Circuit Court House, Upper Marlboro, MD My small ten year old frame sat in what seemed to me, to be the biggest leather chair ever made. It was dark green, and had two large arm rests that I had to reach up to place my hands on. The room was small, and cold from the air conditioning. A large wooden desk stood before me. It was important looking, with several documents covering it. I noticed the rectangular desk calendar. It was still on May 1983, a month behind. There was a name plate on the front edge that had two small cattle horns protruding from both sides. It read ‘Honorable JT Smith.’ Framed paintings of cowboys in western settings were proudly displayed over top of the dark brown imitation wood paneling. I sat, staring straight ahead at the silver audio recording machine resting on one of the shelves in the bookcase mounted to the back wall. The kind with two large reels of tape, where one rotated slightly faster than the other, and pulled the tape through. One reel was spinning, and the last part of the tape was hanging off just enough to make a clicking noise on each rotation. I found it mesmerizing. My mother sat in the chair next to me. Her face was thinner, and had lost some of its color. A side effect of the treatment she was receiving. I was told it would make her feel better. She was quiet, focusing her attention on the room. I looked at her, and she glanced down at me. Sensing the nervous concern in my face, she gave me a small but reassuring smile. She then quickly turned and re-focused her attention on the room. I sensed her preoccupation. Her attempt to comfort me did little to quell the anxiety raging within me. My stomach felt like a swirling vortex of uncertainty and fear. Standing beside my mother, was her new husband, Richard Plenti. He leaned his large six two and two hundred forty pound frame against the side wall in the judge’s office. Plenti had jet black hair and a large square jaw. His green eyes could pierce right through you. A tactic he would use often. Clean shaven, and dressed in a pair of inexpensive slacks with a button down shirt that did not fit properly, he covered up his usual rough nature. An iron worker by trade, he made a living from applying heat and force to bend things against their will. He stood there with an aloof expression on his face. Glancing at his watch, then, up at the ceiling, he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. Suddenly, a door burst open from the left side wall just next to the desk. In came the judge, Honorable JT Smith with a court stenographer in tow. Middle aged, and slightly graying, Judge Smith had a conservative and distinguished look. He did not wear a black robe, at least not now. His crisp white shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, giving him the appearance of someone who gets involved in their cases. He moved with the speed and force of a Southeastern thunderstorm. “Good morning everyone,” the judge said with a slightly diluted west Texas accent. “I’d like to get started, if y’all are ready.” That wasn’t a question. The proceeding started. After a quick and cursory review of the file, Judge Smith looked at me. “Matthew, how are you today?” “Okay”, I replied kind of sheepishly. “Good. Now you understand why you are here today, don’t you?” “Yes,” as I nodded my head. “This meeting will finalize your legal adoption by Mr. Plenti,” the judge looked at me and rotated his left hand around a couple of times, as if to move things along. “Is this what you want, Matthew?” Is this what I want? In that moment, time seemed to stop. The world, my world, just froze. Even at age ten, I understood the weight of this question. There I stood at the proverbial ‘fork in the road.’ Images raced through my mind. Images of Plenti, three sheets to the wind, yelling at my mother because his dinner was not hot enough. Then proceeding to rip the old rotary phone, mounted to our kitchen wall, clean off, and hurling it across the room. My gut screamed No! Ever fiber of my being wanted to run from this situation as fast as I could. I liked things the way they were. All I had known up to this point was life with my mom. We lived modestly, but I was a happy kid. Plenti could be domineering and manipulative, with a ‘my way or the belt’ kind of attitude. I knew things would be different. I felt intimidated and confused. Who could blame my mom? She had me at a young age and was forced to drop out of school to make ends meet. With few options, and even less money, my mom was doing what she thought was best for us. A way to a better life. At least that’s what I told myself, and I didn’t want to disappoint my mom. “Matthew,” the judge said. My attention re-focused. What do I do? I looked around the room. All faces were fixed on me. A stern look from Plenti, an impatient expression from the judge and a look of resignation from my mom. Like there was nothing or no one else to turn to. I nodded my head and said, “Yeah.”