by Niles Reddick
I told them I was innocent, but the cops didn’t believe me, my ex didn’t believe me, and most of my friends and family didn’t believe me either. I’d been in for five years, got my degree free online, and when I never expected it, one of the guards came to the door and said, “Man, it’s your lucky day. You’re out of here.”
“Yep, apparently you’re innocent after all. So, you’ll get a set of clothes, and the state will have to pay you back for your time. Startin’ over money.”
“Pay me back? Startin’ over money? What the hell? I know I ought to forgive and forget, but I’m not going to, and I’ll swear I’ll sue somebody. I would have never killed my little girl. Do you know what happened to overturn the verdict?”
“You know they don’t give us guards details, but the warden may know. He’ll see you out.”
When I met the warden, he told me they’d finally found my girl’s remains in Denali’s mountain forest not too far from the log cabin I’d rented for a vacation with sweet Claire. I could see it as clearly in my mind as if he happened yesterday. Claire was only five at the time and so petite. My ex Susan didn’t want her to go with me. “What if something happens to you?” she’d said. I figured she was more concerned with me having some time with her after our divorce than she was worried about something happening to me. I was devastated when she disappeared. We’d been fishing at the lake, we had a fire going, and I walked into the woods just a few hundred yards to get more firewood, and when I walked back, she was gone. First, I thought she was playing a trick on me. She loved Hide and Seek. I called to her and looked around. Then, I worried she’d fallen in that lake. I called out and then dove in trying to see or feel for her. I came out of the lake, called the ranger’s office miles away, and they said they would send assistance. It took thirty minutes before they got there, and we combed a radius around the lake and cabin, and there was no evidence at all. The sheriff’s department even brought in the dogs, but it was like Claire was there one minute and gone the next. They couldn’t pick up a scent from the blanket she slept with, her doll, or even a spare pair of shoes.
At night, I cried and prayed. I couldn’t eat and lost twenty pounds in two weeks. The sheriff dredged the lake, but he was suspicious of me. He kept asking about the divorce, insinuating Claire liked her mother more, asked about my temper and bar room brawls I’d been in when I was young that he’d found on my record. The district attorney was itching to put me away.
“Warden, can you tell me anything else? What about Claire’s remains?”
“They found them in a nest. A ranger spotted the bird, and he tracked it to a nest up the mountain near the top of a tree.”
“Eagle or Condor?”
“Nope. They believe it was a Thunderbird.”
“What? I thought those were extinct or mythical. Part of Native lore.”
“Well, so are giants and big foot, but you know, it’s Alaska. Plenty of things hiding out there.”
“I never would have guessed. I never saw it take her, didn’t hear her scream, didn’t see the bird at all, and never heard the noise of wings flapping.”
“The ranger took some video with his phone. Son-of-a-bitch had a wingspan of twelve feet and took off as he approached. He found your girl’s bones and a couple of other missing hikers. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but you can put this behind you now and move on. Start over with your life.”
“Losing Claire was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I don’t think you can put your child’s death behind and move on. I wished that damned bird would’ve taken me, but the fact that no one ever believed me only added to my pain. I’m glad they found her remains and I’m glad I’m getting out, but I’ll always be in prison and never be free.”