The city outside the window of Room 1507 at the Carlton Hotel is a most unlikely place to go insane. Designed as living modern art, Brasilia is defined by its order. But Tony Harris doesn't see order. He sees danger. He knows how this must sound, to the locals he's confiding in, to the friends and family he's e-mailing and calling back in Seattle. He knows he sounds out of his mind. But something is after him. A familiar idea is forming deep in his subconscious: run.
While the city outside is light, the hallway is darker than the bottom of a river. The halogens only come alive when a motion sensor detects life. The room itself is worn, a step or two down from the place he stayed the last time he played basketball here, more than two years ago. But then again, at 36, he's worn, too, so worn he'd never planned on playing again. There are two narrow beds and tan bedspreads and brown carpet. The bedside table is cracked, the original wood grain visible beneath the varnish. A single page in the thick phonebook is creased: the page for funeral homes.
Wireless Internet is his best friend, the connection making him feel safe. He needs it. The e-mails coming to the United States from Tony Harris are scary. Just the other day, he wrote his mother-in-law: I know that I can be paranoid at times but I know when I hear things. And when people stop talking when I come into the area, I just pray that I am wrong Connie I want to see my family again and I LOVE MY WIFE SO MUCH I WANT TO SEE OUR CHILD THAT LORI AND I ARE HAVING. I DIDN'T COME BACK HERE FOR THEM TO SET ME UP AND KILL ME.
"You're scaring me," she said.
"I need to tell you this in case something happens to me," he said.
Last night, he thought he was dead for sure. This morning, a plan begins to form. He asks Brent Merritt, a friend from Seattle who played here, to call the team. He follows up with an e-mail, asking Brent to call back if he doesn't hear from him. Ask to speak to me, he instructs. But then a thought enters his head: What if the team has someone pretend to be him? What would Brent do? He needs a test. Yes, a test. That's it. So he gives Brent a password of sorts. Ask the person claiming to be me what the name of my dog is. If he doesn't say Enya, then it ain't me.
Then he goes to play for his new team, Universo. Once, not that long ago, Tony was one of the best players in the Brazilian league. Tonight, he doesn't take a single shot. When the game is finally over, he rushes back to his hotel room, away from the tailing cars and lobby whispers.
The sun has gone down. If he could see this from above, like a god or an omniscient narrator, he'd see this city as an island of lights in a vast darkness. Out the window to the left is the famous television tower, the highest man-made point in Brazil, a raised fist of those who came out here into the bush five decades ago to hack out civilization. To the right, over the top of the Hotel Das Americas, is a highway climbing out toward a tiny village named Bezerra, toward the wilderness. He'll go in both directions before his running is finished.
He sends an e-mail to his wife:.
I am home now. I just feel like crying all night. Babe I am really paranoid I still think that they are going to try and do me harm. Why do I feel this way I am not sure. Forgive me please babe I am sorry. Tell me why when I got home into my apartment the TV was way up loud and when I left it was really low and the maids cleaned my room earlier.
Soon, Tony Harris falls asleep. It will be the last night of his old life.
Our man in Brasilia orders a caipirinha. Gauchos around him carry skewers of meat. He wears a green shirt, and his head is crowned with a full crop of hair. His name is Simon Henshaw, a diplomat's name. His title is consul general, a diplomat's title. He has been around the world, to the banana republics of Latin America, the Pacific and Africa. He is a man who has heard truth and lies, who has seen light and dark, and learned there is but a thin line separating the two. He lives in the city but understands the wilderness. It surrounds him. A half-hour out of town in any direction, he says, there is desolation. For the past month, he has been investigating the strange case of Tony Harris: Seattle basketball prep star to Washington State Cougar to international professional to ... gone. He, too, wants to know what happened out there. It's so hard to make sense of it all.
He wants to know what you will be writing. Well, you tell him, there's a lot of Joseph Conrad in this tale. A man travels down his own personal Congo, a descent, until the jungle consumes him at journey's end. He learns there is danger and evil in the world and is unable to escape its fated pull.
Henshaw mulls this over. "Who's Kurtz?" he asks.
