Boston, Massachusetts: It’s the summer of ’69—the parks are flooded with flower children and a hot new band called Led Zeppelin is set to appear at the Boston Tea Party. But for one newlywed couple just beginning their lives together, there will be no peace.
In the cradle of sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, Gus and Elsbeth LeGarde are music students attending the New England Conservatory of Music, after a wedding kept secret from their families. When they discover a bruised and sobbing teenage girl on the Boston Commons who can’t remember who she is, or how she got there, the couple decides to “adopt” her to help find her identity.
But Gus and Elsbeth aren’t prepared to be plunged into a violent world of rape, abuse, and a ring of white slave traders who’ll stop at nothing to take back their property—or to acquire new flesh in the form of Gus’s beautiful young bride.
At times nostalgic, heart-stopping, and breathlessly dramatic, Spirit Me Away is a thrilling romantic mystery set against the colorful backdrop of the sixties—with an unforgettable conclusion at the greatest rock festival of all time.
June 28, 1969
The girl slumped on a park bench clutching a battered old guitar case. Long copper curls tumbled forward in an untidy mass, nearly obscuring her eyes. She covered her face with her hands, and it was at that moment I noticed her shoulders shaking.
The poor thing was crying.
Concerned, I stepped closer to the balcony railing to get a better look, wondering what was wrong.
I’d just wandered out to our terrace after working for two solid hours on my music theory homework. I needed fresh air, because I didn’t think my brain could process any more post tonal theory, 12-tone series, octotonic scales, or especially the impossible analysis of Bartok's String Quartet Number 4, first movement. And although the scenes on the Boston Public Garden were usually quite lively, filled with hippies sitting cross-legged on the grass, mothers pushing strollers, and dogs chasing Frisbees, I hadn’t expected to see this poor creature sobbing on the park bench.
I called to Elsbeth, who’d been playing a salty Brazilian tango on our beat-up baby grand. “Honey? Can you come here for a minute?”
The expression in Elsbeth’s dark eyes swung from musical enchantment to mild curiosity. She pushed back from the piano and joined me on the balcony. “What is it?”
I pointed to the girl. “Over there.”
My wife peered across Beacon Street to the sidewalk bordering the park, where the girl sat on the bench, weeping harder now.
“Oh, the poor thing. Another lost flower child.”
“Yeah.” A pang of empathy banged through me, which was always a bad sign. It meant I’d probably do something I’d regret.
Regardless, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the girl, who looked to be about our age, maybe eighteen or twenty. She wore typical hippie garb, like most of our Bean Town flower children, with patched bellbottom jeans, sandals, a tie-dyed tee shirt, and a suede vest with beaded fringe.
I slid my arm around Elsbeth’s waist, watching the street below bustling with activity. Groups of vibrant young hippies, flowing with beads, long hair, and whorls of colorful fabric, tripped and laughed, floating across the park to gather and play music.
Fat pigeons gathered and cooed at the girl’s feet, as if in tune with her sorrow. Their green metallic feathers winked in the sunlight.
Strains of the Doors’ “Break on Through” wafted from someone’s transistor radio. Taxis, cars, and buses engorged with passengers trundled past, honking and billowing black smoke. Throngs of businessmen hurried through the park, dressed in neatly pressed suits and crisp white shirts, ignoring the forlorn figure on the bench.
No one stopped.
No one gave her a second glance.
I turned to my wife. “We can’t leave her there.”
“I know.” She grabbed my hand, pulling me toward the door. “Come on.”
We hurried down one flight of stairs and crossed the street.
The Boston Public Garden—a grassy, expansive square that was home to the famous swan boats—teemed with people and mirrored its sister park, the Boston Common. Up until 1830, livestock actually grazed on the grass of America’s oldest public park. Charles Street neatly bisected both the Commons and the Gardens, as the locals affectionately called them. Venerable old streets with names like Tremont, Park, Boylston, and Beacon enclosed the greenery.
