In His Words
When Tony Schaefer Disappeared, the Only Clues He Left Behind Were Hundreds of Pages of Stories That No One Had Ever Read
This is a story about reading between the lines, and the lines in this case begin with Governor Ritchie Highway and Ordnance Road in Glen Burnie, as they might have been read on the cold and wet spring evening of April 7, 2003. As lines on a map, they make an intersection that most locals are familiar with, a commercial crossroads lined with loud signs and low-slung storefronts. As a place, it is clotted with such traffic at any hour that it's easy to imagine how a single person--in a parking lot, say, or in front of an ATM--could go so unnoticed as to disappear. That is why these streets have been the focus of attention and worry for the past eight months: They are the last known whereabouts of Anthony John Schaefer, and ever since his dark blue Hyundai was found here, locked and abandoned, two days after he was last seen, none of the very few people who knew him has been able to untangle the mystery of the place.
No one, it's worth noting, could appreciate this mystery on as many levels as Schaefer himself. He was by all accounts fascinated with dark and cryptic stories, both writing them and reading them, his taste for tales of strange horror approaching obsession. But the young man himself was a tough read, too, nearly inscrutable even to those who were close to him, which is why the hope of deciphering what happened to him at that intersection grows more dim by the day.
"You should know your own kid, shouldn't you?" his father says from behind the wheel of his late-model Chevy pickup, just a few blocks from where he found his son's deserted car. "But when the detectives asked us if he had any known associates and we said he didn't, they didn't believe us."
Much of Tony Schaefer's story can seem hard to believe. By the time he disappeared at the age of 23, he had never had a girlfriend. He had had no friends since high school, and he rarely left the house except to look for work and to lift weights at the nearby gym, which he did with as much focused intensity as he brought to his habit of writing. Tony had also by this time been diagnosed with and medicated for two conditions: depression, which his mother said had set in most deeply around Christmas of last year, and attention deficit disorder, which troubled Tony more because, he said, it was crippling his ability to write. By April, his parents say, his daily routine consisted of waking around noon, filing the occasional job application, working out, and then writing in the upstairs computer room through the evening and into the night, nearly until dawn.
"He never brought anyone home. He wasn't one to talk on the phone," his mother recalls. "He just stayed to himself all the time."
If there was a disconnect between Tony Schaefer and the rest of the world, however, the break went both ways. Over the past two years, he generated nearly 200 pages of fiction, poetry, notes, and drafts of screenplays, none of which anyone in his family had ever read or asked to see. But neither did Tony offer them to anyone. He would not even discuss them in detail. So this is a story about reading, starting with the thousands of lines that Tony Schaefer left behind. It is about looking in his words for the nature, and possibly the fate, of a tormented young writer who lived his life like he was keeping a secret, enigmatic enough that his parents sometimes still talk about him with a kind of detached familiarity, as if they were recalling a colleague at the office, or a seldom-seen neighbor.
"He never hung out with nobody," Tony's father says, seven months after his son vanished from the corner of Ritchie Highway and Ordnance Road. "People don't know too much about him."
The sky is blank over Sunnyfield Estates, a well-tended subdivision in Brooklyn Park. Straight through the middle of Sunnyfield, 40-foot steel stanchions loom in a row that leads toward the city. Overhead, behind the Schaefers' house, crowded at the end of a dead-end street, the power lines loll in shallow grins and give off a distant, disembodied hum.
It's mid-October, six months and seven days since Tony disappeared. George and LuAnn Schaefer have settled in around their kitchen table, hemmed in by stacks of scattered papers and manila folders, to go over the details of what they have come to call "Tony's case."
LuAnn, a small, articulate 44-year-old woman with sympathetic brown eyes, clutches one of the hundreds of fliers she has scattered around Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park. missing person, it reads, anthony schaefer. d.o.b. 7/13/79, height 5'10", weight 210 lbs, brown eyes, short black hair possible goatee. last seen in the brooklyn, md area on april 7, 2003. In the center sits Tony's yearbook photo, from his senior year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1997. From the small square stares an unlikely portrait sitter: Tony in a tuxedo, viewed from the shoulders up, his dark hair swept to the right in close-cropped bangs, a long and ponderous brow casting a shadow over eyes so dark as to seem nearly black. A peach-fuzz mustache lingers under his broad, flat nose. And underneath it all, his mouth forms a brutal scowl. From the middle of his own missing poster, Tony grimaces with a seething apathy, not a trace in lip or eye of anything that might suggest happiness. In the right-hand margin of the flier she holds, and of all of the fliers she has handed out, LuAnn has written the same message in thick black letters: tony it's mom please call me.
There are more details to Tony's case than can fit on the flier, although not very many more, and George and LuAnn have been worrying over them for so long that they can now repeat them, as they do again tonight in the kitchen, like a liturgy.
