Authors: Bentley Little
I was soon back in Brea, let off by the bus on Lambert Road, a five-minute walk from my home. It was strange being back, since everything about me was intimately familiar. I may have been gone, but I'd seen these same sights every single dayonly now there was life in them. And that made all the difference. Cars were passing by; birds were in the air; a plane crossed overhead. People were on the street and talking. To the south I heard the
of a police helicopter's blades. I smelled car exhaust and frying hamburgers. The sounds and smells were wonderful and I was overjoyed to be once again in the real world, but though I hadn't realized it until recently, I'd been gone a long time and it was a bit of a culture shock. I felt a trifle uneasy, slightly off-balance.
Still, I was excited, and I hurried up the sidewalk, anxious. I had no idea whether Vicki would be there or not, but at the very least I would be able to wash up, relax and finally experience the welcome comfort of just being home.
Except my house was no longer my house.
I slowed. Stopped.
There was a strange car in the driveway, and when I walked cautiously up to the front door, I saw unfamiliar furniture through the living room window. Even if I had a key, which I didn't, I'm not sure I would have tried to let myself in. It would have felt wrong. I pressed the button, ringing the bell, and a moment later a woman in her mid-twenties, cradling a baby, answered the door. "Hello?" she said.
I was tongue-tied for a moment. I could see that that worried her, could tell that she was backing off, getting ready to close the door on me, so I blurted out, "Is Vicki Hanford here?"
"Uh, no," the woman said a little nervously. "My husband and I live here."
I nodded. "When did you buy?" I began.
"I've got to go," she said. She closed the door, and I heard a dead bolt being thrown.
My house had been sold out from under me. I was homeless.
This was impossible.
But if I'd learned anything in the past year and a half, it was that
Where to go? I had no job, no home, no money. I had no idea where Vicki and Eric were. My entire life had been taken away from me. I glanced around at the neighbors' homes, recognized several of the cars in the driveways. I'd always been on good terms with my neighbors and despite the fact that I'd backed off a bit socially after Vicki and I had separated, a few of them I honestly considered friends. I could probably hit them up for money, maybe even stay for a night or two in the guest room Carl Clarkson across the street had had built into one half of his two-car garage.
Or I could go back home to my mom's house.
No. That was not even an option.
I walked over to Carl's. His wife, Joyce, answered the door, and she seemed surprised and more than a little uneasy about seeing me again.
She'd gotten a letter about me.
I was still trying to convince myself that that was not true, that I'd had some type of breakdown or episode and all of my thoughts and memories of letter writing were just fantasy, but deep down I believed it
true, that despite the fact that I had no evidence, everything
happened just as I remembered it...
have evidence, I realized. Vicki. Why had she divorced me and taken Eric and hid from me? Because of the letters. She'd told me so. She'd said she was afraid of me and my abilities.
Unless my mind had added that, made that up, and she was really afraid of me because of my increasing mental instability.
"Let me get Carl," Joyce said. Pointedly, she did not invite me in. Indeed, she closed the door on me while she went to get her husband. That wasn't like her.
The door opened again a few moments later. "Hey," Carl said. "Long time no see."
"Yeah, I was in an accident," I lied. "I've been in a coma." That part was true, though it sounded less believable than the accident part.
Carl and Joyce looked at each other.
"I'm looking for Vicki," I said. "I got out of the hospital and I found out that my house was sold and I ... I don't know where she is." I could tell they didn't believe me, and on impulse I dug through my shirt pocket. "Look," I said, showing them my release papers from the hospital. I pointed to the word
on the line declaring why I'd been admitted. "I'm not lying."
Carl looked slightly less suspicious. "We got ... a letter about you," he said. "Yesterday. It said..." He looked at Joyce. "Well, it said a lot of things about you."
I felt a tremendous sense of relief. It was true. I hadn't imagined it. I wasn't crazy.
The knowledge didn't make me feel any better, though. In some ways, it made me feel worse. The relief fled almost instantly, followed by fear and apprehension. They were wasting no time. The machine had been set in motion. I'd escaped, and letters were being methodically sent out to anyone with whom I might possibly come into contact, poisoning the waters against me. I wanted to see that letter Carl and Joyce had been sent, but I knew it would be better if I didn't.
I might recognize the author.
They were still suspicious of me, I could tell, but I didn't blame them. The written word was a powerful thing, much more believable than the spoken word, and though the Clarksons had known me for years and did not know the fictional person or made-up agency who had sent them the false information, they would automatically give the letter more credence.
I would not stay in their garage guest room tonight. I would borrow money from them, though, so I could at least get a motel room for the night, and I was about to ask for fifty bucks or whatever they could spare when I suddenly remembered something.
My bank account!
I still had money in the bank. Close to twenty thousand dollars between savings, checking and CDs, if I remembered correctly. I had no wallet, no driver's license, no ID of any kind, so it might be tough to get any money out, but it was worth a try.
I asked Carl for one favor, a drive to Lincoln Mutual, my bank, and though I could tell he didn't want to take me, guilt won out and he agreed to drop me off on his way to the grocery store. I could only imagine what was in that letter they'd been sent. I'd assumed at first that it had depicted me as a deadbeat dad who'd skipped out on his family and disappeared, but Carl seemed nervous on the drive over, as though at any moment I might attack him, and I surmised that the letter's depiction of me had been much worse than I'd originally thought.
The Letter Writers weren't pulling any punches.
Carl dropped me off at the bank and sped away, praying, I'm sure, that he would never see me again. It suddenly occurred to me that the bank might have gotten a few letters about me, too, or Vicki might have drained the account, but thankfully that did not prove to be the case.
