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Wreckage

To truly get over losing someone, you have to let them go. That’s the one thing a parent can’t do.

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Part One

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.

Nations Corner is another tree-lined Douglasville subdivision of middle-class homes south of I-20. The boys find a cluster of parked cars straddling the curb in front of a brightly lit house. Near the foot of the driveway, Jason spots a former schoolmate, Jamie McManus, and her friend, Cheyenne Sauls. He’d met Cheyenne at a Halloween party a few months before, when she’d volunteered to move his Blazer and then crumpled the bumper against a brick wall. The two had exchanged sporadic texts ever since.

But tonight Cheyenne is particularly loud, practically shouting, “Hey, Jason!” Both she and Jamie seem drunk, at one point dancing on top of Jamie’s Acura. Inside the house, red Solo cups and vodka bottles crowd the counters. The birthday boy had persuaded his sixty-nine-year-old grandfather to buy booze for the party, as long as they stayed at the house. But with the alcohol almost gone, the teenagers have started to clear out. The handful who remain begin to take swipes at the eighteen-pack tucked under Dustin’s arm.

Around midnight, someone mentions a bonfire at a house across town. Cheyenne is especially anxious to go, but she doesn’t have a license, and Jamie has decided she’s too drunk to drive her Acura. Jason offers to take everyone in his Blazer. He’s had some beer and he feels a little tipsy, but, as he’ll testify later, he’s composed and in control. The girls climb into the back of the Blazer, where the boys take inventory: only two bottles of beer left in the eighteen-pack. And Jason’s twenty-four-ounce tallboys are gone. So, on the way, Dustin buys another pack of beer.

When Jason and his crew arrive at the backyard bonfire in Chapel Hill, ten minutes north of Nations Corner, a dozen or so youths are clustered around the blaze. It seems like everyone has a drink. Jason and Jamie wind up sitting together on a stack of pallets by the fire. Jamie sips from a Bud Light bottle. Suddenly there is a commotion from across the yard.

Fucking bitch!

I’m going to fuck you up!

Jason and Jamie recognize Cheyenne’s voice. Jamie knows the other girl: She’s dating a boy Cheyenne likes. Jamie had suspected her friend had come here to start something. Jamie rushes to pull Cheyenne away from the fight. Jason looks down at the beer Jamie left behind. He finds a funnel that’s been passed around, puts the hose between his lips, lifts the cup above his head, and pours in the beer, which slides lukewarm down his throat.

From the house, someone yells for quiet. It’s now after 1:30 a.m. Time to go. Jamie and Cheyenne climb into the back of the Blazer beside Dustin, Jamie behind Taylor, who’s sitting shotgun, and Cheyenne behind Jason, who’s driving. Jason turns the key, and the five drive away toward the cul-de-sac at the end of Pleasant Drive, where Taylor’s truck awaits.

The Blazer’s headlights cut a path through the pine shadows up and down the residential roads of Douglas County. Hip-hop blasts from the stereo. The cab is filled with the scent of bonfire smoke. Bud Light bottles rattle in the cardboard box beside Dustin and several more roll loose on the floorboard between Taylor’s feet as Jason makes the turn onto Pleasant Drive.

As they pass the “Speed Limit 25” sign and start downhill, Jason accelerates past 45 miles per hour. He intentionally cuts the wheel back and forth, messing with his passengers.

“Slow down,” says Taylor, laughing.

“I got it,” says Jason.

Taylor fastens his seat belt. Jason feels his left tire leave the road into the dirt as the Blazer heads into the broad turn. He panics, overcorrects, cutting the wheel hard right. Someone yells, “Truck!” Ahead, jutting out from a driveway on the right, is a large U-Haul, flashers on, blocking three-fourths of the road. The tires squeal, and gravity inside the cab suddenly gives way as the vehicle tips onto its left wheels and starts to barrel-roll, flinging bottles and cans and receipts and phones and shoes. The Blazer rolls three to five times, even up onto the hood of the U-Haul, before coming to rest on its wheels mere inches in front of the truck.

Inside, Jason realizes he’s been thrown into the backseat. He looks up at Taylor still strapped into the front, hair and shorts splashed with blood. Dustin is still buckled in the backseat.

The girls are missing.

Neighbors rush to the wreck as the boys climb out of the Blazer. Dustin starts breaking bottles, mumbling about getting in trouble, before eventually running off. Jason and Taylor find Jamie lying on the ground beneath the U-Haul, groaning.

One of the witnesses tries to reassure them: “The four of you are okay.”

“No,” says Taylor. “We had five.”

