The Golden Rule

I was raised by two strong women: my mom and my aunt.

Dad left home when Mom was thirty three, leaving her with four kids under the age of ten to raise by herself. My aunt was my mom’s moms sister and she moved in soon after. I was nine years old when she came to live with us. Mom always referred to aunt Mary as her best friend and I had no reason to believe otherwise. They were both dead by the time I met Sloan Hutchinson and I often wonder what they would have thought of how I handled the situation with him. I hope they wouldn’t have been too disappointed.

Mom and aunt Mary taught me and my younger brother and two younger sisters the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and it all started way back to my first memory – back when I was five years old.

Mom and Dad were fighting (again), this time in the living room, screaming and yelling while my little two year old brother and I were in the kitchen. We enjoyed playing together most of the time growing up and on this, my first memory, we were goofing around on the stairs leading down to basement. I was standing at the top watching while little Tim struggled to climb each step toward me. They weren’t carpeted and they were slippery, so climbing them for him was hard. Mom had put me in charge so I kept an eye on him as he made his way, slowly crawling one step at a time up to where I was waiting.

He’s doing pretty good, I remember thinking to myself, while in the background Mom and Dad’s angry voices faded away to something like high pitched white noise. I focused my attention and kept my eyes on my brother like Mom had asked. Tim was wearing a white, long sleeve pullover shirt with tan and red strips and brown corduroy’s. When he finally reached the top, I took a step back to give him room to stand up and when he did, a smiling and wobbly little kid who was obviously proud of himself, for some reason I had the idea to put my hand on his little chest and give him the tiniest bit of a nudge backwards, which is what I did. And he screamed loud, I remember that. In my memory it’s all in slow motion, but in fact it only took a couple of seconds as over he went, grasping at air and yelling for me to help him but I didn’t do anything. I just watched, curious more than anything else, to see what would happened.

Well, what happened was he bounced once then slid the rest of the way to the bottom, rolling over a few times before coming to rest on the hard tile of the basement floor. His screams out did Mom and Dad’s and they ran into the kitchen, Dad leading the way. Mom pushed by him and me and hurried down the steps to check on Tim. By the time she got to him his cries had turned to whimpers. He was frightened but otherwise fine, well, unhurt is a more apt description. She looked up at me just as Dad was taking his belt off with the intension of beating me and teaching me a painful lesson.

Mom yelled at him, “Stop it right there, Vern. I’ll take care of it.” I remember that distinctly.

Dad got mad all over again and said something angry back at her and then stomped off. Mom climbed the stairs with Tim on her hip. He was still whimpering, but starting to settle down. I think it was the first time I’d ever done something like that, maybe that’s why it sticks in my mind. That or what mom said to me.

She sat at the top of the stairs so she was facing down the stair well with her feet on the first step. She was holding my little brother in her lap. “Steve, come here and sit down here next to me,” she scrunched over and made room for me. I sat next to her. She wasn’t mad, but she wasn’t happy either. But I remember what she said very clearly. “Steve, I need you to be my big boy now. I need you to always look out for your brother and sister” (who was Linda, just a baby. Susie hadn’t been born yet), “And I always want you to remember this: do unto others like you would have them do to you.” She bent toward me so I was looking right into her eyes. They were sad. I knew I’d disappointed her. “It’s called the golden rule. Do you understand what it means?” To be honest, I didn’t. Mom must have seen the doubt in my eyes. She stood up and had me stand up next to her. Then she took me gently but firmly by the shoulders and said, “Next time you are going to do something mean to someone, pretend that you are in their place. So…” she moved me to the top of the stairs and stood behind me, “If you are standing here,” she positioned me, “And if I were to push you down the steps, you wouldn’t like that, would you?”

Well, no I wouldn’t. Definitely not. I shook my head. I was a little scared she might actually do it – push me, I mean. But, of course, she didn’t. She was my mom after all and I trusted her. (It was until much later in life that I realized I’d learned another valuable lesson back then and it had to do with trust.) But now I was only five and focused on this ‘doing to others’ thing Mom was talking about.

She turned me around, knelt down and gave me a hug, and then we sat down again. Tim had taken his moment of freedom from Mom’s arms to start crawling backwards down the steps, recovered already from his tumble and apparently in the mood to play some more. Mom and I watched him. I knew I had upset her and I turned to apologize. She had on a flowered dress with an yellow background that complemented her long, wavy, dark hair. She wore a thin gold chair around her neck with a tiny heart attached to it. For some reason her hands were shaking a little.

“I won’t do it again, Mom,” I finally said, and then thought to add, “I’m sorry I did it,” because I was.

“That’s good. Now tell Timmy you’re sorry, too.”

Which I did.

She looked at me with what I now believe was an expression of personal, inner sadness more than anything else. She was probably thinking about the future and what it might hold in store for me and my siblings. I think she knew she and Dad would eventually spit up and I also think she knew how hard it was going to be for me to do what she was asking me to do. But she’d made her point and that day I made a promise to myself that I would do my best to take care of my brother and sister (and eventually my other sister) as good as I could, and treat them like I wanted to be treated, just like Mom wanted me to do.

Now I can’t say I was perfect at following my Mom’s instructions but I tried, especially when I was young – her words were never far from my thoughts.

A kid in first grade is bullying me, pushing me around and being a jerk so what do I do? Fight back? Sure that’s one option, but…do unto others? Mom is in my mind looking at me, watching my every move, shaking her head, admonishing me. If I push back on the kid, I’m doing to the bully what I don’t want him to do to me. Fight. Now I’m sure everyone can remember what grade school was like, especially boys. Fighting and trying to prove who was stronger was a way of life. For me it was not only stressful but pointless. Plus the fact that I had been born in 1970 and years later I heard of Mom’s anti Vietnam War activities – that might have also had something to do with how she raised her children. So I was definitely brought up to be non-violent. And, getting back to the bully issue, I was small for my age anyway which meant if I fought I’d probably get killed, so…I learned to turn the other cheek – as much for self preservation as to appease my mom. And it usually worked. Nine times out of ten the bully eventually would get bored and walk away. The tenth time? Well, it’s best not to dwell on those few but painful memories because they soon passed, after the bruises healed anyway. So I grew up not being a fighter, at least not with my fists.

Aunt Mary was on the same wavelength as my mom.

“Steve, come here a minute will you?” I remember her saying once. We were down at the park a few blocks from our home in south Minneapolis, a single story cottage style with white, clapboard siding and red trimmed windows that to this day I still have pleasant memories of. I was probably eleven at the time. Tim was there and so was Linda and little baby Susie. Aunt Mary took care of us every day while Mom was at her job working as a receptionist for Bitney Bowes, the copy machine manufacturing company. “See those boys over there?” She pointed and I looked. Four older boys were picking on a kid a lot younger than them. A little black kid.

“Yes,” I told her.

“Do you think it’s right, what those boys are doing?”

Well, to be honest, right up until that very moment I hadn’t thought about it. I had been more concerned with seeing how high I could swing on the swing set.

I looked again. They were pushing the little kid down over and over again as he tried to stand up. They were bullies and what they were doing wasn’t right. Then I got it. It was time for another lesson. I watched for less than a minute, the little kid lying in the sand over by the merry-go-round while the other kids stood over him, taunting him. Well, god…No, it wasn’t right at all. I remember my blood start to boil a little, remembering the times I’d been in a similar situation – the little kid laying on the ground while a bigger kid stood over me, punching me and berating me for some stupid school boy offense. Their behavior actually started to piss me off. I wouldn’t want them to do that to me, so why would it be right to do it to the little black kid?

“No,” I answered. I felt like I should do something, but what? There were four of them and only one of me, plus I was still small for my age. I contemplated the question of what to do only to find myself coming up sadly lacking in the courage department, much to my disappointment. But there you had it. I really was a bit of a coward no matter how well intentioned my thoughts and feelings were. Coming up with the solution was one thing, implementing it was another and both were skills I had yet to learn. I looked with a little bit of longing back toward the swing set I had been so innocently playing on only a few minutes earlier.

Aunt Mary jabbed me in the side with her elbow, “Correct,” she said, like I’d just passed a quiz, “It’s not right at all.”

She stood up and headed over to them. I remember watching her walk toward the bullies, feeling proud of her on the one hand but frightened for her on the other. What was she going to do? Well, what she did was she chewed them out big time. They were startled at first, I could see that right away, and then they laughed a little at her but my aunt Mary was a large woman and could be fierce when she wanted to be and this was one of those times. She hovered over them, berating them and their actions until she finally got her point across. Finally the boys turned away and sauntered off, trying to maintain dignity all the while looking at her over their shoulders, giving her what I’m sure they thought were dirty looks, mouthing off about what they’d do to her in the future. Which concerned me, I have to say, but seemed to have no affect on aunt Mary. I remember she stared after them until they finally disappeared down the block. Then she turned and squatted next to the little boy. She gently picked him up off the sand and brushed him off, talking to him all the while and finally saying something to him that made him smile. She gave him a stick of the juicy fruit gum she always carried with her and she chatted with him for a few minutes, I’m sure just settling him down and letting him know he’d be Ok at least for a while. Then he scurried off in a direction opposite from where the boys had gone which I thought at the time was a really good idea. He stopped once and turn and waved at aunt Mary and she waved back. He seemed like a nice kid. Then he hurried on, turned a corner and disappeared from sight.

When she came back and sat down on the bench she took a pack of Herbert Taryton’s out of her purse and tapped out a cigarette and lit it saying, “There. That’s how it’s done, Steve. Always look out for those less fortunate than you and try to help them out.” She blew a thin stream of smoke and looked out over the park, watching. I had the feeling right then that this was what she did – kept on the lookout for people getting oppressed or taken advantage of and for the opportunity to teach others a lesson, me included.

I’m not going to get into the moral or philosophical implications about how I was raised. It was what it was, and I’m glad that Mom and Aunt Mary took the time to teach me values. Now-a-days people are not as willing to step in and right a wrong that they see happening, preferring instead to stay uninvolved and spend a lot of time justifying why they didn’t do what they should have done in the first place. My aunt certainly wasn’t that way. More than once she told me, “If we don’t step in to help, Steve, who will?” Well, I must say, the way she said it and how she handled those bullies has always stuck with me. Caulk it up to a lesson learned.

But, lessons being learned or not, in general, I was a skinny, shy kid who pretty much kept to himself, waiting for a growth spurt than never came. During grade school I didn’t get sucked into all the playground drama of clicks and who’s the most popular and all of that. I just concentrated on my school work which, of course, set me apart from most everyone else in school, but that was Ok. I was never going to be a leader anyway, preferring to be more of a behind the scenes kind of person, if I was in the scene at all. I had a few friends, mostly kids like me who preferred studying and learning to competing in sports and things like that. ( Although I did sometimes like to shoot baskets after school with Tim at the hoop Dad set up on the garage before he left home for good.)

And, I have to say, I really did like school. I liked learning things and the challenge of  figuring things out, especially in math and science. I was more of what they started back then to call a nerd, to tell you the truth, but that’s the way it went. I even wore those black rimmed glasses that are popular now. But back then I had to wear them because my eyes were so bad I needed thick lenses and those heavy, black frames were the best for them. The fact that I still wear them to this day only says something about my practicality more than any nod to style or trends or what have you.

In junior high and high school I got good at debate, feeling that using words was just as good as fists, even if I did sometimes make a person unhappy (or angry) when I beat them in a round like ‘Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished?’ I couldn’t help it if I was more persuasive than they were. (It should be, I argued – be abolished, that is.)

But I really was drawn to math and science, so I won’t argue the point- I really was a nerd. By the time I graduated from high school and went on the college, my course was set. I wanted to be an engineer and that’s what I became.

I got a job at Heartland Engineering, a small but growing tech company, as a software design specialist. I was hired right out of the School of Engineering at the University of Minnesota when I graduated in 1991 at the age of twenty one. Becky, my college sweetheart, and I got married right after I was hired and we settled into building a life together – me at my job at Heartland while Becky went to work for North Memorial Medical Center, eventually becoming head of administration for the Oncology Department. We bought a small one and a half story bungalow twenty miles west of Minneapolis, and ten miles from my work, in the small town of Long Lake and settled down to live the good life. Within ten years we’d had three children, all girls, and Becky decided to reduce her hours at North Memorial, took a pay cut, moved to a different department and went to working three days a week. Life was good.

Then Sloan Hutchinson took over as manager for my department and my life became a lot more complicated. He also challenged my ‘do unto others’ philosophy in a way it had never been challenged before.

My first meeting with him was fortuitous. “Stevie my boy, how’re they hanging?” his voice boomed out as he stepped into my cubicle. He startled me. I’d been reviewing a rather awkward set of software commands and was pretty focused. I probably jumped because he laughed, “Sorry about that, my man.”Then he looked at the screen of my computer. “Hard at work, I see. Good for you.”

I found out later he had no idea what I was working on. In fact he had no experience with anything my department was engaged in at all. He was hired from outside the company as our manager because the higher ups had tagged him as someone with potential and wanted him to get a feel for the engineering side of Heartland’s business.

