The Way Back
By Brian Kelly Irons
I first met Molly Harris two years ago in a coffee shop near my home just outside of Boston. I wouldn’t have recognized her had I not just seen her hospital photo in a magazine the day before; placing her in the where are they now’ pile. She was considerably older – obviously. But I knew it was her. She was sitting alone at a table near the door with her back to me as I walked in for my daily jolt. This was one of those trendy-hipster-hangouts; popular with coffee drinkers much younger than I. It was, however, popular with the local press crowd. And since I was hoping to be among their brethren, I placed the establishment along my morning path of righteousness. The line was lengthy and the place was teeming so I instantly took notice of a woman sitting alone. She must’ve felt that I was staring because she raised her head to glare at me. Embarrassed, I turned back around to follow the lemmings in front of me. But then I got that feeling – that feeling you get when you see someone you know but for the life of you, you can’t remember how you know them. This feeling was eating away at my brain, like an unknown song that gets stuck in your head. I retrieved my cup and turned towards the door. I was prepared to depart when curiosity slaughtered my cat and left it bloody and cold on my kitchen floor. The detour I made to her table was obvious and deliberate. She tensed as I greeted her.
“Pardon me.” I said as warmly as I could. “Aren’t you Molly Harris?”
The woman dropped her head like a child who had just been caught doing something dishonest. She took a moment to compose herself then invited me to sit with her. I couldn’t believe my luck: the elusive Molly Harris – the story that no journalist could track down. It was as if the Pulitzer Prize was just dropped in my lap.
“Jackson Ward.” I offered my hand. She did not accept.
“I don’t go by that name anymore, young man.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t know.” She said. “Nobody’s supposed to know.”
She was wearing sunglasses and kept them fixed to her face the entire time. It was, to some extent, discomforting but I worked around it. She was fidgety and I wanted to put her at ease; to make her feel comfortable. But I was nervous as well. I took a warm sip from my cup of coffee and said a silent prayer on the words that I was about to speak. I gathered the strength I needed for my career making sales pitch.
“What do you want Mr. Ward?” With one resounding sentence she had beaten me to the punch and had broken the ice. There was no more room left for bullshit. Again I tried to speak. What did I want? Why was I there with her? She sensed my hesitation and got up from the table.
“Have a good day.”
“Wait,” I was desperate. “I’ll give you two hundred thousand dollars for your story.” She stopped. She returned to her seat. I don’t believe that she took me serious at first but she called my bluff.
“Okay, that’s it? You’ll do it?”
“If you’re serious Mr. Ward – two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
She took a pen out of her purse and began scribbling on the back of her receipt. I followed her eyes as she handed me the note. My palms were sweating. I felt my pulse quicken. The hairs on my arm were standing at attention.
“That’s my address. I will give you an entire month to prepare and to come up with that two hundred thousand. If you’re serious, you can have my story and do whatever it is you want to do with it. But I want the money first.”
She stood and gathered her belongs. This time she offered her hand and I accepted it. She was gone without another word. I watched her. She moved gracefully in heels. Once she rounded the corner I couldn’t help but celebrate. A young newsy lifted his head from his laptop and shot me an irritated look. I sneered back sarcastically and jumped from the table; spilling the coffee all over me in the process. This was my break – the big break that all writers dream of. Pulitzer or not this was going to be my way back to San Francisco.
Two long weeks later I was in my car traveling down Prospect Lane – a check for two hundred thousand in my briefcase. I understand that you would probably like to know where I got the money but it has nothing to do with the story so I’m going to keep that little tidbit to myself. I had prepared as best I could for this interview. She didn’t reveal her new name so I was unable to dig up any dirt, and the only material available regarding Molly Harris was what the world already knew: on a weeklong trip to Cape Cod with her family, a 13 year old Molly went missing for three weeks. She was found unconscious and taken to the hospital where she slipped into a coma and remained there for six long months. At her father’s request, any information regarding her disappearance was to be sealed and classified. He simply did not want the press or anyone else to know what happened. The press ate it up like a plate of snickerdoodles, and the entire country followed the story.
62421 Prospect Lane was situated in the middle class area of Brookline. The houses were rather drab and uninteresting, and the pavement was littered with potholes. At the end of the lane sat Molly’s house: a typical white New England with blue shutters. Her home differed from the others by simply having a freshly cut lawn and a clean yard. Walking to the door I noticed that her windows were so clean that they sparkled – another trait that the others lacked.
She opened the door with sad eyes – knowing full well what was expected of her now that I had the money. That day marked the first time she would speak to anyone about it since she told her family at the hospital. Once again I did my best to make her feel comfortable.
She hurried into the kitchen and I settled in; digital recorder, notebook and two great pens. My cell phone fully charged. She scurried into the front room with a service of tea and biscuits and I helped myself as she eased herself into her favorite chair. I promised Molly that I wouldn’t bombard her with questions.
“Just tell me what you remember.”
“That won’t be very difficult, Mr. Ward.” She said – her eyes glossy with tears. “I remember everything.”
