72. High Ground

November 15, 2012

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Nancy picked up her son’s laundry from his bathroom at the top of the stairs. It was the only part of his territory she was allowed to enter; he would leave the basket in the bathroom for her, under the counter. Mostly socks, like she’d been hauling up and down the stairs for years.

The two doors at the end of the hall were closed. Like always, there was a white network cable threaded through the gap under the computer room’s door, and winding along the inside wall of the staircase. Nancy followed the cord’s path back downstairs, carrying the basket.

There were full-length mirrors positioned over each of the windows in the living rooms downstairs, facing inward. No sunlight. It had been just her and her son in the house for so long, and he was so particular about changes in his environment, that there was a sense of stasis in the house. Even the family photos stayed the same. Life frozen in a flashback.

Only the situation back at the top of the stairs seemed to have changed. Maybe it had just taken that long for Nancy to recognize it — or accept it. But slowly, word began to leak from the sealed chamber of 36 Yogananda, to the outside world: Nancy now realized that her son wasn’t getting better. He was getting worse. She even started mentioning it to some friends at the bar; for years, she’d played things close to the chest, but around that time, several of the regulars remember her saying something about her adult son — still living at home, physically, while at the same time, “slipping away.” And then, the storm came.

The winds were bad, but it was the aftermath that really scared her. When the power was out. First thing when the roads were clear, she went into town and bought a gas-powered generator. God forbid it ever happened again, the lights at 36 Yogananda would stay on.

Nancy rounded through the kitchen with her laundry basket, and went down into the basement, where the cord from upstairs plugged into their modem. The small, rectangular, black-plastic box sat off in a dark corner, its lights blinking steadily. Like always.

They had been 14 years in the pale yellow house on Yogananda street. Their life was so different when they first moved in; Nancy was 37 years old then, still going through the motions of marriage when she first laid eyes on the house of her dreams. And it didn’t seem so long ago that she was standing with her two boys at her side, watching the backhoe dig up the soil, and designing her perfect garden in her mind.

Now she was 52, and they were the family that splintered. The house was already big, and then, the life inside shrank.

The basement was still mostly empty, just the footprint her older son had left behind. There were some flashes of her younger son mixed in: video game discs scattered around, probably there since the LAN party four years before. One night, one hint of a different life that never quite came into view.

The next room was her shop, with her old workbench where she once restored her antiques, now cluttered with junk. And then, the laundry room, around the corner. One upgrade she’d added over the years: a fridge next to the dryer, so she could enjoy some cheese and wine while she folded clothes. Her son’s uniform had barely changed since she first picked it up for him at St. Rose of Lima. Only one difference: the color of the big polo shirts had shifted, from light-blue, to black.

Nancy’s iPhone buzzed. It was her ex-husband.

Peter was upset about their son again, who was still not responding to him. Nancy had mentioned something about the 20-year-old’s computer being “broken,” and Peter said he wanted to get him a new one as a gift — and to present it to him personally. A break in radio silence. Nancy wrote back:

I will talk to him about that but I didn’t want to harass him. He has had a bad summer and actually stopped going out. He wouldn’t even go to the grocery store, so it’s been pretty stressful. Yesterday was the first time in months I’ve been able to talk him into going to do his own shopping and his car battery was actually dead because it sat so long. I ended up spending most of the day getting it fixed and now I am going to have to start pressuring him to go out all over again.

The GPS unit in the black Honda did indeed show a trip the day before, its first since July. He drove to the “Big Y” supermarket; not as fancy as the Whole Foods he usually went to, but much closer, and he didn’t have to get on the freeway.

Peter decided to back off Nancy. She was in control, and as far as he could tell, she was already doing all she could for their son. He’d try again, maybe around Christmas.

November 22, 2012

Kingston, New Hampshire

Nancy drove back home for Thanksgiving, to see the family. The old homestead on Depot Road. When she arrived, she didn’t have her younger son with her; nobody was surprised. Though they had been practically inseparable ever since she brought him home from Exeter Hospital, they all knew about his “issues,” and how he thought holidays were “stupid” anyway. It was more likely that Nancy would stay home, than she would drag her son out with her.

