The little thumbtacks stuck all across my map of the USA comforted me. Each little colored marker was a symbol that I had done my best to make amends for past wrongs done.
I originally planned on taking the map down as soon as I had finished, but eventually decided it needed to remain there in my office as long as I existed to forever remind me of what I had done. Both the good and bad.
I was a bully. There’s no other way to say it. I was the kid who made you scared to hear the recess bell. I was the kid you avoided after school. I was the kid who made you cry to yourself at night after your mom had shut off the light.
It made me feel terrible, especially as I got older.
My parents and numerous counselors tried to pry out the source of my violence from my childhood bones, but never seemed to be able to. Looking back, it was pretty simple to identify and maybe the counselors did, but didn’t want to relay it to my parents in fear they would declare me cured and cut their retainer.
Very early in my childhood, I dealt with Perthes Disease. An ultra-rare bone disease that affects kids, it caused me to have to wear leg braces from age three to five and to walk with a pronounced limp until I was about nine. Most of the effects of the disease were gone by the time I became the biggest bully at Summer Brook Elementary School, and it was the lingering stigma of the braces and the memories of the ridicule I received from other kids about my limp that fueled my aggression.
Regardless, the end result was a hair trigger which resulted in a lot of fights on the schoolyard that I always won. A steady diet of pent up anger, football practices and hereditary size had made me a pretty excellent playground warrior.
My stomach begins to turn even just talking about it now.
But I had to address it. Like a boil on your neck that just would not heal, the guilt of these actions seemed to fester and burn hotter and harder as each year of my life went by. It was worst whenever I would see kids playing, laughing, and loving life. I would face the horrible realization I was a person who had once spent time in his life causing pain to kids like this, robbing them of their joy. I figured if my actions from this time period had caused me so much guilt, there was a good chance they had caused a lot of long-term pain for those I attacked. Things that happen between ages five and nine tend to stick with you like double-sided tape.
I had to do something.
What I decided to do was dig up my old elementary school yearbooks and make a list of every kid I remember picking on when I was young. I circled the young faces I had pummeled with sadness in my heart.
The 13 names of the once-bullied men served as a personal “to-do” list for me to try and polish a little of the tarnish off of my soul. It was a pretty herculean task, but one I had the time and two, the funds to accomplish.
It turns out being a person with a massive chip on your shoulder and some aggression can be a great thing to have in life once you grow up. The burning desire and perception of inferiority which had led to me taking my adolescent fists to kids’ face also led to me turning into a bully in the classroom and the business world. I graduated from Stanford in three years and immediately got in on the cutting room floor of a small private weapons company that quietly became a very large private weapons company in about 15 years.
When that swelling weapons company was sold to the largest one in the world, I suddenly had enough money and time on my hands to do whatever I wanted to for the rest of my days. What I decided to do was set upon my whirlwind trip of apologies.
The fact I grew up in San Diego made my mission a little more difficult given a vast majority of the kids I grew up with were in Navy families that moved around a lot. There was so much movement, I didn’t end up going to high school with any of the kids.
The first 11 were not as hard as I anticipated they would be. Easily tracked down through Facebook and receptive to having a guy most hadn’t seen since they were pre-teens, the first 11 lived in various parts of the U.S. and were surprisingly forgiving. I actually ended up crashing on some of their couches after long nights of beers and catching up.
The final two targets were elusive though. I knew Mark Johnson and Christopher Smith would be difficult to track down simply based on how common their names were, but I didn’t expect for them to be impossible to track down. Besides simply having ultra-common names, the two were complete mysteries to the other 11. This was strange because the other 11 all seemed to be at least vaguely familiar of the whereabouts of the other guys in the group except for Mark and Christopher.
I wasn’t shocked some people were hard to track down in general. As a bigwig at a weapons company, my own Internet footprint was completely non-existent. The only thing I really had was a sparse, unsearchable Facebook profile with the name Brian H. which didn’t have a single actual picture of me on it.
However, months after making amends with the other 11, it would be a tip from the most unlikely of places that would end up cracking the case a little bit open for Mark. I was at JFK Airport waiting to catch a flight back home to Santa Barbara, killing time at my gate when I noticed an already-perused issue of London’s main newspaper The Telegraph resting in the seat next to me.
