My ex, Freddie, is, and probably always will be, the biggest idiot I’ve ever known. I mean the guy took our two year old son for a ride on a motorcycle for god’s sake. Sitting on his lap! But only once, I might add, because, man, did I gave him the shit when I found out. Big time.
Oh sure, in the beginning when we were both juniors in high school and starting to date I’ll admit that I was drawn to his tall thin frame, dark brooding looks and long wavy hair – he really did remind me of what I imagined a poet from the Renaissance would look like. And the sex was good, too, I’ll cop to that right now. Great, even. So back then I cut him a lot of slack. But flash forward ten years and things have changed. We’ve been married for five years and have five year old Kenny and three year old Laura. We’ve just bought a house in the little town of Long Lake and Freddie is happily living on workmen’s comp due to falling off a ladder at the construction site where he was working and I see him for the lazy, self centered, good for nothing slob he really is. Now all he’s capable of doing in lying around our tiny home playing on the Xbox or fooling around in the backyard with his crap Harley, smoking weed and drinking beer and having his friends over to party while I work as a teacher’s aide at the middle school in Orono and clerk at the Holiday gas station down the road from us for extra money. Well, if you’d seen me back then you’d have seen me grow from being sort of pissed off to major league pissed off in the course of those five long years of marriage not to mention all the time I spent putting up his worthlessness. Plus, you’d see me on the verge of booting him out.
Flash forward another five years to now and you’ll find me happier than I’ve been in a long time because I’ve not only booted his worthless ass out but I’ve finally divorced the lazy SOB. Last month was the second year anniversary of that red letter day. These days I’m focused on my kids and both my jobs and I’m trying to move on. I’m still pissed off at him, I’ll tell you that right up front, but now it’s just on general principles, like that thing having to do with Jake.
Maybe you read about it in the newspaper: the time last August when that little girl, Sally Carthwight, went missing? Oh, I’ll tell you I was going nuts, freaking out and worried like most everyone else in our tiny, close-knit community about the fate of the little four year old. I even joined in one of the many search parties that were quickly organized to comb the woods and swamps around town to look for her. And, like thousands of others, I was wildly happy when little Sally was found curled up and scared but safe in a garden shed after only having been gone from 4:00 pm on Wednesday until 6:00 am on Thursday. But the true scare for me, and unbeknownst to everyone else, was that while she was missing so was Jake, who was under the care of my stupid ex, and who knew what Jake might do, especially if he came across cute little Sally.
I got it from Kenny, my ten year old, who told me innocently, “Daddy’s snake got away.” He relayed this information to me on Tuesday morning, the day after Jake made it’s infamous escape from Freddie and the day before little Sally wandered off. Kenny and Laura had just been dropped off by Freddie’s new girlfriend after their one night every two weeks court ordered visit with their dad. (Apparently he couldn’t be bothered to bring his own kids home to me, busy as he was sleeping or getting stoned or something.) I had just plopped down a bowl of cheerios on the kitchen table for their breakfasts, since they each told me right off coming in the back door that they were ‘Starving, Mom.’ Feeding his children wasn’t high on my ex’s priority list, either, I guess.
“Yeah,” Kenny added, getting back to the snake discussion while digging in and shoveling a super sized spoonful into his mouth, “Dad’s kind of worried,”
Well, I went crazy, absolutely bat shit bonkers. I started screaming and threw the box of cereal across the kitchen and then kicked it causing cheerios to explode all over the place. I picked up the newspaper from the counter and flung it in the air and punched the pages as they fell to the ground. Next I slammed my hand against the back door frame and then punched it for good measure, which hurt. A lot. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t break any fingers. But my actions did temper my anger somewhat and cause me to get control of myself. I stomped around the tiny kitchen for a few minutes before finally starting to calm down. When I felt I had myself under control I went to the back door and looked out into my small, shaded backyard, seeing only the red rage in my brain. What the hell was Freddie thinking? One, what’s the deal with him having a snake? And, two, what’s the deal with him having my kids over when there was a snake around, escaped or not?
Eight year old Laura piped in, trying to calm me, “It’s Ok, Mommy. Daddy says Jake’s not really dangerous.”
I was on the phone before I could get the phase, “I’ll kill that son-of-a bitch,” out of my mouth.
Turns out that Jake was an eleven foot long python, if you could believe it. Yeah, a python and Freddie was, “Snake sitting for a friend,” as he called it, when I got him on the line was able to finally to control myself enough to talk coherently.
“A snake? A python? Are you kidding me? You’re the biggest dumb-ass I’ve ever heard of, having something like that around the kids.” I paused to take a breath and then added, “I’m going to call the cops if you keep this up.”
“Now, now, Bethie Button,” he said to me, chuckling and using a term of endearment from our past he had no right to invoke, “Don’t get so worked up.” I could see his confident grin spreading over the phone like oozing slime and, man, the vision of it just made me madder.
Seems that Freddie had a friend who had the python and he was taking care of the big reptile while the friend was serving twenty-one days in the workhouse for being drunk and disorderly at a Memorial Day celebration in Minneapolis located twenty miles east of Long Lake. Nice friends, I thought to myself, listening in amazement while Freddie told me the story, wondering what I’d ever seen in him in the first place. Oh, yeah, the wavy hair, the brooding good looks, the great sex.
“Well, the kids aren’t going back over there until that snake is gone,” I told him in no uncertain terms, forgetting for a minute that it already was, “I mean, long gone, like back with your friend.”
“I’m going outside again to look for him some more right now,” he told me, “Me and Ronnie.”
