Cult Mom Gets Out of Prison

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[*Please do not post threats against Deborah Leonard. I’ve seen scary stuff posted online in regard to her release. I understand expressing anger, but threats to her safety are not only disturbing and wrong, they’re illegal.]

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

[UPDATE: Thursday, January 16, 2020, Deborah Leonard is officially released]

Deborah Leonard has been in la-la land, likening prison to living in a college dorm, according to credible sources. Debi reportedly spent her time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on the prison dance team, exercising, and working in the graphics shop and law library. Last I knew, she was in denial of the facts surrounding the death of her son Lucas Leonard, a death in which she participated. I’ve been told she believes the reason Luke died from the beating while Christopher survived, is because of a misguided notion that Luke was a drug addict. Luke had been on pain medication for knee surgery. There is no evidence—or even reasonable speculation—he was a drug addict. But it is proven that Luke died from a prolonged, severe beating, coupled with the fact that no one provided him even basic medical care.

Debi was sentenced to five years in prison for her role in the death of Luke, 19, inside the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC), a cult outside of Utica. In 2015, a gang of angry worshippers had brutally beaten Luke and his brother Chris, then 17, after hearing allegations they’d been molesting children. Nine members of the cult were convicted, including Luke’s mother, father, and sister Sarah Ferguson (who received 25 years for a manslaughter conviction after trial). Deborah is expected to be released from prison on January 16, 2020.

FAQ


What are my thoughts on Debi?

In the end, Debi could not shake the cult mentality. That might have to do with the unfortunate circumstance of her being imprisoned with her daughter Sarah, and with Tiffanie Irwin, leader of the cult. All three of them got to sit around reaffirming each other’s claims they did nothing wrong. Debi has refused to acknowledge her role, accepts no responsibility, and has gone so far as to blame Luke for his own death. She had told investigators she believed Luke provoked the beating because he wanted them to kill him, likening it to “suicide by cop.”

While in county jail, Debi made statements to visitors that it was good Luke died when he did, because it gave him the chance to repent after being on a path to hell. Otherwise, she was cheerful, never mentioning Luke on the phone (for at least as long as the prosecution team monitored her calls). At sentencing, Debi apologized to her “church family”—the Irwins—for dragging them through the courts, and asked their forgiveness. But, in fact, the district attorney went forward with prosecuting the Irwins based on the presumption the Leonards would not have killed their son if the Irwins hadn’t abused, manipulated and controlled them for decades.

Debi also made this bizarre statement at her sentencing: “And to Chris and Luke, I have not hurt you physically, but I said some pretty horrible things to you both that I know hurt your hearts.” She conveniently ignored the part about how she participated in hitting and whipping her boys, and fell asleep to the sound of Luke crying as he lay dying.

While in prison, Debi concocted a story to a visitor that New York state officials forced a cremation of Luke’s body in order to destroy evidence of his supposed drug addiction. The truth is that Kristel Leonard, who is Debi’s step-daughter, led a meeting involving both sides of the family—several witnesses present—in which cremation was discussed and agreed upon. One of Debi’s blood relatives was assigned to be the liaison to Debi to share what they’d discussed. That person reported back that Debi was on board with cremation.

I respect—and forgive—people who admit to wrongdoing. I will cheer for their reformation. However, I’m not convinced Debi has had a moment where she has asked Luke to forgive her. I don’t think she’s grieved his death. Because last I knew, she had deceived herself into believing they all did the right thing that night, and that Luke got what he deserved.

Why did Debi get five years?

This wasn’t a cut and dried murder case. Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara would have to convince a grand jury that WLCC was a cult, in order to secure murder indictments against members of the Irwin family who ran it, despite that some of them never laid a hand on Luke that fateful night. This was no easy task. Early on, McNamara identified that Debi had been especially targeted by the Irwins for abuse. He also believed her to be one of the least culpable in Luke’s death, because Chris had told authorities her blows did not hurt. She’d been weakened by a series of heart attacks.

Debi’s cooperation with the prosecution was critical. McNamara made her an offer: plead guilty to assault charges (reduced from manslaughter) and be sentenced to five years in prison, plus five years parole, in exchange for testifying against her co-defendants. Though Debi did testify at grand jury, she refused to hold up her part of the bargain during Sarah’s trial.

In total, Debi served four years, three months behind bars (less than three years of it was in prison). She received credit for the time she was jailed while awaiting disposition of her case. Additionally, inmates given a sentence with a hard end date (in this case, five years) go into prison with “good time.” That means they automatically get a pre-determined amount of time shaved off each year of their sentence. It is very difficult to lose good time.

Where will Debi live upon release?

