It was kind of scary, probably not lethal, given the circumstances, but scary nevertheless. She was in a state of silent desperation – with her mind conducting an obviously unsuccessful war against her body.
I must figure it all out, before it is too late.
She was probably telling herself the same thing again and again. Much to her surprise, she found that she was not disgusted – on the contrary, she felt excited and ready to see how things would go.
Never mind it all – she had finally started to live again.
Lydia stood once again in front of the mirror, giving her previously confused expression another chance and with a last look at the bed, she closed the door behind her.
The young man walked towards the house that had been his home ten years ago and adjusted the backpack over his shoulder. His parents were waiting for him on the porch, holding each other by the hands and crying softly.
Stanley Douglass was 32 years old now, almost six feet tall and dressed neatly in a casual jacket and slacks. His steps were slow and uncoordinated, like his parents remembered them to be. Stanley’s eyes avoided direct contact and there was something like fear hiding in there. They had all wanted him to live a happy, normal life, but his autism was bound to prevent him from ever having one. Fortunately, Stanley was an excellent student, able to achieve in higher education and have a good life.
His naiveté and social ignorance had created a few problems in the past, but he had also been able to make a few friends and build a life for himself. Some saw him as dumb and slow-minded, but Stanley was a brave and curious boy, full of hopes for a good life. He never let his learning disability stop him from achieving anything he wanted in life. Even at school, where children are cruel, he was never made fun of, because everyone respected his spirit and commitment to achieve in spite of his difficulties.
Just before he disappeared, Stanley Douglass had been accepted into the Florida State University and wanted nothing more than to make his parents proud. Then he got his driving license and during those first moments of freedom, he disappeared for ten years.
Now, Stanley Douglass had finally returned home to his father and mother.
“Stanley,” Vivian Douglass said tentatively. In ten years her handsome boy had turned into a handsome man, a man she did not recognize anymore. “Is that you?”
“Yes, Mom,” Stanley said with a smile. His face was half-hidden behind a thick beard, but the eyes were the same – dark brown and beautiful. “I came home.”
Vivian Douglass accepted Stanley as her long lost son. She was aware that he was a bit different than she remembered, but after all, ten years had passed. Everyone changed with time. Now her only concern was to put her family back together and recover all those lost precious moments.
For years she had been devastated by the loss of her only son and not even her struggles to beat cancer had been strong enough to make her forget Stanley. Her husband, Charles Douglass, was a quiet man, a well-respected member of the community and specialist when it came to working with special needs children. Charles had been very helpful in taking care of Stanley before his disappearance.
Now, all they wanted was to be a family again, by forgetting about the past and looking at the happy future together.
Their time with Stanley continued just like a sweet fairy tale. After the exciting and really touching first encounter, he moved back into the house and tried to continue his life from where he had left it ten years ago. The food his mother was making was delicious and healthy, mostly local fruit and freshly baked bread. The company was almost as delicious as the food – with Vivian enthusiastically explaining to him everything that had happened during the last years and pointing out the funny sides of things and making him laugh by the way she was narrating it all. Stanley felt loved again.
His own loving family! Now his life was giving him a sense of ease that the unknown from before was not able to provide. He could see how people were looking at him, admiring his handsome figure and elegant posture. Stanley had become a truly good-looking guy.
The only thing darkening his days was the almost imperceptible feeling of guilt that reminded him that he was not able to answer all the questions everybody was asking him. He knew that between his parents and the police, he would not be able to hide anything really serious, but logic was hard to explain to the heart, after all. The guilt was still there, even when he smiled at his father’s jokes or laughed with him at something that had attracted their attention on the busy street.
Stanley often wondered if he was actually becoming one of those men he so much despised – players, whose life revolved around the number of people they managed to play around. He liked the attention his parents were paying him, but was he right to disturb their lives again? Wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to find a place for himself and visit from time to time
All legit questions which he found difficult to answer when standing so close to his mother and father, completely surrendering to their unconditional love. After breakfast, he asked them where they were going and his father answered: “To the woods!” And then he pointed the way to the garage, where the car was parked.
“I thought that we could simply walk along the river today,” Stanley said timidly, wanting to know more about his father’s plans.
“Why?” he asked, really surprised by Stanley’s reaction.
“I am not the adventurous type; my idea of a fun time is reading books or watching some good old movie.”
“You would be better not doing that,” Charles admonished him as he climbed in the car. “We are supposed to have fun together today, my son…”
A shudder ran through Stanley’s body, and he swallowed back the moan that almost slipped from his lips. He knew, he must be imagining it, but what his father said had almost sounded like a test.
“Yes, you are right.”
Stanley replied, somehow managing to sound calm and not irritated.
“Please, son,” he protested.
“It is going to be amazing…”
Charles practically shouted into his right ear. Stanley managed to cover his reaction to that statement by yanking his handbag from the ground and securing it on his back. The older man was testing him, and he probably knew it only too well. Stanley growled inwardly as his father started to do something with his watch, fixing him with what almost passed for a smile.
This is going to be a long day!
Stanley thought, avoiding his eyes.
It was just Stanley’s luck, right? From all the things they could do, his father would chose to go to the very place Stanley did not want to think about. Flattered as he was from all the attention, an uneasy feeling was eating him from within. The image of the accident once again appeared before his eyes – how much simpler a day out with his father could have been!
“Jesus, Stanley, you act as if I am taking you to prison,” Charles said with an actual roll of his eyes, as Stanley tried to put some distance between them. “What are you concerned about? Here we are, doing what we have done hundreds of times. Why not enjoy it?”