It was 1979. Daddy got a station wagon; a dark green one. It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen. I laughed at him, and then he ran after me and tickled me until I peed in my pants. He bought it a week before we left for the Cape. This made me particularly happy because I wouldn’t have to sit with Willie and Brenda. Willie and Brenda were both two years older than me. They were twins so they did everything together. Most of the time I couldn’t stand being around either of them so Mom promised that I could sit in the way back – the seat behind the back seat. It was like having my own bedroom for the first time. I got a whole seat, the size of a couch to myself. And as long as Daddy allowed it, I could have the big window open.
Every summer Mom and Dad planned a vacation somewhere. The summer I turned 13 we drove to Cape Cod. We had been there once before – a few summers before. The dunes were so much fun. But driving from Ohio to Massachusetts was a long trip, and sitting in the way back made the long car ride so much more enjoyable. Daddy wanted to arrive Sunday morning so he could get a jump on fishing. Willie and Brenda’s plan was to eat everything in sight and refuse to shower all week. They were disgusting. Me – I just wanted to lie on the beach under the hot summer sun, get a sunburn, peel, and then have a really great tan for all my friends to be jealous of.
I was still asleep when Daddy pulled the camper into the lot. I can’t recall how long the sun had been up; not very long though, I’m certain of it. While the rest of them worked to set up the campsite, I took a lonely stroll out to the beach. It was the first of July and there were people everywhere. There were boats pulling water skiers, children building sand castles; colorful beach balls bouncing over sunbaked bodies. I had never seen so many people having that much fun in one place. It made me smile and I couldn’t wait to join them.
The beach itself was situated only a short walk from the campground; down a winding path through the dunes. I turned and ran as fast as I could back to the camper to put on my suit. But before I entered the pathway I spotted a boy standing behind an old wooden fence within a patch of long grass. He looked to be about my age. He was staring at me and so I stared back. Once he noticed that I saw him, he ran away to somewhere out within the dunes.
The water seemed abnormally warm, like a bath. I suppose that if it had been too cold no one would have been swimming in it. My Mom said she would be joining me soon so when I felt someone standing behind me I just assumed it had been her. But the shadow that was cast was slightly shorter than mine.
“Do you like shells?” The voice was light and airy, like a soft breeze. I spun around. Standing before me was the boy I had seen earlier. His hair was long and dark; tucked behind his ears. He wore a blue and white striped sleeveless shirt and jeans; cut off at the knees, and no shoes. He was holding an enormous conch shell in both hands. I was so taken by it that it didn’t seem to matter to me that some strange boy had been following me.
“Where did you find that?” I asked him.
“Up the beach a ways, by the lighthouse.” He pointed with a bandaged finger.
His finger etched a line in the air towards a white and red lighthouse near the jetty close to a mile away. He told me that the whole area was filled with them but it’s off limits to the public due to the drop off. It sounded frightening yet exciting. I wanted to go but I don’t think my Mother would approve.
“My Mom’s gonna be here soon.” I told him. “I better not go there.”
“You don’t have to go there.” He held the conch out to me. “You can have this one.”
I held the shell in my tiny hands. It was beautiful. I had never seen one that large before, and the shimmering pink made it seem translucent. Instinctively, I held it up to my ear and then moved closer to the water. I saw Mom and Brenda waving to me from the path opening.
“That’s my Mom.” I waved back. “I have to go.”
“Will I see you again?” The question seemed so innocent and meek.
“Maybe; what’s your name?”
I walked away and left him standing there in the wet sand. My heart was beating hard in my chest. The feeling was confusing to me. My face was flush. I felt happy for the first time in months. My strides up the beach to where my Mom and sister were waiting were slow and long and I heard him call out.
“What’s your name?” I stopped and turned around.
“Molly!” I yelled back to him and smiled at my youthful foolishness.
I suddenly regretted telling him my name and wished that I wouldn’t see him anymore. I wanted a normal summer. I wanted to lie on the beach alone. I wanted to eat hot dogs and throw things at my sister. I didn’t need to become attached to a boy that I would never see again. But when I woke the next morning, my first thought was of him; this mongrel of a boy – this, barefoot ruffian with a conch shell. What was happening to me?
We had breakfast on a long picnic table outside the camper. The fire from the night before was still roaring and the smell of smoke and burnt wood had attached itself to me. At 10:00 am it had already begun to get hot and I wanted to go down to the water before the beach got too crowded with people. We were having lunch that day with another family; business friends of my Father. And I was to be back promptly at noon.
When I reached the edge of the dunes, I saw Hunter sitting in the sand with his feet in the water. I looked up and shaded my eyes from the sun. It was really hot that day. I took off and ran into the water directly in front of him. He jumped in after me and we splashed around and stayed cool all afternoon. I told him that I had to go back at noon for lunch and he seemed sad. He appeared genuinely afraid that I wasn’t coming back. I didn’t want to go, but I knew of the trouble I would be in if I didn’t.
“Would you like to walk me back to the campgrounds?” He smiled and took my hand. We ran up the beach towards the path along the long grass. When we entered the camping area he pointed out to a small dilapidated house built on stilts at the base of a large dune.