The darkness chasing Tony Harris, is it out in the world? Or is it inside of his mind?
Another game ends. Tony shows a flicker of the man who led the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, helping to jump-start Kelvin Sampson's coaching career. He scores eight points and doesn't dribble the ball off his foot, as he did a few days ago. But the panic that started in his mind has now reached his legs: Run! Run! Run! It flashes on and off in his head like a neon sign.
He nervously changes into a gray track suit, ties his blue and white, size-13 Nikes and asks a teammate he trusts, Estevam Ferreira, to give him a ride to the Carlton. Estevam says sure, and they climb into his Renault. Back at the Carlton, Tony invites his friend upstairs. On the 15th floor, Tony begins packing. This isn't the first time he has done this.
"Tony, what's happening?" Estevam asks.
"I miss my wife" is all Tony has by way of explanation. "I want to get away from here."
Tony is in a hurry but not rushing. Methodically, as if following a well-practiced escape plan, he takes about 15 minutes to get a backpack ready: laptop, a change of clothes, a few other essentials. The rest of his belongings he leaves behind. Tony and Estevam walk into the hall, the movement clicking on the light, down the elevator, toward the bar, left past the front desk. When Tony steps out of the hotel, there is no turning back.
The airport sits about 10 miles south of the main urban corridor, on the road winding down toward the lake, past the zoo. Tony begins to lose control. He has fought so hard for the past four days, trying to talk these feelings away or stuff them deep down inside and get through just one more season. But he can fight no longer. Now he must Run! There is a cost for crossing the thin line between imaginary and real, between light and dark.
"I'm afraid," he sobs.
"What are you afraid of?" Estevam asks.
"There is someone trying to get me."
Tony doesn't answer. He weeps. He is silent. He weeps again. An elaborate drama is playing out in his head, behind a thick stage curtain, the tears muffled noises that let his audience of one know something is happening, something powerful and awful, even if Estavam cannot catch a glimpse of the action.
Finally, they arrive at the airport. Tony asks Estevam to wait, then goes inside alone. Only he does not buy a plane ticket home. Who knows why? Instead, he purchases a ticket to Natal, a beach town in the northeast of Brazil. He is planning to fly there, where his friend Erika lives, then figure out what to do next. Erika worked at the hotel where he stayed when he played here before. At security, though, he hits a wall: He doesn't have his passport. The team has it. With a game each day and the need to provide documents for each player before each game, it's easier if the team keeps them. It's standard practice, but Tony's sure the team is in on this plot to kill him. Can't ask the team. Now he doesn't know what to do.
Estevam, sitting in his car, watches his friend coming out of the airport. Tony looks scared. His plan has fallen apart. Without structure, the night becomes even more frightening.
"So tell me what you wanna do now," Estevam says.
"I don't know," Tony says. "Please help me."
To Estevam, who is also nervous now, this feels like a spy movie. He has known Tony for years, and if someone is trying to kill Tony, might they also try to kill him? He thinks. Thinks. Thinks. He and Tony call Lori, and a new plan is hatched. The bus station. Goiania is a city close to Brasilia. Buses leave every hour. Tony likes this. He has a friend in Goiania, an ex-girlfriend, Daniela. They drive back toward Brasilia, to the bus station, a half-hour trip.
Estevam still doesn't understand. "Let's go to the police," he says.
Tony says no. No cops. No U.S. Embassy. Only escape.
The bus station finally appears in front of them, and the two men go inside. Tony purchases a ticket, and Estevam walks him to the correct bus. Something is coming to an end. Both men sense it. Tony hugs his teammate and says, "You live in my heart."
Estevam searches for the words. "Go with God," he says.
The tears are gone, replaced by a lost look in Tony's eyes. What is going on behind those eyes? What do they see? Estevam searches his friend's face for clues, for some sort of road map of the journey to come. He sees sadness but also relief. Tony climbs the bus steps and finds his seat. The bus pulls away. Before it leaves the comforting glow of the station, Estevam sees Tony sitting by the window. The men lock eyes a final time. Tony gives him a thumbs up. In the last breath of the vanishing light, he takes his right hand and beats on his chest.
