24 Dec The Sunnyside Murders
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"The Sunnyside Murders"Written by Rhonnie Fordham
Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Serial killers have always fascinated me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found myself both scared and intrigued by psychos like Ted Bundy or Clementine Barnabet. And as I grew older, my interest only increased.
I was from Atlanta. Growing up in lower-class Latino neighborhoods, I’d seen crime all the time. I saw gangs, drugs, violence. Basically a first-hand glimpse into real-world terror. Life wasn’t always perfect. Not when I had no siblings and only my skinny mother to protect me. By thirteen, I was bitter. Angry. I didn’t want sappy bullshit to cheer me up. I wanted something darker. More realistic. So in time, serial killers became my hobby.
All the while, my mom fought hard as a single mother against the plights of life. And she won. Now I just had to make sure her victory wasn’t for naught.
So here I was. I, Michael Sanchez was on the verge of being the first college graduate in my family. Just one more semester and I’d be done here at Georgia State. My bachelor’s degree in English complete. I really wanted to be a writer. And you guessed it, a true crime writer. My capstone project was to even be a basis for my first book: an exploration into the homes of Georgia’s most infamous serial killers. Yeah, I kinda got the idea from the 1993 movie Kalifornia.
By the time Christmas break rolled around, my girlfriend Amy and I had already visited close to ten of these “homes.” All around Georgia. From Atlanta to Cordele. But now we were going further South than ever before. Almost to the Florida line: Stanwyck, Georgia.
For a relatively small town, Stanwyck had its fair share of violence. Maybe the highest murder rate per capita in the entire state. We were there to check out two particular locations: Jack Bates’s old house and a derelict apartment building called Sunnyside.
Sunnyside was a shambling two-story eyesore. Hell, I think it only had four “apartments” for rent. But the place was home to more than just roaches: it was also home to Clay Fowler. A bigot, a rapist. And murderer. The Stanwyck Slayer as he was called by the press.
Fowler was thirty-five by the time Apartment B was raided during the early-70s. Inside, police found the remains of all of his victims. Dozens of them found not as corpses or bodies, but just as pieces of flesh and organs.
All the pieces had been incorporated into his apartment’s interior. They were sewn or nailed into all the furniture and walls. There was even a flesh-covered coffee table.
Like a deranged home decorator, Clay had used his victims for Apartment B’s make-over. With the aid of his trusted fillet knife, he’d flawlessly blended the skin and bone into his home with meticulous precision. The cleanest apartment Sunnyside had ever seen. Everything was said to be so smooth and soft except for the occasional fleshy lump.
Clay had mostly been preying on children attending a nearby middle school. Most of his victims black. Considering his disgusting racism, Clay’s location deep in the heart of Stanwyck’s slums must’ve been a happy convenience for him. And like a monster of the mornings, he’d usually abduct the kids around dawn. Additionally, he’d also kill whichever adults got too close to Apartment B. Even a couple of his own neighbors from Apartment A.
From what I’d read, police were criticized for not investigating as thoroughly as they should’ve. An all-too-common reality whenever minorities and lower-class citizens went missing… something I was used to growing up in my poor neighborhoods.
Ultimately, Fowler got sentenced to life without parole. And to this day, The Stanwyck Slayer is still rotting behind bars.
I imagine most of y’all are probably wondering what the Hell I got out of exploring the homes of assholes like Fowler. Honestly, these journeys weren’t all about my project. They satisfied my passion. My obsession. Just being in these morbid locations grounded the tragedies for me. They painted historical markers for the murderers and their victims. And ultimately, I viewed them as symbolic gravestones for such horrible crimes.
So on December twentieth, Amy and I left my mom’s place. I promised to be back by Christmas Eve at the latest. After all, I’d never miss the holidays with mama. Plus, I was gonna bring her back a Stanwyck souvenir like I always did on these trips.
The pretty drive was a four hour journey through the rural American South. Amy and I had a blast like always. She considered it an early Christmas present for me, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.
We were a quirky but cute couple. Both of us black-haired and brown-eyed Latinos. Both of us with hipster haircuts and eccentric clothes. Both of us from tough poor neighborhoods. But Amy was much tougher than me. Not to mention more muscular compared to me and my developing beer belly…
We’d bonded in American Lit over Edgar Allan Poe. Two outsiders in a college where everyone else considered us weird as fuck. But we didn’t need them or the party scene. We had each other. Horror movies. And our shared interest in serial killers.