On the night of Sunday, April 6, LuAnn, a civilian employee of the U.S. Army at Fort Meade, had just left for a convention in Richmond, Va. By 11 p.m. , George and Tony had finished watching the season finale of The Shield, and 21-year-old daughter Natalie had gone out for the night. George had gotten a copy of Jackass: The Movie to watch, but Tony wanted to go upstairs to the computer room to write. George watched the movie by himself and went to bed at 12:45 a.m. Natalie came home at 3 a.m. and saw Tony in the computer room, still writing. George remembers hearing Natalie's alarm go off the next morning, Monday, April 7, at 10:20 a.m. He went in to Tony's room, woke him up, and asked him to move his car so George could take his truck out to run errands. Tony moved his car and went back to bed. George went to the Bally fitness center at Ritchie Highway and Ordnance Road, where he, Tony, and Natalie all frequently went. After working out and then stopping at Lowe's, George returned home at about 2:45 p.m. to find that Tony had left.
George Schaefer, a 48-year-old brakeman for CSX railways, is big and hale, with a pate of short red hair and a chest like a keg of beer. He cuts an imposing figure, even in the corner of the kitchen, and as he stands opposite his wife at the table he remembers his last exchange with Tony down to the word.
"I was upstairs ordering some protein powder online," George says. "He come in the house, to the bottom of the steps, and I heard him stomp his feet. And I said, 'What's that noise?' And he says, 'It's me, stomping my feet.' I tell him to cut that out. Then he says, 'My life sucks.' I ask him what's the matter--'Come on here and talk to me.' And he said, 'I'm tired of you messin' up my life.' And out the door he went."
George would note afterward that he never actually saw Tony then, that when they "had words," he stayed in the computer room, while Tony stayed at the foot of the stairs.
A neighbor across the street was working outside at the time. He would later reportedly recall seeing Tony before and after this exchange. He claims to have watched Tony pull up to the house and get of out his Hyundai "acting pissed off." He was wearing jeans. He picked something up from the passenger seat of his car, took it inside, and emerged a few minutes later wearing black nylon workout pants, a T-shirt, and black Skechers. Tony drove off and never returned.
Owing to his son's habit of lonely and unannounced excursions--Tony drove alone to a concert Philadelphia one evening and didn't come home until 6 the next morning--George didn't become overly concerned about Tony's absence until the following day.
"After he left the house Monday I never saw him again," George says, still hovering in the kitchen. "So I figured he went out, went somewhere, and didn't tell anybody about it. Tuesday I get up to get the paper. There's no car out there."
"Which is unusual," LuAnn notes.
"All that day I'm waiting for his car to pull up," George goes on. "All that night I'm trying to sleep, waiting for his car to pull up."
By Wednesday morning, with his wife out of town and still no word from his son, George went out to search for him. He began with the only place he could expect to find Tony: "I drove down to Bally's, made that turn into the parking lot, and there's his car sitting in the parking lot by itself. I'm thinking he's in there working out. But when I go up to the car, I look inside and the shifter handle is broken." The head of the gear shift, he says, had been snapped off to the right, exposing the wires inside. All of the doors were locked. Police would later determine that the dome light had been left on, draining the battery. George went into the gym to see if Tony was there, and when the clerk at the counter said he hadn't been in since Saturday, George drove directly to the Anne Arundel County Police station a quarter mile from Sunnyfield Estates.
In the initial weeks of the investigation, authorities would unearth only two more facts that could help triangulate Tony's whereabouts that afternoon. The first: Although his membership card had not been scanned at the front desk, Tony did go to Bally the afternoon he was last seen; a regular customer who recognized him placed him there at 4:30 p.m., the same time he always came in to work out. The second: After running his credit card numbers, police found that $100 had been withdrawn from Tony's checking account through an ATM at the Provident Bank on Ritchie Highway that same night, two miles south of where his car was found. The bank's security video showed Tony taking the cash and walking away, alone, at 7:07 p.m.
Since those early discoveries, Tony's trail has grown cold. Desperate for new leads, new witnesses, new clues, LuAnn began an e-mail campaign of Baltimore TV stations, imploring them to give some airtime to Tony's case. On April 25, WBAL ran a short interview with her. ("The only thing I want to know is that he's OK," LuAnn told the reporter. "That's all I want to know.") But other than that, LuAnn says, the 6-month-old disappearance of a suburban man didn't hold the same charms for local media that an abandoned baby or an Amber Alert seems to. "If you're 18 or younger, you get everything," she says, her voice beginning to strain. "Newspaper, TV, everything." She begins to weep. "If you're over 18, forget it. Forget it. They don't want to hear about it."
"The other day, they found someone's body just over here on Patapsco Street," George then says. A corpse was found at the foot of a train trestle in one of the depots where George works, just three miles from the Schaefers' house. It was just yards away from a switching signal that George uses several times a month to move rail cars from one yard to another. "Every time I see that--they found a body here, they found a body there--every time I hear something like that, I fear the worst," he says.
