By Weyshawn Koons
The world, as I know it, changes for me in 1973.
It changes for others in different ways. Richard Nixon is inaugurated to serve a second term as President of the United States of America. Things will soon change drastically for him though because Watergate begins months later. Nixon will submit his resignation the following summer to avoid the insult of impeachment.
The first prisoners of war are released in Vietnam. My cousin, a POW who has been missing in action, is first off the plane. We see him on the six o’clock news. I do not recognize him but my parents do and our phone rings off the hook as family members call each other to relay the news.
The Arab Oil Embargo kicks off the “Energy Crisis” and the Trans Alaska Pipeline is signed into existence. Gas prices soar from forty cents a gallon to over a dollar. License plates ending with odd numbers can purchase gasoline on odd numbered days of the month; even numbers on even days. It’s not too uncommon for us to have to wait in long lines to fill our tanks.
The Endangered Species Act will be passed.
Henry Kissinger wins the Nobel Peace Prize. This seems ironic to me, even at the age of thirteen. He is well known as a “war monger” and will later be sought out by officials in France, Brazil, Chile, Spain and Argentina for questioning in connection with suspected war crimes.
Jim Croce, one of my favorite song writers, is killed in a plane crash. Pablo Picasso, the famous artist, dies; and not long after, Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets dies, too.
Closer to my heart, Secretariat, the most famous thoroughbred race horse since Man O’ War, effortlessly wins the Triple Crown, hands down, no contest. For my birthday two years from now, my mom will take me down to Keeneland, Kentucky to see him. His groom will run his fingers through his mane and give me a handful of his tangled chestnut hair. It will sit in a plastic bag in my top dresser drawer for years and years and years. I will smile every time I see it.
It is early morning, Friday. One of the last days of freedom. Summer has slipped away so fast that I can hardly remember it. Tuesday will be the first day of eighth grade, as Monday is Labor Day. One of my best girlfriends, Ann, spent last night with me. My dad is dropping us off in downtown Cincinnati to go school-shopping this morning on his way to work.
We have to run down to the barn to feed my horse, Flash, then run back, eat and shower. Ann is thirteen, just like me. She is not crazy about horses the way I am but she puts up with them. She puts up with us all, as most of us have horses. Horses, forts and fires have been great loves of mine for as far back as I can remember. I am lucky to have room to roam and the freedom to do it.
There are four of us girls that are really tight and three of us have horses: me, Karen Van Zett and Shana O’Day. Then there is Annamarie Thalacker. We all call her Ann. She is short with a face full of freckles that stand out in the sun. Her brunette hair is shinier than anyone else’s I know. She is compact, easy going, and willing to ride with the rest of us for hours.
Tracy, Debbie and Shana’s older sister, Beth, all have horses, too. They spend a lot of time with us.
Then there are the “guys,” Mike and Chris are both good friends of mine. We are “blood brothers.” We all carry pocket knives and a summer ago we made a vow to stand by each other through thick and thin. We sealed the deal by pricking our palms until they bled and then shaking on it. We’re spit brothers, too. We have a secret handshake, secret places in the woods where we hide things for each other, and a rubbing tree. There is a tree at the trail’s entrance that we always rub as we pass weather we are on foot or on our horses. It has been worn smooth. There only a few special people that we three have agreed on that can rub it as they pass by, too. Mike’s mare, Danka, is a beauty and Chris has a retired circus pony named Red. That pony has more personality than all of the other horses put together.
Tracey’s older brother, Robbie, rides Sammy, a brown- and white-gaited Tennessee Walker. He can jump a three-and-a-half foot fence, with hobbles on, clearing it with room to spare. He can run full out with those hobbles on, too. Robbie can only catch Sammy when he wants to be caught.
Robbie almost always offers to give me a ride home on Sam but only if I’ll ride in back. We always argue fiercely about it but he refuses to budge. It isn’t until years later that I find out that the only reason he’d give me a ride was to feel my breasts rubbing against his back.
Then there’s Dave, Mikey and Bill. None of them have horses but they like to hang out with us. They love fires and forts and we have some really cool forts. There is a building boom going on in the area. There is generally a house under construction somewhere close by. We pilfer supplies when they are needed. Never too much at one time; trail tax is what we call it, “A donation to the cause.”
Over the years our forts have moved locations, grown, and changed quite a bit. When we were young my dad helped build them. Now they are far from anyone’s home and quite elaborate. All the work is done by us. The latest is three stories tall and L-shaped. The third floor is a screened in porch. We have a corral that can comfortably hold ten to twelve horses. We also have a huge fire pit. Mike installed a battery operated radio and wired speakers to every room. We girls painted the first floor with our feet, using paint of every color imaginable. The second floor is painted with our hands; the bottom floor is painted with our feet. It’s the coolest fort anywhere. We made tie-dyed curtains at my house so that there is a little privacy between the rooms but we can pull them back if we want.
Our second place is “Waterfront.” It is perched on a steep hillside about ten feet above Cloud Creek and we have not quite finished it. It is built between five different trees and is not exactly square but it’s not trying to be. There are two wide bench seats inside that are big enough to sleep on, and a deck. You climb up the rungs on the trees, moving in a circular fashion until reaching the deck. The view is pretty nifty, as you can see a ways down the creek. The creek itself can run close to dry by the end of the summer with only a trickle of water. After a few heavy downpours, it can turn into a raging torrent of water eight or more feet deep. We built a bridge up around the bend just for people, not for horses. We spent a lot of time digging out a small pond in front of the fort so that there is always a nice pool of water beneath us. We still have a lot of work to do. Our next project is the corral and then the fire pit.
Ann and I are up and off early; it’s already getting hot. We both slip on our underwear, a pair of shorts, and short sleeve blouses, and take off for the barn barefoot. It will take us weeks to get used to wearing shoes in school again. We have spent the summer either in our bare feet or thin flip flops. I am sun-kissed blonde and still wearing pigtails from the night before. Our plan is to feed my horse Flash, run home, shower, and grab something for breakfast. My dad is pulling out at 8:30 sharp. The barn is only a ten minute walk through the woods and today we are hoofing it even though we have given ourselves plenty of time. We are both excited. Ann loves shopping and I am just excited that we are going downtown by ourselves.
