He is still unconscious. He is sitting in a chair, just two feet away from me. The man in the chair is my dad. I’ve got seventeen minutes to let him know who the killer is.
I’ve heard that it’s supposed to be hard to write when you’re crying. My hands are still shaking. But I’m not crying. I’ve never cried. I’ve never shed a single tear. I’ve been sitting here for hours – waiting. I’m in my bedroom with my dad. But, I’m not looking at him. I’m looking at that picture of her and me. I’d told her I loved her and that she was my first love. I’d told her that we’d be together forever. She’d made her hands into a heart shape, “you and me Thomas – forever,” she’d said. I remember our last conversation.
– “What’s your favorite color,” she asked.
I remembered her fingernails.
– “Red,” I answered.
– “You sure?”
– “Yes. Why?”
– “Just curious, I guess.”
I heard a click and the sound of her walking. Where was she? What was she doing? I told myself to focus. I need to focus, I thought.
– “We’ll have to talk later. I have to get ready. I’m going shopping.”
– “With him?”
– “Well, yeah.”
For the first time, I didn’t say goodbye when she hung up the phone. My reaction was even stronger than when we talked the week before. I just couldn’t let her go. I loved her, and I’ll always love her. She is seventeen years old, and my only love. It doesn’t matter what happens now I thought. I remembered the last time we’d eaten out. Four weeks ago. It was at my favorite restaurant: the Mexican, Chi Chi’s. But she was different. That was the first time I noticed. Always touching her ring. Looking away.
She was always beautiful, but on that day she was more stunning than ever. I’ve always had a hard time expressing my feelings. She couldn’t read my thoughts and she couldn’t see it in my eyes. It wasn’t possible for her to understand, and I just couldn’t say the words. I can state the obvious. The facts. I told her that her dress was nice. I told her that her hair was long, dark, and curly. And her makeup; I told her that she was wearing more makeup than she used to. I looked at her new purse, and new gray leather, high-heeled shoes. I told her the facts. But she just shook her head and gave me a quick smile.
I’m looking at the piece of paper in front of me. I’m reading the sentence in a soft voice, a whisper. I don’t want my dad to hear me, at least not yet. In my world, in this dark room, it’s the paper and me, and one sentence. That’s it; the letter should have explained everything. But, Dad didn’t understand.
A single tear makes all the difference in the world. What’s so hard to understand?
I never cry. It’s like my tears are invisible and make no sounds. They’re just there, inside me. And if nobody can see or hear them, how can they help?
– How can you help me Dad?
He’s still in the chair. His face is all white, and his eyes are vacant and idle. Right now it’s all blurry. Dad’s barely hearing my voice, and he’s thinking that it can’t be me, that I’m a ghost from the past. And all he really wants to do is scream. But there’s no place to hide; he’ll realize that as soon as he wakes up. He’ll want to hide so badly. But, he has to embrace his fear, starting right now. Seventeen minutes, that’s all we’ve got. And I’ve got to make him remember by recalling yesterday’s events step-by-step.
I told Lucas that it was okay. No worries; none at all. But that wasn’t the truth. I know that now. It was hard to see her leave, but even harder to see her leave with him. “Teenage love”, that’s what Dad said. “We’ve all experienced it.” I questioned everything about myself from that day on and all I came up with was a single sentence. My intention was to write a letter, a long and detailed letter that explained everything and why love hurt so badly. I would give it to her, and to Dad. But all I could see was darkness and her face – fading away. I closed my eyes to get away from it all, but I started to visualize what was happening to my dad. He was hurting too. I didn’t need to look outside. He was easy to spot. He was lost in his own world, at work, like usual, trying to understand what was happening to me and to him.
– Dad. It’s time to wake up. It’s me. It’s really me. Listen. I remember what it was like. I was in that same chair. I was just there, staring at the wall: at my old high school pictures, at the picture of her and me on my desk, and the posters of LeBron James. I was there for seventeen minutes, in that chair. And I got it all figured out.
– Dad. I know that you can see me. You don’t need to talk to me. Let me help you remember what happened. And you can just listen. Let me start the timer. We’ve got seventeen minutes, starting now. It’s all about yesterday. You’ll start to question why I know everything, but eventually, it will all come back to you. And don’t bother trying to move your arms or your legs. You can’t.
– You remembered the exact words. “Please don’t leave”. Ben, your boss had been crying while he was talking on the phone. Ben didn’t know that you had been listening. And right then, you just had to leave work. You couldn’t stay another minute and watch Ben sobbing. The doors closed. You heard a beep: the sound of reaching the seventh floor. Then, another beep: the sixth floor. You were alone in the elevator. You looked at yourself in the mirror, a mirror that covered the entire wall. Your suit looked old and your hair was a mess. You hadn’t shaved for five days, and your shoulder bag had a few stains on it. You thought that if you could see that you were a mess, the other guys at work could see it as well. They had been talking behind your back. You were sure about that. And your clients had too. No wonder you hadn’t been receiving the feedback you were used to getting. It had been like that for weeks – and now Ben.
Dad isn’t making any sounds. I’m looking at the paper, and at the window, and back at Dad. I need to continue with the story. We’ve got fifteen minutes left.
– You waited for the elevator door to open. You didn’t look up to see if the woman waiting outside was looking at you. You walked passed her. You wanted to close your eyes and then open them as soon as you were outside. You wanted so badly to wake up and discover that everything, not just that day, but the past four weeks, had all been just a dream. But you already knew what was waiting for you on the windshield of your car. It was the fourth red tulip. Just that, no message, nothing. You wished that you’d find a note, something to explain why. Remember?
Dad’s eyes are moving. He’s watching me. He’s watching the paper on the desk, the posters on the wall, and the window. His body is still paralyzed from the shock, but his eyes are moving. That’s progress. We’ve got thirteen minutes left.
