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Waiting for Stephen

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One of Stephen’s passions was writing, and his favorite subject to write about was the shore. Something about the salty taste of the air, the break of the waves on the smooth grey sand, and the cry of the circling gulls drew him there every year, even if for a few hours each time. He always stumbled home right before ten o’clock curfew, sketchbook in hand, hair disheveled and blown a bit upwards at the roots, and we knew where he had been. Mom could then stop waiting nervously for him at the kitchen table, exhale in relief, and ask him how his afternoon was. On those hazy nights, the only infraction she ever scolded Stephen for was the seaweed that he trailed into the mud room, but even that was forgiven when he placed a small shell into her palm and said with a grin, “For your collection, Mom.” She still has them, every last shell, up on a mantelpiece shelf above her bed.

There were terrible times, too, like that Halloween when Stephen, dressed as a cowboy, entered the house with a bulging bag of candy and a chatty brunette cowgirl. The two sat on the living room couch and watched Vampire Mansion, throwing popcorn at each other, holding hands, and screaming in unison at the sight of blood. Stephen’s arm had just begun to slip across the back of the cowgirl’s plaid shoulders when Mom stepped through the front door. Her eyes immediately hardened at the sight of her son. Quietly, she asked that the cowgirl go home and that Stephen come into the kitchen for a “discussion.” With my head perched between two rungs of the stairwell banister, I peered beneath me and watched intently as the suddenly partnerless cowgirl dusted popcorn bits off of her coat. Then, she stepped through the front door and paused to glance behind her in hopes that Stephen would reappear from the kitchen. When he didn’t, she left, letting the door swing behind her with a creak. I snuck upstairs and listened silently from my bedroom, clutching a warm fleece blanket, as the heated yells of the argument poured upwards from the kitchen and filled the whole house. The twenty minutes of accusations and nasty retorts culminated in an angry threat from Stephen about running away from home, followed by a series of footsteps pounding up the stairs and the stiff slam of a bedroom door. Mom remained downstairs, exhaustedly slumped against the spindles of a wooden kitchen chair. I knew that, though frustrated as she was, she didn’t take his warning seriously- nor did Dad when Mom, still fuming, recounted the incident to him. Surely Stephen would never become so angry that he would go through with such an impulsive, childish act, I thought. Mom and Dad thought the same was true.

Well, we all thought wrong. Two days later I stepped off the school bus and into the house to find Mom sitting in the kitchen with a look of fear upon her colorless face. In her hands was a brief note on loose leaf, torn from a notepad and written in smudged black pen. It was from Stephen. The note explained in vague and curt terms why he left, where he was going, and his instructions to us in his planned absence.

“…Texas has more things to do, more things to be, and more opportunities than this place will ever have. Don’t bother trying to catch me, even though I know you will. Just tell everyone I’m fine, because I am and will be for the rest of the time I’m gone. Stephen.”

Rest of the time…Those were the brief contents of the entire note, including the thin, scribbled signature. It confused me terribly, especially the word “catch.” It was an inappropriate word for the situations, even though Stephen was a writer, a master of diction, a weaver of words. Animal analogies came to mind- I couldn’t help it. Was he as a deer would be, running from the hunter’s arrow? Or a lamb, ducking into cold caves, hiding from a ravenous wolf destined to spot his shivering white coat anyway? What on this vast earth was he hiding from? The explanation eluded me. Even after staring at it for quite some time, I realized that all that was on that hollow page was equally empty lettering.

Something snapped in Mom the day she beheld that paper in her trembling hands. Not only did she trade in her apron, mop, and persistent cheer for the endless string of hopeful calls to the police, as if the they men in uniform alone held the key to her son’s mysterious whereabouts, but she also got herself fired from work. The excuse to Dad and me was that she needed to “concentrate on finding him,” but the shameful, distracted droop in her eyelids indicated otherwise. Still, we faithfully continued the daily phone calls to the station, each one leaving us with a several-cent increase in our phone bill and less patience. All we had to keep our pockets warm now was worn-out, withered hope, like the blanket that I clutched every night as I listened to my parents arguing in the kitchen in the otherwise-quiet dead of the night.