Debi and her husband Bruce still own the house in Clayville. Debi’s oldest son Jayden* has power of attorney over Debi and Bruce. Jayden has not had the house cleaned. It remains in the same squalid condition as when the Leonards were arrested a little more than four years ago. I would think it uninhabitable. New parolees are usually required to move in with someone, in a living situation approved by the parole officer. Additionally, the officer may bar Debi from driving. Unless she is excused from working because of poor health, the officer will require her to find employment. Debi would need to find a job within walking distance, or rely on someone to drive her. Because of that, she may end up living with Jayden. But Jayden was given custody of Debi’s two children, Grace and Ezekiel*, and one of Sarah’s children. I don’t know if there are protective orders that bar Debi from contact with her surviving children. Another possibility is that a sibling of Debi’s could take her in.

What will Debi’s life be like upon release?

Debi’s parole officer will not allow her to socialize with anyone with a criminal history. That means she will not be able to reconnect with Traci or Daniel Irwin, two of her co-defendants (they each served one year, five months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of first degree unlawful imprisonment). The parole department will impose standard release conditions upon Debi, and her field officer can impose special conditions. She will probably be required to find employment. She will likely have a curfew, requiring her to remain in her approved residence during specific hours, subject to random checks by her parole officer. She likely won’t be allowed to drink, or allowed in establishments that serve alcohol (unless approved by her parole officer for situations such as work). She will not be able to leave her county of residence, without written permission of her parole officer.

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My Visit with Bruce Leonard

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*SPOILERS*

This could be a three-word blog: I like Bruce.

I visited Bruce Leonard at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in June of 2019. He seemed no different than any other person you’d meet (except that his broken eyeglasses were cobbled together with a twisted bread tie). He laughed. He cried. I’m not being cliché. He was funny, serious, smart, and engaging. And why would Bruce’s normalcy be notable? Because if you read my book, Without a Prayer, he clearly hadn’t been. He’d been under the control of Irwin family members, heads of the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC).

By the time I’d received my first letter from Bruce (parts are included in the book), it was clear WLCC had lost most of its grip. Bruce had written me in coherent, complete sentences, as opposed to the curbed communication I’d witnessed (through texts, audio, and emails contained in the police files) while he’d been under the spell of the Word of Life cult.

When Bruce had first landed in jail, charged with murdering his teenage son Lucas Leonard, an Anglican priest had begun visiting him and offering emotional support. Slowly, and cautiously, Rich Dibble was able to deprogram Bruce, and bring him to see that he’d been a victim to a degree. I say “to a degree” because Bruce will tell you, without qualifiers, that he is responsible for his own actions. And that’s more than any of the other eight defendants in this case. Bruce is the only one who owned up to his role, and expressed deep sorrow and regret. When he’d first written me, he would not use the “c” word: cult. He would only go so far as to say he’d come to believe the Irwins exerted “undue influence” over the group.

Author Susan Ashline outside of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. June 2019.

Bruce’s daughter Kristel decided to go with me to the prison, as did Rich Dibble. Visits last six hours, but the lazy guards made us wait so long to be processed (and then tried to bar me because of my shoes, until I told them to point out in the handbook a policy that didn’t exist), that by the time we got to see Bruce, we had only two hours with him.

After that unnecessary wait, I was starving and went to get some crappy food out of the prison vending machine. When I returned to our table, Bruce was seated and looking serious with arms on the table, clasped hands, and his broken, bread-tie glasses. “I’ve got questions.” He narrowed his eyes at me.

I had this stupid grin that I sometimes wear at inappropriate times, and it was on my face as I sat opposite him. “Bruce,” I said, still dumb-grinning. “You’re so  . . . business-like. So serious.”

“Well,” he said, a little looser, but readjusted his interlocking fingers, “it is business. I see it more as a summit. That’s what this is.”

From that, as I unwrapped my steaming microwaved sandwich designed to not get stale for 16 years, I asked “How was your day, Bruce?”

It was awful, he said. He hadn’t slept the night before, because he was nervous about our . . . summit. And then he broke into casual talk and never pulled from the list of questions he’d spent all night ruminating over. But he did inform me that he would be making a decision as to whether I was friend or foe.

I wanted to make sure his questions got answered. In one of his letters to me, it was clear he needed another side presented to him. The book had not yet been released, so he hadn’t read it. But Kristel had read the advanced copy. She’d also seen evidence from the investigation files. I was glad she and Rich accompanied me, because it helped Bruce accept the things I told him. [Bruce gave me permission to share our conversation.]

I revealed information about the Irwins and WLCC; for example, that the Irwin boys had an arsenal and had built an underground firing range. Bruce listened intently. He did not get defensive. He accepted it as true, but couldn’t understand how he missed a shooting range under the building. Kristel explained to him the exact location.