A quick glance at the front of the news section of the paper showed a picture of a gay rights festival and a distinctive feature of one of the pictured participants immediately caught my eye. One of the men pictured in the shot had a long thin scar line where hair did not grow just in front of his left ear. Carrying a cardboard sign that was almost as tall as him, the pale man with the scar, couldn’t have been much taller than just five feet.
Two of the very few things I could remember about Mark were that he had been painfully miniature as a child. He was always the shortest boy in the class and that he had a long scar where hair didn’t grow upon one of his temples. The scar had come from an incident in fourth grade where he supposedly had been accidently hit in the head with a golf club by another boy in our class, but the schoolyard rumors had told a much different tale. It had leaked out to parents of kids in the class that the golf club coming up against Mark’s temple had been no accident. It was rumored that Mark and another boy in the class, Josh, had been caught kissing out in the woods by a sixth grader, Toby. When Toby accused them of being gay, Josh denied and said that Mark had pinned him down and had been forced kisses upon him. Toby then asked Josh to prove that he had truly been attacked by Mark by getting back at him with a smack on the head with a rusty golf club that had been lying in the brush nearby. Josh followed through. The rumor then went Josh and Toby’s parents, both of whom were wealthy, paid a substantial amount of money to Mark’s single mom for them to keep quiet as to exactly what happened.
The rumor gained a lot of legs when Josh and Mark, who had previously been very good friends, suddenly never spent any time with each other again and Mark left our public school the next year for a private school. I guess identifying Mark as gay as an adult would further confirm the rumor.
Internet searching for a gay Mark Johnson in London produced nothing, so I took my search to the streets and flew across the pond for an open-ended search for the boy with the painful scar that I had been so cruel to. My guilty brain could still see flashes of him crumbled up in a ball in the pea gravel covering the glossy scar with his frightened little hands.
I couldn’t get that image out of my head as I sat in an open-air pub on a cold summer afternoon nursing a brown ale and listening to the sound of the pouring rain falling upon the London sidewalk behind me. It had been nearly two weeks in the rainy city and I had yet to successfully unearth a single clue to the whereabouts of Mark despite having a few pints in every pub with a rainbow flag on it across all of Southern England.
I was about to give up on the whole thing when I overheard a conversation next to me at the pub which caught my ear – a jilted lover confiding in a friend about an American named Mark he had just broken up with. The fact the jilted lover was focusing on the ex’s miniscule stature and that he mentioned his ex was around the age of 35 had me hanging on his every word.
The jilted blabbermouth revealed enough information about his ex in the span of three pints that I felt I had more than enough to get myself to “bump into” who I had decided was Mark Johnson.
My next stop was The Fairlane Hotel.
A forgotten relic of the 70s punk scene in London which produced The Sex Pistols, The Fairlane was a dinosaur of a hotel which followed the usual metro cycle of luxury to gutter to hip to touristy. It was the kind of place where 17-year-olds who first got into a band they deemed edgy promised themselves they would visit as soon as they broke off the shackles of their small hometown and parents.
I followed the Thames seven heavy beers in from the rainbow pub where I had heard overheard where Mark likely worked, borrowing smokes the entire way with the rain falling upon my face. I probably looked (and smelled) like an insane escaped convict, but the amount of alcohol flowing through my blood was destroying my inhibitions.
My entry to the hotel couldn’t have been any more of a stereotype. The first thing I heard was the plodding melody of “Bodies” and the first thing I saw was a gawky American teen wearing a generic The Clash shirt that was assuredly purchased at Target.
The second thing I heard as I walked up into the lobby of the hotel was much more music to my ears than the scratchy punk coming through the nearby speakers…it was a voice I hadn’t heard in almost 30 years. I followed the high-pitched twang of what I remembered to be the childish tenor Mark Johnson to see his lightly-aged face manning the marble countertop of a hotel front desk with his long jagged scar shining in my direction almost ominously.
Our eyes seemed to meet the second I started walking in his direction, but his only lingered on me for the briefest of moments before going back to his customer. He probably had no fucking clue who I was. But he would in a few minutes.
