Richard Inglish stared out across the overgrown field for a long moment, then let his eyes return to the charred remains of the small farmhouse.
“Cecil and Betty were good folks,” said the young deputy sheriff standing beside him. “They didn’t deserve to die like this.”
The Kelcher place was in the farm country of south-central Illinois, in that vast, flat land where the forests had been logged out decades ago and replaced with crops. Richard had driven from St. Louis on a two-lane blacktop road that cut straight through more corn, barley, and wheat than he’d ever expected to see in his lifetime.
“How did it happen?” he asked.
“I wish I knew.”
Richard turned to look at the deputy. He was a tall, well-built man with light, close-cropped hair and clear blue Midwestern eyes. He’d introduced himself as Deputy Newcomb.
“County fire marshal didn’t find a point of origin,” Newcomb went on. “No residue of flammables. No sign of electrical malfunction.” He was staring at the charred remains. “Wouldn’t take much to light up an old frame house like that.”
“The Kelchers died in the fire?”
“Medical examiner thinks they were dead before the fire got to them.”
Richard frowned. “From what?”
Newcomb drew in a breath, let it out slowly. Richard realized the deputy didn’t much like talking about this. “It was a hot fire. Not much of the bodies left to work with. But like I said, Doc Miller doesn’t think Cecil and Betty were still breathing when the fire reached them.”
“What about the girl?”
“Lori got out.” Newcomb pointed at a patch of weedy, overgrown lawn thirty feet or so from the rear corner of the house. “I found her right over there with her dog. The dog was dead, but Lori wasn’t hurt. Not physically, anyway.”
“She must’ve seen what happened.”
Newcomb shook his head. “She knows something, all right, but not because she saw it. Lori’s been blind since birth.”
“Ah . . . her mother didn’t mention that.”
“Lori was in bad shock. Wouldn’t say a word, not even when her sister Kay came for her the next day. She’s living with Kay in St. Louis now. I call now and then to see how she’s doing. She still won’t talk about what happened. Not even to the psychologist Kay has been taking her to.”
“How old is Lori?”
Newcomb had to think about that. “Nine, I think. Maybe ten by now. She had a birthday in the spring, if I remember right.”
Richard looked at the remains of the Kelcher house. The roof had caved in, and one outer wall swayed crazily outward. A ribcage of charred rafters poked out of the wreckage. “You think one of the Kelchers did it? Murder-suicide?”
The deputy shook his head. “Nope.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I knew Cecil and Betty.”
Richard decided not to debate the point. He had a hunch the deputy was a fair judge of character. “What about Lori? Sometimes kids play with matches – “
“What happened here was a lot more than a kid playing with matches, Dr. Inglish. Besides, I damn well know Lori wouldn’t do anything like that.”
“What’s your theory?”
When Newcomb didn’t answer, Richard turned to find the deputy looking at him thoughtfully. “Sheriff Stevens says you’re a friend of the family.”
It was spoken as a statement of fact, but Richard knew it was a question. “Not exactly a friend. I was acquainted with Betty. I’ve been trying to get in touch with her.”
Newcomb’s gaze remained steady. Richard decided the deputy deserved a straight answer. It was clear he’d known the Kelchers well.
“I teach astronomy in Chicago. I also do some work with SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
Newcomb nodded. “Betty contacted you about what happened to Lori last year?”
That surprised Richard. “You knew about that?”
“Betty showed me that thing that looked like a black egg. She was a little worried about it, whether it was safe to let Lori keep it. I told her she ought to check with someone about it. I guess that’s why she got in touch with you.”
“That black egg . . . do you know if Lori still has it?”
“She didn’t have it when she left here. Didn’t have anything but the clothes she was wearing. If it was in there,” he gestured at the burned-out house, “it’s toast.”
He was probably right. Even if the ovoid was still in there and intact, it would take a lot of time and sifting through burned rubble to find it. More time and manpower than Richard had at his disposal. “You were the first one here after the fire started?”