To stave off the fear, George and LuAnn try to live by hope, cobbling together a rationale that allows them to remain faithful that Tony is alive. The locked car: At least they know he wasn't carjacked. The cash withdrawal: Maybe he just wanted a fresh start. The fact that it's been six months, and there's been no word, but also no body: He was moody and reclusive and temperamental. Perhaps, in a lashing out that would have been characteristic of him, Tony simply struck out on his own.
"He's a writer right?" George pipes up. "You gotta do something to put food on the table. Maybe that's what he's doing now." He gives a shallow shrug and turns away. "I don't know."
"Yeah," LuAnn says. "The strangest thing is, he hasn't called."
The last two years of Tony Schaefer's writing reads like an immobilizing nightmare of cold sweats and silent screams. Contained in three handwritten notebooks and two computer disks, his papers lay out a litany of scenes that grow more grotesque as he draws closer to finding his voice, the imagery running from the shopworn (nubile teens getting stabbed in the shower) to the sadistic (paralyzed innocents having their teeth ripped from their gums). But in addition to its terror, one of the obligatos of the work he left behind is an abiding fascination with code work. Among all the fearsome street thugs and hideous changelings that populate his manuscripts, there is a small legion of characters who understand the world to be a system of signs. For them, to read the code is to discover the truth.
In a handwritten outline for a story that he would begin writing in 2001, Schaefer describes a set piece in which Deja, a pretty young girl with a supersensible ability to detect evil, "writes on the wall in her own language" as a hidden threat draws near. In another journal, he makes note of a story idea: "a self hating girl finds a piece of graffiti which tells her of a place where someone will change her." And in the middle of a green spiral notebook, one page is left blank except for these words:
The Language on Her Back
I am the only one who can speak
It's as fitting a way as any into the life of Tony Schaefer, who, like some of his more complex characters, seemed to view writing as a way of enciphering the world he couldn't see. Even before undertaking the manuscripts he struggled with as an adult, Tony seemed disposed to putting his apprehensions into words.
Born on Friday the 13th of July 1979, Tony grew up in South Baltimore a few blocks from Cross Street Market, and at an early age he displayed an active imagination and a propensity for math. He also suffered from chronic insomnia and a stultifying shyness that seemed to come and go in phases. Around company, his mother recalls, he was most talkative when he invented ghost stories for the adults. Other than that, "he spent a lot of time in his shell."
"All he ever wanted to write was horror stories," LuAnn says. "Since about middle school. I read some of the earlier stuff he used to write. Some of the words he used were just amazing for someone his age." When asked what the stories were about, she pauses. "They would be about some stalker or, I don't know. They were weird. Devils and demons and wizards."
Even as his interest in writing developed, his skill with numbers sailed him through the entrance exam for Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where the focus would be on math, science, and engineering. He had not been there long before he fell victim to an event that would haunt him, and his writing, for years to come.
In February 1994, 14-year-old Tony and a friend were playing basketball in South Baltimore's Riverside Park when Tony was jumped by two youths. They punched his face until his lips burst, then one of them picked him up and slammed him onto the pavement, breaking his foot. The assailants ran off without demanding or taking anything.
"That really set him back," his mother remembers. "He was just starting to come out of his shell then, and that put him back into his shell. The next year after that, after his foot got better, he started taking karate. Because, he said, 'Mom, this isn't gonna happen to me again. I'm not gonna let this happen to me again.' So he started taking karate and also going to the gym and working out."
In 1997, he graduated from Poly, with the help of summer-school classes, which he had to take every year. "He was real good at math but he just never studied," his father says. "He was more into writing, writing his horror."
The Schaefers moved to Sunnyfield Estates in 1999, mainly in the search for better public schools for Natalie. After splitting time working temp jobs and studying toward an associate's degree at Community College of Baltimore County, Tony enrolled at Towson University in the fall of 2001. His parents aren't sure what courses he took other than an introductory film class; Towson University records show that he took Filmmaking I and Images of Women in Film, along with two other unnamed classes, one of which he didn't finish. Tony's attention only seemed to get more scattershot. He dropped out after the first semester.
"He told me he screwed it up," George says. "He didn't get the marks he should've got. Which I don't know. I've never seen them. I couldn't tell you."
After Towson, LuAnn began tracking her son's progress by the amount of time he spent up in the computer room.
"I had noticed that he was going more and more into his shell and I was getting really worried about him," she says. "So I went into his room and started talking to him and said, 'Why don't we go for help?'" That winter, the family doctor put Tony on the anti-depressant Paxil CR.