They asked her about the big storm. The only messages known to have come from the house during those few days were about Ryan: “The water is three-feet deep outside his apartment. He is OK on the second floor”, Nancy’s texts read, just after landfall. But there had been nothing about the other son, with her at 36 Yogananda.

Nancy told them what happened: as they knew, he never liked to leave his room. He was always on his computer, or playing video games. So she went to check on him on the night of the storm — but when the lights went out, somehow, he seemed to “shut down,” too.

She had scrambled to find a hotel, where the power was still on. Against all odds, she managed to find a room — but then, her son refused to leave 36 Yogananda. He would not budge. Nancy said she wasn’t willing to just leave him there. So they both sat in their dark, silent house, a wall between them, while the storm raged outside, and through the cold, dark nights that followed.

Something changed, behind the closed doors at the top of the stairs. Even for a while after the storm passed, and the lights came back on, he seemed really “freaked out” by the experience, she said. It even scared Nancy. She was never afraid of her son, she explained… but she was afraid for him, especially if anything ever happened to her.

She told them about a time when she asked her son if he would miss her, if she died. “No, not really,” was his response. That had really upset her. She was pretty sure that was sometime in 2010 or so.

* * *

Though the family back in Kingston all knew her son, this was their first real update in a very long time. It filled in some of the blanks in their concept of what he became, after the family had pulled off the Depot Road lot for the final time: the boy who never spoke, and who never left his mother’s orbit. She had told them once that he “had no emotions or feelings.” And none of them remembered him having any friends, at all. Definitely no girlfriends. He was the kid who, when they broke out the board games, might ruin the fun. “No one could joke around or ignore the rules of the game when [he] was playing.”

They thought back to the sparse transmissions from Newtown over the years — sometime around when he hit puberty, Nancy had taken him out of school “because she was nervous about him.” But most of them never knew he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Now, she admitted she was always afraid that if people “knew of his diagnosis they would think of him as weird.”

The way Nancy told it, none of the witnesses got any impression she felt one way or the other about the diagnosis. It was a long time ago.

Nancy tried to soften her story. She said her son was “getting better” at one point. He was done with school, and he finally got his driver’s license, and a car. It was just that something seemed to have gone wrong earlier in the year. He didn’t leave his bedroom for three months, and yet, despite her just being on the other side of the door, she had only been able to communicate with him by email. Sometimes she “worried that he did not care about her at all.”

Later, one family member apparently took her aside, and asked if she was okay. Nancy said there wasn’t any emergency, but something had to change. She saw that, now. Her son had “become despondent” and “wanted to move to Seattle, where it was dark and gloomy.”

She had decided to grant his wish; when the spring came next year, Nancy was going to put 36 Yogananda up for sale, and they were going to leave Sandy Hook behind.

AMC Loews Danbury 16 Theatre — Danbury, Connecticut

Dave was at the concession stand, not long after the storm. He was surprised to see that “DDR guy” was back; he hadn’t been there in months. And he was back to being totally silent, too.

* * *

He had played the game so many times. The same songs, the same patterns, hopping along the same squares in the same sequences, over and over and over. There had been value in the repetition — he always knew what would happen next, when he stood on the platform. A buffer of predictability, between him and the world. Perhaps it pacified him. But it wasn’t enough anymore.

* * *

Dave heard the game come to a stop, finally. DDR guy went back out to his black Honda, and drove away.

“My Place” Restaurant — Newtown, Connecticut

Nancy came in. The regulars greeted her with good cheer, like always. She assumed her spot at the bar, and there was already a glass of chardonnay waiting. They picked up the good times right where they left off. “You could get her to snort if she laughed hard enough,” one of them would remember.