Newcomb nodded. “That was my day off. Saw the fire from my place. I live right on the other side of the creek.” Richard looked in the direction Newcomb pointed, but saw only a broad expanse of cornstalks bordered on the far side by a rangy stand of trees. “I called for help, then came right over.” He walked over to the overgrown patch of grass and weeds he’d pointed out earlier. Richard followed. There had been another small structure back there, too, he realized. It had been back a few feet from the house, but the fire had reached out and burned it to the ground. A piece of wood about four inches by twelve had somehow escaped and lay in the grass nearby. It was charred, but two words painted in bright red were still visible: Cair Paravel.
“Lori’s playhouse,” Newcomb said, following his gaze. “Cecil built it for her. I found Lori right here with Fortinbras.”
“Her dog. Lori named him after a dog in a storybook. Like I said before, he was dead.”
Richard remembered something Betty Kelcher had said in her letter. Lori’s dog was with her the morning she encountered the alien. “He died in the fire?”
“Nope. Belly was ripped open.”
Richard turned to stare at the deputy.
“Looked like he’d been in one helluva fight. Not like old Fortinbras to fight like that. He was a cocker. Mostly cocker, anyway. Big, floppy ears. Slobbery. About as vicious as a day-old calf. But he put up a real fight before whatever he was fighting tore open his belly.”
Richard turned to survey the countryside. “You have wolves around here?”
Newcomb shook his head. “Now and then we have some trouble with a pack of wild dogs going after livestock. I figured Fortinbras had the misfortune of taking them on when they came by the farm.”
“Quite a coincidence to have that happen the same day as the fire,” Richard observed.
“Yes,” the deputy acknowledged.
When it became clear that was as much as he would offer on the subject, Richard said, “You have a phone number for Lori’s sister in St. Louis?”
Newcomb considered that, then nodded. “I’ll call her first, see if it’s okay. Let’s head back to town.”
Richard had left his rented car at the sheriff’s office, accepting the offer of a ride with Newcomb. After he had buckled himself into the front passenger’s seat of the deputy’s Ford, Newcomb spoke again.
“I don’t know Kay too well. She moved to St. Louis before I got here. I only saw her on visits. But she was Cecil and Betty’s daughter, so that mean’s she’s all right.”
Richard waited for the deputy to say what else was on his mind.
“Don’t give her any bullshit,” Newcomb said. “Tell her why you’re there. If you can get Lori to talk about what happened, you let me know. Okay?”
Richard nodded. “You can count on it.”
Newcomb still had not reached for the keys in the ignition. “There’s one more thing I suppose I ought to tell you.”
“Doc Miller couldn’t say for sure what killed Cecil and Betty. Like I said, there wasn’t much left after the fire. But . . . ” Newcomb paused a moment, drew a breath, issued a quiet sigh. “He said it looked like their bodies had been torn up pretty bad, too. Just like Fortinbras.”
Vikki turned to face McElroy. “That’s great. We can’t fix the commbox, we can’t contact Graywand, we can’t get out of this place. So what’re we going to do?”
The problem, they had decided, had to be in the switch – the mechanism under the console that accepted stored power from the drive system and transformed it into energy the commbox could use. The switch was the only electronic component of the communications system. Most likely, they’d decided, it had been damaged by the spilled jo.
“Can you bypass it?” McElroy asked Cracchiolo.
“Bypass it?” Cracchiolo looked doubtful.
“Connect the commbox directly to the spud.”
Cracchiolo’s brow wrinkled as he thought it over. “Might work, Cap’n. Depends on how much juice the box can take.”
“What’s our risk?”
Cracchiolo thought for a moment longer. “Tops would be a frizzled commbox.”
“Then let’s try it. The commbox isn’t doing us much good, anyway.”
“You got it, Cap’n.” Cracchiolo kicked away a shard of glass that had been missed during cleanup and lowered himself to the floor. He squirmed agilely into the workspace and began stripping insulation from wires.
McElroy returned to the corner chair, leaned back against the hard cushion, and raised his eyes again to the row of vidscreens. The fore screen was flickering. They’d had problems with it before – something that seemed to defy permanent repair by Graywand‘s mechanics. The erratic flickering would, he knew, worsen and the screen would blank out for good – or at least until the mechanics had another go at it.
Not that he would mind if it did go out. The valley below – the stunted trees and the reddish-brown vegetation and that rock-strewn gully snaking out across it – did not present a comforting landscape. He shifted his eyes to the chronometer. Barely two hours had passed since they had lost contact with Graywand.
How can they come after us if they don’t know where we are?