**** I adjusted to my new life as best I could. We moved into a small post war three bedroom house on Parkway Court in Hyattsville Maryland. The neighborhood was mostly blue collar, and amidst a racial transformation. I attended a small school down the street that I could walk to every morning. Those morning walks I learned to enjoy. This became my time to be alone with my thoughts, where I still had complete authority. I learned quickly that I no longer controlled my physical environment. Any freedoms or considerations were now going to be granted by my new stepfather, Richard Plenti. There were rules to follow. Trust to be earned, not given. If the rules were broken, then there was disciplinary action delivered with the swiftness and indifference of a jail house guard. I learned to keep my head down and my nose in my own business. I focused on school, mainly to occupy my mind, but also to avoid the consequences of less than satisfactory grades. I remained closer to my mom. She hadn’t been feeling well lately, and I spent as much time with her as I could. I never brought up the new family status with her. She knew that I wasn’t happy with the way things were turning out. I think she could sense my feeling of being excluded. Like someone or something that came with the package. I resigned to the fact that this was my new life. I remained quiet about it. No one was listening anyway. On Thursdays, I took a longer way home from school. My mom was still receiving treatments, and had a regular doctor’s appointment every second and fourth Thursday of each month. I walked a little slower those days, trying to time it perfectly with my mom’s arrival from the doctor’s visit. As I approached our house, I noticed my stepfather’s pickup truck in the driveway. That’s strange. My mom’s car should have been there by now. I walked up our concrete steps, opened the metal storm door and went inside. I laid my book bag down on the living room floor, just by the front door. I couldn’t see my stepfather, but I could hear his voice. He was talking on the phone in their bedroom and sounded angry. “I understand. I understand,” he said with his tone changing from anger to more of a somber sound. He hung up the phone as I walked into the room. “What’s wrong? Where’s mom?” I asked unassumingly. “There’s been an accident. Your mom won’t be coming home.” My body went numb. I couldn’t feel my knees hit the floor as I collapsed.**** It was colder than normal, even for a mid November day. The sky was gray and overcast. Most of the colorful autumn leaves had fallen, leaving the trees barren. The ground was hard and crunched beneath my feet as I took my place near the casket. The funeral for my mom drew a small gathering. There were the immediate family members and a small group of friends from the cancer support group that mom had been attending. Plenti was there. He stood on the opposite side of the casket from everyone else, motionless and quiet. This was my first real experience with death. I had never known anyone who had died before. It all seemed surreal to me. I was dressed in a charcoal gray suit, the only one I owned. My face was masked by a pair of sunglasses. Not to hide tears, but because I had seen other people at funerals on TV wearing them. I didn’t know how to respond. Uncomfortable and unsure of myself, I couldn’t acknowledge what was taking place. This was the last time I would be next to my mom. One last time to be with the only person that I had loved, or had been loved by. One last glimpse at my childhood – my life as I had known it. I was struck with a deep feeling of anxiety. Like I was lost in a forest with nothing to guide me. I had lost my compass. The one person whom I had always relied upon for direction, love and support. Where would my life go from here? The ceremony was short, and the priest dismissed us with a prayer. Everyone began to make their way back to the cemetery parking lot. Plenti walked past me on the way to his vehicle. “Get in the truck.” He said with a quiet but forceful voice.**** Back at our house, we had a few people over for the customary food and drinks. I always thought it was strange to have a party after someone just died. Mostly family had stopped by, and our next door neighbor, Mr. Calhoun. Calhoun was the first person I had met when we moved into our new home. A veteran of WWII, he was kind hearted and respected as a grandfatherly figure in our neighborhood. All the kids loved him, mostly because he would give us little trinkets from his garage for completing chores around his house. For mowing his lawn, he gave me a military pocket flashlight, and taught me how to use Morse code with it. I carried that little flashlight everywhere. Mr. Calhoun had read about the car accident that killed my mom, and came by to pay his