– Dad you’re 46 years old. People have been commenting on your looks all your life. They said you were beautiful. And you still are. Your dark wavy hair, your brown eyes, your toned skin, and your muscular body have received attention from a lot more women than just Mom. And your southern accent used to get people’s attention too, and I know how much you loved talking. Mom had been with you since high school, and you got married at the age of nineteen. According to most people, she was the lucky one. You guys planned everything: the wedding, the family, and you should have had four kids by now. But, it took you close to ten years to have a child, and that was when I was born.
– You picked up the red tulip and stared at it. Do you remember asking the questions: why and who? You kept thinking about Ben’s last words that day, before the phone call and the sobbing. Ben always started each day with a quote. Today it was a quote that hurt: one from your favorite author, Mark Twain. You could still hear Ben’s scarcely audible voice, and you could still picture what his lips looked like as he spoke, and the glare in his eyes when he said; “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The quote was directed at you, it was Ben’s way of telling you that it only a matter of time.
Dad’s eyes have stopped moving. He’s looking straight at me. His fingers are moving. Stretching. Pointing. His mouth is moving. What’s he saying?
– Yes, Dad. It’s me. Thomas. It’s really me. I need to continue. Just listen. We don’t have much time left. You see the timer, that’s what we’ve got.
– You opened the door to your car. You put the red tulip on the front seat. It was time to stop thinking about work. Ben had been your mentor for a decade and he was still one of the most famous people in marketing in the US. But, the past four weeks had been different. You looked at your watch. It was five past five. You had to get home. You looked in the mirror and weren’t pleased at all. You thought that you looked even worse than when you’d seen yourself in the elevator. You could see the stress in your eyes. The white parts had turned a kind of a purple color and you had finally spotted your gray hairs. You didn’t really see yourself as 46. You still felt young, and you were running the track four times a week. You were going to run your fifth marathon in less than two months – still a youth, even though the mirror told a different story.
– Thomas? he said.
– Yes, it’s me Dad.
His voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it. He tries to raise his hands. But he can’t.
– Don’t ask any questions. It has to be like this. I’ll explain in a bit. I just need to keep going. Time is running out.
– You looked at the red tulip once more and turned the engine on. You drove out of the parking lot. You looked left and right. You had to be sure. You had to have control. The sound and the smell of your new Audi were perfect, but…
– The car. You were worried. It was because of the downsizing. You were thinking about whether you’d be able to afford to pay for the car without a job. You hadn’t told Mom about it yet. You were sure that you’d be the next one to be axed. The quote, Ben’s voice, it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. You told yourself that you had less than two weeks before you’d be given your notice. Soon, you’d be out looking for a new job. For the first time in your life you had no control. No control whatsoever. You had watched closely as Ruth, the CEO, and Ben had been talking. And you’d watched them watching you. No more than two weeks. You were sure. But, right then, while driving home, your job wasn’t all that you were worried about. You were more worried about me and how I’d changed during the past weeks. And that Mom didn’t seem to notice. I’d been the perfect seventeen-year-old, until that kid, what’s-his-name, Lucas, had moved in across the street, along with his drunken dad. That’s what you used to say. Lucas and I became best friends from day one, and you had little idea about what I did all day. I’d stopped talking about school, and I hadn’t been at basketball practice for the past weeks. You had no idea where I’d been hanging out.
– You turned right, drove up the street, into the driveway, turned the key and heard the engine stop. You looked at the tulip and decided to tell Mom about this one and the others you’d received over the past weeks. You touched the red petals and the green leaves. The flower was beautiful but why had you received it? It wasn’t from Mom, and you’d never had your eyes on another woman. It couldn’t be a woman from the past. And Ruth, she was thirteen years older, and the CEO. She had been flirting with you. But no, it couldn’t be. You lifted the tulip to your nose and discovered it had almost no fragrance. You heard your cell phone ring.
– The smell of the tulip should have been fantastic. It should have been nature’s own perfume. You smelled it, and there was nothing, and you were thinking about your job and about me. You decided that you could get a different job. It might not be easy, it could take you months. And you’d have to rediscover your passion and get your confidence back. The new rules of marketing and PR were the real problem. It was more or less all about social media – at least according to Ruth and Ben. You had been brilliant in advertising, fairly good at copywriting, and you were great at sales, but something has happened in the market. Things had changed. You thought that you were terrible at social media marketing. You could have blamed John, your professor at Florida State, who had no real business experience. But you’d been working at the marketing department for close to fifteen years, so you didn’t really have an excuse. You should have paid more attention to the market. That’s it. That was your conclusion.
I can see that Dad is thinking. His eyes are looking straight at me. I’ve seen that look many times before. I’m waiting for him to keep up with me. It’s taking him longer than it used to.
– Before you got out of the car you kept thinking about the first words that Mark, Lucas’ drunken dad had said you; “Bill, is that short for William?” So your name is William Hurt, the same as the actor? And Hurt, wow, I’d love to have a name like that. I could come up with hundreds of stories right now about that name. I’d keep new stories coming forever; I’d never run out of things to talk about. Wow, a name like that, I would be the king of small talk. Bill, really, tell me, why is your name William Hurt?” You didn’t have an answer. Remember, you didn’t even know that William Hurt was a famous actor. You had no idea why your name was William or Hurt. You’d never asked your parents. And you hadn’t come up with a single story. You just looked at Mark without saying a word.
– You looked at the white house across the street. Mark, didn’t own a car. You’d never asked him how he could afford the house. But you’d always wondered. He clearly wasn’t working. The curtains were still drawn. It was quiet inside the house and it was quiet outside on the streets. It was half past five, and there’s not a single person outside, not anywhere. It’s been like that for the past three days. At first, you hadn’t noticed, not until Ben told you the story about the missing boys. “They’ve most likely been killed”, Ben had said. And both were the same age as me. The phone kept ringing. You looked at the display and you decided that you had to answer it.