Damn Wheeler, anyway, and his clinical observations. But even as he cursed Wheeler, a small voice inside him said: If they were coming, they would have been here by now.
Vikki Redford made a sound – a long, jittery exhalation of breath. She sat on one of the backless stools, leaning against the counter in what looked to be an uncomfortable position, staring up at the vidscreens. Beside her John Wheeler, still wearing a thin smile, also watched the screens. Tom Stone, sitting on the floor awaiting instructions from Cracchiolo, seemed to be too tired to do anything but close his eyes and produce more sweat.
Why are we so fragile? McElroy thought.
Their lives, so neatly wrapped in patterned experience, had been stripped clean of meaningful definition. They knew nothing of what lay in the barren valley, or beyond in the dark forest. The shields of constancy were down. They faced the unknown – that ancient horror of human-kind. There were no familiar patterns in their new environment, no learned ways of dealing with this feeling of helplessness they had never before faced.
“Looks like a ninety-nine.”
Wheeler’s quiet statement sliced like a blade through McElroy’s thoughts. His eyes jerked across to the older man. “A ninety-nine?”
Wheeler gestured toward the vidscreen. “Lots of vegetation. Air may be breathable.” A ninety-nine was the informal designation for a planet with Earthlike characteristics sufficient to support human life. The ninety-nine in the Sierra coordinates – 3RX-99301 – identified it as such a planet. This planet, as Wheeler pointed out, had every appearance of also being a ninety-nine, although a week or more of study by the Blue’s research teams would be
required before it could be given official recognition as such.
“You planning on taking a walk, John?” Vikki asked.
Wheeler smiled faintly. “Just thought I’d mention it. In case we’re stranded here for good.”
He’s done it again, McElroy said to himself.
Vikki swung around, mouth gaping. “Damn you, Wheeler. You always act like you think you’re something special – “
McElroy held up a restraining hand. “That’s enough.”
“Well, I’ve had it with – “
“Vikki!” McElroy fixed her with a hard look. “Quiet down.”
Vikki clenched her teeth with a snap and turned away, fuming.
“We can try it now, Cap’n.” Cracchiolo climbed out of the workspace and rose to his feet. “Only thing is – ” He glanced tentatively at Tom Stone. “Well, I’ll need somebody to support the switch housing under the shelf while I connect it up.”
Stone roused himself and looked across at Cracchiolo. With a resigned sigh, he slid across the floor and eased himself once again into the space under the console. Cracchiolo knelt down to give him brief instructions. “Okay, Cap’n,” he said, gesturing to McElroy. “If it works, we won’t have much time.”
“Coming.” McElroy stepped over Stone’s outstretched legs to the console. Maybe they would get lucky. They were due some luck. “Ready?”
Cracchiolo reached into the tangle of wires and made a series of connections. Holding it all in place, he nodded assent.
McElroy hesitated only a moment, then pressed the commbox switch.
Something crackled underneath the console. Stone roared and slammed his head against the underside of the shelf, then skittered out backwards, flapping his hand wildly. A trail of smoke spiraled upwards from the commbox, carrying an odor of scorched insulation.
“Uh-oh,” said Cracchiolo. He released his hold on the wiring harnesses and helped Stone to his feet. “Thomas, are you hurt?”
McElroy stared at the tiny wisp of smoke, too concerned with what it meant to be solicitous of Stone. With that crackle of electricity and wisp of smoke had gone their last chance to contact Graywand. Which meant they were down to one option.
Her memory is like the earth beneath her feet. Dark, rich, deep – it has as much to say about the future as it does the past. But it can’t break up on its own. It has to be cultivated. It has to be reached into. It has to be penetrated with spade, pick, or plow, its musty underside folded and furrowed into something new. This, or nothing will grow in it.
“When I dream about him,” she says, recalling the love of her life, “we’re both seventeen again.”
Seventeen, and a limitless world in front of them. Seventeen, and a weightless future that never comes. Seventeen, and everything that ever mattered is now. While just over the horizon boys become men, and men become ghosts, and ghosts become memories in one bloody instant, she and he drink from the giddy anxiety of first love.
