The children cannot see that they are dying.
The children cannot see 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. They are young and they can still change. The kids in the park are dying but no one knows.
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 west from Indiana University, and currents of cars and people alike travel the narrow suburban streets and sidewalks. The children gather at 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 October 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 her friends. She is a fifteen-year-old runaway and crack addict. Her father is unknown and her mother is a drug addict. 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 cries the first ten years of her life wearing mismatching clothes, having soda and potato chip dinners out of vending machines and watching a succession of jumpy-eyed men slink in and out of her mother's bedroom door. Her mother's taste for drug dealers and convicted felons is a tattooed wave of screams, crashing chairs, and police officers. Her mother takes black eyes, broken bones, loosened teeth, and busted lips chasing her next high. Melanie watches one boyfriend pound her face with clubbing blows that dislodge an eyeball and knock it from the socket. She is unconscious and the eyeball looks like a damp marble on her cheek. Her mom stabs the boyfriend two nights later. The butcher knife scars the boyfriend's body with sixteen jagged wounds and the court pushes her off the face of the earth with a life sentence. Melanie moves in with her grandparents two months shy 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.
Frank Brady looks for them and sleeps two to three hours a night. When he isn't strolling downtown at night hoping for a glimpse, when he isn't crawling through the city's low income housing projects hoping for a chance sighting, when he isn't talking to her friends and trying to keep a grip on his temper, he sits in his two room apartment and watches television into the night. He looks at old pictures of his long dead family. He thinks about Melanie and dreams about her at night. He sees her naked and shivering in a bleached room. There are no windows and she is huddled in a corner. Small, deep gashes cover her body and her tears have a bright blue glow. He will help her. When his hands paw the air around her, her eyes close and a chilling wind sweeps her away.
Melanie flees her home in early October, but it is not the first time. She meets Zeke in the spring of that year and two weeks later, whacked out on crack, they decide to leave the state. They 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 when a state cop pulls them over at two a.m. 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 bingeing on crack and depressants to quiet her craving for crack, and attacks the officer. They transport her to Bloomington Hospital and 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 asks 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 granddaughter 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 catches their eye is a porcelain 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 can open doors for her. Her mother is a statuesque blonde with light blue eyes and a narrow body, but Melanie holds her sculptured shoulders higher, bats her saccharine eyes in suggestive ways, and sways her hips in a way her mother cannot. 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 the cost is high. She steals a check from her grandfather's checkbook, forges his signature by tracing his real signature onto the check from another piece of paper, and drains ten thousand dollars from his bank account before launching 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 sends an uncooperative cashier to the hospital with a broken wrist, fractured skull and four broken ribs. 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. Windows dot the sprawling brick building 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 never sits upright at his desk. He reclines instead in his 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 blows her nose, 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 will 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. That's bad news, are they all right? 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."
Frank drives to Lifepaths and the heavy traffic slows him to a crawl. Bloomington is changing. Frank Brady is born on the city's west side in 1972 and the city hires its first female police officers the same year. The city's first shopping mall is seven years old. The furniture factories and blacksmith shops close their doors and the factories flock to Bloomington. General Electric starts building refrigerators and air conditioners. Otis starts building elevators and RCA churns out a television set for every home. By 2010, the factories disappear into the miasma of American life. Indiana University explodes into a worldwide academic force and props up the local economy. Everyone works in restaurants for minimum wage, delivers pizzas, attends school, or works at Ivy Tech Community College or Indiana University. Construction blasts away entire city blocks and the Bloomington of his youth tumbles apart in his memory. Some drives across the city take fifteen minutes when he is young. Now they take thirty.
The drive from downtown Bloomington to Lifepaths takes twenty-five minutes. Lifepaths is a substance abuse treatment center on the city's north side. Frank is a familiar face here. He parks his car in the staff parking lot and walks in. Three police cars, one unmarked, park near Lifepath's main entrance. Linda Hansen's office is in the main lobby.
