By: Amanda Blackburn
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster… And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
At approximately four o’ clock in the morning on Valentine’s Day, I stepped out of my own car, in which I had ridden as a passenger, carsick, head throbbing and confused. The air was frigid, the sky was uncertain and dark, but the view was nevertheless breathtaking.
We were away from the crime scene. That part was over, at least. Thinking about it made the pressure in my head intensify. I hadn’t had a migraine in over a year. My mind was reeling. I had no idea how to process everything that had just happened. I knew I was angry at Don, but I was so scared and far away from everything and everyone I knew. I was in way over my head. I wanted to vomit as I looked at the sparkling lights of Pittsburgh.
My car was parked alongside the Mount Washington overlook with two delirious and mysterious men who looked little more than boys sitting in the backseat sleeping. I didn’t know their names. All I knew was that they were supposedly members of the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous, and they claimed to be “on the run.” It was a situation Don had thrust me into with no warning.
Don didn’t want to bring the “anons” back home to his apartment; they had been there already apparently, partying noisily, and Don’s roommate prohibited guests as a result.
Thus, Don brought me and our anonymous guests in my car up to Mount Washington. It was a last-ditch effort to turn a delirious night of secrecy and paranoia into a romantic memory for me for Valentine’s Day. It was also a small last-ditch effort to take the two men that were with us somewhere other than Don’s apartment. He had already grown tired of playing host. He had been “playing” for days. It wasn’t fun anymore, probably because I was so mad.
My head was throbbing. I didn’t understand why these men were with us on Valentine’s Day, and I didn’t know what they were running from, though they claimed it was the FBI. They both looked so young, barely out of high school. It was hard to believe such young men could be any kind of fugitives.
The lights of Pittsburgh glittered, reflected in the river. The still dark sky was ominous, and there were only a few cars on the road. I took a picture of the view, which was deceptively placid, with my phone then turned to Don. “I’m cold.”
“Happy Valentines Day, baby,” he offered with a kiss.
I just looked at him. “Yeah,” I said without a smile.
We returned to the car. One of the men in the backseat was awake, and he and Don talked briefly about waiting for a bar to open. We needed a place to take “the fugitives” until they could catch rides out of town. But Don was broke, and no one had the money to spare. Don finally decided to “sneak” everyone into his room past his roommate.
We stumbled into the cramped, dark room.
The two “anons” sat on the loveseat. I sat on the floor. I had brought an air mattress to sleep on, but Don was afraid the noise would disturb his roommate, who was apparently already angry. We’d already argued about running the pump earlier in the night, but I was so tired and sore. I really wanted to sleep on a bed.
“I don’t want to sleep on the floor again,” I nearly pleaded.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” he said, awkwardly pressing his forehead to mine in an effort to connect us deeply when I was angry and upset. I pulled away from him. There were two men just sitting there on the couch. The whole night felt very wrong. The affection left me feeling physically ill.
I attempted to make conversation with the other people in the room so that Don would not forget they were present. They introduced themselves as Papadopoulos, or Pops for short, and Baws. I was not told their real names.
“What are you running from?” I think I asked, though I’d already heard them making vague references to the FBI and a black SUV. It seemed too much like a movie to be true. I struggled to believe it.
I looked at them and nearly laughed. They looked like kids. How dumb did they think I was? Yet, the situation was so eerie and odd. What was going on?
They talked with Don about the interview they were planning to do. Supposedly, they were going to “unmask” on video. Baws, who was rather impaired, stood up and demonstrated to me what “Anonymous Un-pantsed” would look like. He dropped his pants and looked at me with eyes that looked like they had no thoughts behind them. He swayed on his feet laughing about it. I was taken rather off-guard by the display. There I was just sitting on the floor. He practically put his genitals in my face. Don just stood there uncomfortably. Pops sat on the couch laughing.
I didn’t know exactly what to do. He was just standing there looking at me, and it was kind of creepy. I took a picture with my cell phone for some reason. I laughed uncomfortably as I did so. Perhaps, the picture was to prove to myself later that it had, in fact, all really happened. Then again, I think he was encouraging me to take his picture at the time.
