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   Chapter 1 No.1

My Sister's Keeper By Bill Benners Characters: 10235

Updated: 2018-05-28 10:51

THOMAS WOLFE WAS RIGHT. You can't go home again. And I wouldn't have had it not been for my sister's accident. I flew back to Wilmington, North Carolina, and sat vigil over her for weeks listening to the beeps and clicks of the machinery that kept her alive, pleading with her not to die. Martha was the one person in this world that had always been there for me, believed in me, looked up to me, and never failed me. And I, Richard Charles Baimbridge, could not survive without her.

She kept me sane.

Even in the darkness of her hospital room, I could see beyond the bruises on her face to the whimsical little girl with auburn hair and bright eyes that had grown up alongside me. The curious perfectionist turned investigative reporter who would not let go of a thing until she'd figured it out. Like the time a girlfriend of hers showed up with a Rubik's Cube. Martha was only eight at the time, but she'd spun and twisted that thing relentlessly—practically that entire summer—until finally she woke me early one Sunday morning holding it out in the palm of her hand. All the colored squares were in perfect alignment and there was a look in her eyes I've never forgotten to this day. I was twelve and had given it a serious shot several times myself to no avail. That was the first time she'd beaten me at something, but it wouldn't be the last.

That moment established a pattern for her life. In some backward way, I became her motivation—her inspiration. If she saw me give up on anything, regardless of how insignificant—forgetting a phone number, finding the right nut to fit a bolt, or fixing a broken toy—she'd go after it with fanaticism and would not give up until she'd figured it out.

Being better than me challenged her and when she succeeded, it fulfilled her. I was proud of her, but not like Dad. Dad loved it. It seemed the more she outdid me, the more he liked it. And when she did beat me, he always cast that malevolent glare from the corner of his eye that cut deep and made me feel as though I'd stepped in something foul and tracked it into the house. By the time I left home at eighteen, there was a gap between my father and me that an ocean couldn't fill.

The connection between Martha and me, however, only grew stronger. I envied that spark she had, that do-it-or-die attitude, and the way my father thought she could do no wrong. But his praise never seemed to mean much to her, and maybe that's why she got so much of it from him. It mattered to me, though, and he knew it, and he manipulated it to cut out my heart. Ironically, she craved my praise instead of his and I gave it to her in heavy doses. It felt fantastic to be needed by somebody for something and I used it against him. Maybe that's why he hated me so much.

God! If only I'd turned on her, belittled her, or ignored her, maybe she wouldn't have ended up in her current state.

Though we'd talked on the phone weekly, it had been more than a year since I'd seen her. Her hair was shorter now, and she'd lost that baby fat that had lingered long past high school. Her eyelashes were long and thick—the envy of the whole family. Her cheeks were high and her lips were wide and thin like mine—typical of Dad's side of the family.

I pulled a chair up next to her bed, took her hand, and studied her fingernails where tiny bits of pink polish lingered—reminders of a time when her life had been full of hope, ambition, and romantic dreams. Dreams that were going to die hard.

Until the accident, things had always gone incredibly well for Martha. When she decided she wanted to go to college, Mom—somehow—had scraped together the money. "An anonymous scholarship, " she'd said. Martha graduated summa cum laude, took a job with the local paper, then landed the one she truly wanted; investigative reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer.

I'll never forget that day. We talked on the phone for hours. She was ecstatic! Twenty-four years old, armed with a Master's in communication, and craving that one big story with which to prove herself.

A few weeks later, Martha received a tip that a thirteen-year-old girl had been dragged to the top floor of an abandoned warehouse in Wilmington, raped by two men while being videotaped by a third, then bound, gagged, and thrown in the Cape Fear River to drown, and knew she'd found her story. It was a story I would come to hear Martha tell over and over…

"A FRIEND FROM WILMINGTON CALLED and told me about the rape. She said the little girl had survived and that Sam Jones—a detective I'd gotten to know well while working for the Wilmington Star-News—had been assigned to the case. After a two-hour drive, I planted myself in Sam's office and hounded him relentlessly until he finally agreed to let me have a look at the place where the rape had supposedly taken place. He told me to meet him there when he got off at 5:00 p.m.