I hesitatingly told him that while he believed the Irwins loved his family, by their actions, the Irwins hated the Leonards. I told him what the Irwins had been saying about the Leonards behind their backs. I revealed other key points in the book, and he was surprised, to say the least.

Bruce had written me complaining about the investigation. For instance, he said much was made of the bullet casing that police pulled from his pocket. Bruce told me he’d found it, thought it was cool, and put it in his pocket. He was known for the interesting finds he kept in his pockets. But I told him police thought his son may’ve been shot, and because Bruce was uncooperative, it raised their suspicions. I told him police had no idea what had occurred and were doing their jobs trying to find a boy’s killer. Of course he would be a suspect. The bullet could be evidence. He understood.

During our visit, there were several minutes absent talking, just crying. Bruce broke down at the first mention of Luke’s name.

He talked about his wife and his wishes for her to remain in his life and marriage. He also hopes she’s reached an understanding of the control WLCC had over their lives. He said he was going to write her, and try to open the door to communication about that, and see how far she’s come.

Sadly, Rich, Kristel and I knew that Debi Leonard had not evolved away from the cult at all. But none of us told Bruce. I hoped his communication with her would open her eyes to what had been going on in that hellish place. But the odds are against it, because Debi is doing time in the same prison as her daughter Sarah Ferguson and Pastor Tiffanie Irwin.

When the visit was over, and we all stood to say good-bye, Bruce smiled and said to me, “I’m going to say . . . friend.”

UPDATE:

Right after the visit, after he’d had a chance to process the wealth of shocking information dumped on him, Bruce expressed anger that he’d been deceived all these years. He felt that made Luke’s death all the more egregious. In the summer of 2019, Bruce read Without a Prayer.  Rich had mailed it to him. It took Bruce many months to send me his thoughts in writing. He said he felt the book was mostly accurate as far as the details that involved him. But as far as the beating scene—the one scene that needed to be pieced together based on numerous accounts—he felt I attributed to him a more violent role than what reflected his actual participation. That really bothered him. He said he felt I did a good job with the book overall, and wished me success. He thanked me for the kind words about his children.

And he said the “c” word fit.

 

[NOTE: Each of the nine defendants were given the opportunity to contribute their thoughts to the book. All but Bruce declined to respond.]

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Was there a Peephole?

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[CLICK HERE to buy Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult]

Was there a “peephole” in the Leonard bathroom? And did brothers Lucas, 19, and Christopher, 17, use it to watch family members take showers?

As the boys were being beaten by a gang of angry Word of Life Christian Church members on October 11 and 12, 2015, their sister Sarah Ferguson raised the question: “Do you know anything about a peephole in the bathroom?”

Chris said he did.

Sarah grilled him as to whether he’d used it to watch her children take baths. And that’s when the beating turned into an epic flogging, resulting in Luke’s death, and life-threatening injuries for Chris.

First off, there is no direct evidence that victim Luke Leonard ever peeked through a hole into his family bathroom. Information supports that on the night of the fatal beating, Luke did not make any statements regarding a peephole. During Sarah Ferguson’s trial for Luke’s murder, her youngest sister Grace testified that Luke had told her he’d watched Grace take a shower, but that she’d never caught him doing it. Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t get a voice.

Chris, who testified that he and Luke were “best friends,” also testified that he didn’t know whether Luke had ever looked through a bathroom peephole.

Additionally, though news reports state Chris admitted to using the peephole, he was never actually asked the question. This is the question that Sarah’s defense attorney, Rebecca Wittman, asked relative to the peephole: “Do you know whether you had used that?” Why is the phrasing of the question important? Because the Leonards are direct communicators. Certainly, Chris would know whether he’d used a peephole, and he answered affirmatively.

When asked who “made” the peephole, Chris said he didn’t know.

The word “peephole” implies a hole created for the purpose of peeking at something on the other side. There may have been a hole, but was it intentionally made?

The Leonard home was built in the early 1900s and had a lot of holes. As of today, there are no visible holes in the bathroom wall. However, on the wall between the bathroom and adjoining bedroom, there are two areas that have been patched.

Below is a picture of a hallway in the Leonard home. At the end (center, right), you’ll see two specks of light – circles. Peepholes? Nah. They’re holes in the wall that formed naturally. And they look directly into the walk-in closet that Luke claimed as his room. Did someone create the holes to watch Luke change his clothes? Doubtful. Could the bathroom wall have similarly eroded over time, causing holes? Likely.

And what does “using” a peephole mean to Chris? Read the book and you’ll learn how the Irwins massaged their followers’ minds into believing it was sin to accidentally catch a glimpse of an undressed individual. Having a dream that involved sexual contact meant being guilty of it. Allowing a child to sit on one’s lap made one a perpetrator of molestation. Little children were not allowed to so much as hold hands with their brother or sister.