It was around this time that Tony wrote "Tears for Zero." The only manuscript found neither on disk nor in his notebooks, it was provided by his parents in hard copy, with only the recollection that he had written it in late 2001. A 23-page allegory written in screenplay form, it fits a disturbing pattern found in much of what Schaefer left behind: It begins as the work of a student who knew the basics of screenwriting--with confident deployments of scene-setting and exposition--but after a few pages, it soars into stream-of-consciousness prose, descriptions of tormenting and illogical scenes, and, ultimately, open-ended verse.
Page 1 is telling enough, describing a flashback in which a 9-year-old girl, Deja, recalls trick-or-treating with her older brother Eric, only to witness his attack, and ultimate murder, at the hands of street hoods.
They hold objects camouflaged by their jackets to Eric's side and drag him off. Eric opens his mouth to yell but is silenced by threatening gestures. Deja leaves the line to follow her brother's captors.
She runs as fast as she can to catch them, screaming her brother's name, but he and his assailants are too far away are a separated from her by a mob of trick or treating children.
By Page 16, Deja is a svelte teenager at an underground rock club, keeping company with bitter rogues who seem to appear with each new paragraph: Hex, a sociopath who contracted HIV from a woman he date-raped; Damned, a rival of Hex; and Reaper, a figure with a face tattooed to resemble a skull, who promises everyone entry to "the 'wasted dreamland', an entrance to hell." Soon, "Tears for Zero" tailspins into a feverish reverie of random associations. Deja witnesses a final battle between Hex and Damned, in which her friends are "slaughtered," and she contends with figures that include "a ghostly woman," a warlock called the Sculptor, and a transvestite "who is hoping the Sculptor will shape him into a woman." The story's thread tapers off there and is followed by dozens of lines of free-form verse, words that seem to serve in equal parts as story notes and twisted lyrics:
a young man is chosen to avenge the murdered whose killers have not been brought to justice
the dead come to him and will not stop haunting him until he avenges them
he sets the bodies of those he murders out to drift on a secret beach only he can visit
the dead provide his finances so he doesn't have to work
he drifts from town to town doing the bidding of insomniac souls
happiness is not written in the blueprint of his blood
The stream of ersatz poems reaches its key note on the 21st page. Appearing here in the waning paragraphs of one of Tony Schaefer's earliest efforts, it will be only the first intimation that perhaps the writer is haunted by his own words:
a siren to carry this song until time's last breath
for this I used to believe in fairytales
now I scream ghost stories to scare it away
At any given time, according to the Maryland Missing Persons Network, an average of 2,000 searches are underway in Maryland for people who have disappeared. As of Sept. 30 of this year, 2,968 Marylanders had been listed as missing, and 115 bodies were being held that had not been identified.
Kylen Johnson, director of the Maryland Missing Persons Network, which she operates on a volunteer basis out of her home in Clarksburg, notes that the rate of disappearances in the state is consistent with the rest of the country. This includes the rate at which missing-persons cases in Maryland reach some kind of resolution, numbers that at first seem to offer a line of hope to those still waiting for an answer.
"Typically, 97 percent of missing persons return within one week after they disappear," she says, observing that most reported cases turn out to be runaways, frequently teenagers. "Of the 3 percent left, generally 1 percent come home, or are found alive, after that first week. One percent are found deceased. And 1 percent are never found."
This breakdown might explain why the families of the missing that you read about in news stories and see on television so often can do nothing more than express simple disbelief at their suffering, that they never thought this would happen to them. The numbers back them up. That your loved one would become one of the 2,000 people in Maryland to vanish, a mere 0.04 percent of the state's population, would surely be enough to send you into some sort of metaphysical whorl. But that your loved one might be among the 3 percent of those whose story has no quick or tidy ending--the 60 or so who come home after months instead of weeks, who turn up dead, who never are found at all--could be enough to pit your mind against forces as mystical and arcane as the wheeling of the stars.
"I never thought that this would happen," LuAnn Schaefer told WBAL in April. "I never thought that I would be doing this."
"All I know is he walked out the door and never came back," George says in November. "There ain't no end to it."
This unique kind of horror endured by families of the missing--the anguish of not knowing, the tyranny of hoping--can produce a psychology that's specific to this set of victims, Johnson notes. Bankruptcies are frequent, as families devote more and more resources to quelling their desperation--"first on private detectives, then on psychics, then on psychiatrists." Divorce and suicide attempts are not uncommon. Rates of alcoholism and clinical depression are astronomical. Ordinarily normal people, their grounding having been skewed by a disappearance, can sometimes begin living by their obsessions. In one Maryland case, Johnson says, a woman whose mother disappeared in a shopping mall 20 years ago is still going to shopping malls to look for her.
"It's probably the worst hell on earth," Johnson says. "If your relative's murdered, you know what's happened to them. If they've been in a car accident, you can accept that. But not knowing what's happened, it's just hell. I don't know how some of these families keep going on."