“You have exactly one cigarette to explain me what the fuck you are talking about.” Mark said in the slight shelter of the awning that spanned the entrance to the hotel.
Random utterances started sputtering out of my frothing mouth. I eventually said the only thing I seemed to be capable of at the moment.
“I’m Brian Henderson.”
Mark just looked back at me with an annoyed stare.
“And what the fuck does that mean to me?”
“Uh, uh, uh,” I started stammering. “You might not remember…”
“I don’t, trust me.”
“Well, we went to elementary school together back when we were kids… and, and, and… I was really mean to you. We got into a fight once on the playground and I beat you up, badly, and, and, and… I just wanted to find you so I could apologize for what I did that day.”
I finally stopped. Out of breath. I watched Mark finish another long drag of his cigarette.
“And you came all the way here from…?”
“America, Santa Barbara.”
Mark let out a genuinely amazed laugh.
“You came all the way to Santa Barbara to tell me that?”
I gave an ashamed nod.
“This might be of surprise, Brian, but I don’t really fucking care. Until you showed up here I didn’t remember you at all or ever getting beaten up at school. But thanks for reminding me, I guess.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m a fucking idiot.”
Mark finished his cigarette, tossed it onto the wet sidewalk and snickered.
“Ah, don’t worry about it. You apologized. That’s more than my dad or my brother could ever do for the shit they gave me. You got time for a drink in like an hour when I get off?”
Mark and I ended up having our drink at the very pub where I had first heard the drunken confessions that revealed where I found him. Our talk was going well. His initial icy demeanor seemed to thaw with each pint and each trip outside to share a smoke. We even exchanged business cards as it turned out he could get me great deals on hotel rooms the next time I came to London.
We had openly discussed our lives up to that point, the incident that had left him with the scar (he confessed the rumored stories were 100 percent true) and my apology tour. Towards the end of our conversation about my tour, we would hit a topic that turned the positive momentum of the conversation…Christopher Smith.
“I was able to find everyone on my list except one person,” I said.
“I can’t remember if you went to school with him too or not, but Christopher Smith. I can’t find a single thing about him and no one else seems to know anything either.”
Mark choked a bit on his ale and took a while to speak up.
“Well, you’re not going to be able to do that one and it’s too bad, because maybe…he was the one who really needed your apology.”
“What do you mean?”
“I knew Chris. I didn’t really talk to him much when we went to school together, but he showed up at the private school I moved to in fifth grade and then we were really good friends for a couple years before his family moved to Florida or something. The funny thing is, he always talked about how one of the reasons his parents pulled him out of school was because someone kept beating him up. He never really talked about who it was, but I could tell it was bad..it killed him inside. Even after he moved to our private school. I’m assuming that person was you?”
My face blushed. There was a reason not tracking down Christopher Smith had tortured me so much. He had faced the worst of my adolescent wrath. Over the course of the two years, third and fourth grade, I went to school with Christopher, I had beaten him up five times. Christopher had been an awkward kid who may have been diagnosed with Aspergers in this day and age, but whom was simply a kid who didn’t have any qualms about saying what he saw or thought in elementary school no matter how many times it ended with him pinned against the pavement with little fists pounding his soft face.
And it didn’t end there. The mental abuse of Christopher may have actually been worse than the physical pummeling.
It was well known around the school Christopher was fearfully immature, even for a kid who hadn’t even scraped the age of 10 yet. The kids in the class had also been well-informed by Christopher’s older brother that Chris was still mortified by the very thought of the laughable creature called “The Boogieman”. Armed with a phone book and this information, a couple friends and I had spent a few nights calling up Christopher’s house and telling him in a monstrous tone that we were coming to get him. I can still remember the sounds of his shrieks in my ear as I threatened him in my low, gravely monster voice and it gave me shivers up and down my spine as an adult.
And that wasn’t the worst of it either. One incident would bring the whole string of harassment to a disgusting head.
Egged on by a group of cowardly wannabe bullies, another rather violent child and I once locked Christopher in an equipment closet at the gym during indoor recess. Christopher had pissed off my fellow bully and I by kicking our basketball away when it rolled in his direction.