Ronnie. What a stupid name for the bitch who was now Freddie’s new girlfriend for the last, what, month? If I had a nickel for every tattoo I’d seen on the slut I’d be able to buy a new car instead of the piece of crap twenty five year old Honda I was driving. Add in the ones I couldn’t see and I’d probably be able to buy my kids each a new bicycle, too.
“Well, you’d better hurry and find it then,” I told him, “I’ve heard those things are dangerous.” I shivered when I slammed the phone down.
My grandmother grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota that was regularly inundated with six foot long bull snakes (harmless, but still, six feet of snake is a lot of snake.) She passed that fear on to my mom who tried to pass it on to me but failed. I don’t love snakes, but I don’t hate them either. Live and let live is my motto, but still, a python is not like the little garter snakes I’m used to seeing when I’m working in the yard, not by a long shot. Python’s ate things, even big things sometimes, so in my book Jake was something to worry about.
When Freddie and I divorced, I kept the house we’d bought three years after Kenny was born. Freddie and I made it for a couple of long and unhappy years before I was finally done with his wasted ways and I kicked him out for good. He didn’t move far away. In a moment of benevolent parenting fervor, saying that he wanted to be close to the kids, he rented a dilapidated garage a half mile from me out on the edge of town. It was on the property of the guy who owned the construction company where Freddie was injured – a guy called Cameron, who was rich and who apparently felt sorry for my idiotic ex. But Freddie’s always been lucky that way, always seems to find a way to get people to feel sorry for him, always seems to have friends around to help him out. In short, always seems to get by. Me, I have to work two jobs to make ends meet (just barely.) But I’m not complaining (much) it just seems that Freddie’s not only a lazy good for nothing SOB, but he’s supremely lucky, too. Luckier than me, anyway.
So strike that comment about complaining because I guess I am. But least I have the kids and that counts for a lot in my book no matter how difficult it is to pay the bills, keep my home and stay out of debt, which I pride myself on doing. Whatever the case, Freddie calls the junked out garage home, but I know better: peeling paint, rummy looking roof, crap laying around inside and out. You can’t fool me – it’s a piece of shit shack that’s a poor excuse for a place to live and I only let the kids go there because it’s close and they can run home to me anytime they want if they need to and, besides, he’s their father after all, and has a right to see his son and daughter (I’m not a complete jerk, just protective of my children.)
The point is, a half a mile away…was that close enough for a python to get to me and my kids? I looked it up on my iPad. Yeah, it was.
I was off from my teacher’s aide job for the summer, but still worked at the Holiday station for extra cash. I didn’t have to go in until three that Tuesday afternoon, so I spent the rest of the day patrolling my yard with one of Kenny’s aluminum baseball bats, keeping on the lookout for the python. I had no idea what I’d do if I found it, but I couldn’t just sit and let the big reptile come to me, could I?
When I left for work a little before three I told the kids to stay inside until I got home, hoping they’d mind me – they usually did. I tried to put the fear of god in them before I left.
“Do you know that a python like that could swallow each of you whole, one after the other, and then spend a week or two slowly digesting you until you were nothing but a gooey glob of guck in its stomach? How’d you like that?”
I’m not sure my statement was true or not, but the way their eyes went wide I could tell I made my point. “Just stay inside. I’ll be home by nine-fifteen.” I said over my shoulder as I left, “And don’t go out of the house for any reason whatsoever.” I turned and gave them my best evil-eye mom look, “I mean it,” I said pointing my finger at each of them, “Stay right here.”
I’m pretty sure they followed my instructions because when I got home that evening their bikes were parked exactly where they’d been left out back along side of the garage. It being August in Minnesota, there was still enough light for me to grab Kenny’s baseball bat and do a quick check around both the front and backyards, looking behind bushes and checking around the foundation of the little single story rambler I call home. No python. But let me tell you, by the time I got inside and curled up on the couch with the kids and a big bowl of popcorn to watch one of the Minions movies, my nerves were shot.
Laura, my skinny, bookish, daughter lay her head on my shoulder and said, “Mommy, don’t worry about anything. Daddy told us Jake was really a nice snake.”
Snake maybe, python no. I’d read up on them on my iPad at work. There’s no such thing as a nice python, a reptile that could suck down a baby fawn in the blink of an eye, is what I was thinking, but Laura was a sweet little freckled red head who reminded me of the main character in my favorite book when I was growing up, ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ and I didn’t want to scare her (much) and lay my concern about her or Kenny being swallowed alive on her so I told her, “I’m not worried, honey, just tired.” I shuddered as I said it, picturing a huge python wrapping itself around…I shuddered some more, but in spite of all the shuddering I’m pretty sure I was able to convince my gentle daughter that everything was going to be alright. I even managed to convince myself. Boy was I a good liar.
I spent the morning the next day, Wednesday, cleaning the house while the kids watched cartoons until I turned the television off and told them to entertain themselves which they did, Laura by reading and Kenny by building a Lego model of some Star Wars thing. Then I fixed grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and when that was over, and since I was still not excited about any of us going outside, the kids and I commandeered the kitchen table and started playing board games. Even though we were stuck (trapped?) indoors with no air-conditoner on a hot summer day (the temperature was near ninety degrees outside) the three of us rose to the occasion and by the middle of the afternoon we were deep into a marathon game of monopoly and having a pretty fun time.
Then I got a panicky call from my friend Sara, “Beth did you hear? Sally Carthwright’s gone missing.”
Well, talk about the shit hitting the fan. My adrenaline kicked in, roaring through my body like a tidal wave and my mind went into overdrive with motherly concern as my heart went on to Sally and her parents. I could only imagine what they were going through because if it were me in their position, I’d be a blithering idiot and out of my mind with worry. Then I jumped to the fact that Jake the python was on the loose and a icy horror set in(I was assuming he still was still gone since I hadn’t heard otherwise from Freddie.) What would happen to little four year old Sally if the big python came across her? Well, with that picture firmly implanted in my mind, I really did lose it. I started yelling a bunch of blathering non-sense, but I know at one point I must have screamed, “What?!” because Sara yelled back at me, “What?!” and we went back and forth screaming “What?!” until I realized I needed to get a grip.
