They do not know that they are dying.
The children do not know that they are dying by their own hand. So many things make them think otherwise. Their faces are free from wrinkles and their bodies are firm. Their friends are using drugs as much as they are and nothing bad happens to them. They are drinking, smoking, screwing, and spinning their wheels with no visible scars. They are sure they can pay any penalty and withstand any blow. Everyone has time to change course before it is too late. The kids in the park are dying but they believe they will live forever.
Frank Brady watches People's Park from his car. The park is a small parcel of land in one of Bloomington's busiest downtown neighborhoods, one block away from Indiana University, and currents of cars and people alike travel the narrow suburban streets and sidewalks. The children gather around the park's steel tables and benches, sit under its two oak trees, and ride a brick wall that flanks Kirkwood Avenue. Frank has an unobstructed view of the entire park and counts sixteen people there in all. Melanie Boyer and Zeke Grover are among them. It is cold for early fall in southern Indiana and Melanie presses her body against Zeke. His fading brown leather jacket covers half of her body.
Melanie is killing herself just like the others. She is a fifteen-year-old runaway and crack addict. Her father is unknown and her mother is a drug addict and convicted murderer serving a life sentence stuffed away in a state prison. She spends the first ten years of her life with her mother in an assortment of beige one-bedroom apartments sleeping on furniture reeking of mildew, pet urine, alcohol, and sweat. She spends the first ten years of her life wearing mismatched clothes, having soda and potato chip dinners out of a vending machine and watching a succession of jumpy-eyed men slink in and out of her mother's bedroom door. Melanie moves in with her grandparents two months of her tenth birthday. When she thinks of her mother, she short-circuits the pain by slicing her thighs with a pair of scissors. Melanie is ten years old and she is dying.
Melanie runs away from home in early October, but this is not the first time she disappears. She meets Zeke in the early spring of that year and two weeks later, whacked out on crack, they decide to leave the state. The two of them rob her grandparents at gunpoint and steal their black Lincoln Continental. They plan to be in Florida by the next sundown, but the spree stops six hours later and fifty miles south of Bloomington. A state cop pulls them over at two am along a quiet state highway. Zeke throws his fists and kicks his feet and it takes four cops to cram him into the back seat. Melanie is high and difficult to subdue. She is binging on crack and depressants to quiet her craving for crack. It is three screaming days pass before the straps come off. Her grandparents visit once.
"Tell me some more about your granddaughter. Does she have a boyfriend?"
The veins in Elsie's thin neck flare to life and she nods. "Yes, she has a boyfriend. He's the cause of a lot of her problems."
Frank scribbles notes in a small spiral notebook. When he is asking questions like this, a silky chill spreads across his body. He is probing, ferreting out information, prying away the valuable from the trivial and it makes him feel well, whole, and worthwhile.
"How so?" he asks.
Albert leans forward in his chair and places his right palm on Frank's desk. His eyes tighten and his doughy jaw shifts from side to side. "The man's a menace. He's forty-five years old and an alcoholic and drug addict. I did some research on the man and found out he's a registered sex offender too. I can't even imagine what he's put my grand-daughter through. "
"I've never heard his name, but I'll ask around about him. How did they meet?"
Albert sits back in his chair and sighs deeply. "We're not sure. He's homeless, so we assume they met on the streets somehow."
Elise's hands jerk and she places them on top of each other. She cocks her chin upward. "That whole scene is infested with nothing but drug users, drunks, and sexual predators! Why doesn't the city clean that park up?"
"The cops patrol the area a lot, Mrs. Boyer. People's Park isn't the problem. Her addiction and her boyfriend are the problems. If she hadn't met Zeke,, she would've just met someone else. She was looking for someone like him."
Albert and Elise Boyer see many things, but they do not see that she is dying. What they see is an unusually pretty young woman who starts developing at thirteen and shows no signs of slowing down. Her hair is the color of olive oil and her eyes are light blue. She has sloping, sculptured shoulders, and a shapely figure. They believe her looks set her apart. Her mother is a statuesque blonde with light blue eyes and a narrow body, but Melanie holds her sculptured shoulders high, bats her saccharine eyes, and sways her hips with poise her mother never possesses. The Boyers believe that her looks can carry her through life. They know she can marry well if she spends her time with the right people. People like them. People who value shaking hands, cocktail parties, and marrying the right people. Zeke Grover is not the right kind of person.
"What do you mean, Mr. Brady?" Albert says. He grits his teeth and snaps his hands shut. He squeezes so hard that his knuckles turn white.
"I'm going on the information you've given me. She sounds like a broken girl. She's been looking for someone as broken as her and found him at last. What was she like before she started acting out?"
"Quiet, but we were working on that. Really took pride in herself and appearance. She learned that from me, I think. Liked girlie things, liked to swim." Elise says.
Albert nods. "She's a good swimmer. Any good school would want her for that."