“When I started reading some of the books on Vietnam,” she says years later, “I read some of the nurses’ stories. I had walked around maybe twenty years, and it hit me: how can anyone compete with a ghost? Later, I read that line in one of the books, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. There are other people out there who have experienced the same thing.'”
Yes. But precious few.
Jeannine Vehrencamp, a legal secretary in Vancouver, Washington, was born on August 16, 1948, in Los Angeles, California. Her family moved around a bit before settling in Wrightwood, a little resort town two-and-a-half hours northeast of LA.
“My mom doesn’t have good memories of the place,” says Jeannine, who was the middle child of three girls, “but I think it was the perfect place to raise kids. You had the pine trees, streets with no sidewalks, a little country store. Everybody knew everybody. You didn’t have to worry about locking your door. We grew up in a very rustic cabin that was built around 1910. We did a lot of bike riding around town. We collected Coke bottles to turn them in to the store in exchange for ice cream on hot, sunny days.”
It was on such a day in the summer of 1965 that she met Jimmie Duayne Cintron, a blue-eyed John Travolta look-alike who wore black Levi’s and a black T-shirt in the sweltering heat of Kernville, California. An old Western town situated in the desert mountains northeast of Bakersfield, Kernville was and still is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. At 2,650 feet and with a population hovering near 1,500, it makes a natural jumping-off point for visits to Kern River, the Sequoia National Forest, and a handful of remote lakes and gulches.
Jimmie was seventeen. Jeannine was just about. He was from Acampo (near Stockton) but was spending the summer with his grandparents in Kernville and working at the town grocery store. She and her family were visiting her older sister and brother-in-law. Jimmie and Jeannine met on July 21st on what amounted to a blind date at the river.
“She didn’t say she had invited someone,” Jeannine says of her older sister Cheryl. “But these two guys showed up in their white Mustang.”
One of said guys was Jimmie, who hit it off instantly with Jeannine. The feeling was mutual. They met on a Wednesday and spent the rest of the week together.
“We went to the movies the following night,” Jeannine remembers. “Any time he had off we spent together. Then we went back to the river. Saturday we went to a dance. On Sunday, the day I was leaving, he took me to lunch on his lunch break. I remember walking down the street in the hot sun. Every time I think back on him, I don’t remember conversations. I just remember how I felt.”
Jeannine has managed to piece together the puzzle of her first and only true love by going through the letters, one by one, Jimmie sent to her so many years ago. Herself a victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she had to go back before she could go forward. The most important summer of her life had been buried in the recesses of her psyche, a dimly understood, vaguely felt ache with no name.
After spending five days together in July, Jimmie and Jeannine wouldn’t see each other again until the following month, when he came to Wrightwood for a weekend visit. The visit was too short, and the two professed as much in the torrent of letters and long-distance phone calls that followed.
Then history, as indifferent as it is relentless, cut in, interrupting the dance between the two hopelessly-in-love teenagers. In October, Jeannine received a letter from Jimmie that would have far-reaching consequences. After having casually pondered his options in a previous letter, he informed Jeannine that he had quit school to join the Marines. The two were planning on being married. But the following spring, everything changed.
“He went into the Marines in March of 1966,” Jeannine recalls. “And up to this point he had been in contact with his CO at the depot. His CO told him how hard it was going to be if he got married. He had to sign a letter saying he would not get married until after boot camp. We were still planning on getting married. I was hoping to get married right after I graduated. In May, he wrote a letter to say he was ending it.”
Adds Jeannine, “He always said he never wanted to hurt me. He wanted to do what was best for me. He didn’t want to see me waiting around for four years. I think he really agonized over what to do. I called him, and we talked about it. We continued writing. I thought everything was okay. Then around July he went into advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. His letters were a little different. When I read them now, I can tell. He still said he loved me, but . . . when I was seventeen, I wanted to believe it was all okay.”
Perhaps Jimmie, having endured boot camp and advanced infantry training in Pendleton, had a sinking suspicion that the ordeal had just begun. He was trapped, as it were, within forces he could no longer control, riding the irrevocable wave of his own destiny.
He graduated in July, and the letters dried up. Jeannine, unaware of where he had gone or how she could reach him, didn’t hear from him until October, when she got a letter from Okinawa.
“He wrote to explain he had made a very big mistake in not seeing me, and he knew it,” she says. “He apologized for what he did. I wrote back, and I said, ‘I’m here, and I’m yours. I’ll wait.'”