So was there a natural defect in the old Leonard home that appeared as a circle, and Chris and Luke caught glimpses of someone on the other side, which was inevitable? Or, did Chris and Luke drill a hole in the wall so they could gawk at their parents and siblings in the shower?

I omitted from the book that Traci Irwin–who regularly accused men of lusting after her–had complained to someone that an adult male church member had created a peephole to peer at her while she took showers. (Sound familiar?) She’d stayed at that family’s home briefly. It was not the Leonard home. Traci was said to have confronted the woman of the house with the allegations against her husband, causing a big rift in their marital relationship.

There were just a handful of families in the church at this time. Within this very small congregation, there is an epidemic of people drilling peepholes into their bathrooms in order to watch family members take showers? I’m willing to hear arguments, but you’d have a lot of convincing to do.

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Hear Actual Sound of Leaders of Deadly Cult

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Pastor Tiffanie Irwin is serving 12 years in prison for her role in initiating and supervising a “counseling session” that turned deadly for Lucas Leonard, 19, inside the Word of Life Christian Church, a cult outside of Utica, NY. Author Susan Ashline tells the story in her nationally acclaimed book, Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult.

This sound clip is of Pastor Tiffanie “counseling” a different member of the church/cult.

 

In this audio clip, Word of Life cult loyalist Linda Morey is participating in a “counseling session” of a member of the church/cult. She was sentenced to five years in prison for her role in the beating death of Lucas Leonard. This clip includes two soundbites from the same counseling session, edited back-to-back.

 

Jerry Irwin founded of Word of Life cult in mid-1980. He died before his daughter led a counseling session that ended teenager Lucas Leonard’s life in 2015. Jerry repeatedly reinforced to followers that God showed him what they were thinking and doing behind his back, as you’ll hear in this audio clip from one of his “sermons” from 1996.

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School Board Ignores Mom of Suicide Victim, 11

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If a mother cries for the loss of her 11-year-old son, but there’s no one around to hear, does she make a sound?

The bigoted words of a Wayne Central School Board leader stung Fran Burns, a mom who lost her 11-year-old son, Luke, to suicide last fall. She mustered the courage to speak about it publicly, confronting Vice President Philip McTigue at a school board meeting on May 25.

She ended with, “I was glad to hear from kids in Luke’s class that Hearts for Heroes came and spoke to the kids about bullying and suicide; that the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ is incorrect, and it should say, ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can kill me.’ Mr. McTigue . . .your actions and words you displayed on social media have a lasting impression on our community as a whole; most significantly, our children. How can we lead by example when the vice president of the school board cannot do this?”

McTigue had come under fire for a Facebook post in which he verbally slays overweight women.

[McTigue was traveling in Nashville when he posted this.]

It led to a huge outcry in the community and calls for McTigue to step down. There was even a petition circulating to remove him. But the next board meeting was unusually quiet. There was no packed room, no uproar, no petition.

Just one woman spoke: Fran Burns.

And her words chill you, her grief disables you.

But no one – not one board member responded to Fran’s cries, except with silence. And then, several members went on to provide a laundry list of school-related events, as though to wipe Fran’s message right out of the room.

Nothing happened to McTigue. He’d opened the board meeting with an apology statement emphasizing his Facebook post was a joke.

After board meetings, he’ll go home, be with his family, continue on the school board and at least learn a lesson to keep abhorrent opinions to himself.

Fran will go to a house that is no longer a home, painfully absent her 6th grader, or maybe to the cemetery to talk to Luke’s tombstone, which would give the same reply as the board members.

And life goes on, and people will or won’t learn Fran’s lessons; and I don’t mean anti-bullying –  I mean empathy, compassion and respect.

It is not against the rules for a board member to acknowledge someone has spoken.

Fran, you deserve a response. I heard your message. I feel your pain. I want everyone else to hear and feel, too – and to learn.

Love, compassion and courage.

 

 

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Theft and a Confession

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Margo Georgiadis, CEO                                                                                                                               Mattel, Inc.                                                                                                                                                 333 Continental Boulevard
El Segundo, CA 90245-5012

Re: My Guilty Conscience

Ms. Georgiadis,

I stole this Mattel doll 40+ years ago from King’s department store in Plattsburgh, New York.

The store went out of business three decades ago, so I can’t return it there. I don’t want to return it at all, but my sister said I have to.

I swiped it from a package with a mom and dad doll with van and accessories. I just wanted the baby, because I was obsessed with tiny things. But after getting back to my grandma’s apartment, I got a harsh introduction to my guilty conscience and buried the doll in a box in my closet.

I was never able to look at it, let alone touch it. Oh, I thought of it often, but every time I thought about taking it out to play with it, I’d get within a foot of its cardboard grave before feeling dirty and evil and sick.