“Sorry,” I told my friend, “But it’s really freaking me out about Sally.” Which was only half the reason for my outburst, if that much. I was also major league freaking out about the python slithering around our town somewhere (I tried not to image it laying in wait in the bushes outside my backdoor), but I couldn’t tell that to Sara. I know it sounds weird, but I still felt some weird allegiance to that stupid ex of mine, no matter how crazy it seems. I guess it’s because we do have a history, as they say, and after all these years I’ve just not been able to get him completely out of my mind nor, for that matter, my system. Believe me, it’s a statement I’m not proud to make, but there it is, the ugly truth rearing its ugly head for all its ugly worth.
“No shit, Sherlock,” was what she told me, wrenching me away from my carnal thoughts of Freddie and back to the present and the reality of the situation as far as little Sally was concerned, “It’s freaking me out, too.”
Sara filled me in on what she’d heard, “I guess Sally was being baby sat by her grandparents over near Watertown Road and Willow Way.” I knew the location well. It was an area of forests and meadows and ponds that eventually lead out to farmland further to the west and was country as rugged as you’d expect to find only twenty miles from a major metropolitan city like Minneapolis. Our little town was named after picturesque Long Lake and is built on its western shore. Our population is just under two thousand, mostly blue collar workers who like the peace and quiet small town living afforded them. But in the last ten years or so richer people have started moving in, buying up big two to five acre lots and building huge McMansions out where Sally went missing. Her grandparents fell into that category, having moved in only about three years ago.
“How long’s she been gone?” My heart was racing, imagining how I would feel if one of my own kids turned up missing.
“Since around four this afternoon,” Sara told me. I looked at the clock on the wall over the sink. It read a few minutes after five. Missing for one hour.”I guess the grandfather had gone on an errand and the grandmother had fallen asleep. Sally just wandered off.”
“Can we do anything?” I reached out to Laura who was standing nearby and pulled her to me, holding her close and needing to feel the warmth of her little body and smell the sweet strawberry shampoo aroma of her hair. It helped mitigate my fear for the lost child but only a little.
“That’s why I’m calling. Betty Farnsworth from Our Savior sent out an email. We can meet at the police station at five-thirty to organize into search parties. I’m going. Are you in?”
I didn’t have to think, “Yeah, I told her.” Then I thought about leaving Kenny and Laura home by themselves, something I didn’t want to do. “I’m bringing the kids.”
“Sounds good,” Sara said, “I’m bringing mine, too.” Sara’s twins, Caleb and Emma, were just a few years older than Kenny and all four of our childrengot along well.
I hung up the phone and got myself and my kids ready. The police station was down the hill and across the highway, only a minute or two drive from me. I grabbed the baseball bat and ran out the door into the backyard thinking I had time for one more check to see if Jake was around. A minute later I was back inside. He wasn’t anywhere that I could tell, a thought that was only partly comforting given that he could be lurking anywhere, perhaps digesting some poor unfortunate creature. I shivered for about the hundredth time in the last day at the thought.
“Come on kids,” I yelled, “We’re going to look for a lost girl.” They both ran into the kitchen where I was fixing a small backpack of bottled water and snacks. I tossed some mosquito repellant in, too, as I quickly filled them in on what was going on. “I want you to be on your best behavior and do what I say while we’re out there, understand?”
Laura looked at me wide eyed and said, “Ok.”
Kenny said, “Ok,” thought for a moment, then asked, “What about Jake?”
“Yeah, mommy, what about him?” Laura chimed in.
I knelt down so I was looking them both eye to eye. “We say nothing about Jake to anyone, Ok? Not a word.” Then I added, “We don’t want your dad to get into trouble, right?” Kenny and Laura adored their father and playing my ‘We don’t want your dad to get into trouble’ card was one I used on occasion to get them to do something I really wanted them to do. This was one of those times.
They both solemnly nodded their heads in agreement.
“Ok, then, let’s go.”
We trooped out the back door (my eyes scanning under the bushes for you know who), got in the car and raced down to the village hall, where the police station was. All the while I was wondering why I was protecting Freddie. I should have just told the cops about the python being on the loose and be done with the whole mess. It was the certainly the right course of action but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Once again I was falling under the spell of my ex-husband, the father of my kids, the guy who still somehow fired up my former feelings for him no matter how harmful they might be.
We couldn’t park in the parking lot, it was too full, so we stashed the car down the block and hurried back. It seemed most of the town had turned out to search for little Sally who now had been missing for an hour and a half. Jake the python had been missing for over a day. I attempted to wipe out a possible collision course between the two from my brain and was only moderately successful. Trying to quell my shaking body and the shivers running up and down my spine, I hustled the kids inside. We fought through the crowded foyer before making our way into the packed city council meeting room. I looked around and found Sara along with Caleb and Emma, her eleven year old twins, standing against the wall along one side. I made my way to her and we hugged a quick greeting while our kids all said hi to each other.