She is the clinical director for Lifepaths. Her black hair is rife with narrow streaks of white and her cheekbones are high. Below her cheekbones, her face is collapsing in upon itself and spidery creases bloom from the corners of her eyes. She is a recovering alcoholic, sober sixteen years. Her smiles are slender and closed.
Three police officers stand near her desk. One is Issac Fulton. Issac is a former high school football star who goes into law enforcement after he gets his diploma and never looks back. It is a seamless slide from quarterback of a football team into police detective. He is still looking to score the winning touchdown and lead his team to victory.
"She's not going far. We're looking for her, the county is looking for her, and the state police know everything they need to know. They are too wild and too high to not draw attention to themselves at some point." Issac nudges his head in Frank's direction and smiles. "If even Frank can find them, like he did this morning, they're just being fucking stupid and it's only a matter of time."
Frank snorts and brushes his hand across his shirt as if he is sweeping away crumbs. He holds his chin against his chest when he speaks. "Yeah, I know. One guy with no personal life sitting in a parking lot accomplishes what the combined law enforcement departments of Monroe County can't do. Funny how that works." He raises his head, looks at Issac, and smiles.
Everyone in the room laughs. Frank does not know the other police officers. They are young men, no older than thirty, and their short crew cuts make their hair look like scouring pad bristles. One has a prominent chin and American Indian ancestry. The other officer is short, twenty pounds overweight, and his left eye points a centimeter upwards. When they glance at Issac or inject themselves into a conversation, they lower their heads and avert their eyes with the same respect many muster for a minister or a parent.
"We have the immediate area sealed off, officers downtown, and others patrolling. We'll find her this time, sir." the officer on the right says.
Issac nods. "Good. Linda, how are your people?"
She shrugs and briefly closes her eyes. "Physically, they're fine. I'm disappointed by the lapse in security."
"What do you mean?" Frank says.
"Another patient was being brought onto the unit. Whenever the unit doors open, techs are supposed to make sure that other patients maintain a good distance from the entrance. The techs weren't paying attention." Linda says.
"How was she when the officers brought her in? Did she say anything you think might be important?" Issac says.
Linda sighs and pushes herself away from her desk. "She was pissed off. And unless you think calling everyone here motherfucker, bitch, or faggot is important, then no, she wasn't exactly a wealth of information."
Issac cocks his head backwards and smiles. "Don't take it out on me, okay?"
Linda sighs again. "I'm sorry, Detective Fulton."
He raises his palm to Linda and shakes his head. "Don't worry about it. I'm a big boy. I can take it." Issac turns to Frank. "What's your next move? The Boyers still have you working this?"
"Yeah, for now. They just spent a hour telling me and Brent Dudley how much they love their grand-daughter and oh, by the way, can you spare us anymore embarrassment?"
Everyone chuckles. They tie themselves together in the snug knot of a jaded fraternity. They see it all. They bump into every father, every mother, and every dying child. They hear every sobbing tale of woe and, after a while, the faces of those fathers, mothers, and children merge and congeal into one swollen face of loss.
"You know how it is. They just want the kid to get their lives straightened out. They just want them to stop causing trouble." Issac says.
"Well, that's what this whole mess is. Trouble. And trouble is what this girl is going to cause for herself and anyone who's unlucky enough to run into her. Unfortunately, she is very sick. And, obviously, you should consider her dangerous." Linda says. She stares at the surface of her desk, shakes her head slowly, and shuffles a small pile of nearby papers.
"Did she say anything that might tell us where she was going?" The officer with the prominent chin folds his arms.
"No, officer. She was too busy throwing her fists and saying motherfucker over and over. She didn't plan on getting arrested today so I doubt she had a plan for what she would do after escaping from a treatment center." Everyone laughs except the officer with a prominent chin.
Issac taps the American Indian officer on the arm and motions towards the door with his head. The officer nods and catches the other officer's attention. They follow Issac towards the door. Issac stops when he reaches Frank.
"So... what's next for you?"
"I'm going to go see Zeke's mom. I've paid her a few visits since all of this started. She's not real fond of me, or anyone else for that matter, but she's the only family that Zeke has. If he reaches out to anyone, it's going to be her." Frank says.