The mid-west woods are the best place to be in the summer. Big maples everywhere, spreading their broad green leaves to keep us cool and shaded. There are nut trees: acorn, beech, oak and walnut. The squirrels are all busy putting winter stores away. Vines are hanging everywhere. We have several favorites that we use to cross the creeks when they’re full. The one just behind Van Zett’s house holds the record. We have swung with thirteen of us on it at once and eventually gotten every one of us to the other side. Most vines would pull out of the tree with that many of us on it.
I have grown up here. I know this land like the back of my hand. I can walk home with my eyes closed on a cloudy night with no moonlight or shining stars and never once lose my way. This place is home to me.
Ann and I run until we hit the meadow above the barn and then walk and talk. As we make our way down the hill on the path that winds through the blackberry thicket, Flash hears us and whinnies, knowing that breakfast is only moments away. As soon as the herd hears the rusty gate open they race towards the barn bucking, kicking and twisting. Ann and I laugh at their antics. She is always a little uncomfortable in the midst of the milling and snorting that goes on so she stays close to me. I can hear her sigh with relief as the barn door shuts behind us. She is always amazed that the horses know exactly where to go. Flash, and Debbie’s mare, Maude, have their own big box stalls at the far end of the barn. The rest are in standing stalls facing us. We give them their grain and then climb up into the loft to toss hay down. The loft is chuck-a-block full. We spent last weekend picking the hay up out of the field. It’s cheaper that way, thirty five cents a bale. I love the way it smells up here; fresh newly cut hay, just baled mixed with the sweet smell of horses. There is nothing like it. I am in heaven for a moment and stop, letting it all sink into me.
Ann is impatient. It just doesn’t seem to hit her the same way. I grab her arm. “Ann, just stop and take a deep breath. It’s new, fresh mown hay,” I say.
Ann wrinkles her nose, “All I can smell is horse manure. Let’s go.” And she is already quickly climbing down the ladder.
We wind our way back up the hill on the path that runs through the blackberry brambles and on out through the meadow. As we enter the woods we run into a squirrel hunter dressed in camouflage. He is older, maybe in his mid-thirties. We exchange quick greetings as we briefly pass each other on the trail. It’s a little odd to see someone out here that I don’t know, especially someone all decked out in camo gear but he seems friendly enough. He tries to make small talk but we’re in a hurry and not really interested.
We are almost home; in fact I can see the back of the Van Zetts house when the hunter meets up with us again, our paths somehow converging.
“I think I’m lost. Can you tell me how to get out of here?” he asks. He’s standing there, lazily holding an unlit cigarette between his index and middle fingers. I stop to give him directions. Ann keeps moving toward home with her back turned away from us.
“Hey!” he yells at her, “You gotta light?”
Something suddenly feels a little off to me, a grown man asking us, two kids, for a light? I turn around to go home. He grabs me by the back of my neck and jerks me back towards him. I freeze and my stomach falls as I see him point his rifle directly at Ann. I yell. Ann turns and I see her eyes grow wide with fear. She shakes her head, “No,” as she backs away.
“One more step and this bullet goes straight through your heart,” he threatens, and still she takes another step back. I am frozen as he pulls the trigger. My mind disengages as I am unable to move or even speak. There is a hole in the dirt next to Ann’s bare foot where the bullet landed. She starts crying.
“Move towards me, this way – NOW!” he shouts. But she is frozen, too. He raises his gun so that the muzzle is pointing directly at her heart.
“Ann,” I am finally able to blurt out. She looks at me dazed and I say it again, “Ann.” She starts moving towards me shaking her head, “No,” and crying, too.
“MOVE,” he orders and I see him pointing away from the houses back into the woods.
“My dad is expecting us. He’ll be worried. We have to go,” I try to state matter-of-factly and turn towards home. I am smacked in the face by the butt of the rifle. I am stunned. I cannot feel the left side of my face.
I feel Ann pulling me and we start walking in the direction he is pointing. My mind is reeling but I can’t seem to make heads or tails of any of this. It suddenly starts raining. A real mid-west rain, a downpour, like the one we had last night and the one the night before. It helps to clear my mind and I realize that I have not been paying attention to exactly where we are going. We are not following any of the trails. He has taken us up and down through several ravines. The creeks are already high from the past couple of nights’ rain but this one we are crossing is moving fast enough that when Ann slips she goes completely under. I grab her and pull her up. The rifle jams into my back.
“Keep moving; we’re almost there.”
Almost where, I wonder? Where is he taking us? And I start praying, “Please God, keep us safe. Please don’t let anything happen to us. Please keep us safe.” I pray over and over and over again.
Ann and I each have an arm wrapped around the other’s waist. We are both drenched. Our hair is plastered to our heads. The water is running off of our nose and chins. Trying my best to be inconspicuous, every few steps I grab sapling branches, breaking them. I am marking our path in the hopes that someone will come along and rescue us.
If I slow my pace at all I am jabbed in the back with the muzzle of the gun. My fear is slowly dissolving and turning to rage. I feel like grabbing the muzzle the next time he jabs me with it and pulling it out of his hands and smashing him with it until he stops moving.
“Over there,” I hear him say, and look up to where he is pointing. I stop dead in my tracks. It is our waterfront fort. I freeze and am jabbed with the muzzle of the rifle, hard. I whirl around and am slammed with the butt of the gun in my left shoulder blade hard enough that I fall forward. The look in his eyes terrifies me and I have a sinking feeling that I may not live through this day.
“There’s a bridge,” I offer up, “around that bend over there.”
But he points straight ahead, across the creek.
“Move,” he orders.
“It’s deep here,” I try to explain but am cut off by him screaming, “MOVE!” and he is pointing straight towards the fort on the hillside.
Ann and I scramble down the ravine. I am thinking that I could “fall” into the creek, dive under, and swim as fast and far and furious as possible and maybe escape. I know where I am and know a dozen ways to get out of here. I am as fit as a thirteen-year-old can be and I am fast, really fast. Unless he shoots me, he won’t catch me. But Ann, she doesn’t have a clue as to where we are or how to get out of these woods, and she’s slow. She grabs my shirt as we are slipping and sliding down the ravine, through the mud and wet leaves.
“Stay with me, don’t go,” she pleads, the first words she has spoken. Our eyes meet but I don’t promise her anything and we are in the water. She grabs more of my shirt and will not let me go.