Dad told me, a long time ago, that actions speak louder than words. I know it’s impossible for him and Mom to understand my actions. It was so hard to write the letter. I ended up deciding that a long and detailed letter wouldn’t make any difference. I remember one night when I was eight years old. I thought I was crying. But not a single tear came out. I was sad. I was all alone in my bed and my room was completely dark. I was afraid and Dad sensed it. It was as if he could feel what I was feeling. He couldn’t have heard me. He walked into my room and sat down on my bed. He took his finger and tried to dry my tears. He couldn’t find them. But still. It was magic to me. A single wipe from his fingers and all my fears went away. He told me that, when you can’t stop crying, a single tear makes no difference at all, but if you can’t start crying, a single tear makes all the difference in the world. I needed his magic, I really did. It was hard to see her leaving, but it was even harder to see her leaving with him, Lucas, my neighbor and best friend. When I’m alone, all I see is darkness and her face – fading away. And with my eyes closed, I see my dad, wandering, lost in his own world, trying to remember what happened.
– You answered your phone. You said, “Hi Ben. I’m home, just about to walk inside. What’s up?” You looked at the kitchen window and were hoping to see Mom. She was making dinner. She was smiling and it looked like she was singing. “Bill,” Ben said. “You need to get to work early tomorrow. You need to be prepared for the seminar on storytelling and social media.” Ben had been like a father to you. He had been your mentor and he’d taught you close to everything about business – the things that your professor could never have taught you. But, this time, there was something different about Ben. For the first time, the negative effect of the economy and the downsizing was taking its toll on him. And without a plan he couldn’t see exactly how to get out of the mess – and the phone call, and the sobbing. What was that about? “Yes, I will Ben,” you told him. “You told me about it. I haven’t forgotten. I’ll do my best. And you guarantee that this seminar will teach me everything I need to learn about storytelling and social media? At least then my job will be safe then, right?” You gave a short laugh. And hoped for a hint about what Ben was thinking. But that didn’t happen. Ben’s voice was just as flat as it had been for the past weeks. “That’s great Bill,” he said. “Thank you. I have always enjoyed working with you.” That was it. The conversation ended. You opened the car door. You were thinking about what Ben just said, that he’d “always enjoyed working with you”. Why would he say something like that if it weren’t to prepare you to be axed? Tomorrow? Would you get the message tomorrow? You looked at Mom through the window. She was still singing in the kitchen. She looked so happy. No, on second thoughts, she wasn’t singing. She was talking to someone, to a man in a dark suit.
– You listened at the door. You heard me. I was in my room. You opened the door, just an inch. The crack was just big enough for your right eye. You peeked in but you couldn’t see a thing. You heard Lucas’ voice. “Just wait,” he said, “keep looking, he’ll show up eventually.” You had no idea who would show up. The room inside was a bluish color. “Did you hear that sound?” Lucas whispered. It was as if he’d whispered into your ear. You could hardly hear anything, but his whisper was loud and clear. “Can you hear the footsteps?” he said. “He’s coming.” You couldn’t see a thing. Lucas’ voice was pulling you into the room. “Keep looking, he’s coming,” he said. You wanted to see what was happening but you were afraid to look. You heard Lucas telling me to, “come on, you’re seventeen years old, keep watching.” You wanted to tell him to stop but you couldn’t. The sound of the footsteps was getting closer and closer. One, you started counting slowly. Two, you closed your eyes. Three, you opened them. Four, and there he was. It was the silhouette of a huge man. He was standing just outside the window. It was hard for you to keep staring. You wanted so badly to walk away. But you couldn’t. Not now. You had to help me. And then, Lucas started laughing. He had stopped whispering. You heard him talking a lot louder. “Can you see him? Tell me. Doesn’t he look scary? What a rush. I can feel the adrenalin pumping.” “Shhh, keep your voice down,” you heard me say. “Alright, now that you’ve seen my dad, what do you think your dad is doing right now? Is he still at work? He’s always working late isn’t he? Come on, I know you’re having as much fun as I am.” “Shhh.” You could hear me talking. “Yes I am,” I told him, “but keep your voice down.” “How do you know that your dad killed Christian and Jack?” “Don’t you know?” Lucas said. “My dad was arrested for killing a teenager years ago?” He was never convicted. The name of the killer was Red Robin. The boy was found dead just behind a Red Robin. “Are you kidding me?” You could hear how upset and surprised I got. But Lucas kept talking. “Of course not,” he said. “The difference is that, this time, he’ll get caught.” You stepped away from the door. You weren’t sure what to believe. Lucas had been different, right from the start. He had contacted me the very first time he’d seen me. It was the first time anyone had been eager to talk to me. I’m not sure why, but that’s the truth. He was my age. And, from that day on we stayed close. It was a fun ride for me. We watched movies, we played basketball and Lucas had some awesome moves on the court. You watched us play.
I watched my dad’s eyes watching me. He lowered and raised his head slightly when he heard me say that he had watched us play basketball. I waited, but he had closed his eyes, and his head was tilted to the left, away from me. I told him that we had ten minutes left.
– Dad. I’m sorry, but I need to keep going. You heard the voice of the man in the kitchen, and Mom laughing. You walked closer and finally entered the kitchen. “Bill. That’s great. You’re home,” Mom said. You smiled, and gave her a quick kiss. “This is Michael,” she said. “Well, you should probably introduce yourself Michael,” she continued. “I’m Michael Anderson; I’m with the police,” he said. You shook his hand. Mr. Anderson was even taller than you, and he was younger. “Hi, I’m Bill. Ni.. nice, nice to meet you,” you said, and you couldn’t believe what was happening to your voice.