Jeannine asked when they could see each other again, but Jimmie gently rebuffed the naive question. He was in Okinawa, and Vietnam loomed. He turned eighteen on December 31, 1966. A day later, he wrote Jeannine to let her know he would be shipping out for Vietnam in just over two weeks.
In Vietnam, Jimmie, who served with Key-low Company, Third Battalion, First Marines, First Platoon, kept his fellow soldiers abreast of his love affair with Jeannine. One buddy even wrote a letter to Jeannine. Only seventeen at the time, she didn’t understand how the soldier had found her address or how he even knew her. Jimmie explained everything in his next letter, saying the marine was a good friend and had told Jimmie he’d be a fool not to marry Jeannine. But things still seemed strange. Jimmie kept sending mixed signals, telling his sweetheart he loved her in one letter while suggesting she prepare to move on in others. When Jeannine went to a show with another boy and then told Jimmie about it in her next letter, she got an angry letter back from another of Jimmie’s buddies.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on?'” Jeannine recalls. “‘Why am I getting these letters from these guys?’ I know now he was just sharing, and his buddy was just trying to protect him. It was very hard. For the first time, I allowed myself to feel angry. And I wrote the letter.”
The letter . . .
Was the marriage off? Had she said goodbye to Jimmie forever? Jeannine still can’t talk about the letter.
“A couple weeks later, my sister came down from Kernville to visit. She needed to go back up briefly, and I drove her that day. Sitting there where he used to work and thinking about him, I could see his face in front of me. I thought, ‘My God, if I never see his face again, I couldn’t stand it.’
“I get back to Wrightwood, and we sit down for dinner. My daddy says he has something he needs to show me and takes me upstairs.”
He showed her a news clipping. Jimmie was dead.
“I remember looking at that,” she says. “I couldn’t fathom it. Before I could write another letter, he was killed. I never got the chance. To add to the devastation, I got a scrawled note with three words from one of his buddies that said, ‘You killed him.’ I took it to heart and carried that guilt and pain around for thirty years.”
Jimmie was cut down by small arms fire in Quang Nam, South Vietnam, on April 22, 1967. While riding on top of a tank, he was hit and killed instantly. His death was considered ironic by his fellow marines, for he was sitting on the middle tank, usually considered the safest ride, of a three-tank column. The lead tank often had to contend with booby traps, while the last one typically fell victim to snipers.
Days, then weeks, then months went by for Jeannine back in Wrightwood. But the fog wouldn’t lift.
“I cried,” she says. “Especially at night, when I was alone in my bedroom. I remember looking out my window up at the stars, thinking, ‘I’ll never see him again.’ And it just wouldn’t compute. Forever, it would not compute.”
Fifteen years, countless parties, and a string of abusive relationships later, she bottomed out. The year was 1982. Jeannine, who had been masking her pain with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs, finally joined a twelve-step program. This, though, was just the beginning. It would be another fifteen years before she could face Vietnam and Jimmie’s death.
“At that point,” she says, “I was just making a living and figuring out what I wanted to do. I still had his letters at my parents’ house. One year my parents were coming up to visit me [in Vancouver], and I asked them to bring that box of letters back up with them. After that, every once in a while I’d read one of those letters and just sob. In 1997 I was looking at the thirtieth anniversary of his death, and I was going to be forty-nine. I remember thinking, ‘How did I get here? What happened? Why am I still single? Why don’t I have kids?’ Every time I got to Jimmie, I hit a wall. And I couldn’t remember. I realized I had to understand what happened.
“I got out his letters, and I started with the first one, and I read them. Reading the letters, I had more questions. So I thought I needed to go to the library and check out some books. I found a section on Vietnam. The first day I walked out with five or six books. Personal stories, nurses’ stories, hospital stories – everything I could get my hands on. I was like a sponge. I just read. That October, my neighbors had me pick up their paper while they were away for the weekend. I picked it up that Saturday night, and one section was on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Traveling Wall, which was coming to Vancouver in a year. I put it on my refrigerator and thought, ‘I have to go to that.’ Three weeks went by, and every time I walked by the refrigerator, I looked at it. Eventually, I decided I had to volunteer there. I tracked down the coordinators and put my name on the volunteer list.”
