Pleasant Drive, less than a mile of curb-lined asphalt cut into the residential hills just west of Douglasville, is aptly named. The tiny inlet branches west off the highway, jogging down a decline into a right-hand turn that levels off to a quiet straightaway. On the north side of the road, modest
middle-class split-levels and ranches perch atop steep hillside lawns; to the south stands a thick wall of trees. The lane is just wide enough for two-way traffic—not that traffic is an issue. Though the road has two outlets, the only reason to venture down Pleasant Drive is if you live here or know someone who does.
A small-city neighborhood on the outskirts of a major metro area sees its share of turnover—people moving in, moving out—and in the nighttime hours of February 19, 2011, one new neighbor is almost finished unloading his possessions into the hilltop brick rental at 6488. But as he pulls the twenty-six-foot U-Haul down the precipitous slope and onto Pleasant Drive for one last load, the ball hitch becomes wedged in the concrete driveway. Now the vehicle cannot move forward or back without damaging both.
While the new neighbor contemplates what to do, the U-Haul is blocking three-fourths of Pleasant Drive, including the entire westbound lane. The moving truck’s engine is running and the parking lights are on. The emergency flashers blink out their yellow warning against the black of 2 a.m.
Eric and Debbie Sauls will come to believe their daughter Cheyenne was meant to die that night. They will come to believe that Pleasant Drive was the predetermined place, 2:05 a.m. the time for the accident. Her time. Their faith will be the only way for them to remain sane in the face of the maddening number of small, everyday choices and seemingly insignificant events that will lead to the wreck.
But trusting in the reason for her death and living with the consequences are two different things. A parent’s mind is not equipped to process the death of a child. Eric and Debbie will go to extraordinary and sometimes irrational lengths to try to deal with the grief and guilt left by their loss, scouring their consciences, analyzing every tiny decision and perceived mistake made over sixteen years. In a way, this soul-searching will seem like an attempt at redemption. Other times, it will seem as though they believe they can somehow still save her.
The most momentous of the parents’ decisions is made about ten hours before the U-Haul gets stuck, thirteen miles west of Pleasant Drive at the Saulses’ house in Villa Rica. Cheyenne has been sick, having missed several days of school, and when she asks if she can go out later that night, Eric doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He has always been stern with Cheyenne, the youngest of his two children. She doesn’t keep her room neat. She leaves half-full Dr Pepper bottles all over the house. Little things. To Cheyenne, he is a nag. To Eric, he is trying to teach responsibility.
But there is more going on here than typical father/daughter bickering. Two weeks earlier, after twenty-one years of marriage, Eric and Debbie decided that he should move out—the physical split of two people who had been growing apart for years. Six days ago, Eric moved back in with hopes of working things out. Cheyenne did not welcome him. On his first night back, Cheyenne told him she hated him. They shouted at each other. Eric knew that Cheyenne was defending her mother, but he also suspected that she was afraid of his stricter rules.
Today Cheyenne, not getting the answer she wanted from one parent, has simply asked the other. That Debbie and Eric are not a unified front just makes it easier. In her mother’s view, Cheyenne’s cooped-up convalescence is all the more reason to let her out now that she is feeling better. Cheyenne says that she and her friend Jamie McManus are going to a birthday party at a house in Douglasville, and yes, an adult will be there. Then she’ll be sleeping over at Jamie’s, in bed by her midnight curfew. It’s essentially a lie, but as teenage sins go, this is a venial one. In fact, Jamie has told her own parents she’s sleeping at another friend’s house. Each girl’s story has given them license to stay out as late as they want.
At 4:54 p.m. Cheyenne sends a desperate text on her BlackBerry:
My dad is going crazy again. Can you just come get me now? I can’t handle being here.
Jamie responds that she can’t come until 6:30. As she always does, Cheyenne takes her time getting ready, sitting on her bedroom floor, legs crossed in front of the full-length mirror, taming her long strawberry-blond curls and laboring over her casual style of hooded sweatshirt, skinny jeans, and Uggs. At 6:38 Jamie texts I’m here, and Cheyenne heads for the door, past Eric.
“Where does Jamie live?” he asks, half-joking, from the recliner. “I may want to ride by and check on y’all.”
“Don’t start, Daddy,” she says, shutting the door. But then the door cracks open again, and Cheyenne leans her head back and winks at her father. “I love you,” she says.
And then she’s gone.
Right around the time Cheyenne and Jamie are leaving Villa Rica, Jason Lark walks into the fellowship hall at Douglasville’s Beulah Baptist Church. This is Jason’s first time at Celebrate Recovery, a twelve-step drug and alcohol addiction program. He is seventeen years old.
Jason arrived from Panama City Beach, Florida, the previous August. His divorced mother’s fiance had a house in Georgia, and Jason had left his friends to help her make a go of it in a new state. This was also a chance to reinvent himself, to escape the Florida spring-break scene, the drugs that had plagued his father and older brother. Jason’s easygoing nature made him fast friends here, but he soon learned that what passed for youthful indiscretion in Panama City Beach was something much more serious in small-town Georgia. Four days ago, Alexander High School officials spotted marijuana stems in the cup holder of Jason’s white Chevy Blazer in the school parking lot. A search of the vehicle turned up a ziplock bag containing weed crumbs and a few seeds, along with a pocketknife and a box cutter. Jason was expelled and arrested. Attending these Friday night Celebrate Recovery sessions is a stipulation of his bond.
As he mills about the bustling church hall, Jason spots Dustin Willis, a twenty-one-year-old who has faced his own charges of marijuana possession. Jason and Dustin have mutual friends, and Dustin has bought beer for Jason before. During a break, the pair step outside for a cigarette and discuss their plans for the night. Dustin says he’ll probably stay home and drink.
The session ends at 9:15 p.m. Jason turns on his phone to find texts from a classmate, Taylor Coss. Taylor wants him to come out tonight. From his Blazer, Jason calls his mom, who’s back in Florida visiting family. She’s in a good mood. He talks up his experience at Celebrate Recovery, how the prayers and testimonials have helped him consider what he’s done . . . and oh, by the way, Taylor wants to hang out for a bit tonight. Please?
Be home by midnight, his mother says. Drive carefully.
Jason calls Taylor, who tells Jason to meet him at a mutual friend’s house on the cul-de-sac at the end of Pleasant Drive. But they’ll need beer. Jason knows just whom to call.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Jason, Taylor, and Dustin Willis are on their way to Nations Corner, where they plan to drop by a birthday party they’d heard about. They’ve got a brand-new eighteen-pack of Bud Light, thanks to Dustin, who also bought a couple of Bud Light tallboys for Jason, the driver.