We are crossing a few feet above the drop off where we dug out the small pond. It must be ten feet there, at least, maybe even deeper. We are barely able to keep our footing as we cross. The water is up well above my rib cage.
“Up there, keep moving,” he barks and we climb up towards the fort, slipping and sliding. “Keep going, on up there,” he states when we arrive at the stand of trees underneath the fort.
I start climbing up the wooden rungs that circle the trees, up onto the deck, with Ann following behind. The three of us are standing there. I move towards the edge. I think I can jump. It seems like good timing with him up here. The water is surely deep enough. I can jump, staying under until I am around the bend, out of sight. I turn to look at Ann, wanting to somehow let her know that I will be back for her with help, when I see the muzzle of the gun pointing directly at me.
He tosses his head towards the door, “In there,” and stands with his finger on the trigger, muzzle following me through the entrance.
“Sit,” and he points to the closest bench.
As I sit down I start talking to him, avoiding all eye contact, “You do NOT want to do this. We have to go. We are late. Everyone will be worried about us. We should be home by now.”
“SHUT UP!” he screams, and Ann starts crying harder.
“Really, you do not want to…” and before the sentence is finished there is a blur and I am hit once, twice, three times on the left side of my face with the flat butt of his rifle.
“SHUT UP! YOU SHUT UP!” he screams, his face inches away from mine. “Lay down. You, lay face down right there!” he yells as he pushes me down further onto the bench. I slowly do exactly as he says. I see him prop his gun up in the far corner of the room. As he does so he pulls out a hunting knife and flashes it at me. He grabs Ann, jerking her up off of this bench and pushes her towards the other one. He holds the knife to her throat and directs his conversation to me. “If I see you move even a muscle, her throat is slit. He is seething with rage. Ann’s eyes plead with me to stay put. “Do you understand me?” he screams. My head is ringing as I nod in agreement. I wrap my face up in my arms willing this all to be a nightmare that I can wake up from but my jaw is a sure reminder that this is really happening. I will myself to vanish, to just disappear. Will myself to be anywhere but here. I pray over and over and over that Ann and I will both live through this day.
I hear her pleading with him, “Stop, you are hurting me.” And I try to tune everything out. I focus on the sound of the raindrops falling on the roof. They are loud and if I work at it, they are all I hear. I picture both of us walking away from this. How will we safely get out of here? I try to formulate a plan if he lets us go and another one if he doesn’t.
“He’ll let us go. He will let us go. He WILL let us go.” I repeat over and over and over to myself.
“Hey!” the word slowly seeps through my consciousness. “Hey! Yeah, I’m talking to you! Move. Over here,” and he points to the other bench.
I stand, shaking my head “no,” and start crying. I don’t want him to see me crying but I can’t seem to stop. I try to make eye contact with Ann but she won’t look at me and I watch as she zips up her shorts. Her eyes are dull, dry and dull. She is told to lay face down on the bench, where I had been. Now it is my throat he is threatening to slit. I know that she will not move; there is not even a chance. I know that she was not certain of this with me.
I am lying on the bench with my eyes closed tight. I can hear him talking to me but I cannot hear what he is saying. I try to focus on the rain, only on the rain. I am not really here. This is not really happening.
I feel him unbuttoning my shorts and pulling them off and wonder if I can grab his testicles and rip them off. Is that possible? Would he bleed to death? I feel him pressing down on me and feel the steel blade of the knife on my neck. Can I grab it? Can I wrestle it away from him? I grab his hand to push the knife away and he growls at me. He is incredibly strong. I feel like I am going to explode.
He tries to push his tongue inside my mouth and I grit my teeth. I think about opening my mouth and biting his tongue off. Biting down and not letting go until it is in two pieces. I feel him pushing inside of me; pounding into me and I think that if Ann could live through this I most certainly can live through it, too. I focus on the rain and fly away above the treetops, up higher and higher and higher I go. Circling until I am looking down on the top of the tree fort from miles above.
And then he is speaking to me but I still cannot understand what it is that he is saying. I sit up as if in a dream and find my underwear and shorts crumpled in a pile at my feet and put them on. As he reaches for his gun, his words begin to make sense.
“You can go now; both of you. But if you ever tell anyone that this happened, either one of you,” and he makes eye contact with us both, “I’ll kill you. You’ll both be dead. I don’t care how far I have to go or how long it takes, I promise you, if a word is spoken, I will kill you both.”
I look at him, really look at him. He is taller than me. His hair is reddish brown, slightly curly, and shoulder length. On his right ring finger he is wearing a gold class-ring with a blue stone set in it. I try to make out the words on the ring but I cannot. He has a pack of Kool cigarettes that he is pulling out of his camo shirt pocket.
“How do I know you won’t shoot us?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ve done this before and I’ve never had to kill any of the Kentucky girls. I doubt I’ll have to kill you. Those girls down there, they’re real smart. Never a one’s ever said a word. And you’ll do the same,” he says as he points his cigarette at me. “Cause, rest assured I’ll find you if you do. So go on now, you all can go.”
Ann is silent, sitting on the edge of the bench, looking at the floor.
“You go first,” I offer. “We’ll stay here for ten minutes or so before we go.”
“Naw, you girls go on ahead a me,” he tries to insist but his tone has changed and this does feel negotiable.
“I’m afraid you’ll shoot me. I’ll just wait here for a while.”
“I will not shoot you. If I was gonna shoot you, I’d of already done it.”
“How do I know?” I ask him.
“Look, okay, I’ll go first. When I’m on the other side of the ridge I’ll fire my gun in to the air. That way you’ll know I’m on my way.”
I nod my head in agreement and he lights up a Kool.
I try to burn the image of him into my brain as he once again picks up his gun. When he walks out door I vow to myself that I will never again let someone tell me what to do.
Ann and I are completely silent. I can hear him out on the deck and then hear him climbing down the rungs on the trees. Another minute goes by and Ann starts to cry. I grab her hand and realize that mine is shaking.
“Ann,” I whisper.
She finally looks up at me, “Do you think he is going to kill us?”
“I don’t know if he’ll try but we are staying alive. Do you hear me? I have a plan,” I whisper as I sit down on the bench next to her. She moves closer to me.