We set a trap by stealing his sack lunch and placing it at the opening of a nearby wooden closet which housed PE equipment.
The other bully hid in the dark recesses of the expansive closet and one of the wannabe bullies let Christopher know where he had seen his lunch, luring him over to the opening of the closet where I stood at a seemingly innocent, but reachable distance. Like a lion stalking its prey in the tall grass of the savannah, I watched Christopher tiptoe up to the closet with fearful hesitation, his chest heaving with breaths that were terrified of the darkness which lurked just behind his prized brown bag.
Like a snake launching on a rat that finally scurried too close to its lair, I burst into a sprint as soon as Christopher bent down to retrieve his lunch. In a flash, I was upon Christopher, just seeing a brief glimpse of his horror-filled eyes before I pushed him into the closet and slammed the door shut, sealing him in.
I immediately felt the pounding of small fists against the door, but they were futile, I was much stronger than Christopher and had already proven it on the playground already many times. He was trapped in there for as long as I wanted him to be despite all of his frantic scrambles against the door and cries for help. I could hear his entire body wailing when the voice of the other bully rose up from out of the entrapment like a faceless phantom.
“I’m going to get you Christopher!”
All it took were those words to crank up the ferocity of Christopher’s terror inside of the pitch black closet. Even the heartless, adolescent form of me that was holding the door against his attempts finally relented and let him tumble out of the closet with his brown bag lunch soaked with tears and his little jeans soaked with urine.
That was the final straw. Christopher finished the grade up at my school, but never came back.
The truth was, I felt more guilty about Christopher than I did the rest of the kids combined.
This made what Mark told me next particularly burn.
“I kept in touch with Christopher a little bit after he moved away. We called each other every once in a while. I made a trip out to Florida one spring break when I was 14. But then when we were 18, I couldn’t get in touch with him anymore. It took a while, but I eventually found out that he killed himself.”
I suddenly felt ice cold. My jaw literally quivered while I sat in my wooden bar stool and watched Mark tell this story and ignore his fresh beer while I stared down at the dirty floor of the pub.
“His parents would never really give me the full story, but I always kind of knew he was a troubled kid. So it wasn’t a huge surprise.”
The taste of sweet dark beer that had been dripping down my throat turned sour. I bit down hard upon my lower lip.
“So I guess there’s your answer about Christopher Smith,” Mark muttered before taking a huge gulp of his beer.
My life had gone back to normal a little bit since my return from London. I recharged for a few weeks. Each day I just walked off my deck each morning to go surfing and spent the afternoons fielding calls for my new business consulting venture and working on the outline for a book about my apology tour.
I had become friends on Facebook with every living member of the apology tour and it was always a rewarding and magical feeling when we would “Like” each others’ various bullshit on the site. It seems corny to say it, but it was truly starting to put me more at ease with the whole situation and muddle the sting of the discovery of Christopher’s suicide.
Yet, I have to admit it would never be more than a few days that would go by where I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night feeling haunted. I would wake up in a baste of sweat in the pitch black and become scared of the dream home that was all around. My way of coping with this was to walk down into my office and work on my book outline and get my fears, regrets, and sorrows out of my head and onto a page that maybe I could share with the world someday.
Another one of these sleepless nights had me back at the desk in my office, staring at a blank word processor. It was one of those rare nights in Southern California where it truly pours rain and my entire house seemed to kind of smell like a moist towel. My air conditioning system and the nearby rolling of the ocean generally seemed to flush out scents like this, but apparently the two weren’t doing their jobs tonight.
I took a moment from my computer and walked out onto my back deck to listen to the rain. Maybe the sound of cascading water and the sight of it pounding the waves of the Pacific would fuel my inspiration. I cracked a lighter and took a deep inhale of my first cigarette since I had gotten back from London while I stared out at the picturesque scene that was my backyard. My fresh wooden deck stretched out into the heavy sand of Santa Barbara beach that was endless feet of golden sand on a bright sunny day before it hit the pounding edge of the Pacific Ocean.
When I stepped out towards the western edge of my desk to get a closer look at the ocean to let the heavy rain drops drop upon my scalp, I saw a most peculiar form in the sand at the foot of the steps that led up from the beach to my deck. Drifting up from the waves and to the steps of my deck were the faint outlines of sneaker prints, barely visible in the wet sand.