Several months after he was diagnosed with depression and put on medication, Tony started writing more and more. To him, this might have meant he was becoming more fruitful. To his mother, it meant he was becoming more withdrawn. According to the computer time signatures on the drafts he left on two floppy disks, Tony went through a fugue of writing that began Sept. 12, 2002, and ended with the last file available, dated April 7, 2003, in the early hours of the day he disappeared.
During 2002, Tony continued to live his life in divided cycles, the nocturnal and the diurnal. In the winter, he went to bartending school and got a job as a barback at a lounge in Baltimore/Washington International Airport. By spring, he had quit, telling his mother he "felt like just a cashier" and went to bussing tables at Remomo's Italian Café in Arundel Mills mall. By fall, he was looking for work again, but maintaining the same break between work life and writing life. "He'd stay on the computer all night and then he'd go out and look for a job," George remembers. "But he wouldn't go out until 2 or 3 in the afternoon."
At night, at least, he would be as productive as ever. This is when he wrote his two longest and most polished drafts, one of which was the only draft he ever finished. In keeping with the dreams of an amateur, Tony's first major effort was to ape a famous role model. He wanted to write a sequel for John Carpenter's Halloween horror movie franchise. Called Halloween: A Funeral for the Shape, this nearly complete 63-page draft, written between Sept. 12 and Nov. 11, 2002 according to computer records, offers a curious take on the film series, by a fan who obviously knew the Hollywood mainstays down to the last detail. Schaefer conceives of a young heroine who, by way of some supernatural anointment, is fated to become the unholy bride of Halloween's anti-hero, the sociopathic serial murderer Michael Myers.
Like Deja in Schaefer's earlier "Tears for Zero," the young and comely Pristine has a preternatural understanding of the forces of darkness, and Myers butchers everyone who intrudes on his search for this one woman who might understand him. As a Hollywood knockoff, the draft is fully furnished with horror-movie features: cruel teens who get their comeuppance (the popular girls who tease Pristine are eventually dispatched with a knife), a brave rogue cop who's willing to believe her (one scene depicts him talking down a hostage taker, proving his bravery and rogueness), and a story line that hews to the horror-film blueprint, beginning with scenes of normal-seeming life (family conversations over breakfast) and ending with a carnivalesque orgasm of gore (a showdown in the woods in which all but Pristine and the cop are killed). But as an effort at mimicking a popular movie series, it's a strange exercise. While the killer of the real Halloween films is terrifying in his total lack of a motive, as Schaefer imagines him, he is fueled by loneliness. It seems sorrowfully telling, for instance, when a wizened old man in an occult bookstore confronts Michael Myers about the weakness that's been driving him:
The old man stands face to face with Michael as he speaks these last words. Michael grasps the man by the throat and thrashes him around them [sic] room. He lifts him off the ground and holds him up towards a ceiling fan. The old man speaks his final sentence.
Old Man: The only thing that can kill you Michael is a broken heart.
Michael thrusts the old man into the frantic blades of a ceiling fan.
The same isolation and fulsome carnage that provide the backdrop of Funeral for the Shape also drive "Nosferaturized," written between Sept. 17 and Oct. 11, 2002, the only short story among the drafts and the only effort that seems complete. Over 13 pages, it describes with unrelenting grit a woman whose curiosity leads her into a torturous trap. Like other heroines in Schaefer's papers, young Stina is uniquely attuned to hidden symbols, in this case the graffiti she keeps finding in strange locations--"It was placed wherever normal people wouldn't look," the narrator notes--which tells her when and where to go to be turned into a vampire. After smoking a joint with her acid-tripping friend Beth, the two women go to the mystery spot on a lark, an abandoned movie theater. The scene is presided over by a man who looks "like an Indian Bela Lugosi," who in due course earns their trust, only to narcotize them with needles and mesmerize them with footage projected onto the movie screen of vampires sucking, drinking, and swimming in blood. No particular is spared as Stina undergoes the final procedure that will make her eternally "different":
Her mouth was stretched into a fixed smile by what felt like leathery fingers. The nails of the fingers dug into Stina's gums. Her tongue was somehow frozen so she couldn't scream. The surgeon reached a gloved hand into Stina's mouth and clamped her by the teeth. Her teeth broke free easily from her mouth. Stina's gums flamed. Blood filled her mouth.
By the end of 2002, Tony Schaefer was undergoing a transformation of his own. "In December, I started noticing a difference in him," LuAnn says. "He started not coming down a lot. Like when we had friends over, he'd rarely come down to eat. He stopped going out a lot, and I think he was going back inward because he was having a really hard time finding a job."
He also began to complain of difficulty concentrating. "He was telling [the doctor] that he wasn't that focused and he wanted to get more focused because he was trying to get his writing done," LuAnn says. "Then they had started with the Stratera [medication] for attention deficit syndrome. [The doctor] said perhaps that was going on, too."
