Call it fate, call it chance -- either way, it'll change your life. Sometimes you just find yourself staring into a crowd, your gaze floating aimlessly over a sea of faces you won't remember the instant you look away -- until one person's eyes seem to grab hold of yours, and a connection is made. You can't explain it, but somehow, your life and that stranger's have become bound together. When I made that link, it was with a little girl.
I nearly lost my life because of it. I may have even taken one.
Bursting across the finish line, I won the race and set a new course record. I'd been paid a hefty appearance fee to do just that, but until I hit the homestretch, I wasn't sure I could pull it off.
Road races aren’t my event, I’m a professional triathlete. But my name, Zoey Morgan, carried some recognition in fitness-crazed North County San Diego, where I live, even if I wasn't the race director's first choice as the star attraction. He'd originally lined up the hottest road racer in the country to compete. But when she broke her leg just a week before the starter's pistol was set to go off, the panicky race director waved a relative fortune in my face if I would replace her. During the off-season financial crunch, I couldn't afford to be choosy.
I held court just past the finish line, doing the dog-and-pony show for the spectators and the media -- when my life took an unexpected turn.
“Zoey, check out this kid sprinting toward the finish line,” one of reporters said. “Her name's April Russell. She's only twelve, if you can believe it. Gonna be something someday.”
She already was. I looked at the clock, then at the computerized result board. The kid's time was outstanding. Only one girl finished ahead of her in her age-group, and she was two years older, a lifetime at that age.
The girl nearly collapsed when she crossed the line, and I wondered whether someone should call a medic. A man pushed his way to her side, a big beefy guy who seemed to be shooting for the unwashed look with his longish hair. The man approached the girl with an arm extended, and I figured she was in safe hands.
Until he smacked April so hard, I expected her head to sail off.
“Jeez, do you believe that?” the reporter muttered, stunned. “I'd heard her old man wouldn't tolerate second place.”
And I thought I was tough on myself. April's father grabbed her arm to drag her away. But she held firm for an instant and looked into the crowd. That was when her eyes met mine. It would have been hard to miss hers. That pale little face was all eyes. Deep, dark pits of despair, begging for help. Begging me.
It was those eyes that haunted me later, when I remembered that, like everyone else who witnessed her father's cruelty, I took no action.
My stomach felt queasy during the drive home. I told myself it was the milk. I had goofed this morning at the ungodly hour that I drag myself from my bed on race days, when I absently tossed down a bowl of cereal instead of my usual pre-race peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. I should have remembered that milk and racing didn't always work in joyous harmony for me.
Of course, I'm temperamentally incapable of accepting defeat. So as I sat at the breakfast table, staring at but not really seeing that wretched milk carton, I reviewed every inch of the course in my mind, with as much attention to detail as I gave the Ironman. And it paid off. Only now that sweet victory tasted a little sour.
My wolf-hybrid, Bob, growled when I unlocked my front door. Several weeks earlier, I'd found him tied to a post outside the drugstore along with a sign that read, Mean wolf-hybrid free to good home. Truth in advertising. Beneath a magnificent coat of rust and silver and snow, lived a surly brute. If we'd bonded at all, I probably blinked and missed it.
The greeting seemed no more than I deserved today. Shame that I didn't help that child suffused me. But I had scars of my own, and fear of my own father could still immobilized me. Let me tell you, painful memories are a faster transporter than anything on Star Trek. In the moment I witnessed that man's assault on his daughter, I became the child again, the victim, too scared to fight back.
I dropped my gear bag to the floor and slumped beside it. The rustic walls of my cozy A-frame house drifted away, and it was as if I were hiding again in my childhood bedroom closet, watching the doorknob turn, knowing I’d pay doubly for having eluded him.
Some movement of the dog's jerked me back to the present. I reminded myself that I was an adult —- and I kept repeating it like a mantra. I searched Bob's angry wolf eyes for understanding, but they just stared back in accusation. As a kid, I'd always condemned adults who could witness a child's abuse and walk away. I still did.
Zoey, I thought, what's it gonna be?
After a sleepless night, I called Peter Miller, the race director, and asked if he'd heard about the incident.
“Heard? Are you kidding, I saw it. Dag Russell hasn't changed a bit.”