Within minutes of that odd encounter, Baws had passed out sitting on the loveseat with his pants, thankfully, in proper position. Pops, delirious, fell rapidly asleep beside him.
Don wanted to cuddle me there on the floor. I was practically sickened by his touch, irritated by the whisper of his breath against my face. I tried to sleep. Don managed. He snored against my shoulder while I lay awkwardly on my back staring at the ceiling and wondering into what exactly I had gotten myself, and what was I going to have to do to get away. Of course, I could just leave. I couldn’t understand what any of it was about anyway, but surely that business with the car had nothing to do with Jane Doe or Steubenville, at all. I had no place being involved. Don snored away beside me. I was scared and feeling paranoid. I almost started to hate him.
Just like always after a fight, though, there was an apology presented to me when Don woke: two long-stemmed roses and a small heart-shaped box of chocolates. Don was extremely sweet and upbeat about the One Billion Rising event we were about to cover, despite the exhaustive, sleepless night.
It sort of felt like the events of the previous night were simply a paranoid nightmare, even though I hadn’t slept at all.
When I watched the video that Knightsec released regarding the August gang-rape of a teenaged girl in Steubenville, practically my hometown, I cried. This was back in December before Christmas. When I heard about what happened to her, I thought about something that had happened to me, something that has happened to many of the women I know. Rape is a widespread problem that is ridiculously underreported for reasons of shame, much like my own. I was touched by the young lady’s family’s search for justice. I wanted to help in any way I could. The original video that was released was shocking and threatening. Many people, myself included, disagreed with the threats to release private information about minors such as social security numbers, and eventually that part of the threat, as well as a few extreme sentiments, were withdrawn.
Knightsec stated that the purpose of the rallies was to show the young lady support and peacefully call attention to the case. I fully supported these efforts. For many months, I like many others, struggled to separate the myths from the facts, but my intentions never wavered. I was going to the rallies to support the young lady, a goal which did not change, even if the facts of the case were skewed by heavy public interest.
My sister, Heidi, and I, both being Jane Does, were very passionate about this goal. We were so proud to see any woman, let alone such a young woman, have the courage to stand up and seek justice. We volunteered to help get the word out about the rally. I personally compiled a giant list of media outlets for press releases, a task which took days, and I contacted groups like RAINN about the January rally.
That rally turned out to be huge. Thousands of people came to show support, and media outlets from around the world came to record the event. Heidi took dozens of beautiful photographs of the event, which she donated to Anonymous later, and they used them in multiple slide shows, etc.
It was an emotional day for many people in the crowd, as the event drew the attention of many sexual assault victims. I watched women and men step up before the crowd and share their stories. I was struck by the number there were and the bravery it took to speak up. The refusal of victims like myself to report and speak up for fear of shame is a tragically damaging form of self-censorship, I realized, and is one of the biggest reasons many rapists are never brought to justice.
I was moved to share my story. Afterward, a woman in a ski mask who told me she was a Big Red mother and afraid to show her face, hugged me and thanked me for sharing my story. It was a powerful moment that stuck with me. Why should a woman, like myself showing support, have to hide her face? Of what, I wondered, was she afraid?
Don Carpenter entered my life via the #OpRollRedRoll Facebook page a week or two before the rally, I think. He had stated on the page that he was looking to build a team of independent journalists in the Ohio Valley, and he was looking for volunteers. I quickly volunteered, boasting my MA in English and my willingness to work.
After the rally that day in Steubenville, Don messaged Heidi and me from Plain Jane’s, a lovely little restaurant/bar in Steubenville. We met him and a few friends there. They were having beers. It seemed very laid-back. I had a beer, too, and I asked Don a million questions about journalism. He looked like Allen Ginsberg to me; he had that sort of homeless bohemian writer charm with his curly gray hair and huge puppy-dog eyes. He was funny. He didn’t take anything too seriously, and I was charmed. From Plain Jane’s, the group went to the Spot Bar. The people at the Spot Bar were completely friendly to us all in spite of joking expectations that the group would be less than popular. Don didn’t have any cash, and I bought him a beer. “Saving the world doesn’t pay,” he joked sheepishly. I would hear this joke again and again.