“That’s my house.” A veil of sadness dropped over him and he let go of my hand.
“Give me an hour,” I told him. “Meet me back at the beach.”
A meager smile crossed his face and I realized that there was something bothering him. And just as quickly as it had arrived; it was gone. He took my hand again and spun me around like a ballerina. My heart pounded again.
“Yes,” he announced. “We will hunt for shells.”
Oftentimes it surprises me how different people act around certain kinds of people. Take my father for example. I was supposed to be there precisely at noon for lunch. His intention was to show off his family to his business friends. That’s really what the whole trip was about; he was looking for campaign contributions and a possible jackpot was in the campsite next to us. I always knew my Father as a politician but running for Governor was a whole different ballgame. The state of Ohio would never be the same. Please don’t misunderstand; my Father was a great man and a great husband. We were all very well taken care of. It’s just that; well, sometimes he could be a real asshole.
During this grand political fundraiser, I was forced to sit with Willie and Brenda, who promised that they would be nice to me while Daddy was glad-handing perspective investors. I didn’t believe it for one minute. And just like clockwork, they started acting like idiots. They were taking pieces of their carrot cake and throwing them at each other; marble size cake balls were landing everywhere, including on my grilled cheese sandwich. I reached down to pick one up off the ground when I noticed hunter hiding behind a tree a few yards away. It was creepy. He was standing there watching us eat. Then once again, when he saw that I noticed him, he took off.
The rest of the day Hunter and I spent in the sun collecting shells or building a sand castle. We built a giant sand castle. It was bigger than any other I had ever seen. There was a winding staircase leading up to the top, windows all around; a draw bridge over a mote of real water. We had been working on it so long that I was beginning to feel the sun, hot on my fair skin. I loved that feeling. It was gonna sting in the morning though.
I made a joke to Hunter that with only a few more inches of sand, the castle would be taller than him. I looked around and saw that he was sitting by the water; the dry skin of his feet soaking up the early tide. I sat down next to him and turned my face to the sun.
“I wish I was small enough to live in there.” He said while gazing out at the Atlantic.
“What does that mean?” I asked but there was no reply so I chose instead to ask another question.
“Why were you hiding behind a tree while we were eating?”
“I wanted to see what your family is like.”
“What’s your family like?”
“I don’t have a family.”
We sat there for a long while, not saying a word. Clearly he was upset about something and I wondered if it was something I did. I’ve always been sensitive about how others feel about me. The tide was about to come in and tear down our hard day’s work. I jumped up and grabbed the bag of shells that he had brought with him that day and held out my hand to him.
“Come with me.”
“Where to?” He was still moping.
“Just come on!” I took his arm and pulled him to his feet. We ran together towards the path; jumping over people and coolers, and even a little dog. We raced each other down the sandy path to the edge of the campground. That’s where he stopped.
“Where are you taking me?” He said while taking a step backwards.
“To meet my family,” I told him. “Well, my parents anyway.”
“Why? What if they don’t like me?” He appeared sad again.
“Why wouldn’t anybody like you? I like you.”
He blinked and then swallowed the lump in his throat. His palm was sweaty and I liked it. Mom and Dad were seated on lawn chairs around the fire. There was another couple with them. Willie and Brenda were nowhere in sight thank God. We approached the flame and I could feel Hunter’s pulse quicken. I couldn’t imagine what would make him so nervous.
“Mom, Dad, this is my friend Hunter.” I don’t know if I had interrupted a conversation or if everything was already awkward when we got there but the only sound was the crackling fire. Mom finally broke free from her trance but only after I waved my hand in front of her face. I had to repeat myself.
“This is my friend Hunter. I’d like to invite him to dinner.”
“Of course sweetheart,” she turned to look at Hunter. “Are cheeseburgers okay?” He said yes but his mouth was watering so much that all we heard was yum. I led him out to the restrooms to wash up and I could feel him shaking. I pulled him in front of me.
“What’s the matter? I asked; looking deep into his blue grey eyes.
“Nobody’s ever been this nice to me.”
Suddenly every instinct I’d ever had about boys was cancelled out, like a wash in a game of 21. I felt something strange in my belly. I took a step towards him and tucked one side of his bangs behind his ear. I had never kissed a boy before. I had told myself that when the time came for me to kiss a boy, I would be ready. I wasn’t ready. I had idea what I was doing. Maybe he didn’t even want to kiss me. There’s no time like the present I told myself then took a deep breath and closed my eyes. His lips were dry like sand but mine helped. It only lasted maybe a second or two, and then I slapped him on the shoulder.
“Now let’s go get some burgers!”
Our walk back from washing up was quieter than a chess match. I felt light-headed and I wanted him to kiss me again. Quickly, I put those thoughts out of my head. My Father would instantly sense if there had been any hanky panky so I wiped the ‘I just kissed a boy’ smile from my face.
Hunter and I sat across from each other at the picnic table. Willie and Brenda were having their dinner next to the fire. Daddy was at the grill with another man. They were making burgers and hot dogs, chicken, steak, and pork chops. There were a lot of people to feed.