“The second that gun is fired, if it sounds like it is far enough away, we run through that door, jump off the deck and into the water. It’s deep enough. Swim with the current downstream for as long as possible. Don’t come up for air until you have to. Stay underwater until you are around the bend. Then move up the hill to the right.”
“To the right?” she asks, thinking that she’s heard it wrong.
“He won’t expect that, so if he’s waiting to ambush us, it’ll be the other way, on the main trail. We aren’t going that way. I know where we are. The quickest way to my house is to head up the hill to the right. I’ll wait for you at the top of the hill. DO NOT stop moving. Stay low and try to move quietly.”
Ann nods her head slowly, up and down.
“Ann, what’s the plan?”
And she repeats it, all of it, back to me. We wait and wait and wait and I start to wonder if the gun will ever be fired. If not, how long should we wait? A picture keeps trying to crowd into my mind, a picture of him sitting on the hillside across from us, then me opening the door and being shot. I push it aside. I take an eraser, like the ones on the chalk boards at school and erase the thought from of my mind the second it tries to slip in.
A shot is fired in the distance. It is far away, far enough anyway. I am up, out the door, and off the deck. I take a deep breath and curl into a ball and am soon completely covered by water. I start swimming downstream through the muddy creek. I can feel the strength of the stream pushing me along. I am sure that I must have rounded the bend by now and I need to come up for air. As I do, I see Ann already climbing up the hillside. I wish she would have come down the creek a little further. I sprint up the hill, keeping low, slipping and grabbing at anything to help me reach the top quickly. I head towards Ann and grab her, motioning with my index finger to my lips to stay silent. We slip off on a deer path where the going is easier. At first we walk at a quick clip so that we can move quietly but pretty soon I am running, full out running. It’s not long before I need to slow down so that Ann can catch up. I run back a little way and wrap my elbow around Ann’s, urging her with my body to move faster. We are finally on the edge of the forest and I can see my house.
“Are you going to tell anyone?” she asks and her bottom lip is trembling.
“OH YOU BET I AM!” and I feel rage rising up inside of me.
She is obviously relieved and starts crying again as we run up the grassy hill to my house.
I throw open the front door with fury. My mom is in the kitchen with her back to us, “Where have you girls been?” she starts in.
My dad is dialing the telephone, most likely looking for us. He is ready for work, minus his tie, dressed in his white button down dress shirt and dark blue slacks. He takes one look at me and knows that something is seriously wrong. He interrupts my mom with a single word, “Jan.” The moment he says it, she knows something is gravely wrong.
I look at him, “Hang the phone up,” but he already has. We are making intense eye contact. “Call the cops, Ann and I have just been raped,” I almost shout it out.
“What?” I hear my mom say and Ann completely loses it. My mom rushes into the family room where we are both standing and Ann falls into her arms, hysterical.
My dad stands looking at me stunned, his left hand still holding on to the receiver, now hanging on the wall. He grabs his head with his hands, “Oh NO, Oh my God NO!” I hear him yell.
And now I am yelling, too, “Dad, pick up the phone and call the cops! PICK UP THE PHONE!!!”
He is dialing and I hear him speak. He gives them our address and they ask him questions, which he in turn asks me, then relays the answers.
“He has a gun,” I hear myself say.
My mom has her arm around Ann and reaches for me. She is also getting hysterical as Ann relays some of the details. They are both out of control and their tears are falling on me. Everything is hot, sticky and drippy wet and I cannot breathe and I want away from these women. I pull myself free and see hurt, pain and rejection on my mother’s face and I cannot take it. I do not want her to feel sorry for me and I cannot give her whatever it is she needs right now.
My dad has disappeared and I pull myself away from Ann and my mom. He reappears in the kitchen with his shotgun and he is raging mad, “I am going kill him!” he roars. I block his path.
“He’s armed. He’ll shoot you!” I am feeling desperate. “You cannot leave me here with them,” and we both turn towards mom and Ann.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?” my mom is even more hysterical now and is all over my dad. Ann is sobbing and yelling, too. I push myself between my mother and father.
“Dad, you need to call Ann’s folks. They need to be here. Put the gun down and call Ann’s folks. The police are on their way. They’ll know what to do. I need you here with me.”
My dad doesn’t put the gun down but does eventually make his way over to the phone. Ann asks him to call her father at work, asks him to please wait before calling her mother. I hear my father speaking, “There has been an emergency,” pause. “Yes, she is okay. I need you to come here immediately,” another pause. “I will give you the details when you arrive. Yes, you can speak with her,” and he hands the phone to Ann, the long phone cord stretched to its limits.
“I’m okay, please hurry,” is all Ann can say before bursting into tears again. She hands the phone back to my dad and as he speaks there is a knock at the door.
I open it to find two officers in uniform. The one closest to the door asks me if this is 2359 White Point Road and I nod my head yes.
He asks if we called and I tell him, “Yes,” as I open the door wider so that they can come in. My dad is asked to put his gun down, which he does, much to my relief.
More hysteria ensues and I remove myself from it. I wander into the dining room and look out the window facing the street. There is another cop car pulling up in our driveway and third car parking down below on the street. That one has dogs in it.
One of the officers asks if he can speak to me. I am relieved that the other officer seems to be controlling things in the other room. He is calm and professional and asks me if I can tell him exactly what happened. As I do, another officer joins us and begins to take notes. Throughout the recounting of the events, the officers tell me repeatedly that I made good choices. Whether or not this is true, it provides me with some relief and definitely makes me feel better.
There are officers interviewing Ann in the other room. I try to ask her a question for clarity but they want us to stay separated until we have finished our statements. They ask me to recount the events as best as I can, from my own memory. After our individual interviews are over we are each asked to fill out a written statement, describing exactly what happened. When I am finished I am asked to sign and date each page. I am told that there is a possibility that they will catch him, but that it’s not a for sure thing. I am told that every minute, every hour, and every day that goes by, the chances grow slimmer.
One of the officers asks me if I am willing to lead them to the fort, to show them where we first made contact and the paths that were taken. I am more than willing. I am ready to get out of this house. My dad wants to come with us and I feel good about that but the police won’t let him. I think that they are afraid of what he will do if we happen to find the hunter.
There are six officers that come with me: The two who interviewed me, two detectives that have just arrived and the two other men, who are not in uniform, with dogs. Two officers stay behind with Ann and our parents. She is having a hard time writing her statement.
