Monday, July 19, 2004

PART 15 - Innocence Lost

This song came out the month after all of these events took place. It was an eerie coincidence, and when I hear it now, I am filled with an immense sadness:

Think of Laura by Christopher Cross

A friend of a friend
A friend to the end
That's the kind of girl she was
Taken away so young
Taken away without a warning . . .

When you think of Laura, laugh, don't cry
I know she'd want it that way . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It occurs to me that I skipped over a crucial step in the flow of this story: the meeting of my new boyfriend and my dad. I guess I skipped it because it was so anticlimactic. They met, exchanged crushing handshakes, talked a bit about football and sized each other up. My brothers were quite different than my dad; they didn't care a thing about sports, or business, or construction, and my dad discovered something of an ally in my new boyfriend. He begrudgingly accepted the budding romance. I think the nightly escort home from work sealed the deal. My dad was away most of the time, and he had been unable to enforce his lockdown policy on me as he had my sister. Given his preferences, my father would have had us girls homeschooled and kept under lock and key. He had always drilled the dangers of the world into my head. I always found that ironic; he wanted to keep us under his watch to ensure our safety, when he was the most dangerous thing any of us had ever faced.

SO . . . back to the story. Our holidays passed quite blissfully, and we rang in 1983 together with endless optimism. I happily went to school, worked at the boutique, and spent evenings with him, discussing his ideas for a business. Since I had met him, he had talked endlessly of starting a business; he hated working for others, and he wanted to "make something of himself". He decided that he could afford some landscaping equipment and start an after work/weekend business to supplement his income. It would mean that I would see less of him, of course, and that he would have to move to a place that had enough yardspace for a storage shed to house the equipment.

He moved methodically through the steps: he sold his van, bought a small truck and began to seek out other living arrangements. After looking at even the most modest rental house, he found that he was really left with only one affordable alternative: he could afford a small mobile home, and there was an available lot with plenty of space for storage about 20 miles north. He was offered the lot and had to give the landowner an answer within the week. He was hesitant to leave at first, thinking that we would barely see one another anymore.

We moved the few things he had into his new home that spring. He had never lived in a place that he owned, and it came with new beds, furniture and appliances. His lot was adjacent to a beautiful recreation area and large lake, and the surroundings were idyllic. It felt like a dollhouse to me. I loved it and I secretly hoped that he had made the move to get us one step closer to building a life together.

It was an exciting time. The summer was a flurry of activity as he built a quickly growing client base and kept up with his day job. Even though we missed each other terribly, we talked every night and still spent weekend evenings together. He would make the trip down after he finished his jobs on Saturday, we would go out, he would spend the night at my parent's (on the couch) and we would leave early Sunday for a whole day together.

I got my driver's license the day I turned 16 in June of that summer. My family was elated; they had been picking me up from work since my escort was no longer available. My father bought me a pretty little gold Chevy Cavalier. It is hard to summon the proper perspective for this occurrence. My dad showing up with a shiny new car and handing me the keys was just about as likely as me winning the lottery. I had no idea then why I had received it, and it is still a bit confusing even now. Looking at it now, I guess he bought it because I had asked for so little over the years, and had subsidized my own expenses for so long. Also, I think he felt compelled to compete with my new suitor; it was somewhat of a power play.

Being able to drive myself was pure pleasure, and I felt an incredible sense of freedom being out in the world, moving from place to place under my own power and on my own schedule. It was the first time I actually felt that I was awarded some reward for all of the responsibility that I had shouldered. I knew every side road in my little town, and I drove the little car every chance I got.

That fall, I saw very little of him. He had found a motherlode of free hardwood, and he was busily creating stacks and stacks of firewood to cushion his decline in business over the winter. He was exhausted, but he promised me that we would have plenty of time to be together over the winter months, when things were slower.

Meanwhile, with my own reliable transportation, I had taken on extra shifts at work. The boutique manager had hired on a couple of girls for the holiday season, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were my (fake) age. It was fun working with Kimberly and Laurie, and I tried to arrange my schedule to coincide with theirs.

Kimberly was a gorgeous tanned beach blonde. She was really vivacious, and always had something funny to say. She was one of those girls that drew stares when she walked into a room. She was radiant and extremely charismatic. She lived with her mom and sister, and was constantly shuffling hopeful boys in and out of her social life.

Laurie was a bit of a fish out of water. Quiet and studious, her presence exuded money. Her dad was an executive at a large chemical company in Atlanta, and she lived in an exclusive neighborhood east of the city. She was very preppy, she lived in Ralph Lauren polos and khaki skirts, add-a-bead pearl and gold necklaces and charm bracelets. She played on the tennis team, and she had a cute freckled face, a Dorothy Hamill haircut and looked like a baby. Many of Kimberly's innuendos were lost on Laurie, and that made her all that more charming. I really didn't understand why Laurie was working; she drove a beautiful seafoam green Honda Accord to work, and working a part time job in a dress shop seemed like an unlikely way for her to spend her time.

Besides Laurie and Kimberly, I always loved working with Karen. Karen was a trip. She was punkish, mid-20s, artsy, sweet, smart, and struggling to pay her way through school. She and I got along famously, and I very nearly told her once that I was underage: that's how close we were. When Karen worked night shift, she was the manager, and she nearly always picked me for her 2 person staff.