“How would you like your burger Hunter?” Dad asked him. He said nothing. Perhaps he didn’t hear him. So I asked him.
“How do you want your hamburger cooked?” He leaned in.
“I don’t know.” He seemed embarrassed.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I’ve never had a burger before. I’ve heard about them, and seen other people eat them but I’ve never had one.”
Now I was embarrassed. I ran over to my Dad and told him to make it medium with cheese and ketchup. And after the first one, he ate two more. He washed them down with two bottles of coke. He was happy and it was nice to see him enjoy himself. But I wondered to myself: what kind of kid has never had a hamburger?
After dinner we sat by the fire and listen to Willie’s stupid ghost stories until Dad said it was time for hunter to go home.
“See ya tomorrow?” He asked, but it was more like a statement than a question. I stood by the fire and watched him disappear into the dunes.
“Your friend is quiet.” Dad said.
“He’s probably retarded!” That was Willie yelling from inside the camper.
“Be quiet William.” Mom told him. “He seems like a very nice boy.”
He seemed like a very nice boy. My Mother’s words echo in my head from time to time. My summer vacation to the dunes at Cape Cod had turned out to be grand, but the week would be over soon and then I’d leave for Chillicothe and he’d stay here. A responsible person would think logically: don’t get yourself so attached; you’ll be sad when you have to leave. It made sense. But then I wasn’t a responsible person. Nor would I think logically. I simply chose to keep my distance. So when Mom told me that her and Brenda were driving to a local grocery store for some supplies, I decided to tag along. We had lunch at a nice little Inn in Provincetown, and then spent the afternoon shopping. Brenda was a different person without Willie around to egg her on. And Mom seemed delighted to be away from the sand for a while. I didn’t think about Hunter the entire time we were gone. When we got back to the campground, Willie pulled me aside.
“Your friend Hunter was here looking for you.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked where you were. Dad talked to him.”
I approached my Dad sitting by the fire drinking coffee with a man I’d never seen before. I excused myself first; manners were always important in our family.
“Daddy,” I sat down next to him. “What did Hunter say when you talked to him?”
“Just that he would be down by the beach whenever you got back.”
I kissed the old man’s whiskered cheek and took off. The beach was pretty empty at this time. There were a few people loitering by the water, hoping that the sun would come back out. But Hunter was nowhere to be found. I walked up and down the shore; from one end of the dunes to the other. I got as close as I could to the long grass without being attacked by sand crabs. If they had been able to talk they would’ve told me that he wasn’t hiding in there. It dawned on me then that I couldn’t break free from my feeling of closeness to him. As much as I tried to stay away; I couldn’t. His kiss haunted my waking dreams. I was trapped in the middle of a hurricane of emotions; emotions that a 13 year old girl has no business experiencing.
I walked back to the campground, resolved to put him out of my mind – if only for the rest of the evening. To my surprise, everyone was gathered around the fire; roasting marshmallows, and burning hot dogs. Willie was attempting to make S’mores. His insistence that I helped him made me smile. And I must admit, that evening there by the fire is one of the fondest memories I have of my family. Some memories wouldn’t last so I kept the good ones in my heart for safekeeping.
It was getting late and I asked my Mom if I could sleep outside by the fire and I laid my sleeping bag on the plush ground. There was a break in the canopy and I was able to see the stars through the trees. I remember being happy with my world – with who I was in it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I hoped that the world was a better place with me in it.
I don’t remember falling asleep but I must have because I was jolted awake by something tugging at my feet. Immediately I imagined those horrible sand crabs attacking me like so many lilliputians.
“Molly.” It was Hunter. His whisper gave me a start and I bolted up.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“Come with me,” He said. “To the beach.”
He sped off down the path and I looked around for anybody that might be awake. It would not be wise to be caught going to the beach with a boy at that ungodly hour. I left my sleeping bag lay empty and I followed after him. At the edge of the dunes I saw him sitting in the sand. Still tired, I walked out to sit next to him. The stars were brighter that night than any other I can remember. He pointed out constellations and told me stories about mythological creatures and faraway lands. He took my hand and we both fell asleep to the roar of the Atlantic surf.
I woke disoriented with scavenging seagulls surrounding me. The sun had just peaked over the horizon.
“Oh I’m dead.” I said out loud, but Hunter was not there next to me. Written on my palm, where his hand had left mine, were the words: I love you and I hope you love me too. H.
I didn’t have time to register his words. I gathered my wits and ran for my life. I had to think of a way out of being grounded for the rest of my life. When I arrived back at the campsite, I was astonished to see that it was just as I left it. No one had gotten up yet. I quietly slipped back into the warmth of my sleeping bag and slept for another two hours.
I awoke again to the smell of coffee and the sound of crackling bacon. It was to be another hot day at the dunes. Our last as a matter of fact, and I wanted to tell Hunter what I thought about his note. I went into the camper to change my clothes; and with a handful of crispy bacon, I started off towards the beach. Before I passed the fire, my Dad called me to him by the picnic table.