You live in my heart.
The first time, eight years ago, he was in South Korea playing basketball. He was out with a teammate, Derrick Johnson, and two girls in the VIP section of a Seoul club. A group of Korean men, speaking Russian, attacked the woman with Tony, striking her in the face with a bottle. Later, after she had jumped in their cab to escape, a van chased them down, cut them off on a bridge and the woman was yanked from the car by the same men. Johnson laughed it off. Tony didn't. He started seeing danger in every shadow. He stopped going out. Something inside of him changed. "From there I saw the paranoia," Johnson says. "Tony made it through the rest of the season. It was toward the end of the season. The paranoia didn't happen to the point where he left." Tony eventually got home and everything was fine. He'd left the fear in Korea.
The second time was three years ago, in Brazil. That time, he could not control it. He'd been there for five seasons, a popular star, leading his team to titles. Kids rushed to him after games for hugs and autographs. Girls waited at every exit of the gym. Everybody loved Tony Harris. But on Feb. 11, 2005, soon after returning to the country after being in America for a few months, he said he had food poisoning and refused to play or go to the hospital or even leave the locker room until the game was over. Bad shrimp, he said. The next day, at 6 a.m., he called the team's general manager and asked for a ride to the airport. He had to get home immediately. Tony paid for his own ticket.
This time, different people got different stories. Tony told the team his son from a prior relationship had been in a horrific car accident. He described the accident, and the hospital procedures, in great detail, and would continue the elaborate lie when he returned in 2007. The general manager was very worried about his friend, not knowing there had been no car accident. Tony told two basketball friends he just didn't have it anymore. But the story he told his pastor was more frightening: After a dispute with the team over money, some men took him way out into the wilderness and left him, wanting to send a message. Message received. Only this time, he brought the fear home with him. "When Tony came back from Brazil last time, something was not right with him," family friend Glynis Harps says. "Something heavy was on his mind, and he was preoccupied. I don't know what happened. Tony was scared."
He believed people were following him. Once, he yelled "duck" to a friend. There was no one there. Once, he saw a man he'd fought with as a preteen walk into a gym. He ran from the gym, leaving his gear behind, explaining later that the guy was going to hurt him. A friend says the long-lost "enemy" never knew Tony was in the gym. He stopped going to gyms entirely, giving up basketball for the first time in his life.
What did all this mean? It didn't answer Henshaw's question. It just changed it slightly. Had he seen too much to look at the world as a civilized place again? Or was he beginning to lose his mind?
Tony Harris stands outside the green gate, next door to the motorcycle repair shop, waiting on a cab driver to let him in. Where is this guy? There he is. Jose Lindomar Jesus, called Baiano by his friends, steps into the light, eyeing the tall man before him. He's carrying a backpack and seems scared, looking around as if he's expecting someone. It's Sunday morning, and there is no one else on the street.
Baiano shows Tony a place against the turquoise walls of the house where he can sit. Baiano goes into the house. Tony slumps down. It had been a long night. He arrived at the bus station in Goiania at around 2 a.m. He called Erika and tried to get Daniela's number; they were all friends in Uberlandia. Erika didn't have it. The plan was not working. He asked how to get to Natal from Goiania. She told him to take a bus. No, he explained, that bus went through Brasilia, and he could not have that. Finally, they came up with a solution -- a cab to Salvador, where he'd get a friend of Erika's to meet him and accompany him to Natal. OK. Good. Tony walked a few blocks to find a cab parked in front of a local hospital. That guy wouldn't do it, but he thought his friend might. Now it is 8:30 a.m., and Tony is here.
