4,576 words: approx. 30 minutes
By Jerry A. Boggs
In Temple, things are done very differently.
Saturday, 12:00 p.m.
Carrying a cardboard box from his car, 50-year-old Mort Bacon trudged to a clearing 75 feet into the cool woods off the dirt hill-top road overlooking the small valley town of Temple, which nestled high in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He set the box down where sunlight pitched through to a patch of green-grass turfs and dark soil. He unfolded a brown blanket from the box and fluffed it out onto the ground. He extracted a kitchen knife and laid it on the edge of the blanket.
Several yards off to the side, using the collapsible shovel he’d brought along, he spent the next 20 minutes carving out of the soft ground a hole roughly 25 inches deep and 36 inches square, the loosed, loamy scent pleasing to him. He fingered sweat off his brows and dropped the shovel. He returned to the road where he’d parked his faded blue ’98 Ford Contour. He checked both directions of the road and listened. He saw nothing, heard only the electric zapping call-notes of the redpolls atop one of the few paper birches around here.
He hadn’t been to this plot of raw land in several years, so he stood for a moment taking it in, as well as distant, sun-splattered Temple and its bordering hillsides. Someone could build a home here at this very spot and in time, as Temple grew, have a property of considerable worth.
He opened the trunk and with both hands lifted out the heavy black plastic bag. He hefted the 50-pound weight into his arms and carried it to a spot next to the hole. As he lowered the bag to the ground, he realized it was no longer warm.
Breathing hard, his eyes and ears again on alert, he plodded back to his car, leaves and twigs crunching under his feet. He opened the back door.
“You can come out now, please.”
The little girl brushed her russet hair out of her eyes. “I was supposed to be in a car seat. I thought you forgot about me. Where is my house? Can I go home now?”
“In a little while, don’t you worry. I’m sorry I don’t have a car seat.”
She slid out of the car onto the road, her feet slipping a bit on the angled ground.
“Oops,” he said. “Careful, sweetheart.”
“What are we going to do?” More tears welled up.
“Hey, don’t cry. It’ll be over soon. I promise.”
He took her hand and led her over to the blanket.
She stiffened, her eyes on the black plastic bag. “What’s in that?”
“My only friend ever in my life.”
Her face scrunched up and she trembled. “A little girl?”
“Well, yeah. Molly’s her name.” He fought back the lump in his throat. “My dog. My mom’s dog at first. She would’ve wanted me to bury her here.”
“Oh! What happened?”
He expelled air and shook his head. “Had to do it.”
“Old age. Deaf and blind. Bumping into things – when she wasn’t sleeping, which was most of the time. Worst thing, she didn’t want to sit in my lap and be rubbed anymore. May have had dementia.”
She squinted as if struggling with that word.
He tapped his temple. “Crazy in the head.”
She pressed her lips together, still eyeing the bag. After a moment, her gaze slow-shifted to the hole. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re going to grow up to be a beautiful, successful young woman.” He glanced at the hole, then back at her. “Want to have some fun? Go jump into the hole and see if you can jump back out.”
She furrowed her forehead, clenching her dress in a tight fist.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he said, “you didn’t tell me your name.”
“Pretty name, Lina. I like it. How old are you?” He strode to the edge of the hole, carrying the shovel.
“Five and a half. I’ll be six pretty soon. I’m going to have a Princess Elsa birthday party.” A little smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. She came over and peered into the hole as if considering how hard it would be to jump in and back out. Finally she slid in instead of jumping. She turned around, her eyes moistening with tears. “My dress is all dirty now. I’ll get into trouble with Mommy.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, gazing down at her. He raised the shovel and swung it. It landed near the blanket. “Well, Lina, looks deep enough to me. I’ll bury Molly in a little while. Don’t have the heart right this second.”
When he stuck out his hand, she placed hers in his. He pulled her light frame out of the hole.
“Thank you,” she said. She stood there, not trembling as much.
“You’re very polite. I bet everybody loves you.” He sniffed, an old anger threatening to set fire to his insides. He returned to the blanket where he’d been kneeling.
He set out the box’s contents. From her view, everything was obscured except the knife.
“Okay then. It’s time. Go sit down across from me.”
She lowered herself into a cross-legged position opposite him, all the while keeping her eyes on him.
He studied her for a moment, then said, “I’m really sorry about all this. For you and your mommy and your daddy.”
She drew back when he leaned and took the knife into his hand. Her gaze dropped to the items he had taken out of the box. Her eyes widened.
Saturday, 5 p.m.