We walk through Van Zett’s yard, and back onto the trails, passing the rubbing tree, which I rub but don’t bother to point out to them. I show them where Ann stopped and where I was standing when he asked for directions. They find the bullet that was fired at Ann, digging it out of the ground, and a casing is recovered close to where I am standing. Someone marks this spot.
We start walking down to the barn but do not go quite all the way. We stop just above the open field, on this side of the rusty gate. They ask me a few questions about my horse and I point him out to them. They all agree that Flash is by far the best looking in the herd. I tell them about Red, the circus pony and point him out. I tell them all about Sammy, how he can move like a dream, even with hobbles on.
We walk back through the meadow and I point out to them where we first ran into the hunter. We make our way back quickly to where the gun was first fired. I am not certain of the exact path we took from there but I know the general direction we traveled. The dogs pick up the scent and before too long we find the branches that I broke and the trail is easy to follow. Instead of wading through the creek, we take the bridge across it. Someone finds a Kool cigarette butt and it is collected for evidence. We climb up the rungs of the fort and I stand on the deck outside with one of the policeman, while more and more photos are taken, inside and out. The dogs pick up a trail, moving away from us with their handlers and soon they have disappeared over the rise. I lead the two detectives and the two other officers back the way Ann and I ran home.
One of the detectives asks me if I am willing to go to the hospital to have an examination done. They explain that it is important for three reasons. The first is to make sure that Ann and I are both okay inside. The second is to collect evidence. If the hunter is found, it will prove that what we said happened really happened. The third is so they can give us a shot to make sure that neither of us gets pregnant. They also think that there is medicine that we should take to make sure we don’t get any diseases he might have. I am willing to do whatever it takes to put him in jail. When we get home, Ann is, too.
We are put in the back of the patrol car and taken to the hospital by one of the teams of deputies. As I shut the door, my friend, Mike rides up on his bike. He looks in through the back window. “Are you okay?” he asks with his voice raised. I don’t know what to say and shrug my shoulders. He looks so worried that I finally nod my head yes. He is asked to move along and we are soon on our way, our parents following.
The officers try to be light-hearted and it works for a few minutes but soon both Ann and I are lost in our own thoughts. We pull up to the Emergency Room entrance and our car idles while the deputy in the passenger seat goes in. He comes back with a nurse at his side and we are immediately escorted into a back room, away from all the activity we see as we walk through the ER. One of the deputies stays with us and we are told that a doctor will be right in.
Our parents are asked to sit in the waiting room and mine absolutely refuse. I can hear my mother insisting that they be able to stay with me. She will not have it any other way. My mom wins; she almost always does, unless it’s me that she’s disagreeing with. She comes back and checks in to make sure I am okay. I tell her that I am in good hands. All four of them are eventually given chairs to sit in right outside of the room we have been brought to. The doctor speaks to them first, explaining what will be done. I cannot hear all of what is said but I can hear some of it. I can overhear enough to know that our parents are worried that we will be traumatized all over again. They are reassured that nothing will be done unless we agree to it.
Finally, there is a knock on the door and both a nurse and doctor walk into our room. We are told that we will have to be separated for the exam and that it is a long process. The doctor tells us that we will be told exactly what is going to happen all along the way and that we can stop the process anytime we want. We are basically told the same story that the police told us—that to get a conviction they need to do an exam and collect evidence, that they will make sure nothing inside of us is damaged and if it is they can fix it. They will give us a shot to make sure we don’t get pregnant and they will give us a prescription for medication to make sure we don’t catch anything he may have infected us with.
The shot sounds like it will be the worst part of this process and I ask if I can get it first, to get it over with but for some reason that won’t work.
Ann is taken to the exam room first and she is gone for a long time. The deputy who is staying with me asks if I’m hungry, but I don’t feel like eating. We talk about horses and soccer and school and it is finally my turn.
As I leave to follow the nurse to the exam room, my mom asks me if I will be okay and I nod “Yes.” I am thinking to myself, “Of course I will be okay, how can I not be okay at this point?” But I am glad she is here, glad they both are.
I talk to the nurse and doctor for a long time. I have to re-tell the whole story over again. They have a lot of questions for me, different questions than the deputies asked. Hard questions, several that I cannot answer.
“Did he have an erection?”
“What’s an erection?” There’s a long pause as they look at each other. Then the nurse gives me an anatomy lesson, explaining things slowly and in detail.
“I don’t know,” I answer confused.
“Did he ejaculate?”
“What is that?” I ask. There is another long pause and then the doctor tries to explain.
“I don’t know,” I say, completely disgusted.
Finally the doctor steps out and the nurse asks me to undress. She puts all of my clothing in a paper bag. I slip a gown on and climb up onto the exam table. The nurse hands me a pair of thick socks to put on and explains what will happen as she hands me a pile of warm blankets. She shows me the stirrups they will ask me to put my feet in and the instruments they will use. She shows me the speculum and explains how it is inserted. She tells me that it might hurt a little bit but that the doctor will do his best to be gentle. If it hurts too much and I need them to, they will stop. She promises to hold my hand and says she will not leave me until the exam is done. She gives me control every step of the way. She tells me that I am strong and brave for reporting this. That I have done everything right, that if they can catch him we will be able to put him away for a long, long time. That it takes courage to go through what we are going through and she is proud of us both, that they all are—the hospital staff, the policemen and our parents.
The doctor comes back in and I quickly decide that the exam is as bad, no, far worse, than the shot. The nurse tries to chat with me, tells me to take slow deep breaths; tells me to try to relax. She asks me a lot of questions, trying to distract me but I just want this to be over.
“Okay, you can sit up now,” I hear the doctor say. “Everything looks fine and I was able to get the evidence we need. You may experience a little bleeding for a day or two, that’s normal. I want you to have that shot we talked about and an X-ray of your jaw, then you are free to go.” He starts washing his hands, “Your father has the medication that I want you to take. You’ll need to take it for a few days.” He dries his hands and makes his way to my side. He lifts my chin up gently and looks into my eyes. “I don’t think this is broken but we’ll do X-rays to make sure. Hey kiddo, you’re going to be okay, eh? You hang tough, okay?” I nod my head, afraid that if I speak I’ll start crying.