Soon, Baiano comes outside, dressed and cleaned up. Sliding across the black leather seats, Tony gets into the front of the white Chevy cab. Baiano takes a right out of his driveway, past the motorcycle repair shop, winds through the gears as they climb the hill toward the center of town. Tony wants to go to the Bank of Brazil, which accepts American ATM cards. The machine is in the far back right corner, and Tony slides his card, enters his PIN and ... is declined. The cab driver tries to read the screen over his shoulder. Tony is at his daily withdrawal limit. He'd taken out money already at the bus station. What to do? Harris gives the cab driver about $340, most of the money he has on him, and promises to pay the remaining $1,100 in Salvador. This means altering the plan yet again. Tony finds an Internet café, a dark, narrow shotgun building with low ceilings and green walls, buys a half-hour of Web time and a phone card, sits down at Terminal 3, a stark white cubicle, and sends an e-mail. Back home in Seattle, Lori's computer is set to ding when she gets mail. It's before dawn in Seattle, which doesn't matter to Tony.
He sends the first e-mail at 9:34 a.m. Ding! Babe what are you doing this it tony i need to talk to you cause i have to put some money in some ones account so that i can get to erikas city please respond
Less than a minute later, he writes again, virtually the same message. Ding! This time, Lori hears and answers. Tony gives her Baiano's cell-phone number and license number, tells her the plan and then logs off. Soon, Baiano's phone rings. It's Lori. She and Tony talk. It's a short call, just a few details. This is the last time they will ever hear each other's voices.
"Love you," Tony says.
"Love you, too," Lori says.
The errands finished, Tony and Baiano leave Goiania. Tony chain smokes, getting through three cigarettes until the rain comes and Baiano rolls up the window. After an hour and a half, they cross the border between Goias State and the Federal District. A big sign above the road marks the boundary. It also reads: BRASILIA 54 KM.
Without a word, Tony dives over the passenger seat, legs in the air, clawing for the back seat until he's lying down, curled up, and all that's visible from the window is the rainy-season sky overhead, clouds so big and nasty they seem to swallow you whole. When it's clear, the sky above Brazil looks like the front porch of heaven, all impossible blues and pillowy clouds. But when rainy season comes, and the storms roll in, the sky seems angry.
Baiano asks Tony what he's doing.
"I have a headache," Tony says.
They drive through Brasilia, past the television tower and the Carlton Hotel. Tony cowers, out of sight. Finally, outside the city, Tony is coaxed back up front and the journey continues toward Salvador, until about 2 p.m., when Baiano gets hungry.
Something changes his mind. Tony gets out of the car, leaving his backpack inside the cab. He walks into the small convenience store, which is in between the diner and the office where you pay for gas. A young man named Warley Dyone is behind the register. Everything seems normal. Tony asks the price of a bottle of orange juice and a small package of cookies. Warley tells him.
Out of nowhere, a troubled expression crosses Tony's face. Is there some debate inside his head that's about to be settled?
"Where's the taxi driver?" he asks.
"He's in the office paying for the gas," Warley says.
Tony does not reply. Is the neon sign in his head flashing again? RUN! RUN! RUN! He wheels around, out the glass doors, past the pumps, running, making a hard left at the highway, past the restaurant next door, out of sight. Warley chases after him. So does Baiano, who was going to ask for the PIN. Without it, the charge will be declined, later showing up on Tony's credit card statement as a failed attempt.
When Warley and Baiano reach the street, they see nothing. Tony has left behind a past, a future, a city of fans, a 14-year-old son, a pregnant wife, a change of clothes, a backpack and the laptop computer that has kept him tethered these past few days.
He has disappeared into the woods.
Two weeks after the shocking details finally became public, Estevam Ferreira walks off the basketball court following a Universo practice. He knows how afraid Tony had been the last time he was here. Like everyone else, he has a question: "Why did he come back?"
You tell him the story. Life was hard for Tony after Brazil. He tried to do the right thing -- whatever scared him also made him grow up. He married Lori, joined a church, volunteered at a local homeless shelter. For a while, he worked with children at a juvenile detention center named Echo Glen. His past followed him, though. When his job was about to become full-time, a background check found a report about child abuse. Years before, a teacher found Tony had spanked his son, leaving a mark, just before dropping him off for school. Never mind that the report absolved Tony of abuse. Almost two years to the day since he had left Brazil, he lost his job. That was nine months ago. Then Lori got pregnant, and he felt emasculated by his inability to support his family. Tony tried, applying for work at more than 50 places. But without a bachelor's degree, his fleeting fame did him no good. No one seemed to remember, or care, that he'd taken Washington State to the NCAA Tournament. He withdrew into himself, fighting with Lori, even briefly moving out. But he kept trying, moving back in the house, taking correspondence courses, applying for more jobs, even one at a grocery store, anything to feed his family. Then the phone rang. It was his old general manager from Brazil, desperately in need of a replacement player for an upcoming tournament. Tony was desperate, too. For his family, he would try to keep it together.