Recovering for Jeannine meant recovering her memory. She was working the swing shift at Hewlett Packard at the time, and she would use her lunch break to go online and do research. She visited sites dedicated to the war and traded e-mails with Vietnam vets. Chuck McAllister, a vet who ran a site dedicated to Jimmie’s former outfit, told her about PTSD and suggested she see a counselor.
She also got in touch with another vet, Tommy Schomber, who was there the night Jimmie died and even tried to save him. By the time Jeannine contacted him, Tommy was plagued by his own demons and took his own life shortly after. But before he died, he gave Jeannine a precious gift, satisfying her thirst for redemption and relieving her of the guilt she had been carrying for so long. He made sure she knew she wasn’t responsible for Jimmie’s death. Perhaps just as importantly, he simply talked with her about the young man they both had loved.
“He told me Jimmie was the kind of guy you could depend on,” Jeannine says. “If Jimmie was on watch, Tommy would look up from the foxhole, and Jimmie would look down and say, ‘Don’t worry. I got it.’ He said Jimmie was the kind of guy who could size up the situation quickly and that he had a dry sense of humor. They’d all be standing at attention, and he’d say something quietly, and all their lips would be twitching.
“That night after I spoke with him, the dream I had been having for thirty years changed. He gave me Jimmie back. I had always dreamed of trying to find Jimmie in a crowd. I would go from person to person, asking if he was there. The answer was always, ‘He was just here.’ But I could never find him. After talking with Tommy, my dream has been of Jimmie holding me. The contentment and serenity I feel is absolutely wonderful.”
The healing process eventually took Jeannine to Jimmie’s hometown, Acampo, where she reunited with his family after thirty years.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “There were a lot of people there. It was overwhelming. But everybody just talking made me feel right at home. I was sitting there, and part of me was thinking, ‘This is what I could have had. This could have been my life.’ I was doing okay until Jimmie’s younger half-brother, Melvin, put his hand on my shoulder. I just lost it. Just the contact . . . .”
Jeannine went with Art, another of Jimmie’s three half-brothers, to visit Jimmie’s grave at a mausoleum in Sacramento. The two traded stories and reminisced between silent moments. The next day they visited California’s memorial wall dedicated to its Vietnam veterans. The names were listed alphabetically, starting with hometown and then last name. Jimmie’s name was first on the wall.
Visiting his family and grave, volunteering at the traveling wall, corresponding with vets – all helped Jeannine claw her way out of a decades-long funk. But the process is an ongoing one, and one that waxes and wanes in intensity.
“When we were being downsized by HP,” she recalls, “they provided classes for us to help with the transition. I met a gentleman at one, and I could tell he was a Vietnam vet. I told him I had started this healing process to get closure, and he said, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever have closure. I think what you’ll do is learn to incorporate it into your life.’ I don’t ever want to forget Jimmie. He was a special person, and I want to hold his memory. I also want to recognize and honor him.”
For Jeannine, that means coming to grips with who Jimmie was and the role he played in her life. He wasn’t just a highschool crush. He was the man she was meant to spend the rest of her life with. He was her soul mate. After he died, she tried to forget. It was easier, at least up front, to lose herself in an abusive relationship or a mind-numbing drug than to remember the life that was stolen from her.
Reliving her past meant finally experiencing the full range of pain she had anaesthetized herself from while a 17-year-old girl still reeling in shock. It meant looking back at her youth and feeling like she was watching someone else – not her – find and then lose a love that would never be realized. It meant rediscovering the moments that made her sick with nostalgia – the way the air felt on her skin on a warm summer night, the way the night sky practically exploded with stars, the way a simple melody from a car radio could transport her to a life she had lost.
“I’m driving home that night,” she says, recalling the day she decided to reclaim her memories, “and the streets are bare. I’m going through traffic lights. It was quiet. And I found myself just sobbing. And I said out loud, ‘Jimmie, as long as I’m alive, you will not be forgotten.’ In that instant, Down in the Boondocks came on the radio.”
She’s back at the river with Jimmie, and it’s time to go home. The sun has long since disappeared. She decides to play a joke on her sister and hide with her new boyfriend in the pitch-black darkness. She grabs the 17-year-old boy’s hand and whispers in his ear the melody to Billy Joe Royal’s hit single, Down in the Boondocks.