Besides my fleece article, the smallest of comforts to me during those nights was the short collection of poems I had pieced together from the solitude of my bedroom desk. In the middle of March, a hefty package sat in our mailbox with my name typed in elegant text in the middle, and I opened it hastily to discover an unexpected scholarship to Wellington University, the one school I had bothered to send a copy of my poems to. In time, May of my senior year arrived on the tails of dewy, rainy days, with a miniscule glimmer of change twinkling through the window of my collegiate future like a lonely star. Yet, there was no bright sun to show its beaming face on the horizon of our existence and still no sign of Stephen. Eventually, I stopped clutching the blanket, as it had become cold.
*
*
*

My brother took one year, four months, and two days to come back home. A state trooper nabbed him sleeping in his car on the side of an interstate and shipped him back home on the assumption that, even though Stephen was legally old enough to live on his own, his family would be missing him. As it turns out, his assumption was a merciful one. I was there when Mom got the phone call that cost sixteen months of desperate prayer to receive and I saw her break down in a stroke of joyful, uncontrollable sobs. Handing her a tissue, I bade her to sit down and put a pot of water on the stove to boil for coffee. Then, we sat at the kitchen table and waited for Stephen to come home.

About an hour later we heard the rumble of Dad’s truck pulling in from work just as a police car glided into the driveway behind him. Doors were opened, feet hit the pavement, and doors were slammed shut. The prodigal son himself was led out of the police vehicle, his head hung, face down, curtained by straggly hair. He had but a minute to breathe in the neighborhood air before Mom smothered him in an exuberant hug, with Dad carefully joining the huddle. Even though I hadn’t seen Stephen for over a year, I stood apart from them, frozen on the porch, too embarrassed by my lack of control over the stinging tears that trickled down my face.

A couple of days later, Stephen called me to his room to show me sketches from his “trip.” Dirtied around the edges and composed of unfamiliar people and places, the sketches were of a rough, gritty nature that my beholding eyes found foreign. Long gone were the days of colored pencils and vivid childhood color next to his stories- now, charcoal and graphite lay curled in the fingers of an artist whose work was once carefree and enlivening. There was something in the pictures of the remote American towns and scowling faces of strangers that bothered me so much that I couldn’t help but ask him about it.

“Where exactly did you go, Stephen?”

My question was posed tentatively, nervously. He did not bother to look up from his desk but answered me, “It’s a secret.” Stephen confessed on a later date that he had been wandering about the southern state line, but that was no secret compared to the one he was about to reveal.
*
*
*

The overwhelming July heat made us all sticky and itching for an air conditioner. Dad had stubbornly refused for two months straight to purchase a machine he was only to use for “three months out of the whole doggone year,” but he finally caved with a little coaxing from Mom. Being that Mom’s return to work left us with extra pocket change, Dad set the date for us to all go out together to Appliance Central and afterwards, to the Cottonwood Diner. And so we did, each of us undoubtedly enjoying not only the prospect of having cool air in the house but also the pleasantness of family company after a year of uncertainty, a year of not knowing when the next family gathering was to be. The feeling was short-lived, however, as Stephen’s cell phone picked up a certain…call.

When he returned to the table and set the phone distractedly on the edge of the table, his face was different, sullen. Mom asked him who it was, but Stephen didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at his phone and pressed his fingers together tensely. She asked again, this time looking up from the menu.

“Stephen, honey, who was it?”

Dad shook his shoulder gently.

“Son, are you all right?”

My brother’s lower lip trembled and as a tear dripped down his cheek. That was the night we found out that he had signed up for military service while he was away. That was the night we found out that he had just received a call to duty in the Middle East.