Sara was five feet seven and had the slim build of a committed runner although she never did a bit of exercising, one of the many traits we shared. A distinctive feature of hers was a mass of thick and wavy dark red hair that fell well past her shoulders. This evening she had it pulled back into a pony-tail and held it in place with a forest green headband which also set off her light blue eyes and smattering of freckles along her prominent cheekbones. All in all, she was extremely striking looking in a very good way. Her appearance was in sharp contrast to my five feet one inch, rather stocky frame and close cropped auburn hair. Athletic looking I was not. I sometimes thought of the two of us as those cartoon characters, Mutt and Jeff, with Sara being the tall one (I forget which was which.) We’ve been close friends for the last three years, ever since I stopped to help her when her car had a flat tire out on the highway a few miles from town (I provided the car-jack, we both provided the muscle.) We immediately bonded over the poor choices we’d made of men in our lives, she being recently divorced back then, me soon to be.
The chief of police called the meeting together, thanked us for attending and filled us in enough to let us know that there were no new developments. Then he turned the floor over to a Search and Rescue team from Hennepin County. The leader, a tall, blond, athletic woman named Steph who looked like she could jog to Alaska and back with only a daypack, gave us an overview of what she wanted from us: follow instructions, stay together and keep our eyes alert for anything not normal (like a python, I grimly thought to myself.) Then she broke the crowd into search parties of approximately twenty each. With all of the people volunteering, there were nearly twenty five groups.
Our search leader was a short, thin, chiseled man around thirty, with a three day beard and with a shaved head, who looked like a tri-athletic. His name was Randy and he met us outside in the parking lot.
“Ok, you all,” he said by way of greeting, “You heard what Steph said. Any questions?” Everyone silently shook their heads. “Alright, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Let’s get to it.” He was confident and no-nonsense, and I immediately felt like we were in good hands.
“Yeah, let’s go,” I blurted out, suddenly feeling a rare form of solidarity with my group. I’m usually a person who prefers time spent alone with my kids or Sara. But this was a different and certainly an extraordinary situation.
Randy looked at me and smiled a quick smile and then went back to business. He took out a big contour map of the area and knelt down as he unfolded it and lay it on the ground. Our search group gathered around as best we could. He looked up at us, deadly serious, and pointed to the map, “We’re covering the area along the Lucy Line Trail between Brown Road and Leaf Street. It’s a mile long section. Do you all know where it is?”
We all did. It was about a quarter of a mile from where Sally went missing and a mile from where we now stood.
“Ok, then. I’ll give finally instructions once we get there.” He grimaced as he glanced at his watch, a complicated looking device that looked like weighed a couple of pounds and said, “Time’s wasting.” He stood up quickly while folding his map, “Let’s go.”
The kids and I carpooled with Sara, and she drove us to the where Brown Road met with the Lucy Line, a seventy five mile long dirt trail used by walkers, joggers, bicycle riders and horseback riders. It was maintained by the DNR and ran from Minneapolis out to central Minnesota on an old railroad bed. The area we were to search was hilly and thickly forested with numerous swamps and ponds were tossed in for good measure. It was rough land and going to be a bitch to work through. Add to that the fact that we had to keep our attention focused and on the lookout for a scared little four year old girl while also protecting ourselves from hordes of swarming black flies, ticks and misquotes that we’d be encountering, all of which were hungrily waiting to suck our blood and then eat us alive, not to mention it was stifling hot and humid and muggy out – well, we definitely had our work cut out for us. And, of course, I had something other than searching for Sally on my mind: that damn python, Jake.
Sara was my best friend, someone I confided in if ever I needed to talk. On the ten minute drive to the trial I decided to tell her about the missing reptile. I spoke quickly and filled her in on the python and Freddie and how he had been taking care of it but the big snake had somehow got loose and now was slithering around free as you please in the general area. The thought of it possibly being nearby made me move closer to Sara even though we were still in her car, a newish Prius, which I assumed was python proof.
Sara did not take a passive stance when I finished my story, “What the hell?” She screamed, slamming her hand on the steering wheel, “What the friggin’ hell?” She yelled again, just a notch below her previous volume and slammed her hand once more for good measure. She was obviously shocked, if not at the same time at a loss for words. I have to admit, now that I’d gotten the story out into the light of day for someone else to hear about, the whole thing sounded too weird to be true. But the fact of the matter was that, unfortunately, it wasn’t.
I really had nothing to add in my defense so I just waited for her to calm down. I stared out the window, looking under every bush we drove past for the python. In a minute she’d simmered down a bit but was still mad enough at me to spit out an, “Are you nuts? You need to call the cops and report it,” just for good measure, but I could tell her anger was dissipating. She’s taught tenth grade biology at the local high school for fourteen years and is used to dealing with all kinds of issues, especially regarding unruly, hormone driven teenagers. Having me as a friend was probably pretty similar to what she had to deal with on a daily basis although she’s always been kind enough never to mention it.
She did, however, mince no words when she by-passed the python issue and went straight to a different point, a point that was a sore spot between the two of us, “I know you still see Freddie occasionally. What’s going on there? Are you comfortable protecting him while that python’s on the loose?”
I probably should say right now that I still sort of have a thing for my insane ex husband. We’ve even gotten together more than a few times in the two years since the divorce under the guise of quote un-quote talking, but it’s usually led to me spending the night at his ratty old garage slash shack. I’ve confided this to Sara before and, even though she thinks I’m nuts, her opinion is that my attraction to him has nothing to do with anything logical (which I can readily attest to) and more to do with something more ‘Rudimentary,’ as she called it (which sort of made sense, once she explained it to me.)
“It’s simple a case of your brain, or more specifically your hypothalamus, taking over,” she said a few years ago when I first told her what was happening, “Thinking has nothing to do with it. It’s all about your need for sex.”