I didn’t think much of it, because I consider myself to be a modern, independent woman. I had no qualms with footing the bill sometimes. We drank more beer, and Don sat close to me, talking excitedly about independent media and saving the world. They were all things I wanted to hear.
We went to Triple Play from there. The group was joking about the rumors about Triple Play that had been perpetuated by the Local Leaks website. At Triple Play, Adam Rahuba, a friend of Don’s who would become a friend of mine as well, bought most of our drinks. I got pretty tipsy, and I had a wonderful time dancing with Heidi and Don’s friends. Don sat nervously at the bar, pretending to be taking notes for a story. It was funny and adorable. We tried to get him to dance. He shook his head, red in the face. “Your loss,” I said and continued to dance with the others until the bar closed.
Feeling quite a bit tipster than I had allowed myself to get in years, I was in no condition to drive. Don suggested we go to an “After Hours” club about which someone had told him. We all thought it sounded like fun. I had never heard of such a place. I was intrigued.
Don, who claimed he had only had a couple of beers and was sober, drove us to this “club,” which turned out to be in downtown Steubenville, and, on the way past the statue in front of the Steubenville courthouse, one of Don’s friends, a dark-haired woman named Cassandra, joked about stopping so she could take a picture of the statue wearing her Guy Fawkes mask. Don refused to stop the car.
I didn’t know much about Cassandra. She was pretty drunk by that point and getting pretty obnoxious, and we dismissed her stories about knowing KY Anonymous and how Bat Cat (who were, at the time, the two most “infamous” characters involved in #OpRollRedRoll) was supposedly “so in love” with her. She was just loud enough that I wondered if taking her to yet another club was… well, a terrible idea.
The “club” was downtown, but I knew nothing else about the neighborhood. The streets were eerily vacant. I didn’t see a single car. There were just a few street lamps casting muddy yellow pools of light on the otherwise cracked and abandoned road.
We got out of the car and walked to the building to look at the address. The street was oddly silent, but there was hushed rumble of what sounded like a party in the distance. A beautiful woman in a spandex dress and stiletto heels walked past. I watched her walk to the end of the block, stop like a soldier, turn and walk back. She never made eye contact, but I suddenly felt just a little nervous.
We approached the building entirely perplexed. It looked like an abandoned business, one of many down town. However, the closer we got, the clearer the sound of that “party” seemed. The noise became less of a rumble. We could clearly hear people, a crowd having a good time nearby. Music was playing; we could feel the vibrations of the bass. “This is the place,” Don said.
I walked to the front door. I could smell marijuana smoke stronger than I had ever smelled it before just from the outside of the building. A massive amount was undoubtedly being enjoyed inside.
The whole group of us, fueled with ignorance and alcohol, began walking around to the back door. Everyone was starting to get nervous, I think, but it seemed like there was an alcohol-fueled confidence game going on.
It was Adam who spoke up and said, “Ok, I hate to have to be the grown-up here, but I think somebody has to.” He went on to say that he had a really bad feeling about the club, and no one really disagreed.
By this time, the bass vibrations had grown more powerful; the music had become distinct. A man with his hands stuffed in his pockets walked around the side past us. He did a double take. “You all be careful now,” he said.
Just around the corner, there was a huge crowd of people, mostly men, standing around. The air was thick with smoke. The loud music turned suddenly menacing as almost every man standing there in the alley turned to stare at us. It was obvious that we had no business at that particular “club.”
One of the men approached us. Cassandra, Heidi and I stood square in front. Don was behind me.
“You going in there?” the man asked us.
“I- I think we’re in the wrong place,” Cassandra stammered.
The man simply nodded.