The nurse steps out of the room with the doctor, letting me know that she’ll be right back. She comes in carrying a fresh set of clothing that my parents must have brought with them. “I have a towel and a washcloth,” and she holds them up for me to see with a smile on her face. “There is a hot shower right through that door. Shampoo and everything you need are already in there. I’ll put your clothes right here,” and she sets them on the chair. “Do you need my help?”
“No, I’ll be fine,” I say, relieved at the thought of a shower.
I turn the hot water as hot as it will go, waiting until it warms up before stepping inside. There is a small round mirror hanging in the shower at eye level. I wipe the steam off of it and try to look at my face. Wipe it again and look at my jaw. When I see it, I start crying and this time I cannot stop. I stand under the hot, hot, hot shower and let it run down over me and I am not sure how much time goes by, but at some point I give up on the idea of even trying to stop crying and just let the tears flow.
Eventually the nurse comes back to give me that shot and finds me in the shower, crying. She climbs in, fully dressed, and helps me wash my hair; helps me wash everywhere. She helps me get dressed; gives me two shots, one in each buttock; one to prevent pregnancy and one a blast of antibiotic to prevent infections. She even combs my hair for me.
“Ready?” she asks, as she holds the door open. I nod my head yes and she takes me down to X-ray and then back to where everyone is waiting. She is still wearing her wet uniform. My jaw is not broken, only bruised. My parents are relieved to see me. Ann is sitting with all of them and looks relieved, too. She has also had a shower and is wearing some of my clothing that must have been brought from the house. I am thinking we can all go home now but the officer has other plans.
We go down to the police station to look through mug shots. There must be a thousand of them. Soon the faces start to look the same and I need a break if I am going to actually be able to identify the hunter. After that there is an artist we work with who tries to draw an accurate picture of our assailant. We try to pick out eyes and a nose, and a mouth, but when we are done it looks nothing like the hunter.
My dad finally says, “That’s enough. We can do more of this later. It’s time for us to go home.”
It is apparently headline news throughout the long weekend but no-one turns on the television at our house. The TV actually stays off for days. I don’t remember seeing a newspaper, either. Normally there would be one sitting out on the kitchen table, but I don’t recall ever seeing it. Our phone is taken off of the hook, as reporters keep calling. Irritating, as my friends can’t get through either.
Saturday, late afternoon, Mike knocks on our door and asks for me. I come running downstairs and rush outside, glad for something—anything—to do. He is very serious and I can tell he feels awkward. I don’t know what to say to make thing easier, so we just walk. We walk past Van Zett’s and swing on the vine for a while without saying a word.
“I heard what happened,” he finally blurts out. “After seeing the news I knew it had to be you. The cops came to our house. They asked if we heard gun shots. We didn’t, but Mrs. Van Zett, Karen’s mom did. They asked me if I could take them back to the fort and I did.
We went back there today, too. Me and Chris, Dave, Mikey and Bill. We blew it up. That’s what I wanted to tell you. It’s gone. The fort is gone, every bit of it,” and he starts crying.
“I would have stopped it,” he said, “If I knew. I’m so sorry… ”
And we both sit on the hillside and cry for a long, long, long time.
Tuesday is the first day of eighth grade and it never crosses my mind not to go. We are sitting at rectangular desks of eight working on a “group project” when Keri Quinlan looks at me from across the table.
“Was it you?” she whispers loudly.
“Was what me?” I respond in an irritated tone of voice.
She touches the left side of her face, “I know it was. If it had been me, I wouldn’t be here right now.” She says this with nervous pride and seems to hold judgment with her words. “I would be such a mess that I wouldn’t be back at school, not ever,” she says.
I just look at her, daring her to say more, I hold my gaze steady until she is so uncomfortable that she looks away. I do think she is right, though. She is already neurotic and unable to handle even the littlest bumps in life. That this is something she is proud of completely astounds me.
I hear talk at some of the other tables around me and tune it out, choosing to focus on my work. Later in the day, well after lunch, Ann and I are both called into the principal’s office. When we enter I find my dad standing there.
“What’s going on?” I ask, sure that Ann is wondering the same thing.
“Have a seat girls,” the principal orders, pointing to two chairs. Ann sits but I remain standing.
“Please, sit.” This time it feels like he’s asking me to, so I do.
“Your father has told me a little bit about the ordeal you’ve both been through. I want you to know that my door is open. If you need anything, just ask.”
My dad interrupts. “They think they may have the suspect in custody. They want to see if you girls can identify him. Ann, I’ve spoken with your father and he has in turn spoken to the school. I have his permission for you to come with us.”
“They think they caught him?” I ask my dad.
“They think it might be the guy,” and he crosses his fingers for good luck.
The principal stands, “If this isn’t the right man and you ever have to leave school again your father has asked me to make this as easy as possible. I will send a pass to you in class. It will just say that your father, or in your case Ann, Mr. McDonnell is meeting you at a certain time. We’ve agreed that he’ll pick you up at the side door at the end of the science wing. I have already signed a few more passes that I will give you now, so that you can go straight back to class. You will not have to check back in at the office. In my opinion, the fewer questions asked the better. If I can be of any other service, let me know.” He holds his hand out to my father and I get up and go.
As we walk down the stairs, my dad says jokingly, “I hate it when I have to go to the principal’s office,” and all three of us are laughing. The mood is suddenly much lighter.
Once we are in the car, Ann and I both have a lot of questions. Some we voice and others are too scary to talk about. What are we doing? How does all of this work? Will we truly be safe? If we identify him, will they keep him locked up? Or will he be set free? There are so many unknowns.
My dad makes the whole thing feel like an adventure. We play car games as we travel, slug bug and the license plate game. He is able to take off work and go with us as he owns his own pharmacy and there is always at least one other pharmacist working. If he has to, he can get away. The prescriptions might pile up so he may have to stay late once he’s back at work, but he wants to be with us for this. He promises us a treat, our choice when we’re done. Ann and I both pick Greaters Ice Cream. It’s our favorite—homemade, rich and creamy.
We arrive downtown and they ask us to sit in the waiting room. There are a lot of other people here, too. The three of us are shortly brought into someone’s office. Ann and I are shown some photos. None of the photos is the hunter; although there are a couple of photos that bear some resemblance. They look more like our assailant than the artists’ rendition that was done. An officer asks us each for details and then states that he will have the sketch redone with the information we’ve provided, if this man they are holding is not the right one.