When she initially told me this I got good and mad and argued vehemently against her accusation. How could she dare think that? I hated the guy. He was a lazy, good for nothing son-of-a-bitch with not one thing going for him except two great kids who happened to be mine (well, his too, of course, but still…) I was the primary care-giver and the main source of income and security for Kenny and Laura. He only saw them two days a month for god’s sake! (I’m sorry but here I go again, getting all wound up.) The point is, and the point Sara was trying to make back then and still believes to this day, is that I’m attracted to Freddie for nothing other than pure and simple physical need. While we’re at it you might as well add in the fact that he was still good looking enough to push a few of my buttons – in a good way, if you know what I mean. Then toss in the intense pleasure he gives me on those rare occasions we get together and maybe you can see my conundrum. Or maybe not, but I am putting my hand on a bible right now and making a promise that that’s all there is too it. I don’t, I repeat, don’t, want to get back with him – a statement I keep telling myself every time I’ve been with him. The truth is, I know that I should just end it and be done with him for good and forever. I really should, but, the problem is, I never do.
Thinking about this all on the drive over to the Lucy Line it occurred to me that I really was being an idiot about the whole thing. What I should do after this fiasco with the missing child and the missing python is over is this: finally and definitely end it with Freddie – for now and for all time. Yeah, that’s for sure the best course of action. The reasonable thing to do.The smart thing to do.
But, unfortunately, I knew myself well enough to know I was just blowing smoke. I was still in deep with the guy, hard as it was to admit.
I looked out the window at the passing neighborhood of big homes and big yards where Sally’s grandparents lived and wondered if Jake was out there. Well, of course he was, but where? That was the sixty-four thousand dollar question. And that was the question that drove lustful thoughts of my good for nothing ex right out of my mind because right now there were other things to worry about, mainly finding little Sally before the big python did.
But Sara wasn’t quite finished with me. She had one more thing to add, one more sharp ended point to make and to jab deep into me just as we were arriving at the search area. “From a biological standpoint my friend,” she said, grimly, taking her eyes off the road for an instant and drilling them into me, “You need to know that there are some things that are hard to control.” She clicked on the turn-signal before finishing her thought, “Your need for sex and that python’s need to eat.”
Geez. Thanks a lot for the reminder.
I looked into the back seat. The four kids were sitting with their eyes wide and their mouths hanging open, not saying a thing. I turned around and looked out the front window and thought, man, what have I gotten myself into?
Sara applied the brakes and brought the car to a stop. We got out to join the other searchers. I looked at her as we walked toward them and my friend put a comforting arm around my shoulder, saying, “It’s Ok, kiddo. It is what it is,” meaning me and Freddie, I figured, “We can talk more later. Now, let’s go find that little girl.”
Which made as much sense as anything.
As we walked up to the group Randy clapped his hands together to get our attention. “Ok, gang, listen, up. Here’s what I want you to do,” and he gave us our final instructions.
We were to follow the Lucy Line to the west and we used it as the boundary for the southern edge of the area we were searching. Most of us dropped down off the trail into the underbrush of the forest canopy and spread out in a ragged line roughly ten feet apart to the north. Then we walked to the west for one mile scanning with our eyes and, later, with our head lamps and flashlights. Walking was a generous term for what we were doing because it really was the bitch I thought it’d be. With the heat and humidity it was hard to breathe, feeling more like we were in a jungle in the middle of the Amazon than a forest in Minnesota. We fought our way through dense underbrush and brambles, the operative word here being fought. The woods were thick with small saplings that slapped us in the face and in a few minutes we all had cuts, some bleeding more than others. Brush and vines and lots of other gnarly stuff grabbed at us, impeding our progress and slowing us down to slower than a crawl. At times I wished I had a machete to cut through all the crap and vegetation in my way. It was exhausting, hard going for all of us, but no one complained, not one bit. We were all focused on finding Sally. Me, I was on double alert, also keeping on the lookout for the big python. I never saw him.
When we were done with our first sweep we were hot and dirty, tired and physically spent. We took a quick break, downing gallons of water and about a dozen energy bars each, all the while trying not to collapse from heat exhaustion. Then we turned around, spread out in a line further to the north and worked our way back to our starting point. We finished around midnight, filthy and sweaty and so tired we were hardly able to move, let alone talk to one another. We hadn’t found anything of interest relating to the missing girl. We did, however, find five bicycles, a three kitchen sinks, at least ten tires, a few mattresses, some old televisions and various other pieces of junk. But no Sally. And no Jake, either, thank god (I think.)
Back at the trail head Randy called our mosquito and gnat bitten, worn out group together and thanked us for our effort.
“You did real good, folks,” he said, wiping away the sweat from his forehead with the yellow bandana he’d been wearing, before taking a long slug from a water bottle, “Really good. It’s too late to do much more now although I know we all still want to.” We all grimly nodded our agreement. I drank water and made the kids drink, too, before dumping the rest of a bottle over my head, trying to cool off. It didn’t help. “The main thing is, though,” he continued, “We need to get re-hydrated and get some rest. How many of you want to continue to search tomorrow? I’m planning to start at seven in the morning.”
We all raised our hands, even Kenny and Laura and Sara’s kids. Randy smiled, “That’s the spirit. That’s great. We’ll meet back at the community center in the morning then and make assignments. We might move to another search area.” He waved and we all said good-bye and then Sara drove us back to town so I could pick up my car. We were there in ten minutes.
“You doing Ok?” she asked. I’d gotten Kenny and Laura into the Honda where they flopped in the backseat completely done in, moments away from falling into a deep sleep. Sara’s kids were already sacked out in the back of the Prius. I was standing outside my car, leaning against the side brushing some stray bugs away from my face and picking a wood tick off my arm, barely able to keep on my feet but not yet ready to leave the comfort of my friend.
“I am,” I told her, flicking the wood tick away, “I just don’t know why I do the things I do,” Meaning with Freddie, but Sara knew that.
“I just want you to be safe,” she said, “And not do anything to hurt yourself.”
