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My Nightmare as a Silhouette

by Rachelle Larsen 

            I wonder about the boy who attacked Benjamin Partridge.

            Wake up, the teenager repeated out loud as he attacked strangers on August 14, 2020 in Payson, Utah, about fifteen miles away from where I work. He started with Benjamin Partridge, a man who stood facing away from the street while working on a fish tank stand in front of his garage. On the lawn behind him rested his sledgehammer, left out for a yard work project. The boy picked it up. Swung. His victim crumpled. Wake up, he said aloud. He swung again, or maybe just kicked: witness accounts are unclear. He heard shouting from the neighbor’s yard, which was an in-home daycare. Wake up. He jumped the fence and proceeded to attack with his fists, injuring five more people, including three children. He was in the middle of punching a young woman when the daycare owner said in desperation, he’s awake. The teenager paused. Stood up. His demeanor shifted to almost amiable. Oh really? Where is he? The owner pointed out her front door and towards the street: he’s out there. The boy wandered to the road and disappeared into a suburb that is like so many others.

            The police released a video of him later – he was caught on a home surveillance camera after he left the crime scene – and he looks tall and slim in his black hoodie and black joggers. He hangs his head and swings his shoulders exaggeratedly, implying that his pace is too brisk and long to be his natural stride. At the same time, he punches his right fist downward over and over as if he’s still back at the crime scene, still harming perfect strangers. He walks off camera. There is no record of him until 4 am the next day when he turned himself into the police. Since he turned himself in voluntarily and didn’t know the people he attacked, most sources that I’ve read guess that drugs incited his bizarre behavior rather than any premeditated intent. Turning himself in showed acceptance that he had treated humans inhumanely, drug-induced or not, and justice demanded he face the horror of what he’d done.

             What he’d done, what he’d done. The young woman at the daycare is my friend,  and she told me about the injuries she saw (and experienced): A thirteen-year-old girl who had to get surgery on her face. A five-year-old boy with blood running down his forehead. A two-year-old with a long scratch down her neck. My friend that he straddled, punching her repeatedly. Her mother, the daycare owner, who he clocked as soon as he jumped the fence, knocking her out for maybe a minute until she woke to him hitting my friend, her daughter. Benjamin Partridge: brain damage, collapsed lung, broken pelvis, severely damaged liver, spleen, and kidneys.

            The first hit to Ben’s skull rendered him unconscious, sending him into a coma. He made it to the hospital, and his family started a fundraiser. They chronicled his progress online, sharing in detail their moments with him, and I have been inspired by their love, hope, and openess. For months the family prayed, wake up. There were moments when he did. First his left eye cracked open. Then both of them. A few weeks after the attack, the nurse mentioned removing two tubes from him, and joy nearly brought him back. He grinned. He pounded his right arm and leg against the bed. His hand searched up and down the sheets, and when his husband took it, Ben squeezed it before falling back asleep. His other hand constantly points, all fingers curled in except for his index, and in December, as he started emerging from the coma more often, he also started raising that hand, pointing towards the door. I want to go home, he seemed to say. But he couldn’t go home, not then. Instead, he lay in a sterile white bed surrounded by drips and monitors, occasionally shaking his head no when his husband whispered I love you: a rejection with no explanation and no voice.

            Reading about Benjamin Partridge, I remember my own past living nightmare.

            Wake up, I used to tell myself back when I was stuck in a bad emotional rerun, suffering post-traumatic stress from an old boyfriend while trying to cope with a new iteration of him: a burly blond boy turned from friend to manipulator. I drifted between numbness and fear as I allowed myself to be encircled by arms that I didn’t want so as to avoid consequences that I wanted even less – manipulation, coldness, anger, sometimes violence, though never for the intent of physical harm: his actions were more about control, about dominance. I don’t want to date you, I told him, and he commanded, you can’t break up with me. I was never a cause, only an effect, and I found myself staring at my hands often, wondering whose they were. Staring at people I knew and wondering what strangers wore their faces. Enduring nightmares where I spent most of my limited sleep cringing, gasping, standing on my bed to escape imagined antagonists: zombies, mostly. The nightmare was surprisingly apt, if ridiculous, because what better symbol for rotted love? For a friend turned dangerous? For my slow but impending loss of humanity, catalysed by someone who I once trusted– 

