Brian had lived in Fairbanks for less than a month when the “accident” happened and, just like most accidents caused by 13 year old boys, this one was never intended to hurt anyone. He called it an accident because it was the only way to ease the guilt he was feeling. He couldn’t say he was sorry, not without admitting he was responsible. He couldn’t do anything but wallow in his self induced misery.
Brian’s dad, Brian Sr, was a sergeant in the Army who was now stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The elder Brian had moved to Fairbanks in early May and Brian Jr, along with his mom and younger sister, joined dad a month later. “Army Brats,” the children of soldiers, tend to make friends easily. It is a skill born of necessity; they are typically in a single place for no more than four years and the other “Brats” come and go almost weekly. Brian had mastered the skill of fitting in over the course of the last eight years and two duty stations. He would seek out the current pack leader and befriend him. His goal was to bide his time and take over the lead once the job came open. On Fort Wainwright the lead sled dog was Jason Jarman although everyone called him JJ. He was smart and funny and all the 13 year old girls “loved” him. There might be other qualifications to lead but for the pack of boys Brian was joining those were more than enough.
Joining the “In” crowd as a youth is typically easier than doing the same as an adult. Groups of young boys lack imagination and tend to fall back on the age old ritual of initiation. The tasks can vary from eating a worm to running naked across the football field or even wearing your underwear outside your pants for a day. Most times these tasks were designed to be humiliating although sometimes they could also be dangerous. Brian’s task fell squarely into the dangerous category. To achieve full membership in the Fort Wainwright group he would have to pull off the old “Burning Bag Dog Poop” practical joke. It wasn’t life threatening dangerous, but if he were to be caught there would be consequences both at school and home. To add to the potential risk, the boys had selected a particularly difficult target. General Venning, the post commander, was a veteran of the Gulf War. He had a leather face and a reputation for discipline. There could be little doubt if Brian was caught the ramifications would be severe.
Brian participated in many initiation rituals over his 13 years. When his family had moved to Fort Drum, in upstate New York, four years earlier Brian had been forced to shave off one eyebrow to join the local gang. It turns out one of the only groups of people less imaginative than 13 year old boys is nine year old boys. The major stumbling block in accomplishing this newest task was there would be no cover of darkness. June in Fairbanks technically has sunrise and sunset but the “dark” lasts only three hours and could be more accurately described as twilight. To combat his exposure he would wear a nondescript black sweatsuit and matching black ski mask. There would be no doubt he would be ridiculously hot but the desire for anonymity outweighed the need for comfort.
The plan was simple, the boys would make their way to the General's house using the woods beside the home as cover. Brian would then sneak up to the front door, place the bag on the steps, light the top, ring the doorbell and run. Once back in the woods with his cohorts they would watch to see if the General would do as they hoped and stomp the bag in an effort to put out the flame. To young boys there is little more hilarious than an unsuspecting adult covering their foot in dog excrement. All went to according to plan right up to the point where it didn’t.
Brian wasn’t at all nervous as the boys made their way towards the home. He was laughing and joking and making sure to stay close to JJ. He looked at this as his best opportunity to set himself up for a rise to the top. As they got closer to the house things began to change. The normally outgoing talkative Brian was transformed as silence took over. Beads of sweat started to appear on his forehead and he stumbled more than once with no apparent reason. When they finally got to the large tree they would use for cover Brian was having second thoughts about the whole thing. It’s a funny thing about peer pressure, sometimes the worst thing isn’t being punished by your parents, it's being ostracized by your friends. Such was the case with Brian and against his better judgement he grabbed the bag and moved towards the front stoop. The home was a bland red brick two story with four concrete steps leading to a large white wooden door. In Brian’s mind the best thing to do was to get this whole thing over with so, from the moment he left the safety of the wood line he moved with a purpose. In a matter of seconds he was at his destination and without delay he placed the bag on the step and lit the top. He quickly pushed the doorbell and then jumped from the top step to the front walk and spirited to the woods.