We are taken separately to view the line up. My dad and I go first and are shown to a small, empty room. Two officers accompany us. There is apparently a one-way mirror that only the people on this side can see through. It looks just like a glass window to me. I am assured that the men on the other side cannot see me but it is hard to believe this. It is unnerving. I do not trust that I am hidden. We have a long discussion about it before I am willing to enter the space. Looking through the window, I see six men lined up against a white wall. Each man is standing there holding a number, in order, one through six.
I can tell with just a glance that the hunter is not one of them but I take my time looking carefully at each face.
“No, he’s not here,” I finally whisper.
One of the officers speaks, “They can’t hear you. They’re in a sound-proof room. You are safe.”
My dad is standing directly behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders and gives them a squeeze.
Ann is taken into to the room with the one-way mirror next and my dad goes with her. She is also immediately certain that our assailant is not one of the men standing in the line-up. When the room is cleared of the men, we are given the chance to go inside and take a look. We are shocked that you really cannot see through the mirror at all.
Before we leave we are told to not get our hopes up too high, that our assailant may never be caught. We are told that the police are doing their best but that the chance of catching this guy grows slimmer every day. This is terrifying to me, as I have spent every night in fear, thinking or dreaming that he will come to kill me, although I speak of this to no-one. I decide that every time I think about him I will turn my fear into victory. Whatever scary thought creeps into my mind I end the scenario by killing him violently. I send thoughts out to him letting him know that if there is ever a “next time,” if he ever tries to hurt me, it will end in his incredibly violent, bloody death. It is the only way I can calm myself down and eventually get to sleep.
We continue to be called to identify suspects at least twice a week for the next two-and-a-half months, although the places we go vary. We travel all over the Greater Cincinnati area, driving over to Indiana and crossing the river, south to Kentucky. The whole thing gets familiar enough that Ann and I both start hoping daily that someone will show up with a pass and we will get out of school. My dad almost always does something fun with us afterwards, little things, but well worth missing school for.
Shana O’Day, one of my best friends becomes jealous of the time Ann and I spend with each other. She is one of those girls who like to try to “divide and conquer” if she is not the Queen Bee in her relationships. One day she informs me that she should have been with me that day, instead of Ann, so that the two of us would be out having all of the fun. It is the beginning of the end of our friendship.
It’s late fall. Ann and I are out of school once again and driving with my dad to some small town, somewhere, to scan another police line up. There is a chug, chug, chug followed by a long, heavy sigh heard from the car before it dies and rolls to the side of the road. Dad has a sinking feeling that he forgot to get gas. We find a can in the trunk and take off down the road. Dad wants us to stay with the car but we will not be left alone on the side of the road, either of us. He thinks it is safer but we disagree and are coming with him.
It’s not long before a car stops and gives us a lift. There is a station just a few miles down the road. They wait for us to fill the can up and give us a ride back to car. We are soon on our way.
Dad pulls the car into a space in front of the sheriff’s office. Once inside we are brought to a room where the desks are separated on three sides by movable walls that are about six feet tall. The officer grabs two chairs from empty desks nearby, so that all three of us have a seat. A few minutes pass before the officer reappears and asks my dad and me to follow him. We head down the hall to yet another room with a one way mirror in it. I am chatting with the deputy and turn casually around towards the line up. There are five of them. I know before I finished turning all the way around that it is him, number three, standing in the middle. My hearts starts racing. Dad knows before I speak that I’ve seen him and he asks me which one he is. I point to him and finally say out loud, “That’s him, in the middle, number three.”
My dad comes undone. He roars a deep throaty roar. “That son-of-a-bitch, let me at him. I’m gonna kill him…” and he starts beating on the glass, trying to break it. The deputy with us tries to pull him away but it takes several other people, who come running in to pull him away. I see a look of fear on the hunter’s face. It may be a sound-proof room, but there’s no doubt, I’m sure, that someone was pounding on the glass and walls. My father is taken away somewhere to calm down.
I am asked to turn my back and the men in the line-up are moved around and are now holding different numbers. I immediately identify him again. I have so many feelings running through me. I am terrified that he will somehow kill me, right here and now. I am elated that he is finally in jail, and that I might now actually be safe. I am also full of rage that he is standing there nonchalantly, as if being in a police line-up is an everyday occurrence. Ultimately, fear gets the best of me. I am terrified that something awful is about to happen and I start shaking and cannot make myself stop. I look at him again, long and hard, and I wish him dead.
The deputy touches my elbow gently and turns me toward the door, leading me into a kitchen area, away from Ann. He pulls up a chair and promises to stay with me. I ask for my father but am told that he needs some time to gather himself together.
I hear Ann walking down the hall, talking to whoever is with her. She sounds scared. I wish my dad was going with her. I am taken back to the desk to wait for both of them. I see Ann first.
She is as white as a ghost. “Did you…” and before the sentence is complete she is nodding her head, “Yes.”
“I think they are bringing him out, past us,” I hear her say.
“What?” I must have misunderstood her but when I look, I see one of the men in the line-up moving in our direction.
Totally panicked, I dive under the desk with Ann right behind me. I scrunch myself into a tight ball, making myself as small as I possibly can, wrapping my arms around my knees and clenching my eyes tight. My heart is pounding so hard it feels like it will jump out of my chest. The deputy is talking to me, trying to set my mind at ease, “You’ll be fine. This is uncalled for. You are both completely safe.” But there is no way we are coming out. I cannot believe this is happening. Where is my father? He would never have let this take place. Why didn’t they wait to bring this guy out? Or let us leave? Or at least put us in another room, somewhere further away?
We come out from under the desk only when my father personally guarantees us that it is safe. The hunter is securely locked in a jail cell. There is no way for him to harm either of us. We slowly make our way out from under the table. I am tired, scared and mad and feel like I will explode if anyone touches me or even talks to me. I overhear a deputy say, “If he’s found guilty, he’ll be put away for a long, long time.”
What do you mean, “if,” I think. How about, “when!”
As we drive home we talk about celebrating; but Ann and I are both wiped out. Dad overheard that they will set the bail so high that he’ll never be able to post it. He will be held until trial and then will spend a long, long, long time behind bars. We are given an education on what bail is and how the bail and bondsman system works.
