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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Finale that Never Was

okay.... you win.
One reader brings it to my attention that I have gone the way of series like "Deadwood" or "Heroes" and never finished the deal. So this post is for that person, and anyone else who still remembers what had happened leading up to the finale in The Hilltop Memoir. Here is the last piece.

ps. you're still not going to be satisfied, John.

In Memoriam

When six weeks had passed and the investigation into the murders and the abductions had turned up nothing, the town finally began moving on. The children had not returned and there was no evidence found that would lead the police to where the children were being kept or where their bodies may have been disposed of.
Although the crimes were obviously still weighing heavily on the minds of the community, and especially the 10 families that had experienced the loss of their children, the newspaper and television stations only occasionally mentioned the case now. For about a month it was the lead story in every edition and every broadcast. Anytime the Lawrence police turned up any dead-end clue, it was a rehashing of the entire story over again. Personally, I was glad that much of it had stopped.
There were “for sale” signs all along Hilltop Drive. People didn’t want to remain here with all the bad memories. Our house, although we hadn’t lost anyone, was up for sale like many of the others. My parents had decided that they were willing to take a loss on the house just to get to another part of town. They did sell it eventually, and I never spent another Halloween on Hilltop. That was fine by me. Nearly all of my friends were gone. My friend Matt and I grew closer in those last few months, but I was pretty lonely in the neighborhood and found that I looked forward to school much more than I used to.
I became a pretty good student and got into a lot less trouble without the Andersen influence in my life and I made new friends that lived in another neighborhood zoned to my school. When we eventually moved, I realized I had a whole new set of neighborhood kids to hang out with. By eighth grade things were back to normal.
But before the move things were anything but normal. Despite no hard evidence that the missing kids were deceased, the parents of the missing had banded together and decided on a memorial for all of them at a nearby church on December 23. Nearly two months after the disappearance, the parents realized they would have to begin accepting the idea that they’d never see their children again – that there would be no closure.
The day before the memorial the phone rang at my house and my mother picked it up and began cheerfully chatting to Mrs. Peeler. Mrs. Peeler was involved in the planning of the memorial. She was a nice lady who had taken on a leadership role in the wake of the Halloween crimes. When people began showing interest in forming a neighborhood watch, Mrs. Peeler was the one spearheading the effort.
When the community began erecting crosses and wreaths in recent weeks in memory of children who had gone missing, Mrs. Peeler was the one who went and talked to the parents and asked them if they would allow them to put the items in their front yards. She had been met with some hostility at the suggestion the kids were dead, but had worked her magic, saying it would be a nice thing for their school mates and friends to have a place to show how much they were thinking about them.
And that turned out to be the case. Kids from all over town, including ones that I was certain didn’t even know some of them, left folded letters, flowers, lit candles, various items that must have meant something, photos and much more. I even put a baseball by Keb’s cross, because we had originally met when we were both assigned to the same Little League team before we even lived across from one another.
All in all the sentiment from the community was a bit much. There were so many cards and pictures and random shit strewn about the victim’s lawns that each time a hard wind blew it was like a cyclone of trash. Behind closed doors, the families without children missing secretly hoped that the memorial would put an end to all of this “bullshit.” I know I heard my dad say that at least once. Mom stayed quiet about it, neither approving nor disapproving of it all.
Mrs. Peeler had gotten our phone number from someone at the church, apparently. Mom later commented that it must be an acquaintance of hers named Betty who went to church there, because she didn’t know anyone else who might have the number. Mrs. Peeler asked mom if she was planning to attend the memorial, and she said yes. She explained that many of the missing children were friends of mine.
With the confirmation from my mother, Mrs. Peeler then revealed why she was calling. She wondered if my mother would mind making cheesecake for the event. Many people were donating food for a wake-like reception after the ceremony and she had been told that my mother’s cheesecake was legendary. Apparently this was something else that helped my mom confirm Betty as the source of the phone number. I don’t know why.
Mom asked how many cheesecakes and Mrs. Peeler told her two would be great. My mom agreed, said she would make it three and they wrapped up the conversation. Suddenly, my mother was in a hurry.
“I have to get to the store,” she said. “Do you want to go?”
“No,” I answered. “Why?”
She explained about the phone call and said she had to go get ingredients and get to work on the cheesecakes. She began spouting off how many ounces of cream cheese she would need, and began mumbling about whether she should make a fruit topping to go on one and make the other one a pumpkin flavored one. It went on and on.
“I’m gonna stay here if that’s okay,” I said.
“Umm,” she finally paused to take a breath. “Okay. I’ll be back soon.”
She ran out to her car and I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sat down at the table with a cold glass of milk. I don’t know why I didn’t go with her. I probably could have conned my way into some fast food if I’d gone, and it’s not like I had anything fun to do at home. All my friends were dead for the most part.
After I finished eating I decided to draw. I was never good at drawing, but I liked to do it. Mark had been the best artist of all my friends, despite the fact that he drew strange images. But I could draw cartoon characters pretty good, and I liked making up the names and creating little one-page comic strips when I was bored. And these days I was bored a lot.
I realized I was out of drawing paper, but I knew that my mom kept a pack of typing paper on her desk in her bedroom and I went in there to get it.
