The Speed of Light and How it Cannot Help Us
We’ve visited our son almost every week for the past sixteen years. In the region of 800 times, or thereabouts. We’ve driven somewhere around 265,000 miles, which is more than the distance to the moon, more than the circumference of this entire planet, times ten. It’s roughly the same amount of time it might take you to run 900 marathons at a slow jog.
We sit usually for a few minutes, in the parking lot, before we go in. Decompressing from the journey and steeling ourselves for the rigmarole of security screening, the perpetual waiting for Eli to be brought through to us, uniformed and shackled, so we can talk to him by telephone through a reinforced mesh-glass window.
I do this each week for Jack, for my husband, as much as for Eli or myself.
People tend to say things like this lightly – but Jack loved that boy more than you’d think was possible. He loved both of them that way, Eli and Jacob, and still does.
I’ve been asked before if I really believe it, deep down. That he didn’t do it. You’d be surprised what people will ask you, right to your face. People you don’t even know. I’ve been asked – and told – far worse than that, as it happens, especially in the beginning, but by now it no longer bothers me. I’ve asked myself the same things afterall, more times than you could count, and those questions don’t ever go away, even when you think you know the answers.
When it happened – when we found out at first, I mean, when we arrived home like any other evening, when we arrived to the chaos and turmoil on our quiet street and assumed, naturally, that the turmoil, whatever it was, must belong to someone else, to some unlucky neighbour – when we were told and informed and notified, none of it making any sense, standing outside our own home like strangers watching a car wreck, before it had even begun to sink in, it was just getting dark outside, and all those lights and people–– I can remember thinking it resembled some odd Christmas scene; as if there might be carol singers and a manger in there somewhere, in amongst all the bright blue and red lights, with the spectators shuffling their feet in the cold and the yellow tape just then being strung about the place by two men in uniforms.
This was at the house – outside the house. With Eli’s face pleading out at us from the back window of one of the police cars – handcuffed, I think, though I don’t recall actually seeing them, the handcuffs. It was more the way his body seemed so rigid, his neck so odd-angled as he strained just to see us. He was only fifteen.
He is now more than twice that.
They wouldn’t let us speak to him, the police, or even go near him.
‘Why can’t we just talk to him?’ Jack kept kept yelling, kept begging, even after they had explained, or tried to, what had happened. Nothing made sense.
‘Where’s Jacob?’ we kept asking them too – where was our other son?
And why can’t we go inside?
There is a lot of time to think, on the drives; our conversations have turned steadily more sparse and sporadic since earlier days, and as Jack grips the wheel beside me, thinking his own thoughts, I find my mind filled with numbers. As a girl, on long journeys or in bed seeking sleep, I would toy with random calculations in my mind and think endlessly about things like time and space and the universe. It was a habit that never fully faded, and when given these gaps to revive itself it does.
Eight minutes is roughly how long it takes, you might remember from school, for light from the sun to reach the earth. I think about those infinite particles streaming towards us, directed dead-set, faster than anything else that can ever exist. And yet eight minutes… I think about how far light would have travelled in the time that it took. From the beginning of it, I mean – of the incident. To its end.
Eight minutes is probably not even close.
The light emitted from the sun when it began was proably not even half way here by the time it was finished.
Jacob was moved, they said. Between the intial instigation of the incident and its culmination. Carried, they said they could tell. From the bottom of our staircase into the kitchen, where the stabbings occurred. They could also tell, they said, these experts, that he was most likely unconscious by this point. And it’s that detail, of all of them, which visits me most. The image of Jacob unconscious, as if asleep, being carried, cradled, that short distance, thirteen steps – almost one for each year of his life – and placed on the cold tile floor; perhaps gently, perhaps not.
I think it’s true what they say about women sometimes, about us being more emotional. A broader emotional spectrum, they’d probably call it now. A mother knows her children the way only a mother can – we notice certain things that men don’t, in the same way that the opposite is also true.
Not that Jack isn’t emotional. Weighed up I’d say he’s more emotional than most, myself included. He’s always been that way, and it was one of the things I loved about him first. But it’s a forward-moving, driven sort of a thing, entirely focused. Whereas my own emotions feel more like a fog, drifting and amorphous.