Issac curls out his lower lip and nods. "Sounds good." He raises his head slightly. "You need to keep me up to date on everything, right?"
"I always do, Issac."
"I know. It just has to be said, I'm reinforcing this point to everyone, not just you. This whole mess is too important to fuck up. We've got to win this one and that means working as a team."
"It'll happen. One or another, these two are heading for a reckoning."
Issac nods and leaves with the other officers. Frank pulls up a chair and sits down near Linda's desk. Her eyes narrow when she looks at him.
"What's on your mind, Frank? You don't look so good."
"I've slept about ten hours in the last four days. Looking for these two is eating me up."
Linda leans back in her chair and nods. "So what else is new? You've never learned how to not let this stuff overwhelm you."
Frank shrugs. "It's all I know, Linda."
"What you know is killing you. This is what happened before you left CPS. That Wright case practically killed you."
Frank scoots to the edge of his chair and leans forward. He slowly runs his hand through his thinning blonde hair. "Linda, I know that. And you know how I feel. If kids like this don't have someone like me out there, what do they have? I just can't see kids traumatized like I was."
She grits her teeth and grinds her jaw from side to side. "Frank, if you can't separate your work from your life a little better, you're going to end up with a heart attack or you'll fucking kill yourself. When that Wright case ended, you quit sleeping, drank like a madman, and acted like you were on the verge of a nervous breakdown every time you saw a kid. I don't want to see you snap again."
He feels a hot flush rush across his skin and squirms in his chair. "Sometimes I wonder if that didn't happen years ago." He does not want to talk about this. He needs to flee. He can't take this right now. "I've got to go, Linda. I know you care. It means a lot."
"Sometimes I wonder how much it means to you that people care. Keep me posted on what's going on. When they find her, are they bringing her back here?"
"Yes. The court order won't change."
"Okay then. Take care of yourself, Frank."
He leaves the treatment center. The Wright case. It is his final investigation for Child Protective Services. A young mother, twenty-five, loses her apartment and lands homeless on the streets of Bloomington with her nine-year-old son. She is alcoholic and sells her body for vodka. She camps out behind a city park and that is where police find her passed out one morning. Her son sits nearby playing with toy cars caked with dirt.
They strip her of custody and Frank steps into the picture. He questions her son about life with his mother. The bruising talks drag on because her son cannot string more than two sentences together without breaking down. When he can speak, he piles horror upon horror. The daddy who he does not know. The men who come and go; the boyfriends who beat or touch him. The insults that his mother hurls at him. The days when she will not stop moving and the days she will not get out of bed.
The mother battles her way through drug treatment and gets a job bagging groceries. She quits drinking and does everything the court asks of her. She does not quit drinking to save her own life and be a better mother to her son. She quits drinking because she needs the food stamps she would not otherwise get and the welfare payments she would otherwise not have. Her son stews in a local group home and does not speak much. Frank visits him daily and brings him coloring books. He goes home afterwards and weeps. The child's teardrop-shaped eyes cry out to Frank. Start this all over for me. Explain what has happened to me. Help me understand.
Eight months tick away and she wins custody of her son. She drinks a quart of vodka two nights later and passes out facedown on her living room floor. As a murky stain blooms from underneath her body and the carpet wilts under its wave, her newest boyfriend rapes her son on the couch. A fellow inmate fixes her up with this new guy while she is in jail. The boy flees the home when the man goes to the bathroom to wash up. The man panics and tries to leave Bloomington, but a broken taillight attracts attention. After a brief chase, the police arrest the man on the south side of the city.
Frank never sees the child again. Child Protective Services closes the investigation, places the boy in foster care and he falls apart. Friends within the Department, like Linda, look on as Frank plunges into a gray gloom that nothing can penetrate. He quits sleeping and starts guzzling shots of vodka at nights in a limp attempt to sedate his mind. It surprises no one when Frank resigns from the Department.
"I can't go on, Jack. If I keep at this job, I'll be a fucking suicide in six months."