I wasn’t initially scared or frightened. You would be amazed with how brash people are these days. During the summer, I would find people hanging out on my deck or at least within a few feet of it as if it was their property or find teenagers drinking and smoking pot right off of my deck in the night. I once walked out onto my deck to find a mother and father changing their baby’s diaper on my grill.
Even with that in mind, I have to admit I was at least a little bit unnerved. It was not summer and it was the rainiest night of the year. I hadn’t seen a single person out on the beach all day.
All of these thoughts raced through my head when I tossed my cigarette into the muddy sand and noticed tracks of little grains of sand leading up onto my deck. Overall, I was a little bit hesitant about it all, but it was the middle of the night and I was starting to get tired again, the cigarette and the rain putting me back at ease.
I planned to give up on writing and simply head to bed once back in the house, but that’s not what would happen.
I trudged back through my office, but stopped myself the second I glanced at the map of the United States tacked up against the wall behind my computer. The tacks I had placed all around the map to signify the different apologies I had made across the country had been completely rearranged. All the tacks had now formed a little circle of different colors around the city of Santa Barbara.
The sight instantly made me want another cigarette. I actually started to reach into my pocket for my pack, but pulled it together and headed towards my bedroom. I told myself maybe my housekeeper’s kids had been playing in my office again. I would frequently find stray toys or random messes around my house and it was possible that the tacks had been rearranged by them during the day and I just hadn’t noticed it.
However, a trail of water leading from my office that was flecked with sand quickly made a convincing argument it was not my housekeeper’s kids that had done the rearranging.
There was no explaining it away. Someone else was in my house.
I would usually laugh at someone who was brazen enough to do this. As an executive of a weapons company, I was heavily, heavily armed. So much so I had used it as an excuse to not invest in a home security system, a move I was really regretting at the moment when I tip-toed along with the soggy steps towards my bedroom.
The problem was I stored all of those weapons in a safe in my bedroom closet. I used to stash a guns in various places in the house, but the aforementioned housekeeper’s kids who would play around my house had inspired me to lock them up.
I briefly entertained the idea of just running out the front door or calling the cops, but there was just as good of a chance the person who had come in, would be waiting for me outside and the cops would be there in about 25 minutes at the very earliest. Regardless of what I did, I would have the best chance of being safe if I had one of those guns in the safe. And, the wet and sandy footprints had stopped in the hallway which led to my bedroom, so the intruder could have been anywhere.
With this in mind, I kept slowly creeping towards my bedroom door, but stopped when I noticed something resting on a table outside the door – one of the old elementary school yearbooks I had been using to remind myself of the kids I had bullied. A quick look revealed the book was lying open to the fourth grade page I had marked up. I had initially circled the little faces of the boys I had intended to track down and would then X them out once I had apologized in person. There had been four boys in that class who had been circled and all of them had eventually been “X’d” out except for one… Christopher Smith.
That was no longer the case. I looked at the yearbook long enough to see Christopher’s little smiling face now X’d in red ink.
I didn’t have time to fully absorb the image at the moment, but I did have to investigate what was holding the page of the yearbook open. I snagged it out of the crease of the book and looked upon one of my business cards, terribly frayed and dyed just a touch of pale yellow, it was the card I had given Mark back in London.
I didn’t have time to absorb the information though. I heard footsteps creeping up in the hallway from behind me.
I sprinted into my bedroom and went straight for the closet.
I regretted the move as soon as I stepped into the closet and foresaw exactly what happened next coming.
The closet door slammed behind me, throwing me into complete blackness. I could see nothing, just hear the sounds of my heaving breaths and the sounds of someone sealing the outside of the door with their weight.
I combed around the darkness, trying to find the dial of the safe, but it didn’t matter anyways, there was no way I would be able to punch the numbers in without a drip of light.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “Who the fuck is this?” I asked, even though I already knew.
I was initially answered with silence… but then came words from a voice I hadn’t heard in nearly 30 years.
The voice said just six words.
“I’m going to get you, Brian.”