The lie that's truer than true
Fiction is where my truest truths can be told.
Thank you for sharing your critiques as I hone stories for my anthology.
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I cherish your wise advice
The following story is titled “Clark.” Most of you have read an earlier version of “Clark” or heard me tell it live during one of our Story Share sessions. But still, some of you have yet to read it.
The critique I often hear about my writing is some variation of, “We don’t get to know the characters well enough,” and I think I know why.
I know these characters intimately. They’re real people, and these things really happened. These are deeply personal stories, some of which I’m still trying to make sense of.
I’m telling the story as truthfully as possible, but I’ll be the first to admit…I’m lying, too…at least in the places it still hurts or might hurt others.
“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer.”
Sometimes, the only way to say what you need to say is to make it seem like someone else is saying it. Or when you need to explore something painful, it’s somehow easier to share all its painful agony when it happens to someone else.
If you’ve read this story already, I’m sorry to thrust it on you again.
But if you haven’t, I’d love to know your thoughts.
Clark was a dead-end, and my house was just 30 feet from the guardrail.
On this side of the guardrail, a sleepy little neighborhood. Families of boys, girls, bankers, bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, politicians, policemen, and one rich old lady no one ever saw.
On the other side, a vast forest of wild adventure with a dark and murky river woven through it.
The adults never crossed that guardrail. Not many kids did either, especially not the girls. But Sarah wasn’t like the other girls. Sarah was my friend. And I loved her.
The first time I saw her, she was standing at the bus stop. I didn’t know her name then. No one did. But we were all paying attention.
She was a tiny girl with straight, black, glossy hair chopped at her shoulders. Caramel skin. Low-top Chuck’s. Levi’s. Baby blue t-shirt tucked in. She was clutching an old-school leather bag slung over one shoulder, eyes down but busy. Darting side to side.
The other girls were already gathered against her. A stranger. New kid. Easy prey. A couple of girls whispered, their glances sharp as thorns.
Joannie stepped from the crowd.
“Hey!” she bellowed through cupped hands. “Do! You! Speak! English!”
Joannie’s snarky sisters hissed, writhed, and giggled.
“What! Is! Your! Name!” Joannie went on, enjoying herself. “Where! Are! You! From!
The meanness in her. “What! Country!” she yelled.
“Why don’t you leave her alone!” Henry spoke up.
Henry wasn’t much for trouble, but he hated Joannie, and she was glad he did. Joannie craved Henry’s attention most of all.
“It’s none of your business, is it?” Joannie snapped her gum.
The new girl’s eyes flicked to Henry, Joannie, and then back to the ground. She tightened her grip on her bag and spun into a walk, fast but steady.
“You’re going the wrong way,” I called out.
Joannie snorted. Everyone else laughed.
“Hey! I’m serious!” I yelled.
I ran to catch up. I don’t know why.
“Listen,” I started, catching my breath. “If you go that way, all the way through town, you’ll be late for sure. And the odds of getting lost? My guess? Sky high.”
She stopped. Looked at me. Back to the bus stop, to Joannie and the others.
Joannie yelled out. “Tell your chink girlfriend to stop being so stuck up!”
“Ignore her,” I said. “Look, you can go through the woods with me. It’s quicker. Straight to school, I swear. I walk it every day.”
The new girl’s eyes flicked between the road ahead and the breathless boy in front of her. Then, almost imperceptibly, she nodded.
I took that as a yes. “Okay, then. Follow me.”
The crowd at the bus stop faded as we walked, their laughter swallowed by the distance. The new girl grew taller. Her eyes focused straight ahead.
We made a left on Clark. But just before we turned out of sight, I looked back.
Joannie was still watching us, her expression unreadable. Henry gave me a slight, approving nod.
“I don’t ride the bus anyway,” I offered. “Me and Henry are friends. We hang out sometimes.”
Which was true. Me and Henry did hang out sometimes, but never at school. Not since 6th grade, when he won the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge, got his name in the paper, and on that stupid plaque that hangs in the gym, and especially not since he became captain of the baseball team and the basketball team and the teachers started calling him “Big Man On Campus,” like it was some title.
Henry was different at school.
The new girl kept quiet a couple of steps behind.
“This is Clark,” I said. “My street. I mean, I live down at the end. My house is the last one. Right by the guardrail. That’s where we cross.” I pointed.
She avoided my eyes.
“There’s a steep hill,” I said. “Just watch what I do. You’ll be fine.”