We are contacted by Simon Lease, the lead Prosecuting Attorney for the city of Cincinnati. He is well known for his prosecution of Hustler Magazine, among other things. He is aggressive and brilliant, according to my mother, and we are lucky that he wants to personally prosecute our case.
Our first meeting takes place downtown. Ann and I meet with him together. He wants to make sure we are willing to go through with the trial; and he wants us to know what that means. We are both adamant that it is our goal to put him behind bars for the rest of his life. More appropriately, I suggest castration and Ann asks for the death penalty, to be carried out in that order. We are soon enlightened as to the real life consequences he will face years, not life. Castration is not an option, not in this country.
We are informed that the trial is often as bad as, or worse than the initial event. I cannot imagine this and start to speak up but then remember my naïveté at the hospital and decide to trust this man. He tells us that the defense attorney will do everything in his power to make us look like liars. That he will try to humiliate us and will undoubtedly bring us to tears. And that he, Simon Lease, will be powerless to prevent it from happening. “That’s just how these things go,” he tells us. He will try to portray you as “Loose, wanton women.”
I start laughing as I try to picture Ann being portrayed as a “woman” much less a “loose or wanton” one. I cannot stop. Tears are slipping down my face by the time my laughter has run itself out. I am finally able to speak and explain. Simon Lease nods his head in agreement, “My sentiments, exactly. If they decide to take that route, they will bury themselves. You two will do fine. I just want to make sure that you both know what you will be up against and make sure you think you can go through with this. It will not be easy.”
He gives us a little time to think this through. “I will need to go over each of your statements with you individually to clarify some details. There is a slim chance that he will plead guilty but it doesn’t look like things are moving in that direction. Your case is rock solid. We have all the evidence we need and your statements are impeccable.
We have a witness that heard at least one of the gunshots and another that has identified the hunter and the car he drove. They say he parked pretty close to their property that morning. They saw him walking into the woods and assumed he was squirrel hunting.
You were both able to immediately identify him in a line up after viewing multiple line ups with no positive IDs. We are going to put this guy away for a long time. We have charged him with a total of fourteen counts; ten felony charges and four misdemeanors.”
He starts listing them: “Two counts rape, two counts kidnapping, two counts assault with a deadly weapon, two counts battery…” and my mind begins to blur.
We meet with Simon Lease a few times before the morning of the pre-trial hearing. We are all sitting in a room off to the side of the court, me, Ann, and all four of our parents. There are others in this same room, here apparently for different reasons than we are. There is music being piped in from somewhere. Neil Young singing in the background, “Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castle’s burning. Find someone who’s turning and you will come around…”
I am watching the ash fall off a cigarette onto the carpeted floor. The cigarette is being chained-smoked by a nervous man in a black suit. He is completely lost in thought and oblivious to where his ashes are falling. I make eye contact with Ann and she is watching the ash fall, too. For months afterwards when things seem crazy we will look at each other and one or the other of us will sing in tune, “It’s only castles burning,” and we will both smile.
Our prosecutor is happy with the judge we drew. We are told that he is very conservative (which is apparently a good thing), and completely unsympathetic to deviant behavior.
Two days before the trial is scheduled to begin we get a phone call. Simon Lease has been in contact with the defense attorney and they have gone over all of the evidence one more time. He has pointed out the futility of going to trial. There is not a chance that the defense can win and the defense attorney knows it. Putting us on the stand is ultimately going to make his client look worse than he already does. Our prosecutor advises the defense to have his client plead guilty. They come back later, saying they are willing to plea bargain.
The prosecutor wants to meet with us to outline the different options we have and advise us on the best choices we can make. He comes to my house and meets with us all. The decision is ours, Ann’s and mine. He says that the most time the defendant will serve, if he is found guilty of all counts, is seven years. His recommendation is to drop all but the four felony counts—the two counts of rape and the two counts of kidnapping. He is ninety-nine percent positive that he can convince the judge to give him a fourteen year sentence for those four offenses. He thinks the deal will sound good to the defense attorney. He wants us to think about it overnight and call first thing in the morning with our decision.
Somehow the whole thing feels wrong to me. It feels like we are playing a game and it makes me feel sick. When I talk about it, our prosecutor says it is a game, a lot like chess. “We’ve got the defendant pushed into a corner and he has nowhere else to go, he’s in check. And we’ve got him, checkmate.”
Before Ann and her parents leave, we both make the decision to agree to the plea bargain. My dad will call Simon Lease first thing tomorrow morning.
Someone from The prosecutor’s office calls back a short time after my dad’s phone call to tell us that he wants more charges dropped; one of the counts of rape and one of the counts of kidnapping, too.
There is no way I will do that. We are going to trial. We spend a few hours downtown reviewing how the trial will proceed. Where we will sit and where the defendant will be. We are assured that he will have cuffs on both his hands and his feet and that there will be guards to protect us and keep us safe. There is no way that he can hurt us.
Simon Lease explains the formalities of the court and how the questioning will work. He talks about opening and closing statements, examination and cross-examination. He tells us over and over again that we’ll do just fine. That it’s okay if we cry. That no matter how hard the questions are for us to answer, that we just need to do our very best to answer them as best we can. The most important thing is to tell the truth. If we don’t know the answer, we can say, “I don’t know.” If we can’t remember, it’s okay to say so. Just tell the truth.
The trial is scheduled to last for three full days and will begin at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. He wants us to be there by 8:00. We all shake hands and he wishes us luck.
I walk in the door at 6:05, the night before the trial is scheduled to begin. My mom is about to explode with the news. “Guess what?” she says from the kitchen with a big smile filling up her whole face.
I know what I want to guess, but am afraid to say the words out loud.
“Simon Lease just called to tell us he agreed to the original plea bargain. The trial is off! We’re all going out downtown to celebrate.” She is wiping tears away, full of joy for me, full of joy for us all…
Mark Ryan Smith pled guilty to four felony charges, two counts of rape and two counts of kidnapping. He was sentenced to seven years in the federal penitentiary, with the chance of parole at seven. He served all seven.
With the exception of one public figure, the names of all people involved have been changed to protect their privacy. Except for the rapist. I am not worried about his privacy but I want to keep Ann and me safe.
©2007 Weyshawn Douglas Koons