We walked back to the car, shaken but unharmed. Everyone was completely dazed about the encounter. Why had we been sent there? Cassandra speculated that it was some kind of “set up,” that we had been sent downtown to the wrong place for some kind of beating or scare or whatever might happen if we had walked into that club, which was obviously a private club.
Don stammered to explain that the man who had told him about the club had described it as a kind of rough, “no rules” type of place, but Don also claimed he hadn’t expected anything like that. Sobered by the encounter and honestly quite shaken up, we returned to Triple Play, so I could get my car and go home.
When we arrived at Triple Play, the DJ and some of the other staff were loading equipment and cleaning up. Cassandra went running out of the car, suddenly possessed with the courage of a lion to scream at the DJ. Why? I struggled to understand. Don said the information had come from elsewhere. I approached long enough to see that the situation was under control. The staff who remained at Triple Play seemed genuinely shocked and sympathetic to the hysterical woman, but they also seemed highly perplexed. I left while they were talking.
That night, I jumped on Facebook, and there was already fearful talk of the encounter on the event page. Don said he thought he was the “target” but asked me to stop publicly talking about what had happened. I thought, for some reason, this meant he was reporting the incident to the police.
How did I fall for the man who stood behind me when he was scared?
It’s complicated. Really complicated.
I had already started to fall into the old trap again. I was allowing myself to believe in a reality I wanted to believe in. Don presented himself as a caring man, looking out for my best interests. He assured me that I would be safe, and I never questioned the obscene audacity of such a statement. Don Carpenter, who lived two states away in Pittsburgh at the time, was going to protect me.
I did some research about the club to which we had gone, and I think I found some information on it. The club boasted a long and violent history:stabbings, gunshot wounds in the parking lot. It was reputed by some locals to be a gang “safe house.”
The fear was overwhelming. I found myself looking at strangers with strange eyes, grappling with the reality that someone had sent us to that place, where we obviously had no business, possibly to be hurt or killed. Paranoia and sleeplessness began to distort my reality. I lived in a world where no one could be trusted, no one but my closest family and…
Don reached out like a knight. The name Knightsec actually comes to mind when I think about this heroic, valiant persona. Just as Knightsec promised the women of Steubenville justice for rape, Don promised me protection from violence and with a comparable amount of credibility to back his claim. But people like to believe in heroes, and I am no exception. Don told me he could keep me safe, and he offered to take me to an “action” in Pittsburgh to teach me about live-stream and “Independent Media.” Heidi and I went to stay with him for a couple of days, excited by the opportunity and honestly eager to get out of town for a bit.
Pittsburgh was a stark contrast to the paranoia I was feeling at home. People around us were friendly. The action, “Is UPMC a Public Charity?” was a blast. I was impressed by the professional attitude and planning involved in such an action. I got to see citizens exercising their first amendment right to speak out about issues that pertain to their lives, and the city was actually quite receptive. It was amazing to see civic action working in legitimate and positive ways.
It was fun, too. The action ended with a march, and I enjoyed the challenge of live-streaming it. Covering a march means a lot of running down the street backwards to stay in front of the subject-matter. This was challenging and fun. I ran backward into a telephone poll at least once.
Charged with adrenaline, Don, Heidi, a photographer with whom Don was acquainted named Tom Jefferson and I went, upon Don’s suggestion, to buy beer to take back to “the office.” We went to one of Pennsylvania’s state beer stores, walked into a cooler and began to wander around.
“What kind of beer are we getting?” Tom asked to anyone in particular.
Don shrugged. “Pick out whatever you guys want. I’m fine with anything.”
Tom looked at Heidi and me. We both shrugged, and we all ended up opting for the classic and affordable, Pabst Blue Ribbon. When we checked out, Don wandered away out the door. He left Tom just standing there to pay for the beer. I felt a little awkward and gave Tom some money to split the cost. Don perplexed me a little bit.
“The office,” where I would come to learn Don lived and we were to stay, was a small room in another woman’s apartment. In the little room I noticed a television, two computers, a loveseat, a computer chair and desk, a small end table, some weird tubes that looked like pieces of ductwork perhaps but Don later explained as “lock boxes” for lock-down protests, full riot gear, a small bottle of vodka and a partial bottle of whiskey. That was about it.