This struggle is reflected in his papers. According to the drafts he left behind, in November 2002 Tony Schaefer stopped writing. The silence would go on for three months. But in one of his journals, handwritten notes that include the early framework of "Nosferaturized" speak to all manner of frustrations that seemed to be plaguing him at the time. In pained stanzas, Tony appeared to work them out with words, beginning with the first page:
I hammer at the walls of
a black and white world
hoping colors will pour
waiting too long in a
waiting room of desolate hearts
for a siren to be assigned to me
I want the moon to see everything
And on the second and third pages, a pouring forth of words that creates an unquiet code of its own. It brings to mind both the free-association exercises used by writers with mental blocks and the horror vacui that has been known to drive outsider artists to fill every square inch of canvas with their doodles, in an effort to create order from the chaos in their minds. In hasty script that grows less legible as it progresses, Tony crowded words onto the pages:
Street enigma mystery lie violence secret festival building cathedral factory flesh blood darkness angels sex black mirror glass shards cold concrete light nightmare love demon dead vampire shattered cemetery skeleton grey occult devil heaven god drugs body innocence purity religion fear velvet silk crystal dreams water ocean river stream cloud sky crimson red purple violet blue silver reaper anger desire rage
It continues for 14 more lines.
On Wednesday, Oct. 22., the word finally came.
"It's not a real good time," George says, early that evening. He's on the phone. There is screaming in the background. "They found the boy's body."
George moves into another room so he can hear. "Remember I was telling you about the body they found by the railroad tracks? The coroner just identified him. Said there was not a scratch on him. Said he was just laying there. They found him with his head propped up on a log, like it was a pillow."
A Baltimore City road crew worker, while looking for an overflow drain along the side of the road, found the remains of Anthony John Schaefer in a thicket of vines and brush just south of the intersection of Patapsco and Potee streets, right under the railroad trestle where his father operated the switching signal and about 50 yards, as George would point out many times in the weeks to come, from the I-895 ramp that George had taken to and from work for weeks, never knowing his son was there.
Because the remains were found across the line in Baltimore City, Tony's case reverted from Anne Arundel County Police to the Baltimore Police Department, which will not discuss the case. The Schaefers say investigators provided them with only basic information. The remains were skeletal and had likely been there for several months. Tony's clothes, wallet, the cash, six quarters, and the necklace he wore with a skull for a pendant were all found at the site, though they had been scattered by "the elements." An autopsy and a toxicology test were conducted, but the Schaefers have not been given the results, aside from the reassurance that the body did not seem to have sustained any violent trauma. In early November, the police deemed the cause of death undetermined. They did not return his personal effects, telling LuAnn that they would be kept indefinitely as evidence, but they did release Tony's remains to his family, who had them cremated and placed in a silver urn resembling a small mausoleum. On the front they mounted a plaque, which they engraved with his name, his birth date, and the phrase HOME AT LAST.
In a dark, wine-red room at the McCully Lyniak Funeral Home on Patapsco, two blocks from where Tony was found, the ashes were displayed, surrounded by 16 bouquets, a tree of prayer cards, and an album of photos from Tony's childhood. At the funeral mass the next day, at Holy Cross Church in Federal Hill, a priest blessed the remains, and the Schaefers drove them home where they installed the urn in their living room. For half an hour, they spent time alone inside, while LuAnn's sister and her husband waited to drive them to the wake, smoking cigarettes in the driveway underneath the humming smile of the power lines.
Two dozen folding tables were set up at the American Legion Hall on Belle Grove Road, where family members milled around plates of cold cuts and cans of beer from the bar, and the entire afternoon was noteworthy for its lack of either mourning or relief. George circulated, gripping a can of Michelob Light and telling stories with his railroad buddies. One of them pointed out the blood from a shaving cut that had dried on his white shirt collar. He made a joke about having tried to kill himself that morning and then motioned to the bartender.
LuAnn circled the room dutifully, visiting with family members and women friends between trips to the counter to shake the coffee thermos to make sure it was full.
"LuAnn's taking off work for a few days, y'know, to help her deal with everything," George said as guests started filing out. "But I'm going back to work Monday. It's done."
Four days later, LuAnn is going through Tony's bedroom. There's a bed and a dresser and an armoire, all in black lacquer. The walls are bare and painted a flat, gunmetal gray. On top of the armoire stands a row of figurines and action figures: a screeching gargoyle, a mummy, Darth Vader. Inside sit stacks of DVDs from all the famous horror series: Hellraiser, Evil Dead, Halloween. "My goodness," LuAnn says, a little aghast, while fingering through them. "Oh-kay."
The drawers are filled with dozens of tapes and CDs, mainly from the same few goth, punk, and death-metal bands--Social Distortion, Type O Negative, Cradle of Filth, Marilyn Manson, Carcass. LuAnn says she hasn't heard of any of them, then expresses shock at finding a Moby CD near the top.