I sat back and looked at him. He was closer to forty than my forty-six and was tall and tan with the muscular build of a weightlifter. His hair was curly and blond and he had a quick smile, bright blue eyes and shinning white teeth. He wore a dark blue dress shirt, white tie, black slacks and cordovan dress shoes with tassels. For some reason the term Lady Killer came into my mind and I glanced at his ring finger. No ring.

I was going to say something by way of greeting but his sudden presence unnerved me. He was a high energy, extroverted personality, just the opposite of my quiet, unassuming introverted nature. Think oil and water, as I came to view us as, and you’ll get the picture. I pushed my glasses up from where they’d slipped (still black frames) and tried to collect myself. I quite literally was speechless. Our last boss, Doug Douglas, was the nicest man I’d ever met. He had a quick mind, was a good engineer and got along well with everyone he worked with. At fifty-eight years old he surprised us all by suffering a fatal heart attack the past winter while cross country skiing with his wife up on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Sloan had been hired to replace him after a three month search. Rumor was he had the reputation as a people person. Apparently us engineers didn’t have the people skills necessary for the type of replacement they were looking for. Now that I think about it, they were probably right.

Rattled by his presence I kept quiet as Sloan spent more time than necessary looking at a framed photo I kept of Becky and my girls on top of my credenza. It gave me a bad feeling. Right off the bat I had the notion this guy was trouble.

He dragged his eyes away from the picture and strolled around my small cubicle, looking at a few other framed photos of my wife and girls, casual shots of them all at family gatherings or of the girls playing soccer. (Unlike their father, all three of my girls were pretty athletic.) “Nice family,” he finally said. Then he stopped and zeroed in on the photo next to my computer of my three girls(Kiera, Laura and Katie, aged nineteen, seventeen and thirteen respectively), taken last summer on our vacation at a rental cabin in northern Minnesota “Real nice,” he said again, staring.

I didn’t like the way he was ogling my daughters and almost said something, but didn’t. What do you say to someone who’s looking at photos in your office? Quit looking at what I have here on display? It didn’t seem right for me to say anything but, then again, he really didn’t have to stare. In my mind he’d overstepped that imaginary but oh so real boundary line of office decorum. Some things you just didn’t do. Staring at my wife and daughters was just plain impolite. If not rude.

He took a step to the window and spent a few moments looking outside. Or maybe he was just thinking about something. Honestly, I didn’t really know what he was doing, but the longer he was in my cubicle, the more he was making me nervous and uncomfortable. He had a strength of presence I didn’t have and probably never would. He was confident and sure of himself – way more so than me, and he seemed to take some kind of perverse pride in making me feel a tad belittled. I could feel my heart rate going up. I was ready for him to leave. Anytime.

Then something  caught the corner of his eye. He turned to the left, “Oh, my goodness. What an attractive woman, Steve. Your wife?” he picked up the picture of Becky I kept on my file cabinet. I had taken it few years earlier when we’d been in the Catskill Mountains doing some family history research. She was standing by Lake George with sunlight sparkling off the water and green trees on the far shoreline framing the background. The breeze had just ruffled her causally cut strawberry blond hair. She was wearing tan hiking shorts, hiking boots and a white tank top. We had taken a break in our research and gone for a stroll by the lake. She was relaxed, smiling and happy and looked beautiful to me. It was a favorite photo of mine.

I was getting tired of his antics.”I’ll take that,” I said, standing up and removing the picture from his fingers, fighting the urge to wipe the glass off. I set it down, positioned the frame correctly and looked straight at him. “Can I help you with anything?” I asked.

I’m pretty sure I sounded somewhat petulant, but I didn’t care. The guy rubbed me the wrong way. I stood so we were maybe a few feet apart, eyeball to eyeball. Well, sort of. That growth spurt everyone told me would happen, never did. He was a good four or five inches taller than me, and I have to admit I felt somewhat intimidated by his general overall presence, notwithstanding the fact that he was my new boss. But it was his attitude that bothered me the most. Something in his make up or his nature or what have you turned me off to the guy. I just didn’t like him, I knew that right away.

He took a few moments to look right back at me, like he was sizing me up. Then he seemed to decide something, “No, my man. I’m good. Just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Sloan. Sloan Hutchinson.”

He put out his hand for me to shake. I held back for a few moments before I did. “Steve Bettendorf,” I finally said. We shook and he squeezed, but not too hard, just, I suppose, hard enough for him to make a point as to who was boss.

He grinned at me, “Pleasure, Steve,” he said, then released my hand and stepped away, glancing at Becky’s photo once again, his grin fading to a smirk.

On his way out he took what seemed like an unnecessarily long time looking again at my photos before he left to go to the next cubicle. “Nice glasses, by the way,” was his parting shot.

Man alive…I left my cube and went the other way. Quickly. Down the hall, through a door into the common area, out another door and finally to the restroom where I spent more time than normal washing my hands.

Our department is made up of four software designers: me, Zahid Patel, Ceyonne Jacobson and Alyssia Smith. All of us excellent in our work. All of us trained and proficient in the use of CADD, computer aided design and drafting. All of us hardworking. And all of us committed to our jobs. I’d been with Heartland twenty five years, Ceyonne, twenty six and Zahid and Alyssia sixteen and twelve years respectively. We had longevity and had what was referred to at Heartland as “intellectual collateral,” meaning we had a depth of knowledge of our job that not many people had because we’d been with the company so long.

In short, we were good, reliable, employees, but we weren’t exactly the most extroverted people around. In fact, to be honest, I have to say we were all, like me, pretty introverted. We were quiet, kept to ourselves and got our work done. For us, our lives were all about the challenge of coming up with solutions to problems our customer might have. So I should be clear: we really weren’t the best at interacting with other people. Our new manager, however, was.

Sloan interfaced with upper management in issues regarding salary, goals and performance. He also took work direction from Susan Southerland, head of engineering for Heartland (which had now grown since I’d been hired into a rather formidable middle sized company.) It was she who determined what projects we were to work on and set the timeline for their completion. In short, she determined the work and my department did the work. Sloan? He just…well, he didn’t do much. At least not from an engineering standpoint. But what he did do, and a big part of what he was hired to do, was this: he interfaced (as they called it) with our customers.

He was a master at what I would call The Glad Hand. In the years since I’d been hired, Heartland had grown not only in size but also reputation, and we had many customers who used our system designs and software services. Sloan went on business trips all over the country, talking to old customers, making sure they were happy with what they had purchased  from us, and he also talked to potential new customers about what our services were and how we could help them.

So he was kind of a salesman. He traveled a lot and was gone from the office a lot, which was good for us because when he was in the office he liked to come into our cubicles and, as he called it, “Just chat.” Which took time away from us doing our work, but it was more than that. Sloan and us engineers just never hit it off. I think the fact that I was a nerd, Zahid was from Pakistan, and Ceyonne and Alyssia were black, sort of bothered him. Well, forget sort of. I’m sure it did, or we did, more to the point.

So I think what happened was this: because he didn’t understand the engineering work we did, even though we happily spent many hours trying to explain it to him, going so far as to design some basic self directed classes for him, he started to resent us. And he wasn’t nice about it either. He was underhanded. I think a lot of it had to do than the fact that he was a macho guy who liked to be in charge and liked to let you know he was in charge. Which, I’m sure, equated in his mind to the fact that he was better than us. But when it came to engineering and understanding engineering design principles, he didn’t know anything. We did, and I think it made him uncomfortable and he held it against us. So he fought back the only way he knew how. By intimidation. He had ways of putting us down and making us uncomfortable that were subtle yet insidious.

Me, he messed with my head with my family, asking about my wife and daughters making innuendos like, ‘I’m bet your oldest, what was her name again? Oh, yeah, Kiera, nice name by the way. I’ll bet Kiera has a lot of boyfriends, doesn’t she?  A real looker, she is.’ Stuff like that. A lot of it really, so much so that even trying to write about it makes me both uncomfortable and angry.

After Zahid was hired he became a friend of mine. Becky and I started having him and his wife, Ari, over for dinner at least once a month and they reciprocated. Since then we’ve made it a commitment to continue to get together, especially since Becky and I and Zahid and Ari also have a friendly cribbage tournament that has been going on for all of the sixteen years we’ve known each other. In short, we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.

Sloan made fun of Zahid’s accent. Again, subtly, with little comments like, ‘Say again’ or ‘I didn’t get that.’ But he did. And he didn’t need to because even though his parents were immigrants from Somalia, Zahid was born in Minnesota and spoke clear, perfect English, better than me. And even if he had a slight accent it wasn’t that bad. Maybe Sloan didn’t like that Zahid was Muslim. Probably. Never bothered me at all.

Cayonne was a single mother who was raising her daughter and son on her own, and in my mind, was our most creative and innovative design person. Sloan spent the most time with her, probably because she was pretty, but his comments to her about her looks were uncalled for and always made her uncomfortable. He even asked her out once, which you just don’t do.  Totally inappropriate.

Alyssia was happily married to her husband, John, who taught math at an inner city junior high school. They had no children but had Alyssia’s mother and father living with them. She helped her mother out with her father’s early onset dementia. Sloan liked talking to her, too, and she, like Cayonne, tried to get along with him, but she told me more than once that there was something off about him. ‘He does stuff liking sitting too close to me when he’s in my cubicle, even though I’ve asked him not to,’ she’s told me more than once.

Like I said, subtle (and not so subtle) things, but they were irritating. You may be asking yourself  how in this day and age Sloan got away with acting toward us the way he did and I don’t blame you. It’s a very good question and, unfortunately, the answer was simple: we were afraid to do anything about it. And it was a fear not so much of physical ramifications, like in the past when we were young and dealing with school yard bullies, but the kind of fear that comes from doing something you don’t normally do. Maybe discomfort is a better word. But whatever the case, the end result was the same – we did nothing.

Let me explain: sure we talked about it – a lot, actually, but when it came right down to doing anything about his poor and inappropriate behavior towards us, when push came to shove, we didn’t do anything. Or couldn’t would be more to the point. None of us were very “In your face” kind of people, more like your typical engineer prototype, to be accurate: shy, in the case of Alyssia; reticent, in the case of Zahid; and non-assertive, in the case of Cayonne and me. Confronting Sloan or taking our concerns to upper management was something we were not only unaccustomed to doing, we really didn’t have the people skills to do it to begin with. Give us a challenging equation to work on, or a series of software commands to write, or get a piece of equipment to do something that’s never been done before and we’re all over it – we put our heads together, talk about it, analyze it six ways until Sunday and bingo, we come up with a solution. Dealing with the kind of personal issues like what we were having with Sloan was out of our comfort zone. Way out.

In the end, the easy thing to do was to do nothing, so that’s what we did. We put up with Sloan and his behavior toward us and the weeks turned to months, while we turned the other cheek, kept our heads down and our opinions to ourselves, and focused on our work.

In the meantime, Sloan made a name for himself at Heartland. He brought in new customers, which increased income and profit. At the end of the year he got his picture on the cover of the corporate annual report and he became a much desired speaker at company functions. He even got Heartland to start a facebook page of which he was a major contributor. (Of course, he made each of us in our department join – part of his team building initiative.)

He was on the rise and I guess from upper management’s standpoint he was a model employee. He was highly valued, that was for sure, and was another reason we didn’t do anything about how he was treating us. Who would have listened anyway? Our four cubicles were at the end of a long hall on the third floor of five story building in an area that no one ever went to – about as far out of the way as you could get. But, then again, we reasoned (and, believe me, we continued to talk about him a lot), he really wasn’t hurting us either. It was a just winks and nudges and innuendos, nothing anyone in the company would ever do anything about, and the fact that it made us uncomfortable didn’t mean much in the greater company scheme of things. Especially not when Sloan was such a popular employee with upper management. But with us he was just a pain in the rear end that we had to learn to live with, and like good little engineers who always followed the rules and did what we were told, that’s exactly what we did.

But then he started to push things with us a little too far. We could take the subtle stuff just fine, in fact we’d learned to live with it. Our mantra became, “Let’s keep our heads down and our opinions about him to ourselves,” and that’s what we did. But then he did something that didn’t affect just us – it affected our families. He started not giving us raises and that’s when things began to turn in a direction none of us expected. It took a while to get there, though.

The way it went was this: we had performance reviews every year. We sat down with Sloan and mapped out our goals and expectations for the upcoming year and reviewed our previous year’s performance. Based on how successfully we met our previous year’s goals, we were assigned a grade of “poor,” or “competent,” or “exceptional,” which translated to how much of a percentage of a salary increase we would receive. He started giving us all competent ratings even though we had met all of our objectives and exceeded them. (In every case for all four of us, I might add.) Based on exceeding our objectives we should have been rated exceptional. Instead we were rated competent, Sloan’s reasoning being, ‘Well you did the work. Competent is what you get.’ But, for example in my case, when I pointed out to him that I had performed above the job requirements and that meant my rating should have been exceptional, Sloan just grinned and said, ‘Not in my book it doesn’t.’

Let me tell you this: it sucked. Big time. And he did that in one way shape or form to all of us, and for someone like Ceyonne, a single mother, or Alyssia, taking care of both her mother and father, and Zahid, raising a family like me, just the tiniest bit of extra money helps and he was denying us even that small amount.