I had no ID, but I knew my Social Security number, my bank account number, my PIN number and my secret password, and when the teller compared signatures and went over everything with her supervisor, I was allowed to withdraw funds. I told the bank that I was a victim of identity theft, that all of my credit cards and my driver's license had been stolen, and I was issued a new passbook and given a new account number. I took out five hundred dollars, which should tide me over for a day or two, and left the rest alone.
I found a cheap hotel just down the street from the bank and decided to stay there, make that my home base. In the morning, I would go to the DMV, tell them that my wallet had been stolen, get a new license or at least a temporary one and then see what I could do about getting my car back. There was no way my Toyota would still be parked across the street from the apartment in Los Angeles where I'd disappeared, but hopefully it had been towed away by the police rather than vandalized or stolen, and if the cops hadn't sold it at auction already, there was a good chance I could get it back.
I made a few phone callsa
of phone calls, actuallyand finally I managed to track down the car. It was in a private lot, held by a towing company with which the city contracted, and all I'd have to do to reclaim it was pay the one-thousand-dollar fine, and show a valid driver's license and one other proof of ID.
In other words, I was screwed.
I might be able to rent a car, I thought, go to Avis or Hertz or something.
But they probably required a major credit card.
I didn't know what to do. I'd figure something out, though. And after I got some wheels and found a way to get around, my first order of business was to find Vicki and Eric, set things straight. I'd been gone for a year and a half, and it tore me apart inside to think that they believed I had abandoned them or didn't care about them, that Vicki was trying to think up diplomatic answers to Eric's sad questions about why I'd disappeared.
And that was the best-case scenario.
I'd be willing to bet that they'd received letters about me telling far more vicious and destructive lies.
I'd hire a private investigator if I had to. I'd spend all the money I had tracking my wife and son across the country, but I was determined that I would find them and reconnect and put my life back together.
I fell asleep on a cheap bed with a springy mattress, listening to the harsh sounds of the couple in the next room having sex.
I didn't go to my neurologist's appointment the next morning, I knew there was nothing wrong with me and didn't want to waste the time. Instead, I took the bus to the DMV. I
get a temporary license, and afterward I went to the bank, withdrew ten thousand dollars and then bought a used Volkswagen for three thousand dollars from a corner car lot.
At this rate, I'd be broke in no time. Which reminded me that, eventually, I was going to have to find a job.
But long-term plans were not on my radar right now. I needed to find Vicki and Eric. That was my priority. Everything else could sort itself out afterward.
I realized that I had no close friends, no one I could turn to, no one on whom I could depend. My letter writing had taken me away from that, and it was amazing that I'd even allowed Vicki in. Before the letter writing had taken over, I'd had close friends. As a kid, as a teenager, I'd had
Robert and Edson.
I stood there for a moment, thinking. Could I? Should I? Dare I?
I was all alone. I needed help. Why the hell not? I drove back to my crappy hotel room, flipped through the torn white pages I discovered in the dresser drawer, and found Edson's phone number and address. He was living in Newport Beach. Robert either wasn't listed or, more likely, had moved out of Orange County and lived somewhere else.
I called Edson, more nervous than I should have been, my hand slippery with sweat on the plastic of the phone. He wasn't there, an answering machine picked up the call, and I left my name and the phone number of the motel along with the room number. I pretended that I was in town for a few days on a business trip and would like to get together with him and talk about old times.
Afterward, I called Vicki's work. Or what
been her workwhether she was still there or not I didn't know.
She and Eric seemed to have dropped off the face of the planet, and for the first time I found myself really scared. What if something had happened to them? What if they weren't hidingwhat if they were dead? There were a lot of possible explanations, I told myself. The most likely was that she'd found a job in Arizona, close to her parents' house.
Maybe she'd remarried.
I didn't want to think about that, refused to think about that. At the hospital, the administrator had tried to call Vicki's parents in Mesa, but just in case, I tried again myself. No luck. The line really was out of service.
I sat there in my cheap motel room, on my springy unmade bed, not knowing what to do next, feeling helpless and powerless and lost.
Edson called shortly after noon. "Hello," he said at first in a formal adult voice that I never would have recognized. "May I speak to Jason Hanford?"
"This is Jason," I said.
"Dude!" The voice was deeper than it had been, but the inflections were the same, and I recognized my old friend immediately.
There were tears in my eyes, and I struggled to keep the emotion out of my voice. "Dude."
"I was checking my voice mail at lunch, and I came across your message. How the hell've you been?"
"It's a long story," I told him.
"Well, I want to hear it! We have to get together while you're in town. What are your plans for tonight?"
I glanced over at the blurry television. "Nothing. I was hoping we could talk."
"You want to meet somewhere? You want to come over here...?"
"Your place would be great," I said. "I'd like to see it."
He gave me directions and told me to be there at six. He'd take off work early and be home by then. We spent a few more minutes catching up. He'd been married but was divorced, was an investment banker, had no kids.
"What about Robert?" I asked. "Ever see him?"
"No, man. I don't know what ever happened to him." He paused, and when he spoke again he sounded more subdued. "I miss you guys, you know? I was just thinking about all of us a few days ago, thinking we should have kept in touch."
"And now I called."
"And now you called."
A beep sounded on the line. "I gotta go," Edson said. "A client. I'll see you tonight, though, huh?"
"I'll be there," I told him.
I stood, looked at myself in the mirror. I'd been wearing the same clothes for days. These were the ones they'd found me in, and they hadn't washed them
at the hospital before giving them back to me. I needed to buy some new duds before tonight.
I drove to Mervyn's, went to the clearance rack, found a decent long-sleeved shirt and a pretty good short-sleeved shirt, then picked up a pair of jeans. What was I going to tell Edson? How much was I going to reveal?
I didn't know yet. I'd have to play it by ear.
Edson's house was not what I'd expected.