I was confused, but we had already decided to stay there. And it didn’t feel particularly great back home. Besides, we had already purchased the beer.
We sat around the small room drinking. Heidi and Tom sat on the loveseat. Don sat in the computer chair. I sat on the floor. I didn’t think much of it at first. I was having a good time. I had already decided to stay up there for the night, so I decided to cut loose and enjoy the alcohol.
I had several beers and a few shots. For me, that is quite a lot of alcohol, bearing in mind that with my medication, I shouldn’t really drink any, but I wanted to just relax.
We watched the Dr. Phil show in that fashion, and Don had the wonderful idea that we should live-stream our reactions. I know I, for one, made a bit of a fool of myself, but we were having fun. It felt good to be in another city, and it felt good, buzzed in the glow of the alcohol, to be with Don. Everything was fuzzy. I felt fuzzy. There was a sense of warmth and comfort in everything.
In the kitchen, the two of us stowed away and talked, just the two of us. Don told me his tragic story. He said he had once been engaged, but his fiancé was killed fighting in Afghanistan. He told me he had served his country, too, that he had done things that would forever haunt him. He described watching a security checkpoint in Iraq, “blowing away” anyone who would not stop, even women and children. I knew that war confronts soldiers with ugly realities like the one he described to me, so I never questioned the truth of the story. Who would lie about such tragedies? I felt like he had bared his soul to me, like he had shared his darkest moments with me. I felt trusted. I felt close to him.
I held him, as he told me these stories. He didn’t cry. He spoke of it all very glumly but very distantly. He told me other things, too. He told me he had once been a police officer and a very different person. “You wouldn’t have liked me then,” he said. “I was really different.”
Touched by Don’s honesty and more than a little buzzed, I felt so close to him. I felt like I should share something with him. I told him I hadsurvived an abusive relationship, one that became violent and ended withrepeated incidents of rape. I told Don about all of it and how I was too ashamed to get help. I tried to deal with it on my own, and I nearly ended up killing myself. I fell into drugs for a time and nearly lost my entire sense of self. I suffered a psychotic break and would always have to deal with symptoms like paranoia and occasional breaks in reality.
It wasn’t that I wanted pity. I felt like it was something that was important to share, because the scars from that incident defined me in manyways. Being close to me, I felt he should understand these things.
I was content with that, but the drinking continued eventually, and laterDon blurted, “I love you.” Drunk, I blurted it back.
In those warm fuzzy hours I meant it, and I was no longer thinking about things like trust issues and things that scare me. I was happy to be having a good time with a good (at least I really thought so) man.
I was a little bit surprised to learn there was no other room with a bed in it for me to sleep on, however. Don and I slept on the floor. I took it as a sign of age that lying on the floor made my bones hurt. It somehow didn’t seem to bother Don. He reminded me that at Occupy Pittsburgh he had slept in a tent on the ground. I wasn’t going to argue about the poor man not having a bed somehow, but he could have warned me. He didn’t, and he didn’t warn Heidi or Tom, whom he had also invited to stay and had to sleep awkwardly sitting on a loveseat. We were all very uncomfortable about the situation, but no one wanted to hurt his feelings and say anything.
And I somehow fell for him anyway.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
My relationship with Don, the work, Don’s friendships with activist organizations, the stories we covered, the lies, all of it started getting really confusing really fast. I loved Don, but it seemed like we were always running on no sleep or drinking and then running with no sleep. We were often angry and fighting; even when we were getting along, I later would reminisce, we were fighting. I had distorted perceptions of situations and people, because Don sometimes failed to communicate important details. It was always a stupid mistake though. We were never angry long.
Don was getting increasingly obsessive, which I did logically, at least, recognize as a warning sign, though I would say I ignored this for a while. He sometimes called me five times a day. He asked me about everything I did and to whom I had spoken. I thought he was just really hung up on me. At first, it was almost cute. I felt somehow guilty for the amount of attention he gave me. It was overwhelming and confusing. He wanted to know everything about me.