– At that time you were sure something bad had happened. What had Lucas done? You had been just waiting for something to happen. Or maybe it was Mark. Mark had to be the reason why the cop was there. You had heard Lucas talk about the killing. But, Mr. Anderson continued, “We’re talking to all the families in the neighborhood to tell them that the two missing kids, Christian and Jack, are not missing anymore. They’re back with their families, and they’re safe.” “What… what happened,” you said. You had to say something. You had to look interested. You were still worried. But now, Mark wasn’t a suspect anymore, at least not for murdering the two kids. But, you’d just heard Lucas say that his father had killed them. The cop continued, “You know how kids are, right? Christian and Jack had traveled to Alford to watch the making of a new science fiction movie. They wanted to be extras. They’d seen some ad. But, some guy recognized them at a gas station. So, that’s what happened. And their parents didn’t have a clue.”
I believe that life is like a story: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s life. I’m looking at Dad, and I’m looking at a single sentence on a single piece of paper. The only words I have written are, “a single tear makes all the difference in the world”. Her name was Karen; she was the light in my life and the only reason for me to keep smiling. I could talk to her about anything. She would always listen. And a touch from her would turn everything into the purest form of goodness. It was the definition of true love. After a week together I couldn’t remember how life was before I met her and then, five months and four days later, I couldn’t understand how life could continue without her. I remembered my last conversation with Lucas:
– I don’t have time for this. Not now. You have no idea…
– I haven’t told you what it’s about.
– I know. But I really don’t have the time.
I heard a click. He was walking. Where was he? What was he doing? I remembered his socks. Always with holes in them. His old, black Nike shoes. And his face, always red, when he was walking fast.
– We’ll have to talk later. I’m going shopping. I have to get ready.
– With her?
– Well. Yeah…
I hung up without saying goodbye. I believe life is structured like a story. And the story always has an ending. I looked down at the piece of paper and silently read the words, “a single tear makes all the difference in the world”.
– Dad. We’ve got eight minutes left. You watched as the cop, Mr. Anderson, left, and you watched Mom watch the cop leave. She smiled and waved. You were thinking that she didn’t usually smile. You hadn’t seen her smile for weeks. And who waves at a cop? He’d been there for thirty minutes just explaining that two kids had run off to watch the making of movie. What was going on? You asked her if she’d spoken to Lucas and me, but she hadn’t.
– She was sure that I’d been to school, but I’d left when she got out of bed. “He’s probably across the street at Lucas’, go and ask,” she said. You were thinking that I’d been inside and that she hadn’t even noticed. You walked back to my room. This time the door was closed. You knocked. Nobody answered. You knocked again and then opened the door. It wasn’t dark inside anymore. My bed was neat. My desk was tidy and the table was covered with flowers of different colors. Nothing like you remembered. But Lucas and I were nowhere to be seen. You were worried about me, and the only way for you to talk to me right then was by walking across the street and talking to Mark.
– You looked at the door from twenty feet away. You were focused. You looked at the windows and the curtains. You didn’t turn your head to look left or right when you crossed the street. You checked to see if Mark was watching you. He wasn’t. You couldn’t find the doorbell. You knocked hard, three times. You looked at the window and the curtains and you thought that you could see something move just behind them. You could hear footsteps. One. Two – and another one. Suddenly, you knew that you should be running away. Mark, and you, if you stayed, you were going to get caught… doing something.
– “Hey,” Mark said. The door was open. He was wearing red and white cotton pants and a white T-shirt. His hair looked like he’d been sleeping. His beard was different from when you’d seen him last. His voice was harsh and he spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. He was quite the opposite of Ben. “You still looking for Thomas?” he asked. You acknowledged. “But, we haven’t properly met. My name’s Bill,” you said, “I’m Thomas’ father.” You stretched out your hand. “I know,” he said. “We’ve talked, remember? Why are you looking for Thomas?”
– Mark didn’t shake your hand. “Well. I just need to have a word with him, that’s all.” “What about?” You didn’t say a thing. You just looked at him. It seemed like a staring contest, until he spoke; “Come inside. I need to talk to you.” You didn’t want to. You said “No, I just need to talk to Thomas. I don’t have time, I need to…,” “Come on. Relax,” he said. “I know all about the things you’re going through.” Mark opened the door wide, and walked back inside. You watched his back, and you weren’t sure what you were going to do. But you thought this was the only way you’d find me and thought that I was probably inside anyway. “So, what’s the matter? What’s on your mind,” Mark said, opening a bottle of Samuel Adams. And from the look on his face, you knew that it wasn’t his first beer of the day. “Do you want one?” he said. “The way you keep staring at the bottle… you want me to get you one?” You said, “No. Thanks.” It was difficult enough with work and finding me, and now Mark was all over you. “Thomas is fine,” he said. “He’s with Lucas, they’re playing hoops at the school. Now, your problem is at work. I’ve seen that face many times. It’s work or a cheating wife.” He caught you off guard, “What?” you said. “Oh, God no. I’m just kidding,” he said. “I watched the cop enter your house and I watched him leave. I bet your wife was different with him inside. Wasn’t she? Well… they always are.”
– “What are you talking about?” you asked. “Can I please just talk to Thomas?”
– “He’s not here. I told you that.”
– “Then. I need to go.”
– “Relax. What’s the problem at work? Talk to me.”
– Mark walked into the kitchen. You heard him open another bottle, and watched him enter the room with two Samuel Adams.
– “Here. Mr. Adams will help,” he said.
– You took the beer. It’d been a while. You couldn’t remember the last time you’d had any alcohol.
– You answered his questions; “It’s the downsizing, and it’s just been a complete mess at work. And, I just can’t… I’ve been there ever since I left university. It’s been a big part of my life. It’s so hard.”