Then, last week, I was looking for something in my basement and came across the doll, face-down in a corner of a box, reflecting my shame.

I don’t want to give it back. I mean, I stole it because I wanted it. Right? It’s become part of my life. This tug-of-war has gone on in my head since 1973. I want the doll, yet I want it away from me.

Just one day after uncovering the pilfered doll in my basement, I scored a large baby doll at auction to resell and, to identify it, typed in the search terms “porcelain head baby doll bonnet yellow blue felt.” Up came a picture of the thumb-size Sunshine Family Mattel doll I’d stolen when I was barely out of triangle pants.

It was more than coincidence.

So here is the doll. If it means anything – I’m really sorry.

Wait.

I just got a text from my sister. She said it’s more a civil matter now, and that I don’t have to return the doll, just the 50-cents it was worth back then. [She feels complicit in the theft since she’s the one who walked me to the store that day.]

Please accept these two quarters (enclosed). That should cover settling the debt as well as my conscience.

Sincerely,

Susan Ashline

 

UPDATE:

March 29, 2017

Uh oh. I got a letter from Mattel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They gave me my quarters….

 

 

 

 

 

… and a talking-to.

 

 

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Forgive Me, Mother Nature

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[My sister told me about creepypasta, and I wanted to try my hand at one. It’s a very short work of paranormal or horror fiction. The concept came from my son; the writing from me. Disclaimer: This may suck.]

creepy-pasta

[by Susan Ashline]

As told by my 12-year-old son:

Last spring, we found a baby deer with spots in our yard. They told us the mother would come get her at night after looking for food all day. So we watched over her to make sure she was safe.

My mom has a picture of a whole crap ton of deer standing like mannequins on our property, staring at her, and their eyes are totally glowing. I love the red fox that run through our back yard, and the wild turkeys look funny when they cross the street like soldiers in formation. I’m even cool with the coyotes as long as they stay away from our rabbits.

We get snakes, too. There’s a mom snake that lives in our garden, and we always see a mass of baby snakes that look like a bowl of spaghetti every year around the time the birds come back.

The birds – the turkey hawks are the only ones I don’t like. They hover around our rabbits, plotting and waiting for an opportunity.

Across the street, they put up “for sale” signs by a company that builds houses. They build whole neighborhoods. And they were building one right across the street. But it wasn’t their place to build. It made me angry.

I couldn’t stand to hear the machines. They sounded like big machines, loud. Every time I heard them, I wished horrible things; things I wouldn’t tell anyone. I just wanted them to go away. I wanted them to stop. Every time I heard them, it meant more trees were coming down; fewer places deer could hide and find food.

It used to be all woods. It belonged to nature.

I would sneak onto the property and hide in the bushes and watch the dozers and bucket trucks and trucks I couldn’t name. One was taking down trees; another was chewing them up and spitting them out. Every sound meant one more tree was gone.

It pissed me off. But really, it made me sad.

My mom made me a Halloween costume. I wanted a ghillie suit, so she got some burlap and plastic leaves, and then sewed on the leaves, and we tied the ends. It fit kind of like a sack.

I kept it so I could sneak across the street and spy on the workers. I’d just sit and make like a bush.

I learned the names of the men working over there. I’d hear them call to each other, joking, like they didn’t care that they were destroying nature. Like it was theirs to take.

Vance was a big guy, but he wasn’t very old. He had red hair and a red beard, and his laugh was as big as he was; kind of like Santa Clause, but without the white hair, lot less chubby and a hundred years younger. I think he was in college. He kept talking about this girl he liked, named Phoebe, I think. It was hard to hear over the machines.

There were three guys: Vance, Seth and Campbell.

But, so, one day, I heard this guy, Seth, telling Vance that he would score big with Phoebe if he killed this buck and paid to have it mounted to give to her. He was acting like he’d be some big champion.

And then, I couldn’t believe my eyes when Seth pointed to a huge deer with these gigantic antlers. It was standing, watching them, and its eyes were glowing.

It wasn’t funny. I couldn’t believe they were even joking about killing it. I was so upset, I left.

I told my mom, and she told me to stop going over there. She didn’t want me to get in trouble for going on someone else’s property. She didn’t like what they were doing. She hated it as much as I did. But she didn’t want me to go any more.

I couldn’t stop myself.

I went over again. This time, Seth was shooting off his mouth about what a skilled hunter he is, supposedly. He was young, too, but I’m sure he wasn’t in college. He looked like a redneck. Hair went all around his face, but not like a normal beard. And his hair was cut really bad, like someone put a bowl on his head and cut around it; like it was his girlfriend’s first time with the scissors. But I don’t even think he would have a girlfriend, because he was ugly. And his teeth were brown and all messed up. And he always wore a baseball hat with camouflage on it, and shirts with patches.