The woods were wild and untamed. Steep, treacherous embankments were the only way in or out. Poisonous ivy, tangled brush, and unforgiving briers deterred all but the most daring.
The river was too polluted to swim in. Dead and toxic from all the factories upstream. But we skated the surface every winter and rode sheets of ice down its churning rapids at spring thaw.
She spoke. “Here?”
The new girl had stopped in front of my house. She was standing there on the sidewalk, staring.
“Yep! That’s the one,” I sat back on the guardrail.
“17359 Clark. Every odd number in the book. The last house, on the last street, in the last town, before US-12 takes you all the way to Chicago. Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She turned. “Sarah,” she said. “My name is Sarah.”
“Hi, Sarah. I’m Patrick,” I said. “Now, come on. Let’s go.”
Sarah and I swung our legs over the guardrail and repelled tree to tree down the embankment.
“Grab hold of a good-sized branch with one hand like this,” I instructed. “Use it like a rope. It’ll hold you. Then, you can put your foot down at the base of the next tree, right here, where the trunk goes into the ground. See? It’s like a step.”
I demonstrated my way down the hillside, and Sarah caught on right away.
Henry, back when he was allowed to, had to slide down the slope on his butt. “Ruining his good play clothes every time,” Henry’s mother complained. Some good that Presidential Physical Fitness Award was then. Henry was no explorer. That’s for sure.
“Indians made these foot trails,” I said once we’d reached the river bank. “The Huron came first, crossing the Detroit River by canoe from Ontario. That’s in Canada,” I offered.
Sarah breezed through the trail right behind me, stepping over fallen trees and brushing the saplings aside like a real explorer.
“Then came the Potawatomi years later. After the War of 1812. Back when the streams ran clear, this river was full of fish, and these woods were full of deer.”
“You sound like a tour guide,” Sarah joked, relaxed and playful.
“Oh! So you DO speak English?” I laughed.
“Why is she so mean?” Sarah asked.
“Joannie? I don’t know. Someone told her she was pretty once, and she let it get to her head. She’s mean to everyone,” I told her. “At least at first. She’ll come around,” I said. “She lives right next door to Henry.”
The faint hum of traffic grew to a rumble as the trees thinned and the trail widened. Sun beamed through an arch of leafy branches ahead, guiding us into a small clearing at the base of the Elizabeth Street Bridge.
“Wow,” Sarah whispered.
A tickle in my throat bubbled into a smile I couldn’t hold back.
Steel-belted radials echoed off the water, thum-thum-thumping the pavement above our heads. tha-Dhunk! tha-Dhunk! tha-Dhunk!
“This is nothing!” I yelled over the noise. “You should hear the waterfall over at the dam!”
We followed the murky river into town, past the fire station and the library. We scrambled up the embankment at the Second Street bridge and then walked the three short blocks to Benjamin Franklin Junior High.
At school, it didn’t take Sarah long to fit in. When Joannie saw how much attention Sarah got from the teachers and the older kids, she went out of her way to show her off.
“This is my new neighbor, Sarah,” she told everyone. “Sarah’s mom is from the Philippines, and her dad is a big-shot executive at Ford,” she bragged. “Isn’t that right, Sarah?”
After a day full of Joannie, Sarah was tired but ready for me to show her the way home. We fell into a sort of ritual, Sarah and I, walking the wooded trails to and from school.
We walked and talked about a lot of things those first few months. Up until the weather got cold, and the river froze solid—solid enough that we glided to school and tromped through snow all the way home.
That’s about when Henry started showing up, too.
I would see them talking in the hall. Henry, with his back against the lockers, waiting for Sarah to get her things. The two of them had last hour together, and sometimes they stayed after. Henry for sports, Sarah to watch.
It was fine. Didn’t bother me. Not that much, anyway. Most days, I waited.
But that day—that one day of all days, I didn’t wait.
And I don’t know where Henry was.
All I know is that she was all alone.
My friend Sarah was all alone the day He found her.
I was on my front porch when I saw her.
She didn’t come from the woods, not over the guardrail like I expected.
She came from the other end of the block in hurried little steps, face down, elbows out, arms stiff and away from her sides, like she couldn’t bear the feel of anything against her skin.
“Hey, you okay?” I called.
She didn’t even look up.
I ran to meet her, but she flinched, side-stepped me, and stopped when I got close.
Her favorite blue t-shirt was all twisted around her body with dirt-smeared streaks. Her beige corduroys had mud ground into the knees and all up the side—like she fell and tumbled down a hill. Dried bits of leaves were ground into her raven hair, all matted and sticky on one side.