“Where are you off to?” He asked; and I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and dry, like he’d been crying.
“I’m off to the beach,” I told him. “I’m gonna lay out one last time.”
“Be careful sweet pea. I’ll see you soon.”
He kissed my forehead and then traipsed back into the camper. It was unlike my father to wear his heart on his sleeve in such a way but it was nice to know that he cared for me.
The beach was overloaded with people – under umbrellas, lying on beach towels, and playing Frisbee. There was even a volleyball net set up. It was like a party. I smiled; but how was I to find Hunter in all this commotion? There was a man renting body boards by a beachcombers hut and I stopped to have a look. Behind the counter was a large mirror. In its reflection I saw a tuft of long dark hair standing behind me.
“How did you know I was there?”
“I could smell you.” I pinched my nose. “You need a bath.” I ran towards the water and jumped in. We swam together for a short while then joined a team for a game of volleyball. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’d never played the game before, but he was a quick learner and we won our first game. It was a perfect day, and just how I wanted it to be on my last day there.
After the volleyball game he held my hand and we walked up to the lighthouse. I had never seen one up close before. I wanted to go inside but he insisted that it was off limits. I was surprised at how law abiding he was at that but not much else. The sand was getting hot and I stood in the water to cool off my feet. In my mind I pleaded with God for him to kiss me again. Just once more. I would go back to Chillicothe a new woman.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“I don’t want to leave either but I have to. I don’t live here Hunter.” There was a strong heavy silence. It filled the air around us.
“Let’s run away together.” He said excitedly.
“Don’t be silly.” I took his hand and we started back.
“I’m serious. We could be together forever. We could live at my house. I’ll get all the food we need, and you can still see your family during the summers. It might be rough at winter: I don’t have any heat.” I spun around to look him in the eye.
“You’re serious aren’t you?” He nodded. “Hunter, I can’t run away with you. We’re only 13 years old”
He took my hand in his and held up my palm. The writing was still there – faint but readable. He leaned in slightly and kissed me. For a moment I wanted to – to run away with him; wherever he wanted to go, I would go along with him. I would steal food with him, rob tourists with him. And if he had wanted me to – right then and there I would’ve given my body to him: forgive me God but I would have. His kiss penetrated my heart.
“Come with me!” He smiled mischievously. “I want to show you something.”
He took my hand and pulled me out of the water. We ran up the closest hill and stopped at the top. I enjoyed the view of the grand Atlantic Ocean while he looked – searched the other way. Having spotted whatever it was, he pulled me down the other side to a wooded area. I had guessed that we were near a mile away from the campgrounds. We kept running until finally we came to a clearing. In the middle of the clearing – partially hidden by overgrowth was a broken down cabin supported underneath by cement blocks.
“What is this?” I asked while attempting to catch my breath.
“This is a special cabin.” He advanced a few steps towards the thing.
“What makes it so special?”
“This is where I was born.”
He had that downturned look again. I searched my brain for something to say but then he continued.
“I don’t know who my Daddy was. Neither did my Mom. She told me though that when it was time for me to come out, she came out here to have me so I didn’t make a mess in the house. She stayed with me for two days then left me here alone, in this rotten old cabin. I don’t know how I survived but my earliest memory is of an old man. I remember him whistling to me. When I was five or six my Mother found me again. She tried to love me but found that I was still messy. She left me for good; right here at this cabin. You wanna go inside?”
“Is it safe?” I asked stupidly.
“Yes Molly, it’s safe.”
The following four to five hours is a blur so I can only speculate. Something hard hit the back of my head and all the light inside me went black. I was dragged unconscious, through the dirt; the skin of my feet had all but tore from their bones. Once I finally opened my eyes I saw nothing – blackness. There was no light from anywhere. Maybe the blow to my head had caused me to go blind. I could feel the back of my head and the bloody bump left there. I could hear a drip of water coming from somewhere. And the only scents available were that of dirt and the taste of blood was in my mouth. I was sitting on a wooden chair. Just by moving I could tell that it was about to fall apart.
I stood. The dizziness subsided swiftly enough but there was pain everywhere. There was a rumbling sound from above and I presumed that I was underground; but why? Where was Hunter? Was he down here somewhere; in pain like me? I took a step forward in the damp dirt; shooting pain like needles with every step. I was still unable to see even though I had assumed that by then my eyes would’ve become adjusted to the darkness and perhaps make out something. It was as if someone had switched the lights off to the world and I was left to wander the darkness alone.
My hands were held out in front of me like an intense game of blind man’s bluff.
“Hunter!” I called out. There was no answer. Perhaps whoever hit me over the head, had him as well. I kept walking slowly forward; searching in the darkness. My bare feet kicked something metallic. I bent down and found the source of the dripping water: a bucket. Where the hell was I? I tried not to cry but I was so frightened that tears welled no matter if I wanted them to or not.