Campbell was quiet. I think he was in charge. He was old. He probably had a whole family. He wore a hat, too, but underneath it, his hair stuck out, a lot of gray mixed in with a little black.

So, anyway, I was sitting on the ground in the ghillie suit, watching Seth and Vance eating lunch. Campbell was off somewhere. His truck was gone. That big buck came out of nowhere. I just saw it standing in front of them, like, half-way from me to them, maybe only as far away as our driveway is long. And they froze a minute and looked like they weren’t sure what to do. Then, all of sudden, Seth whispered something to Vance, both of them burst out laughing, and – Vance charged the deer!

I was really horrified. I wanted to run. I was afraid the deer would come my way and trample me, because no one could tell I wasn’t ground cover. I couldn’t catch my breath, I was so scared.

But the deer ran off just to the left of me, and Vance went after it.

He stopped; looked around. He stood there. The deer was gone. And Vance looked like he didn’t know which direction to go, so he kind of stumbled back into a tree and then rested against it.

I don’t know if I can tell this part. I want to cry. I should’ve listened to my mom. I shouldn’t have gone back there.

The tree – it… it came alive. I swear. The branches had no leaves, and like arms, I swear they wrapped around Vance – his whole body. It looked like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of him. He face started to match the color of his hair.

I did feel bad for him, and scared. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like he deserved it. I kind of wanted it to happen. And I’ll always feel bad for that, like somehow I made it happen in real life.

I was afraid to move, because I didn’t know if nature would attack me, too. So I sat. And I watched. And they didn’t make any noise – they never do – but I somehow just knew they were there, plotting and waiting for an opportunity. I looked up at the sky.

Vance couldn’t scream. He was being choked by the tree. I watched him prying at the branches with his big, strong arms, and then suddenly – he saw them, too. His eyes got huge. I could almost see blood in them. He stopped moving.

Just his eyes – that’s what I remember most. And then the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen: The turkey hawks came, one after another, flying into his face. They came back again and again, pecking him all over his body. There must’ve been 20 of them.

I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t breathe.

A brigade of red fox appeared and stood like an audience, doing nothing but watch the droppings of fresh pieces of flesh on the ground.

Seth showed up in the far corner of the lot, just walking casually. He had no idea what was going on. I wanted to holler to him to run away, but was too scared.

I heard a rustle – a loud one. And I saw Seth turn around. And then, I saw him running, with his head still turned backward.

A stampede of deer followed, their eyes glowing. The wind got so fierce I had to grab onto my costume at the sides and had all I could do to keep it over me. Piles of leaves whipped up, and they – they formed, like, baseballs, and the baseballs of leaves hit one after the other, pounding Seth in the head.

He fell to the ground. I saw him lie there on his stomach and, for a minute, the baseball leaves stopped. And the herd stopped behind him. He managed to wrench himself up on his elbows, and he looked like some dude who did too many push-ups in boot camp. But when he lifted his head, I saw that terror again – in the eyes. And then I looked where he was looking, and I saw them. The wild turkeys were lined up like an executioner squad.

I swear it’s true. And I wish I could get rid of that in my mind. I don’t want to say what came next.

No, they didn’t peck him like I thought they would. They walked to him, like, hopped, but very quickly, and they used their beaks to grab onto his shirt with patches. They dragged him. It was fast. They pulled him about . . . maybe the length of my neighbor’s ranch house into the swamp. But they didn’t just let him sink. Turtles crawled on top of him, and they pushed him down under the water. He fought it. I saw it. But there were a handful of turtles, then as many as a batch of cookies, and then I swear there were hundreds of turtles, like bees swarming a hive.

Campbell’s truck pulled in. He had a girl with him. She was about my age. His daughter, I guess. She was a little taller than me and had long, brown hair. I’d seen her around school, but didn’t really know her. I never talked to her. She was new.

I was so worried.

They started walking. I heard her telling her dad she needed to get some fall leaves for a project we’re doing at school. She took off from her dad and started coming my way. I had to do something.

“Hey!” I called, but didn’t yell. It was more like a loud whisper.

She didn’t hear me.

The coyotes never come out during daytime. But there they were, hiding in the trees right in front of her dad, who was pretty far away from us by now.

But she was right next to me.

I stood up, and she jumped back. I broke cover to show her my face, and then before she could say anything, I draped the costume over her head and crouched back down, pulling her with me.

Now, we were both under it. I knew she was about to scream, so I put both my hands over her mouth. It was the third look of wild eyes I’d see. But as she turned to look at me, us squatting on the ground under cover of homemade Halloween costume, she saw Vance. And she was quiet, but tears fell onto my hands. I released them.