You look Estevam in the eyes. "He needed the money," you say.
This lays Estevam low. He turns away, crosses his arms, sighs, cannot speak. He thinks of his friend, a man terrified of this place but willing to risk it all to provide for his wife and child. The courage that must have taken. He thinks about his friend and when the words don't come, he touches his chest with his fist.
You live in my heart.
Tony Harris is hiding. What must he be thinking, crouching in the woods, counting the minutes and hours until it's safe to come out? Baiano drives up and down the street for a while, but after an hour and a half heads home, with Tony's backpack in his car. Some time Sunday evening, Tony comes out of the wilderness. He begs for food. Migrant workers and hobos frequent this road, stopping for work when they can find it, so people don't think this is strange.
No one sees Tony on Monday. There are no reports of him walking the road. But Monday afternoon, about 4:30, he finds a phone, according to team trainer Mario Saraiva. He dials a familiar number: Mario's. He was once a friend, but is now someone who Tony thinks might be part of the plot to kill him.
Tony says hello.
"Where are you?" Mario says. "I'm gonna pick you up."
Tony must make a decision. There is a struggle inside of him, these competing urges. Is Mario a friend? Is he an enemy? Tony shakes off the doubt. The sign is telling him to Run!
"No," Tony says. "I won't tell you. You'll tell the others, and they'll come to kill me."
Tony hangs up. He disappears again, and no one sees him Monday or Tuesday. Police will later assume he was hiding in the bush, burning up during the day, freezing at night. The U.S. Embassy will say it had no more confirmed sightings, but the Brazilian police, along with a resident in the town, say he made one more walk into the light.
On Wednesday morning, according to police records, a man looking like Tony knocked on a woman's door, begging for coffee and bread. On Wednesday afternoon, a few wandering hobos talked to him briefly. He was covered in dirt and grime and asked them for a clean shirt. They would say later they gave him one, but it was never found.
That night, around 7 o'clock, Harris stumbled toward the gas station, where this all began, past the pumps, back through the glass doors. Maria Paula Gonçalves, wearing her red uniform, stood behind the counter. The man was nervous, she would say later, barely looking at her, looking over his shoulders instead. He asked for a pack of Derby cigarettes and paid in the Brazilian equivalent of dimes.
Three and a half hours later, he returned. Maria had finished giving her husband his nightly medicine and making a plate of leftovers for a beggar when Tony appeared in the diner. For a moment, she thought he was the same person she just fed.
"I'm hungry," he said.
"I already gave you food," she said.
Then she looked down. The other man wore flip-flops. This man was wearing gigantic basketball shoes. It was the same guy who bought cigarettes. A few days later, after seeing his picture on television, she would say it was Tony Harris. Right now, he was just a man who needed food. She fixed him a plate, some leftover meat, rice and beans, wrapped it up to go. This time he was calm, not looking over his shoulder. He took the food and headed back out into the night. It's about four miles to where he would complete this final walk. Maybe he went down the highway a quarter of a mile, left through the gap in the barbed wire near the mini shantytown. Poor people often fish at a lake through there, which is why the fence was down. Was that where he went? No one knows for sure.
No known person would ever again see Tony Harris alive.
Pedromar Augusto de Souza is the chief of police in the nearest city. The Formosa station house has six bullet holes in the door; police work is serious business here in Brazil, where cops and gangsters have running gun battles. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and, as if to prove it, Pedromar pulls a big hog-leg .45 automatic from his waistband, ejects the magazine from the butt, jacks the chambered round, which bounces three times and settles. He hands over the shiny gun for inspection. The bullet? A hollow point. Goes in little, comes out big.