condolences. There was a lot of small talk, and a few moments of laughter. I guess people were reminiscing about old times. I didn’t feel like laughing or remembering. Plenti was different, and everyone noticed it. He was more distant than his usual aloof self. Acting remote and unapproachable, he sat in a chair near the front door in our living room. Plenti was in his own little world, detached from ours, watching people walk by, but not paying any attention to them. I believed that he cared deeply for my mom. Losing her must have been devastating for him. After a few hours, the gathering wound down and people started to leave. Mr. Calhoun reached out to shake Plenti’s hand to say goodbye. There was no response from Plenti. He didn’t even lift his head to make eye contact. Mr. Calhoun paused, and turned to me. He offered me a warm but concerned look, just before he walked out. It only took few minutes for everyone to leave. Plenti remained silently perched in his chair, staring into nothing. The house was quiet. To occupy myself, I began to clean up. I picked up a couple of used paper plates from the coffee table in our living room. I reached down to grab a glass, when I heard, “What do you think you’re doing?” I was already feeling uneasy from the day, and this startled me. “What do you mean?” I asked totally perplexed. “Just what I said. What do you think you’re doing?” Plenti’s voice raised a level. “Did I tell you to touch anything?” He raised his head and made eye contact with me. His face looked deranged. Lifeless, like there was no person behind it. He looked right through me. “No, but I –“ “Then put it down!” Puzzled, I put the plates back down on the coffee table. What was this all about? “Now, pick up the plates and put them in the trash.” “Okay, that’s what I was doing.” I said with a slightly annoyed tone. Really? Another one of your stupid mind games now? “What did you say to me?” “Nothing, I just –“ Plenti jumped from the chair like a cheetah attacking a gazelle in the wild. He charged me, and grabbed my right arm. His grip was strong. He squeezed my arm hard. I could feel it throbbing in his vice-like grasp. With his size and strength, he threw me ten feet backwards into a wall. My back hit the wall first, then my head. Stunned, I fell to the ground. Plenti came towards me. He wrapped his large hand around my throat, and slid my dangling body up against the wall. I could barely reach the floor with my toes. Using both hands, I tried prying apart his fingers that were crushing my neck. It was useless. I was no match for his might. He leaned into me, pining me harder against the wall. He was two inches from my face. I could feel the heat radiating from him, like an overheated furnace ready to explode. “How dare you talk back to me!” Plenti yelled in a state of rage. “You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be alive!” I coughed, struggling to breathe. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Plenti’s hand moving like a locomotive toward my face. Then everything went black.**** I slowly regained consciousness. My head was pounding like a drum with the worst headache I’d ever felt. I reached up to rub my forehead, I couldn’t see my hand. It was dark. Pitch black dark. There were no sounds coming from any direction. Something smelled musty and old. Like I was surrounded by antiques and boxes that had been there for decades. I felt around the ground, trying to get my bearings. Beneath me was a wood floor. It wasn’t finished, this had a rough surface. I moved my hand further. The floor stopped, and a different surface began. It was soft, but prickly and felt like insulation. I bumped into a large cardboard box. I nervously opened the flaps on top. I reached inside, groping the contents, looking for clues. It felt like Christmas decorations. Christmas decorations? I’m inside the attic! My heart raced. What am I doing here? Just then, I heard Plenti walking around downstairs. Our attic had one of those old pull down ladders that opened up in the kitchen. He was right below me, cursing and moving things around. Bang! A loud noise made me jump. It sounded like a nail being driven through wood. What is he doing? Again, the loud thud right below where I was sitting. Then I heard what sounded like a power drill spinning. A pause. Then the drill again. To my horror, I realized what Plenti was doing. He was securing the attic door shut from the bottom. “What are you doing?” I screamed as loud as I could. No response. He just kept hammering more nails. “Please let me out!” I began to panic. I started pounding the attic floor with my foot. “Let me out of here!” What was going to happen to me? Would he really leave me here? Forever? About an hour had passed with absolute silence. It felt like an eternity. I was left alone in the attic. Why was this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Was