His voice is granular, as though he’d scraped it on his heroic trudges through hell. Beneath his black shirt, two pectoralis muscles wrestle for space. His seventeen-inch right bicep displays a tattoo that says “NO MORE” and across the top of his bald-head lurks a seven centimeter scar where a knife once slit him open until the white bone of his skull shone forth. John Carpenter is tough in ways that make even brave men flinch, cornered-dog tough, ruthless enough to stare death in the eye and wait for it to back down, hard like stone, a fella who takes a bullet and merely sneers at the wound, the kind of tough that the world’s criminals simply don’t understand, a don’t-fuck-with-me man who looks at a severed head as a thing to be stepped over on the way to complete a mission. He is the weapon you’d want when confronting your enemy. For John Carpenter, however, heroism was never a goal, merely a consequence of life. His purpose lay on another level, deep down in his DNA, in places where rage and vengeance and limbic systems hold dominion over the emotional superficiality from which most people fashion their lives. The moment he formed his first team of mercenaries, his friends knew someone was in trouble. When John Carpenter decided something, other options need not apply.
The girls had originally been in the States, eight to twelve year-old children whose days consisted of playgrounds and classrooms, their young lives filled with ambition and joy and imagination. They’d bounce plastic dolls upon their knees and host tea parties in ways that made innocence seem secure. And then victimization brought life’s cruel reality. Over a seven-month period, they’d all been kidnapped, stolen from various cities throughout the lower forty-eight, transported beneath cobalt skies across the southern border and driven down into the jungles of South America, gone without a trace. Their families built search parties, gave press conferences, checked in hourly with the police, and suffered the guilt and pain of being unable to protect their virginal daughters. But desperation has a short wick. With each passing week, they stared at the empty seats beside the dinner table, growing more despondent and less hopeful, eventually falling into a numb acceptance that their offspring might not return into their now slumping arms. In time, even absence loses its presence. Though they never gave up, the hours dedicated to posting fliers and holding interviews gave way to days dedicated to making an income, to returning to their old lives – lives horridly unfulfilled and wracked with culpability – and a desperate desire to change the media’s interest in new news and return it to the cases of their missing girls. Hope was a river that dried out in the long arid sands of wrinkled depressions.
An eight year-old’s fear of the dark is irrepressible, the screams and terrors generally subsiding only when they are wrapped beneath the blankets, between the warm bodies of loving parents, safe from the monsters and bad things hiding in dark closets and under thinly-covered beds. Each girl suffered a similar fate, a scream-stifling weathered hand wrapped strongly across her mouth, her eyes blindfolded with thick, dark black cotton, her hands yanked harshly behind her back and lashed together with duct tape, her head pushed down and thrust into the back of a paneled van, her limp body lying crumpled upon a metal floor which bumped and caromed with every pothole. Evil owns no pillows. Until she yelled, they left her mouth unblemished, fearing a bleeding lip or a broken tooth might make her less valuable to her next owners. At times, she recoiled from the callous hands upon her shoulders. Hearing the first desperate shriek, they applied a small needle into her arm, turning her virtually catatonic for the remainder of the journey, although this drug left her with her wits and senses acutely aware of her circumstance, yet unable to make a sound. It was the kind of paralysis one feels when confronted with a lion roaring just outside one’s tent, the frozen fear of horror that knows death is imminent unless one can quell the very silence.
When the girls awoke, it was in the claws of another individual – Spanish descent – surrounded by green jungle, and chained to the wooden slats of a free standing cabin in the middle of nowhere. The constant chatter was foreign. The castellano ll’s and n’s merged with other consonants in a blend of incomprehensible slang. Square white packets lay stacked atop tables. In vats and tubes and burners, shadows were always cooking up something. The men were dark, bare-chested, often wearing rough beards, and soaked through to the bone with their own perspiration. Inside the cabin, the stench of masculine body odor was nauseating. The chains were black iron, a single cuff attached to one ankle, and unless one had the self-cannibalizing desire of a trapped coyote, virtually inescapable. Over time, the girls would rub their skin raw and begin to chafe until the ankle was a bloody mess. To the men inside the cabin, blood and screaming merely made the girls that much more attractive.
The first time was always delicate but horrible – children are not made for violation – and the young girls spent the first night in tears, physically exhausted and hurt, emotionally destroyed, and wondering how they’d gotten from the urban cities of the United States into a jungle cabin of abusive drug runners. Cruelty knows not national borders. There were no beds to run to, no parents to crawl between, and here, the monsters did not hide in closets. Repeated violations were regular, the sweaty masculine beasts shoving them roughly up against the wall, the brutal thrusting and tearing of their tiny bodies mixed with the aggressive grunting and the hot breath of unrestrained animals. At night, when the men slept, the tears rolled quietly for fear of awaking the predators, their little hands pressed up against their eyelids trying to create a place of darkness, an escape from everything horrible, if only for a few moments.