“You know him?”
“Well, it wasn't like we had a relationship, I was just the nerd he tormented in high school.”
“Peter, if you know what it's like, why didn't you do something when you saw Russell hit his daughter?”
“Didn't you hear me, Zoey? If the guy creamed me in high school, he'd probably kill me now. Don't you get it?”
I got it. I just didn't want it.
I asked Peter where to find the Russell family.
“They left the area when April was a toddler and came back a couple of years ago. I heard they moved in with Joan Russell's mother.” He checked the race records and rattled off an address several miles northeast of mine. “I haven't heard anything about Dag working, so he's probably rolling drunks these days.”
Nervous laughter bubbled up through my throat.
“I mean it, Zoey, don't tangle with him. If you feel you gotta do something, just call Child Services. Let them handle it.”
I told Peter he was probably right. Yet while I looked up the number for the agency, I hesitated calling it.
I put Bob on his leash for his daily run, but instead of running our normal route, we took a slow jog toward the address Peter gave me to scope it out. I guessed which house it was even before confirming the address. Weeds as high as the window sills and more oil spilled on the driveway than the Valdez left in the Gulf of Alaska.
Not wanting to gape, I continued around the block. To my surprise, since it was during the school day, I spotted April there, running intervals along a stretch of grass in a seedy park. Close up, she looked an awfully young twelve, and there wasn't enough fat on her slight frame to slick a frying pan. No wonder she was thin if she always followed strenuous races with such tough workouts.
Our eyes met again, and I thought I saw recognition in hers. Yet when I greeted her, she lowered her head in awkward shyness and focused on Bob.
“Does he bite?” April asked.
Would pigs fly if they could? “He might.”
When she locked her haunting eyes on his, I tightened my hold on his leash. These weeks had given me a crash course in the challenges of co-habituating with a wolf-hybrid. I'd seen him threaten to reduce people to hamburger for less than staring. This time, he just offered something that, if I didn't know him better, I would have taken for a doggie smile. He didn't even object when April tentatively patted his head.
“Wouldn't it be wrong if he bit someone?” she asked.
How could I explain Bob's sense of right to a kid who knew too many wrongs? “Justice is...more streamlined for Bob than us. No grays, just blacks and whites. He's judge and jury, and doesn't tolerate appeals. Rightful sentence imposed immediately.”
She frowned at me, confused. I wasn't sure whether she wasn't very bright or if that was just over the head of a twelve-year-old. What did I know about kids?
She flashed a glance at the cheap oversized stopwatch that dominated her frail wrist, and spun away in the direction of the house.
“Wait!” I shouted, desperate for some way to keep her there. “Aren't you going to stretch? You don't want to tear a muscle, do you?”
She turned back, unsure, but intrigued. I coaxed her into doing a routine there on the grass. She'd apparently never stretched before, though she caught on fast. She wasn't dumb, she just didn't seem to know things. But in a few minutes, time pressed back in on her. She announced that she had to go and ran off before I could stop her.
Nice work, Zoey.
I looked at Bob. “Why me?” I blurted aloud. “I've always been a misfit. How can I hope to fix someone else's life?” Hiding the shame, hiding a parent’s guilt — it makes you feel different from other people. The answer to my outburst floated into my thoughts: Who better than someone who knows what it’s like?
But how? I absently tore blades of grass and tossed them viciously into the air. My fingers fell on a child's barrette lost in the grass. It wasn't hers. There wasn't enough hair in the little cap that curved around April's head to need it.
Of course, I didn't have to know that.
I rapped at the door several times. Though I'd seen a yellowed curtain twitch behind the dirty front pane, no one came to the door. I tried the knob. Unlocked. In for a penny.... I let myself in.
My guess would be they didn't entertain often. The worn vinyl floor was so covered with empty beer bottles, fast-food containers, and yellowed racing forms, there was barely a place to stand. The house smelled of mold and rotting garbage, and fear.
April stood frozen at the window, her face a paler shade than the curtain now. Some old woman in a rocking chair rocked with all the fury of a panther pacing a cage. The old lady suddenly stopped and looked at me.
“They take my checks, you know, take my checks,” she said.