Part Two

When police gave him a Breathalyzer test minutes after the crash, Jason’s blood-alcohol content was shown to be .105, twenty-five milligrams above the adult legal limit. Six months later, he would plead guilty to vehicular homicide and stand crying in court, sentenced to seven years in prison. Dustin got nine years for charges linked to providing the beer. Both will forever carry the knowledge that their actions directly led to the loss of a young woman’s life. Neither will ever be whole. But at least the law prescribed a penance, a debt that, when paid, will square them with society, if not themselves.

For Eric and Debbie Sauls, the parents of Cheyenne, the debt was less clear.

After the funeral, Eric fled to his daughter’s room, still cluttered with clothes, the Mylar balloons he and Debbie had bought her for Valentine’s Day still tied to a vase on the nightstand. He collapsed on the bed and buried his face in her pillows, soaked with the scents of her shampoo and perfume. The smells stirred memories spoiled with guilt. There she was, happily sitting with friends in the visitors bleachers while he doted on her varsity quarterback brother. There he was, massaging a headache from her temples. There she was, yelling at him, so angry with him for leaving. Then he imagined her tumbling in the Blazer, calling for “Daddy” in the darkness. An electrician, Eric refused to work. Weeks passed with him locked in her bedroom, coming out for little more than meals, while the balloons on Cheyenne’s nightstand slowly deflated and fell to the ground.

Meanwhile Debbie was downstairs, focusing her energies outward. She wrote more than 200 thank-yous to friends who had honored Cheyenne with flowers, cards, and foil-covered casseroles. After a few weeks, she went back to work as a real estate specialist for a local telecommunications firm. In March, Debbie filed a lawsuit for wrongful death in Douglas County State Court. Among the thirteen defendants were the obvious: Dustin and Jason. She also went after Jason’s mother, who owned the Blazer; the teenager who hosted the bonfire; the family who rented the U-Haul and got it stuck; and even U-Haul’s corporate office, for not responding to calls that the truck was disabled. But her primary targets were the adults who had, in her mind, facilitated the events that night, the men who should have known better: the liquor store owner who had supposedly sold to the bonfire boys without ID, the grandfather who had bought booze and had been upstairs while the beer-soaked birthday party raged, and the father who had allegedly been inside while the bonfire blazed in his backyard and while children were driving away drunk. Debbie implored prosecutors to file criminal charges against them, too. Her relentless pursuit of everyone, even those tangentially connected to the events that night, became more than a second job; it became her obsession. She attended every court hearing and sat through hours of depositions, taking the transcripts home to study, gradually reconstructing the last night of her daughter’s life.

Though Eric was also a plaintiff in the civil suits, he was putting himself on trial. Cheyenne’s death was the final blow to his marriage. Once he emerged from the bedroom, he and Debbie were little more than roommates living on separate floors under the same roof. They would go days without seeing each other, and when they spoke, it was regarding the formalities surrounding Cheyenne’s death—the insurance money, the legal fees, the prosecution of Jason and Dustin. Eric did not blame Debbie for letting Cheyenne go out that night; he blamed himself for letting it happen, for pushing her away. For her part, Debbie did not feel guilty for her fateful decision—what else could she do? Lock her children up for safekeeping? Just as Eric and Debbie had already started down separate paths before Cheyenne’s death, they were now drifting farther apart, swept down divergent channels of grief.

By summer they decided that Eric must leave the house. He retreated to a twenty-six-foot ramshackle camper parked about a quarter mile behind his parents’ house, at the edge of their farm. He still refused to work, couldn’t stand the stares and stuttering sympathies of neighbors, even family. Amid his old rodeo gear, he hung a photo of Cheyenne in the camper window by the bed and spent hours lying there, staring, holding an old hunting jacket that she had worn, her scent still trapped in the lining.

He had never listened to her. He had always been right—no room for discussion. Eric became obsessed with reliving her final moments through her eyes. He thumbed through texts on her scratched BlackBerry, including the message to Jamie:

My dad is going crazy again. Can you just come get me now? I can’t handle being here.

Late one night, Eric drove to Pleasant Drive. Heading downhill and into the turn, he accelerated his GMC Yukon. Eric could see the ruts in the dirt, the skid marks slicing sharply right, stopping abruptly before the deep gray scrapes in the pavement. Eric stopped and walked to the foot of the driveway about sixty feet from where the scratches stopped, where, spray-painted on the asphalt in fluorescent green, there was a misshapen oval about the size of his daughter curled into the fetal position. Silhouetted by the Yukon’s headlights, Eric stood there silent for almost an hour.