Yet, he seemed to remember nothing. He was drunk often, I had already begun to notice. He forgot details. He forgot conversations. He would ask me the same question days in a row and grow very defensive if I pointed this out.
I tend to feel uncomfortable having personal conversations on the phone and prefer the faceless nature of text messages. Don texted me a lot, which was fine for a while, but even that became tiring eventually. If we weren’t talking on the phone, it seemed like we were texting or talking on Facebook or sleeping. I was exhausted by the attention and started letting his calls go to voicemail every once in a while. I was tired of explaining myself all the time to a man I had just started dating.
I’d always feel guilty, though, and end up apologizing even when I was legitimately busy doing chores. It somehow seemed like Don’s loneliness superseded my need for independent space. I felt selfish and constantly somehow in his debt. I didn’t understand how it had happened. We were supposedly equals in work and in our relationship, but I always felt like I was wrong.
I won’t lie. I was a little wary about all of this. As I previously stated, I have been in an abusive relationship before. I was not blind to the signs I saw initially: the obsessive behavior and the guilt/emotional manipulation cycle. But I ignored those signs at first. I rationalized his behavior. I thought he was just “crazy about me.”
In a way, maybe he was.
But there were good times too. That was what it was all about for me. I thought we were covering and supporting Anonymous in Steubenville, but I didn’t think we had any actual involvement. We did other actions, too. We covered an Anti-Fracking demonstration in Bessemer, PA, the Summit Against Racism in Pittsburgh, and we were going to cover One Billion Rising. Don said he covered activism, and that was his only connection.
I never questioned that before Valentine’s Day.
The days leading up to Valentine’s Day were a little bit weird and kind of paranoid. Don would send me vague messages about being scared about something, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. To be honest, I thought he was having some kind of PTSD flashbacks or something, but I was a little put off by the way he was talking.
One minute he would excitedly tell me the action (One Billion Rising in Pittsburgh) was going to be great. Oh, and, by the way, he was going to get an interview with two “anons.” Everything was great.
Then he would send me weird, vague texts like, “I’m so scared right meow.”
I didn’t know what to make of it. I was getting a little bit scared. I asked him what was going on. I asked him if I should even come up. He immediately clammed up. He said it was fine. He said he would tell me more when I came up.
Part of me had a really bad feeling about it. I thought about cancelling, but I had already agreed to Live-stream One Billion Rising. Don didn’t have a phone he could use to do it. He had said before that people were counting on me.
I waited until about midnight, I think, to even leave home. I had been busy helping my father with some roof-repair for a family member for most of the day, so it was late by the time I was cleaned up and ready to go. I also was hoping that, by arriving late, I would miss any crazy drama that might be going on (I still didn’t really know what those texts were about).
I brought Heidi up to Pittsburgh with me, because she and Tom were going to go to One Billion Rising too to take photographs. I’m pretty nervous about driving around Pittsburgh alone, so I picked Don up at his place first, before dropping Heidi off at Tom’s studio.
After we dropped Heidi off, Don opened up immediately. He told me that the “anons” had stayed with him for a few days, and they had quite a party. It sounded like a lot of fun. I didn’t understand. “Did you get the interview done?” I asked.
“No,” he said. He told me they were planning to do that hopefully tomorrow, but they had rushed out of the house in a hurry shortly before I arrived. He said something about a “raid,” but it wasn’t at Don’s place. I had no idea what was going on.
“Look, you’re tired, and I’m tired. Let’s just forget about it,” Don said.
When we got back to Don’s place, I carried my survival luggage, which included snacks, an air mattress and instant coffee as well as the necessary clothing and toiletries (I was NOT going to be stuck up there another day without food or coffee). I unpacked the coffee and snacks and proceeded to unroll the air mattress.
Don actually was going to help me air it up before he turned on the air compressor and realized it was rather loud. “That’s too loud,” he said. “My roommate’s asleep.”