She might be crazy, but I believed her. Russell doubtless took her Social Security. How much can you make rolling drunks?
A younger woman stood at the other end of the room, wearing a faded dress the color of pea soup, which she’d pinned closed where the neckline buttons had been torn off. She was a big, rawboned woman, who somehow managed to give the impression of being far slighter. Maybe it was having shoulders so rounded she should have pitched forward. Then again, the fat lip might have had contributed to that impression. Alcohol came off her in waves.
I extended the barrette and sputtered my excuse for being there, which now sounded even lamer than when I thought of it. No one said anything. I looked from April to the younger woman. Joan Russell?
Finally, April said, “Not mine.” Judging by the look she gave me, now it was her turn to question my smarts.
Despite the debris, there were no books or magazines in the room; not even a TV. No wonder the kid seemed to lack the normal level of awareness; she received no stimulation.
“April, don't you go to school?” I asked.
“That's not April,” the old lady said, before she resumed her frantic rocking.
Mrs. Russell just rolled her eyes. “April is home-schooled.”
By whom? The bully, the drunk, or the nut?
I drove back the next morning and parked up the block, and waited. I made the mistake of bringing Bob along. Even from that distance, he howled when he saw April as she went out to train, but I stopped him before he attracted attention. Those grueling workouts had to be exhausting the kid. Only the whip kept her turning in good race times.
Dag Russell ambled to his car and tried to start it around mid-morning. It sputtered a couple of times but caught on the third try. He burned rubber when he took off, and sailed through a few stop signs without slowing down.
I followed him to some bar along the waterfront in San Diego where all the waitresses wore tight, skimpy outfits designed to squeeze their breasts out the top like toothpaste from a tube. I snagged a table in a dark corner and nursed a beer for hours. Being that close to him gave my stomach an acid wash. Each time his shoulders flexed, I feared he would turn and see me, and somehow know what I was up to. I needn’t have worried. He just kept belting back drinks, while placing sucker bets on an ESPN soccer game and trying to grope the waitresses.
One waitress sent Russell an ugly look behind his back. When she went out front for her break, I followed her.
How do people learn to bribe effectively? The detectives in books always seem so smooth when they slip the flophouse desk clerk a bill, you'd think they greased it first. Totally clueless, I held a twenty extended from between two fingers as I approached.
She smiled and reached into the pocket of her French maid apron. “Need change, hon? I think I've got it.”
I almost wanted to take the change. I felt like an idiot when I told her that what I wanted was information. Apparently, all I needed to do was ask, though she didn't know much, beyond confirming that Russell spent part of most days there, setting records on offensiveness.
“Any idea why he's so obsessed with his daughter winning races?”
“I can answer that,” a male voice behind me said.
My scalp contracted. God, no! Had Russell caught me? Fortunately, it was only the bartender taking his break. He eyed the twenty still clutched between my fingers.
“I was working the day a patron asked us to turn to the broadcast of a marathon. The guy's son won it, and everyone fell all over themselves buying him drinks. I swear, you could almost see the light bulb go on over Russell's head. Next thing I knew, I heard his kid was racing. I never even knew he had a kid. It's not like he talks about anyone but himself.”
That explained why he drove her so mercilessly. He wasn't the first parent who craved the reflected glow of his child's athletic victories, though I’d never seen anyone pursue it with such a maniacal vengeance. I figured I'd learned all I was going to, and I had left Bob in the car. The twenty was still out there, with one of them on either side. I sure wasn't about to double it. I looked awkwardly from it to each of them.
“You gonna get rid of him for us, hon?” the waitress asked.
“Then keep it.”
I headed back toward Russell's house. Before reaching it, I spotted Joan about to board a bus a few blocks away. I made a quick U-turn and tucked in behind the bus. It wasn't easy, following a bus. I half-expected the driver to radio the cops. He had to see me pulling over each time he reached a stop. But I would risk jail before I'd miss seeing where she got off.
The bus dropped her off near the Linda Vista section of San Diego. A middle-class neighborhood, well beyond the scope of a family that didn't seem acquainted with soap. Maybe she worked as a cleaning lady -- wouldn't that be ironic? But she turned away from the neighborhood and walked quite a distance until she picked up a trail in the Tecolate Canyon Natural Park, a sprawling natural preserve nearby. I ditched my Jeep and followed on foot.