He has been working hard investigating the bizarre death of Tony Lee Harris, American citizen. It's the only case assigned directly to him. From afar, he has heard the conspiracy theories from the folks back in the States: that Universo lured Tony down to Brazil to kill him; that the police are covering up a crime, or worse; or even that the Brazilian Army killed him. Most of the theories are rooted in misinformation: Some media reports in Seattle included errors, which aroused suspicion; the cremation of the body was viewed as suspicious, though family members back home didn't know there was really nothing left but skin, bones and worms. He knows people think he's not being thorough. "It would be easy to say it's a suicide and close the case," he says. "I want to make really sure it was not homicide. To be 100 percent sure."
There are a few questions left. The decomposition of the body prohibited an accurate toxicology report. The cause of death is still officially undetermined, and lab officials cannot say with complete certainty that it was a death by hanging. They are virtually certain, but the state of the corpse has hindered the detective work. And there are other stray facts: Two cigarette butts were found near the body. Lab technicians are working to determine whether these were smoked by Tony, though no lighter was found near his body. Tony's wedding ring was missing. His wallet was missing. His sweatpants were missing. There was likely money missing, though how much is unknown.
And then there's the biggest mystery of all: the curious extra shoelace.
De Souza needs answers before closing the case. Right now, there is a sliver of doubt. A heartbreaking possibility exists: Could Tony Harris have been losing his mind, running from people who were not chasing him, only to end up surrounded by actual danger? "The most likely is suicide," de Souza says. "But some people walking around the street asking for money, maybe they saw him and thought this guy has money and they killed him. That's another question."
Will it ever be possible to conclusively prove what happened?
De Souza considers the question. The body had no bullet holes or stab wounds, no broken bones or tissue under the fingernails. But the rain and the wilderness erased any other forensic clues.
"No," he says.
The walk to the monkey pepper tree is long and difficult, no matter the route. Tony Harris leaves the gas station, and disappears into the cerrado, a sprawling Brazilian savanna that surrounds the town. Cerrado means "inaccessible" in Portuguese.
The land is frightening and foreign, quilts of open field dotted with termite mounds and tall, tropical trees. There are long runs of covered forest. The greens are psychedelic. Jaguars roam the forests and grasslands, their roar like a loud cough. Water flows, maybe a stream, maybe runoff from a recent shower. Large birds circle the tops of the trees, their shrieks breaking the peaceful gurgle of the water. Songbirds sing a sweet melody in the background. During the day, the sun bakes down, steaming all living things with alternating flurries of sun, rain, then more sun. At night, the chill comes and with it a darkness unlike anything a man from a civilized world has ever seen. At night, it's like God himself forgot the cerrado.
How long was Tony lost out here? A day? Two? Three? The soldiers say you could live for a month, if you knew what you were doing. The place is covered with edible fruit and fresh water. No one knows where Tony Harris walked, or what he thought or felt as he wove deeper and deeper into the maze-like wilderness. Was he scared? Did something finally turn off that neon sign in his mind? Did he stop running? Did someone stop him from running? Somehow he ended up at the monkey pepper tree. It's clearly visible, atop the crown of a small mound, in a clearing, a few smaller trees setting a perimeter. Though there is deeper forest around it, from the tree, a man can look up and see heaven.
No one knows exactly what happened to Tony Harris in his last minutes, but they do know where he was found. Police estimate he died on or about Friday, Nov. 9. An anonymous call came in on Sunday, Nov. 18, his birthday. About 20 feet from the monkey pepper tree is a fishing hole, though you can't see it without crawling through dense vegetation. A walking path to it, if you know where to dip into the forest, goes past the tree. Police believe the tipster is an illegal fisherman without permission to be on military property. That's yet another heartbreaking detail: Tony Harris loved to fish and some investigators believe he might have been out of his mind from dehydration. But if he had walked more or less straight here from town, he ended up only 20 yards shy of life-saving water and more fish than he could have eaten in a month.
