The first thing one notices about him, if one notices him at all, is his pale blue eyes. The face in which they are set is square, rugged, and deeply lined, giving the appearance of great age and wisdom. This face is framed with coal black hair, closely cut, and without a hint of gray anywhere. He is not an old man. And he is not often noticed.
His lithe but muscular body is dressed in green work clothes, and he holds the push broom out in front of him sweeping down the hallway on the thirteenth floor of the Greystone office building where he is employed as custodial engineer, AKA janitor.
He swept past Jason Banks associates, and stopped to polish the brass handle on the ornately carved door. This whole side of the building was taken up by this small importing business but no employee was about this time of night. A little further on he swept past Daniels and Ornstein, Attorneys at Law, whose firm occupied the other side. There was activity here even though it was past eleven o’clock on a Thursday night. He stopped in front of the door which led to the waiting room and thought for a minute. He had business here.
Entering, he could hear the voice of Robert Daniels as it projected through from a conference room somewhere to the right.
"Ladies and gentlemen. We have less than ten hours before the pre-trial hearing," the loud, deep voice proclaimed, "and we have nothing. Nada. Squat. I do not want to have to tell our most important client that I can not keep him out of jail until his trial. No, ladies and gentlemen, you will stay here until every stone has been unturned and the key to his release is sitting neatly typed and on my desk ready for court in the morning." There was a pause. "Is that clear?" Silence. Louder, "IS THAT CLEAR?" The affirmation was equally loud as the man with the pale blue eyes removed something from his pocket and positioned himself.
A door slammed and footsteps hurried his way. The custodian stepped forward just as Robert Daniels attorney at law stepped around the corner. The two men collided with enough force to knock the lawyer backward, and dislodge the object the custodian was carrying.
"Are you all right sir?" the custodian rushed to help the man up.
"Who the hell are you?" Daniels spat as he allowed the janitor to help him up, "and what the hell are you doing here?"
The custodian looked around and found the object he had dropped. Recovering it with a graceful gesture, he said, "I found this just outside the door. I heard voices and thought it might belong to someone here. It in fact, has your name on it."
Robert Daniels was still quite upset and grabbed the disk from the man’s hand and looked at it What he saw was a CD in a plastic jewel case. His name was indeed scrawled across the top, printed on a strip of white tape.
"This does not belong to me. I have never seen this before." But his voice was weaker, unsure, almost musing.
"Oh I am sorry sir," the custodian said. "I shall put it down in the lost and found. Sorry to have disturbed you." and he reached for the disk.
"Hold on a minute," Robert said as he studied the object. In fact his eyes had never left it. It was the picture on the cover that had caught his attention. It was a photograph of a two story brick house in a rural setting. An expansive yard was set before it, with a dirt driveway that ran from one side of the property, behind the house, and back to the road on the other side of the house. Behind the house, just past the dirt parking area, was a set of three wooden "horses" with stirrups and manes made from old mops. Beyond that was a set of swings, made from steel piping. And beyond this a thick wooded area began with an almost invisible dirt path leading into the dark.
He could not, of course, see behind the house from the photograph. His mind, more correctly, his memory, filled in the details. And he was able to do this because he knew the house. He had lived there once when he was a child. Twelve years old to be exact.
Across the bottom of the picture was printed in thick block letters, "The Dark Woods" and under that in smaller letters, "a computer adventure."
"How can this be?" he said quietly to himself as memories long put away came flooding back. Good times and …
"Yes, well maybe this is mine. I’ll bring it home and let you know." He quickly unsnapped his briefcase and threw the disk inside, then snapped it shut again. Safely locked away.
"Yes, sir. Well I’ll be going now," the custodian said mainly to himself for Robert Daniels, Attorney at Law had brushed passed him and was gone. The custodian smiled to himself as he turned towards the door where he had left his broom.
The Lexus 500 SL took the turns leading to the attorney’s secluded mansion exactly as it was designed to do, swiftly and surely. The bright headlights swept the road ahead of darkness, pushing it around and behind the powerful vehicle. He wound through the switchbacks until he arrived at the large circular driveway. The front porch light was on, as were the two powerful outdoor safety spotlights that originated from each corner of the large house. He brought the car to a stop and exited.
The house was dark, but the spill of light from the back of the house told him that the kitchen was occupied. Amanda was still awake. It seemed she never slept any more.
"You’re still awake," he said kindly as he placed his briefcase on the breakfast bar and sat next to her. She nodded, hardly noticing that he was there. The silence of the shadows beyond this room became a living thing as they sat without speaking. Robert took her hand.
"How was your day?"
She looked at him as if for the first time. She looked dead, with eyes sunk way deep in her head, and her hair mussed. As dead as their daughter, Margaret, who was killed eleven months before by a drunk driver has she walked home from school. She was to be thirteen today.