this my fault? I sat with my knees tucked up against my chest, curled up like a ball. I anxiously rocked back and forth. I missed my mom. There was a sudden rap at the front door. I could hear Plenti’s footsteps move across the hard wood floor. He paused for a second, then un-bolted the deadlock. Plenti opened the door, and turned three shades of white when he saw who was standing there. “Good evening sir. I am Officer Washington with the Prince George’s County Police.” I could hear the muffled tones of a conversation. I was struggling to make out the words, but I did hear police. Thank God! I’ll be okay. “Yes!” I shouted. “Up here. Help!” Hoping the officer could hear me. My scream was audible, but not loud or clear. It did get the officer’s attention. “Is everything okay, Mr. Plenti?” asked Washington. “Oh, yes. Of course.” Plenti chuckled quickly before the officer could respond. “That’s my TV in the bedroom. I’m afraid that I am a bit of a horror movie buff. The Omen, part two, is on tonight.” Officer Washington stared at Plenti, not sure what to make of him. He scanned the living room quickly through the space between the open door, looking past Plenti. Somewhat satisfied, but still suspicious, Washington continued. “Mr. Plenti, I was asked to deliver your wife’s personal belongings. We have concluded our investigation with her accident.” He handed Plenti a large clear bag containing a few small items. “Thank you officer. Have a good evening.” “You too,” replied Washington, turning away slowly, still feeling unsure. “No!” I screamed, and kicked over the box with decorations. The force from my foot sent a ceramic Christmas tree that I had painted with my mom, flying out of the box, and onto the wood floor. It shattered into pieces. Both the officer and Plenti turned their heads in the direction of the noise. “Sir, I’m gonna need you to step back!” Washington drew his gun from its holster. He stepped inside, slowly, with both hands griping his firearm. Plenti stepped aside and even extended his left arm, as if to say Right this way. As Washington moved closer towards the kitchen, Plenti reached down and grabbed an iron poker from the fireplace. He raised it high and struck the officer in the back of the head. I heard the officer’s body hit the floor with a loud thud. Plenti then savagely beat the defenseless man with several blows. My heart was racing, beating against my chest. Was he coming for me now? Adrenaline kicked in, and my mind started scanning for anything that could help. I began to pace, stepping over the broken ceramic. What do I do now? I threw my arms up in a fit of frustration. As my hands fell back down to my sides, I felt something in my pocket. It was my flashlight that Mr. Calhoun gave me. I turned it on. Thank God it still works. I desperately waived it around, shining the light on anything. There must be something I can do. Just then, I heard Plenti below me again in the kitchen. I heard the drill spinning again. Is he coming up here? I swallowed hard, and ran to the opposite end of the attic. Our house had a metal screen attic vent that faced Mr. Calhoun’s house. Maybe he could hear me? “Help!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. Using all of my strength, I pounded on the vent with my flashlight. Wait a minute…Morse code! Maybe someone will see my call for help. S.O.S. S.O.S. “C’mon.” I could hear Plenti yelling to himself, as he was taking a hammer to the boards he had nailed together earlier. The sound of the wood splitting, as it was being pried open, sent a chill up my spine. I was running out of time. Plenti would be up here in a few minutes. S.O.S. “Please Mr. Calhoun! Please see this!” S.O.S. Sweat was pouring off of me. My hands could barely grip the flashlight. I was shaking uncontrollably. The sound of breaking wood stopped. It was replaced by a more horrific noise. I heard the metal springs on the attic ladder being stretched to extend down. Plenti climbed the ladder. I heard each heavy footstep, one after another. I could see his dark shadow making its way up the staircase, coming into the attic. I huddled myself in the far corner, and waited my pending doom. This felt like a nightmare. Why can’t I just wake up? I just sat there frozen. Scared out of my mind. Shaking. It felt like my heart was going to explode. And then – Bang! The loudest noise I had ever heard rocketed through our house. I grabbed both ears in pain from the echo. Plenti let out an un-human sounding howl. He fell down the ladder, trying to grasp onto each rung as he descended. I ran over to the opening to see what had just happened. Plenti’s body collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the ladder. He was covered in blood. I felt an instant sense of relief. There I saw the most wonderful sight. Mr. Calhoun was standing over Plenti’s body, holding a still smoking shot gun.