Joan’s going there seemed an impulsive act. She wasn't dressed for hiking in her pinned-together dress and flip-flop sandals, but she kept a good pace and seemed to know where she was headed. There was no hesitation when one trail handed her off to another. A plastic bag swung from her hand, which appeared to be filled with dandelions in bloom. Planting weeds in the woods?
With the brush so dry it cracked underfoot, I dropped back so she wouldn't hear my approach. I'd been keeping her well in sight, even at a distance, till we came upon a thick fan of bushes that grew perpendicularly from the edge of a jagged cliff overlooking a deep rocky canyon. I lost sight of her once she slipped through those bushes.
I hovered at the fringe of the bushes, unsure of whether to keep going or not. Would I lose her if I hung back? She might see me if I slipped through as she had.
I listened, but didn't hear any movement behind. I realized I expected to hear voices. Why would she make that trek if not to meet someone in a secluded spot? I didn't hear voices, but I did hear something.
Someone beyond that shrubbery was sobbing.
So Joan found a place to have a good cry. With her life, I'd cry, too. But why travel so far for it? Russell might object if he saw her, but he didn't seem to hang around much.
For all my tinkering, I hadn't accomplished anything. I didn't know what more I could do, until April herself gave me a hand. I'd described where I lived when we stretched together and invited her to work out with me. I never expected her to take up the offer, but there she was when I returned to the house, stretching on my lawn the way I taught her.
Her face lit up when she saw I'd returned, but she doused it with a splash of despair. Tears burned my eyes. I know, kid. Never allowing yourself to hope hurts less than disappointment. Those rare times my father acted like a normal, loving dad still gleamed like diamonds in my mind; that they never lasted cut like diamonds, too. I longed to hide April, but knew it wouldn't work. That she was free to run anywhere proved how thoroughly Dag Russell owned her. For April, there were bars on the world.
On impulse, I invited her to come on a trail run with me. There had to be a reason why Joan went to that place to cry. Maybe with April along, I'd find it.
We drove back to Tecolate Park. April was almost chatty when we started out. Well, chatty for her -- she spoke occasionally. When the trails narrowed and we could no longer run side-by-side, I encouraged her to go ahead, and just shouted instructions, as I tried to retrace Joan's steps.
April gradually slowed her pace. She was just a little girl -- was I wearing her out? She'd doubtless run all the way to my house. But I came to realize from the way she fixed on her surroundings that it wasn't fatigue that slowed her, but a growing awareness of where we were going.
I wasn't prepared for the scream she let out.
“Nooo!” she wailed and crouched on the ground. “Don't make me go there. I'll be good.”
She threw her arms around my legs, sobbing into my shins as she whimpered promises to obey. I tried to comfort her, but she sprinted away. She took me by such surprise I lost her in the trails. Would she find her way out? After an exhaustive search of the park, I drove through the surrounding streets, but she was gone.
What a mess I'd made of my determination to help. Why didn't I just call the authorities? I went home feeling completely defeated. That funk might have smothered me if Bob’s expectant vigil at the pantry door hadn’t reminded me it was past his feeding time.
I filled his bowl and placed it on the floor. I'd learned to jerk my hand away quickly, or he considered it part of his meal. Distracted tonight, I didn't move fast enough. But instead of gobbling my fingers like kibble, Bob hesitated before diving into his bowl and gave my hand a gentle lick.
So needy was I for encouragement, I nearly whimpered. I reduced the feeling to a lump I wedged in my throat, as I addressed my own dinner. I'd skipped lunch, and while I wasn't hungry, as a competitive athlete, I couldn't afford to indulge a bad mood like that. Still, neither could I manage anything harder than cereal. Cereal again? You'd think I'd learn.
I grabbed a box and bowl and banged them down on the table, and went to the refrigerator for milk. I stared at the carton in my hand, remembering how I'd focused on that during my mental preparation before the race. For the first time, I really saw that carton.
I gasped, and dropped it. Milk flooded the floor, yet all I could do was kneel in the pool and read the side of the carton. That dairy company always displayed pictures of missing children on their cartons. And April's was there! Two photographs, actually -- one as a toddler, the other a computer-aged picture depicting how she'd look now. Only the caption identified her as Sandy Collier.