"It was Halloween and a cold front was moving in. The temperature had dropped fifteen degrees since noon. I arrived a few minutes early, pulling my Toyota into the dirt lot next to the abandoned plant, and parked

facing a sagging eight-foot steel-mesh fence surrounding the property. Railroad tracks crisscrossing the grounds all led into a huge four-story corrugated metal building set back along the river's edge. Among the tall weeds around the perimeter lay stacks of creosote-coated wooden railroad ties, rusting steel wheels, and bent rails. To the left of the building, a rickety dock jutted out into the Cape Fear River. Across the river, the trees were showing a hint of fall color.

"Knowing what had happened to that girl, I was afraid to turn off the engine. And when I finally did—after looking in all directions—the silence was nerve-wracking. I could actually hear my own heart thumping in my chest. As I waited, I envisioned that helpless thirteen-year-old being snared off the street, fighting against the strengths of three men—her cries smothered, her breathing obstructed by a powerful hand clamped over her face. I felt her terror as they whisked her across that barren yard to be held down, stripped, tortured, and raped in a night of horror from which she was not supposed to survive.

"A black crow abruptly landed on the hood of my car rattling me back to reality, leering at me with its yellow eyes. I honked the horn to frighten it away, then wished I hadn't, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.

"The street was deserted except for a group of trick-or-treaters crossing at the next intersection with their parents protectively tailing them fully aware of the dangers that lurked in the shadows of their young lives.

"I checked the clock on the car radio. It was 5:47. Sam was late. I dialed his cell number, but only got his voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message and began making a detailed description of the property and a list of questions I needed to answer for the story. Finally, as the sun melted into the trees on the far side of the river, I wondered if Sam had forgotten about our meeting. I called him again and this time left a message trying to sound relaxed and professional. 'This is Martha Baimbridge, ' I said. 'Just calling to confirm that we're still meeting at the warehouse. I'm here now and…waiting.' I hung up wishing I hadn't sounded so unprofessional.

"To fill the time, I jotted down notes on how I might package the story and a few angles to explore in the articles that would follow. I closed my eyes and imagined the panic that must have been going through that thirteen-year-old's mind and what could have been going through the sick minds of those bastards that raped her. What is this need some men have to have sex with little girls? Don't these monsters realize that they are children? That they will be scarred psychologically for life? Do they care? And why would they videotape it?

"A child's shrill scream abruptly pierced the darkness peeling the skin off my nerves leaving me feeling raw and exposed. I extinguished the interior dome light and searched the darkness around me sensing a thousand eyes out there watching me. Looking back at the railway yard, I noticed a flicker of light in the highest window in the building, but could not tell for sure if it was a light or a reflection.

"I tried Sam's phone again, and again I got his voicemail. 'Mr. Jones, I just heard a horrible scream and I think I can see light coming from a window in that warehouse. Please hurry.' After hanging up, I just sat there staring at that window horror-stricken that another young girl could be in there at that very moment having her youth savagely ripped away—perhaps even fighting for her life—and realized, Sam or no Sam, I had to do something.

"I took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped out. There was a chilly breeze blowing in off the river and an oily, tar-like stench mixed with the fishy smell of the Cape Fear. As I pulled on a navy blue windbreaker, I made a mental note to keep a flashlight, running shoes, jeans, and an old sweatshirt in the car for future times like this. I switched my phone to vibrate only, crept along the fence toward the river, and found a break in the wire. Pausing one last time to check for Sam, I squeezed through the gap and crouched in the grass gathering enough nerve to go farther.

"Then, zigzagging around piles of scrap iron, I ducked into the shadow of the giant warehouse and laid an ear to the cold metal exterior. Hearing nothing, I crept along the edge of the building testing every door and window, but it wasn't until I pressed against a wooden hatch near the ground that I found a way to get in. Dropping to my knees, I shoved it inward breaking loose its rusty hinges and crawled into the opening to get a look inside. I listened for a full minute, but heard nothing. Figuring my imagination had gotten the best of me, I chuckled at myself and started to back out when I heard a whimper inside and cold terror seized me.

"Panicked, I retreated to the outside, ran to the corner of the building checking for Sam, then dialed his number again and left one last message. 'There's something going on inside that warehouse, Sam. For God's sake, hurry! I'm going in.'"

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