            – who had his own nightmares, his own reasons for creaking floorboards in nightly, restless pacing. He dreamt that he and I were clinging to an earth the size of my truck, on the verge of falling into the starless void beneath us… So he woke up shaking, and maybe that fear is why he sidelined all we had said of choice and love in our deepest conversations. I just want to be with you, he said at first, curling in front of me like a hollow hermit shell, a delicate and entreating spiral. But when I did not reciprocate, he loomed large enough to become a cage, one that could drag me from my car when I didn’t want to go, or wrap his arms around me so I couldn’t answer my own door, one that could say things like you have PTSD and don’t see things clearly when I tried to defend myself from his manipulation. He clung more and more tightly until he dreamt there were devils in the walls stalking people, eating them; but unlike in my nightmares, he wasn’t the monster –

            – but he was often monstrous, wasn’t he? Such as when he threatened suicide to manipulate me to come to him late one winter night. I found him at a friend’s barn with guns. He took my truck keys. Admitted that he only wished that he was suicidal. I wanted to go home, though I couldn't leave,  and couldn't even have pointed to where it was. We stayed in my car until morning, our breaths fog-frosting the glass, and I slept against the passenger windowpane until I woke up trembling in twilight because I thought someone was running at me. I heard the patter-patter of feet against gravel, but I was trapped, and how I wished I could fall away –

            –  instead I found myself falling...asleep? Or at least, it felt like it as people I knew said things like just date him, he’s trying to help you, because they were girls that didn’t yet understand that possessiveness and love aren’t the same thing. Or: but he said he wanted to date me, why is he dating you? because his manipulations included others besides just me. Or: he’s the worst, get rid of him, as if I was an enraptured fool that hadn’t said no already more times than I could count. They couldn’t understand that I was a puppet pulled by another’s strings, that my hands were not my own, and I only felt okay when I looked at my life from afar with relative disinterest, perceiving events and characters as mere passing impressions –

            – until a plane ticket woke me from my living nightmare by putting vast geography between me and the boy who thought to keep me. He voluntarily took a plane out of the state for reasons that are probably more complicated than he admitted. Don’t talk to me, for your sake, he said, because I’ll probably hurt you.  He hated me after he left – he told me so – and stole liquor from his parents’ cabinet, drinking himself into blackness and waking up surrounded by vomit. He hated himself too and binged hours of pornography, trying to numb the voracious need that had driven him to compel my companionship, and to his credit, for a time, he didn’t try to speak to me. Perhaps removing himself from my life was a recognition that he had treated me inhumanely: its own form of waking up, or its beginning, though he never really faced what he did.

            By June of 2021, Benjamin Partridge woke often and occasionally spoke. Some of his sentences: “There’s Troy,” when his husband entered the room. “A year,” when he was asked how long he thought that he’d been in the hospital. “Yes,” when Troy said I love you, an exchange that has been repeated often and joyfully after the denials of months before. Troy was one of the few who could come near without triggering punching or swatting, a normal response for people with traumatic brain injury. After Ben punched a CNA, Troy stepped forward and offered his own shoulder for retaliation instead, but only received a gentle touch to his palm. Sweetness, Troy said of this moment in his update on their Go Fund Me for medical expenses. I still visit their page every time he updates Ben’s status; I am awed that even when Ben can barely communicate and remembers very little, even when his life feels like a nightmare, he knows the one he loves. He feels it. He refuses to cave into the wild, gut-wrenching fear that comes after your core has been deeply wounded.

            If dreams are places of paradox – fluid, disjointed, visceral, distant, bewildering, believable at least while experienced – then to wake from dreaming is to restore cause and effect, to sponge up a splintered self under a conscious mind like so much spilled milk. Most of us do this everyday, every sleep, alternatively sluicing and absorbing in a kind of life-giving ritual, one where we slurry our memories and sentiments and barely remembered images – like frothing raspberry soap and painted red curbs – into fantastical new stories; our eyes dart to and fro until we soak back in our subconscious imaginings, then they still and open to soft, predictable morning light. Upon waking, even the worst dreams are enriching, if only as a testament that we are so much more complex than what we merely do and think, and that there is vast potential in the rooms of ourselves that we don’t know.

            Benjamin Partridge’s experience helps me remember that potential, helps me think about it differently: helps me remember how I woke up before, what it even means to wake up.