I yelled for him once again but there was no response, not even an echo to keep me company. I continued forward; my arms held out in front of me. I had hoped that each step was progress – a step towards freedom. But when my outstretched hands felt something I wasn’t expecting, I realized that my freedom was not going to come so easily. A stone wall: not unlike the wall of a cave. Why was I in a cave? Had I fallen down a hole like Alice? Is Hunter looking for me back by the cabin? No. Preposterous! I was placed purposely upon that wooden chair.
Using the cave wall as a guide, I continued to inch forward in the darkness. The synapses of my mind, gradually searching for the familiar: firing at rapid intervals for something recognizable to latch on to. My Mother, with her dark brown curls, Daddy with his glasses constantly sliding off his flat nose, and Willie and Brenda fighting over the last cheese cracker – images I would cherish always. I would’ve given anything at that moment to be back with them. I wouldn’t complain any longer. I would love and honor my family as long as I lived.
The wall came to an abrupt end as my boney knees hit something unfamiliar. I fumbled on the ground with my hands for the obstruction and stepped back with absolute horror. I stood in disbelief; unwilling to move forward. My arms at my side in ridged obedience – reluctant to verify what my mind already knew. Finally, I raised my hands and grasped what I knew to be heavy irons bars. I was in a cell. I held the bars at different points, high and low – shaking them to test their strength. Though they were extremely rusted through, they were still strong enough to hold a 13 year old girl.
I screamed inaudible words into the dark. With my sore legs I kicked the dirt beneath me. I turned back towards the rickety wooden chair when I heard footsteps. Instinctively I wanted to hide. This was, of course, a silly notion. Where would I hide? Along with the footsteps came a faint light that washed the area in pale yellow. The light was coming from a candle.
“Hello!” I yelled and the candle stopped moving forward. “Let me out of here please.”
I saw the silhouette of someone standing in the tunnel that apparently led out of the cave. The candle was not a candle at all but a lantern – held in the hand of this unknown person. I held on to the hope that this was someone that heard me yell and was coming to investigate. But why then were they just standing there?
“Hello?” I screamed. “Help me please!”
At my insistence, the lantern moved toward me at a quickened pace. Relief coursed through me like tea on a cold morning. I didn’t know how long I had been in there but I wanted to return to my family. Surely they were looking for me. As the person moved closer, I noticed that the lantern was being held around their neck by a rope or something similar, and they were carrying something. The light from the lantern was now hurting my eyes so I shaded them as the person got closer to the bars. Looking away from the light I was able to view the cell for the first time. Aside from the wooden chair, a bed adorned one side while a makeshift bathroom sat in the back. There was a ripped up sofa near the foot of the bed with a food tray folded out.
As my eyes quickly adjusted to the sudden light, I realized that the person was not running to get help, nor was the cage being opened. Once again I grabbed the bars and shook them with all the strength that I had.
“Let me out of here!” My voice was becoming dry and coarse and I was not able to yell very loudly. But it was loud enough to get this person’s attention. The lantern was abruptly held up to my face. I heard a thick intake of air.
I froze. My paralysis was instinctive. It didn’t seem possible that the one person I wanted to help me was now holding me captive. Was it true? I doubted my capability to think rationally.
“Hunter?” A silent affirmation. “What are you doing Hunter? Let me out of here.” I rattled the bars again and the boy that I knew picked the lantern up and held it to me.
“Molly, you have to be quiet. You’ll ruin everything.” I was confused beyond words.
Hunter, the boy that had become my friend, the boy that I had fallen in love with had kidnapped me. It sounds like a joke now that I think about it. It was even laughable back then. He had tried to calm me down by passing food through the bars. There was a shoebox full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, several apples, and a few bottles of Pepsi. I must admit that after I had something in my stomach, I was able to, at the very least, breathe normally. But it wasn’t helping me to understand why I was being held captive inside a damp cave like some wild animal.
“Hunter,” I pleaded. “You have to let me out. My parents are gonna start looking for me soon.” He sat on the damp dirt floor eating a candy bar in the dim light of the lantern.
“Molly, your parents have been looking for you for a week now.” He looked sad; as if he wished there was something he could do to help find me. I continued to ask him why and all he could tell me was that he didn’t want me to ever leave him. He refused to let me out; even when I promised not to tell anyone that it was him. This was to be my fate – my consequence.
Once I had finished my food, he placed the lantern by the bars so that I could have light if I needed it, then he left. I tried to stand but my feet were hurting quite a lot, so I fell back onto the wet dirt and cried for hours. Exhausted, I laid down there on the damp ground and I slept. For how long – I don’t know. I lost all concept of time. I knew when it was day time because Hunter would bring me food and attempt to talk to me. I had no interest in talking to him, but whatever I wanted he would bring to me. If I wanted a hot dog and French fries, he would get it. If I wanted a piece of gum, he would get it. If there was a book I wanted to read, he would find a library and steal it. This gave me an idea. I may have been a mere 13 years old but I was smart – damn smart, and if Hunter wasn’t going to let me out well, then I was just going to have to let myself out.
I needed bandages for my feet; something he didn’t think about. I showed him how bad they were and he apologized for not taking better care of me. I suppose there are much worse people that could’ve kidnapped me. He rushed down the tunnel and I called back to him to test his loyalty once again.