According to the background description, a strange man had stolen Sandy from the yard of her parents' Oregon home when she was three, and she hadn't been seen since. Subtracting the date, I saw she was ten-years-old, not twelve.
No wonder my eyes connected with hers. I'd recognized her, unconsciously, from staring at the carton that morning. Could this be true?
“That's not April,” Joan’s mother had said.
Peter Miller told me they left the area when April was a toddler, and after floating around for years, had only just returned.
She wasn't their daughter! They stole a child and kept on the move. They only came home when they thought enough time had passed for the people in Oregon to have stopped looking, and the people here not to notice the change in the girl.
So where was April?
I raced through the Tecolate trails. Even the shovel that I bought at Home Depot, which banged against my leg, didn't slow me. I had to find what brought Joan Russell to this spot. Please, God, let me be wrong.
For the first time, I slipped past that shade of bushes. The truth was clear when I spotted the little bouquet of dandelions on the mound of dirt that time had almost flattened.
I leaned heavily on the shovel. I could let someone else take it from here. My friend, Lou Peña, a homicide detective with the San Diego PD, would set things in motion. But I'd taken it this far. How could I hand it over without being sure?
Twilight falls fast in winter, I was losing the light. But I couldn't leave until I knew. It wasn't necessary to dig down more than a foot or so. I found a section of fabric first, the pastel print from a baby's dress, its colors muted after all this time. And then, bone.
I staggered away, trying not to vomit in this place that was both sacred and obscene.
I sat there until the sky grew dark and the ground cold. Until I decided what to do.
I returned to April Russell's grave, and waited. I'd gone back to Russell's watering hole this morning and I'd given that waitress a note to pass to him. He would come -- I didn't know when -- but he wouldn't be able to resist. He knew what he did there.
It didn't take long. I heard him lumbering through the dried grass, wheezing and swearing. That instant, I returned the bunch of dandelions, which I'd moved when I started digging, back to the center of the grave. But I didn't fill in the hole. I wanted him to know I wasn't bluffing.
The clearing beyond the trees was larger than I originally anticipated, with at least fifteen yards from the grave to the edge of the cliff. I went back into the bushes, where I tied Bob earlier. I let him off his leash and paused to scratch his mane, while looking into those lonely wolf eyes that always kept me at a distance.
“You make your own rules, boy, but please listen to me this time. Do it for her.”
I didn't know whether he understood any of the commands I tried teaching him. But there seemed to be an intuitive level of understanding in this animal that shared my life. I had to hope.
The heavy footsteps grew closer. I rushed to the edge of the canyon, clutching my prop, my weapon.
Dag Russell came through tentatively, his eyes hooded, unsure of what he'd find. He looked at me with disbelief. His head turned quickly to the right and left. The bully's sneer only returned when he seemed confident I was alone.
“What happened, Dag? Did April cry too much, wet the bed? Did you just beat her too hard, or did you mean to kill her?” I asked.
“How...how did you know?” he stammered.
I held out a duplicate of the milk carton that told the story. “Did you think Sandy's parents would just forget? That they'd ever let it go?” Maybe he really couldn't comprehend what they felt.
I tipped the carton over, spilling the half-gallon of milk on the ground by my feet, just inches from the edge.
His expression became jovial, as he switched on what I'd bet passed for charm in him. “Come on, little lady, we can work this out. I always say there's nothing that can't be fixed.”
“That just proves you're stupid, Dag.”
He pulled a small, silver automatic from the pocket of his baggy jeans. “Yeah? Who's stupid now?”
A gun, what a cliché. I expected it to make an appearance. Maybe I even encouraged it to move the scenario along. Now that the weapon had appeared, however, its small, round barrel looked as big as a cannon. So did he, for that matter.
“Not so smart now, are ya, little girl?”
Did he have to keep stressing how much smaller I was? My muscles were honed for unusual endurance, but I wasn't a big woman. My heart began to thud erratically within my chest. I felt myself slipping back in time again, to when I trembled before a man-sized shadow that loomed menacingly against my bedroom wall.