Jack is the chief Child Protective Services officer. He is forty-one, but the deep grooves in his face make him seem older. He is overweight and his stomach bulges against the buttons of his shirt. His eyes are wide and his mouth hangs open enough to show his teeth.
"Christ, Frank. You have vacation time and a lot of it. Take all of it, go away, get your head together. Hell, man, if you are really that bad, I'm sure we can get you some sick time and find a place to help you. But you can't just walk away from your life. You can't let these cases break you down like this. You can't just crawl into a corner and die."
Frank feels his throat tighten. "I appreciate what you're saying, Jack. But this is self-preservation. No vacation is going to fix how I feel about what happens to these kids."
Jack jabs the tip of his index finger into his desk when he speaks. "Brenda Wright went through a lawful process. The court gave her specific conditions and she fulfilled them all. The court knew what it knew and no one knew what was really on Brenda Wright's mind. It's a tragedy. But you're compounding the tragedy."
"You know my history. I see myself in every one of these kids. I'm spending my life trying to save everyone but myself."
"You can't pay forever for what your dad did to you. You were just a kid and you couldn't stop it."
Frank leans forward and puts his head in his hands. He weeps and rubs his hands across his forehead. "I can stop it happening to these kids, but not this way. I've got to undo this fucking misery around me to find peace. I don't know what peace is. Hell is inside of me, that's what I know."
Frank drives to People's Park. It is late afternoon when everyone is home from work and traffic thins out. The park is buzzing with activity at this time of the day and he wants to talk to whoever will listen. He has little hope that they will hand over any information. They will not trust him. He is not a former police officer now plying his trade as a private investigator, but he might as well be. He carries that air of authority when he speaks. He does not woo them with a winning smile and does not connect with them on their level. He hardens them and freaks them out.
However, he has other ways of prying information from them. They are not good liars and when they do trot out some half-thought out falsehood, the lie is either absurd or conjures up such a reaction from them that Frank knows when he touches a nerve, he is dragging them kicking and screaming into the light.
There are twenty or more people at the park. Some are familiar faces to Frank; others are college students or locals. Frank recognizes many of the regulars. There are pale-skinned, slender girls in flower-print dresses shuffling barefoot through the grass. There are boys sporting mohawks, boys dressing in blue, red and brown t-shirts, jean shorts, and caps. They tuck skateboards under their arms and scars dot their knees. There are men with balding heads and bushy, ashen beards creeping through the park from one group to another. They do not wear shirts and narrow ribs bulge from their spidery chests. There are young women with cavernous faces and skin the color of cigarette ash. They wear tattered jeans accentuating their swollen curves and the dark circles under their eyes are like half-formed loops of coffee on a pale tabletop.
One young woman that Frank sees is Chrissy. She claims she is Melanie's best friend and Frank speaks to her when Melanie runs away the first time. She is nineteen and homeless. Livid red blisters dot her face and her taut skin is coarse and clammy. She is a methamphetamine addict and her head twitches backwards whenever she speaks. When she sees Frank, she walks across the park to meet him.
"Hey there, Mr. Brady. What did they do with Melanie?" Her cigarette rasp is jumpy and fast.
"They took her to Lifepaths and she kicked one technician in the balls and hit another one with a chair before she ran out of the building."
Her eyes widen and she laughs. "They get her?"
"No. She's disappeared again. Zeke's still in jail."
She jerks her head back and shakes it from side to side. "Nope, you're wrong. Raven bailed him out thirty minutes after they processed him into the jail."
Raven is twenty-eight years old, a known drug dealer, and multiple felon. They always have street names like that, these gaudy monikers that reach for secrecy but set them apart instead. He is a shadow who seldom strolls into the park and never before dark. His blonde dreadlocks are thick, ropey strands of hair the color of soot. A slow succession of frozen blonde teenage queens fills the hotel and motel rooms that make up his life.
"He pay in cash?"
She pulls her head back and smirks. "Man, I don't know anything about that shit." She lowers her head and erupts with a hacking cough. "Hey, Mr. Brady, do you have a dollar or two you can spare?"
"Maybe. You want to help her out and tell me where they're at?"