By four o’clock, we reached Stanwyck. I wouldn’t say the town was tiny nor big. Just an average All-American city. A Wal-Mart and a great high school football team. A high school team that’d just won a state championship too.
Plus, the city’s Christmas lights were glorious. Like a holiday Vegas. Such a warm greeting for a town notorious to all us true crime enthusiasts like Amy and I. There were the clean city streets. The cute country homes. The countless fast food chains… overall, Stanwyck just looked comfortable.
However, the closer we got to Sunnyside, we noticed the gradual shift from pleasant Stanwyck to downtrodden slummy Stanwyck. West Stanwyck, to be exact. The area was more industrial rather than scenic. And with it, came a conglomeration of lower-class neighborhoods and public housing. Sunnyside Apartments amongst them.
The roads got bumpier. The houses became more unappealing. The Christmas lights now resembled shabby hand-me-downs. West Stanwyck felt like a safer incarnation of the mean streets Amy and I had grown up on.
Soon, we passed the middle school. And what a brick mess it was.
A faded sign out front read: West Stanwyck Middle School. Home Of The Owls.
The sign’s owl caricature would’ve been more at home in a 1960s cartoon. So would the school for that matter. Much like the west side’s Christmas lights, Stanwyck Middle resembled yet another indifferent hand-me-down from the city.
And the neighborhoods around the school weren’t much better. Almost all public housing. All full of poverty and urban decay. Small town America’s rendition of my inner-city ATL Hell.
In a few blocks, we finally reached our destination and pulled up into Sunnyside’s ruptured parking lot. My Toyota was the only car here. No nearby neighbors save for a shack or two. A Stanwyck Middle School bus stop was right across the street… yet another unfortunate convenience for Fowler.
Woods of tall trees and spiraling ivy were on all sides of the two-story building. The property long overgrown. Almost as if Sunnyside had become a dark forest in the middle of town.
The apartment’s white stone structure was about as appealing as a funeral home. Once I saw the rickety metal stairway, I was glad Apartment B was on the ground floor.
Even in the early evening, I found it strange there weren’t any cars or people around. As if the abandoned Sunnyside had been quarantined from the rest of town. Even a black eye for this lower-class neighborhood.
Holding hands, Amy and I walked toward B. Both of us struggled to stay warm in our hoodies. The harsh breeze about as vicious as Fowler’s fillet knife.
We were ready for our “inspection.” She had the camera. I had my iPhone out, ready to type down my thoughts. Well, Amy and I’s thoughts. In many ways, this was our project.
I pulled my hoodie in closer. A weak attempt to stave off the bitter cold.
As we passed Apartment A, I stole a look through its large windows. I could see stray furniture inside. Even trash and cigarette butts on the wool carpeting. Regardless of the tacky color, the room’s blue walls looked fresh rather than ancient.
“Exciting,” Amy murmured.
“I know,” I said. I squeezed her hand like an excited kid clinging to their parent before entering their first haunted house. “I bet they probably couldn’t clean all of it.”
Chuckling, Amy gave me a light punch. “That’s terrible, Michael!”
“I mean it’d be pretty damn tough. The bitch had people everywhere.”
“Even sewn into the couch, right?”
Like a confident professor, I looked right at her. “Correct.”
We stopped at the black door. A crooked letter B hung on it. Scratches and chipped paint accompanied the rusty doorknob. Cracked glass was on all the nearby windows. Somehow this place was never rumored to be haunted, I realized.
Amy took a pic of the door. She flashed me a smile. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” I replied. Cautious, I reached toward the door. Then hesitated. Even in the daylight, trespassing always got me nervous. I stole a look around us… even though I knew not a soul was around. And deep down, I knew no one would care anyway. Not even small town cops.
“I got it,” Amy quipped.
Turning, I saw her go ahead and snag the doorknob.
To our surprise, the knob moved with effortless precision. One smooth turn and Amy let it creak open.
“Well, that was easy,” I commented.
Grinning, Amy snapped a photo of me.
I couldn’t help but smirk.
Using the camera, Amy waved me inside. “After you, sexy.”