Some employers like to say that having a job and a steady paycheck is reward enough. Maybe in their world, but not in their employees world. The paycheck pays the bills and puts food on the table, not to mention keeping up with the increasing cost of inflation. What he was doing to us wasn’t fair, the ratings he was giving us were unjust, and we felt we were getting stiffed. So we talked about it some more (a lot, of course) and came up with this unbelievably generous solution – we said to ourselves that maybe the first time it happened was an anomaly. Maybe it was nothing to get upset about. Let’s just hold off on doing anything. So we did.

In looking back, I have to say that our solution was part of the problem. By deciding not to do anything, it sent the message to Sloan that we were nothing more than passive pushovers. And the sad fact was that we were. He could do anything he wanted to us. Which he did. And, unbelievably, we put up with it.

So we went back and did our job like good little engineers for the next year. A whole entire year! Looking back, I think we were nuts to have waited that long, but we did. The word gullible (or stupid, or idiotic, or nuts or…) comes to my mind – to think that things (or even Sloan) might change shows how blind and naive we really were. But that’s what we were and that’s what we did. We put up with his crap for a whole entire year and guess what? You probably already know the answer and you’d be correct. Next year, performance review time came along and surprise, surprise, it happened again. We all got competent ratings, even though our work exceeded expectations. Again. And, again, just like last year, Sloan wouldn’t listen to any of our arguments or reasoning, only saying in one way shape or form to all of us, “Too bad, that’s just the way I see it.”

We were now into the beginning of our third year working for the guy and we were all mad, I can tell you that. Finally! But still, none of us said anything. And why was that you might ask? Another good question and here’s the answer. We couldn’t. We simply didn’t know how. We didn’t have any experience challenging authority so we were ill equipped to stand up for ourselves. Here’s what we were: we were nerds. We were introverts and, by definition, certainly not the most confrontational people in the world. And the most important reason for our inaction I’m almost ashamed to say but I will, because with all the intellectualizing we’d done, and all the talking amongst ourselves we’d done, it all came down to this: we really didn’t have the courage. And we knew it then, after that second performance review, and it was humbling to admit, that was for sure. But it was the truth and, as they say, the truth sometimes hurts. And it did. Bad. Not only were we being treated poorly, we weren’t doing anything about it. We felt like complete and utter fools.

And that’s when I started thinking about what my mom had said to me when I’d pushed Tim down the stairs. And what I’d learned when that bully in first grade eventually got tired of beating me up and just walked away. And how Aunt Mary handled those bullies in the park. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But, sorry Mom and aunt Mary, this was different. We had done the best we could. We had done our job and taken all the crap Sloan had dished out. We’d turned the other cheek and it had gotten us nowhere. In fact, it had begun to affect our families and our home life. And if we could, on one hand, let how he treated us personally slide right by, now it was beyond us. We worked to have a job and make a living. Sloan was affecting the making the living part of that equation and it was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, so to speak. So yeah, we were mad. But this time we weren’t going to roll over and play dead. This time we decided to do something about it. This time we came out swinging like the geeky engineers we were. We used our brains.

It was a few months after our second salary debacle when Sloan stuck his head in my cubicle, glanced like he always did at the photo of my daughters (which did what it always did- started my blood boiling) and told me to get myself ready for a flight to Atlanta at noon the next day. Well, ordered me to go, is more appropriate.

“Stevie, my boy, let’s you and me take a little road trip. Those bastards at Hankinson need some handholding.” My anxiety level shot up and with it my heart rate, too. This was going to be our chance. I was nervous on the one hand, but on the other I had no choice. I told him I’d be ready.

When he left, I called Becky and told her I’d be going out of town, then I got together with Zahid, Ceyonne and Allysia and we had a long talk. When we were done, I felt I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

Hankinson International specialized in the manufacture of specialized heat resistant silicone “O” rings and other components used in hundreds of everyday products most people don’t pay any attention to (from motors for washing machines and dryers to solid state control switches in automobiles.) What they make requires precise engineering that conforms to exact specifications. We did the software design and then helped them test the software to ensure it corresponded to the design tolerances required of their products. They had been good customers of Heartland’s for years, long before Sloan was hired. He had been trying to get them invest in a new idea of his to streamline one of their processes. It would be a huge new job for us, but would also result in the layoff of up twenty five of their employees – all of them workers on one of their robotics lines. If Sloan got them to change he’d be a hero to Hankinson but not to the people who lost their jobs. Zahid, Ceyonne, Alyssia and I had been tasked with working on a mock-up of the proposed system he envisioned and he wanted to met with their three member executive team plus one of their engineers to explain his concept. He wanted me to go along to outline the software and address any technical issues.

“I’ll do the presentation,” he told me with his customary condescension, “You just answer their questions.”

Late that night I was laying in bed, tossing and turning. Becky reached over and put her hand on my shoulder, trying to calm me down.

“Steve, what’s the matter?”

I rolled onto my back and said, “It’s that damn Sloan. You know I can’t stand the guy. Being with him all day tomorrow, tomorrow night and the next day is literally making me sick to my stomach.”

“Can’t you do anything?”

“No. I’m stuck. He wants me with him and besides, Zahid and the others don’t want to go even worse than me. I’ll do it, I’m just not looking forward to it.” I’m sure she could hear me grinding my teeth.

“So then I guess you have no choice.” Which, of course was right, but it still bothered me. She rolled to me and I put my arm around her. She put her head on my shoulder.

Her breathing helped settle me and we lay quietly for a few minutes. I almost told her the plan we’d come up with at work right then and there but I still wasn’t sure I could pull it off. And if I told her and then lost my courage and didn’t do anything, then I’d really seem like…well, I wouldn’t seem like much, I was sure of that.

Instead I told her something else that was on my mind, “The thing is, Bec, I’m tired of always giving in to him. The things he says about you and the girls and what he says about Zahid and Ceyonne and Alyssia…” I stopped and tried to get my thoughts in order, “I don’t want to sound like I’m a whiner, but I’m just sick of always being taken advantage of. Remember our old boss? When Doug Douglas was there, he just left us alone to do our work. It was a perfect situation. We knew our jobs, and got the work done like we were supposed to. We didn’t even need a manager. But Heartland has it’s ways of doing things…” I paused and let my thoughts drift off again, imagining a workplace without Sloan in it and liking the picture in my mind very much. But who was I kidding? It was all just an idle fantasy. A waste of time.

I rubbed Becky’s shoulder, “But you’re right. I guess that’s the way it has to be.”

She patted my chest and asked, “And you’re comfortable with that?”

“Well, no, obviously. That’s why I’m upset, especially now that I have to spend time with him.”
I sighed. I couldn’t believe how undone I was. Talking with Becky was helping though. I had a thought and asked, “Do you think I’m too much of a wuss? You know, weak.”

Becky laughed, “A wuss. No, not at all. You’re just a nice guy who has come up against a guy you don’t get along with.”

“It’s bigger than that, Bec. I feel like I’ve given in to people like Sloan all my life. I’m getting tired of it.”

“Didn’t you tell me your mom and aunt always taught you the golden rule, do unto others and all of that?”

“True,” I told her, “Though, sometimes I wonder, especially with that jerk Sloan – I feel like he’s screwing us over, taking advantage of me, and us, the department – sometimes I wonder, is what I was taught always the best way?”

“Like now?”

“Yeah,” I told her and went back to holding her, “Like now.”

The next morning we met at the airport for the flight to Atlanta. Sloan made sure he got booked into first class while I, of course, was ensconced in coach right over the wing. I’ll never forget the smarmy look he gave me as I walked down the aisle past him to my seat. ‘Have a super flight, Stevie,’ is what he told me, grinning. Par for the course and just one more jerk thing for him to do to prove himself in a never-ending list that seemed to stretch on to forever (not to be too metaphysical about it, but there you have it). In the big picture it was a little thing, but those little things kept mounting up. I really had had it with the guy.

That night in Atlanta the shit hit the fan.

We were booked into The Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree Boulevard in downtown Atlanta where we were to meet the Hankinson International executive team for dinner that night followed by Sloan’s presentation. He had hired a limousine to take us to the hotel from the airport. We got in around four in the afternoon and after we checked in, Sloan went to the workout facility while I checked out the conference room and made sure our laptops were synced to the big screen monitor. When I was comfortable with the set up, I went for a walk outside to clear my brain. It didn’t help. I kept going over and over in my mind the past two-plus years under Sloan’s management and how poorly he had treated us and how now he was screwing us over with our salaries – really working myself up.

Let me tell you, I found out the hard way that late afternoon in the summertime is not the best time of day to wander around outside in downtown Atlanta. By the time I got back to my room I was drenched in sweat. I took a shower hoping it would cool me off and calm me down. It did neither. I nervously paced in my room until 6:00 when it was time to met Sloan and the others at the Cherry Creek Restaurant on fifteenth and top floor of the hotel.

I stepped off the elevator and was immediately blown away by the view. The restaurant had floor to ceiling windows all the way around, with magnificent views of downtown Atlanta and beyond to the tree lined suburbs surrounding the city. The sun in the west washed the sky with hot sunlight that reflected off many of the city’s skyscrapers, making them glow and shimmer in the heat. It was remarkably stunning and it almost made me forget my nervousness. Almost, but not quite.

“Super duper view, eh, Stevie?” Sloan asked, coming up from behind, startling me and slapping me on the back. “I love this place.”

I turned to him and straightened my glasses. He was wearing a crisp, white shirt and beautifully pressed dark blue suit, accented by a gold and silver, diagonally stripped tie. He looked like he was a high ranking executive, something I’m sure he aspired to. Me, I was dressed like he told me to dress, business casual, with a comfortable, green plaid shirt, tan cotton trousers and an old but still useful tan, corduroy sports jacket. I immediately felt out of place when Sloan glanced at me and said, ”Nice shirt.” It occurred to me that he had set me up to look like an idiot.  And he’d been successful, because just then the elevator door opened and Sloan turned and greeted the three executives from Hankinson International like old friends. All in nice suits.

“Hi there, men,” he said, moving to shake their hands. I stood off to the side watching as three middle aged men dressed like Sloan stepped forward to greet him, then me. There were now four guys in slick corporate dress and one person who looked like a junior college professor of mathematics. Geez. Wonder who the geek is?

“Let go get some dinner, men,” Sloan said, moving them through the dining room toward the windows where a table had been reserved for us. When the executives were out of range, Sloan bent and whispered to me, “Just eat and don’t say anything. This is my show.”

I dutifully followed along, wondering why I kept putting up with him.

Despite the view from the windows and despite the excellent food and service, I doubt I’ll ever be back to that restaurant and the first four star hotel I’d ever been to in my life. Have you ever had to sit through a meal with people you didn’t like? Well, probably you have, and I guess, now that I think of it so have I, but this was pure agony. The Hankinson executives were high ranking men who I swear only liked to hear themselves talk, so that’s what they did. Not about business, either, but about cars they owned , vacations they took, all manner of sports and this team or that team, and on and on and on – especially after a few drinks. I personally know people in high level positions in companies who are friendly, gracious and good conservationists. These men appeared to have none of those traits and, of course, they got along well with Sloan. He was right on their wavelength. I even found out my manager owned a thirty foot sailboat he kept up on Lake Superior. ‘Cost as much as one of my people makes in a year,’ he boasted at one point, looking toward me and laughing, making me the butt of his joke. What a jackass.

The only lady present was Sally Vickers, who showed up just in time to order dinner, having been caught at the office working on some project related issue. She was an assistant head of engineering and was filling in for her boss who was sick or something. After introductions she sat down and didn’t say much. How could she with all the executives talking non-stop about life, liberty and the pursuit of material possessions? I got the feeling she must have been as turned off by the behavior of the men as me because, like me, she hardly ate a thing.

After dinner we adjourned and took the elevator down to the second floor to the conference room that I’d set up earlier.

We got everyone settled around a rectangular table with Sloan and I at one end. As I said before, the thrust of his talk was about how the new operations design would save the company money because of the numerous employees it would allow them to lay off. Sloan slid the CD into his lap top and began his presentation. I should mention that our team often helped Sloan put together these kinds of talks. It was part of our job to help make sure any message he was delivering was accurate and this time it was no different. His presentation lasted ten minutes – not too long, not too short. Alyssia had helped him fine tune the graphics so that the message got across – the four people from HI were presented with the details accurately and succinctly and, as I watched, at least didn’t seem bored.

“In summary,” Sloan said, with a big smile and those sparkling white teeth of his gleaming, “You should realize a savings of…” and he interjected a rather impressive figure and then was quiet. He dramatically sat down, letting the room absorb what he had proposed.

Then came the questions. Rapid fire. I will say this: there was interest. With an audience of four and if they all had ten questions you can do the math. We were there for nearly an hour. I stood up and answered them, while Sloan sat back smiling and looked smug, like he was sure he’d won the day – another feather in his cap for Heartland and, more importantly, his future.