– “You’re working over at LOGIQ, aren’t you?” he said.
– “I used to be a cop,” he said, “and you know the saying, once a cop…”
– “Yes. Always a cop.”
– “And, I’ve been watching the news. Ruth Ingram, she’s one tough mother. I wouldn’t want to mess with her.”
– “I know,” you said.
– “How many has she laid off lately?”
– “I don’t know. I really don’t want to talk about it.”
– “I’m sensing that it’s not just the downsizing, it’s something more… what?”
– “Well. I’m in marketing.”
– “Yeah, I know.”
– “I’m in marketing,” you said, “and I’ve been doing fine ever since I got the job. I graduated at the top of my class, the job was the perfect and the company was an innovative one, getting all the top clients. But, something has changed, and now I’m lost. Suddenly, it’s like I’m this dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus, just not as scary. Ben, my boss, is talking about social marketing and storytelling… and I’m just lost. I feel like I’m the last of a dying breed. Why am I talking to you about this,” you told him, “I really need to get going.”
– “Bill. Before you go. I know the feeling. And I know a thing or two about marketing and storytelling. I used to be a cop, remember? And, being a cop, is all about marketing.”
– “What? Cops and marketing,” you said.
– “Yeah. Go find Thomas”, he said, “and come back later if you want to talk.”
– You walked across the street, and turned right. You were sure that Lucas and I weren’t at the school. You pictured us at the house and thought that Mark was just teaching you a lesson. And you were still thinking about what you heard inside my room.
– “What’s your dad doing?” you heard me say.
– “I don’t know. I really don’t,” Lucas said.
– “But. Did he really murder those boys?”
– “Well. No, of course not. I was just kidding. My dad used to be a cop. He would never kill anyone, well… not unless they deserved it.”
– “What? So, what happened to him?”
– “I’m actually not sure. But it was that case, that Red Robin case. I think it drove him nuts. From what I heard, they arrested the killer, but my dad just left the force after that. And he’s been like he is now ever since.”
– “How long ago was that?”
– “I don’t know, two, three years.”
– “Where’s your mom?”
– “She left – with some guy. I haven’t talked to her since. I’ve had gifts for my birthday and for Christmas. That’s all.”
– That’s what you remembered. And you decided to turn around and walk back. The story ended. No more conversations between Lucas and me. You didn’t want to make up another one. You just needed to talk to me.
– You walked back over the road and stopped just in front of the house. You looked at the curtains and you spotted some movement inside. You weren’t sure what you were going to do this time. You didn’t want to go back in and you didn’t want another beer. But, on the other hand, it seemed like talking to Mark had opened up something, something that had been closed for a long time. From that short conversation, your first real conversation ever, you’d received answers and more questions. Mark was a drunk, but he was also a cop, and he had some interesting things to say about your life. He had it all figured out about the job and your problems. When you told him about marketing, he had answers to that too. In less than thirteen hours you had to meet up with Ben. The phone call, it could be a test, Ben was like that.
– “So, you’re back? I bet you didn’t find Thomas,” Mark said.
– “No I didn’t,” you told him.
– “I can see it in your face. I used to be a cop, remember? And I’d offer you another Samuel Adams, but I can see that you don’t want one. Am I right?”
– “Yes. But thank you,” you said. You sat down on the black leather couch by the window. You didn’t know what to say. You were looking for me. You wanted to talk to Mom about the downsizing, and you were thinking about Ben and what he had planned for tomorrow.
– “You want to know about storytelling,” Mark asked, “and why it’s so important in marketing? I’ll tell you everything you need to know, and it’ll only take me a few minutes.” You said that you’d listen. And you did.
– “Storytelling ruined my life,” Mark said. “I can tell you that much. When you’re a cop, everything you do is about marketing and storytelling. We catch criminals, but before we do, we create stories about who they are, what they did, and why they did it. It’s behavioral analysis – sometimes it’s complicated, sometimes it’s not. That’s one part of it. The other part is, when I ask you what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word cop. Don’t answer. The point is. Your answer is different from your neighbor’s or your co-worker’s, and different to some kid in a completely different part of the city. That’s because there are different stories. Cops are good, cops are bad, and we behave according to how people see us. As a cop I need to behave in a different manner, depending on if I’m talking to a kid, a parent, someone poor, or whatever. That’s because of storytelling. We all create our own stories before we experience any new type of behavior. Tomorrow, when you knock on my door, what’ll you expect? Don’t tell me. You’ll expect the drunk me. What if I opened the door and I was wearing a suit, just like that cop that visited your house earlier today. What would your reaction be? You’d create a different story, and that’s because I wanted you to create the story of me in a suit. And now that I’m talking about it, you’re picturing me in a suit. It’s all about the mindset. You need to change the way people think. It’s difficult, and the worst part of it is that sometimes it’s impossible. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Red Robin murder?” It was as if he was reading your mind. You just shook your head like you didn’t know anything about it. “I was the leading investigator,” he said. “A young man was found dead outside a Red Robin restaurant. I worked day and night, and what for? I ended up being investigated myself, because I’d been to that Red Robin the same day as the murders. Lucas and I were at the same Red Robin and suddenly they were questioning me. Do you know what happens when a cop is questioned for murder? People start to ask questions, they create stories – and in the minds of the other cops, I was guilty, all because I had a fight with the kid in the line. I just told him to stop messing around and get back in line, but I said it too loud – they created a story about me being the killer. It didn’t matter that they arrested the killer three weeks later. I was still that guy. And I am still that guy. That’s why we moved. That’s why I’m drinking freakin’ Samuel Adams. Get it?”
– Mark had shared more personal stuff in a few minutes than you’d shared in years. You looked at the half empty bottle in Mark’s hand. He was waving it at you while talking.