The girl’s shoulders continued to shake and long sobs wracked her body.
We approached her slowly.
“Honey?” Elsbeth said. “What’s wrong? Can we help you?”
“Huh?” The girl sniffled and looked up. Her orange granny glasses had slipped down her nose. Dusky violet eyes flashed with confusion and tears streamed along her cheeks. A large, oily spot stained her vest, her jeans were recently ripped and the knee bloodied, and her forehead was smudged.
“Miss?” I said. “Do you need help?”
She glanced from me to Elsbeth and back again. Her shoulders hitched once, and she lowered her face into her hands. “I don’t know,” she wailed in a shaky voice. “I just don’t know.”
Elsbeth perched beside her on the bench, and I couldn’t help but notice how different they looked. Elsbeth was brown-eyed and pale-skinned, with long, dark, curly hair pulled back in a mother-of-pearl clasp at the nape of her neck. She wore a black turtleneck, tapered jeans, and comfortable buckskin shoes. Her lipstick, in a deep shade of rose, was strategically applied to appear natural, and emphasized her full, bow-shaped lips. This lost girl had masses of wild hair the color of sunlight on amaretto, a beautiful cherry-gold. Her fair skin was flawless, and her eyes reminded me of purple grapes held to the sunlight.
Elsbeth tried again. “Honey? What’s your name?”
The girl hiccupped and looked at her guitar case, plastered in fluorescent stickers boasting the words “Flower Power,” “Peace,” and “Love Rules.” A tag hung from the handle. She touched it nervously.
“May I?” I asked.
She nodded. “Sure.”
I leaned down and flipped the nametag around. A single name was scribbled in bubbly handwriting. “Valerie,” I read aloud. “Is that you?”
Slanting her eyes at Elsbeth, then at me, she finally stared down at her hands. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure this is my guitar.” She began to cry in earnest again.
Elsbeth slipped an arm around her shoulders. “Listen. Why don’t you come inside with us? We’ll give you something to eat and get you cleaned up. After that, we can try to figure out what happened to you. How’s that sound?”
Valerie, if that was her name, looked at Elsbeth, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Okay,” she said in a small voice. “Maybe just for a few minutes.”
An hour later, Valerie sat at our kitchen table wearing Elsbeth’s robe. A towel wrapped her freshly washed hair, and a few glossy red ringlets escaped from it, dangling wet across her cheek. She shifted on the chair, revealing a purple bruise on her thigh and a banged-up, bloodied knee.
Elsbeth drew in a sharp breath. “Oh, Valerie. That looks painful.”
“Oh.” Valerie glanced down at the purple blotch. “It’s pretty sore, but I have no clue how I got it.” Cheeks flushing, she quickly covered her leg, then went back to sipping her Campbell’s vegetable soup. She’d already eaten an almond butter sandwich on rice cakes and had drained two glasses of goat milk.
The girl’s skin glowed from the shower, but her eyes still looked murky and confused.
“More milk?” I asked, watching her carefully. It has to be drugs, her eyes have that look.
She shook her head. “No thanks.”
“Let’s fix up that knee, hon.” Elsbeth reached for her first aid kit and flipped open the metal cover. She gently applied some antibiotic ointment, then extracted a large square bandage and peeled off the paper. “Here you go, sweetie.” Gently, she applied the Band-Aid. “So, after you’ve eaten, we’ll go through your guitar case and see if there’s anything inside that sparks a memory. How’s that sound?”
Valerie nodded, but her eyes had begun to droop and she covered a yawn. “Sure. You can look inside,” she said. “But I might have to take a little—” Her eyes rolled up in her head.
I leapt from my chair and caught her before she landed in her soup.
“Nice catch, Gus.” Elsbeth trilled a laugh and rushed to her side. “Oh, the poor thing. She’s gotta be exhausted.”