I tried to turn it back on, but Don pulled it away from me. “She’s already pissed at me,” he said. “Please, don’t be mad at me.”
Despite his plea, however, I was livid. I didn’t want to sleep on the floor again. It seemed like a really big deal at the time. When I finally resigned, I laid down on the carpet, listening to the floorboards creek just beneath me. My back hurt, and Don wanted to cuddle close to me, which was just making me angrier. I tossed and turned.
Meanwhile, Don’s phone was going off like crazy. “That’s just Cassandrafreaking out,” he said.
“About what?” I asked.
He wouldn’t tell me. I pushed, though, and he told me a little. “She wants me to ask you if we can use your car.”
Don fell silent for a moment. “Let me ask her.”
Don babbled something about needing to move somebody’s car. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I couldn’t imagine that he was trying to involve me in anything illegal.
“Apparently, she’s freaking out about it or something.”
I sighed. “She’s drunk. Isn’t she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fine. I’m not f***ing sleeping anyway,” I said.
Don looked at me like he was very sad about this statement, but he didn’t say anything.
We got into my car again. This time Don drove. It was probably a twenty minute drive through Pittsburgh to Cassandra’s house. She lived in a small suburban neighborhood. We had to park a little down the road, so we got out and walked there.
Don messaged her on the phone to tell her we were there, and she eventually came outside. It was very cold and very late and somehow kind of eerie standing outside of Cassandra’s house just waiting for her to come out. When she did, she looked really upset. “I saw a black SUV driving past my house,” she said to Don. She looked like she’d been crying. “This shit is getting serious. I told Baws, I can’t deal with this. I can’t help him anymore if he’s going to be this stupid. She then hugged me. “Thank you so much.”
I was completely perplexed at this point.
Two guys who looked barely older than High School graduates eventually came out of the house. One of them, the one I would come to know later as Pops, came over and spoke to Don for a bit. They spoke rather quietly though.
The other, Baws, was walking like a zombie. He looked like he had just gotten out of bed and was not really awake at all. He had a bag with him, and he wrapped himself in a blanket. He was carrying a plate of lasagna.
The two of them got into a vehicle together, I think an SUV, though I am no longer sure I remember. Don and I walked back to my car, and noticed I needed gas. Don motioned to them that we had to find a gas station, and they followed us as we did.
At the gas station, Don actually got out and pumped my gas. “Just be cool. Everything’s fine,” he said. He spoke with Pops as the gas filled up.
I heard Pops say, “I need to talk to her.” He leaned into my window and asked, “Do you know who we are and what we’re doing?”
I don’t know why I said “yes.” I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know what they were running from, and I certainly didn’t know why they had to follow my car in another car. But I was honestly freaked out, and Don had told me to “be cool,” so I did my best to play cool.
Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I guess I didn’t want to admit that I was actually getting scared in the middle of all that childishness. I was feeling very paranoid, but I didn’t know what was going on at all. So I pushed my paranoia away. I tried to, at least. I tried my best to rationalize everything in my mind. I had lost my grip on reality before. Maybe this was one of those times. Quite honestly, though, I knew it wasn’t. I had been on the correct medication for years; it had been a long time since I had an all-out break with reality.
Something was really wrong, and I knew it.
Don drove my car through Pittsburgh. I don’t know if we left Pittsburgh or not. It was a long drive. The “anons” were right behind us.
I played with the radio nervously. “Where are we going?”
Don looked at me and seemed to smile. “They’re going to drop that car off. They need a ride back.”
“Drop it off where?”
We drove silently on. I turned the nob on the radio manically, barely hearing the snippets of songs and static as I did so, something welling in my throat. The road was lined with anonymous pine trees silhouetted against a dark purple sky. We drove for a while. Thirty minutes? Forty-five minutes? I couldn’t tell. I drifted in and out of paranoid fits of sleep, staring out the window at the pine trees or the buildings or the stars staring blankly back at me.
I don’t know where we went. I am pretty sure it was a Home Depot. I think it was in or around Pittsburgh. It seemed we were driving uphill, and when we got to the Home Depot we were on top of a precipice looking down at sprawling highway. There were commercial vehicles on the road but not much else.