Brian’s worst fear was being seen as he ran, and by the time he had reached the woods the adrenaline was causing rapid heart beat and a ringing in his ears. Once at the tree line he dove behind the tree with the other boys and turned back toward the front door to see the results of his prank. To his surprise when he turned around there was nothing but a burning bag on the front stoop. His fears of being seen before reaching the woods were seriously unfounded. The relief was palpable. He was back in the pack, part of the group, no longer the lone wolf. At this point he didn’t really care if the bag burned to nothing. He had done his job. The rest was up to fate, not him. And then it happened. The door opened and standing there was Lisa, General Venning’s daughter. She was the same age as the boys and had classes with all of them. She had stayed home sick from school that day which explained why she was in a flannel nightgown and fuzzy slippers. The other boys started to laugh, Brian instinctively knew they were actually happy it was Lisa. She was an outcast at school for no other reason than her father was the Commanding General. Almost all the boys treated her badly and none of the girls wanted to be her friend. Brian had met her the second day of school and found her to be a very nice girl but he quickly learned he shouldn’t talk to her and wanting to be liked, he didn’t. He felt awful that this poor girl would now have one more thing to separate her from the other kids in school and it was going to be his fault. The delay in opening the door had allowed the bag to burn more than expected and when Lisa went to stomp out the fire an ember jumped from the bag to her nightgown and in an instant her clothes were in flames. What Brian did next changed the trajectory of his life as he joined the other boys in running into the woods. He ran away from Lisa. He was a coward.
The next four years were a blur. Brian had no desire to be part of the group any longer, in fact he made no other friends. JJ left nine months later and the other boys followed one by one. None of them ever spoke of the day again and as a result no one was ever held accountable. Lisa never came back to school and the rumors were that she had scars over most of her body and on one side of her face. General Venning was so distraught that he resigned his commission and retired from the Army before the end of the year. Brian had ruined the life of an innocent girl and her family. He had done it to fit in and now he didn’t fit in anywhere.
Four years after the accident it came time for Brian Sr. to move once again and this time he was going overseas, to Germany. Brian had no desire to spend one more minute on an army base and fortunately the move timed perfectly with the start of his first year of college. Brian was an exceptional student and had scholarship offers from 20 schools including the one he most desired, the University of Michigan. From the time of the accident Brian had set a goal to become a social worker and Michigan had the best program in the country. He knew that nothing could erase the sight of that poor girl rolling on the ground trying to extinguish the flames but he hoped that if he dedicated his life to helping others it would lessen the nightmares and eliminate the void he felt in his soul.
Just as had been the case in high school, Brian excelled at Michigan and graduated with honors. His parents flew in from Germany for the commencement ceremony and his younger sister made the trip from California to congratulate him as well. Everyone was so proud of him and yet he felt empty. It had been eight years since the accident and nothing had changed. He was still that awful little boy, at least in his own eyes. It was at that moment he realized that no good deed would undo his actions. No amount of time would bring peace. The only thing he could do to make things right was to admit what he had done. He needed to find Lisa. He didn’t want forgiveness, he wanted closure and he finally realized she probably did too.
The good thing about living in the information age is finding someone who isn’t hiding is ridiculously easy. Brian had never made a Facebook account, he didn’t want to be connected to anyone but he knew the power of social media. It took less time than watching an episode of “Friends” for him to set up a profile and search the name Lisa Venning. A list of ten came back but there could be little doubt as to which one he was looking for. Her smile looked almost the same as it did eight years earlier but the right side of her face was noticeably scarred. Brian broke down in tears. For the first time since that awful day he could actually see the results of what he had done. He started to feel familiar emotions. The quickening heartbeat, the beads of sweat on his forehead, and even the ringing in his ears. Just like that day he started to have second thoughts but he was determined and pushed the friend request button. A Facebook novice, Brian had no idea how long he would need to wait. In fact he didn’t know if she would respond. She didn’t know he was the one responsible but she did know that he had been one of the boys who picked on her all those years ago. Maybe she wouldn’t want to talk to him, he wouldn’t want to talk to him if he was her. “Bing” the computer announced. In less than fifteen minutes she had accepted his request. Under his friends list there was one picture, hers. This was ironic in its truth. He had not made friends since the day and a wave of guilt came over him as he contemplated she was identifying as such.