"Man, I don't know where they're at. It ain't like she came running back here when all of this shit went down."
"You know where Raven is staying at the moment? Can you tell me that?"
"Shit, man, I don't know. He's somewhere, he moves around a lot." She doubles over and coughs before blowing her nose into a small handkerchief. "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew."
Frank sighs. "Why, Chrissy? Do you want her to die?"
She frowns and her eyes flutter. "She's not going to die. She wants to be with her boyfriend and those fucking grandparents of hers don't give a damn about what she wants."
The pity that Frank feels for her right now causes his knees to jitter and his stomach growls. "What about the drugs, Chrissy? The drugs aren't going to kill her?"
She looks away and shrugs. "She just parties, that's all. Everyone I know parties. She doesn't take enough drugs to kill her."
"Really? A week long crack binge is just having a good time, huh?"
The corner of her mouth curls into a sneer. She lowers her head and sways it from side to side. She looks back up at Frank. "Fuck you, man."
"That's right. Fuck you is working out real well for you." He sighs. "What do you need that money for, Chrissy?"
Her head jerks up and her eyes widen. "A pack of cigarettes. I'm a couple of dollars short."
"Where have you been staying lately?"
She shrugs and sniffles. "Here and there. Friend of mine saw you a few nights ago."
"A friend saw me, huh? What does that have to do with anything?"
Her thin, pink lips flatten when she smiles. "Yeah, a dude I know says he saw you at The Hot Spot. Says you were having a good time." She drawls the last sentence, drowning the revelation in scandal.
Frank thinks about his father when he is fucking the stripper. He recalls peeking in on his father and mother having sex for the first time. Edward Brady drives Mary Louise Brady's head into a mattress and gives her an occasional smack for good measure. He recalls his father assaulting him. He pounds him into submission with clubbing punches to the face and stomach. He slams his head into walls and furniture. It starts when he is nine years old and never stops. His mother says nothing on the days when Frank cannot walk.
Frank is behind her in the back seat of his car. He pays her a hundred dollars to fuck him and she gives him a one hundred dollar performance. She moans and whispers his name, she flatters his size, and she bobs her backside back and forth. It looks like a pale, dimpled saddle in the parking lot light. He does not take her as his father took his mother. He does not batter and bruise their bodies or debase them because they are weaker, because they dare ask anything from him. He pays her for sex so he can feel like someone needs and wants him, someone wants him to touch him and siphon away the despair that squeezes his spirit.
He comes here four to five nights a week. All the girls know him and no one mentions his job or asks him for advice. He is another regular who sets down right in front of the stripper pole and endears himself to the girls by tossing fives and tens instead of the crumpled ones that so often land around their feet. He throws back four or five shots of dark bourbon and watches the women sway with narrow, unblinking eyes. He cannot get enough of this. There are nights when he sits in his apartment and his loneliness morphs into a shivering nausea. When it does, he rushes to the club and breathes better when he walks through the door. He pays a stripper money to love him in the back seat of his car.
Frank thinks about his father when he is masturbating. There is one adult bookstore in Bloomington and when he is hurting for money, he shuts himself up in a narrow, private booth and watches movies. The booth smells like bleach and wet cigarettes ashes. He leans close to the screen and studies the girls and leans back, stretches out his legs, and bites down on his lower lip for the climax. He cannot get enough of this. When his climax slams into him, his body seizes up and cold pimples pop up from his skin. In the narrow, private booth, in the backseat of his car, Frank thinks about his father when is masturbating.
When he leaves the adult bookstore, he cruises to the city's south side. Frank is going home. Not to the downtown apartment where he keeps his clothes, food, and furniture, but to his father's sandstone house on Miller Drive. The house he cannot sell or even enter. Pale wooden shutters cover the bay windows. The chimney is crumbling. The grass is high. I can't save anyone when I can't even save myself, Frank thinks. I hate what I do. Love is not anchoring the center of your life to a task, a vocation, or another human being. I throw some pretty clothes on my fear and shame and then I call it love. I hate what I do, Frank thinks, but I can't stop.