In the closet black and gray shirts hang on a bar next to folded jeans, and the rest of the space is larded top to bottom with books. Scores of mass-market paperbacks are piled into neat rows--the complete works of Stephen King, the Splatterpunks horror anthologies--along with Franz Kafka's Complete Stories and a book called How to Succeed With Women.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with all this stuff," she says then, as she slides a large cardboard box from the foot of the bed. Inside, more books. Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. Ben Sweetland's I Will: A Practical Guide for Utilizing the Powerful Forces of Your Subconscious Mind. H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. At the bottom of the box is a year-old swimsuit calendar and The Cracker 1997, the yearbook from Tony's senior year. The cover displays a colorful parrot and announces the theme, "Spreading Our Wings." As LuAnn thumbs through it, there are no signatures, notes, or any of the other inscriptions you customarily find in yearbooks. Then she arrives at the only mark in the volume: Tony's picture, which has been obliterated by an impenetrable scribble of dark blue ink.
"He never liked that picture," LuAnn says. She stands up and puts her hands on her hips. "I guess he had a dark side, from looking at everything."
Tony resumed writing again in February of this year, around the time he began the drug regimen to treat his attention deficit disorder. His mother "remembers him starting to work more" around then, and between this time and his death he would produce two drafts, both unfinished notes for screenplays, and both seemingly more inspired from his own experiences than any of his previous efforts. In each piece, you can see the writer drawing on the trauma from which he apparently never fully recovered, the attack at the basketball court in Riverside Park when he was a teenager, which sent him to the hospital and, later, to the gym.
For six days in February, according to the floppy disks' time notation, he worked on an untitled eight-page script whose only complete scene describes the mutilation and murder of three teens playing basketball at night in a park. Instead of his usual empathic female protagonist, the key figure here is a man named Devoid, a fiend dressed all in black with a "tattoo of the gates of hell" on his chest. He leads the assault on the innocents with three of his minions, chief among them his girlfriend, named Pill, "who dyes her hair with the blood of her victims." The narrative line of the notes is mainly a description, again in arduous detail, of the way in which the hellions approach, chase, and ultimately eviscerate their victims. The climax arrives as one of the teens, a girl, is pinned by Devoid, who seems prepared to rape her until Pill comes to her apparent rescue.
Pill whispers comfort into the crying girl's ear as she stares over the girl's shoulder at Devoid with hate flooding her face. Devoid looks away from Pill with eyes downcast. Pill slips her hand into Devoid's knife wielding hand to take the knife. Pill sneaks the knife into the girl's back as she hugs her and then throws her down stabbing her in a jealous frenzy. The girl's POV as Pill stabs her.
A few of the details from this brutal scene show up in Schaefer's notebooks, suggesting that he had been milling them through different versions, hoping something clear would come of them. But the grisly idea languished while he pursued another project at the same time, and it would be the last draft he would write. It is a dour, doleful piece, and not because it features more horrible violence but precisely because it has none. Indeed, nothing about this final document, begun on Feb. 13, fits the conventions of anything else Schaefer seems to have written. In place of all of his earlier doe-eyed waifs and the archfiends who preyed on them, here there is only a young man seeking refuge from his inner demons. Instead of niggling depictions of fantastic violence, there are only memories of violence that he had suffered. And rather than holding together as a single piece of film writing, this final effort, like "Tears for Zero" from 2001, degenerates into manic notes and then open-ended verse, most of it more direct and confessional than all else Tony appears to have put to the page.
Its 14 pages begin with a young man named Blank, the scene opening in a bedroom reminiscent of Tony's, filled with horror-film paraphernalia. Blank can't sleep. "Memories of his mugging bruise his thoughts, dragging him further from a state of calm. Blank's POV as he is beaten by four men in an alley. . . . Blank rubs a finger along his cracked and torn lower lip." Unable to shake the dread, he dresses and goes out to a bar, armed with a knife for protection, but he is struck still with fear when he sees a group of kids down the sidewalk.
Dread sinks down into Blank's stomach, slowing down his approach towards them. He feels through the inside of his jacket for the knife inside. Blank passes the teenagers with his eyes locked straight forward to avoid any motive they might see for a possible altercation. He passes the teenagers without any trouble. . . . Everyone is in small groups of friends except for Blank who walks alone.
The last page of Blank's story suddenly takes the meek hero through a surreal turn. He spies a vision called the Goddess of Insomnia, dancing in a park. The narrative thread tapers off with these lines:
Blank follows the Goddess of Insomnia across the city to her domain. She leads him across a bridge of train tracks. They kiss. She sits atop him on the train tracks and holds him down as a train approaches. At the last second, she gets up and pulls him from the track. She is leading him to a place where loneliness lives. The Demon of Depression sends his disciples to keep them apart to keep Blank in his place as lonely and weak.