"She was always athletic. My oldest sister Alice was pretty and talented like her."
"How did she do in school?"
Elise's eyes sink and she shrugs his shoulders. "She did well. Her art teacher in sixth grade said her painting skills were beyond her years."
Albert rolls his eyes and smirks. "I never understood the painting. She should have taken more of an interest in physical things instead. You know, to help her get over her shyness." His eyes moisten and he licks his lips. "I blame our daughter Julie for that."
"She was in band and can play some instruments." Elise says.
Albert shakes his head. His eyes dart around the room. "She could have such a bright future. She's got the looks and personality to go far in life. It'd be a damn shame if she ended up like her mom."
Frank thinks the Boyers love their granddaughter, but the love is conditional. They will love her long hair and deep, enticing curves. They will love her blue eyes and the lush spill of her hair. They will love her because she is their last good chance to redeem themselves. They lost their daughter. They cannot lose Melanie or love her for what she is. They are not grieving because they are losing their granddaughter; they are grieving for their lost peace of mind.
The second time she runs away is less dramatic, but costly. She steals a check from her grandfather's checkbook and forges his signature by tracing his real signature onto the check from another piece of paper. She drains ten thousand dollars from his bank account and launches herself headlong into a crack cocaine binge unlike any before.
Store video cameras capture Zeke and Melanie robbing a liquor store a week later. Zeke hospitalizes an uncooperative cashier with a broken wrist, fractured skull and four broken ribs. Frank hounds her friends for information, but her friends will not talk. He cruises Bloomington's west side neighborhoods angling for a chance sighting. He falls back on lurking around People's Park when all else fails. A week and a half passes before he finds them. He calls Issac Fulton, a Bloomington Police Department detective.
"Hello?" Issac says.
"It's Frank. I've found them."
Frank hears Issac's loud, raspy whistle. "Really? Just made my day. Where are they?"
"Where do you think? We've gotten lucky."
"Bingo. Ready to get these two off the streets?"
"Yeah. We'll see you in a few."
"I need to call the Boyers, Brent Dudley, and Lifepaths. How do you want to handle getting Melanie to the treatment center?"
"Well, you know, the usual. We'll get her downtown and book her into jail. Then transport her out there."
"Okay, thanks. I'll keep an eye on them in case they take off." Frank says.
He ends the call and dials Brent Dudley's cell phone. Brent is an attorney specializing in criminal and family law. They first meet when Frank works as an investigator for Child Protective Services and aids Brent in a number of custody cases. When Frank branches off into private investigation, Brent feeds him work.
"Dudley here, speak." Brent says. He bellows rather than speaks and has a minor lisp.
"It's Frank. They've found our Bonnie and Clyde."
"Really? Where? Are they in custody yet?"
"I'm watching both of them right now at People's Park. I called Issac Fulton and the police are on their way."
"Great news, Frank! The Boyers are going to be very relieved. I'll call them and all of us can meet at my office after the police have them in custody, okay?"
"No problem. See you soon." Frank says. He closes the cell phone and slides it into his shirt pocket.
He watches them. Zeke's face is gaunt and his beard wreathes his face like a thick tangle of wires. He holds Melanie close to him, but scans his surroundings with short, sudden sweeps of his head. His concern is obvious. He says little while Melanie talks to another girl. Her hands are flailing and her head thrashes when she speaks.
The police cruisers creep into the area. Frank sees one pass behind him and another comes to a stop to his right at the corner of Dunn and Sixth Street. To the south, officers stride across a small parking lot. Zeke is looking for them, but Melanie distracts him and he drops his guard long enough for the officers to close in. His eyes widen when he spots them and he slaps Melanie's back.
Melanie looks around and sprints to the south. Zeke bolts in Frank's direction. The police officers react immediately and give chase. Melanie rushes out into Kirkwood Avenue, dodges an oncoming car, and stumbles when she reaches the other side. Six officers swoop in and subdue her. Zeke makes it a little further. He runs down an alley and a group of officers pursues him. When he trips on a manhole grating and lands on his face, the officers drive him into the concrete and tie up his limbs.
"You motherfuckers! Motherfuckers! You're gonna fuckin' die!" Zeke says.
Frank hopes that this is the end. He hopes that the court puts Zeke behind bars for a long time and that Melanie gets the chance to breathe, smile, and live again. He craves this for her, as much as he craves anything but knows that she may never live again. He sighs, starts his car and drives away to meet her grandparents at Brent's office.
It is an office complex on Bloomington's east side. The sprawling brick building is dotted with many windows and a supermarket-sized parking lot buffers the building on every side. Brent personally oversees the construction of its deep awnings, sculptured facades, and marble floors. When his office employees move into the new location, Brent marks the occasion by staging a ribbon-cutting ceremony, holding a company picnic, and publishing short leather bound scrapbooks that chronicle the day in photos. He is a professional, earns every cent of his hefty fee, and he wants you to feel at home.