One October evening, Karen, Laurie and I were working the 4 to closing shift together. It was pretty quiet - midweek, the shopping center hadn't begun to fill with holiday shoppers yet. Karen loved taking those opportunities to change the front window displays. She had a real flair for matching seemingly un-matchable fashions, and the store owner loved Karen's window dressings. We busily assisted Karen and before we knew it, it was closing time.

As we walked out of the store, Karen set the alarm and locked the front door tight. The three of us parted ways: Karen and I walked toward the front lot together, and Laurie walked toward the left lot. Karen joked, "We don't have our escort anymore, do you want me to walk you to your car, Laurie?" Laurie laughed and waved us away with one hand, and held a stack of books with the other.

I drove home that evening, and the cool evening turned a bit misty on the way home. I was glad to walk in the door and drop my bags. My mom was awake in her room, watching television from the comfort of her bed. I crawled onto the bed, catching the last hour or so of whatever docudrama she had been engrossed in. Close to 11:00, the phone rang, which was kind of unusual. I thought it might be a very late night call from my beloved and I rushed to the phone. It was Karen.

"Rita, did you and Laurie go anywhere together after work?" she asked me, doing a really poor job of covering the panic in her voice. "Laurie's mom has called me . . .she hasn't gotten home yet." Now, for Kimberly, I wouldn't have thought twice about that - it would have been a foregone conclusion that she was in the backseat of some guy's Camaro somewhere. But for Laurie - way, way out of character.

Not knowing what else to do, Karen said, "I'm going to drive back up to the store to see if she might have gone into the movies." I asked Karen to come by and pick me up and we flew back up to the shopping center, now completely empty. We drove around the to the side lot, and there we saw Laurie's Honda, parked lonesomely under a spotlight, and a police car sitting dark and silent behind it. As soon as our headlights hit the police car, 2 cops got out and approached us. They were excited and a bit angry, asking, "Do you girls know what time it is? Which one of you is Laurie?" When we told him that neither one of us was, that we had worked with her and came back after we got a call from her mom, they asked us both to step out of the car and they sequestered us from each other, asking us to recreate the evening. I was panicking as I recounted what we had done, what time we had left, and where I had parked. I glanced over at Laurie's Honda - her books and purse were stacked neatly on the passenger seat.

The cop was going through scenarios, asking me questions rapidfire: Did Laurie have a boyfriend that her parents didn't know about? Had Laurie ever mentioned a man to me? What was Laurie wearing exactly? Was she wearing tights or hose? I answered all the questions the best that I could, and after an hour more of waiting there, the cops told us to go home, that they would call us if she turned up.

I was in shock; Karen was weeping all the way back to my house. I tried to console her - maybe Laurie had done something wild and crazy and lost track of time. Maybe one of her friends came by to talk her into a Steak and Shake run that ran way longer than she intended. I knew there was a logical explanation. Silently I feared the worst.

The next day was chaos. I stayed home from school, and the disappearance was all over the Atlanta news. The information that was released was that a high school girl from my county employed at that dress shop was missing, and that police were searching. Everyone at my school knew I worked there, so everyone thought it was me - Laurie's name or picture wasn't released at first, and my parent's house was flooded with calls. After the initial panic, I returned to school to a flood of questions. I would come home to messages from local television stations wanting to interview me about Laurie. I spent those days on full alert, watching everything around me with hawklike intensity.

My father flipped out. He flew home from Kansas, and told work he would be back when he damn well felt like being back. He grilled me incessantly - had I noticed anyone in the shop that night? had I seen any men hanging around the sidewalk area? He was frantic to find her himself, and crazy with how close disaster had struck to his own. He drove the streets surrounding the shopping center for hours, looking for anything that might be a clue. He was relentless . . . he refused to let me leave the house with ANYONE except him or my boyfriend. I quit the shop, and waited for news of Laurie.

The papers and the newscasts continually broadcast her picture and the clip of her parents pleading for her return. There was heavy speculation that she had been kidnapped and held for ransom because of her father's powerful position and wealth. When days turned into weeks with no ransom note, that theory withered and died on the vine.

Hoping for the best, her parents offered a substantial reward for her safe return. Search parties looked for her for weeks. Statewide searches were conducted, and news of her abduction was published and broadcast nationwide. Everyone was looking high and low for Laurie.

All of the activity was still in full swing when, early one quiet Sunday morning, the groundskeeper at Mount Paran Baptist church was carefully surveying the church grounds, picking up stray leaves and sticks so that the church would be pristine for the service. Just off the winding drive of the church, in a wooded area, he spotted what appeared to be a bundle of clothing covered with leaves. He had found Laurie's body less than one mile away from the place she was abducted.

According to the autopsy, she had been there for weeks. It was speculated that she was dead the very night she was abducted. She had been brutally raped and sodomized and strangled with her own pantyhose wrapped around her throat and stuffed into her mouth. I remembered the police asking me if she was wearing panty hose. I shuddered as I realized what they probably already knew when they had asked me that on that misty night 6 weeks prior.

I mourned for Laurie, for her violent death, for her innocence, for her pain. I was paralyzed with the fear that it could have been me. My father's warnings washed over me like a tidal wave. He had been right all along. The world WAS a dangerous place; I wasn't safe on my own. My well-loved and well-known town had betrayed me. I had to run far, far away, to a place where I could sleep in peace, to a simpler place. I had to discover a place of tranquility that would ease my frightened soul. I had to run to him.

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