– “And the thing is, my wife, she left Lucas and me. Not because she believed the stories, but because she didn’t want to be a part of them, and she didn’t want people looking at us. At us! Can you believe it! And now she’s living in New York with a young painter, half her age. That’s the power of storytelling for you. And, Lucas loves to tell people I’m a killer. He loves to joke about it. That’s one of the reasons we had to move… but you know all this already, remember?”
– Mark said that you already knew all that. You had no idea what he was talking about and I can see you still don’t – we’ve got six minutes left.
I am looking at the plain white paper and the eleven words I’ve written. Looking at it makes me want to write more, it makes me want to explain. I know that she won’t ever understand. And it wouldn’t help if I explained. It was all about her feelings. And feelings can’t be changed. That’s what she said. I am looking at Dad, and I remember when he told me that life was all about people, and the question was, what happens when there are no relationships left? I’ll tell you Thomas. We need to build new ones. That’s the answer. People are too busy just being busy. There’s no time to focus; there’s no time for anything other than being busy. Look outside, look anywhere there’re people. They’re always walking straight ahead, looking straight ahead. And that’s it. That’s what life has become. And that’s what I remember when I am looking at my dad. I’m still surrounded by darkness and, never having cried, a single tear makes all the difference in the world. That’s it. I know he’ll understand – at last. We’ve got less than six minutes left. I need to make him understand.
– You waited. You didn’t say a word. Mark took another sip. He finished the bottle, and walked into the kitchen. You were waiting for the sound of another bottle being opened.
– “That’s why a story needs to be fascinating,” he said. “We don’t care about things that aren’t fascinating – not anymore. People are too busy living their lives. A true story isn’t fascinating, just by being true. The reason Red Robin was fascinating was that I was a cop, it was a homicide, and I was a suspect. That’s even fascinating as a TV show. People watch things like that every day, but you don’t get to experience it in real life – hardly ever.
– You remember the words. I can see it in your eyes. You remember Mark’s enthusiasm, it was an awakening. Ben had been an amazing mentor, but he couldn’t tell a story like Mark. You decided to tell Mark about the red tulips, and about Ben’s sobbing on the phone. For the first time, you felt the need to keep asking questions, and it had been a long time since you’d had the answers you so badly needed.
– “Do you know why you’re thinking about tomorrow and what Ben is going to do,” Mark asked.
– “Because… my job, and my life are at stake. I might not have a job,” you answered.
– “No, it’s not that. It’s the mystique,” Mark said. That’s a big part of storytelling. We keep thinking about things we don’t know or understand. We want to fill in the blanks. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be a cop in the first place. I love mysteries, and so does everyone out there,” he said and pointed the bottle at the window. “Add mystique to your story and people keep thinking about you. There are at least seven triggers that fascinate us. Remember?”
– You said that you didn’t, and told him to continue.
– “It’s common sense really,” Mark said. “But use them wisely and you get yourself a really powerful story. Remember Marilyn Monroe? Of course you do. Why are we still fascinated by her, so many years after her death? And no, it’s not what you think. Well, it’s that too… but it’s her voice. She talked… sexy, and she created lust. It was the way she whispered, and whisper is one of the most effective ways to talk. You remembered the way Lucas talked when you were listening earlier. You need to listen closely to hear each word, and it’s so intimate and personal. Lust can be anything really. If I told you a story about pizza right now, you’d not only get hungry, but you’d really crave for a vegetarian pizza, wouldn’t you. That’s because I know how much you love pizza; it’s something that appeals to you.”
– You nodded your head.
– “Of course I’m right. It’s common sense,” he said. “And the same goes for our survival mechanisms. Add an alarm and people will take action. Tell them what’s at stake, and something will happen. This is the easiest one. Break the law and go to jail, or buy now at 50% off or pay full price tomorrow. This is the survival mechanism. Right?”
– “Right,” you replied.
– “And there are a few more,” Mark said, “like if you go over the edge of acceptable behavior – people will listen. Say things that other people don’t dare say. Add prestige; tell people what they want to hear. Add power, people are attracted to power, and most people respect authority. And add trust. Build strong relationships, and you won’t have to think about the message. When people trust you, they’re fascinated by you even before you open your mouth.”
– Mark explained things that Ben hadn’t been able to explain. And, the message was so easy to understand.
– “Bill. This is just a game.”
– “What?” you said.
– Mark was shaky on his feet. He was drunk. He walked back into the kitchen. You heard him open another bottle.
– “You’re drunk,” you said, “are you sure you need another beer?”
– “No I’m not,” he said. “I wanted you to believe that I was drunk. I’m in total control, like you used to be. I’m 100% in control.”
– “Mark, please sit down,” you said.
– “Nah. Let me tell you a secret. You know why I’ve been playing drunk? Let’s start with that.”
– “What? You are drunk, no doubt about it,” you said.
– “No. Listen,” Mark said. “I’m wearing the same clothes that I wore six years ago. You should have told me that you thought you’d seen my shirt before. And you have. Remember? Do you see this scar? You caused it. My wife. Susan. She died that night. And so did I… I promised her, at her funeral, and every single day since, that I’d find you and get revenge. It took me close to six years to plan it, and finally, finally, we’re here and it’s time.”
– “What are you talking about? You’re crazy,” you said. “Where’s Thomas? Thomas?” You kept shouting.
– Mark continued talking, now even louder. “We’d been out for pizza, he said. Lucas was eleven years old. He was at my mom’s. Susan and me, we were so much in love. She was pregnant with our second child. Life was perfect.
– “Please stop,” you said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Thomas, where are you?” you shouted. You walked to the end of the living room. You knocked on Lucas’ bedroom door – nobody answered. “Thomas, are you in there?” You opened the door.
– “You drove a black Volvo back then,” Mark said. “I tracked the plate. I’ve seen the damage. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve talked to your wife, Carolyn, she didn’t pass the test.”