“What happened?” I said. “Are you all right?”
She wouldn’t let me see her face. I tried, but she just kept saying “no” and looking away.
“No, no, no, no,” she whispered. “No, no, no, no.”
“It’s okay,” I said. But I wasn’t certain that it was.
She took in a long, deep, stuttering breath.
“He lost his puppy. He had the leash,” she let out. “He had the leash in his hand, Patrick, a puppy, all alone in the woods.” Her eyes swelled red with tears.
“He said his puppy was scared and all alone.” she choked, “and would I help him look? But we didn’t look, Patrick; he wouldn’t let me look. He just…”
She fell into me, trembling and crying, arms so heavy and loose at her sides like they might fall off any minute. And my friend Sarah just cried. She cried so hard it made me cry, too, but I didn’t know why or what to do. She shook and heaved, so we had to sit down, but I didn’t know how or where, so we crumpled to the ground together right there, right under the maple tree in the Johnston’s front yard, Sarah and me, holding each other, and we just cried.
Mrs. Johnston came out, seeing us there through her front window.
“What’s wrong with her?” Mrs. Johnston asked me, “Why is she crying?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “A man said he lost his puppy in the woods, but I think something happened.”
Mrs. Johnston stooped over, extending an arm and motioning with her hand like she wanted us to get up. “Well, come on now,” she said. “Let’s get you home.”
“No!” we said it together, “No!” we said.
“Okay, okay,” Mrs. Johnston straightened. “That’s just fine. You two can wait right here,” she told us.
“I’m going inside to call Mr. Johnston home. He’ll know what to do.”
We waited there, sitting against the Johnston’s maple tree, until Mr. Johnston came in his police car.
Sarah was done crying by then, but she flinched when Mr. Johnston got close. She wouldn’t look at Mr. Johnston either.
Sarah looked up at me, “Am I in trouble, Patrick?”
Mr. Johnston got down on one knee, looked her over real good, and told her, “No, young lady, you’re not in trouble. Now, why don’t you tell me what happened?”
Mr. Johnston pulled a small notepad from his breast pocket and started asking a lot of questions.
“There was this man,” Sarah said.
“He had red hair, and he said he lost his puppy down in the woods, over by the dam,” she pointed.
“He had the leash in his hand.” She looked up at me.
“He seemed nice. At first,” she choked. “And then he wasn’t, and then he told me I better not tell, and then he…” Sarah spun away, pulled her knees up to her chest, and just started crying all over again.
Mr. Johnston asked more questions, but Sarah wouldn’t look at him anymore.
She just kept asking me if she was in trouble and shaking her head, saying yes and no to Mr. Johnston’s questions like she wasn’t really listening or maybe wasn’t sure anymore.
Mr. Johnston wrote everything down, biting his lip, breathing hard through his nose hair, murmuring, “MmHmm, MmHmm, MmHmm,” with a stern-looking face. He stood, closed his notepad, and spoke, “Alright now,” he said. “Let’s get you home.”
He lifted Sarah to her feet and walked slowly alongside her toward his police car. He opened the door and helped her into the front seat.
Mrs. Johnston. She just stood there, eyes fluttering, holding her elbow in one hand and covering her mouth.
I kept my eyes on Sarah as Mr. Johnston backed his police car out of the driveway, and she kept her eyes on me. I ran after them as they sped down the street and kept running long after they were gone. I ran all the way to Henry’s and told him what happened, as much as I knew, and we both ran back to Clark Street and past my house.
We crossed the guardrail and went looking for the redheaded man.
We ran through the woods, both of us running as fast as we could, leaping over the fallen trees and crashing through the underbrush. We ran under the bridge at Elizabeth Street, past the fire station and library. We scrambled up the embankment at Second Street and tumbled down the other side. We zig-zagged through the woods and straight to the spot by the dam where Sarah said it happened, and we didn’t stop until we got there.
“He’s long gone,” Henry said, huffing and puffing.
“He’ll never come back here, not to this spot. I never even seen a redheaded man in these woods anyway, not ever.”
We searched and searched and went right on looking.
We took to the streets and alleys along the edge of the woods.
We searched under the bridges and beneath the overpass out by the bowling alley.
We walked the railroad tracks leading in and out of the factory, looking for the redheaded man. We searched the parking lots and stores around town until after dark, but we didn’t see him.
There was no sign of the redheaded man.