Hold on, Zoey. You're all that kid has.
I steadied my breathing, the way I always did when I began to lose the rhythm to fatigue during races.
“You should know I'm not alone, Dag? Did you think I'd come unarmed?” Sounded strong, didn't feel it. I threw an arm out in vague gesture, hoping Bob saw it.
Russell looked over his shoulder. When no one appeared at eye level, his confidence seemed to mushroom.
“Nice try,” he said with a jeer.
Bob growled from deep in his belly.
Russell whirled around. Bob's as big as any full-blooded wolf, and many times meaner than those gentle creatures. Someone must have shown that pup the dark side of humanity. I hoped he recognized that quality again now.
The wolf stalked his prey. Slowly at first, then faster, faster. Russell stumbled blindly. He ran straight at me, not seeing anything at first. Then I watched his eyes narrow on the person he blamed for his predicament. As Bob pursued him, Russell directed his massive body at mine.
I could have run from his path; I was quicker than he was. But I’d been running from someone like him for too long. This time, I had to fight.
I knew what he saw when he looked at me: a woman so slight he could wrap one of his meaty paws around her lean arms. He did not see an athlete, honed to world-class status by years of dedicated training. Nor a person hardened by the effort of surviving someone so like him.
In his determination not to miss me, he stretched his arm to the side and spread his fingers. I took hold of a nearby branch, but only for balance. He hurled his body at mine, but his feet slipped in the milk-muddy ground. He went down. Yet still bent on revenge, he grasped my ankle. Panic flickered within me, but only for an instant. With one smooth motion, I flexed my knee like the well-oiled piece of equipment that it was. Then I stiffened my leg to steel, and flicked it back over the canyon wall with such speed, Russell couldn’t hang on. The momentum that tore his hand loose sent him sliding along that slippery ground, and propelled him over the side.
The echo of his screaming lingered in the air longer than the thud his body made when it the bottom.
Zoey Morgan wasn’t a victim anymore.
I finally placed those calls I kept putting off. Lou, my detective friend, sounded livid. He always did when I pursued things on my own, but never like this.
“Now you've gone too far, chica. How could you uncover a grave and not tell me?” he demanded.
“I figured you'd need a court order or something to pursue it. I didn't.” The truth, just not the whole truth.
The D.A. rattled an obstruction of justice saber at me. But his threats sounded empty. I sensed they didn't really mind receiving this case packaged as it was. They were still considering charges against Joan. But everyone knew the monster in the horror story lay dead on the rocks below, still clutching the gun with which he'd threatened me.
Child Services stepped in and acted quickly. I never had a chance to say good-bye. I knew I'd always look for the name Sandy Collier in juvenile race results, but I didn't expect to see it. Running had given me a way of leaving the demons in my dust when I was her age; most days, I still outran them. But while running set me free, it had framed her dungeon. We were still connected, in other, more important ways.
Weeks later, I sighed into the darkness and gave up on getting any sleep, as I seemed to do so many nights lately.
I went to the living room and lit a fire to chase the chill from the air. Staring into the flames, I knew I would still be watching them when the dying embers handled off the baton of light to the day beyond the now-darkened windows. After a while, Bob traced my path, his claws tapping against the hardwood floors, until he curled up next to me on the couch. Since that day at April's grave, we’d grown more comfortable with the patterns we shared.
How fitting that we spent these times together. I finally admitted to myself the cause of my insomnia: I was more like Bob than I knew. I never saw grays, either, just blacks and whites. I also declared myself judge and jury, and refused to consider appeals. Because of me, the sentence I believed Dag Russell deserved was swiftly imposed.
Wasn't that the real reason I never shared what I knew with the authorities? Hadn't I feared their justice would not be as exacting as mine?
But if it meant anything, I imposed a sentence on myself that day as well. However much alike we were, Bob and I differed in one respect. For while he snored peacefully before the fire, untouched by his choices -- I stared into the flames of my private hell, knowing I'd always carry the knowledge of what I did. I engineered that man's death, with premeditation and a mountain of malice aforethought. Even if Russell deserved it, that wasn't my right.
Yet I also knew that, despite how it made me feel now, I would do it all over again. In the heartbeat of a child.