They had a song. They had the future all sussed out. They had everything that ever mattered.
So often in life there exists an irreconcilable difference between what we want and what we need. What do we call that divide? What name do we give to the space between ego and wisdom, to the way we somehow stumble upon our own salvation? Kismet? Serendipity? Dumb luck?
With my health steadily crumbling and my body feeling less and less like my own, what I wanted more than anything was relief, quick and complete. I wanted to know what was hounding me, I wanted the magic pill that would make it go away forever, and I wanted my old life back. A stressful but lucrative job, a comfortable marriage, a predictable routine – everything I had taken for granted before suddenly felt like the height of happiness.
But what I needed was power. Courage. I needed to meet my illness, to stare it in the face, and to show it the door. I would need help from others, but ultimately my health would be my own responsibility. To be accountable, I would need to change everything about myself: what I ate and drank, how I breathed and moved, what I thought and believed, what I wanted from life.
The seeds of my metamorphosis came in the form of a little book given to me by Eileen Amrian, a friend and fellow churchgoer who was suffering from similar, though less severe, symptoms. The book, written by Dr. McPherson Brown and already three decades old at the time, was called The Road Back, a fitting title for the role it would play in my own healing.
In it, Dr. Brown claimed that people could recover from rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a disease I’d never heard of before – scleroderma – by taking an antibiotic called tetracycline for an extended period of time. Dr. Brown had built up a successful track record with the antibiotic, administering it to his patients and achieving the hallmark of success: full remission.
As I read the book, I began to see myself – my inexplicable symptoms, my failing health – in some of the patients Dr. Brown described, and I felt a tiny surge of optimism when I learned that Dr. Brown had started a clinic in Virginia. I couldn’t possibly travel that far for treatment, at least not on my own (I was having difficulties dressing myself by now), but I called the clinic nonetheless, hoping they could point me in the direction of someone nearby who subscribed to Dr. Brown’s theories and would prescribe his antibiotic therapy.
I was given the name of a rheumatologist in New Jersey – Dr. Hal Whitman – and I quickly phoned for an appointment. But Dr. Whitman’s earliest opening wasn’t until several weeks away, in late August.
I could have waited it out, but I knew I needed help now. I gave the book to a doctor who was married to a friend of mine. After reading it, he agreed that Dr. Brown’s theories held promise, so he wrote me out a prescription for tetracycline.
At first it seemed to make a difference, but by late July, I had progressed from being mildly disabled to grossly disabled. I felt bowled over by weakness and was experiencing shortness of breath, and my whole body felt cold. I had lost all feeling in my head and face, and I had lost my sense of taste. Once again, it felt as if I had been given a mammoth shot of Novocain. I was numb from forehead to chin, inside and out. On top of that, I felt a strange burning sensation inside my nose and right eye.
One day after struggling my way through a short walk in the neighborhood, I returned home and was shocked to find a dead fly in my eye. Had I not bothered to look in the bathroom mirror, I wouldn’t have even noticed it – because I certainly couldn’t feel it.
A wave of utter dread overtook me. What was wrong with me? I began to wonder if I was already dead and just didn’t know it yet. Fear gave way to doubt. Was it all in my head? Did I really need psychological help? I suddenly felt old. Enfeebled. Something like this, I told myself, could only happen to someone running out of time.
Other symptoms steered me toward the same conclusion. I could hardly swallow anymore and was beginning to feel undernourished because I could only eat what I could liquefy. Meal times had become an exercise in humiliation. Because I no longer had any feeling in my mouth or lips, I slurped and gagged on my food, just as one would do after a visit to the dentist’s office, often drooling and coughing as I ate. I was forced to wear a bib and to clean up after myself as one would an infant.
Bob, meanwhile, continued to live in an almost comical level of denial. How he could think I was the same vivacious woman he had married five years earlier was beyond me. But he stubbornly remained unsupportive, refusing to take my illness seriously.
I couldn’t help but respond with an anger bordering on rage, and I found myself wishing my symptoms on him. If he could spend an hour in my body – just one hour – he would know what it felt like to be me: the numbness, the burning, the humiliation. But he was incapable of empathy. Had his first wife’s death drained him of that virtue?