Eric spent most of the next year alone in the camper. Outside, Cheyenne’s August birthday, his divorce, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the anniversary of the wreck, all passed. Finally, in May 2012, fifteen months after the accident, Eric emerged.

On the evening of May 1, 2012, Travis Platt, who had been at the fateful bonfire the night of Cheyenne’s death, arrived late for work at the Taco Mac restaurant in Douglasville. Eric Sauls was waiting for him. In the months after the accident, Travis had pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to minors at the bonfire. He had been given probation and a $500 fine.

Travis remembered Cheyenne’s father from the funeral—though now he looked like he’d aged twelve years in the past twelve months. His eyes were heavy bags, his face red, as though he hadn’t slept in days. The authorities had stipulated that Travis could have no contact with Eric, so when Eric asked him to talk, Travis stalled, saying he needed to go outside. He called the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which sent a deputy to meet him. Twenty minutes later, Travis reentered the Taco Mac alone, where Eric patiently waited.

Eric led Travis out in front of the restaurant, away from the commotion. Then, in a thin, tired drawl, Eric launched into the night of the accident:

Towards the end of the night, Jamie and Jason had walked off away from everybody and they was sitting on those pallets or something and they was talking, you remember that?

Travis: Yeah.

Eric: . . . When Jamie had a beer . . . then when Cheyenne was having her outburst, you know, whenever that was going on, she left the beer there and . . . that’s when Jason funneled the beer.

Travis: Okay.

Eric: I’m just going to tell you plain up: The package store got a million-dollar insurance policy. We can’t get it unless we can put the beer in Jason that came from the package store. I’m just telling you as honest as I can be. And Jason said he didn’t know where the beer come from. You’re the only one who can put that beer into Jason’s hands because you was the only one that bought Bud Light.

Eric proceeded to explain that his lawyer would call Travis in to give a deposition in the civil case against the liquor store and its owner.

Eric: I want you to put the damn liquor store on the hook! And the only way you can do that is to say that one of the beers you bought, you gave to Jamie, because Jason is going to say that nobody gave him a beer, he didn’t drink anyone’s beer, that he just picked up one, that he just picked up one that Jamie had left sitting there. That’s the only one he drank that night at the party . . . Ever how you put it in his system, that’s all I need you to do. And what I’ll do for you is, that money is supposed to go into her memorial scholarship fund, but when it comes in, I’ll give it to you . . . I’ll give you $10,000 for doing that for me. Is that worth $10,000?

Travis: Yeah.

Eric: ’Cause you’ve gotta swear under oath and it’ll be perjury if you get caught lying.

Eric advised Travis to deposit the money a little at a time so as not to raise suspicion. Then he left. Travis reached beneath his black button-down shirt and turned off the recorder the sheriff’s deputy had given him.

On the morning of May 7, police knocked on Eric’s camper door with a warrant for his arrest on charges of influencing a witness and suborning perjury.

Eric spent the night in jail. The next morning, his mother came to pay the $3,000 bail and take him home, where she forbade him from returning to the camper. He was going to stay with her.

A night in jail and the prospect of facing charges didn’t faze Eric. Nor did the embarrassment of being a forty-five-year-old man bailed out by his elderly mother. Not even the headlines on TV news and in the papers, featuring a photo of his weary face, rattled him. But he was leveled by the fact that in those reports he was prominently referred to as the father of Cheyenne Sauls—not only had he humiliated his surviving family, but he felt he had disgraced his daughter’s name.

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade did not move forward with Eric’s prosecution. “It was just a father that was grieving,” McDade said later. “Mr. Sauls has suffered enough.” (The warrants were eventually dismissed.) But the judge ordered Eric to seek therapy. So on the last Thursday of every month, Eric goes to the rec hall of a local church and sits through a meeting of parents who’ve lost children. At first, he was hesitant. This was something a man had to deal with himself. But as he listened, he realized that, unlike the endless line of tongue-tied mourners at his daughter’s funeral, these people understood what Eric was going through. When he mustered the courage to stand and share his own pain, heads nodded and empathetic tears flowed. He was not alone.

Eric is now looking for a regular job and the means to move out of his parents’ house. But he wants something private, where he won’t have to face many people during the day. “Everywhere I go, I run into someone who knew Cheyenne,” he says. “I get a lot of looks. I get tired of people saying, ‘She’s in a better place.’ People want you to get over it and move on with your life. Some people want you to forget it. I’m not ready.”