He had no place to go after being locked out of his apartment ten days earlier for non-payment of rent. But in his car, at least he had a roof over his head.
He needed gas. He headed toward the Mobil station a mile away at the east end of Temple. Then he gripped the steering wheel hard and cursed himself. He wasn’t thinking straight. Getting gas was stupid. He drove another 200 yards and pulled onto the shoulder where it was wider near town. He reached over to the passenger seat and picked up the kitchen knife concealed under food wrappers and plastic water bottles. He’d forgotten to clean the red smears off the blade. No matter. He angled the knife in behind his belt buckle.
He was parked just down the road from his last employer, Temple High School. Many years ago when he was a student here, smart-aleck bullies had taunted him daily with the humiliating tag Dead Meat, their asinine substitution for Mort Bacon and a justification for their daily routine of shoving him around, pulling his long hair, and pounding him on the head. At home he once cried about it for 20 minutes. In a stupor, his alcoholic mother, who had succumbed five years ago to cirrhosis, slapped him across the forehead and said, “Grow up and deal with it.” He had always thought his mother had wanted to love him but could never feel it in the brain-numbing grip of her morning-to-night drunkenness.
He did deal with it, the bullying. He quit school just three months away from graduating – a desperate but foolhardy move that to this day still tore at him with agonizing regret.
He heard the siren and his gaze drifted to the rear-view mirror. The alternating blue and red flashing lights in the distance were enlarging missile fast.
He braved a look at himself, the first in days. He gasped. It was worse than he’d imagined: scraggly beard, disheveled, greasy hair, the wrinkled and soiled work clothes he hadn’t taken back to the school, where he’d been fired as janitor several months ago by the new principal, who just happened to have been one of his bullying classmates and who now in a final act of bullying had given Mort’s job to his unemployed brother.
He sighed, letting himself slump back. It was finally over. It would be easy. He fought back tears but they streamed down his cheeks to his lips. His tongue tasted their saltiness.
The police car stopped 20 feet behind him.
“Open your door and show me your hands! Slowly!”
In his side view mirrors, two officers emerged from their vehicle, weapons drawn.
He nudged open the door and put his hands up through.
“Get out of the car! Hands high!”
He turned sideways on the seat and levered himself up and out on the backs of his calves, an awkward, haltering maneuver that bowed his mid-section out for a second.
“What the–?“ the officer nearest him said. “Looks like the handle of a knife. You sonofabitch. Face down on the ground! Now! Do it!”
Mort bent his legs several inches, then stopped.
The officer clasped his weapon with both hands and crouched. “Buddy, you better get down right–“
Mort barely heard the tinny voice that erupted from the officers’ radios. He yanked the knife from his belt and sprang forward. He felt the intense pain but never heard the sound.
A half hour earlier, 4:30 p.m.
In the Prescott’s modest living room, tall, grey-haired Chief Thomas Jamieson of the Temple Police Department settled back at one end of the sofa. He looked from Bob Prescott at the other end, to Bob’s wife Beverly sitting in a grey-brown easy chair with her hands in her lap, one cupping the other.
Jamieson cleared his throat. “Forgive me for having you revisit these horrific details. Reports, you know.”
The Prescotts nodded with polite smiles. The chief pulled a pen and a small notebook from his uniform shirt pocket.
“What time, about, was she grabbed – uh, picked up?”
Bob studied his watch. “Right around 11:30. We checked everywhere – neighbors next door, across the street. After maybe 20 minutes of searching, we figured we shouldn’t waste any more time. We called the po–“
“Chief,” Beverly said, “before you ask any more questions, could you excuse me?”
She went into a bedroom and after several moments, came back into view. Behind her, holding Beverly’s hand and clutching a Princess Elsa doll to her chest, was Lina. The little girl squinted against the bright light. She let go of Beverly’s hand and rubbed at her eyes.
Beverly guided Lina ahead of her. “I was letting her nap a little longer. She said it’s okay for you to ask her the questions. And Bob and I don’t mind.”
Chief Jamieson smiled at Lina, then furrowed his forehead at Beverly. “She not too traumatized?”
“No children of your own, I’m betting,” Bob said.
“My ex didn’t want–“
“There’s no way Lina could’ve fallen asleep this soon,” Beverly said, “if she’d been scared out of her wits.”
Bob was looking at his daughter, his eyes moist. “About three o’clock, we ran to the front window here when we heard a car door slam. You should’ve seen her skipping up the driveway. She was yelling, ‘Mommy! Daddy! I’m home!’ Just like she’d gotten off the bus from kindergarten. Twice in one day I almost had a heart attack. I tell you, you can die from joy, too.”
