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Driving North

Alleys, thrift stores, and coffee shops off the beaten track. I’d searched every single one in the entire vicinity of downtown Smithville. I found nothing but alleys, thrift stores, and coffee shops off the beaten track. I couldn’t find Christian, though. No leads, either. I showed his picture time after time after time to countless strangers. No one gave me what I was looking for; all I got were sympathetic shrugs and sad faces.

Frustration is a funny thing; you never know what effect it’s going to have on you. Some days, after flashing my wallet-size photo fifty or sixty times, I’d get in my car and speed away towards home in a fit of livid, incurable disappointment. Other days, though, frustration would drive me, and I’d stay downtown until well after midnight , eyes peeled for anything. Any sign at all of Christian would make all the frustration worth it. One thing was certain, though; no matter how terribly frustrated I got, I wouldn’t stop until I found my big brother.

Neither of my parents understood why I kept searching so tirelessly. “Let the police take care of it, Ellie,” they would say. But then, that was only expected. They never had understood either of their kids very well. Of course they were good parents in the sense of provision; we had a beautiful, roomy house, attended private school, and went skiing in the Alps every Christmas. But in the sense of listening, and actually hearing Christian and me, well, that was a different story. I’m sure they didn’t mean to be so distant from us, but they were, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. I’d accepted that back when I was twelve years old and they didn’t come to a single tennis match. They were both lawyers, so go figure. But Christian would always go. He never missed a game. My big brother was also my biggest cheerleader.

We were only a year apart. My guess is that Mom wanted to get all of her childbearing done early in life so she could move up the corporate ladder later on. It was fine with me; I had a built-in playmate all the time. He wasn’t one of those brothers who was embarrassed to be seen with his little sister, either. Christian always let me hang out with him and his friends when I wanted. He was the best big brother I could ask for, and a loyal, wonderful best friend.

That day that he left, I found a note under my favorite tree in the backyard. It amazed me the way he knew that’s the first place I’d go to. I opened the blank envelope slowly. I already knew it was for me, and I already knew who wrote it. It was so Christian, short and simple:

Dear Ellie,
I had to leave. That’s all I can say. I might be back, and I might not. Just remember that I love you, always and forever.

Your Big Brother

Days passed. Fear set in. After a week, I realized that Christian was serious, that he wasn’t coming back, and that I was going to fall apart without him. I was hysterical, and nothing could appease me. My best friend was gone and there was nothing I could do about it. By then, my parents had filed a police report, but the police hadn’t done a thing. Not that I expected them to. I figured that Christian wouldn’t be found if that’s what he wanted.

But I wasn’t ready to give up that easily. Without my brother, things were going downhill. It seemed like my world was crashing around me. I also wasn’t ready to believe that he wouldn’t come home if I found him and begged him to. So I set my mind on finding him.

This is what got me to the tedious routine of alleys, thrift stores, and coffee shops off the beaten track. You’d be amazed just how many of those there are in one city. I scoured each and every one before I knew I had to move on. Another city, more places to search. I’d wander until Fate decided to give me a break. Christian was a needle in a haystack, but I only needed a clue. A place to even begin would have been fantastic, but I didn’t have that luxury. I knew my brother though. I knew him better than anyone. If anyone could find him, it was me.

It was chilly the night that I left on my search for Christian. It was November. I waited until just after one AM to sneak out the back door to where my car was parked on the street outside. I got in and headed toward the freeway. My plan was to go north. I reasoned that Christian had always hated the sticky Texas heat, so it would only make sense that he’d go someplace cooler, snowy. My best guess was someplace like Colorado . I could see him there; he was always raving about the “astonishing mountains” and “lily-white snowfall” that he saw from pictures on the Internet. So that’s where I’d go first.

I spent the next month on the road. I stopped in every town on the way to Colorado, hoping for one tiny sign that I was at least on the right track. But no such luck. I was sure my parents were at a loss as to why both of their children had just up and left. I didn’t even leave a note. But I shook the pang of guilt as soon as it hit.

The day I crossed the Colorado state line, I had a very good feeling. I didn’t know if he was there, or even if I was anywhere close. But I felt like I was on the right track. I got to Boulder, Colorado, and began looking around.

At about ten o’ clock, I walked into a small, dingy-looking tavern at the end of a row of stores. It smelled like smoke, wood, and spicy ale. I looked around at the small number of patrons inside, sizing them up, and determining that these were definitely locals. Through my journey, I had also become a pro at hiding my discomfort in these sorts of establishments. I was underage and vulnerable, and I knew how easy it would be for the wrong person to take advantage of that. I needed to look tough and capable. So I put on my “don’t-mess-with-me-I’ve-been-through-a-lot-and-don’t-take-crap-from-anyone” face and approached the long, shiny oak bar. I cleared my throat and the bartender, a kind but tough-looking old man in his fifties, turned around at my announcement. He looked at me, immediately judging by the expression on my face that I wasn’t there for ordinary reasons.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m looking for my brother, Christian Wells,” I said, pulling out the old photo. I handed it to him and he looked at it for a moment.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him around here,” the bartender said. My heart leapt and I could feel my face growing warm with excitement.

“Do you know where I can find him?” I said, probably speaking way too fast.

The man smiled. “Usually hangs out at Dolly’s Diner most nights. I see him sitting there when I stop for coffee walking home. Likely that’s where you’d find him. It’s down a few blocks across from the hardware store.”

“Thank you very much, sir!” I called over my shoulder as I began a brisk walk in the direction he had pointed, though I was pretty sure I remembered seeing the place before.

My brisk walk quickly progressed into a dead run as I neared Dolly’s. I walked into the small diner, out of breath, heart-racing, and my hopes higher than they had been in a very long time. Would this be it? Would I finally find my big brother after all this searching? What would I do if he wasn’t there? Did I have the will to keep looking? Did I have the guts to go home and face my parents if I decided to give up? How would they react if I did? I mean, I’d been gone for nearly three months. Every nerve in my body was intensified now, and the whole town seemed sharper, brighter with hope, even through the cold, dispiriting twilight. I was running toward a precipice and I didn’t know what was going to happen when I flung myself over the edge. I didn’t know how deep it was and I didn’t know if Christian was at the bottom.
I got to the small diner and opened the door, out of breath, hands shivering with nerves. I opened the door and the bell above it chimed as the pungent smell of grease and coffee perfumed the air around me. Looking around inside, I sucked in my breath as my eyes fell upon a guy in the corner booth. It could be Christian; same color hair and it sort of looked like one of his jackets, brown leather and soft-looking. His back was turned to me, I couldn’t be sure if it was him or not. I started walking toward the booth and nearly tripped three or four times as I neared him. Just inches from him now, I was so close. I tapped him on the shoulder and cleared my throat.

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