Police and soldiers arrive on the scene. They smell it before they see it, a grotesque, barely human form, bleached white in spots and warped by the sun and rain, skin losing to gravity in big folds, those big basketball shoes just a foot off the ground. Bugs swarm and body fluids stain the trunk of the tree black. The corpse, no longer Tony Harris, hangs from a sturdy branch by a black shoelace. They notice that both of the shoelaces are in place. So he brought an extra shoelace with him from Brasilia, managed to keep it despite losing his computer, pants, wallet and ring? Could have happened.
The location of the pepper tree leads everyone who sees it to think suicide. This place seems too remote for anyone to have carried a body so far, and forensic evidence suggests Tony's life ended in this clearing, hanging from a monkey pepper tree, four miles from Bezerra, 6,000 miles from Seattle, totally and utterly alone.
It's the perfect tree. A short step up onto a low branch, an easy reach to tie the shoelace around a higher branch, then a quick step off. Death would have begun quickly, air cut off, the pressure on the spinal column beginning a domino effect, motor ability lessened or lost. Did his life flash before his eyes? Did he see a lost job and rejected applications? Did he see people chasing him and shadows and whispers? Or did he see other, happier things? Maybe a boy in Seattle pointing so many years ago and telling his mom: That's Tony Harris. He plays for Garfield. Maybe a bear hug with Kelvin Sampson after making it to the NCAA Tournament. Or did he see his 14-year-old son, who looks just like him, or his wife, or his mother, or his friends? Did he see his future?
No one knows. But the police do believe this: The very last act of Tony Harris on planet earth was to fight for his life. As he hung from that shoelace, his time now down to seconds, unable to use his arms and legs, he bit down on the tree, sinking his teeth into the trunk, as if to buy one inch of life-saving air. He failed, and he died there, hanging from the monkey pepper tree.
The day after cutting his body down, police found a hole burrowed deep into the bark of the tree. Laying on the ground below was a tooth, the last will and testament of a man struggling for light in a place consumed by darkness.
The two letters addressed to Tony Harris made it real. The first was from the state of Washington, absolving him of any further child support. There was a space for "reason" and one box had been checked: deceased. The next letter hurt even more. It was from a grocery store. Sorry, it began, we cannot extend you an offer. His application had been denied. Lori wept, for the man Tony wanted to be, and for the man she'd lost. "He was always well intentioned," she says. "He really had a heart of gold. It just broke my heart, because I could see the potential and the goodness in him, and nobody would give him a break."
She replays the last months. She's a mental health worker and yet she never saw signs of a serious problem. Sure, he was really down, refusing to talk about his pain, finding solace alone on a lake, fishing. But the contract in Brazil seemed to make him whole again. Why kill himself now, with a child on the way, with so much to live for? She doesn't believe it. It doesn't make sense. "Tony was a pretty boy," she says. "It's very hard to even imagine how awful his last days must have been in order for him to end up like that. All I have is the image of how he was found and his body was decomposed and that last phone conversation. It just makes it almost impossible to feel like you can move on. It's so hard."
*** *** ***
On the day of the funeral, a butterfly lands at the foot of the monkey pepper tree, flapping its wings slowly, refusing to fly away. Soon, another joins it. A continent away, his family spreads Tony's ashes on the Green River in Washington, where he had so often found peace, the water slowly taking him away forever. At the service, they mourn the end of Tony Harris' life, and begin the rest of their own lives without him. His son, D'Nique, goes to a gymnasium. He's on the JV team, and his first high school game is that night. No way he's going to miss that. Basketball is his connection with his father.
In the locker room, D'Nique quietly asks if he can switch jerseys with a teammate for the game. He wants to take that court with No. 4 on his back, the number Tony wore during happier times, when he was a star in Brazil. D'Nique doesn't talk about that, though he also writes a "4" on his own sneakers. He will offer tribute to his father in the only way he knows how: with a game. He walks onto the court, already 6-foot-3 and growing, looking so much like his father, wearing his father's number. He can't miss that night from 3-point range, and in the stands, next to his mom, sits a man who'd seen Tony play. The hairs on the back of the man's neck stand up. It is as if he has seen a ghost.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Thomas Milz, who helped with logistics, took photographs and translated interviews conducted in Portuguese.
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