The bar had been her first roots in town. When her marriage was falling apart, and she felt surrounded by strangers, it became home. Even more so, through her years of tribulation — scratching and clawing to get her youngest through the school system — they helped keep her spirits up. And she didn’t want to leave her life behind, again. But it was time.

There was one problem with selling 36 Yogananda, one she had been going over in her mind: how was she supposed to show the place, if her son wouldn’t leave his comfort zone?

She told friends she thought she finally had it figured out: rent an RV. Put the sealed chamber on wheels. Her son could stay in the portable pod, in the driveway, while she got the house ready. Once they closed escrow, Nancy would hop in the driver’s seat, and her and her son would begin the great journey westward, to start the next chapter of their lives.

It wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky plan; she was talking soon. She said she was even putting her Red Sox tickets up for sale — that was when they all knew just how serious she was. Nancy Lanza really would do anything for her son.

Nancy got up from her stool to go home for the night, and she said her goodbyes. They’d see her again soon. She wasn’t leaving Newtown for good just yet. But she did need a vacation.

December 5, 2012

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Nancy got an email. It was one of her old boyfriends — now just a friend. He’d had some DUIs on his record, and every now and then, he needed a ride to this place or that. Nancy was one of his most dependable friends.

She had told him before that she would be traveling that week, in London, but he wanted to know if she’d be available to take him to an appointment two Fridays away — on the 14th.

In another browser window, Nancy was making a purchase: reservations for one, at the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. A palace of luxury. She clicked CONFIRM at 1:08pm.

Twenty minutes later, she went back to her email, and hit REPLY, answering back to her friend about London:

Sadly, that trip had to be rescheduled due to a couple of last minute problems on the home front…I won’t make London until after Christmas, but at least I can console myself by hitting the after Christmas sales on Bond Street. Next week I am going up to Mt. Washington Resort to have a few day visit with my Aunt…I won’t get back until later in the evening.

They went back and forth for a bit; Nancy played loose with some of the details of her itinerary. She was looking to get away.

She started packing a suitcase.

It is not known what, specifically, she was referring to as “problems on the home front.” However, the day before, her younger son’s cell phone, an old flip-model, had logged the second of only two calls in its call history — to the downstairs phone, at 36 Yogananda Street.

* * *

Two days later, Nancy’s contractor friend came out to decorate 36 Yogananda for the holidays. It was a quick job, just some Christmas decorations: pine boughs that corkscrewed around the pillars on either side of the front entrance, interweaved with Christmas lights. A wreath over the door, with a red bow in the center.

Some of her friends had wondered over the years, why she even bothered with decorating the pale yellow house for the holidays. No one ever visited. And the house was all the way back on the lot, at the top of the hill.

December 9, 2012

Sanborn High School — Kingston, New Hampshire

Officer James Champion was in the middle of training a new recruit, when the radio squawked. He picked up the handset, and reported in. Dispatch said there was an emergency: a possible cardiac episode at the old Sanborn High School, down on the track. A man was running laps when he had suddenly fallen to the turf, clutching his chest.

Uncle Jimmy whipped the cruiser around, and floored the gas.

When he arrived on the scene, the cardiac victim was flat on his back. An off-duty cop was already delivering CPR, but she looked panicked about his chances.

Officer Champion reached down, and checked the man’s wrist: no pulse.

His trainee popped the trunk of the cruiser, and brought around a special piece of equipment, just recently acquired by the Kingston PD: an Automated External Defibrillator.

A few moments later, there was a jolt. The dying man opened his eyes, and saw Officer Champion kneeling over him. Strong, gentle, and with the badge on his chest shining bright.

Uncle Jimmie was in the local newspaper the next day, the Union Leader. A photographer came out, and Officer Champion posed proudly, the grizzled veteran with the crow’s feet and grey mustache, standing next to his trainee. Both heroes. “He’s really fortunate that everything fell into place,” Officer Champion said of the stranger he’d rescued. “To have this work and to have him back, it’s a miracle… His family is going to have him for Christmas. Talk about a second chance.”