From there, we entered Apartment B. The front door slammed shut right behind us in a ferocious flourish. Of course, I jumped. And of course, Amy laughed her ass off.
“You already scared?” she teased.
I threw up my arms. “We’re only in the home of one of Georgia’s most prolific serial killers.”
“Not our first time, Michael.”
Amused, I hugged her close and gave her a kiss.
“Come on,” I said. Then we got to work.
Even with all the lights out, sunshine beamed in through all the windows to light the place up like a stage. Not that there was much to light up.
Most of the apartment was a big living room. There was an old torn couch. A few blankets strewn about. Even a bulky T.V. No flesh was on any of this, of course.
Plenty of stains and trash covered the scruffy carpet. Not to mention the carpet was more ruptured than the parking lot.
A small kitchen was connected to the living room. Just an oven and a tall fridge. Not even room for a damn table.
Expecting a cold cave, I was surprised by the room’s cozy warmth. As if all the squatters had set up a fireplace for the holidays.
But I could still feel the isolation in here. Even in the city limits. Apartment B was a lonely place. All ugly blandness inside. And all ugly poverty outside. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my old neighborhoods. The places mama and I used to live…
I bet Fowler spent plenty of long nights in this room. Both from killing and out of boredom. There was seclusion in Apartment B’s walls. Maybe being trapped in here was the final push toward The Stanwyck Slayer’s killing spree? Then I realized an even creepier thought… what if Fowler was planning the murders all along? Specifically against the black race he hated. This wouldn’t be a lonely place then, but a coveted spot for his evil.
As she took photos with the artistry of a SnapChatter-turned-crime-photographer, Amy pointed toward the walls. They were blood red rather than blue.
“I guess they painted it that in case they missed anything,” she joked.
Smiling, I nodded. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
Stopping near the T.V., I saw that all the walls were red. I knew it was paint but still felt like Amy and I had stumbled upon a recreation of the scene shocked officers had found in here over forty years ago. Red walls made of Clay’s victims’ flesh and blood. Not to mention the human smorgasbord that was his furniture. This was Ed Gein in overdrive.
Like an intense reporter, Amy took countless photos. And I did my best to type up notes on my phone.
Turning, I noticed a tight hallway led from the living room to a few closed doors. I figured a bedroom and bathroom. The hallway resembled a claustrophobic tunnel… claustrophobic just like the rest of this shithole apartment.
Stopping near me, an excited Amy pointed toward a shelf standing by the couch. One of the ripped-up sofa arms had obscured the sight. “Hey, check that out!” she said.
Intrigued, I followed her over to the shelf.
On top of it stood two modest picture frames. Through the cracked glass, each frame showed a lesbian couple in their mid-30s. Attractive but clearly lower-class. Grungy clothes and hairstyles. Countless piercings. The taller one was a white girl with green eyes and long blonde hair, the other an African-American with a sexy fohawk.
“Who are they?” Amy asked.
“Probably the last renters,” I said.
Amy took closer shots of both pics.
Smirking, I looked back at all the red walls. Now that I was this close, the paint did look quite fresh. “Probably back when rent was one-hundred a month.”
Laughing, Amy confronted me. “Even that’s too much.”
Through the windows, I saw the sunlight fading into night. The apartment was getting darker. And creepier. Just how Amy and I liked it. Like a morbid museum that retained a curious mystique by day but became fucking terrifying once the lights went out.
“Come on,” I said. With that, I led the way toward the hallway. Toward those doors.
Amy stayed close. Like a constant soundtrack, I kept hearing her camera go off.
“You think we’ll find anything?” she asked.
I flashed her a grin. “I sure hope not.”
The hallway was even darker than the living room. No windows for comfort. Like we were going further within the cave that was Apartment B.
Both doors were black and looked older than slabs of stone. The knobs long conquered by rust.
I snagged the first one, but it was locked. Stunned, I kept turning the knob to no avail. “What the fuck…” I muttered.
“Why’s it locked?” Amy asked, incredulous.
The entire apartment got darker and darker. As if Sunnyside Apartments was getting near closing time. Yet Apartment B was still warm. Sure, the shitty building was shelter from the cold… but this was constant heat. There was no cool breeze seeping in or a dominant draft for that matter.