"It was OK," but her eyes were asking him the same questions they always asked. Why? Why had this thing happened to them? She was just a little girl.
Robert would have been consumed by the vacuum in her eyes had he not broken away. He stood up and patted her on the shoulder. "I’m going to be up for a while doing some work," he said. He had no work to do, but he couldn’t stay there. The hole in his own heart was deep enough. He felt as if his soul had been scooped out and served to strangers. He felt like a shell that was occupying space and time and doing nothing much else.
The shadows ran as he flicked the light in his office, but the silence remained. He sat behind his desk and switched on the computer sitting there. The beeps and whirs subsided to become an electronic hum. He placed the disk labeled, The Dark Woods into the CD-ROM drive. The program booted itself into memory and displayed the scene that Robert had found so familiar when he saw the cover. On the left side, standing on the driveway by the mailbox was a man, shifting uncomfortably with exquisite computer animation. He moved the mouse to the front porch of the house and clicked. The man walked briskly to the front door and stood.
Robert clicked on the door, and the machine worked for a second, then replaced the outdoor scene with another. The perspective was from just inside the doorway, with the man now standing in the entranceway. The kitchen lay ahead, a living room on the left, and a hallway on the right. But the most disturbing aspect of this scene was that it was the house he remembered, exactly as he remembered it.
Clicking here and there he was able to move the animated avatar from room to familiar room and manipulate items, open drawers, and examine photographs long forgotten and abandoned by his 45 year old memory. It was eerie to be exploring a seemingly empty house that was normally so full of life. It was strange too, seeing the picture of his brother on the mantle of the fireplace. A picture he dared not look at since moving from this place, 33 years ago. He moved elsewhere within the house.
At length he made the animated character exit the house through the kitchen door, which placed him on the ground-level deck in the back yard. Now he could see the wooden horses standing at perpetual attention, and beyond them the swing set. And beyond this, the woods. The dark woods which had occupied many of his hours during that summer. The woods which had delighted him and his brother John endlessly as they explored it depths in wonder and apprehension. The dark woods which had consumed John one day, forever changing the course of Robert’s life. Robert had never entered those woods, or any others again.
He was about to turn the computer off and go to bed when he heard the sound of a young girl giggling. There was no real, physical way to tell where it had come from, but he knew. It had come from the woods. His hands hesitated for a moment. Nothing ran through his mind at all, it was blank. A flutter started in the pit of his stomach and climbed right into his head. Not only did he know where the sound originated, he knew who it was.
He clicked on the woods and the animated double casually strode towards the tree-line. He was barely aware of the shift, but at some point he was watching the figure move along the computer generated landscape one moment, and the next moment he was there. Himself. In full physical form. Incarnate in this world he had no real desire to inhabit.
As he approached the familiar dirt trail that led into the dark, he heard the sound again and could clearly tell that it was coming from within. Hesitating a moment, he stepped in and he walked briskly past the fallen tree they used to use for a space ship, and headed for the secret place, the place they used to call "The Garden of Eden" or just The Garden. He found it again without a problem. The old willow tree marked the entrance. He parted the hanging branches, walked across to the other side and emerged from the umbrella of the willow into The Garden.
It was a large clearing with a fresh spring running through it. There were a number of rocks scattered along side the spring where Robert and John would sit for long hours reading comic books, talking about the future, or telling stories. Sometimes they just sat in quiet contemplation. Beautiful flowers lived here and nowhere else in the woods as far as they could tell. And now, sitting on a rock, the one Johnny used to occupy, was Margaret, in the dress they the used to bury her. Her shoes were off and her feet dangled in the cold stream causing her to catch her breath and giggle. Robert stood frozen, and she turned to look at him.
"Dad," she exclaimed, jumping off the rock and running to him at full speed. He bent down and caught her, holding each other a long time. "I missed you Daddy." Robert could not hold back the tears, nor did he try. "I’ve missed you too, Princess."
Finally they relaxed their embrace. "Why are you crying, Daddy?" Robert stared at her, tears streaming down his face, his heart filled with joy and love. And he realized at that very moment how long it had been since he had felt such things. While she was alive, he had barely spent time with her, for he worked quite a bit. As with all such revelations, it came too late. After her death, he could only feel pain, and anger, and guilt. The only people to which he could express these emotions were those who worked for him, and to them he showed his anger and nothing else.
"Why Daddy? Are you sad?" she insisted.
"No honey. I’m glad. I didn’t think I would ever get to see you again."
"But I’m in heaven. Just where you said great-grandpa went when he died. I have seen him just like you said I would. And I will see you again too. Did you forget all that you told me?"