– “What test?” you said.
– “Don’t worry. She didn’t have a clue what happened that night. She still doesn’t. And she won’t.”
– “Please Mark. Stop,” you said. “Where’s Thomas? What have you done to him? He’s just a kid. For God’s sake.”
– “I haven’t touched your son,” he said. “Tell me. What happened that night, six years ago?”
– “Nothing,” you said. “I’ve never driven a black Volvo in my life.”
– “Tell me!”
– “Please stop. I don’t know. I don’t remember anything.” You sensed a tear. You were crying. Mark was standing right in front of you holding a piece of paper. Everything was fuzzy. But you kept looking. What did it say? At first you thought the paper had numbers on it. But they weren’t numbers they were letters, letters that read, “I’m just kidding. This is storytelling for you!”
– You didn’t look at Mark. He was just making fun of you. He thought it was funny! You just walked out and slammed the door. Suddenly the darkness was surrounding you. You had no idea how long you’d been inside. The wind whistled, urging you to stop and look. You did. You could see something at the corner, by the trees. Another whistle pulled you closer. You started walking. You could hear someone talking. We’ve got four minutes left Dad; we’re almost at the end.
– “Thomas, you said. Are you there?” You couldn’t see me. But you could hear my voice.
– “Yes Dad. I’m here.” You heard the words you wanted to hear.
– “Thomas. Thank God,” you said. You wanted to hug me so badly. But you couldn’t see me.
– “Dad, you need to wake up,” you heard me say. “You need to listen to Mark, you really do. You know that he’s telling you the truth and not just what you want to hear.”
– “Thomas. We need to get home,” you said. “Mom is waiting. She’s worried.”
– “I know,” I said. “Everything’s going to be fine. She knows that, and deep inside, you know that too Dad.”
– “I just wanted to see you,” you said, “and touch you.” You thought that if you started walking back to the house I’d follow.
– “Bill, Mark shouted.” “Come back here tomorrow. I need to tell you about the tulip, I’ve discovered an interesting story.”
– You didn’t answer, and you didn’t turn around. Even in the dark you could picture Mark standing on the porch with a beer in his hand.
– “We’ve got three more minutes Dad.”
– Mom was waiting in the living room. You sat down in the chair next to her. You looked at me and in your mind I’d been walking behind you. I walked to the end of the living room and I sat down on the couch.
– “Bill, why are you smiling?” Mom asked.
– You didn’t know why.
– “You haven’t smiled for weeks, ever since…”
– You could hear me interrupting her.
– “Dad will tell you. Mark scared the living shit out of him.”
– “Thomas! don’t talk like that,” you said.
– “Dad. Tell her about the crash, and how you freaked out,” I said.
– “No. It’s stupid. He was drunk.”
– “Dad, tell Mom about the tulips,” I said. You could hear how excited I was. It’s been so long.
– “How… how could you possibly have heard that,” you said.
– “Just tell her,” I said.
– You told Mom, “I told Mark that I’ve received three red tulips: one today, one last week, and one the week before that. They’ve been on the windshield of the car at the parking lot at work. I have no idea who put them there or why? I meant to tell you but I was too confused.” Mom started crying. Why would she cry about the tulips? You had explained, and it wasn’t another woman, it couldn’t be. You looked at me.
– “Dad. Tell her about Red Robin,” I said.
– You didn’t want to, not at first. But in your mind, I kept telling you to do it. Mom was still crying. You didn’t know what to do. You tried to talk to her, but she didn’t answer. You wanted to touch her and hold her, but you needed to go outside. You said you were sorry and opened the door. You needed to feel the breeze. You turned around and saw the empty couch. I wasn’t there anymore. You closed the door, and standing on the porch you started to think about the elements of storytelling. You thought about the things that Ben had told you. You had tried to memorize them all. And you needed them tomorrow. The seminar could be just another test from Ben.
According to Ben, a story needed to be true, relevant, human, passionate, original, and surprising. You went through them. True is the first one. Relevant is the second one. Human is number three. Passionate is number four. Original is number five, and surprising is the sixth. That’s all. But, does a story need all the elements or just one? You were forgetting everything you’d once known. You tried to remember the story that Mark told you about Red Robin. It was a perfect story and it had really captivated you. The story was true. The kid had been murdered. But was it relevant? Well, it was relevant to Mark and his job as a cop. And it was relevant to you as Mark’s neighbor. It had a human element; you felt a connection with Mark and the kid who’d been murdered. Number four was passionate, and passion was the easiest part in Mark’s story. It was the way he told the story, his posture, his tone, the way he used his hands, and the way he looked straight at you. It was impossible not to be part of the story. The story was original. Like Mark said, he was a cop, suspected of murder. But, what was the twist, the surprise? Maybe it was that his wife had left him, or that his fellow cops didn’t believe he was innocent. Or maybe it was something else, something you didn’t quite understand? You walked back inside. You had to talk to me even though it was close to midnight and a school night. Mom was in the kitchen, still crying. You walked passed her, without saying a word. The door to my bedroom was closed. You knocked twice and opened it. You sat down on my bed, and started talking. “Thomas. It’s been so long since we’ve talked like this. I’ve been at work and you’ve been with Lucas, and even though we’re father and son I haven’t really figured out what’s been going on. And, I’ve been lost: my marriage is falling apart, my career is a total mess, and you, my son, are almost invisible to me – I can’t really see your hair at the top of the sheets, and there’s no sound of you breathing.”
– We’ve got two minutes left Dad. I need to talk faster. You told me that you knew that you’d been away too much, and that you hadn’t been a good father lately. You said that you were so sorry. You promised me that everything would be different. “Tomorrow,” you said. “Everything will be different starting tomorrow.”