The “anons” parked the car and fumbled around inside of it for quite some time. We sat and waited.
“Why are they leaving the car at Home Depot?”
Don didn’t answer for a while.
“That’s a stolen car, isn’t it?”
“Are you kidding me?” I think I yelled, maybe with a possible expletive. The two guys were still inside the car. It had been quite a while.
“The person who owns the car lives states away. Relax. No one is going to find it. Not for a while anyway.”
“These places have cameras on the parking lots now,” I said. I was thinking of my old job at Wal-Mart, though. I don’t really know if Home Depot does that or not, but it seemed possible.
“Do you see any cameras?”
“That doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
“Relax!” Don was practically laughing. “I used to work here. There are no cameras.”
I sighed. “Still. I can’t believe this. Someone is bound to have seen us. I drive a ***** red sports car! It’s not exactly subtle.”
“But no one knows they’re looking for us. Relax.”
I just looked at him. “What the **** is going on?”
Don hopped out of the car and checked inside the other car. He came back. “Baws can’t find his phone.”
It seemed like something straight out of a slap-stick comedy: he had lost his phone in the stolen car right when they were trying to get rid of it. It was absurdly funny in those stressful moments. It occurred to me that if we were assisting fugitives, they were certainly the most bumbling and ineffective fugitives I had ever seen.
Finally, Baws found his phone, and the two strangers approached and got into the cramped, garbage-filled back-seat of my Monte Carlo. Baws was still carrying the plate of lasagna, which he was eating.
I didn’t know whether to be amused by their idiocy or irate at Don for involving me in a crime. I didn’t know what to think. They acted like teenagers.
Don drove us around aimlessly. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
I didn’t want to talk in front of strangers. I felt like a hostage in my own car. I didn’t know what to do.
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” Don offered.
“Yes, actually, I do,” I said.
We stopped at a small store. My head spun. All I could fixate on was getting that coffee and doing whatever I had to do to get rid of those guys. What had I just been a part of? Whose car was that they had taken? Who were they running from?
They looked like boys, for God’s sake. It just didn’t make sense. We went inside. I found a hot drink dispenser and got myself some toffee-flavored cappucino, which I had not realized I was actually buying myself.
Pops and Baws came in the store to buy smokes and chew. Baws was still carrying his plate of lasagna around in the little store. The more I watched him drag himself, the more I wondered what it was he was using. His eyes were bloodshot. He was helpless. He was high. I only know this because I have had my own fair share of battles with drugs. I know the signs for which I am looking.
I bought my cappuccino. That was apparently when Don got the idea that perhaps he could pacify my anger with some sort of romantic gesture. The Mount Washington Overlook, he decided.
That would fix everything.
“Who’s car was that?” I asked the men in the back seat.
“The less you know,” Don told me, “the better.”
It sounded overly dramatic and silly to me, but I didn’t know what to think anymore.
“It’s my fiancé’s car,” Baws said. He explained, “I wouldn’t have taken it, but we had to leave really fast.”
I looked at the men in my backseat They were not really boys; they were probably just a few years younger than myself. I didn’t know anything about them.
Yet, there they were.
Happy F****ing Valentine’s Day to me.
I started to wonder four things that night. Who were those strange young men on the couch? What had they done? Who was Don? Who was I becoming?
I had fallen blindly into a really strange situation. Am I the kind of person who assists criminals?
I could leave. I knew I could dial 911 for the nearest police, but I had been involved. They had used my car. I was confused, paranoid, afraid.
Perhaps, that is how they slept so easily. I didn’t sleep at all.
I woke Don briefly about it. “We did the right thing,” he said.
I wanted to cry or laugh, but instead I watched silent television images while Don snored at my side on the floor. He wouldn’t turn the volume up for fear of bothering his already angry room-mate. I waited impatiently, nervously for the hours to pass. The sun rose slowly behind the blinds. I waited. My eyes hurt.
I didn’t sleep.