            It’s a strange feeling waking not from a dream, but from extended pain and fear, from a core deeply wounded. Depersonalization and derealization, my therapist called my time with foreign hands and trickster faces: these were her words for when my mind was so anxious it distanced from both itself and the world around it. But when my puppet strings were snipped, no abuser left to estrange me from myself and others, I found myself alone and free to move as I pleased, so I wandered the roads of my city until my legs ached and sunset rouged mountains into brilliant blushes. It felt natural to be alone and lost in roads that looked familiar but unknowable. Though it was nonsense, as I walked I had the whimsical sense that an eon had passed, that during my living hell an entire world had lived and died, leaving me alone in a land that had matured without me. In other words, it felt like the world would no longer extort anything from me – such a sublime feeling! – and love rose up in me that I normally reserve for mewing kittens and crying babies. I raised my arms above my head, reaching for the last rays of sunlight, and I knew my hands were mine.

            It means that these days, I am at peace with the nightmares that still occasionally visit me, thrusting me upright in the middle of the night, searching in the dark for someone to escape or someone to protect, or even someone who needs both escaping and protecting. When the nightmares come, they remind me that I can be moved, that my core self is a deep well of passionate action, wounded or not, and that my fear has always come from love I don’t know how to reconcile. They remind me that waking up, at least for me, is restoration of love balanced between myself and others.

            I'm still learning to stay awake. Recently, years since we had last seen each other, my friend-turned-dangerous reached out to me through his new wife, which makes sense, because I had blocked his communication in every way I knew before he had her as an avenue. He wants to talk. Would you be open to that? She messaged. As I read her words, my hands went weak, my face pale, my breath trapped, my thoughts frozen, then racing, then contagious as my heart panic-fluttered liked bound wings, preparing for a fall, for my knees to give… but then I forced my fingers to tap the words, no, I don’t think so, and felt my body prepare for the manipulation, the anger, the consequences it still expects even years later. He WILL respect that, she messaged back, and experience told me that I shouldn’t believe her, but maybe he’s actually different than he was before; I’m still waiting for him to break my boundary once again. (Wake up! Wake up!)

            I hope he's different. I really do. But perhaps almost healed is the best I’ll get. Perhaps it’s the best my friend-turned-dangerous will get too. In any case, the healing will not come from a final conversation. I’m unwilling to speak with him for fear I will find myself in another nightmare. For fear that he isn’t seeking healing or redemption, but retribution, or that if he is seeking respectful resolution, his (hopefully, miraculously) purified desires will still rob me of the progress I have made.

            In some ways, I’m unwilling to even think about him very often or for very long, at least not directly, because it feels like giving him more of my life that he already took.

            I've also decided my refusal for contact with him is perfectly alright:

            Some nightmares don’t need resolution, only vanquishing, and some hopes don’t need verification, just rumination, even if it is vicariously placed and inspired. If I see my living nightmare differently, it’s because of people like Benjamin Partridge, which is why I have laid his story next to mine like a body with its shadow. My living nightmare is given novel form by another’s silhouette.

            So I wonder about the boy who attacked Benjamin Partridge. I wonder if anything felt real to him while he was swinging the sledgehammer, hopping the fence, or saying wake up over and over again. Maybe his actions were a dark fantasy hidden from even himself, and he was swept away in it like the passenger of a dream. Maybe he kept swinging his fists because the sledgehammer was never about the people he attacked; it was about seeking an effect inside himself, some sign that his world had meaning. Maybe the people he hurt didn’t feel real to him.

            Do they now? Does he feel regret? Does he feel love, if only in its blossoming?

            Because he was a minor, his identity is protected. I occasionally surf the internet, looking for signs of what has happened to him. I read the updates about Ben and Troy, donating trivial money when I can afford it, grateful for their love that has persevered. At the beginning of Ben’s hospitalization, I messaged him through his fundraiser: even strangers like me are rooting for you. The same day that Ben was allowed to go home a year and a half later, I received a message back: thank you.

            Ben has finally woken for good, and his future is looking bright. And, I think,  so is mine.

About the Author

Rachelle Larsen is currently an MFA student at Brigham Young University specializing in Creative Nonfiction, and teaches high school physics. She is interested in how all aspects of existence fold together. She is the winner of The Midnight Oil Annual Poetry Competition and the annual David O. McKay Essay Competition.

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