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I started running, bounding across the beach, sand hugging my feet with the slightest bit of pressure, fresh tears falling with every tormented step. I didn’t care about breathing anymore. I was just trying to escape. Escape from the world, from the pain. How could he have told me that? On vacation? Oh, so he was just waiting for me to get a big mouthful of my favorite chocolate strawberry cheesecake to tell me that my brother was dead!? That’s just sick! I told them he shouldn’t have gone to war! I could feel it, like a screw twisting deep into my gut! I slowed to a walk now, took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and waded, waist deep, into the icy water. I thought ever so briefly about going all the way under and never resurfacing. I felt numb all over, my mind in a sort of grief-induced Zen-like state. I didn’t think it would be that hard really. Just go under, close my eyes, and breathe…
However, he wouldn’t want that for me, I knew he wouldn’t. I could not exist with the pain of disappointing him that way, especially now. I had to be strong, for his sake. I sat down right there in the water, letting the waves rock me back and forth caressingly. Letting my tears fall into the water made them seem more meaningful, more epic, for him. I was glad to be alone now. I vaguely realized that I would look like a little kid who had lost her mother. But I wasn’t just lost, I had lost my brother, my friend, my loving companion, forever.
It was nice, though, for me to be able to collect my thoughts. Before I could stop myself I was visualizing the moment he left me, a big smile on his face, but eyes that seemed like they had a hidden message inside them. He was holding me close saying, “Don’t worry ‘bout me too much sis, and I’m sorry for the pain. Hopefully there will be none.” I was confused at the time, but now I understood the unmistakable, blinding pain that he had meant. It hit me like a boulder rolling down a hill, leaving me breathless and unmoving. Then the memory was too much for me. My heart felt like it was being squeezed. My life was a puzzle with a missing piece that would never be found. If it would never be found, how could I be complete? I couldn’t. I was alone now. My parents didn’t care about me, and my brother was the only reason I lived through some of my hardest days. A little part of my brain was telling me that my thoughts were turning to hysteria; that I was just trying to convince myself that no one cared for me. But I pushed that idea away as quickly as it had come.
Then an idea crept inside my mind… I would run away. Yeah, no one cared about me here, and it would only make my grieving worse to be around a bunch of other mournful souls. So I would run, avoid my problems. I could not bear to deal with them yet. I knew I was being pathetic and weak. I knew that the real me would be strong and sure about this whole ordeal, but ever since I had gotten the news it was like the real me was left at the dinner table, along with all of the hateful words that I left with my parents. I was back to that dreadful moment…
Something wasn't right. My parents were barely touching their dinner, and I was stuffing my face with all the dessert I wanted. I hadn't even thought about how it was a little strange for them to be letting me have whatever I desired, and now that I was almost full I could tell they were not acting normal. "Wa wong?" I asked through a full mouth. My mother’s face was like a stature except for a single tear sliding down her face. She looked a little too anxiously at my dad as he touched my hand. He took a deep breath and said, "Honey, we got a letter today, from Sergeant Collins," Something internally guessed what was coming. It was trying to come up and out of me, but something locked it down tight inside of me. My father kept the news coming, "Something very… very terrible has happened, and I'm afraid…” Tears were welling up in his eyes now. His voice came out in a whisper, “Chris is gone." At those words my heart felt like it was too big for my chest; the words that were being held down were now too big for my internal bars…
“NO!! YOU’RE WRONG!!! HE’S NOT DEAD!!!" My voice had a wild edge to it that was breaking into loud painful sobs. “I- I HATE YOU! I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN!! THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!"
I ran out of the room without giving them the chance to say anything more. I couldn’t take it at that moment. I knew it wasn’t their fault, but it seemed easier to blame them rather than to blame myself or even worse, to blame Chris. I knew it couldn’t have been his fault. He was perfect! He never did anything wrong!
I was brought back to the present as a huge wave crashed over my head and pushed me farther toward the beach. I slowly got up. Everything seemed heavier now, like my grief weighed a ton. But that is why I would run, why I had to run. So I could try to leave this grief behind, starting now. I started sprinting toward our oceanside cabin and right up to my room. I grabbed my old nap sack that could hold about a sleepover’s worth and sprinted out again. I stole some money from my mother’s “secret” stash and kept running. It’s bemusing to me sometimes how adrenaline can give you sort of superman powers; I know because that was mainly what I was going on.