Henry was right. The redheaded man was long gone.
We searched for hours that night—even after the streetlights came on.
When we ran out of places to look, the two of us walked home in angry silence.
Sarah wasn’t at the guardrail the next morning, and she wasn’t at the bus stop either. Me and Henry walked the woods to school without her, still not saying much.
Later in the day, I saw them, Henry and Sarah, talking in whispers and holding hands in the hall.
I waited for them after school, but they never showed.
On my way home, I did see them sitting in the backseat of a big shiny black Lincoln Continental driving across the Second Street bridge.
Weeks went by, but Mr. Johnston never found the redheaded man.
Henry said the police probably never even went looking. Or if they did, they couldn’t find him either because the redheaded man was long gone,’ just like he said.
We never talked about any of it. No one at school ever knew—not even Joannie, which was a miracle. And none of us ever brought it up again.
Then, one night, late after supper, that same big, shiny black Lincoln pulled into the Johnston’s driveway.
It was Sarah’s dad.
He knocked on Mr. Johnston’s door and had a talk with him out by his police car.
The two of them went at it pretty good. I could see that much.
It didn’t last long, though. After raising his voice and waving his hands, Sarah’s dad got quiet and dropped his head.
Mr. Johnston reached out and put his hand on Sarah’s dad’s shoulder.
Sarah’s dad. He covered his face with his hands, and then I couldn’t look anymore. I went inside and straight to my room.
Things on the outside—they all changed.
The world got busy; we grew up, did different things, found new friends.
High school dances, boyfriends, girlfriends, driver’s training.
Life took over. We didn’t cross over the guardrail much anymore.
Henry pledged to the Marines the summer before senior year. He was scheduled to ship out right after graduation. The Marines got lucky there. Henry was smart and strong as an ox, too. Henry had it all.
Sarah was a dark and angry ghost. Her heavy black eyeliner, dark eyeshadow, and black, baggy clothes matched the dark, angry music she blasted through her big, black, overstuffed headphones.
“Quiet, moody, depressed, and temperamental,” the counselor said. “Headstrong. Refuses to participate.”
I knew she was still the prettiest girl in school. All the makeup in the world couldn’t cover that up. But it sure didn’t stop her from trying.
We even dated for a while, Sarah and me. But Sarah said she felt like we were friends more than anything. That was okay with me. I loved her no matter what.
The three of us were inseparable: Henry, Sarah, and me. If Henry was playing sports, Sarah and I were in the stands. And when Sarah got herself into trouble, it was me and Henry pleading her case.
We were hanging out at Henry’s one night when Sarah found Henry’s clippers. I don’t know what got into her, but she locked herself in the bathroom and sheared half the hair off her head. The rest she kept long and beautiful. Henry’s mom flipped out and called Sarah’s mom right away.
I loved it, thought it looked cool as hell. Henry said she looked more like a Marine than he did, which got us all laughing.
We laughed and laughed that night. That might have been the last night we ever laughed together like that.
Joannie was elected homecoming queen that year. No surprise there. And Henry…Henry scored the winning touchdown in the last game of the season. No surprise there, either. But all of us were surprised when Sarah didn’t show up for the game or the big end-of-the-season party.
Sarah never missed either—especially not a party.
Henry and I waited for a little while. Then climbed in my truck and went looking.
We drove out to where Sarah worked, the diner, down near the dam, not too far from that god-forsaken spot where it all happened.
Henry thrust his arm across the dashboard as we rounded the corner on the old gravel road. “There!” he shouted.
We could see Sarah’s beat-up old car still parked in the diner parking lot, parked where the employees parked, where the dumpster was, near the delivery entrance, where the cook and the busboys smoked their joints and drank their beers on break.
We no sooner wheeled into the lot when we saw him too.
The diner was all windows, and there he was, the redheaded man, sitting in a booth. We could see him plain as day. And there was Sarah, pouring his coffee, smiling, nodding, lingering at his table, listening to the small, disgusting man make his small, disgusting talk.
She didn’t need to tell us it was him. We could tell by the look in her hard, darkened eyes.
I’d never seen that look in Sarah’s eyes before. Henry either, he said.
It was him, alright, the redheaded man, it was him. There was no doubt about it.
We killed the headlights, pulled around the side, and backed into the far corner of the lot. Our eyes fixed on Sarah, there in the tiny diner with the redheaded man.
Not long after we parked, Sarah came out to the dumpster and looked right at us.
She knew we’d come.