Finally the questions died down. I had addressed all of their software issues, laid out what hardware would be required and how we would provide training to their staff on how to implement the new design. I was about ready to sit down when Sally Vickers raised her hand. She had been quiet for most of the time, making a few notes in her notebook. But she had also asked a few rather pointed but probing questions and of all of them present, I knew she understood the presentation the most thoroughly; and the implications too, I might add.

“I have only one more question, Steve,” she said. I looked at Sloan, thinking she was going to ask about costs again. But she didn’t. She looked at me and asked, “So we lay off some of our people? Is that right?”

The way she said it, and the expression on her face, I got the feeling she was worried about doing that to their employees. I thought about my next move for just a moment or two and then made my decision. In looking back on my actions that night, I’m surprised it took me that long to decide.

“That’s one aspect of what the new software and system will allow you to do,” I told her. I looked at Sloan, who was smirking and nodding his head. Yes, that’s right Stevie my boy, just keep doing what I told you to do. Make me look good. I could see him thinking what a trained puppet I was. He’d pull the strings and I’d do whatever he wanted. I was too weak to do anything else.

I saw my mom and my aunt Mary looking at me, watching me, knowing what they’d taught me: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. I should still try to work with Sloan and not do anything to make him mad. Treat him the way I’d want to be treated. Isn’t that the right way to do things?

Yes, I know that’s what I’d been taught to do, and that’s how I had tried to live my entire life. I should just sit down and let the presentation be over. But after all this time trying to do the right thing and trying to be patient and waiting for Sloan to change and treat me and the rest of my team with respect and still getting nowhere, I was finally sick of him. And fed up with him, too. There was a different way to proceed, one Sloan hadn’t thought of, but one me and Zahid and Cayonne and Alyissa had come up.

So, I’m sorry, Mom and Aunt Mary. Not this time.

“But it’s not necessarily the only thing you can do with it,” I said. “There’s another way to save money without laying off your people.” I looked right at Sally. ”Not if you don’t want to, that is.”

Sally was nodding her head, yes, right along with me. I could tell I had her curiosity, so I took a deep breath, let it out, and kept my focus on her, all the while building up my courage. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. The safest thing to do was to turn around do what I’d always done. Walk away and take the easy way out. But in my mind I saw Becky, my children, Zahid, Ceyonne and Allysia, my mom and aunt Mary. They were all waiting for me to decide. And I did. I did something I’d never done before. I made the leap.

“Let me explain,” I said.

I made sure not to look at Sloan. I took his CD from the laptop, reached into my briefcase for my own CD and popped it and got it running, ignoring Sloan’s protestations. In fact, I’m sure one of the executives said something like, ‘What’s the problem, Sloan? We’re all here anyway. let’s see what he’s got.’ Suddenly the HI people were sober and focused and interested.

So I straightened my glasses, looked at out at group in front of me and showed the Hankinson people what me and Zahid and Ceyonne and Alyssia had come with. And they loved it.

Sloan did not, but that was all right with me. I didn’t care anymore. I’d had it with him.

Now I won’t bore you with the details of our solution, but I will tell you this: I think I had them right off the bat. I had prepared handouts of the slides of my presentation and I handed them out for them all to look at. Sally, an engineer and a non-executive, was very interested and asked the most questions. At one point, Kyle Johnson, VP of Operations looked at Sally and asked her what she thought and she told him, “It looks like Mr. Bettendorf has come up with a viable solution.” Spoken like a true geeky engineer and I loved it.

Kyle Johnson then looked at Sloan and asked, “Why didn’t you talk to us about any of this?”

For once in his life, Sloan had nothing to say.

By the time the meeting adjourned, the Hankinson team had decided to review both proposals. “Today’s Wednesday. We’ll get back to you by Friday at the latest,” Kyle Johnson told Sloan.  Suddenly he was all business and in charge. Then he looked at me and shook my hand, “Nice work, Steve.” Maybe they weren’t such bad guys after all.

We watched as the HI people left the room. My nervousness began to return, but I pushed it back. I glanced at Sloan. I had a feeling I knew what was in store for me, but I really was beyond caring by this point. I actually felt pretty good. I had done something I’d never done before – I had taken a chance and done what I thought was the right thing to do.

But Sloan didn’t see it that way. He came at me with a vengeance, face contorted and spittle flying. I thought for sure he was going to smack me around so I braced myself for his blows. But he didn’t. Instead, he got in my face and rammed his finger into my chest and said, “Wait until we get back to the office, Stevie boy, your ass is grass.” Then he stormed out of the conference room, leaving me to clean up. (I heard later that he’d gotten drunk and belligerent in the bar that night.)

I was glad to spend the next half hour by myself because it gave me some time to think. A lot had gone down that evening. At dinner I had felt way out of my element to put it mildly,  because frankly, I was. But once we got to the conference room that feeling slowly evaporated. Sure, I was still with people who thought they were better than me, but I have to say that the longer I was with them, the more comfortable I became, especially once I took over and explained the solution me and Zahid and Cayonne and Alyssia had come up with. I lost my fear and just talked and met them all on common ground – what was best for their company. It felt good. I felt like I had grown a little – like I wasn’t Sloan’s whipping boy as I had been on so many other occasions in the past. This time I had turned the other cheek and had done what was best for our customer, not Sloan, and that’s what I had been raised to do. Because in the long run, it wasn’t about Sloan at all, it was doing what was best for others, the good people on the robotics line at Hankinson who would have been laid off. Now, hopefully, they wouldn’t be.

But, to be frank, what I had done was to clearly overstep corporate cultural boundaries and I knew that. I should never had gone over Sloan’s authority and done something like I did behind his back. Companies have a very strict protocol and I didn’t follow the rules. What did I expect would happen? To be honest, when my team and I worked out our solution – the one at odds with what we’d developed at Sloan’s request, we didn’t think beyond just the thrill of the intellectual challenge of doing it – of coming up with something different than what Sloan had requested. So we’d given Sloan what he wanted – Heartland’s take on improving Hankinson’s business. But, as a team, we were mad at how Sloan had been treating us, and after over two years and two rather tepid performance reviews we had finally had enough. Zahid and Cayonne and Alyssia and I had just taken it a step further. And we not only came up with a better solution for Hankinson, we’d also gotten even with Sloan. It felt good.

But, of course, it wasn’t over yet.

The first thing Sloan did the next morning  before we left the hotel was to call Susan Sutherland, the head of engineering for Heartland and Sloan’s immediate boss, and tell her what had happened. The only thing he told me on the limo ride to the airport was, “She wants to meet with both of us tomorrow morning. 8:00 am. Her office.” He looked at me with a sneer. “I’m taking you down, Stevie boy, you and the rest of your pansy team, too, if I have anything to say about it. When I’m done with you they’ll fire you all and get people to replace you just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “Better people. Lots better. You engineers are a dime a dozen.”

Well…nice to be thought so highly of.

The rest of the ride was uncomfortably quiet, with Sloan doing his best to ignore me, fiddling around with his iPhone while I just looked out the window wondering what was in store for me. The picture of Susan Sutherland berating me in front of Sloan in a myriad of ways and shapes and forms was hard to erase. By the time the plane landed in Minneapolis I had lost what little confidence I’d had. I was a nervous wreck.

That night when I got home, Becky and I had a long talk. After I filled her in on what I had done, she was quiet for a moment. We were sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea. She took a sip before saying,

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“I have no idea. Sloan is pissed, though, and thinks he can get us fired. Me for sure. I can tell you that for a fact.”

“Really? It’s that bad?”

I looked at her. Becky and I had been together for over half of our lives. We were as close as I could ever expect to be with someone. She was my best friend. “I’m afraid there’s a strong possibility , Bec. It all depends on and what Sutherland has to say.”

Becky reached across the table and took my hand, “We’ll just make the best of it then. ”

“I should have thought this out a little better,” I told her.

“Maybe that’s been the problem,” She was quiet for a moment, collecting her thoughts, “Maybe you spend too much time thinking things through…” She held her hand up to silence me before continuing, “Sometimes you should do what you think is best. This might have been one of those times.”

It turns out she was right.

At our meeting the next morning Susan Southerland surprised both of us by reading Sloan, not me, the riot act. The long and the short of it was she took him down a few notches for not being more in touch with his department, at one point saying, “If you took the time to learn what these people are doing…” she looked toward me, “Then you’d be able to talk to our customers more knowledgeably.”

It didn’t get any better for Sloan after that.

When she was done reprimanding him, she asked him to leave. And for Sloan, in the scheme of things office politics-wise, being the first one excused from a meeting like this was not a good thing. He walked out her office trying, I thought, to look proud and confident, but in my opinion not really succeeding.

With him gone it was now my turn. Well, I was ready. Talking to Becky had helped me to see that I’d done what I felt was right and now I was willing to take the consequences – whatever they might be. Susan turned to me. I took a deep breath and let it out, ready as I’d ever be for what came next.

I wasn’t let off Scot-free. What I had done was insubordination, pure and simple and I knew that. And Susan didn’t want to hear any of my drama about being a nerd my whole life and being picked on and how I had learned to turn the other cheek at a young age, the end result being that some people ( like Sloan) basically ended up doing whatever they wanted to me. So I didn’t defend my actions. I just took it, like always. But this time the outcome was different.

She made it perfectly clear what I had done wrong, making it a point to hand me a sheet of paper in the form of a memo that listed my transgressions saying that it was going to be filed into my personnel folder. I nodded my head, letting her know I expected as much. Inside, my nerves were shot and my emotions were frayed. This wasn’t going well at all. The next step would be my punishment. Would I be demoted? Fired? What?

When she was finished she sat back and looked at me like she was thinking of what to say next – how to phrase it. For my part, I fumbled with the memo in my hands and all most dropped it. Here it comes, I thought to myself, Get ready to goodbye to your job. Then she sat forward, folded her hands on her desk and very seriously said, “Kyle Johnson from Hankinson called me yesterday and we had an interesting conversation. The gist of it was they liked your solution better than what Sloan presented. They want to proceed ahead to the next phase and I want you and your team to lead it.”

I was speechless and it took a few seconds for the news to sink in. Susan was a little older than me and was as sober and undemonstrative a person as I’d ever met in my life. But she was also a fantastic manager and had been in her position for the last ten years. The point I’m trying to make is that I’m positive she wasn’t joking with me. Getting our solution accepted and having the chance to work on it was the last thing I expected and I think my heart started racing faster than was good for it. I tried to calm down but couldn’t. I looked at Susan and she was looking at me with a smile on her face. I knew I needed to say something so I finally said the only thing I could think of, “Say again?”

And she explained her plan.

Fast forward four months later. Me and Zahid and Cayonne and Alyssia are preparing for a trip to Atlanta, this time all of us involved in the presentation for the next phase of what internally we called Project O Ring, our plan to improve productivity on Hankinson’s manufacturing line thus saving them money without cutting employees. We’re working directly with Sally Vickers and, as a team, we are functioning as smoothly as can be expected. Better even. We are moving ahead with our plans for software development and a new, innovative system design and in less than a year’s time we estimate their new process will be up and running. Everyone is happy, especially Kyle Johnson who is overseeing the project and has become quite a vocal advocate for what we were doing.

“We couldn’t do this without you guys,” he has told me and Zahid and Cayonne and Alyissa on more than one occasion. We have weekly teleconferences to keep everyone up to speed and on the same page. “You guys are awesome,” he’ll often add.

Well, well, well…We aren’t used to compliments and it has taken us a while to get used to his praise. I’m not sure if we ever will, but it’s definitely a better situation than what we’d been in with Sloan.

And, speaking of which, a new position was created for Sloan. He’s been involved in starting up his own department, one focused strictly on sales, not on engineering. It’s a perfect fit for him. He still reports to Susan Southerland and, as I hear through the office grapevine, he’s a little better when it comes to the people skills he was supposedly so competent at. I guess he goes to diversity training classes and things like that and Susan keeps a tight rein on him, not letting him get away with much of anything. Well, probably nothing, now that I think about it.

Our little team has become the prototype of a new department within Heartland. We are involved in what I can only call an experiment. Susan wants us to report directly to her, and not be under a specific manager.

“I want you to self govern yourselves,” was how she put it to the four of us the first time she us down to explain her idea, “I’ll set your goals, do the performance reviews, give work direction and all of that, but I want you to manage yourselves, get the work done, and I want you, Steve, to be the person to talk with the customers.”

So that’s what we do. And even though I’ve been asked to step out of my comfort zone and interact more with people, I’ve challenged myself to do it and I have to say it’s working out pretty well. Plus, she has given us all nice raises. Not bad.

Every now and then I think back to my mom and aunt Mary and what they taught me – this idea of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. Does it still have a place in our society? In our world?

Once, when I was in high school, I was curious and I looked up the etymology of the Golden Rule. The phase or a variation of the phrase can be traced back to Egyptian times, over a thousand years B.C. It’s usually mentioned with regard to religious texts from Christianity, to Islam to Judaism, Hindu and on down the line. The part of what I learned from my research back then that stuck with me was this: the golden rule was always considered to be a moral commitment to the well being of someone else without the expectation of anything in return. (I know it said that because I’ve kept it in a notebook of mine from back then.) I reviewed it again recently, and was surprised at how much sense it still made to me, and how relevant it still is today.