“Wait a minute!” He stopped and waited. “I want scrambled eggs.”
“Scrambled eggs?” I had no idea where he was going to get them and it didn’t matter. I was going to use his loyalty against him and escape.
“Yes please.” I gave him a look that he fell for instantly and he was gone in a flash to retrieve bandages and scrambled eggs. While he was out each day collecting items to satisfy my cravings, I hatched a plan – a plan that I hoped to be brave enough to go through with. The biggest problem then was that the wounds on my feet were getting infected. Bandages or not; I was in trouble. So whatever I was going to do, I needed to do it quickly and get to a hospital.
I woke up one morning to see him sitting there in the dirt right outside the cage. He had that look again – that look of despair. I needed to get out of there and away from that cave. But with him in some kind of depression it would be difficult. But after three weeks locked up in a cave, I was up for the challenge.
“Do you still go hunting for shells?” He nodded.
“Without me?” He nodded again. “Maybe we could go collecting once again.”
“You mean that?” He turned around to face me – astonished that I was still talking to him.
“Sure I mean it. We can go whenever you want.” He stood up, and for a moment, I thought he might open the gate.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” He said and turned to leave. I had to think fast. I felt that if I didn’t do something – anything, I would be stuck in there for the rest of my life.
“Hunter,” this was my only option. “Would you kiss me goodbye?”
He stopped, and I ventured that he was mulling it over in his mind. Did he really love me or didn’t he? He turned and I held my breath as he pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. He fumbled with the padlock and I quietly got to my feet. The wounds on my legs and feet were infected so I wouldn’t be able to run very fast so I needed a decent head start. The lock was out of the hasp and I was running at full speed. There was no time for Hunter to react as I barreled into him. The top of my head hit the bridge of his nose and he sailed into the bars: pushing the gate wide open. He writhed in pain on the dirt floor and at the time I felt victorious. I feel somewhat differently about it now.
Frantically, I scooped up the lantern and bolted down the tunnel. It seemed to go on forever. Tunnels sprouted like branches in all different directions. At the end of one tunnel I came upon a vast cavern with a high church ceiling. I tried to collect my wits and my bearings. Off to my right was another tunnel. To my astonishment, there was a tiny mist of sunlight penetrating the darkness down that tunnel. Wet dirt turned into hard clay, then into sand. Ten minutes later I was out. The afternoon sun burned my eyes, so I closed them and listened. I heard people, and the familiar sound of the ocean waves breaking on the shore. I kept my eyes open and my head down as I ran through a wooded valley deep within the dunes. My feet were so sore and swollen that I could hardly walk without constant pain. The ground beneath me softened and the woods opened up to a clearing just beyond the campsites from Dune’s Edge. I knew where I was.
I heard him behind me. He didn’t sound angry. He was pleading with me to stop; saying that I didn’t understand and that I would ruin everything. I blocked out the sound of his voice and imagined my Mom and her gentle way she spoke. I thought of my Dad and the way he always knew how to make me feel better. Would they be there at the campsite waiting for me? How long was I in that horrible cave rotting away? Had it really been three weeks? My mood instantly brightened as I felt pavement under my bare, bloody feet.
Dune’s Edge Road is a four mile stretch of two-lane road that connects Provincetown to this part of the shore. It winds in and out of the dunes as it makes its way back to the main highway. In the opposite direction it leads directly to the campsite. I carefully crossed over the road and ran through a patch of tall grass that I knew led straight to where Mom and Dad should be waiting for me.
The pain in my feet was so bad that I wasn’t paying attention to what was in front of me. Without realizing it, I stepped into a hole and my entire body lunged forward. Why, God? Please help me understand. Why – after all I had just endured, would you not move the large piece of driftwood out of the way?
The Way Back
The last thing I remember before my head hit the log was hearing Hunter scream. Then it all went dark again. The trauma to my brain, caused by the fall – put me in a coma for six long months. My family never left my side. I was surprised to hear that both Willie and Brenda came out on the weekends before school started. There were flowers and cards strewn about my room at the hospital. A few of my friends back home made a poster and signed all their names. It was all very sweet and greatly unexpected. But the most unexpected gift came from the boy who put me there. It was a plain card that said simply: I’m Sorry. Please forgive me. I threw the card to the floor and cried. I loved him. Sitting there in that hospital with its white- washed everything, I loved him. He lied to me and I loved him. He kidnapped me and held me against my will – in a cage – and I loved him. Some part of me will always love him.
Throughout my recovery I was questioned extensively by the police about my relationship with Hunter.
“There’s not much to tell,” I explained. “We were friends.”
“Did he ever mention to you why he was keeping you down there?” This seemed to be a reoccurring question; one that I myself was unable to answer.
From my directions, the police found the cave, but were unable to locate anything that might call into question what I or Hunter had already told them. They knew what I knew, and I just wanted to be left alone. And they did just that. Once in a while some hot-shot private investigator would come by the hospital with some new theory but Dad would always send them away. Then there were the journalists. Oh boy did Daddy hate them. They wanted to write my story. True crime stories were popular and I had the latest. These guys upset my Dad so much that the press was no longer allowed near my room.