She knew we’d come looking.
She bit her lip, narrowed her eyes then looked away.
She lifted the lid, dropped the bag into the dumpster, and walked back inside.
“I’m going in,” Henry said. “You wait here in case he tries to leave.”
“What are you going to do?” I shouted after him. But it was too late. Henry was already gone.
Chin up, chest out, Henry marched straight for the delivery entrance, his boots crunching across the gravel lot.
Once inside, Henry moved through the diner and took a seat about halfway down the counter, positioning himself between the redheaded man and the front door.
People came and went, cars and pickup trucks trading places in the gravel lot.
But I kept my eyes on Henry, the redheaded man, and Sarah in there, floating from table to table.
Two older women sat across from each other in a booth on the far side of the diner. They sipped coffee, talked, and filled the air above them with curling trails of gray smoke from their cigarette-stained hands.
They came separately but parked next to each other.
They drove Fords, a Maverick, and an Escort. Little old lady cars.
A small family sat in another booth.
The mom held a baby in her lap while their boy stood next to his father on the other seat, pressed his face and little hands to the window, steamed up the glass, then scribbled in the fog. They came in the minivan.
Two guys in baseball caps sat at the counter. Backs to me. Separated by three or four stools. They drove pickups.
It had to be the van.
The navy-blue windowless Chevy van.
Backed in where the customers parked.
Backed in where he could see it.
Backed in so no one could read his plates.
Backed in so he could make his quick getaway.
Henry got up and walked towards the restrooms, right past the redheaded man’s table.
But the redheaded man never looked up. Too busy reading his sports section, feeding his fat face with blueberry pie, and slurping Sarah’s coffee.
Henry came out of the restroom again, hair all slicked back like he’d splashed his face in the sink. His eyes were wild now, his body electric, but he took his time walking past the redheaded man’s table. This time eyeing him up and down from behind.
Sarah set a white bag down at the counter where Henry had taken a seat.
Henry walked by, grabbed the bag, and just kept moving.
Henry came out the front door, marched across the parking lot, and hopped back into the truck with two Cokes to go.
“She gave us straws, too,” he said, handing me one. “You ready?”
I just nodded, but I really wasn’t sure what I was ready for or what we were doing.
Sarah appeared at the redheaded man’s table again, politely engaged. She smiled, nodded, and listened.
She bowed and cocked her head a bit, exposing the tiny ringlets encircling her ear and the sheared area above it. A mischievous spark in her dark, sullen eyes.
She winked, pulled the pad from her apron, wrote something, circled it, tore the sheet free, and slid it across the table in the redheaded man’s direction.
The redheaded man reached for her hand, but Sarah feigned a blush and backed away, letting her hand trail across the table just out of the redheaded man’s reach.
Sarah disappeared into the kitchen, then came out of the delivery entrance again, wearing her coat.
With keys in her hand and a steady glare, Sarah unlocked the door of her mom’s old car. The door creaked open, and she slid inside.
The redheaded man was already out the front door and making his way over toward his van, eyes locked on Sarah. His ruddy, stubbled face crooked with a confident smile.
Sarah stalled, fooled with the radio dial, and fumbled to find her twisted seatbelt caught beneath the folds of her coat.
Buckling up, she started the engine, turned on her headlights, paused, took a deep breath, and blew it out through pursed lips before finally putting the car into drive and pulling out of the gravel parking lot.
The redheaded man followed her out of the lot in his navy blue, windowless Chevy van.
And we followed the redheaded man.
I felt jumpy, nervous, and not at all certain about what we would do. But not Henry.
Henry was certain; I could feel it. And that was all I needed to know.
Sarah drove towards town, across the railroad tracks, past the factories, the overpass by the bowling alley, and over the Second Street Bridge.
She turned right down Main Street, past the stores and parking lots, dark and closed for the night.
She made a left on Chestnut, past Elm, and Maple, a right on Elizabeth, across its wretched noisy bridge tha-Dhunk! tha-Dhunk! tha-Dhunk! before finally making a right on Clark.
Clark was a dead-end, and my house was just 30 feet from the guardrail.
On this side of that guardrail, a sleepy little neighborhood.
Families of boys, girls, bankers, bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, politicians, policemen, and one rich old lady no one ever saw.
On the other side, a vast forest of unspeakable evil, with a dark and murky secret forever woven through it.
Thanks for all your feedback, friends. 🤗
It really does mean the world to me.
I love you guys! ❤️🔥
Stay safe. ☺️
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