We helped her up and carried her, limp and moaning, to our bedroom, because I didn’t think our roommates would appreciate us commandeering their beds. I set her down on my side of the bed while Elsbeth turned down the white chenille bedspread, plumping up the pillows.
After we laid her down and covered her, Elsbeth sat beside her, stroking her forehead as if she were a child. “Poor thing,” she whispered.
I leaned against the wall and waited while she tended to Valerie. Scanning the collection of photographs on our nightstand, I couldn’t help but think—once again—how damned lucky I was.
In my favorite snapshot, Elsbeth stands on the beach in her white cotton dress and shawl. Silver blue threads wink from the scarf’s silky fringe. Dark curls blow around her face. As if I were still there, I could almost taste the salty breeze on the air, and hear the gulls screeching in the background. In the photo, an enigmatic smile plays on her lips, and the gold band on the fourth finger of her left hand sparkles in the sunshine.
We’d been married May 1st, 1969 by a young pastor in Brewster, Massachusetts on Crosby Beach at low tide. Miles of rippled sand glimmered in the sunset. I remembered the hermit crabs scuttling in tide pools and birds sailing overhead, the wind whistling through sea grass, and sailboats on the horizon, winking in the golden light.
Mesmerized, I stared at the photo. We’d decided to elope at the last minute before signing the lease on our new brownstone apartment. Our good friend and one of our roommates, Byron Cunningham, was our witness and only wedding guest. We hadn’t told our parents about the ceremony in spite of the fact we knew they’d have a fit when they found out. I had a feeling my mother would mourn the loss of a big white wedding with flowers, and girls in fancy dresses. But neither Elsbeth nor I could afford such a fuss. We planned to go home for Labor Day, and tell our parents together. If they insisted, we’d let them plan another party, with all the trappings, if they wanted to pay for it.
We’d been engaged for years, and this recent impulsive decision was linked more to primal longing than anything else.
Sure, keeping two places while attending the New England Conservatory in Boston was ridiculously expensive, so it made sense to join forces from that perspective, too. And Elsbeth’s strict German upbringing prohibited us from living together, even though it was becoming more and more common in every day society. So, we tied the knot and hadn’t looked back.
Elsbeth unwrapped the towel from Valerie’s hair and arranged her locks on the pillow.
I smiled at her, and picked up our wedding album while she fussed with the girl, smoothing her covers and singing softly to her. I flipped through the album to find one of my favorite shots where Byron caught us kissing on the beach after the ceremony.
The pearly-gold setting sun silhouetted our profiles. I smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed, reminiscing while I rotated my new ring around my fourth finger. I thought back to the pleasant evening we’d spent at a beach campfire after the ceremony with Byron.
Although it was officially May Day, we did not dance around a maypole that evening. After singing songs and sharing a few glasses of sweet apple wine, we’d waltzed off to an exorbitantly priced, tiny beach house for a glorious one-night honeymoon. Byron had thoughtfully slept in the van.
“Look at her, Gus. She looks so innocent.”
I turned toward the girl, and Elsbeth was right. Childlike, she lay with slightly parted lips against Elsbeth’s pillow. Her hair had begun to dry, and the late afternoon sun dappled through the window, causing auburn highlights to shimmer.
“Do you think she’s on drugs?” I asked.
Elsbeth frowned. “I’m not sure. Her bruises and the stains on her clothes look like she could’ve wandered away from a car crash, or something like that.”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Could be. That would account for her disorientation. She’s not hallucinating, and she doesn’t smell like pot.” I got up and paced. “I hope you’re right. The cops may know something.”
“Call them, Gus. See if there’ve been any accidents around here today. And ask if there were any young women reported missing.”
I nodded obediently. Elsbeth could be demanding at times, but she was usually right.
She shooed me out of the room, then backed out and quietly closed the door. “Should we take a peek at the guitar case first?” she asked in a low whisper.
“Good idea.” I led her down the back hall and into the living room where the beat-up case lay on our sofa. “Let’s see what’s inside.”