Jack’s initial reaction was… He said to me: ‘Sarah,’ he said, and then his expression turned into an expression I’d never seen before, one that lived only once, for just those few seconds, and never again after that, he said: ‘Jesus, Sarah, I think he did this, I think Eli––’
Or maybe that was at the hospital. After they’d finally let us see Jacob, our other little boy, laid out on cold steel, his small form visible beneath a spotless white sheet, just like you see on television.
I said something to Jack like, How could you. How could you even think it, your own son? I may even have slapped him. I think I did. Because love, real love, the love of a mother – if you love another human being in such a way, the force of it is a physical, primal thing, and you would bleed all your blood, and believe that night was day, if it could help them even just a little.
And I think I needed Jack to be the one without any doubt; in effect it was not just Jacob’s life we had lost that day, but mine and Jack’s too. And of course Eli’s.
Four lives in just a few short minutes; even the sun couldn’t work fast enough to make any true sense of that.
The recording of the 911 call lasted over seven minutes. I didn’t hear it until the trial itself. Eli’s voice – the broken tremor in it. The terror. And those interspersed moments of silence on the line before the dull sound of sirens arrived in the background, the pauses, where all you could do was picture him there in the kitchen, phone in hand, standing over his little brother, waiting for help that was already too late in coming. By now I know it by heart, the recording. I obtained a copy.
I don’t tell Jack, but I listen to it still, all the time.
After that one moment of weakness from Jack, about Eli doing it, being responsible for it, for this thing that was done, there was never another. His drive – his entirety, I think – went into Eli’s innocence. There was never any question of it again, even during the trial, after all the endless hours of evidence and specimens and photographs and testimonies.
When we were finally allowed to see Eli at the police station, after we’d been to the hospital, after we’d seen Jacob, I remember Jack saying over and over, We will get you out don’t worry we will, we will get you out we will, we believe you we love you we believe you.
Jack says it still – that we will get him out. And he believes it, too.
Eli said – and his story never changed, never wavered, not a single detail, even during the interrogations by the police, with those grown men prodding and threatening and terrifying the wits out of him, just a child; and nor has it changed in the sixteen years since – that when he heard noises he came downstairs from his bedroom and found Jacob lying there in the kitchen, the back door open, the back door left ajar, his little brother covered in blood, the knife discarded there beside him.
I estimate we’ve burned through almost 8,000 gallons of fuel on our trips. That’s as much, if you’re interested, as those great big tubular gasoline trucks can hold, filled to the brim.
I told a therapist about all of this a few years back – about the counting, the calculations. About what she was probably correct in terming a somewhat obsessive fixation. I told her in particular, I remember, about the speed of light, and about how time and space can change, can alter – or so they say, these scientists with minds that work on different frequencies, at different levels to the rest of us. I don’t entirely understand it. But such things take my mind away from where it is, and where it sometimes goes.
She called it a coping mechanism. ‘Whatever helps,’ she said.
I paced it out myself, the distance between the stairs and the kitchen. It would’ve taken in the region of ten seconds, under the circumstances, to cover those thirteen steps; and for such a short time it’s an awfully long time, too.
But these things, distance or time or light, these concepts – in the end they’re not a whole lot of use. It doesn’t make anything better, does it, the world turning, light and space and time. The things that simply are, or have been. And why would it?
He will be eligible for parole in nineteen years, Eli, at the age of fifty.
The statistical life expectancy rate dips by almost twenty-five years for those in long-term incarceration – incarceration from youth, that is. The suicide rate rises by a factor of four, and more than half are hangings.
These are yet more numbers and statistics that fill my mind on the long drives. More often than just then, in truth; they flow uncontrolled as if separate from me, these ones, these thoughts – the darkest of daydreams.
I imagine getting the call one night, from the prison authorities. I try not to, but I imagine how it might feel.
Sometimes I think I am a terrible person.
There is a sound, if you listen very closely, about four minutes into the recording. Just barely. It went unmentioned, unnoticed, at the trial. The kind of sound that’s barely a sound at all, the kind of sound so slender and so buried beneath the other sounds of the recording, the static and the operator’s voice and the strangled utterings of Eli, my son, that only someone who has heard it a million times before, who knows it, who has it subconsciously embedded in the back of their brain, could ever possibly discern or distinguish.
That sound is very much like the sound of the handle on the back door of our home being pushed down, and then unlatched; it is very much like the sound of the back door being opened, the back door being left ajar.