I’m not sure what made me do it, because I’d never done it before, but I suddenly had the urge to snoop around. No one would be home for at least the next half-hour. And I had never looked in the cedar chest that sat at the end of my parent’s bed. It always had little statues and various other decorative items sitting on top of it. Today I decided to move them, remembering exactly where they sat, and open the cedar chest. But when I tried to open the lid it was locked. Having given up on the curious feeling, I put everything back where it belonged and went to the desk to find the typing paper. It was located in the lower right drawer of mom’s desk. While grabbing a few sheets I saw a small envelope taped to the inside of the drawer. I reached my finger down in it and was surprised to find a tiny key. It looked like it would fit the lock on the cedar chest. I tried it and the lock turned.
I quickly removed the items from the lid again and opened the chest, hoping to find something cool or at least something my parents didn’t want me to see. I heard a car door slam and panicked, assuming my dad had come home early from work or maybe my mom had forgotten her purse. I looked out of my bedroom window across the hall to the driveway and saw that it was only Rhoder, who had parked with one wheel on the curb in front of his house. He opened the door of his truck and beer cans fell into the street and he staggered toward the open garage.  This was nothing new, so I went back to the chest.
Inside I found a box of old photographs of Sophia and I as babies. I saw wedding photos and lots of pictures of old cars and several photos of people I recognized to be aunts, uncles, grandparents and many more photos from the years before I was even born.
The most curious thing I found, and the only items in the chest that appeared to have been placed there recently were two big, black plastic jugs half filled with liquid. They had been sitting right on top of the pile of stuff stowed in the cedar chest. I had set them aside on the floor beside me at first, not knowing or caring what they were. But after digging through the old photos, an old pair of my baby shoes, a lock of hair in a scrapbook and other sentimental boring stuff, I picked the bottles back up and placed them back in their original positions and got ready to close the lid. While putting the bottles back into the chest I saw that the labels identified the liquid inside them.
One was C-41 Colour Negative Developer and the other was something called C-41 Colour Negative Fixer. Further reading on the labels made me realize this was a photography product used for developing film. What puzzled me was that I had never known my parents to be into photography at all, let alone anything that required chemicals. Snapshots and the one-hour photo was the extent of our family’s photographic experience as far as I knew.
The confusion came and went and I assumed there was some explanation that was equally as boring as the rest of the things I’d found in the chest, and I put everything back in its place, locked the chest and replaced the key. I got my paper and went to the living room, turned on the television and watched MTV while I drew a cartoon strip I called “Codename: Spitfire.”
Mom returned home a short time later with all the ingredients for three cheesecakes and a big frozen pizza with pepperoni on it. She heated the oven and put the pizza in for us and I helped her mix cheesecake batter and licked spoons and ate pizza until all I wanted to do was lay down and sleep.
By the next night my mom had three gorgeous and delicious looking cheesecakes ready to take to the church. She sent my dad ahead with the cheesecakes and helped me “put on something decent” for the memorial. She made me wear a sweater that my grandmother had made me the previous winter. Luckily it had been too big last year and it fit pretty well now. But it was still hideous.
We arrived at the church to find nearly everyone in the neighborhood had turned out for it as well as a couple of hundred people from elsewhere in town or even curious cats from other towns. And the media was there in small numbers. The reporter from the Gazette and one cameraman from each of the three TV stations that serviced our area were in attendance.
The one exception was the Andersen family. They weren’t there at all, despite being the family that lost more children than anyone else. The twins and the notorious Stacey Threesome had all gone missing that night and only their younger sister Maria was still around.
Everyone chalked up their absence to the fact that they must had to be so grief-stricken that they simply couldn’t handle this event with its cameras and the inevitable and repetitious questions.
“How are you folks holding up?”
“Do you have anything to say to those responsible for all this, in case they are listening?”
 Tim and Sheryl Andersen had never been the most outgoing people to begin with, so they weren’t concerned about appearances. They didn’t really socialize with these people before, so why start now? It made sense to everyone.
As time passed I learned more reasons why they weren’t at the memorial. Tim and Sheryl were in the process of getting a divorce at that time. Sheryl’s long-time affair with a co-worker had not been enough to force the issue, despite the fact that Tim and the rest of the family knew about it and pretended it didn’t exist. But when Tim found a mistress, Sheryl wouldn’t put up with it. Rumor had it that Tim had been secretly seeing someone, but that Sheryl never figured out who it was. Whispers around the community suggested it was someone in the neighborhood. Who knows?
They ended up going their separate ways after a long and drawn out divorce battle. Sheryl bought out Tim and kept the house and got full custody of Maria. Soon after she sold the house to a couple from India and pissed off the majority of the milky-white neighborhood.
Tim left town completely, moving to Birmingham where he opened up his own business as a portrait photographer. I had never known it, but apparently Tim dabbled in amateur photography and had decided to make his passion his profession. Good for him, I guess.
The memorial was long and so was the list of speakers who came to the podium to talk about the kids who were apparently no longer with us. The string of people who wanted to be on the record as a friend of the victims seemed endless. It must have been because it made them somehow feel important or felt it gave them the right to some of the outpouring of sympathy from the community and beyond. I sat silently, listening to empty words. Some of them were tearful recollections of the times they spent with one of the kids. Some of them tried to lift spirits with a funny anecdote about one of them.
But the moment that has always stuck in my mind was when Keb’s mother, a woman we rarely saw around the neighborhood despite living directly across the street, got up and dedicated a passage of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” to her son. It was the only thing I recall hearing that night that actually made me want to cry.
I didn’t know the poem at the time, so it was like hearing something brand new and not a regurgitation of words written in the mid 19th century.
The part she read included what I later realized was a famous passage from the poem that included some very appropriate words. I still remember it all these years later, like it was yesterday.

