reassure them both. “You remember your Granma?” she said as she held up a picture of a skinny old woman. “You used to love your Granma.” She put the picture down and sighed. “Grandpa passed away unfortunately. Cancer, but he didn’t suffer too much.”
Johnny nodded mournfully as she continued to show him pictures. He seemed restrained. His accent was different and, whenever he did speak, it was in whispers. “Momma is gonna be so surprised with how tall you’ve gotten.” Peggy smiled and tugged at his cheek. “You’ve grown up, Johnny. You were only a little boy when we last met and you’ve turned into a handsome man.” She took his hand and noticed the small tattoo Johnny had in the crux of his finger and thumb. It really was him, there was no doubt now; she kept thinking about his nose; she remembered that nose. She felt like crying again but stopped herself. She’d cried enough. There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, but she knew it wasn’t the time. He would tell her eventually, when he was ready, and he had all the time in the world now.
Horrible things swirled around her head: where he’d been for the past four years. Had someone hurt him? Done unspeakable things to him? Who had taken him? How? Why? When?
She bit her tongue. It didn’t matter, as long as he was here with her right now and she could touch him.
There was no doubt in Peggy’s mind that this was her brother. The authorities at the embassy wanted to be one hundred percent sure though. They weren’t about to give a complete stranger an American passport on the say so of one excited woman.
It didn’t take long for them to set up the director’s office for an impromptu interview with the boy. Milton had summoned a local judge who spoke English to sit in. They would determine whether or not the boy was who he said he was.
A simple test was set up with the help of the boy’s sister.
She told them that there were a few pictures of family members she hadn’t shown him yet. If he knew who they were that would seal it.
After this discussion Peggy was released from the director’s office. Milton beckoned the boy join him, in front of the director’s desk. The judge was waiting: an older woman with dyed black hair and a set of reading glasses. She was formally dressed and had a thin, expressive face that twisted as if she smelled something she didn’t like.
She bade the boy sit in front of the desk.
“Please, Mr. Bartlett, make yourself comfortable,” Milton said as he closed the door and walked around the desk. “OK, Johnny, this is just a formality, red tape. Your sister is really the final word on this. We just have to be totally sure, for legal purposes, that you are who you say you are.” He sucked his bottom lip and said, “We know you’ve been through a lot, so we’ll try to keep this brief.” Milton looked over at a brown envelope that was lying open on the desk. “We have some pictures here that your sister says she hasn’t shown you. If you’re who you say you are, you should be able to recognize most of the people in these pictures. Are you ready to be to start?” “Yes,” Johnny said quietly. The judge scrunched her face up.
Milton looked over at her and then at the envelope. He picked it up and began to shake the pictures out onto the desktop: family pictures, two men in a joke headlock, a group photo with three women, a picture of himself with another boy, a picture from Peggy’s birthday.
Milton arranged them on the desk and said, “Can you tell me who any of these people are?”
Johnny started from right to left.
“This Peggy when she was young.” He spoke in broken English, with a heavy European accent. He moved his finger to the other woman in the birthday picture. “This is my mother, Angela, and her sister, Aunt Brenda.
“And this one?” Milton was checking the names against a list.
“That’s me and my cousin, Carl.” Johnny moved on to the next photo in the line. “That’s my momma again, Aunt Brenda again and my Granma,” he said.
“That is Carl and my uncle, Jason.”
“Err, that one at the end was wrong, but I think we’ve seen enough,” Milton said. He looked over at the director and the judge to see if they agreed. They seemed unconvinced, but there was no way their skepticism could create counter-evidence. If his sister said it was him, and he passed their test, who were they to say otherwise?
The Judge nodded. Later that day they took pictures of him and issued him a new American passport courtesy of the US Embassy.
Peggy lay awake listening to Johnny breathe. The children’s home had let them stay one more night in a room with two single beds, most likely for siblings who were missing or had run away together.
She felt relief. A four yearlong nightmare lay silently sleeping only a few feet away.
She closed her eyes and felt a swelling insider her. A tear hit her pillow and she finally felt like she could sleep. She drifted off into the most peaceful deep sleep she’d had in months.
As soon as her breathing was steady, Johnny rose from under the covers, fully dressed in his long coat and jogging bottoms.
He slipped out of the room
He was on the streets again. He heard trains beating their tracks, and planes in the sky, and birds and cars rushing by. He didn’t know where to go or how to get there; he just knew he had to get away.
He breathed in and the cold night air burned in his chest. He could get on a train. He could leave and go somewhere no one would know him and no one would care.
The train station at night was deathly silent and a cold comforting darkness gripped every inch of the platform. There were still trains inbound. He took the stairs over the bridge to another platform. It was dark too, but it was open, and had glass sides so you could see out onto the platforms and over the tracks.
He stopped and looked out at the tracks and then out at the city. All those lights, all those people, scurrying about, not knowing who they were. Would never find out. Not like this.
The closer and the longer he looked, the more he saw his own reflection staring back at him: his hood and hat and scarf. His face was wrong, his eyes were wrong, his hair was wrong, and everyone would know; no one would accept him as he was. If someone were to look at him as he passed, in that big coat, how would they know a person was under all that, and not just some machine made of meat and bone and skin? A ghost, an empty vessel, an android? He could talk and answer their questions, even be their friend. No one would know that what they were talking to wasn’t what they assumed: a living breathing feeling human being.