Sara had told me this a hundred times before. It was good advice and advice that I should have been taking so why didn’t I? Could I simply chalk my reluctance to do the right thing – dump Freddie and move on – up to not being able to control myself and, as Sara so bluntly put it, my reptile lust? Was I that pathetic? Was I really just like that creepy python lying in wait out there somewhere, looking for some poor unsuspecting animal (or worse, human!) to eat, except in my case it was me looking to have sex with my ex? Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, I was pathetic.
I shook my head. I was just too tired to think about me and Freddie anymore. It was Little Sally who we had to worry about and keep our attention focused on. God only knew what she was going through right now. I felt a sudden surge of concern flow through me and blinked back a tear, thinking about Sally’s parents and what they must now be feeling. This would be the longest night of their lives, and they had to be going insane with worry. I know I would be. I couldn’t wait to begin searching again, bug bites and exhaustion notwithstanding. Tomorrow morning couldn’t come soon enough.
I gave Sara a big, hard, hug. “You’re a good friend. I wish I was stronger.”
She blurted out a laugh and, in this stressful night, I have to say that her laughter sounded wonderful and gave me a much needed emotional boost. “Don’t worry, Beth,” she said, “You’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. I’ve know you long enough to know that. You’ll eventually do the right thing and move on from that loser of an ex of yours.”
I gave her another tight hug before letting her go, all the while thinking that they were nice words to hear even though I had a massive amount of trouble believing them.
We said our final good-nights and good-byes and I drove home. Our little town is always peaceful, especially at night, and, in spite of the emotional furor of Sally being missing tonight was no different. I only saw one or two cars on the road, though I did count myself unexpectedly lucky to see a fox. The beautiful, rufus-red, animal had a thick bushy tail and scampered across the road in the span of my headlights before disappearing into the darkness just a few blocks from my house. I thought seeing it was pretty cool and hoped it might be a good omen for the next day.
Back home I stepped out of the car to the hooting call of a Great Horned Owl, a sound that for some reason always makes me feel secure and comforted. Then I remembered Jake. Damn. I awoke the kids, hurried them across the backyard and into the house, stepping lively even though I could hardly move my feet I was so tired. In ten minutes the kids were fast asleep, tucked into their beds, so worn out they didn’t even move once they hit the sheets. Then I sat up on the couch until at least three in the morning, lightly tapping the baseball bat in my hand. I had a lot to think about: Sally, Jake and Freddie. It was a short night in one respect, but a long one in another, and when I finally fell asleep, I hadn’t accomplished anything. Nothing that is except I kind of did a number on my hand, constantly slapping at it with my bat. It was pretty bruised when I saw it that next morning. In a way, I probably deserved it.
A loud sound woke me from where I’d fallen asleep on the couch. My head was mashed between the cushion and the arm but I heard it just fine since apparently I’d left my phone right next to my ear and ‘Water Under the Bridge’ by Adele was coming through loud and clear. It was Sara calling. “Sally’s been found,” she yelled, “She’s safe.”
I let out a muted whoop of joy,” Yea!,” as I sat up and pumped my fist in the air. I didn’t want to wake Kenny and Laura but being as exhausted from last night as they were they probably wouldn’t have awoken to a full blown cheer from a stadium packed with rabid soccer fans.
It turned out that yesterday afternoon the little girl had wandered a few houses down from her grandparents, found a storage shed unlocked and crept inside where she eventually fell asleep under a tarp. Can you believe it, under a tarp. That’s why no one had seen her when they’d looked inside during yesterdays frantic search. When she awoke it was nighttime and she was afraid so she stayed put and eventually fell asleep again. The owner of the shed found her the next morning when he went out to get his lawn mower, ready to spend the day cutting his three acre lawn. To say both he and Sally were surprised would be putting it mildly.
Sara and I were ecstatic that the story had happy ending and so was our town and all the people who had been out searching last night.”We’ve been invited to the community center at noon for a celebration,” Sara said, “Do you want to go?”
I checked the clock. It was six thirty. “Yeah, I do,” I told her. “There’s something I need to do first, though.”
“I’ll tell you when I see you.”
“Does it have to do with Freddie?” Sara asked, coyly. I could see her sly smile over the phone. It helped firm my resolve for what I was going to do.
“Yeah, it does,” I told my friend, “I’ll tell you when I see you.”
I hung up and went into the each of the kid’s rooms. They were sleeping soundly and I didn’t want to wake them. I left note on the kitchen table just to be on the safe side. What I had to do wasn’t going to take long. I hoped. Then I went out and got in the Honda and drove through low lying morning fog to Freddie’s. I was so preoccupied I didn’t even think to look for Jake on the way out to my car.
The sun was up just above the trees and the day was already muggy and warm. It was probably going to be hot later, another typical August summer day, but I wasn’t thinking about the weather at all. I pulled up to the garage slash shack of Freddie’s, turned off my car and got out. The yard (if you could call it that) was even more of a mess than I’d ever seen it, with fenders and other pieces of cars scattered around along with a bunch of unidentifiable parts of other motorized vehicles. There was some construction equipment parked haphazardly nearby, too, probably Cameron’s stuff: a couple of bobcats, a front end loader and three dump trucks. Even an old moving van was sitting off to the side, rusting down on it rims. It looked more like a junk yard than a place where someone lived. Ronnie drove a red, beat up Saturn and it was parked at an odd angle right next to the front of the garage. What passed for grass was growing knee high and mostly dead, with chest high weeds being the big winners here. Fat blue bottle flies were swarming everywhere and what looked like maggots were crawling on every surface I looked at, so I quit looking.