Before I knew it, I was at the side of the road. I wondered what a 16-year old with a nap sack would look like, especially a dark, troubled one like me. I put my thumb out and waited. I waited and waited, but every car just kept passing by. I saw some of the drivers’ faces as they passed, a mixture of pity and hope on most of them. I just gave them their well-deserved glare and moved on. Finally, after many passersby and a few prank stops, an elderly man with a red, beat up pickup truck slowed and stopped right it front of me. I was a little hesitant but after a few seconds I walked up to the window. He rolled it down and asked in a monotone voice, “Where ‘ya headed?” His voice was raspy and old, like it had been used a great deal in his life. It also had a country edge to it that had a friendly vibe. His clothes confirmed my guess; he had on overalls and work boots. He was fairly well-kept; clean shaven, hair brushed except for a few white strands that stuck out here and there. His eyes were a grayish brown, and his teeth were surprisingly white. His expression made me think about what he had just asked. Then I realized I had not thought about this yet. Where am I headed? I made a hasty decision, “Anywhere, I guess.”
“Well I’m heading to San Diego. Is that anywhere enough for you?” I nodded one sharp quick nod. Even though that was only three hours away it seemed far enough. I climbed into the shabby old pick up and leaned, what I thought was nonchalantly, as far away from the stranger-man as I possibly could.
He noticed though and said with an amused tone, “Don’t worry bug, I don’t bite. If you don’t want me to talk with you, just tell me now and I will have a delightful conversation with myself for the next few hours.” He was witty. I liked that.
I sat up straighter and said, “Sorry, it’s just… I’m having a really, really bad day and I have never really done anything like this before and it’s just a little strange for me.” I suddenly realized that I shouldn’t have shared that fact with a total stranger. But I just waved off my conscience.
“May I ask what makes this day such a bad one?” His voice was back to monotone, obviously not knowing where this conversation was headed.
“Well, I just found out my brother died, so… yeah.” Tears were welling up in my eyes now. That was the first time I had said those words aloud. I broke down into a loud, embarrassing sob; and I felt even more pathetic crying in front of an old man doubling as a stranger.
“Oh now bug, I don’t need them waterworks in my car. You’ll ruin my fine upholstery.” His voice made it sound like he was trying to make me feel better, but really didn’t know how to do it. I just nodded my head and wiped my eyes. How could he say that? He really must not know what I felt right now.
“Trust me, I know how you feel right now, bug.” Never mind, I thought to myself.
“How.” It wasn’t really a question on my part, more like a statement that I didn’t care to hear the answer to.
“Well, if you can believe it, I used to be a soldier.” Whoa, this was pretty creepy, I hadn’t even told him about my brother being a soldier himself. He obviously saw my expression; a mixture of confusion and wonder. “What,” he asked
“My brother was in the army…”
“Well there ya go. I expect you’ll find I can help you out more than you might believe.”
I smiled politely, a halfhearted smile. “ May-be.”
He saw my lack of enthusiasm and smiled smugly. “I know you think it ain’t true, but it is….” He left off all dramatic, so I knew a big story was coming. “This is how I know.” Here we go.
“I used to be in the army a long time ago. I joined with my best friend, Ted. We did everything together, went to preschool together, went on double dates together, and eventually went off to war together. We felt cool for bein’ men in uniforms. ‘Cept bein’ friends in the war is different. You ain’t just countin’ on each other to have fun anymore. You’re countin’ on each other for your lives. Then, that fateful, dreadful day came. I swear when I woke up I could feel something just wasn’t right. It started out as a simple border patrol, and ended in chaos. Ya see, a bomb went off ‘bout ten meters from Teddy, and as the smoke cleared, I prayed to God that he would be ok. But, when it did…” His eyes glazed over like he was remembering more than he wanted. “I lost my best friend that day. A lifetime of friendship over in a second. That’s the worst kind of pain, seeing your best friend, practically a brother, layin’ dead in front of you. For the longest time, I wanted to die myself. I would stand in the open field, yelling at them to take my life, to kill me before I killed myself. But, I guess it just wasn’t my time. One thing I do know is that grief is a disease and it’ll eat you alive if you’re not careful. It will take the real you and turn you into somethin’ real nasty, real quick, if you let it.” I understood completely about how grief was a sickness, because I only cared about how I felt at the moment, when usually his story would make my stomach churn with pity. About a minute went by and he finally spoke up. “I’m Ben Fillur.”
“Nice to meet you Miss Ventana.”
“Now, I need to know if you want my help to get over your grief or not. Because if you don’t, I won’t bother. But if you do, I know what worked for me and hopefully it will work for you.”
I thought about that for a moment, and sighed mournfully. “I do want your help.”
About 30 minutes went by without anyone speaking. For a while I was glad that no one was interrupting my thoughts while I stared out of the window at the passing greenery. Everything seemed to move so fast, while I felt as if my shoes were cemented to the floor board. Then I started to wonder if Ben was going to help me or not. Within a few more minutes of wondering, my question was answered.
“Now, let’s start with this fella’s name,” Ben said, as if no pause had been taken at all.
“His name was Chri-” My voice gave out. I wondered if I was really ready to talk about this yet. But then I swallowed and forced it out. “Chris.”
“And what was your relationship like with Chris?”