Brent Dudley is the middle-aged man you see jogging in shorts on a brittle December morning. He rarely sets upright at his desk. He reclines instead in a noisy leather chair and stretches his legs out in front of him. Albert Boyer is an elderly man with a swollen stomach and short legs. He sits close to his wife and holds her hand. Elise Boyer coughs occasionally and wipes tissue paper around her eyes.
"Mr. Brady, thanks for coming." Albert says.
"It's no trouble. I hope both you and Mrs. Boyer are doing well. Under the circumstances."
Albert dodges Frank's gaze and frowns. "It's over, that's all that matters. This embarrassment has come to an end and we can get Melanie the help that she needs."
"We'll do just that, Mr. Boyer. Do you or Mrs. Boyer have any questions you want to ask us?" Brent asks.
Elise sniffles loudly, raises her head, and looks at Brent. "What's going to happen now, Mr. Dudley? Is this place Lifepaths going to be good enough for the court or do we need to look elsewhere?"
"She's being booked into Monroe County Jail right now, Mrs. Boyer. After that, she'll be transported to Lifepaths. As we've discussed before, Lifepaths is a secure unit. We'll get her stable there and I'll work with the court and prosecutor's department to find out what they want from us." Brent says.
Albert's lower lip bulges over his upper lip. "They have to know that it isn't Melanie behind all of this. She isn't this kind of girl. It's the drugs and that man. Do you think we can keep details out of the news?"
Brent leans forward and interlocks his fingers as if he is praying. He plants his elbows on his knees and tightens his gaze onto Albert and Elise alone. They are the only people in the room and his concern cannot flutter or fade. Frank sees him do this with clients countless times and cannot help but admire his beaming, plastic charm.
"Mr. Boyer, everyone, including the judge and prosecutor, have nothing but respect for the two of you and know that both of you want the best for Melanie. They know that she has bad influences all around her. A certain amount will get out, but everyone wants to protect you, your wife, and, of course, Melanie, from any needless embarrassment." Brent says.
"Thank you for considering us in this whole mess." Elise says.
Frank and Brent follow the Boyers when they leave the office. Brent pats Albert on the shoulder and stays close to him. They will pull Melanie from the murk and steer her to a different direction. She will not die. This is the first step. Any further sorrows will rip the Boyers apart and Brent is going to work keep that from happening. When Albert or Elise looks at Frank, he smiles. His mouth is tense and his lips press together as if he is striding face-long into the cold. Frank thinks about denial as he walks. Elise's footsteps tremble and Frank has his arm interlocked with one of her own. Her arm is nothing but gristle and bone.
Brent's cell phone erupts with a string of staccato beeps. He takes out the phone and opens it. He frowns and shakes his head.
"It's Lifepaths. I'm sorry to delay you, but this could be important." Brent says.
Albert puckers his lips, closes his eyes, and shakes his head. "No problem, Mr. Dudley. We can wait."
Brent nods and puts the phone to his ear. "Dudley here, speak. Hello, Linda, how are you? Oh, I see. I hate to hear this, are they alright? Are the police still there? Okay, thanks for calling so quickly. The private investigator I am using, Frank Brady, will likely be there to see you soon. Can you let them know that he is coming? Great. Goodbye, Linda."
Brent closes the cell phone. "Bad news." he says.
Frank feels Elise pull his arm closer to her body. Frank is her anchor right now. She will waver and fall if she loosens her grip. Her voice trembles when she speaks.
"What is it, Mr. Dudley?"
Brent sighs. "That was Linda Hansen at Lifepaths. The police transported Melanie to the facility forty-five minutes ago. The police left and before they could get her onto the unit, Melanie attacked a nurse and another employee. She ran out of the building and got away before the police could get back. They are looking for her right now."
"They haven't found her? How could they not find her?" Elise says.
Albert lowers his head. "This nightmare has no end. We're never going to get her under control so she can get the help she needs."
"Don't give up, Mr. Boyer. The police will find her or Frank will track her down again. We're going to get this situation under control, I promise you." Brent says.
"I don't believe it. I just don't believe it anymore." Albert says. He frowns and jerks his head upwards.
Frank hears something in their voices. He hears that they are ready for her to die. If she does not bend to their world, clutch their lives to her breast, and immortalize their blood, they will toss her onto the scrap heap of their history. They will mold their failure as parents and grandparents into a crushing martyrdom that feeds them until the grave.
"You don't have to believe right now, Mr. Boyer. Just trust that we are looking out for what's best for her and have the skills to produce results. That's all. Just trust. Can you do that?" Frank says.
Albert straightens his back and cocks his head to one side. His eyes well up with tears and his eyebrows squeeze together in thought. "Yes, Mr. Brady, I trust you will do your best. Maybe you can bring our granddaughter home."