– You wanted to touch me. You wanted to wake me up. You wanted to hold me, like you used to when I was a baby. You could feel your voice crack; a single tear fell from your right eye and then, at that moment, you understood what had happened.
– You need to hear this Dad. When you were inside my room and sitting on my bed, Mark couldn’t sleep. He was standing outside watching our house from across the street. The lights were still on in the kitchen and he could see Mom by the window. He had to do something. He had tried to talk to you today, and he did his best to explain everything. He had hoped that you’d remember, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. You were still lost in your own world. You didn’t remember that everything Mark told you today, you had already told him. Mark didn’t have a clue about storytelling or marketing until he met you. And the story about the Red Robin murders? That was your story. It was your example to make him, a cop, understand about marketing – the power of relationships and of marketing. It was you who had told Mark about it first. If you build strong relationships and the customers trust you, you can get away with almost anything. That’s why marketing today is about being personal and about building relationships and trust – even through social media. There are too many ads, too much noise; people are just too busy. But keep it personal and you won’t need an ad, that’s what you kept telling him. You had it all covered.
– Mark had just discovered that the story about the red tulips was a story from a Turkish legend: the story of Prince Farhad who was in love with a maiden named Shirin. When he heard that Shirin had been killed, he was so overcome with grief that he killed himself. He rode his horse over the edge of a cliff. A scarlet tulip sprang from each drop of his blood, giving the red tulip the meaning of perfect love.
– Mom was still crying. Mark was standing outside, just a few feet from the kitchen window. She’d been like that for weeks, ever since… He had to do something. He had talked to her and tried to help; he’d even phoned Ben earlier that day. But Ben had started crying, and that was Mark’s fourth attempt. He wasn’t getting anywhere. He hated to see you and Mom like this. But what if he found the letter and showed it to you. Would it make a difference? Mom had told him about it, and that she hadn’t showed it to you yet. She just couldn’t. She loved you too much to make you read it. Ben and Mom had tried almost everything else: the cops, a psychiatrist, and even a priest. Ben, your mentor and best friend, was no use at all and progress was very slow. Mark decided that he needed to read the letter first, and then he’d decide what to do. Mom had kept it in her car, in the glove compartment, a place she knew that you’d never look. As a former cop, it wasn’t hard for Mark to get in. He had been fired from the force three years ago, for DUI and clocked at 143 mph, but he still remembered the basics. Three years was a long time. His wife had left him two years ago. It was all because of the drinking. That’s it.
– The light in the car came on as Mark opened the door. He looked at the kitchen window and he could see that Mom was still there. She hadn’t heard a thing and wasn’t looking his way. He opened the glove compartment and found the white envelope, “To Mom and Dad”. He opened it, slowly.
– Mark walked inside, without knocking or using the doorbell. He looked at you. You were sitting in the living room all by yourself. Mark looked at Mom; she was still in the kitchen. He walked to Mom and he could see she’d been crying. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face seemed to be covered in a thin film of water.
– “Carolyn,” he said, “I’ve read the letter. I’m sorry, but I had to. You need help. Bill needs help. I had no idea what was going on, but when Bill started talking about Lucas I just had to do something. Lucas and Thomas haven’t been together since Lucas started dating Karen. And, I couldn’t show up here. I blame myself for what happened to Thomas. I’m so sorry.”
– Mom looked at him. She tried so hard to smile. And as she did a single tear rolled slowly down her cheek. It was her time to speak. “Bill told me that you’ve helped him,” she said. “You’ve helped him at his job, and with Thomas – but I’m afraid that there’s not much else you can do. Thomas has been dead for four weeks. Bill found him. Right there in his bedroom,” she pointed. She was whispering. Another tear was forming in her left eye. “It was suicide. Bill… Bill just can’t let it go. He blames himself. The red tulips. He buys one. Puts it on his windshield. Just so he’ll remember his pain. But that’s the thing. He doesn’t remember anymore.” Mark turned and looked into the living room. You’re not there anymore. He can see that you’re walking down the hallway towards my bedroom. Mark continued to talk to Mom.
– “The letter,” he says, “why haven’t you showed it to him?”
– “It was just one sentence,” Mom said. “It didn’t make any sense and Bill would just make up stories and blame himself even more. All it said was, ‘a single tear makes all the difference in the world’ – I just don’t understand.”
– “But maybe Bill will?”
– “No. He won’t. Well… I don’t know.”
– “Bill doesn’t realize that Thomas is dead,” Mark said. “Reading the letter might actually do him some good. He might understand; it might help him to reach some kind of closure. I’ve dealt with many grieving parents after suicides and the death of their kids, and one thing I know is that finding the killer, or the cause of death, is what helps. To Bill, the sentence might actually mean something.” Mom wiped away her tears with a soaking wet paper towel. She looked at Mark and he could see that she tried to smile. She really did her best.
– “Please show him the letter,” she said. “Help him understand. If you believe that it’ll help. Do it. I don’t have anything more to give.” She said “thank you. Please help me save what’s left.” She hugged him and walked away. But then, she heard a loud cry from Mark.
– That’s it Dad. You see. I am dead. And, you’ve tried to commit suicide by hanging. I need you to understand what happened yesterday. Mark found you inside my bedroom. Right now you’re at the hospital. You’ve had seventeen minutes in heaven. You had to stay in the chair, if not, if you’d touched me it would all have come to an end. Now it’s time for you to return. I love you Dad, and I’m so sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.
I can see his mouth moving. Dad is trying to say something. I’m struggling to hear the words.
– I should have saved you. I didn’t know Karen and you…
– Don’t. Listen. The thing is, when you commit suicide, you can’t return to life, but you can give someone else a second chance. And give them the life you had left. And that’s what I’m giving you Dad. Please don’t forget. Ever. Life is about love. And it’s all in the detail – remember, “A single tear makes all the difference in the world”.