“Didn’t notice it at first,” Beverly said, “but the car wasn’t pulling away fast at all. A kidnapper obeying the 25 MPH speed limit? I thought he had to be wacky.”
The chief pushed up his lower lip, nodding. “Okay then, if you think she can handle it. I assume she told you two everything. Let me know of any contradictions, inconsistencies.” He peered at them over the top of his glasses. “First, though, to you two the toughie–”
“I checked her thoroughly, sir,” Beverly said. “First thing I did, after nearly passing out. I’m a nurse. I’ve done this before, seen some real bad cases. She’s fine. Not even the mildest reddening. She said he never touched her except to hold her hand a couple of times. By the looks of things, I believe her–”
“It’ll be hard to convince some people she isn’t talking out of shock, out of a Stockholm syndrome sort of thing. They may look at you and Mr. Prescott as some kind of gullible, misguided do-gooders. Or even as co-conspirators – sensationalist co-kidnappers, in fact. Who knows. You have to understand their viewpoint. And mine.”
Getting only their polite smiles again, he said, “You do understand the guy may have chickened out and could try again?”
The Prescotts shook their heads in unison. “We don’t think that’s a possibility at all,” Bob said. He glanced sidelong at Beverly. “I’ll get it.”
He went to the kitchen table and returned with a manila envelope. “I apologize. It’s just that we’ve been so over-joyed and excited… Should’ve shown you this right away. She had it with her when she came back.”
Bob opened the envelope and spilled the contents out on the coffee table: a regular letter envelope bulging and taped, a folded 8 X 11 sheet of white printer paper, and some kind of official-looking document.
Chief Jamieson studied the items. “He gave her this?”
“Um, yeah,” Lina said. “We were coming back. He stopped on the side of the road and wrote something. Then he gave the big envelope to me.”
“If you already opened the white envelope, could’ve been dangerous. A bomb, anthrax, who knows.”
“We knew it was okay because we read the note first.”
Jamieson picked up the piece of paper and read. He dropped it back on the table.
“Holy–“ He fumbled with the two-way radio attached to the front of his shirt. The order he barked was so loud it made the three Prescotts jump. A full 30 seconds of silence. He started to squeeze his radio again.
“Got him, Chief!” the officer said on the radio. “Sorry for that little delay there. You called while we were taking him down. He pulled a little surprise on us. He won’t be snatching any more kids.”
Monday, 9:00 a.m.
Judge Ann Struthers cranked open the dark-brown wooden blinds to the large window behind her expansive desk. Sunlight streamed in. She sat down in her high-back, black-leather swivel chair with button-tufting and nail-head arm trimming. She regarded the group convened before her. After sipping from a tall red mug of steaming coffee, she smiled at Chief Jamieson.
“Nice to see you again, Tom. Been what — four days?”
Jamieson ignored the sarcasm and wagged his hands once in his lap. “Thereabouts. Thanks for agreeing on the phone to accelerate things on such short notice.”
“Might not have happened if you and I didn’t do more than fist-bump.” A grin split across her face.
He looked down, his face reddening. “Guess everybody in town’s figured that one out by now.”
She directed herself to Bob and Beverly Prescott. “Up here far away from civilization, we do things a little differently. Something else you probably figured out.”
She bobbed her chin at the two arresting officers seated against the back wall, on which hung between the two men a 20-year-old oil-painting of herself wearing her judge’s robe for the first time. “I read your report, boring as your cop-speak is. It’ll suffice.”
She again faced the Prescotts. “Thanks for allowing Lina to be examined by the doc. Would it be all right if I heard her side to all this? I want to be satisfied I’ve reached a fair and just conclusion after reading the police report and talking to the chief on the phone yesterday.”
Bob patted Lina on the knee and pointed toward the wooden chair next the judge’s desk. The little girl tucked Princess Elsa under her arm and climbed up into the chair.
“Um, what do you want me to say?” she said, watching the lazy spin of the ceiling fan.
“Start after you got to the woods up on Madison Hill – up on the hill. I know you were very scared, sweetie.”
“I got real real scared when he picked up that big knife. I thought he was going to cut me with it. But he didn’t. He gave it to me. Umm, he took stuff out of his box. There were paper plates, plastic forks, and napkins, and there was a big red cake! He stuck candles in it and lit them with matches. He said 50 candles. I can count higher than that by fives. It was his birthday! We had a birthday party! He said he would really like me to please sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him if I wanted to.”