He placed his cursor on the chat line and typed, “Hey, remember me?” He wanted to say something more profound but in truth he had not thought through what he would do if she responded and that was the best he could come up with in the moment.
“High school?” came the reply. “Alaska?”
She remembered him. The thought was both a relief and stressful at the same time.
“How are you doing?” Another weak response but what else was he to say. He couldn’t just unload the truth on her. He had to work his way there.
“I’m doing ok, super busy. I have to admit I was shocked to see your request. I don’t have many friends from Alaska.” Brian was amazed at how normally the conversation had begun. In his mind he somehow thought she knew it had been him to ring the bell and he was prepared to be annihilated and yet it was just regular. “I’m your first friend?” she asked and included a smiley face emoji.
“You’re my only friend.”
“I find that hard to believe, you were one of the nice ones in Fairbanks.” This hurt him to his core, not only didn’t she know but she remembered him fondly. He didn’t think it possible but in that moment he actually felt worse about what he had done but in very short order and for the first time in eight years she made him forget for a while. They talked for more than an hour that first day and another hour the next. Her family had moved back to Ohio after the accident and she had finished high school there. After graduation she was accepted and enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University and had just received her degree in pre-law. She was enrolled at the University of Ohio for the fall semester for her first year of law school. Brian was thrilled to hear how well she was doing and for a moment almost forgot what he had started out to accomplish but the evening after the second conversation reality crashed over him, he still had to face her. He had to admit what he had done. She seemed to be doing so well but she deserved the truth and he was going to give it to her.
“I’m going to be in Ohio next week. Any chance you want to get coffee?” Hitting the send button on that might have been the hardest thing he had ever done. What if she said no? What if she said yes? The moment after he sent the message he panicked and looked to see if there was any way to delete it but before he could her response popped on his screen. “Sure, I’d love to. When will you be here?” The rest of the conversation was basically logistics and if it hadn’t been for the chat log Brian probably wouldn’t have remembered any of it. He was playing both sides. On the one hand he was acting if all was normal and on the other he was dreading seeing her.
The trip to Ohio was just under 300 miles, he could drive it easily and did so on the day before they were to meet. After a restless night in a local hotel and a stressful morning of getting ready he headed to the coffee shop. He purposely got there early to be waiting for her to arrive. He wasn’t sure why but it just felt like that would be better. Apparently she was thinking the same thing because she arrived just after he did, also earlier than the agreed upon time. The sight of her walking towards him was fantastically surreal. She had a visible scar on her face and because she was wearing a sundress he could also see she had scars on her left arm and leg. Something else stood out to him, she was beautiful. She had the prettiest smile and walked in with a confidence he wouldn’t have thought possible. When she got to the table he stood and gave her a hug. She kissed him on the cheek and to his surprise he reciprocated. When they sat down he found himself smiling, really smiling for the first time in years and all of a sudden he wondered if he was doing the right thing. Maybe she would be better off not knowing. Maybe he should just keep the secret. In an instant the hole in his stomach returned and with it a gut level message that he must tell her.
“Lisa, before we go any further there is something I have to tell you.” The words were heavy and he could tell by the look on her face that the statement made her anxious.
“Okay, you’ve got me curious and a little bit uncomfortable, what is it?”
“It was me, I was the one. It was supposed to be a joke, no one was supposed to get hurt. I am so sorry for everything.”
“Oh my God, it was you?“ She paused and took a breath, “Oh my God, all these years.” Her eyes gazed towards the ceiling than dropped back and focused on his, “You’ve been living with this all these years. You poor soul. It’s okay, I’m fine. You were just a kid." A tear ran down her cheek, "All these years.” She reached out and took his hand, “I forgive you, I forgave you years ago even though I didn’t know it was you.” Brian’s chin fell to his chest and tears flowed from his eyes. He had gone there to ease her pain and she had eased his. “You have no idea what that means to me. You have changed my life.”
“We all have scars,” she replied “some are just less visible than others, but enough of that, let’s have some coffee,” And with that they headed to the counter.