Then he had me talking. I felt an explanation building in my throat, ready to overflow. “I loved him very much! He was the person I turned to for everything; I loved him more than my parents most of the time. He gave me advice and he took care of me. He loved me too, even more than I could ever love him, or at least that’s what he told me. We always had this thing, ya know? I’d say, “I love you.” Then he would say, “I love you more.” Then I would say, “Not possible.” And he would always answer, “Expect the impossible.” He also told me that he would never, ever leave me. But the day that he told me he was leaving for war… I swear my heart skipped a beat, stuttered, and stopped. He had taken all my dreams for us and crushed them in about a minute. I was angry with him for the longest time, telling him to go and leave me here. He didn’t love me anymore, so he should just get lost.” I suddenly realized how loud my voice had gotten, and that the hot streaks on my face were from the tears that I hadn’t realized were flowing. I tried to soften my tone. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do… Watch him leave me like that. And now that he’s gone, I feel as if my life is meaningless. But at the same time, I’m always hearing these voices in my head, telling me that he wouldn’t want me to feel like this. That he is still with me and wants me to just be happy.”
“That’s right! He would. Ventana, you have to understand that just because the dead have left this earth, a little bit of them went straight to our hearts, and will always protect us. I truly believe that.” I nodded. “That was good, but now I need to ask you to do something very tough, but I know you can do it. I want you to say, ‘My brother Chris is dead’ five times.” My eyes opened as wide as a bush baby’s. But Ben just nodded one encouraging nod. I took a deep breath and decided to just get it over with.
“M-My brother, Chris is… is. Is DEAD!” Anger suddenly coursed through my veins, my thoughts were scattered, but along the lines of, how could he do this to me, and, this was his plan all along. My eyes started to water again, in quick bursts of tears, seemingly formed out of pure hatred. I looked to Ben for encouragement for my out-of-the-ordinary behavior, but it was as if he hadn’t even noticed my screaming rampage. His eyes read, “That was good. Now try again.” I took a deep, ragged breath and then suddenly my anger was gone, like the lava in a volcano. I had given it time to explode and now it was all gone. “My brother, Chris, is dead.” This time grief was back and it washed over me like a rogue wave. It filled my lungs until I couldn’t breathe. When I let my breath out, my lungs felt very scratched and sore. But the grief was, like the anger, gone. The water had receded. “My brother, Chris, is gone.”
“He’s what?” Oh my God, did I really have to say dead again?
“Dead…dead, dead, dead!” I braced myself for another flood of tears but none came. I was all cried out. But my heart ached, and throbbed. I looked at Ben. My eyes read, “Please don’t make me go on.”
Ben nodded and said, “That was very good. Do you feel any better?” I was about to scream, “NO!” Until I thought about his question for a second and realized that I actually did feel better. I mean, I still hated the idea of Chris being dead, but I was almost okay with it now. I didn’t want to punch someone for just saying his name. I knew that he was still with me, and still loved me, no matter what.
“Yes… I do… How did you do that?”
He smiled a little and sighed, “My father did the same remedy with me when Teddy passed. I’ll admit it took me A LOT longer than just a half hour, but then again, you’re stronger than me.” I smiled a little, and then caught that I actually did just smile. That made me smile bigger. “Thank you, Ben. You really have helped me, and I don’t know what I would have ever done without meeting you.”
He nodded a “you’re welcome.”
We sat in silence for a long time until Ben reached down and turned on the radio. It was commercials mostly, so he turned the volume down. Then I heard, “SPECIAL REPORT. We have just received word that an MIA soldier, from the area, has been found in Iraq.” The old me would have been hanging on to false hopes at that moment, but I strangely just pushed the news aside. Wow, I really had dealt with my grief.
“This young man is very lucky to be alive tonight. He had been captured by a group of Al Qaeda who thought that they could gain some information from him. But this brave young man escaped and walked for 3 miles in the blazing hot desert until a United State Air force plane spotted him. This fine young man’s name is Chris Stunner, and…” That was all I heard. My heart had suddenly become a rock. The car was suddenly traveling too fast for my brain to handle, and the next thing I knew the car was stopped and Ben was holding his car’s air freshener to my nose. My whole body felt stiff. It also felt like I had been struck by lightning. There was a tingling power running through my blood. I tried to explain but all I got out was, “They…he…him…not dead…how…Chris…alive?” Then Ben understood. He started the car and turned around. I had better luck explaining the situation to myself. I understood now. I had been immature and stupid and left before my parents could tell me the whole story. They had said that Chris was gone, not dead. I couldn’t believe how irrational I had been. What had gotten into me? Now I couldn’t believe that my brother was still alive! Expect the impossible, right Chris? The only downer now was that we were more than two hours from my house. “Can I borrow your phone Ben?” I shouted excitedly.
“Is he?” Ben asked in a tone that meant he already knew the answer.
“Yes, Chris Stunner is my brother, and he’s alive.”
-To all of the families who have soldiers in the war, may you have as happy an ending as Ventana.