“Yeah. I didn’t mind. It made him smile.” Her face scrunched up and she bounced Princess Elsa on her knees. “Umm, before I finished singing, he got real real sad and started crying and crying and crying. He cried for a long time.”
“What did you do?”
“I got up and went over and gave him a hug.” She looked at her mom and dad. “Hugs help people. He said I made him happier than he’s ever been in his whole life. That made me feel good. Then he said he wanted me to cut the slices for us, like a big girl. He said I would do a good job. And I did! We both ate a big hunk of cake. He told me to eat a lot veggies today when I got home. Just like Mommy and Daddy! We got up and I helped him bury Molly. It was sad. He started crying again. I gave him another hug to help him.”
“Good Lord,” Chief Jamieson said. “She touched him more than he touched her.”
“Well, young lady, I certainly believe all that,” Judge Struthers said to Lina but for the others to hear. She sat up straight. “Now, Mrs. Prescott. You have the envelope there. Bring it here and empty it.” She cleared a space on her desk.
Beverly spread out the contents between a leather, monogrammed pen holder and a photograph of the judge’s bald, deceased husband.
She held up a key. “Mr. Bacon’s car. This document here is the deed to his inherited land on Madison Hill.” She picked up the stuffed white envelope. “There’s money in it. We counted it. Ten-thousand dollars. His life’s savings, Your Honor.”
“I want to verify what the note says,” Judge Struthers said.
“It’s his will,” Beverly said, handing it over. “That’s what he wrote at the top. It’s dated and signed.” She started choking up. “He gave everything he owns to Lina.”
Chief Jamieson peered over his glasses at Bob Prescott. “Word is – from the mayor’s office – the city has green-lighted a plan with developers to put up a ski resort just a couple miles up from there. I could be wrong, but by the time little Lina’s a grownup, that property ought to be worth some serious pocket change. Maybe hundreds of thousands.”
Beverly recollected the items and returned to her seat. “And the ten thousand invested for her, might produce another fifty—”
“Provided, of course,” the judge said, raising her chin toward the officers, “Mr. Bacon still wishes this to be. Bring him in, fellows.”
The officers exited a side door. Moments later, they escorted Mort, hands cuffed in the front, into the room. He had on new jeans and a blue and white plaid flannel shirt. He had shaved and his hair had been cut and styled. He was trying to smile.
Lina leaped out of her chair. “Mr. Mort!” She ran over and clasped her arms around his leg. Beverly waved her over and pulled her up into her lap.
The judge let out a soft whistle after looking up from the mug-shot in her file. “You clean up pretty good, Mr. Bacon.” She flipped a hand at the officers. “Will you puh-lease take those god-awful cuffs off the man.”
Once the officers and Mort were seated, she said, “Mr. Bacon, the chief briefed me on your circumstances after he interviewed you in his beautifully appointed holding room. My file says all the Taser did was put you in oblivion for a few seconds, and now you’re fine. Good. We aren’t going to apologize for wrecking your suicide-by-cop scheme. You didn’t know we do things differently in Temple. Tasers only.”
She softened her voice. “Got the story on you. Obviously you’re very depressed. First things first. You’re going to get counseling for as long as it takes. I’m making it part of your sentence. But right this second, I need to know – Lina needs to know – do you still intend for your will to stand?”
Mort peered around, then fixed on the judge. “It’s the least I can do, Your Honor, to make up for the trouble I caused everybody. I want to sign over everything today.” He paused, glanced off the judge to Lina. “Can I make one condition, please? Can Lina visit me in prison at least once a mo–?”
“Ahh!” Judge Struthers said, wobbling a finger. “Glad you brought that up. We indeed do things differently here in Temple. Yes, there is a minimum 20 years for kidnapping. But we judges have discretionary powers that will knock your underwear off. I’m suspending all but five of the 20 because of the unusual circumstances and your very best efforts to make amends for what you did.”
Mort collapsed back in his chair, his face whitening. He couldn’t speak.
The judge leaned forward on her forearms and narrowed her eyes at Mort.
“Now a question, and you’d better not lie, Mr. Bacon.” She cleared her throat. “What I want to know is, did you, or did you not, tell this sweet little girl to eat her veggies?”
He dropped his head and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to stifle a laugh. “Thought it would be the remedy for all that cake she packed down, Your Honor.”
Lina’s face lit up. “It was good!” She swung Princess Elsa’s long braided hair from side to side. “Umm, he kept bugs off me. And he shooed mosquitoes away. He showed me how pretty the sunlight is coming down through the trees. And, and, we listened to how booti – beautiful the birds sound in the woods. It was magical, just like Elsa’s ice castle.”