“I wonder what the last tenants were hiding,” Amy quipped in a Crypt Keeper tone.
Grinning, I looked at her warm smile.
“Hey, we can dream, right,” she commented.
“Why not.” Ready to explore, I grabbed the other doorknob. But it wouldn’t budge. Both doors were locked tight.
Annoyed, I pounded on the hard door. The hits hurt me more than anything. Like I was banging on concrete.
“Fuck!” I yelled as I drew my hand back.
Chuckling, Amy pulled me back. “Nice try, doofus.”
I confronted the door, frustrated I couldn’t see what secrets lied behind it.
“I think there’s a window out back,” Amy said.
With the sudden fright of a blaring police siren, the front door swung open.
“Oh fuck!” I exclaimed.
Scared shitless, Amy and I turned to see a couple enter from the dark night. Two laughing females. Their drunken laughter reminiscent of hyenas.
I felt Amy’s nervous hand grab my shoulder. Full of dread, I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her in close. There we stood in the dark like uneasy soldiers.
One quick flick and the living room lights cut on. Loud, humming bulbs illuminated the apartment like a clinical lab.
The two girls were the lesbian couple from the photos. The strange couple. In addition to the piercings, they wore punk clothing. Ripped jeans and tee-shirts. Tight black leather jackets.
The fohawk girl carried two large brown grocery bags. Overfilled bags. Like an All-American family’s shopping spree gone mad.
Still chuckling, the blonde woman stumbled over toward the kitchen. Neither woman had seen us yet.
My mind was at a panicked blank. What the fuck were we gonna do?
Apparently, Amy had an idea. Stepping away from me, Amy approached the two women.
“I’m sorry,” Amy said, her voice apologetic yet strong.
I followed after her. Yeah, I felt weird, but I wasn’t gonna let my gf go alone.
Surprised, the fohawk girl flashed us an amused smile. “Oh, hi there.” She placed the grocery bags on the couch.
I heard the fridge opening in the kitchen. The sound of drinks and food being pushed around.
Together, Amy and I stopped in the living room. Awkward as always. Like we’d crashed an upscale party rather than just broken into a shitty apartment.
“Shit, we’re so sorry!” Amy went on, doing her best to suppress her unease. “We didn’t know anyone lived here.”
Holding a can of PBR, the tall blonde stopped next to her girlfriend. A wicked smile dominated the blonde’s haggard face. “Well, look what the cat drug in.”
“I know,” her girlfriend said. “We’ve got visitors.”
“Pretty ones too.” The blonde took a long sip, savoring the cheap booze. The couple’s smiles were confident but warm. Like proud hostesses.
Keeping her cool, Amy took a calm step toward them. “I’m sorry. We came here because we heard this was where The Stanwyck Slayer lived.”
The blonde’s bright eyes lit up. “Oh. Clay Fowler, right?”
Gathering my nerves, I stopped next to Amy. “Yeah, this was his apartment, right?” I asked. “Apartment B?”
“Oh yeah,” the blonde went on. She took another compulsive sip like it was a dose of prescribed medicine. “Mrs. Barrymore warned us about it when we moved in.”
“Our landlord,” fohawk chimed in.
Amy and I released nervous chuckles.
“Warned y’all?” I joked like an anxious comedian. I stole a glance around the room. “He’s not still here, is he?”
The blonde laughed. “No, not at all, man. That bitch has been gone.”
Grinning, her girlfriend motioned toward Amy’s camera. “What’s that for?”
“Y’all trying to do an interview?” the blonde teased.
“Like a documentary,” fohawk added.
Hiding her nerves better than I ever could, Amy held up the camera. “We were just taking pictures. Honestly, we really thought Sunnyside was abandoned.”
“Yeah,” I added. “We’re trying to explore the houses of different famous serial killers.”
“No shit!” the blonde exclaimed.
Excited, her girlfriend hit her shoulder. “That’s so cool!”
“I’m honestly surprised no one’s been around here before,” I said. “I mean this is like history.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Amy said.
Like a smug celebrity on a photo shoot, the blonde draped her arm over her girl. One hand on her girlfriend, the other on a PBR. All that was missing was a cigarette. “Well, we don’t worry about it too much,” the blonde stated. She exchanged smiles with fohawk. “Rent’s cheap and we’re together.” Her beaming eyes confronted Amy and I. “That’s all that matters.”