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

I could see from a distance that tears had welled in Rhoder’s eyes on the front pew of the church. Although he was obviously sedated by something, either booze or pills, he was alert enough to feel the pain of the situation, perhaps realizing for the first time that Keb really wouldn’t be back.
Although there were a few more people waiting to speak after her, each of them decided there couldn’t be a more fitting conclusion. She had been the last parent to speak, and she had probably said more heartfelt words than everyone else combined. It was immediately known that she was the finale.
Mrs. Peeler, who had also taken on the role of the emcee at the event thanked everyone and announced that anyone interested should go to the church’s reception hall.
The reception hall was filled will more food than three neighborhoods could have eaten in a night. My mom’s cheesecakes lasted about 10 minutes and I never got a piece. But that’s OK. I knew I’d be getting plenty of it in two more days on Christmas. Mom always made a cheesecake to take to relatives house on Christmas afternoon. I was actually looking forward to the trip for a change. I hadn’t been out of Lawrence since before the murders and I needed a change of scenery.
In March we got an offer on the house. In fact, we got two within two days. Both offers were for the full asking price. Our real estate agent worked the phones and actually got them into a bidding war over the place. Mom and dad ended up selling it for a little more than what they expected and we got a really cool house about 10 miles away, located deep in the woods. There were trails and cliffs, a creek and the house even had its own swimming pool.
The Nicholson murders and the child abductions were never solved as far as I know. What I do know is that popular opinion shifted regularly, and everyone on the planet was tried and convicted in the whispers of the people along Hilltop Drive. The crazy part is, I probably knew the killers personally and didn’t even know it. 

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