God help me…I took a moment and gazed around wondering what I’d ever seen in this guy. There really was something drastically wrong with someone who didn’t mind living this way not to mention someone who hung around with said person, like me, on occasion.
But no more.
I walked on a narrow, slimy path to the entrance on the side of the garage where I paused, taking a deep breath before letting it out, psyching myself up. Then I pounded on the door. Pounded hard and then shook my head in disgust when some pieces of paint fell off. What a crap place to live. After a minute of pounding I heard Ronnie tell Freddie to, “For god’s sake get yourself up and go see what the hell’s going on.”
I heard movement, shuffling, coughing and then my ex opened the door. I hadn’t seen him face to face in a month and in that time he seemed to have gone even further downhill. He was wearing a torn tee-shirt and tattered boxers and looked beyond disheveled, his long hair hanging dirty and oily to his shoulders, some of it in his face. The disgusting stink of who knew how many days of not bathing followed him to the door in a pungent cloud. There was a week’s worth of beard stubble on his face and his eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. He still had his thin build of high school, but over the years had grown a belly shaped like a watermelon that seemed to get bigger every time I saw him and now looked like he’d swallowed a huge pumpkin. His eyes lit up, though, when he saw it was me, and he smiled, his teeth more brown than white.
“Hey there, Bethie button,” he said. His breath smelled rank, even from the four feet that separated us. He took a step forward with the intention of giving me a friendly hug and asked, “How’s my girl doing?”
I took a step back and held up my hand to stop him. “Cool it, buddy,” I said. “I’m here for one reason and one reason only.”
He looked confused and blinked his eyes for a moment. Then it seemed like a light bulb went off in his head, “Oh, yeah, I get that,” he grinned, and looked over his shoulder back to where I assumed Ronnie was, probably listening to every word said between us. He was clueless to the angry tone of my voice and, instead, lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said, “I’ve got company now, sweetheart. Why don’t you come back in a couple of hours after she goes to work. Then we can…” he chuckled and, I kid you not, ran his tongue over his chapped lips, before saying, “…you know, have some fun together.”
In my mind I saw what he thought I was there for – me and him getting it on in his disgusting bed in his filthy excuse of a home. The image of the two of us together just about made me puke. I think I actually gagged before catching myself and reminding myself why I was really there.
“Not on your life, pal,” I told him, “Not now, and not tomorrow, and not the day after. In fact, not ever.” I moved a step toward him and he stepped back, reacting to the menace in my voice. “And don’t you ever think about it again,” I added, “I’m done with you and I’m done with us. It’s over.” I heard the final certainty in my voice and liked it. I liked it a lot.
Then I put both my hands on his good for nothing boney chest and pushed him hard. He stumbled back a few steps, looking perplexed before regaining his balance. When he did he just stood there looking like he’d lost his best friend. Maybe he had, but too bad. It was time to move on. For both of us.
The only thing he could think to say was, “Hey…”
From the darkness inside Ronnie yelled, “Freddie, shut the damn door and come back to bed and leave that bitch alone.”
I was wound up and almost stormed into the garage to give her a piece of my mind. Almost, but I held back. I had nothing to say to Ronnie. Let her think I was a bitch. Maybe I was, but I was as done with her as I was done with Freddie. She’d be gone soon anyway to make room for someone else and it wasn’t going to be me. My ex was a creep and a jerk who thought it was Ok to keep a python in the same place while his two kids stayed with him. That’s not what a responsible parent was supposed to do and that was just the tip of an iceberg of my ex’s faults that all put together were enough to have sunk the Titanic. I was done with the whole situation regarding Freddie. For now and forever. It only took that python, Jake, to help point the error of my ways and to see my ex for the loser he really was.
I slammed the door and left the two of them to their pathetic lives. I walked to my car, started it and drove off. But I did take one last look in the rearview mirror. Freddie had opened the door and was standing outside, watching me drive off. He must have regained his composure because he had the audacity to wave to me and give me a big smile like nothing whatsoever had happened and that things between us were still fine. Wrong! I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out and gave him the finger. His smile disappeared in an instant. Then I hit the gas. It was the best I’d felt in a long time.
Later, when I told all of this to Sara the first thing she did was give me a high five. Then she hugged me. Then she asked, “So you’re rid of him. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” Not skeptical, really, more curious than anything else.
We were sitting at a picnic table down at Lakeside City Park, located on the west end of Long Lake. There was a big celebration going with grills scattered around and guys cooking up brats and wieners and corn on the cob, all of the food smoking away, and the aroma of it all making my mouth water like there was no tomorrow. There were coolers full of soft drinks and bottled water, and kids playing on the playground equipment, and others fooling around on the beach or swimming in the refreshing water of the lake, and dogs running around in the newly constructed dog park…In short, there was a lot of activity going on, like semi-organized chaos. It felt wonderful to be part of it. The celebration had been moved from the community center to the park when it became obvious that so many people wanted to attend and celebrate the happy ending to the story of the missing Sally Carthwright.
It was now mid afternoon and things were in full swing. Someone had even organized an impromptu concert of sorts with a couple of guitars, a fiddle and a mandolin set up near where we were sitting under a huge cottonwood tree. I was eyeballing the fiddle player, a tall, thin, guy wearing a wicked grin and a straw cowboy hat, who was new in town and who I recognized from walking by my house occasionally, when Sara shook my shoulder to get my attention.
“Hey, I asked what made you change your mind about Freddie?”
“You mean the fact that he’s an idiot and a loser and a pothead, that’s not enough?” I said, dragging my eyes away from that tall drink of cool water who just happened to be a kick-ass fiddle player.
Sara nodded smiling, because not being a fan of my ex, she’d only told me this a million times before.”How about the kids? You still going to let them see him?”