I’m glad we did what we did. We took a risk, each and every one of us on our team and we had a good outcome. I’ve never told anyone this before (except Becky) because I thought it sounded a little New Agey but here goes: We went off on our own and came up with an alternative solution for Hankinson because we wanted to stand up for the employees that would have been laid off. That was the main reason we did it – not to hurt Sloan, or to get back at him but, of course, that certainly was a fringe benefit. The key, and I think that’s why we were passionate about the solution we came up with, was that we were actually doing something for the workers at Hankinson first and foremost, because, really, they were kind of like us, the ones behind the scenes that no one ever noticed but who got the work done and kept things going.

Which all sounds well and good and benevolent and all of that, but honestly, given a different circumstance and a boss other than Susan Southerland, we could just as easily been fired. Well, me anyway. And Hankinson’s employees would have suffered and been laid off.

But it didn’t happen that way, so maybe we were lucky. Or maybe not. Maybe doing the right thing and making sure those employees at HI weren’t laid off really was the best thing to do. For everyone. I guess we’ll never know. But what I do know is this: given the chance to do it again, I will. Whether it’s a bully with his fists, or one who’s selfishly  looking out for himself and doesn’t care how his actions hurt others, there is really no difference. Both are wrong. And even though doing the right thing sometimes takes courage, you’re better off in the long run doing it. Just like I was taught so many years ago, and maybe forgot about, or at least got away from, but not anymore. I’m back at it because you’ve got to start sometime and there’s no time like the present to do it. It’s never too late. Even for a quiet, unassuming nerd like me.

 

Advertisements

Why I Don’t Run Away Anymore

I ran away from home twice.

The first time I was five years old. It was right after my sister was born and I guess I was feeling sorry for myself what with the attention my parents were paying to her and all. I remember I put some plastic dinosaurs in my pocket, tied a cape around my neck (a raggedy old towel, actually) like superman, my favorite superhero, put on my Minnesota Twins baseball hat and left home. My jerk older brother just laughed at me. I got two blocks away before Mrs. Nelson, a kindly kindergarten teacher out working in her garden saw me, figured something wasn’t quite right and brought me home. I don’t believe I could sit down comfortably for a week after the spanking my father gave me.

The second time, seven years later, I should have known better.

“God damn it, you big bully,” I yelled at Sean. He grabbed me in another head-lock and ground his knuckles over my skull, giving me a knuckle rub, just one more torture in his bag of tortures he was forever dishing out on me, his unfortunate little brother. Then he threw me to the ground, punched me in the back, rubbed my face in the dirt and walked away, laughing. It was just another normal day.

Older than me by three years, Sean outweighed me by fifty pounds, was almost a foot taller and was becoming the horror, the absolute terror of my existence – something  I certainly didn’t need. Mom had left home with her boy friend the year before, never to be heard of again, leaving me and Sean and my younger sister, Lea, under the care of my poor excuse of a father and his girl friend Sally who my dad, I kid you not, always called Sexy Sal. Geez.

Now when I say that the two adults responsible for taking care of me and Sean and Lea left something to be desired in the parenting department, that would be putting it mildly. Dad worked for some kind of auto parts store and drove a delivery truck between our home in the little town of Long Lake, located twenty miles west of Minneapolis and St. Cloud, seventy miles to the north. Sexy Sal worked at cut rate (no pun intended) hair salon in Brooklyn Center, about thirty miles away. I think it was called the ‘Cut n’ Go’ so you could probably imagine what it was like.

Sexy Sal wore her bleach blond hair in a bee-hive style like it was the year 1965, smoked Kool cigarettes and liked to drink any kind of beer that was available. Dad wasn’t much better, but without the hair. He was a large man – a camel straight smoker with a big beer belly who shaved his head when he started going bald ten years earlier and had grown his beard out so he looked like an outlaw biker. Maybe that was his fantasy. Who knows? All I can tell you is that he didn’t own a motorcycle. I knew that for a fact. Being an outlaw? Well, not that I knew of but you’d have to ask him if you really wanted to know.

I’m telling you all of this to let you know they were gone from home a lot. leaving us to supervise ourselves and let me tell you, the end result wasn’t pretty. Especially that summer. I guess Sean at fifteen was supposed to be in charge but he was a mean little kid when he was young and the older he got, the meaner he got. My belief, from the time I could think at all, was that he was born mean and nothing in my life up to this point contradicted that idea.

I suppose, in the long run, I should have counted myself lucky to be just getting knuckle rubs from him. After all, in the beginning of the summer he had started carrying a Buck 110 folding knife with a four and a half inch blade that locked in place and the things he used to do to frogs and toads and the occasional baby bird…man, it still makes me sick just thinking about it. It was my ever growing fear that he could easily start doing the same to me. Or worse.

Fortunately he didn’t bother with my poor little sister Lea. I guess he thought that being a girl, she wasn’t much worth the time. She mostly stayed in her room and played with her dolls, smart enough to stay out of the way of her two older brothers who fought all the time and, in general, made life around the house pure hell.

Add to that the fact Dad and Sal liked to party a lot when they were home…well, like I said, they weren’t going to win any prizes when it came to parenting, that was for sure. In fact more than once I heard them talking late at night, beer bottles rolling around on the floor, watching some late night talk show and smoking a final bowl of weed. Something to the effect of,

Dad: “God those friggin’ boys are a major league pain in the ass.”

Sexy Sal: “No shit, Sherlock. Losers, both of them. Give me another hit.”

My teacher last year in sixth grade used to read to us from a book the final half hour of the day on Fridays. We ended the year with “Tom Sawyer” and I have to tell you that I liked the main character a lot. The two things I got from the book were: one, even though Tom was a hellion (big word, huh? I might have gotten it from the book), he at least had his aunt who loved him, and two, sometimes running away was a good idea.

So that’s what I did.

School had ended in early June and by the middle of July I’d had it with Sean. He was supposed to be working that summer at Jorgenson’s hardware store, a place near enough to us so he could walk or ride his bike but he kept getting to work later and later until finally Mr. Jorgenson the owner just up and fired him. I heard that his final words to Sean were, “Send Quinn back here when you get home. He’s ten times the worker you are.”

Now, how he knew that I had no idea, but it pissed off Sean to no end and when he got back to our house he beat me up, apparently just on general principles. He must have enjoyed it too, deriving some perverse, sick pleasure in pounding on me because it started him on his campaign of terror, tormenting me every day, beating me up whenever he had the chance and making my life miserable. And for no good reason, I might add, other than I was small for my age and couldn’t fight back. He was just as mean to me as he always had been and getting meaner with each passing day.

I remember the last time he did it very clearly. It was a Tuesday morning and he’d caught me in back by the garage cleaning the spokes of my bike, not paying attention or being on the lookout for him like I normally was. He jumped me from behind and pounded the crap out of me, twisting my arm up behind my back just for good measure while I begged him to stop. When he was finally done with me he threw me to the ground, stomped on my back and left me lying sprawled out in the dirt.

Then he sneered at me and said, “I’ll see you later,” which of course meant he’d beat me up again, and sauntered inside to play on the Atari set up in the living room.

I sat up and wiped the blood from my nose and wondered how I was going to ever survive until school started because now with him not at work, Sean seemed to take it as his new job to torment me a will. Full time! Not a pleasant future for me at all. Fall looked to be a long time away.

You might wonder, ‘Why doesn’t this kid just tell his dad?’ That’s a very good question. I momentarily thought about it that day but had a feeling it would be as fruitless as the approximately five hundred other times I’d told him over the years – about Sean and how he made my life a living hell on a daily basis. But there wasn’t a lot a lot of sympathy for my plight from dear old Dad on that front. ‘Just suck it up and deal with it, Quinn,’ was his basic answer, often followed up with ‘Be a man, for christssake,’ tacked on at the end for good measure. Thanks a lot, Dad. So no, I didn’t spend a lot of time that day thinking about telling my dad anything about Sean and what he was doing to me. I figured I’d just have to find a way to learn to live with it.

I was just rousting myself to get to my feet, get on my bike and go for ride just to get away from that big idiot of a brother for a while when something happened that I’ll never forget. Lea quietly opened the back screen door, walked across the thread bare patch of grass we called a backyard and sat down in the dirt next to me. She was seven years old and a skinny little snip of a thing. She had long, stringy blond hair and liked to wear soft cotton dresses that probably were colorful once but were now faded away to gray after so many washings no matter what the color they’d been. And, like I mentioned before, she liked to stay in her room and play with her dolls. Barbie’s. I think she had three of them. She and I were pretty close, maybe because of Sean. I liked her and she liked me and I even gave her rides on my bike every now and then, you know, just goofing around.

Anyway, she never talked much and she didn’t this time either, but she did something then that I later thanked her for over and over and over again in the years to come. She reached her hand into the pocket of her dress, pulled out Sean’s knife and handed it to me only saying, “He left it on the kitchen table. I don’t think he’s missed it yet.” Then she got up, brushed the dirt off her dress, skipped back to the house and went inside. It was the most she’d ever spoken to me in I don’t know how long.

Stunned, I held the knife in my hand. It had a golden brown handle and when I snapped it open it’s shinning, razor sharp blade gleamed in the sun. Sean had brought it earlier that summer at the hardware store with his first paycheck and was as proud of it as anything else in his life. Probably more than the Atari even. I knew it was only a matter of time before he noticed it missing and why Lea gave it to me I could only guess at. Maybe for my own protection. But if I kept it and he found out…man, I pictured him beating me up in a way so bad that I quickly had to erase the image from my mind because it was too disturbing. Then I imagined him coming at me with his knife, using the blade on me like I’d seen him use it on those poor defenseless creatures…

God, why was I thinking about those kinds of things right now? Stop it! I told myself. So I did.

But what I did think about right then and there was this: now is the time to go. Now’s the time to get away from this hell-hole and move on to “greener pastures,” (another phrase I’d heard once in school, maybe in Tom Sawyer). And that’s exactly what I did.

I stood up, put the knife in my front pocket, crept to the back door and listened through the screen. I could hear Sean playing Space Raiders on the Atari so I knew what little mind he had was now completely occupied by his make believe world of outer space aliens and what not. I quietly opened the door, holding my breath when it screeched a little, and tip-toed across the kitchen floor, glad I was wearing my converse sneakers. I crept to Lea’s room and went inside, closing the door quietly behind me. She was sitting on the floor with her dolls arranged in front of her in a half circle. She looked up at me with her big eyes and greeted me with a little smile. I went to her, knelt down and gave her a hug.

“I just wanted to tell you good bye,” I said, holding her tight, “I’m leaving and I’m taking the knife with me.” I couldn’t think of what else to say. I sat back, looked at her once and then hugged her again. She held me close and I almost didn’t go then, not wanting to leave her all by herself, but I forced myself to pull away and stand up. I quickly stepped back before I could think too much about what I was intending to do and maybe talk myself out of it. I went to her door and opened it, looking back once when Lea said, “Be careful.” I waved to her and whispered, “I will,” as I stepped out of her room, watching as she waved to me while I closed the door behind me. With the sound of it latching in place I felt like I was not only saying goodbye to her, but saying goodbye to part of myself, too. I have to admit, it was pretty emotional. But since I now had the knife I had a strong reason to go or else face Sean’s wrath – my desire to runaway stronger than doing the smart thing which would have been to put the knife back on the kitchen table and forget the whole thing.

Lea’s image would come back to me again and again over the course of that day. Dad and Sexy Sal? I never thought of them once.

I snuck across the hall to the room I shared with Sean. It was a mess. I had made the beds that morning and picked clothes and stuff off the floor like I always did because it was one of my jobs round the house, but after pounding on me Sean must have decided to trash the room just for good measure. It didn’t take much to set him off. I looked around, thinking to myself that I should I pick it up and straightened things out again. Then I almost slapped myself on the forehead. Who’s the idiot, now? I thought. Not me. Nope, not anymore. The hell with it. It’s his room now and he can do whatever he wants to with it. And to hell with him, too, by the way. I’m outta here.

I reached under my mattress where I kept my wallet hidden. It had seven dollars and thirty seven cents collected from the odd jobs I did for my next door neighbor and I figured I could use the money on the road. I put it in my back pocket and then glanced in the mirror, choosing not to dwell on my small size and skinny build, concentrating instead on what I was wearing. I had on a tee-shirt that once was white but now was kind of gray (like my sister’s dress) and cut off blue jeans. I wondered if I should maybe bring a jacket. Naw, I thought to myself, it’s too hot out. I’ll get a job somewhere if I need more clothes. The idea of traveling light appealed to me. Just like a hobo or something.

I took one last look around and said good-bye. I was really going to do it. I was really going to run away. I was both excited and nervous, but not that nervous. Good bye forever, I said, and then I was gone.

I snuck out of my room, down the hall, through the kitchen and out of the house. I ran to the garage and jumped on my bike and rode it through our little town out to the highway where I stopped, looking back and forth in both directions. Right would take me past the lake our town was named after and eventually all the way to the big city of Minneapolis. I really didn’t want to go there so I started riding my bike west, in the opposite direction, out toward the country. Besides, there were a lot of cars on the road going that way and I figured I had a better chance of catching a ride.