Robert wiped his face. His head felt light. What was she saying to him? Surely this was a dream of some sort. "No darling, I didn’t forget. Of course you are right."
"But you know what Dad," she asked conspiratorially, "Things are a little different that I thought. Did you know that heaven isn’t a place where you just sit around and eat ice-cream and cake all day?" She was very serious as she shook her head. "No we have to work. In fact, I am working now."
"What do you mean, honey?"
"I mean, you and Mom are in terrible trouble. And I have to help you."
Robert’s face grew serious now and he wiped his face. "How are we in trouble."
"You have closed up. I can hardly see you from heaven. When I first came, I could always see you, because your lights were bright. But now…"
"Oh. It is hard to explain, I guess." She put a concentrated look on her face, the one she used when puzzling out a particularly difficult math problem or (more often) when deciding which dress to wear to school. "It’s not really a light, but it’s kinda like one. It’s the thing that connects you to heaven. It’s like a long string that goes from here to you and it is full of fire. But your fire is going out Dad, and Mom’s too. You have to get the light back or I won’t be able to see you again. Ever." she was pleading now, and very agitated.
Robert clutched her close to his heart. He stroked her head as he did when she would awake from a bad dream. "Shhhh, shhhhh, it’s all right sweety. It’s OK, We’ll be OK. You don’t have to worry."
She separated herself with a very adult move. "No Dad. That’s not good enough. I have to show you something first." She stepped back and looked across the garden. The leaves rustled there and out stepped Johnny.
Robert’s mouth dropped and he clutched at his shirt ripping it apart exposing his chest as he let out a wail that sounded as if it came from the depths of hell. It was a sound that was so full of despair and loss that like a black hole it allowed no hope to escape. Robert fell forward and pounded the ground with his fist. And he fell through. Falling. The darkness was complete in this abyss. And he wailed.
Then he felt the touch. And as he thought about this, his wailing stopped. And the darkness receded reluctantly and he saw the garden from a new perspective. He was looking up into the face of his brother, and the tree tops framed his brother’s head like a crown. He was being held, like a child, curled in the arms of his savior who was kneeling on the ground where he himself had fallen. It felt good and safe, being held in his brother’s arms. Only his brother was a man not a child as he remembered. Somehow, this seemed right anyway.
"You did not kill me Robert. You tried to save me. Remember? We tied ourselves together like the mountain climbers we read about and you went up the tree first. And when we were real high I slipped and fell and you grabbed onto a branch to anchor yourself just like we practiced. But the rope caught around my neck and it snapped my neck.
"It wasn’t you. It was an accident."
Robert remembered now and knew that what his brother said was true. He felt clean for the first time since that day. Then he turned to his daughter
"Yes father, you squandered your time with me. And it hurt me, then. Now anymore. Now you know and now you understand that our time on earth is precious and we must learn to love. Then we must give that love away and take the love that is offered and treat the gift with respect. You have learned this lesson today.
"I do not feel the pain," she continued. "It was your pain all along. Give it up and love again. This is the only true goal. Not career, not causes, not saving the planet. Love is the goal of life and the lesson that must be learned. Do not grieve for yourself any longer."
And Robert understood these things.
"But what about Amanda? I must help your mother."
"Bring her here."
"Robert!" the sound jarred him and he saw the office around him and his wife frantic in front of him. "What has happened to you." She looked at him in utter disbelief. He looked down and saw his clothes were in tatters. He looked back at her beaming.
"You sounded like you were dying and you look worse, yet you sit there looking at me as if you have just smoked a joint and drank five fingers of whisky…" She stopped, "Oh Robert, has it come to this?" and she fell into the chair in front of the desk sobbing, her face in her hands.
Robert quickly moved around the desk and comforted her. "No dear, look, I am not drunk or high or anything. But I have something to tell you." She looked at him suspiciously, dropping her hands and lifting her head. She saw something in his eyes.
"I have seen Margaret." Her face turned ashen.
"Stop it Robert," she choked, "This is not funny. This is cruel. You…"
"Please, Amanda, she wants to see you too." And at this her voice caught. And she looked at him with impossible hope in her eyes.
"Here, sit here," he motioned to the chair behind the desk and against her protests he placed her in front of the computer. And he noticed that the program had restarted but instead of the house that he knew, the opening scene was a small house in some suburb somewhere. The little avatar was not a man, but a woman standing by the garage holding a newspaper.
"Why, I know this place," she said, "But how can it be."
"You see, just take the mouse and point it like this and click and she moves,…see,…yes that’s it."
"Why this is the house I grew up in, I don’t understand Robert…" and she continued, losing interest in her surroundings. Robert retreated from the room.
Pehaps, the healing had begun for Amanda.