“I understand,” Amy said. “Again, I’m sorry we barged in like this.”
Like a pathetic apologetic suburban dad, I forced a chuckle. Clark Griswold himself would’ve cringed. “Yeah, I thought it was a little too warm in here to be abandoned.”
Laughing, fohawk faced her partner. “Oh my God, did you leave the heat on again!”
The blonde waved her can toward the front door. “Shit, you’re the one who left the damn door open!”
“Well, we should probably leave,” Amy said. “I’m sorry about all this.”
Eager, I joined Amy. “Yeah.”
Using her PBR like a baton, the blonde kept us at bay. “Whoa, y’all ain’t taking nothing now, are you?”
Her girlfriend grabbed her arm. “Babe-”
“No, I’m serious, Chris!” the blonde interrupted. She focused her stoic stare on us. “They were just messing around in our apartment.”
“I promise we didn’t,” Amy said.
Chris wrapped her arm around the blonde. “You locked the bedroom remember?”
“True,” the blonde admitted.
Trying to leave the awkward situation, Amy exchanged nervous looks with me. “Well, we really should get going.”
But the couple didn’t budge. Like a human blockade, they stayed in front of the doorway.
Chris’s curious eyes stayed focused on us. “Fowler was the one who killed all the black kids, right? With a fillet knife or some shit?”
“Yeah, he’s fucking terrible,” I said.
Like a mob boss, the blonde took another cool sip. “So why are y’all so interested in him then?”
I felt the couple’s stares pierce into us like daggers.
“Well,” I stammered. Turning, I saw Amy’s annoyed glare strike me with ferocity.
“It’s for his project,” Amy added.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m doing a book on serial killers. About their homes and houses and shit.” I waved toward Amy. “She’s taking the pictures and helping me.”
Smiles cracked through the couple’s stoic facades.
“Aww, how cute!” the blonde teased.
“Y’all know about Jack Bates too, right?” Chris asked us.
Amy grinned. “Of course.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna stop at his place next,” I said.
Like a rebellious teenager that was too cool for school, the blonde let out a smug chuckle. “Aw, man. Plenty of weirdos in this town.”
“Not even counting us,” Chris joked.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard,” I said.
With forceful energy, Amy pulled me toward the door. “Well, it was nice meeting y’all,” Amy said to the couple.
“Oh yeah, you too,” Chris replied. Unlike the blonde, Chris stepped out of the way. Just enough space for us to clear out of Apartment B.
Turning, I faced the couple. “I’m sorry about everything.”
“No, you’re fine,” Chris said in a warm tone. “Bye.”
Like a confident cop, the blonde’s eyes and smirk stayed on me. “Take care,” she said with sardonic sharpness.
Amy and I stepped out into the furious cold. The temperature had dropped even further since we went into the apartment.
As if she were shutting us into a chest freezer, Chris closed the door behind us. The powerful effects of Apartment B’s heater were now gone without a trace.
Desperate to stay warm, I hugged Amy close. “Well, that was fun.”
“A little too exciting,” Amy said with a laugh.
Together, we started walking back to my Toyota. The howling breeze kept hitting us in waves. Amy jammed her hands in her hoodie pockets. Camera included.
“I guess I’ll have to do more research next time,” I said. My eyes drifted over toward one of Apartment B’s many windows.
“Naw, that’s my bad,” Amy said.
Not saying a word, I came to a horrified stop. The combination of the cold and my own extreme fear cemented me in place.
Startled, Amy looked at me. “Michael.”
But I couldn’t answer. My eyes were captivated by the sight inside Apartment B.
Through the windows, I could see the lesbian couple empty the grocery bags onto the couch like open Christmas presents.
Right on the sofa fell a grisly collection. Blood-red “gifts”: severed human limbs and pulpy organs.
The two women looked excited and thrilled. Like bank robbers evaluating their stolen loot. Only this was stolen, slaughtered lives.
I felt Amy’s terrified hand snatch my arm. Her grip colder than the December air.
Then when Chris and the blonde both looked up at us, their eyes looked colder than Death.
My soul became twisted in knots. Especially once the couple gave Amy and I those wicked smiles.