A mile of riding brought me to the far outskirts of town. I hid my bike a weed filled ditch and climbed back onto the highway. It wasn’t even noon yet but the sun was burning hot and I was already sweating. I stood on the side of the road and put my thumb out, just like I’d seen them do on the television. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. All I knew was that I was running away for real this time. I felt in my front pocket. The first time I ran away I brought toy dinosaurs. This time I had Sean’s knife. It gave me a sense of security and I liked that feeling. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to. It felt good.

Highway 12 is a two lane road that leads west to the Minnesota boarder with South Dakota and beyond that all the way to Montana and I think eventually the Pacific Ocean. He pulled over after I’d only been standing there for maybe fifteen minutes, long enough to get hotter and sweatier than I already was and to start looking longingly at the Texaco station about a quarter mile down the road, thinking maybe I could find a hose or something and get a free drink of nice, cold water.

He was driving an old, faded red and slightly rusted pickup truck with a big dog kennel in the back but no dog. There was also a roll of dark green canvas tied up with rope. I bent down and peered in the side window as the truck rolled to a stop.

He leaned across the seat toward me, “Hi there, young man. Need a lift?”

He seemed nice and polite. He was maybe thirty years old, clean shaven with light brown hair that fell across his forehead. He was wearing tan colored slacks with a sharp crease in each leg and a clean white, short sleeve dress shirt, open at the collar. For some reason I remembered his shoes as being fancy. They had tie laces and were shinny and black. Coming from where I was coming from with a dad who was big, bearded, and scary looking, this guy looked like a choirboy.

I was hot and frankly starting to get bored. “Sure, “I said, happy to get out of the sun and trusting he was as innocent as he seemed. I opened the door. “Where’re you going?” I thought to ask, not that I cared. Anywhere away from my home and Sean was good enough for me. I climbed in and settled onto the front seat.

“Anywhere you want,” he joked, laughing, showing me a row of small front teeth stained brown. He put the truck in gear and carefully accelerated back onto the highway.

His response  to my question seemed odd and right then and there my rather cavalier attitude about hitting the road and living on my own began to diminish. I started to get just the tiniest bit nervous. In rethinking my actions that day, I should have jumped out while I had the chance. But I was just a kid who didn’t know any better. I’d made my decision earlier that morning and right now it was up to me to live with it and make the most of it.

Well, what the heck? I finally thought to myself. What have I got to lose? He seems nice enough. Everything should be Ok. I set my suspicions aside and settled in on the bench seat of the truck thinking I might as well enjoy my ride and whatever lay ahead, just like a real adventure.

“What’s your name, young man?” he asked as he brought the truck up to speed. The wind blowing through the cab was hot, but it felt lots better than standing on the side of the highway baking to death. He had a soft voice with kind of a southern accent and seemed very well mannered.

“Quinn,” I told him, wondering if I should tell him my last name was Charles. Naw, I decided not to. I’d taken enough ribbing in my life for having a first name as my last name. “What’s yours?” I asked instead.

He told me his name was Ronny. “Like Ronny Milsap,” he said laughing. “You know, the blind country singer?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Dad was a big Lynard Skynard fan. Ronny Milsap? Never heard of the guy.

“Don’t know him,” I said.

Ronny just shrugged and grinned with those brown teeth which for some reason were starting to irritate me. How hard was it to take a minute and brush your teeth every day, anyway? Even Sean did that and he hardly had the gumption to get dressed in the morning. Plus, now that I was in the truck, and even though the windows were down (the day being so hot and all), there was a stink inside that was starting to make me a little sick to my stomach. Maybe it had something to do with the dog that kennel was for. But there was no dog around. To take my mind off the stink and my nausea I asked him where he was going.

“Out west, Quinn. Got a job lined up.”

That sounded great. I’d never been further away from home than Minneapolis, and once up north to Duluth. Out west? Never.

“What kind of job?” I asked, just to be polite.

“Anything they want me to do, young fella. I’m a self made man. I do a little bit of this, and little bit of that.”

Well, that sounded good to me and I turned completely toward him, interested. Dad was always complaining about his job and the delivery truck he had to drive. At my young age ‘doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that’ sounded like a pretty good deal.

“Does it pay good?”

He laughed long and hard at that one. “You bet it does, my boy. You bet it does.”

My boy? I shifted a little in my seat. The stink was starting to go away, or maybe I was getting used to it. I looked at Ronny thinking that the guy was definitely a little strange but, all and all, he seemed pretty harmless. At least he wasn’t mean like Sean or ignoring me like my dad always did. That counted for something. I felt myself relaxing a little bit more. My stomach was a little better, too. This ride might not turn out to be so bad after all, I thought. In fact, it might turn out to be pretty good.

Ronny liked to talk. He told me he’d grown up in Oklahoma on a ranch (that’s why his accent sounded so different) and had worked at a bunch of jobs of which I’ll list a few: cowboy on a ranch in Montana, maintenance worker on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, forest ranger in Idaho, gold miner in Colorado and a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River. I think he also had been a bush pilot in Alaska and worked on a lobster boat up there, too. So he’d done a lot, and I remember being impressed – my imagination running away with me, picturing myself in each of those scenarios. Despite my initial misgivings I was beginning to warm to the guy. Not once did I think for a moment that he might be making all those jobs up to impress me, relax me and get on my good side.

Around mid afternoon we stopped for gas in western Minnesota near the town of Benson. I got out and stretched my legs. The temperature had to have been around ninety – the heat reflecting off the payment was rippling and even the tar in the parking lot felt soft under my tennis shoes. I looked west out across a big cornfield toward the horizon. There was nothing out there but more and more corn. The stalks looked shriveled, the leaves faded. The wind blew hot air from the south. The only thing alive were some crows across the highway, feeding on something on the ground. It was pretty humid too. Even though I’d never been in one before, I got that feeling that being outside right now felt like what it must have felt like to be in a sauna.

I was picturing myself swimming in a nice, cool lake somewhere, floating on an inner tube, when Ronny asked, “Quinn, are you hungry?”

His voice startled me. He’d finished with the gas and had come up beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder. I was surprised to see him not sweating at all. But I was. It was running down my back and I could feel it beading up on my forehead. I looked toward the gas station, still conscious of his hand on me. It felt a little strange – my dad never did stuff like that, but to be honest, it didn’t feel too bad either. Next to the gas station was little cafe with a sign that read, ‘Ma’s Place.’ It looked good to me.

“Sure,” I said, thinking suddenly that I really was hungry. Visions of pancakes with butter and syrup dripping off the sides and an order of sausage filled my mind. All I’d had to eat that day was my usual breakfast of a bowl of cheerios and I’d had to eat them dry since Sean had taken the last of the milk. I suddenly realized that I was beyond hungry, I was starving. “That’d be great,” I turned and smiled at him.

Ronny smiled in return and said, “Be right back.” I watched as he went to the truck. I had a sudden clutching feeling inside that he’d take off and leave me stranded in this little town all by myself out in the middle of nowhere. But to my relief he didn’t. He simply started the engine, pulled away from the pumps and parked by the cafe. Then he got out, came over to where I was standing, put his arm around my shoulder and led me inside. I have to admit, I was relieved  he had stayed with me.

The cafe was air-conditioned and the cold air hit me so hard it took my breath away. We sat in a booth with red vinyl seats that were slippery but comfortable. I quickly cooled off and entertained myself watching the sweat dry on my arms. The waitress was young and, to my inexperienced eyes, really good looking. She had dark, wavy brown hair that fell past her shoulders, just like my mom used to have. She brought us an icy pitcher of water and I drank down a glass in about ten seconds – the water so cold it made the sides of my head hurt.

We sat across from each other and Ronny made small talk with the waitress (her name tag read ‘Annie’). He even turned around and chatted with the people seated behind him – an elderly couple who looked to me like they just stepped in off the farm. I tried not to stare at the ring of white around the farmer’s hairline and forehead that was probably from the hat he wore when he was working outside, driving his tractor or something. The lower half of his face was deeply tanned and he had on plaid, short sleeve shirt and clean pair of bib blue jeans. His wife wore a pretty floral dress and a bonnet. I got the feeling this was a special outing for them. I caught a faint aroma of manure, maybe from the guy’s boots, that I have to say wasn’t all that unpleasant. For some reason, I liked seeing them in the cafe with us.

I ordered three pancakes which, when Annie set them down in front on me (I think she might have even given me a wink along with her smile), blew me away. They took up the whole plate. I drowned them in maple syrup and slabs of butter and wolfed them down along with my side order of sausages (just liked I’d imaged.) Man, they tasted fantastic. Ronny didn’t order anything. He just sat and watched while I ate and smiled at me. I was so hungry it never even occurred to me how strange it was that he didn’t order or eat anything. He barely drank any water.

After I finished I excused myself to go use the bathroom. When I was done, I washed my hands and splashed cold water on my face. As I was drying off I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t believe how red my face was and my freckles stood out like crazy. I was a little sheepish about my looks. Most of the boys I knew and went to school with had nice, shinny, longish hair – long enough to blow a little in the wind. Dad had something against that kind of hair, probably because he’d lost most of his, so whenever he used his electric razor to shave his head he also did me and Sean. Buzzed us right down to the nub. So, along with being outcasts in town because of our family situation, we were also outcasts on account of how different we looked because of our hair, or lack of it. Now that I’m on the road, I thought to myself, I’ll let my hair grow out. Smiling into the reflection in the mirror at my great idea, I finished drying my hands and joined Ronny back at the table.

He greeted me with, “All set, there, Quinn?” He had been using my first name ever since he’d picked me up. The fact that he was getting so familiar with me was kind of odd, but not all that bad. At least he was talking to me like a person. Not like my dad, who just ordered me around, getting him beers and stuff, or Sean, who didn’t talk to me all, preferring instead to push me around and, of course, beat me up. Ronny talking to me was different but in a good way, like I was a real person, and that was just fine with me once I got used to it. In fact, it was kind of nice.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

He pointed to my water glass. “Drink up, my boy. We might not be stopping again for a while.”

“Ok.”

I dutifully finished off my water and stood up. I noticed Ronny hadn’t left a tip for my pancakes and sausage. I thought about using some of my own money from my wallet, but Ronny seemed in a hurry so I didn’t. He hurried me out of the cafe and hustled me to the truck. I’ve always felt bad I didn’t leave the nice waitress at least a quarter.

We got in the truck and I got settled. Ronny started the engine and drove out of the parking lot onto the highway. I was pleasantly full and feeling really good, thinking that running away was the smartest thing I’d ever done and that life on the road was the perfect solution to all my problems at home. But after a few minutes staring at cornfields, cows and the occasional farm house and barn, the heat must have started to get to me, because I began to feel kind of groggy. I put my hand on my forehead and was surprised that it felt cold and clammy instead of hot which was weird because I was sweating heavily under my tee-shirt again.

“Quinn, are you feeling Ok?” Ronny asked, looking at me with a strange expression. One I can only describe as both concerned and excited.

“Not really,” I said, feeling my words slur.

He patted the seat. “Just lay your head down here, my boy. Rest. I’m sure you’ll feel better soon.”

He sounded like he cared about how I was feeling so I trusted him and did just as he suggested.

“Ok,” I said. And I lay my head down.

The next thing I knew I was waking up. Well, coming to was more like it. I was lying completely stretched out across the front seat of some sort of vehicle with my head jammed under the steering wheel. I was looking at the foot well and saw a brake pedal and an accelerator pedal and a steering column and a bunch of wires. It took a minute for me to work it out, but when I did I remembered I was in Ronny’s truck. Then it all started coming back to me: the hitch-hiking, the truck, Ronny, the cafe. But why was I here by myself? Where was Ronny?

I sat up and rubbed my eyes, feeling dizzy and disoriented. I looked out the driver’s side window and saw cleared spaces on the ground, grass, a few trees and some picnic tables. I looked out the front window and saw I was about fifty feet from a big, muddy river rimmed with brush, bushes and some tall trees and it dawned on me that I had to be a camp ground somewhere. The river looked to be about a hundred feet across and, if I had to guess, I thought it might be the Minnesota River since we’d been heading in that direction the last I knew. I looked to my right and there seated at a picnic table about thirty feet away was Ronny. And of all the things to be doing in a camp ground by a river, the thing he was doing was reading. It looked like magazine. What the heck?

I watched him as I took a few moments getting my bearings. I was really kind of out of it. My head felt fuzzy and it was hard to think. My mouth was dry and felt full of cotton. My eyes were caked with sleep and crap and I rubbed them as clean as I could. My stomach ached too, pretty awful, like the flu. I’d been sick bad in my life before but not much worse than this. Then my stomach heaved once and I fought back an urge to throw up. Thankfully both windows were down, not only because of potential vomiting, but also because it was still hot out and it helped to have a little air movement in the truck. I could see out the front that we were pointing west. The sun was above the trees on the other side of the river but starting to go down, it’s rays shinning into the cab, adding to the heat. I was woozy but sitting up seemed to be helping. I was slowly starting to feel better.

