Veronica Johanson's eyes snapped open and in an instant she was sitting erect in bed. She knew she had heard . . . something, but her sleep-drugged mind couldn't identify its source.
In seconds, Veronica was out of bed and rushing into Jessie's bedroom.
"What is it Jessica? Are you in pain?" There was no need to ask again, her daughter's tortured, perspiration soaked face provided the answer.
"Jessica, honey, show me where it hurts."
Jessie pulled her cover sheet aside to reveal a large, purplish spot on her lower-right abdomen.
"Eric!" Veronica screamed, "Wake up, come in here!"
She heard the bed frame creak and her husband shuffle into the hall. "In here Eric! Jessica's room! It looks like her appendix ruptured."
Eric Johanson's bulldog-like face appeared in the doorway. He looked at Jessie and disappeared again. "I'll get dressed; no time to wait for an ambulance."
Ten minutes later, Eric and Veronica Johanson, with Jessie nestled in Veronica's ample arms, were in Eric's blue Chevrolet.
"What about Derek", Eric asked, "shouldn't we wake him?"
"No time for that, you drop us at the hospital and you can be back here before he knows we're gone."
With that, the Chevrolet pulled out into the muddy darkness of Genoa Street and rapidly disappeared.
It's a Saturday in early August. Outside the Johanson's roomy three-bedroom ranch, the sun, winning its battle over a large puffy cloud, is about to resume its attack on Genoa Street.
Genoa Street! Just out of bed, Derek stands at his window and can almost hear the street calling him out to play. Genoa Street is HIS street – always waiting and never changing.
Just as Derek glances at his bedside clock radio, it flashes over to 9:55 a.m. That's when he begins to realize that there is something very wrong about this particular summer morning.
In Derek's memory, his mother has never, ever let him sleep past 9:00. 'Early to bed, early to rise . . .' is, it seems to Derek, her religion. But this morning, when Derek slowly opened his eyes to the new day, he was alone in his room. No one had been shaking him or coaxing him awake; and since then no one has come to the door.
Now, Derek tries listening for the normal morning sounds of the very active Johanson household: water rushing through the pipes, bangs or thumps from the back yard or garage, the scraping and clattering of dishes, music wafting across the hall from Jessie's room; he hears nothing but an overpowering silence.
'They've left you, Derek!' his mind taunts him, as it often does.
A knot slowly begins to form in Derek's stomach and he shudders. The extra sleep and absolute quiet are unexpected; and Derek's carefully sculpted nature has trouble dealing with the unexpected.
Derek is, in fact, Veronica Johanson's finest work. Veronica, the strong willed, intransigent dictator, runs her home with the utmost respect for rules, order, and routine, and works very hard to instill these values into both her son and daughter. It is Derek, however, who is Veronica's star pupil. Derek who never brakes or even bends the rules. Derek who's room is always neat and organized and who's homework is always done. Derek who never misses the school bus, is never late coming home, and who never leaves the house without his mother's permission. Therefore, it is Derek who, in the end, is least equipped to deal with even relatively minor disruptions in his daily routine.
By 10:00, the barefoot, barechested, boxer shorts-clad 10-year-old, is in the hallway, outside his bedroom door. The siren song of Genoa Street is gone from his mind, replaced by a grain of terror at the unwelcome silence of his home.
In three hesitant steps he is in the open doorway to Jessie's room. Her dresser, just to the left inside the doorway, appears as neat and orderly as can be expected, considering Jessie. Across the room a pair of Jessie's jeans lays crumpled on the seat of the chair by her computer table and a Hanson T-shirt is draped over its back. It all appears so "Jessie-like" in its disorder that Derek really expects, as he steps in the room, in view of her bed, to see Jessie asleep. The candy-stripped canopy bed, however, sits empty and unmade; and the knot in Derek's stomach grows larger.
'Even Jessie left you!' his mind again chides him.
The room next to Jessie's room is the master bedroom, a place where neither Johanson child willingly ventures; for to be in the bedroom you must be very sick and in need of immediate help or in very bad trouble and in need of punishment. The forbidden door is closed against unwanted intrusions and when Derek repeatedly knocks (the first knock, however, is oh, so delicate) and calls through the door, he hears no response. It takes all the rebellion he can muster to break the most dangerous rule in this house of many rules, and finally open the door. But just a crack! He calls out once again through the 1/4-inch opening before daring to enter; there is still no answer. Finally, stepping in the room, he finds what he would not consciously accept as a possibility, an empty room with an unmade bed.
Derek takes off at a run down the hallway, past the open doors of his and Jessie's rooms, toward the living room. He hesitates at the point where the hall opens into the living room and looks, still hopeful, but unsuccessfully, for any sign of his family. The front door is closed, the TV is off, the curtains are closed, silence prevails.
'All alone, Derek!'
More slowly now he crosses the living room to the kitchen. Not a pot, dish, or spoon is out of place and not a family member in sight. Derek desperately tries to think. He looks for a note; on the refrigerator door, on the cork board "message center" behind the kitchen door, and on the table in the dining area. No note, no clue where his family might be.
' They're gone and they don't WANT you along.'
At last this assault on his well orchestrated life begins to take its toll. Derek's chin quivers, his face screws up, and tears stream from his eyes. The totally unexpected is here and he feels helpless in its presence! For the next 30 minutes he is a shuddering, spasming, lost boy sitting on a cool kitchen floor.
At last, when he can summon no more tears, he manages to get his shaky legs under him and hesitantly walk back into the living room. He pauses, staring at his mother's favorite armchair, and then smiles.
Slowly Derek sits down in his mothers lap and hears her murmur, "It'll be alright Derek" and he immediately feels safer and more secure; two feelings the previously silent, summer morning has stolen from him.
At 10:00, Sunday evening, Vickie Epperson received a phone call from Corporal Nuneo Rodreguiz of the State Police. After determining that she was indeed the sister of Veronica Johanson, Corporal Rodriguez gave her the news that her sister, brother-in-law, and a child have been found dead in their car. "The car," he explained, "was found in a drainage ditch. They appear to have been killed on impact."
That night as Vickie, shocked and numb, lay in her bed something pricked at her mind, something about what the police officer had said . . . but sleep claimed her before she could get the answer.
Late Monday afternoon Vickie went, as requested, to the County Morgue to identify the remains of the Johanson family. She identified Veronica, Eric and Jessie, now in three barely identifiable bodies. As the morgue attendant started escorting her back to his dingy office, she asked him why she hadn't been allowed to see the boy's body. Was he, perhaps, in a different location? The attendant consulted his metal clipboard and told her that there were no other children currently at the morgue.
By 6:30 Monday evening Vickie Epperson arrived at 736 Genoa Street. Using a hidden spare key she let herself in the dark quiet house and found Derek sitting in an armchair in the living room; a faint smile on his face as he stared into the darkness. His Aunt Vickie's presence, and later the presence of two ambulance attendants, went unnoticed.
"May I go out and play now?"
© Harvey Grund, July 20, 1998