Her head slumped down as if she felt helpless. It was because we saw her dad that moment. The coyotes – they – well, I don’t want to say what they did. But it was fast. It was fast, because as they gorged on him, tree branches shot down like lightning bolts, pinning each of his arms and legs. Snakes wrapped around his hands and feet, binding him to the ground. There were screams, but they lasted a lot shorter in real life than they do in my head.

The girl was not crying loudly, but whimpering. I was too shocked to make a sound.

And then, as we sat, whimpering and silent, shaking in fear, we heard a moan coming from Vance.

“What is he saying?” I whispered, but not to her. “What is he saying?” I repeated. I turned to her, and she was listening, too.

I heard it. It was clear this time.

“Forgive me, Mother Nature.”

The limbs released Vance. He slumped to the ground, but still alive.

The wind stopped. Something pulled at our cover. We were terrified. It pulled so fiercely, we tried to hang on, but couldn’t. The ghillie suit was dragged right off us. And there was the fourth pair of wide eyes I’d see that day. But they didn’t show fear. I knew those eyes. I knew that deer, but she was bigger. It was the fawn I’d protected in my yard so her mother could go find food.

Her mouth flicked down quickly at me, but I wasn’t afraid. She licked my arm.

 

 

 

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The Meaning Behind the “Missed Call”

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[by Susan Ashline]

See a “missed call” on your cell phone? It’s an unspoken message to call the person back.

It’s taken years to bring all of society on board, but I think we’re finally there. I might’ve been one of the last holdouts. It took me a while to fall in line, but now if I see a “missed call” notification, I know it’s my cue to return the call.

Let’s look at the evolution of this. Years ago, a friend (we’ll call her Jackie) would get agitated every time someone left a voice message. She’d complain about having to go into her voice mail to listen to a message telling her to call the person back, and then have to delete the message. That’s a lot of work, apparently.

My take was: If someone wanted me to call them back, they’d leave a message. If they didn’t leave a message, it meant they didn’t want me to call them back. I would call Jackie and leave a message, but then she’d give me a tongue lashing for leaving a message. Conversely, if I didn’t leave Jackie a message and she called me back, I would get irritated, because there was a reason I didn’t want her to return the call – I no longer needed to speak to her, or wouldn’t be available to take a call later.

Make sense? It did to me. But I think I was in the minority.

Time went on, and I, too, became frustrated at having to go in and delete voice mails telling me to call back. So now, if the person I call doesn’t answer the phone, I do nothing. It’s easier for me; easier for them. I know if they see the missed call, they’ll call back.

Do you leave voice messages? And which do you do when get a missed call: call back, or do nothing?

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Giving Breast Cancer Pink the Middle Finger

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Susan Rahn Stickit2Stage4 breast cancer

[by Susan Ashline]

In the thick of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, one woman living with the disease is engaged in hand-to-keyboard combat against the color pink.

I remember when Susan Rahn followed me on Twitter. As with all my new Twitter follows, I checked to make sure her account wasn’t spam, my only barrier to following back. It wasn’t.

But I didn’t want to follow her back.

Her cover photo was skeleton hands with the middle fingers sticking up, pink ribbons wrapped around the bones. Her Twitter handle: @Stickit2Stage4. Susan had metastatic breast cancer, which is cancer that has spread to other organs. And I saw death. My instinct was to distance myself. I wondered, briefly, how I would feel if I’d gotten to know her and she died. I didn’t want to risk feeling hurt. Twitter suggests followers based on who you follow, and I anticipated an onslaught of follows from women who were waging a futile fight for their lives. I foresaw my breath squeezed out by a digital feed full of doom. And most of Susan’s tweets were about metastatic breast cancer. I thought – I have nothing to offer her.

Eventually – hesitatingly – I did follow her back.

Still, I ignored her.

In August, I found myself at the New York State Fair facing a wall of women captured in photo frames with pink matte board, smiling and lively. But most were no longer alive – they were dead. It was a breast cancer victim/survivor display that I stared at unflinchingly, reading the women’s profiles and silently wishing each back to life.

A week later, I saw Susan’s tweet: “Wearing a color does nothing. Try REAL actions. Make a meal, clean – that is support.”Susan Rahn Twiitter breast cancer awareness tweet

That made sense. I could do that. I knew how to clean.

I messaged Susan through Twitter, offering to clean. She replied – swiftly – with a rant against what she called “the pinkification” of breast cancer. “Who does that help?” she wrote. “So I tweet and call out the BS for what it is, in the hopes that I can maybe change the landscape of the public’s perception of breast cancer.” She ended with, “I deeply appreciate your offer. I promise to let you know if I do need help. I’m sure my time is coming.”

The corners of my mouth instantly mirrored the frown-face emoji that punctuated her last sentence.