Debbie sits on her couch, stretching her bare legs out into the late-afternoon sunlight that fills her living room. She looks at the black tattoo of the word “Cheyenne” with angel wings on her flip-flopped right foot, as if summoning courage. Then she carefully goes through the shoebox on the coffee table. Inside are artifacts of her daughter: cards and frayed notebook etchings and letters to Cheyenne from students who knew her or knew of her, a baseball signed by a Villa Rica player who hit two home runs in her honor, a CD with investigators’ photos of the bonfire house and yard, the prayer card from the funeral. The small box doesn’t contain every memento she has hoarded and clung to, but she feels like she’s getting better. She recently gave two boxes of Cheyenne’s clothes to her sister-in-law’s niece.

This new house, nestled in the woods outside of Carrollton, was her first big move forward. Not long after her divorce was finalized in November 2011, Debbie decided that she could no longer take the maddening silence from Cheyenne’s room. After a somber Christmas, she marched upstairs, opened Cheyenne’s door, and packed up the clothes and dog-eared books. She took the full-length mirror where Cheyenne had spent so many hours, careful not to remove the snapshots or smear the marker, I’s dotted with hearts in Cheyenne’s happy hand. By February 2012, almost a year after the wreck, she had moved it all here.

Debbie also brought along boxes of legal documents and deposition transcripts thick as phone books. But today, after two years, Debbie’s legal fight is nearing an end. Some defendants in the civil case, like Jason, the moving family, and U-Haul, have settled. The rest are still pending, but in a position where there is little more Debbie can do. Through her efforts in petitioning, pestering, and, in her words, “harassing” prosecutors, a total of ten people have faced charges from the accident, including the liquor store owner, who pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to minors in exchange for thirty days in jail, probation, and a $1,000 fine; and the grandfather from the birthday party, who pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to and contributing to delinquency of a minor in exchange for probation and a $400 fine. And just a few days ago, after Debbie took to posting accusatory messages on the Douglas County solicitor’s Facebook page, the county finally arraigned the last person on Debbie’s list, Richard Todd McAllister—the father who had allegedly been home during the backyard bonfire—on furnishing alcohol to and contributing to delinquency of a minor. As with all the others, Debbie will take off work and attend every court hearing, representing her daughter, until the McAllister case is resolved. “I hope he pleads,” she says. “But if he wants to take it to trial, that’s fine. I just want him to sit on that stand and answer those questions once and for all.”

And then what? Since being awoken by that late-night phone call more than two years ago, Debbie has spent every moment seeking a reckoning for Cheyenne. She hasn’t given herself time to really grieve for her daughter. Now that the end is in sight, Debbie wonders if the worst, the darkness that Eric is only now emerging from, still lies ahead for her.

Back in September 2011, in a courtroom in Douglas County, Debbie read a statement at Jason Lark’s sentencing: I’ve asked myself this week what Cheyenne would say to me about the accident and about Jason. And I know she would say, “Mama, don’t be mad at Jason, it was an accident.” So Jason, I forgive you. I know it was an accident. It took me a long time to get to this point, but I am not mad at you. I’m not. I know I will see my daughter again.

After reports of this speech, some commenters on the Internet criticized Debbie for her open forgiveness of Jason, including one signed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It wasn’t an “accident,” they argued. But even if the post had been left by someone representing MADD, Debbie had long ago declined the organization’s invitations to join its ranks. MADD had always seemed too angry to her. Anger was not really what Debbie was feeling. Nor was it regret. She was always close to Cheyenne. And while she didn’t know everything about her daughter, Debbie believes their relationship was in a good place when Cheyenne died. Debbie has always been driven by love. That’s why she forgave Jason, the baby-faced boy who could have been her son or nephew. That’s why last spring Debbie wired one of Cheyenne’s friends $200 when she saw on Facebook that the girl had lost her purse on spring break. That’s why she has fought so hard to hold the adults who failed her child and others accountable in court.

That’s why, whatever grief may yet beset her, Debbie will never let go of Cheyenne. From the first positive pregnancy test, Debbie and Eric’s love for Cheyenne has been rooted in their hope for her future. Debbie and Eric invested themselves entirely in that potential, just as they had with her older brother, Cody. When Cheyenne died, half of each of them was lost, along with that future. To truly get over losing someone, a person has to let the deceased go. And that is something a parent can never do. Debbie and Eric are Cheyenne’s mom and dad. And that’s all they know how to be.

From the couch, Debbie looks across the living room at Cheyenne’s mirror, now leaned up against the wall. Along the fringes of the glass, Debbie sees the photos of the smiling Cheyenne she knew, movie tickets and handwritten messages that held meaning the mother can only guess at. In the center, she sees herself, her reflection smudged with fingerprints and shrouded in a layer of dust. Debbie can’t bring herself to clean the thing. She’s afraid that by doing so, she would be wiping her daughter away.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.