“I don’t like it, but yeah, they can. He’s their father after all. But I’m definitely going to keep a closer check on things, that’s for sure.”
“You mean like regarding pythons and things like that?”
I smiled and took a sip of my bottled water, “Yeah, something like that.”
Sara was more than just a good friend. She had taught me a lot in the three years I’d known her – not all of it science stuff. She was the one person I could talk to about what was on my mind concerning the kids, my job and life in general. I hoped in some small way I was good for her, too. I wanted to be.
That afternoon I found myself reflecting on that notion of those basic drives that Sara told me we were all subject to: like food and sex. I had no excuse for the way I had acted in the past with Freddie. I really had been attracted to him, and even after the divorce we’d occasionally had a pretty good time. But it was over now and time to move on. He wasn’t good for me. I’m not sure he was good for Kenny and Laura, either, but he was their dad so I would just have to make the best of it by setting good rules and guidelines, and being clear with him about what my expectations were of him and go from there. It seemed like a good plan to me. Maybe I was maturing a little.
I looked out over the Lake. The water was glistening under a cloudless blue sky in the bright sunshine and ninety degree heat. There were colorful sailboats and slow moving fishing boats and even a few speed boats trailing wake boarders around. Gulls flew overhead squawking and calling. Kids laughter filled the air and the old time sound of that fiddle player carried over it all, reminding me how much I loved living in our little town.
Then I had a thought and my heart jumped and started racing and my breath went out in a gasp. Uncontrollably, my hands started shaking. In all the excitement I’d forgotten…What about Jake? I involuntarily looked under the picnic table as I lifted my feet off the ground. What about that damn python? I looked at Sara and she looked back at me as if reading my thoughts.
“You’re thinking about that snake, aren’t you? She asked.
I silently nodded my head, Yes, trying to get a grip on myself. Snakes I was fine with, but a big python? Well that was another matter all together. It was drop dead dangerous creature, pure and simple.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked me, “What do you want to do?”
I had dealt with my ex, Freddie, now maybe it was time to deal Jake.
I sucked in my breath and along with it my courage, building myself up before telling her, “I think we should go on another little search,” I told her, “I think it’s time we seriously try to find that python.”
Now a smart person probably would have bagged the whole thing and reported the missing snake to the police, but I didn’t want to do that. I guess I had something to prove to myself – prove that I could face my fear of the python and maybe get beyond it.
“Whatever you want to do,” she said, “I’m on board.” What an amazing friend she was, to put it mildly.
I stood up and scanned the crowd, looking for Kenny and Laura. I wasn’t going to bring them with, of course, I just wanted to tell them to stay with Caleb and Emma until Sara and I got back. My plan was tentative and unformed, but I was committed. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go face to face with a big python, but now was as good a time as any to fine out.
I only shuddered once or twice, like the temperature outside had just dropped a hundred degrees or so.
My resolve was steeled, though, and I was still looking through the crowd for my kids when I got a beep on my phone. I glanced at it. Freddie was calling. What the hell? I almost didn’t answer, but I was curious…what could possibly be on his mind?
“What?” I asked, hoping my menacing tone from earlier was still there. I think it was.
“Just cool down,” he said, his words tumbling out in a rush, “And don’t hang up. I just wanted to tell you something I thought you’d be interested to know. You don’t have to worry anymore. I found Jake.”
“I said, I found Jake.”
That’s what I thought he said.
Talk about wonder of wonders. Apparently the python been curled up in the cab of the bobcat I’d seen earlier parked near the garage. Freddie told me he’d forgotten to look there when he’d begun searching for it a few days ago. My first thought: what a bozo. Who could possibly be dumb enough not to check a logical hiding place so close to the garage? Well, duh. Asked and answered. My second thought: shit, I’d walked right by that bobcat earlier that morning. Jake could easily have grabbed me. My third and final thought: god, was I glad to be done with both Jake and my ex.
“Ok, fine, thanks for the info,” I told him. I couldn’t hang up fast enough. Just talking to him was giving me the creeps. Maybe I really had started to move on.
I turned to Sara, “You’ll never guess what happened. Then I filled her in on what Freddie had told me.
Her response: “What a bozo,” and I smiled at her echoing my statement, thinking, ‘That’s my girl.’
“Let’s go,” I told her.
We walked through the crowd over to the playground where I had seen Kenny and Laura swinging. “Come on, you two,” I said called to them, “let’s us go and get us some ice cream and keep this celebration going.” I turned to Sara, “You want to come with?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Let me go get my kids.”
“I’ll meet you at my car.”
Kenny and Laura ran ahead as I walked slowly across the sandy beach toward the parking lot. I felt good. Felt liberated. Felt free of Freddie and felt like I really would have had the courage to face down that python if we’d have found him.
Sara came up from behind as her kids ran on to her car. She put her arm around me, “You know, you did a good thing, dumping Freddie. He wasn’t good for you.”
I smiled at my friend and hugged her back. “I know that now and thanks, but actually I was thinking about Jake. I wonder if I would have been able to be able to capture him?”
“Of course not. That thing probably weighed at least a couple of hundred pounds. We’d have to have called animal control or something.”
Of course, that’s what we would have done. I appreciated Sara’s rational thinking. I shivered to myself in spite of the hot day, thinking again about Jake. As we walked to my car I told myself that I still would have liked to try…would have liked to come face to face with the big python and try to deal with him. I’m pretty sure I would have found the courage to do it.
To this day, that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. I’m pretty sure I still believe it.
Oh, by the way, later on at the ice cream place I tried a new flavor I’d never had before, just to celebrate being rid of Freddie and facing my fear of Jake the python. It was Tutti-frutti, and I have to say, it tasted pretty darn good. Life has been getting better ever since.