I had been under the impression a portion of proceeds from sales of pink items went to breast cancer research, and I told her so.

She said that was a myth, “And if money does happen to go to research, less than 2% goes to fund research for metastatic breast cancer; the cancer that kills.” She wrote that 113 women die every day from breast cancer; a projected 40,450 men and women in the U.S. this year. “Those are the same numbers as the height of the AIDS epidemic, but no one puts any urgency on breast cancer research because they focus on awareness.”

I offered to write about Susan’s war on the pinkification of breast cancer. I could do that. I knew how to write.

No sooner did she accept my offer, that I got a message from Jeff Rahn, another of my Twitter followers: “As you probably picked up on, Susan is very passionate about the various ‘pink scams’ out there and is trying so hard to get actual research instead of awareness campaigns. We are all aware.”

She was his wife, he said, and a great mom and step-mom. And he thanked me for reaching out to her. “Just acknowledging a terminally ill person means more than you can imagine. So often they are forgotten.”

When I called Susan for the interview, I confessed my reluctance to follow her on Twitter. I wondered aloud whether my reaction to shut her out was not uncommon, and perhaps the reason her message, of the need for more emphasis on research, wasn’t reaching the general population.

“Which is why I’m so loud and obnoxious,” said Susan, acknowledging my reaction wasn’t a surprise.  Social media users labeled her angry and bitter, she said. “They think I’m angry and bitter because of my diagnosis. But ya know what? Anger and bitterness gets sh*t done.”

Susan said she feels awareness campaigns are partly to blame for the instinct to block out those who are terminal. “The message has been that breast cancer is a treatable and curable disease. If you catch it early, like if you catch a cold, you deal with the symptoms, treat it and go on with your life. But that’s not the case, because 6-10% of women – like me – get diagnosed with stage four from day one. And you don’t necessarily have to have any prior family history.”

Maybe I’d shut the door on Susan’s Twitter page because she represented what I feared – that she could be me.

Lingering rib pain led to Susan’s diagnosis of stage four breast cancer just months after getting a clean read from a routine mammogram. She was a newlywed, not quite a year into her second marriage. She had one son, her only biological child. Genetic testing turned up no markers for breast cancer. She was 43 years old.

She was told she had months to live. It was August 2013.

Susan continues to fight for her life – and the lives of others – by advocating for metastatic breast cancer research. She is the editor of a newly-formed digital magazine, The Underbelly: Illuminating Breast Cancer’s Darker Side (TheUnderbelly.org), which launched an October Twitter campaign (#WhyIsThisPink) to make the consumer aware that many merchants collecting money from selling pink items are simply lining their own pockets.

“It’s okay if something’s pink, as long as the money is going to the right place,” said Susan, who hopes The Underbelly will draw an audience well beyond Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “We want to bring the ugliness and the things that people don’t want to talk about into the light. It’s not all pink and fun, and it’s not a sorority. The narrative needs to change.”

Author’s note: I’ve since learned a lot about breast cancer pink. Susan’s opinion doesn’t stand alone – far from it. Voices can be heard all over the internet calling for an end to the “pink” campaign and a focus on dollars for research to find a cure. The pink campaign was successful in raising awareness. Now, it’s time to move it forward. #BreastCancerRealityCheck

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What Does Your Front Porch Say About You?

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[by Susan Ashline]

We walked door-to-door this week in what is known as a “bad part of town” in the city of Rochester. I’m familiar with the street name from my days as a news reporter. It was always on the scanner; shootings, stabbings, and miscellaneous crimes.

In spots, the patch of lawn separating each house could be measured in inches and not feet. We saw one garage that had a house number. We saw houses with broken steps and broken siding and peeling paint. There were broken windows, broken doors.

But there were fabulous porches; well-kept porches and elaborate porches. And there were amazing gardens in front of them that rivaled any you’d see at an admission-entry conservatory. There were porches adorned with flowering baskets more stunning than those at displayed at landscaping businesses. One garden showcased a marvelous variety of colorful flowers, weed-free rows, and an immaculate brick walk-way lined by solar lights.

And one porch had a neighbor on it asking the other neighbor if she could borrow the key to another neighbor’s house to check on it while they away, because she didn’t have the neighbor’s key with her. “It’s that kind of neighborhood,” she told me cheerfully, and smiled as she said it.

Porches had like-new bench swings and patio furniture. One had a hand-designed piece of art stuck into the ground at the base of the front steps; nothing more than twisted metal with blue glass bottles hanging from it, but it was attractive and unique. Most of the porches had new looking placards with painted flowers or sayings, or simply announcing “welcome.”

What does that say about a person?

Had I walked onto dirt-covered, unornamented porches with rotting, wooden furniture, it would’ve gone unregistered. But the porches . . . I noticed the porches.

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