The pages that follow are peppered with notes for the story about Devoid, though they introduce a new plot device: Devoid and his crew are now in search of something called "the map to Hell." The notes end with the revelation: "the map to Hell leads to a rail yard."
Close at the heels of these remarks then come two poems, similar in their forlorn tone to the lyrics Tony wrote in 2001, but more pointed than anything that came before them. To discover them is to be given an understanding of unremitting clarity about how Tony Schaefer was feeling--as troubled man, as a pained writer--by the time he saved this document for the final time, at 1:21 a.m., April 7, 2003, the day he disappeared:
there's a lonely girl on a cliff
only I can see
with every breath I hope
she doesn't jump
if I could borrow the wings of a gargoyle in time
I'd fly up to catch her
I'd hold her before the sun
So everyone could see her in the light I do
They Figured Out How To Take Your Dreams
The head was supposed to be sacred
But in they came camouflaged as night terrors
No hole in his head
Not a spot of blood or sign of forced entry
So how did they get in
A wandering mind is dangerous
Who knows what specter continents it may travel
What thoughts it will smuggle through dawn
Dreaming is a freedom
And freedom is never free
He thought the living dead were exempt from taxes
His life the color of olives
If it were ever published
The book's text would go senile on the shelves
The one thing he had to look forward to was closing his eyes
A bottle of pills the key to the gateway of the unbound
That Tony Schaefer committed suicide is a possibility his parents have chosen not to imagine. The authorities, too, still considering the cause of his death to be undetermined, haven't seen that as a safe assumption. Police took all of Tony's writing during the investigation, to search it for signs; they soon returned it, telling LuAnn, "There's nothing here that we need." But the fact that Tony Schaefer's last words describe a depressed young man killing himself to let the terrors out without leaving a trace--"no hole in his head, not a spot of blood or forced entry"--that the last scenes his imagination ginned up were of a young man plagued by violent memories, of a man taken to a railroad trestle by "the Goddess of Insomnia," of a "map to Hell" that "leads to a rail yard," of a girl jumping from a cliff, of taking a bottle of pills and laying down for an everlasting sleep, these seem like salient clues in the story of how and why he died. But they were clues that neither his parents nor the police were able to read.
Indeed, they were not meant to be read. Tony told these stories to himself, in a way not much different from how everyone tells themselves stories. Tony understood the hardest part of writing was coming up with an ending, and he also understood that writing did not have to be beautiful, that it could be brutal and shot through with pain, if that's how you felt. This is what ran between the lines.
George and LuAnn, for their part, are working toward their own conclusions. By and large, LuAnn still tends to discuss her son's death as a terrifying mystery, an event as indecipherable to her as the stories Tony wrote, which she has now started to read. But as she continues to talk about it, the sense arises that she appreciates this mystery on many different levels, too, and some of what she understands is best left in code.
"I think it might've been hypothermia, and he just didn't--weather never bothered him," she says. "It never bothered him. And it was cold and it was rainy, and I think he might've gotten disoriented and I know he probably didn't have anything to eat. He probably just got disoriented and hypothermia set in and he lay down and that was it. I know in my heart he didn't mean to die."
She goes on, and begins to cry. "I've always said to myself that I believe that we are living hell every day. Because if this was God's world, God wouldn't have people killing each other and everything that's going on, so I believe this is hell. So there's got to be a better place. And that's where he is. He probably did not need to be in this hell anymore. He was probably just looking for something better. What it is I have no clue. But his time in hell was over with."
For Tony's father, it's the nature of the mystery that works at him. The way in which all of the unknowns kept coming, repeating themselves, doubling up, bending back on themselves, is what makes him angry.
"I think he lay down and froze to death," he says. "I don't think he knew what he was doing. He would've woke up, you know? Cold didn't bother him. He'd go out in a T-shirt in cold weather.
"It's just odd the way it happened," he continues. "[LuAnn] goes to Richmond on a Sunday. And he disappears. I don't know what to do. I don't know whether to call her or what. Then I told you I [learned a body had been found], and that's the weekend she's going away again. Here she goes away, he disappears. She's getting ready to go away again, they find his body. Stuff like that, it's kind of weird, you know?"
George, too, has begun reading Tony's stories, but only in small snatches, and one of the first pieces he picked up happened to be the final draft that his son had written. He was struck by the line "the map to Hell leads to a rail yard."
"I just thought it odd. I used to take him to work sometimes to check up on something, and he hated going down there. That's why I can't figure out where he ended up at was the train tracks. Of all the places, that's the one place he'll never be. But where's he end up at? Right by the train tracks."
For a few seconds George shakes his head, and he does it with a slow depth that speaks as much of frustration as of wonderment. "I mean," he says, "who could've dreamt something up like this, to write something like this?"
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