“Well. The nerve of this guy,” Judge Struthers said. “For that, I’m revising your sentence again – to suspended. But! I’m fining you ten-thousand dollars. But! I’m marking it ‘Paid,’ as of today, which it is. Paid and transferred to Lina.”
Mort gasped. Some might have said he looked as though he had taken another Taser hit.
“And I’m returning your key, Mr. Bacon. Your car’s worth less than the Gold Digger Ring Chip thong I’m wearing.”
With a wicked little grin, she let her gaze land on Jamieson just long enough to catch his eye-roll.
”You’re gonna need your wheels,” she said, swinging her eyes back to Mort, “when you start back at your old job. Yep, did my research. I’m going to sic an eager-beaver attorney on that new principal, who’s going to learn how not to fire people and then replace them in a blatant act of nepotism. You’re going to get the two months’ pay you have coming. Plus, since by firing you the principal caused you to get evicted, he’s going to come up with the first two months’ rent for your next place, which we’re going to find for you lickety-split.”
She paused, her eyebrows knitted. “Tell me, Mr. Bacon, how come you didn’t take money out of your savings to pay your rent?”
Mort shuffled his feet. “Thought about it, Your Honor, but then things all of a sudden came down on me pretty hard. That’s when I made up mind to – to do…something else–”
“That’s okay, no need to dwell.”
“Your Honor, I’m so very grateful to you, the chief – everybody here actually.”
“Serves you right, you know, for taking such good care of a little child in your charge. A lot of parents are less responsible.”
She flipped a page over in her file and made a note. “Now about your counseling. Group sessions for a while so you don’t feel like you’re the only one in the world who’s had a run of misfortunes. Side benefit: excellent chance you’ll find a nice member of the female species there who’d love to meet a sensitive, caring guy like you.”
She rose, still regarding Mort. “I’m sure you’re glad you didn’t insist on a jury trial.” She threw a quick smile Jamieson’s way. “Can’t help thinking the good chief had something to do with that.”
Jamieson shrugged and flipped his hands in his lap as Mort did a vigorous nod.
Judge Struthers let out a gush. “Well,” she said to all, spreading her fingertips on the top of her desk, “this may have been the quickest trial in history. If anybody takes a mind to challenging what I’ve done here this morning, it’s a battle I guarantee they’ll lose. I’m made of–”
“Non-rusting iron,” Chief Jamieson said.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Hey, got hordes of people coming over, Your Honor.”
“As if Temple had hordes.” She pecked a finger at him. “For committing the misdemeanor of fallacious babbling, I’m sentencing you to dinner at seven. Got a Crockpot of stew brewing. Or is it a brew stewing? Anyway, thought I told you some time ago you can stop the ‘Your Honor’ crap while on duty. Everybody knows–“
“We do more than….” He bumped his fists against each other, a smirk bunching up one corner of his mouth.
Bob Prescott turned to Mort. “Beverly and I have decided. You’re invited to Lina’s Princess Elsa birthday party in a few months.”
“You don’t know how much that means to me.”
“Speaking of,” Jamieson said to the judge, “can we bring it in now?”
Judge Struthers hit a button on her phone and spoke. Jamieson strode over and opened the door. A young female assistant walked in carrying a big white-frosted cake sporting 50 blazing candles. She set it down on a small table near a side wall.
When she stepped back, Jamieson gave a two-hand signal to Lina. The soon-to-be six-year-old began singing, “Happy Birthday to you….” Everyone else, turning to Mort, joined in.
Within seconds, Mort began to sob, burying his face in his hands. Lina hurried out of Beverly’s lap, dropping Princess Elsa, ran across the floor, and hugged Mort with all her might.
The idea for this story came to me from a newspaper report I read probably a decade ago.
As I recall, the report told of a man in his 50s who had kidnapped a five-year-old girl and taken her on a picnic. He later returned her unharmed to her home.
I remember a lump rising in my throat after I read the report. I not only wanted to cry for the little girl and her parents, who experienced unthinkable horror while their daughter was missing. I also wanted to cry for the man. He may have been driven delusional by isolation and loneliness. Several years ago my older brother, following the death of our mother, with whom he had lived for about 40 years, was racked by a very long period of severe loneliness. He wound up in a mental healthcare hospital, where after nine days he died at the not-old age of 72.
Sustained isolation and loneliness can destroy your mind and, in the process, make you do desperate things in the sometimes futile quest to rescue yourself.
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