For some reason I had the feeling I should be as quiet as I could be, so instead of yelling out and greeting Ronny with, “Hi there. I’m awake,” I scrunched down and peered over the edge of the window, spying on him and getting a feel for my surroundings. He had set up a tent near to the picnic table. It was of those old fashioned dark green, canvas ones with no windows that looked just plain hot to me and it occurred to me that it must have been what I’d seen in the back of the truck when he’d first stopped for me. From my seat in the cab (which now, with the sun shining in, was starting to burn a little), I carefully looked all around outside, expecting to see other campers. But the eerie thing was that I didn’t see anyone else. Not a sole. Which was really surprising considering it was the middle of summer and everyone in Minnesota knew this was the height of the camping season – even me and I’d never been camping before in my life. So maybe that’s what we were going to do, I thought. Me and Ronny were going to go camping together. That would be fun. But it was strange that Ronny really didn’t appear to be camping. He didn’t have a fire going, or any firewood, or fishing poles, or a cooler or anything. All he was doing was sitting at that picnic table reading a magazine. What was that all about?

I watched him turn a page. The magazine looked worn out and old. I thought most people went fishing or something when they went camping. And how he was acting seemed doubly odd to me, now that I thought about it, because I hadn’t seen any luggage or camping gear or anything like that when he’d picked me up other than that roll of canvas which turned out to be the tent. Then I saw he’d put the big dog kennel next to the tent. He must have moved it there from the back of the truck. Maybe he had camping stuff in the tent, but if he did, where had it come from? I was confused and beginning to get both nervous and suspicious. What was he up to?

Just to be sure, I cautiously turned around and looked out the driver’s window and then out the back, and then it dawned on me – not only were we all alone, but I was here with this guy who all of a sudden was starting to seem kind of creepy, just like when he’d first picked me up and I’d gotten in his truck. That feeling I had back then was coming back to me all over again. My heart thumped a little in my chest. Something wasn’t right.

I scrunched down again and went back to watching him over the edge of the window. For a few minutes he just read, turning the occasional page. Nothing strange about that. I started feeling a little better about my situation. Maybe I was making things up in my mind. Maybe it was only my imagination getting the better of me. After all, he’d been nice to me, getting me lunch and all. He’d been friendly the whole time I’d been with him, and he’d even talked to me like I was more than just a kid. Like I was a real human being. Maybe things really were Ok.

I was about to call out and greet him and get on with this camping business, when all of a sudden he reached down, ran his right hand along his right thigh and began moving it back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Then he casually moved it into his crotch, massaging and rubbing it, keeping his hand there for a long time – like he was playing with himself or something. Then it hit me and a feeling of dread washed over me that made my entire body go weak. My friends at school sometimes talked about weirdo’s who played with themselves and other stuff. I wasn’t sure if that’s what he was doing right now but whatever it was it didn’t seem right. And I’ll tell you what, it scared the hell out of me. My heart jumped and started racing. Call it a gut feeling or a premonition or what have you. It was same feeling I’d get when Sean looked at me a certain way, just before he started to chase me hoping to catch me and beat me up. But this feeling I had now toward Ronny was a thousand times worse. It was a feeling of stone cold fear.

I quickly ducked down. My heart started pounding away and a wave of terror washed over me. I had to fight back an urge to scream. Then it occurred to me that if I screamed no one would have heard me anyway and, I couldn’t help it, but knowing I was so alone just made it worse. I was so scared, so terribly scared. I didn’t want to anything bad to happen to me and I made myself hold back my fear and tried to think. I had to do something, but what? My whole body started shaking. I kept my head lowered below the window and searched in my mind for what I should do next. I came up with nothing. Absolutely nothing. I realized I was trapped. The shaking got way worse after that.

And who knows…I might have lost it right then and there and surrendered to my fate with Ronny except for one thing. My mind went to the safest place I knew, my home. I saw Dad and Sexy Sal and Sean and Lea. I focused on Lea, my sweet little sister who I cared for more than anyone else in the whole wide world. Then I remembered: Lea had given me Sean’s knife. I had it in my pocket. And it wasn’t so much the knife (all though that was certainly comforting in a totally bizarre kind of way) but it was the thought of Lea giving it to me that helped calm me down. I centered my mind on my last vision of her – my little sister playing with her dolls, nice and safe in her bedroom, and I made myself keep that vision in my mind as I tried to reason out what I should do. There was one thing for sure. Ronny was some kind of weirdo, there was no doubt about that, just like my friends at school used to talk about. I wasn’t safe and it was only a matter of time before he came for me. I had to figure out how I could get away.

My first idea was this: maybe I could just climb out the opposite window on the driver’s side, slide to the ground and make a break for it. But then where would I go? And what if he saw me? What if I couldn’t outrun him and he caught me? Then what? Oh, man, ‘Think Quinn,’ I told myself, ‘Think.’ But I was so scared my mind was starting to go blank.

I took a chance and snuck a peek over the edge of the window frame to check on him and that was my undoing. Ronny suddenly looked up from his reading and, seeing me staring at him, grinned and closed his magazine. I froze.

‘Well, well, well. Look who’s awake,” he said, smiling and standing up, “It’s my little pal, Quinn. How are you doing, young man? Sleep well?”

He took a last look at his magazine and then started walking slowly toward the truck, all the while staring straight at me.

My mind started racing, grasping for an idea. Any idea. I had to do something. My fear was so overwhelming I almost wet my pants. But I didn’t. Instead, I did the only thing I could think of. I put my hand in my pocket and took out Sean’s knife. I carefully held it below the sight line of the window and opened the blade, waiting, watching as Ronny came toward me, his smile confident. But, I have to say, holding that knife didn’t help all that much. I had no idea what I was going to do with it.

And that creep took his time coming for me, that was for sure, one step after another, slow and steady, while my heart pounded in my chest like a kettle drum. And with every step he took my fear grew and grew until my mind almost went blank. But it didn’t, although I almost wish it had, because instead I was left with watching him while my mind whirled out of control, knowing that if didn’t do something there was no doubt that this guy who had once been so nice and kind to me, now was going to do something bad to me.

As he walked he kind of sauntered, swinging his hips a little, which freaked me out even more. Then half way to me he took a length of thin rope out of his back pocket and dangled it from his right hand, twirling it in a circle. With his left hand he raised it a little and started moving it back in forth like he was waving at me.

It took him maybe half a minute to all total to cross to me. Both the shortest and longest half minute of my life, and as he got closer, my fear turned to panic. I knew for sure I was going to die. When he was a few steps from the truck he started beckoning to me with his index finger like that witch in The Wizard of Oz. I’m coming to get you. God, I couldn’t help it – I started shaking all over again.

When he reached the truck he put his right hand on the handle, rope dangling from it while he paused waiting, toying with me I guess, looking at me to see how’d I react. We were less than three feet apart – my only protection the door of the truck, but with the window down that wasn’t much. I took a deep breath to try to quit shaking without much success. He was so much bigger than me and he acted so confident. Like he could do anything he wanted to me. My eyes welled up and I fought back tears as I tried to get myself ready.

“Here I come, Quinn,” he said, smiling with those brown teeth. “I’m glad you finally woke up.”

With his right hand he pushed in the latch, opened the door wide and held it there. He suddenly seemed to grow taller right before my eyes, growing until he was gazing down upon me, looking me over while I crouched and cowered. And he just stood there, silently tormenting me with eyes that now started to look like some sort of weird, slimy reptile’s eyes. I tried not to faint dead away with the worse fear I’d ever felt in my whole life – I knew he was going to kill me.

I’m sure he was thinking that I was just a small for my age kid so I’d be easy prey for whatever sick thing he had in store for me. Still holding the door open he put his left hand out toward me, reaching for me, thinking god only knew what unthinkable horror he had planned for me.

But I wasn’t going to wait. I had kept the knife in my right hand hidden behind me and I didn’t hesitate. I fought through my fear as adrenalin took over. I screamed as loud as I could as I lunged out at him, stabbing out at his hand with my knife. I might have been small, but I was quick and I must have startled him because he moved at just that same moment I lunged and I missed his hand and instead slashed that razor sharp blade right across his forearm. Deep.

He stopped, startled, and looked at the cut. So did I. For an instant nothing happened and I remember thinking, Oh, my god, I’m in for it now. What did I do wrong? Why wasn’t he bleeding? But then the blood came. In torrents, flowing out of the gash, running out of his arm, covering it like he’d dipped it in a bucket of red paint. Big drops started falling to the ground, followed by a river of blood. Ronny screamed in shock (and, hopefully, pain) and fell back against the wide open door of the truck as he tried to stop the flow of blood with his right hand. He wasn’t having any success. His knees sagged a little and he looked at me with disbelief as he tried to collect himself. But only for a moment. Then his eyes pierced me with an anger and hatred so deep I almost froze again. But I didn’t.

In an instant I slid off the seat and hit the ground running. He tried to grab for me but I was able to push his bloody arm away and he screamed again. I bolted to the back of the truck, around it and then ran like hell to river. I slid down the embankment and jumped into the muddy water thinking for some reason how refreshingly cool it felt. Then I fought my way out to the middle where I started swimming and floating downstream with the current. Was Ronny yelling and screaming and running after me? I don’t know. My world had closed in and all I thought about was survival. But I’ll tell you this: I never looked back. And I didn’t know where I was going, either, but I didn’t care. I was getting away and that’s all that mattered.

It was many minutes later I realized I still had the knife griped in my hand. I rolled to my back and floated, closed it and managed to stuff it in my front pocket, thinking that Sean would kill me if I lost it. Funny what can come to your mind sometimes. Anyway, once the knife was safely put away, swimming became a lot easier.

I stayed in that river for as long as I could, my fear that Ronny was going to catch me becoming less and less the further I dogpaddled and swam. But I was still frightened and might even have floated in that muddy water all the way across the state of Minnesota to St. Paul if a farmer hadn’t been tending to some cattle on the shore and seen me, called to me, and waded out into the water to drag me to safety. I realized then that I was close to being drowned, my thoughts of Ronny and what he might do to me if he caught me the only thing that was keeping me going – keeping me afloat so to speak. The farmer was old, strong, and kind enough to bring me up to his farmhouse (in fact he carried me most of the way in his arms). It was a big two story white home with a wide porch – just like you see sometimes on the television.

He brought me through the back door, right into the kitchen and set me down on a rug by the door, saying, “Greta, look at what I found.”

Whether he was making a joke or not I didn’t know but his wife, who was stirring something on the stove, took one look and ran straight to me, smacked at her husband with her wooden spoon and told him to get some towels which he did. She took over, helping me to the kitchen table where she sat me down, knelt on the floor and began drying me off and fussing over me which, I have to admit, even to this day the memory of still makes me feel really good.

The farmer looked on, his eyes topped by white eyebrows that I swear stuck half way up his forehead, giving me the once over while his wife worked on pampering me.

At one point she looked over her shoulder and said, “For pity’s sake, Clive, don’t just stand there dripping on the rug, get a towel and dry yourself off. I’m sure not going to do it for you.” And he did.

When he was finished he took a pipe out of his overalls and filled it with tobacco and lit it before asking, “Your name wouldn’t be Quinn by any chance?”

What the…? “Yes sir, it is.” I told him, wondering how the hell he knew that. Then I immediately got suspicious and frightened all over again. After what I’d been through, who wouldn’t? “Why?” I looked toward the back door as I wondered if I’d stepped into another bad situation and I’d have to make a run for it. Again.

“Clive, quiet down and don’t bother the boy,” his wife told him. “Can’t you see he’s frightened enough.”

She turned to me and smiled, reassuring me, “Don’t let him scare you, young man. His bark is way worse than his bite.” She looked past me toward the old farmer and I could almost see daggers coming out of her eyes.

Clive, I guess that’s what his name was, shuffled his feet on the rug, shook his head and said, “Didn’t mean anything by it.” He sucked on his pipe some more and conscientiously blew the smoke outside through the screen door. By this time got the feeling his wife pretty much ran the show in that household.

She made sure I was comfortable in my chair at the table, and after she’d dried me off she went and got a big quilt that she wrapped around me. It smelled clean and fresh, just like the out of doors. Then she went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of milk. “You’re all over the news,” she said, pouring me a big glass.”We’ve been listening on the radio. The police have been looking for you. We heard you’d been kidnapped.”

She brought me the milk and a heaping plate of chocolate chip cookies and set them in front of me. Suddenly I was famished and I started eating them right away. They were the best cookies I’d ever tasted. Then or since.

While I was eating, Greta stood next to me, watching over me with a concerned expression. She was a large woman with her gray hair pinned up on top of her head and she wore an apron over her dress. Then she knelt down and felt my forehead. It didn’t bother me at all – her attention felt kind of nice. She had blue-green eyes that I especially noticed when she peered closely and asked softly, “Are you Ok, Quinn?” Her breath smelled sweet, like peppermint.

“Yes, maam, I am,” I told her, swallowing after finishing off my third or fourth cookie, “I’m fine. I really am.” And for the first time since I’d run from the truck I truly believed I was and, I have to say, with the relief I suddenly felt, my eyes filled with tears and I almost started to cry.

She pulled me to her bosom and hugged me tight.