The two of them looked so happy. Even with the scattered gore all over their bodies and drenched across the ugly sofa. They had the enthusiastic spirit of Clay Fowler. And the enthusiastic evil of Apartment B.
“Come on!” the frightened Amy yelled through the cold.
I felt her yank my arm out of its socket. But it was the wake-up call I needed.
Snapping out of my frozen fear, I followed Amy toward the Toyota. All the way through the slicing cool air.
The door to Apartment B burst open like gunfire through the quiet night.
Scared, I turned and saw the couple run after us. Each of them held a long fillet knife. Just like Clay Fowler’s weapon of choice. The couple’s smiles looked more vicious than those long blades too.
“Shit!” I yelled.
“Keep going!” Amy demanded.
Amy’s grip tightened on my arm, cutting off whatever blood flow the cold hadn’t zapped from me yet.
As we passed Apartment A, I stole a look at the windows.
Through the cold air erupting from my lips, I saw a similarly horrific scene like the one I saw in Apartment B.
A middle-aged white couple spread out on the living room floor. Presumably the landlords: the Barrymores. Naked and laughing, they splashed around on the carpet. A carpet drenched in buckets of blood… as if the couple were making grisly snow Angels.
Like a persistent cab driver, Amy wouldn’t let me stop for too long. Not that I wanted to. Not when I could hear the lesbian couple get closer and closer. Or when Mr. Barrymore’s wild gaze made direct eye contact with my frightened eyes.
Finally, we reached the Toyota. Amy shoved me toward the passenger’s seat. I felt the cold window hit my hands. Honestly, I was shocked my hands didn’t explode like busted ice upon impact.
Amy hopped in behind the wheel. “Get in!” she yelled.
Terrified, I turned. All of Sunnyside was descending upon us.
I saw crazed couples running down the metal stairway. Their loud clanging footsteps sounded like a robotic army. Their frenetic movement made the staircase tremble in the wind. All of them were armed with the fillet knives. All of them glowered right at us.
And now the lesbian couple and the Barrymores were less than fifteen feet away. The Barrymores still nude and bathed in blood. Their fillet knives craving our flesh.
I heard the Toyota start like a motorcycle ready to race. And I was ready to get the fuck out of here. The smartest thing I’d done all day, or in my entire life, was give Amy those car keys before heading into Apartment B. Thank fucking God, I did.
Without further ado, I jumped into the passenger’s seat. All I could do was stare out the window as Amy put the car in reverse.
The Sunnyside tenants got closer and closer. As did their glares. Their bloodlust. Their sharp blades.
Breathing heavy, Amy drove off with a furious mash on the pedal. And she never looked back.
I suppose I shouldn’t have either… but I couldn’t help myself. Like a trembling child, my wide eyes looked back at Sunnyside. At all the bizarre residents.
They gave chase down the street. And then finally, they dropped out of sight… we were finally out of their collective crosshairs. Amy and I were safe.
By this point, we had no interest in going to Jack Bates’s house. Amy didn’t even have to talk me into it. Shit, she’d even offered to still go there just for me. Just for my Christmas “present.” But I’d had enough of the book for the holidays. Maybe in January, I’d feel up to exploring more… just damn sure not now.
We made one stop at a local gas station. There, Amy called the Stanwyck police and told them about Sunnyside. She begged them to go out there as soon as possible. On the phone, they tried to calm her down, but Amy was understandably not having any of that. They even tried to tell us Sunnyside had been abandoned since the early 90s… just like my research had led me to believe. But nonetheless, the dispatcher told us they’d send a few officers over there to check it out. Only Amy and I weren’t sticking around to hear more. No fucking way.
Before leaving Stanwyck, I ran inside the convenience store and got mama her souvenir. A cute Bearcat coffee mug. Yeah, I know. A pretty cheesy mascot for such a dominant high school football team. I gotta say it was unique though… plus, mama did love her animals.
Amy and I made it a straight shot back to Atlanta. With Christmas music rather than true-crime podcasts playing all the way… like we were a family looking at lights on December 24. Smiling, we sang along to all the cheesy lyrics. I guess narrowly surviving an attack from a band of murderers could make you a little sentimental. But through it all, Amy and I survived. And we’d be home for Christmas.