“Wouldn’t THAT be nice? For a few days to forget who I am and live, as a free, new person, without the baggage of my past,” Stanley asked sarcastically.
Twenty minutes later they were driving through the woods, bumping along a badly paved stretch of road Charles had chosen over the smooth-running main one.
“I think this is it!” He exclaimed, pointing to a small clearing on their right side.
“Are you sure?” Stanley asked doubtfully, sliding out of the car.
“I see a tree, the clearing and the hill on the left – so I would say that’s it,” Charles said, pointing to the big old pine tree, to the clearing covered with grass and to the hill visible through the trees on the left. “This is our place, the one we’ve visited hundreds of times. Look, here is the stone you placed over the grave of Joxer, your first dog.” Charles laughed at his expression, patting Stanley reassuringly on the shoulder.
“I’m sure you remember everything here.” Stanley did his best to ignore that little remark and started to examine the area around them.
“Oh!” he said reverently, dropping his bag on the grass, as he turned a few times around himself. The place was fabulous! On the faraway horizon the trees were merging with the sky, making it almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. The grass looked vivid and the colorful flowers, scattered all over it, gave it a cheerful look. Behind them rose high, green pine trees, providing shade and making the picture perfect.
All of a sudden, Stanley heard the roar of a coming plane. The jet wind took him by surprise and truly scared him. Charles, however, was there for his son, supporting his quivering body with his strong one, keeping the younger man steady on the ground.
“This must be how the Paradise looks like,” Stanley mumbled, once the initial shock had passed. He was increasingly thankful for the large expanse of the site, which provided for some distance between them. He sighed in relief when his father ran off to explore the place, giving him some breathing room. A whole day alone in the woods with his father would really test his nerves. Stanley could see the questions in his eyes, questions he had no intention of answering. So, there they were, in a virtual paradise, facing a whole day of nothing but each other’s company. Stanley sighed, glancing out at the woods. “Let’s hope that time will pass quickly,” he wished silently.
“Stanley!” Charlie’s voice broke through his thoughts. Stanley looked up at him, leaning over a tree and smiling down at him. “Come on, we have a lot to explore today.” The younger man smiled tightly at him, holding back another moan as he headed his way.
Like most things that day that defied Stanley’s best evasive actions, they ended up talking about the past. He couldn’t change the subject without making it obvious that it was affecting him. So, he resigned to his defeat and tried to enjoy the sun and the breeze, desperately ignoring most of the questions his father was asking.
“How about a nice, refreshing swim?” Charlie’s voice again entered his world, reminding Stanley of his close presence. His father stood up and slowly started to remove his clothes, standing before him and looking carefully at his son. “Come on, hurry up! The water will feel amazing, I promise you.” He grinned down at him.
“I’ll be right after you.” Stanley smiled weakly, rising up and stepping back away from his father. Charlie turned around without another word and walked towards the stream, which could be seen through the trees. He took his time undressing and following Charlie into the water, thinking all the time about the only possible outcome of this situation.
The next day, Lydia walked into the police department early in the morning. Her meeting with Detective David Wilson was set for 11 am and she wanted to be on time. The police department was a typical one, with multiple small rooms and desks in the main hall. One of the uniform officers took her to the office of Detective Wilson and asked her to wait for a few minutes.
When the detective entered the room, Lydia did a quick evaluation of the man. She already knew he was 44 years old, and now she saw the six foot, two inch tall man, dressed in a neat black suit. His eyes showed above-average intelligence and there was something inquisitive and analytical in the way he was looking at her.
“Miss Chen,” he offered her his hand. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“Detective Wilson, I am glad to meet you,” Lydia said with a smile and sat back down in the chair in front of his desk.
“As you already suspect, I asked for your help in relation to one of my cases.” The man also sat down and opened a file. “The case is ten years old and I worked on it when I was very young. It was about the disappearance of a young boy, Stanley Douglass, who was diagnosed with autism, but was doing very well for himself. Stanley disappeared after he finished high school and up until now no-one had any idea what happened to him.”
“How did it happen?” Lydia asked.
“He had just got his driving license and had been very proud of himself. That evening, Stanley went to see his best friend and never returned home. According to his friend, Stanley left him just before it started to rain and he saw him drive in the direction of his home.”
“So, what happened now that you reopened the case?”
“One week ago, Stanley Douglass came back home not remembering anything that had happened to him ten years ago. His parents were happy to see him, but for me the case is still open. Also, there are some differences between the Stanley from before and the Stanley that came back.”
“That is only natural after ten years away,” Lydia pointed out.
“I know, but he seems to be forgetting too many important details. His father is especially worried.”
“Didn’t you do a DNA test?”
“We did, and it was a match, but there are ways to cheat on DNA tests, you know.” The detective shook his head.
“But what would an imposter gain from being Stanley Douglass?” she asked, wondering what her role would be in the situation.
“As far as I can see, nothing. The family is not rich and Stanley had very few things going on in his life,” Wilson added. “I have grown close to Mr. and Mrs. Douglass and I want to solve the case for them. If this man is their son, I will be the first to be happy for them; but as a policeman, I need to know what happened ten years ago and where he was during all those years.”
“I called you because of your experience with autistic children and your psychology degree. I called the university you worked at and they suggested you as the perfect person for the job. Will you help me, Miss Chen, with this case?”
“You managed to make it interesting to me. I will be happy to help you.” Lydia said, happy to have something to do with her free time.
“Thank you, then I will hire you as a police assistant and we can discuss the details later. Now, did you have any questions about the case?”