As the years went on, the world forgot about it. They forgot about me. That sad photo of the lost little girl waking up from a six week coma no longer tugged at the heartstrings of the populace. Life was normal again. I was primed to finish high school with honors. Brenda was attending Princeton Law School, Willie received a full ride to play baseball for Ohio State, and Daddy was beginning his second term as The Governor of our great state. Mom was there by his side as she always was; as she always would be.
In 1984 I turned 18. Dad bought me a car. I had the best boyfriend ever. I was starting Columbia business school in the fall. Everything was going so well. It was going to be a great summer. Then on the 12th of July I received a letter in the mail. The envelope was typed and there was no return address anywhere on it. Standing nervously at the mailbox amidst the din of big-wheels and rousing games of four-square, I reluctantly opened the letter. It was hand written on a single page. The name at the bottom took my breath away.
I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for doing what I did. And I’m also sorry for not telling you why. I never meant for you to be hurt. I was actually happy when you escaped the cave. But when I found you lying in the sand – well, I thought you were dead. After I carried you to the hospital in Provincetown, I turned myself in to the police. And until yesterday I was a resident of the Massachusetts Juvenile Center in Chelsea. I promised myself that once I was released I would write to you; something they wouldn’t permit me to do. The last thing I want to do is cause you any further grief but I’m going to assume that you still don’t know why I kept you in the cave. It was your Father Molly. He needed help funding his campaign. He approached me that day when you were gone. He said that he would give me a thousand bucks if I kidnapped you for a month. No harm would ever come to you, and you would be back home in no time. I immediately felt terrible for what I did. But a Thousand dollars Molly: I convinced myself that it was worth it. It was enough money for us to run away with, and be happy. I still have it hidden. Anyway, I’ll understand if you hate me and don’t want to see me again. I will always be your friend. If you ever wish to see me, you know where I’ll be. I found more shells for you…
I love you.
I sat down hard onto the grass; my thoughts incoherent. Children ran and played, skateboards whizzed by me, and I paid no notice. I remember hearing Dad talk about a lack of money for his campaign, but this just wasn’t possible. I folded the letter back inside the plain envelope and marched inside to confront my Mother. Daddy did nothing without her approval.
Once inside I called to her. She was in the kitchen; where else. I slammed the letter down on the table and glared at her. She lifted the letter and opened it. She saw the name signed at the bottom and brought her hand up to her mouth to cover the sob. Clearly that was the day that she had hoped would never come. It all came at me at once. So many things made sense. No wonder why they didn’t want anyone investigating the kidnapping; they might have found out the truth. I walked around the table to face her.
“You look me in the eye Mom and you tell me it’s not true! Tell me he’s lying!” The letter fell from her hands and she looked away from me – unable to face the truth. “Well, since you had no problem being without me then, it shouldn’t be any trouble now.”
I broke up with my boyfriend, said goodbye to Willie and Brenda, and I left. I started classes early and spent the rest of that summer at School. I switched my major to Social sciences and social work, and got my Masters in juvenile psychology. After graduation, ironically, I went back to Boston to work for Juvenile Services, and never saw or spoke to my family again. I regret now not ever having confronted my Father about his role in my abduction.
They’re still alive and well; living somewhere in California. Brenda keeps me posted. I try to pretend that I don’t care, that I have no love for either of them but the truth is that I miss them very much. But their opportunity for reconciliation had passed long ago. I love them for who they were but I also hate them for who they are. This gives me balance, and the confidence to walk with my head held high. They will always be alone, and I’m okay with that.
When I first arrived for work in Boston it was just turning spring. The icy chill was still lingering and it seemed as though the whole town was existing within a perpetual wetness. I took a Saturday afternoon and made my way back to the Cape; out to Dune’s Edge. I parked my car right next to the camping area and walked the path down to the beach. It was nice to see that the sand crabs still remembered me. I stood motionless on the wet sand; the cool thaw of early spring on my face. He was there – behind me somewhere. I could smell him. He still needed a bath.
Throughout the days that I spent with Molly Harris during my interview with her, I learned that this was not a simple story of family tragedy, but a love story; one filled with the lies and betrayal that you might see on an afternoon soap. However the tragedy here was real and just as painful as it was that summer back in 1979. I realize now why she kept her silence for so long. The memory of a childhood trauma is painful, yes. But the pain of knowing that your own family was involved is heartbreaking.
In the weeks that followed, I would visit Molly once or twice a week. My wife and I would drop by to take her to dinner. I wanted her to know that not all journalists are bad, and that it’s okay to be out in the world. We bought her a laptop and actually got her into some social networking – under an assumed name of course. Unfortunately, memories – good or bad, have a way of seeping into your skin, infecting your soul and never letting go. Since the publication of her story, Molly Harris has disappeared. Her house has been abandoned. She took nothing, not even her clothes. An official investigation has been opened but I can only speculate. Perhaps she and Hunter are putting those two hundred and one thousand dollars to good use.