Well, I never…

Then she released me, like she’d had a sudden thought and turned to her husband, “Lordy, Lordy, Clive,” she exclaimed, “What in heaven’s name’s the matter with you? What are you waiting for? Get on the phone right now and call Sheriff Nelson. Quick. Tell him we’ve got that boy they’re looking for. Tell whoever answers that he’s Ok and that he’s sitting right here in our kitchen.”

Clive, who I got the impression wasn’t the fastest man alive, moved pretty darn quick under his wife’s command and made the call.

That night I spent in the hospital in Ortonville. The next night I was home and I’ll tell you this, after all I’d been through, even seeing Sean felt pretty good.

The morning after I got home and Dad and Sexy Sal had gone to work. Sean and I were alone in the house for the first time since I’d been back. Everybody wanted me to rest so he’d had to sleep that night in the living room on the couch which I don’t think he minded too much because he could be close to his precious Atari. I’d given his knife back to him the evening before and received nothing in return but a menacing scowl.

That morning as soon as Dad and Sexy Sal left, he came into the bedroom. I immediately got nervous, my stomach tying itself all up in knots.

“So you stole my knife, huh?” he asked, sitting down on my bed and moving close.

I didn’t answer right away. If I said No, he might find out Lea took it and gave it to me and I didn’t want her to get in trouble. If I said Yes, well then…my imagination took over, leaving me with nothing but an unhappy ending. But hell, I’d had to deal with Ronny and I got through that all right. I figured I could take on anything – even whatever Sean had to dish out.

I puffed up my chest a little, “Yeah, I did,” I told him, trying to sound tough, “So what?”

I looked at him and he looked right back at me. Two days ago the next move would have been me trying to get away and probably not succeeding, suffering Sean’s version of justice with him proceeding to pound me into a bruised and battered, bloody little pulp, then walking away with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

Sean surprised me by doing nothing violent. Instead, he put his hand on top of my covers on my leg, but not in a mean way. I only flinched a little.

“You don’t have to lie for her,” he said. “I know what happened with the knife. Lea told me.”

“What?!” I screamed. “Is she all right?”

I tried to get up, but he held me back. I pictured my sweet natured little sister submitting to his wrath. The image was more than I could bear. Then I had a thought. Wait a minute. I’d already seen her when I got home. She’d been perfectly fine. She’d even given me a big hug and everything before retreating to her room with her dolls for the rest of the evening.

“Relax, man, she’s Ok,” he smiled. I accepted that Lea really was unharmed, but now Sean was smiling at me, which was creepy in and of itself. He never smiled at me. What was up with that?

“Seriously, she’s just fine.” He sounded almost like he was trying to reassure me. Like he knew I cared about Lea and he didn’t want me to have to worry about her. Weird, was the word that popped into my mind. He was acting really weird.

And he was also confusing me. Big time. He was right about my sister, of course, she truly was Ok, but his behavior was so different from how he normally acted that I have to admit I was stunned. I looked at him like he was nuts and he must have seen the disbelief in my eyes because he waited for me to say something. But I didn’t. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was speechless.

Maybe a minute went by before he continued, “I admit I was mad. Pissed off is more like it. I really was ready to kill you.” I involuntarily shuddered. “But then you were gone and no one knew where you were and someone found your bike up on the highway and called Dad who got mad and worried and he called the cops and…” he stopped and shrugged his shoulders, “And everything else happened and I just sort of forgot that I was mad at you.”

What the hell? Was this real life or had I stepped into a fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens and there’s unlimited ice cream and hot dogs every night for dinner and a happy ending?

I was pondering the significance of such a world and finding it to my liking when I sensed a movement at the bedroom door. I pulled myself back to reality and looked. There was Lea, peeking around the doorframe. She was safe and unharmed and she looked great. She took a tentative step into the room. “Hi,” she said, shyly.

“Lea,” I grinned and almost shouted, “Come here.” I patted the side of the bed as I moved over.

She smiled back and ran to me and hugged me so tight that for a moment I wondered where she got the strength for such a little thing. It almost hurt. Almost. And it felt great.

Sean stayed and sat on the bed with us and it suddenly came to me that it was the first time we all three had been together in our room before in I didn’t know how long. If ever. And without fighting or anything. Like a normal family. I have to say it felt pretty good.

We talked a lot. Sean couldn’t hear my story enough, especially the knife part, and he had me tell it over and over again until I finally got tired. I had been through a lot and it was still catching up to me. Finally he stood up, telling me that Mr. Jorgenson from the hardware store had called the night before and offered him his job back. “Yeah, he told me that when he’d heard what you had gone through and what you had done to get away, he thought maybe there was something in me that he’d missed. What do you think he meant by that?”

I had my own idea that Mr. Jorgenson hadn’t missed anything, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell Sean that so I said only, “Maybe he was just being nice.”

Sean shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, I’m going down there now, he glanced at the clock on the night stand by my bed. I followed his gaze. It read a few minutes after nine. “Shit. I’m late. I’m supposed to be there right at nine. See ya’.”

I watched as he ran out of the room. Then I caught Lea’s eye. We looked at each other for a moment before my little sister pointed to Sean’s disappearing back, then pointed to her head with her finger and twirled it around like ‘he’s crazy’ and rolled her eyes. I couldn’t believe it. She was making fun of Sean and it was funny! I laughed out loud for the first time in I don’t know how long. It was then that I had this thought: it was actually great to be back home.

You know what? They never found Ronny. When the sheriff came and picked me up at the Greta and Clive’s place, he talked to me on the way to the hospital. I was able to give them an idea where I had been and he immediately sent some deputies to search the area. The car, the tent and the dog kennel were all still there and surprise, surprise, no camping gear. But Ronny was nowhere to be seen. They searched the river, sent out hundreds of police type bulletins, dragged the river, everything they could think of. They never found him. My fervent hope is that he followed me into the river, the current got him and he drowned and was eaten by some big ugly fish with dull teeth. It would have served him right.

Dad and Sexy Sal pretty much acted the same as ever to me after I came home and I don’t really want to talk about them.

But Sean and I got along better with each other. A lot better. I think the job at the hardware store helped – made him feel older and more responsible maybe. Anyway, he didn’t pick on me so much afterwards, only sometimes joking with me, pretending like he was going to hit me, but he never did. I guess he just started to grow up some.

Lea and I became closer. I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, ever thank her enough for giving me Sean’s knife that day. But maybe I was able to in some small way. She got me to play dolls with her a lot the rest of the summer right up until when school started (and even after that) and I didn’t really mind. She was fun to be with and she had a really good imagination, especially when it came to using her dolls to play a game she called Family. I never did understand why she never ever had a lot of friends. Well any, actually. Maybe she just liked being by herself. But she was a sweet kid and I figured playing with her and being kind of a friend to her was the least I could do after what she’d done for me, even if it had been inadvertent (another word I learned about in school.) I’m positive I wouldn’t have escaped without her .

Next year in seventh grade in the fall my teacher, Mrs. Rademacher, had us studying ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ Now there’s a lot of fancy imagery and stuff in the book that I didn’t understand, but there were some other things that I kind of got what she was saying. Like at one point she talked about how at the end Huck sort of is rescued from his life on the river and ends up living with his Aunt Sally and everything is fine for him. But he doesn’t like being civilized and decides light out for the west. One of the points she was trying to make was about how life sometimes works in mysterious ways and there’s no accounting sometimes for why things happen the way they do. Huck was rescued and had the good fortune to have the easy life all laid out for him: good food, clean clothes, a roof over his head, someone to love and care for him, and he chose to give it all up.

Mrs. Rademacher looked at me when she talked to us about that but didn’t mention me or refer the class to my story from last summer about how I’d run away from home and what had happened and that I’d returned safe and sound. (Thankfully most people didn’t talk to me too much about it.) But when she said it and I thought about, I had to agree. I think I might even have nodded my head at her because I think what she meant was this: if Sean hadn’t bought the knife and if Lea hadn’t stolen the knife and given it to me, I wouldn’t have been able to use that knife to get away. Weird, huh? Or lucky. But yeah, I think I got what she was saying. Sometimes life does work in mysterious ways.

By the way, Mrs. Rademacher was really nice to me that whole entire year.

And that knife. Later that first day I was home, Sean came in from his first day of working at the hardware store and sat down on the bed next to me and woke me up from a nap.

“Here,” he said. He handed me his knife. “I’ve been thinking about it all day.” Which was surprising to me. Was I still dreaming? I actually pinched myself a little. No, I was wide awake. I’d never thought of Sean as much more than a bully. A thinker? I didn’t think so. Maybe he was changing. In one day? I doubted it but I guess stranger things could happen. He looked at me like he meant what he was saying, “Seriously, I want you to have this.” He reach over, gently took my hand and put his cherished knife in it.

I was shocked. I watched him to see if he was kidding, but he put his hand over mine and said, “Really. After all you went through, I want you to have this. You deserve it.”

I took his knife and held in my hand. I opened the blade. The sheriff’s department had wiped it down for traces of blood before they gave it back to me. They must have cleaned it too because it was gleaming. I looked at it and saw my image on the blade reflected back. I looked tired. Real tired. Then the image changed and I saw something else. For the briefest moment I thought I saw Ronny smiling at me with those ugly brown teeth of his. Grinning at me like I was all his and he could take me and do anything he wanted to me. It freaked me out. I might have screamed. I don’t know. But I do know that I quickly closed the blade and handed the knife back. I swear it felt hot to my touch like maybe it was possessed or something. I knew one thing. I didn’t want to touch it again. Or have anything to do with it again. Ever.

I tried to compose myself and told him, “That’s Ok, Sean. But thanks. I think I’ve had it with knives for a while.”

He looked at me for a moment or two before putting the knife in his pocket.”Ok. I think I get it.”

Well, that made only one of us because I certainly didn’t. In fact, I just let the matter drop, but sometimes still to this day an image of Ronny will appear in my mind. And when it does, it’s scary. People tell me that it’s normal for that to happen, especially after all I had gone through. But I have to say, others have been through a lot worse. A way lot worse, and for the rest of my life I always counted myself as among one of the lucky ones. I got away.

Now I’ll tell you one last thing. In the summer three years later Sean started driving a delivery truck for the company my dad worked for and I began working at the hardware store. Even though I was still small for my age, Mr. Jorgenson was happy to have me, saying, “Sean turned out to be a good worker, but I’ll bet you’ll be lots better.” Well, Sean had changed and actually gotten to be a pretty good guy and I didn’t want say anything against him so all I did was to tell Mr. Jorgenson that I’d do my best.

The first thing I did with my first paycheck was to take my money and go to the knife display case. I’d spent many long and enjoyable hours looking at the knives in there in those three years since Ronny, picturing myself having one of my very own. One like Sean’s except a little bigger. I knew exactly the knife I wanted and so I bought it, snapped open the blade a few times, getting the feel of it and the balance of it. It felt good. Finally, I closed it up and put it in my pocket, said goodbye to Mr. Jorgenson and went outside to get my bike.

Now, I’m not sure I really understand it all that much, but ever since I escaped and came home, Lea started to not like to go outside the house alone. She took the bus to school and it was hard for her, but she was able to build up her courage and do it, but that was about it. Once she was back home she pretty much just stayed inside. So I sort of made a commitment to myself to be with her as much as I could. To be a friend to her. After all, if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story. So I told her that morning that when I got home from work I’d take her to the park, which was referred to by the locals as the City Park. It was located a short bike ride away on the shore of Long Lake and it was something we had started doing pretty often over the last three years. We liked to go there and goof around and play. She liked swinging on the swings and so did I. As I rode my bike home that afternoon I looked up at the sky. It was bright and blue with a few puffy clouds. A perfect day to play outside. I rode faster and got home in record time.

Lea was standing at the back door waiting for me. She ran outside, jumped on the back of my bike and we rode down to the park. We spent an enjoyable hour, swinging on the swings, playing on the merry-go-round, climbing on the jungle-gym and running up and down the slides, acting silly and goofing around. We had a fun time. She even laughed out loud a few times.

Before we came home we found some purple and white wildflowers that Lea liked so I cut a bouquet of them for her with my new knife. She carried them carefully in her hand all the way back to our house and then put them in a small juice glass that she filled with water from the kitchen faucet. Then she took them to her room and set them on her window ledge.

“My dolls like them, Quinn,” she told me. I was standing at her door watching, happy that she was happy. She looked at me and said, “So do I.” And then she smiled and waved as I closed the door. Standing in the hall and listening, I heard her saying, “Come on now girls, let’s play family.”

I went into the kitchen, got an apple and went outside and sat on the back step to eat it. I used my knife to cut it up. It sliced really good. Tasted good, too. When I was finished, I cleaned off the blade on my jeans and put it in my pocket. I’ve kept it there ever since.

After all these years I’m not sure if it helps or not, but I have to say that I like having my knife with me. It gives me a sense of security that I just can’t explain. But when those images of Ronny appear and I start to freak out a little, I put my hand on my knife and they go away. I like knowing that I can do that – that I have a some control. And it gives me a little sense that I might not be a victim after all. Or ever again. But, I carry it with me every day. Just in case.

And you know what? I never once thought about running away from home again.