As the months wore on, the first night didn’t seem so bad. Then, what was to occur was unknown, a terror of the possible but unsure what the possible entailed. But now, they’d become objects and the men didn’t bother being delicate, a determination noted by the girls as they sat in stark terror, dreading each minute of their ruined lives, awaiting the inevitable pain and torture and desecration of their very selves, with no hope for escape and no opportunity to take their own lives. Doom is a merciless keeper. They’d pulled out their own hair and slammed their heads into the walls until the blood ran down their unconscious cheeks. They tore at their own skin to rip the flesh and expose the arteries so they could sever their own lives. They saw themselves as trapped, as though standing upon the windowsill of a ninety story burning building ledge, the street below aflame, the rescuers unable to get through the inferno, and there was no longer the possibility of salvation. Life’s un-bearability stood on the doorstep of hell and scoffed with contempt. Alas, tears don’t quash misery’s flames. In these moments, resignation comes quickly, and along with it, passivity towards life, a numbness of acceptance accompanied by a living death. With each broken toothed, steely-eyed glare, the men taunted the girls, suggesting imminent favor, and then delayed it for something so rudimentary and primal as a piss. No, the girls were not even as valuable as a good urination.
Back in America, John Carpenter had heard the stories of the Colombian drug runners and their sex-slave trade. He’d been witness to a young girl, courageously escaped from the clutches of cocaine warlords and making the decisive journey across too many borders to arrive back upon her family’s doorstep, bruised, beaten and battered, to live a post-traumatic life of guilt and remembrance and wonder at what might have been. John Carpenter had visited that girl. He listened closely to her notes and descriptions of six months of a wretched jungle life. He’d seen the unreturned look in her eyes, as though her body had made it home but her soul was still there. As if she’d left her spirit in the jungle to provide hope for the other victims, the memories and horrors lurked beneath an anesthetized voice.
Carpenter’s only other memory of crying came at age nine, when his best friend and companion through childhood’s brutal emotional landscape died. But that dog was gone, deceased and irretrievable, like Carpenter’s emotional self, shoved into this brutal diseased world to fend off men like the predators this destroyed girl was describing. He felt a welling in his eyes. For a very brief moment, he turned away. By the time he turned back, he’d made his decision. The rest of his life would be dedicated to bringing these girls home, giving them a chance to find themselves again, providing their families an opportunity to breath life into them once more, and offering hope. To this girl, he made that promise.
When John Carpenter and his team arrived in the middle of the night, camouflaged in fatigues, green face paint and boots constructed for surreptitious acts, they were carrying twelve-inch corrugated steel knives, AK-47’s and enough knowledge to kill a man seventeen different ways with their hands, unsympathetically. On the first rescue mission, Carpenter had taken six girls from their captors, leaving three men dead and one man cuffed to the same walls where the girls had been, a rag stuffed in his mouth and a flowing gas tube stuck up his ass. His last act was to light a match against his teeth and toss it into the building. Until the explosion, the journey had been deadly silent. When they reached the outer wall of the compound, one of Carpenter’s men suffered a machete wound across his cheek and down into his shoulder blade seconds before the offender was taken with an around-the-neck chokehold that stopped his final breath with a soft jerk. After quick medical attention, the men got out, returning to the States to begin the process of reuniting the girls with their families.
Repatriation took time. One does not take a wounded animal from the jungle into suburbia without incident. Psychologists worked slowly, delicately restoring trust and courage and some semblance of humanity to the children. They started with puppies and furry stuffed animals. They listened to the haunted cries echoing through the night. Doctors spent hours performing vaginal repairs, straightening broken bones, redefining lips and teeth and violated rear-ends. But some scars never heal. These girls were shattered and even loving arms cannot halt tears of contrition.
Over the next eighteen years, Carpenter would undertake seventy-four trips into the jungles with one rule “Never leave a child behind.” To date, although there had been occasions when he’d been tempted to take their successes and go, when he’d lost a man to an angry blade, when the numbers were against him in an almost unconquerable capacity, he upheld that promise to himself and his team, and most importantly, to the children. Yes, John Carpenter was a hero, silently performing duties few Americans would ever consider, taking no credit, no money, and no reward for his acts, aside from the personal satisfaction that comes from keeping a promise to a brave little girl from long ago.