What possessed him to sign those military forms is still unknown to me. For two weeks afterwards, I tossed and turned at night, struggling with that very question, before giving up, too suffocated in my own frustration to think about it any longer. The day he was scheduled to leave, I knocked on his door and handed him a new sketchbook with a clean navy blue cover. “Just in case you run out of paper,” I told him. Stephen said “thanks” and placed the book in his suitcase, then zipped it up. “Callie, bring…bring my backpack downstairs, will you? And find another toothbrush for me. I, uh, I need an extra toothbrush.” He fumbled for the words, straining with great difficulty to grasp them, and then felt them fall out of his mouth into the uneasy air. I knew he was trying his absolute hardest not to cry, for I was trying to keep my eyes dry as well.
*
*
*

Wellington University has a beautiful, picturesque campus, with sprawling, open lawns and wooden walks that are lined with innumerable flowers of a brilliant red hue. Stephen would have loved this place- the peacefully rolling hills, gardens tucked into the shadows of the dormitories, the ivy crawling dangerously up the brick walls of the dining hall. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help with moving in, but he did send me a homemade card to wish me a happy “Move-In Day.” There was just enough color in the sketch of the wreath on the front to make me smile, and in my letter back to him I promised to send him pictures of the campus, especially of the red flowers. However, the importance of my promise faded with the delivery of a U.S. news report on a cloudy Saturday morning.

Camp I-55 was bombed last night by the insurgents. No word yet on the nature of the explosives. The American troops stationed there appear to be scattered above the western ridge. Casualties and injuries are expected to be high. More news to follow; we will keep you updated. And that was all there was, like a three-line summary to cover a twenty-two-volume biography, one volume per year of a young man’s wretched life. That day, after the morning news, Mom called and asked me, in a tear-choked voice, to come home.

Once again, we are hanging in the dense expanse of time, like fish out of water, gasping for breath. Our bodies are frozen, unable to move forward, unable to move backwards, and we have nothing to do but wait, hope, and pray. All the while, we cry silently to ourselves, though we do not speak of tears. Instead, I write, Dad tries to turn the volume of the television down while he cooks simple dinners, and Mom sits on the couch, wrapped under a throw blanket, staring blankly at the screen.

Just this morning I overheard Mom muttering to herself about how much she dislikes her boss and how it would do her good to take a break from her career. “Maybe pursue a different path, you know, after I take time off to discover my true workplace potential,” she said, citing a motivational speaker’s visit to the office as the reason for her sudden change of interests. I saw her scratching her arms irritably while she was muttering, too- it looks like she’s getting a strange rash on her arms. Dad shook his head and sighed wearily, thoroughly convinced that her ailment had stemmed from a continuous lack of sleep. I quietly told him that sleep rashes don’t exist and retreated to my room, where I spent the rest of the afternoon.

This morning I sat at the kitchen table, writing a poem about a quaint little cottage in a faraway town by the shore. A part of me still refuses to admit that it is meant for Stephen to see, and the truth is that I may never see him, but I don’t say that. No, I never say that as I sit in the kitchen, next to the phone. Instead, I look up at the phone’s dangling cord and twist its cold plastic coils around my fingers as I hope, pray, and cry. For now, that is all I can do. For now, I can only sit here quietly and wait for Stephen.





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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

becca78 said...
Dec. 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm
Thanks for the comment! I'm really glad you liked it!!! :)
 
coocookachoo22 said...
Sept. 6, 2008 at 3:02 pm
I honestly don't know where to start. There was so much that I absolutely loved. There was great imagery used in the story. I could see everything almost perfect in my mind. And there was so much feeling. This whole story seemed so true and sincere, I could almost feel my eyes start to get a little wet on more than one occasion. And just the story outline in general. You kept me wanting to read more, and more, and more. Every time I scrolled down with the mouse I wondered what would happen next.... (more »)
 
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