This category was judged by Katy Huth Jones.
|Cover by C. B. Cook|
“Where is he?” I remember bouncing on my toes to see out the front window as I asked the question, not for the first time that morning.
My mother chuckled while attempting to complete her sweeping of the dining room despite my peppering of questions. “He'll be here soon.”
“How soon is soon?”
Mother didn't answer, but finished her task and set aside the broom. “There. Why don't you go outside and play before Danny gets home?”
I gave her a pouting look. “But if I'm in the backyard, I won't see him come.”
A vehicle squeaked in the driveway. Almost as if there were some sixth sense in me, I shrieked out my brother's name even before that sound reached my ears. “Danny!”
With Mother's hand around mine, together we raced out of the house, across the porch . . . and stopped. I pulled at her hand, nearly squeaking in my own excitement. Then I saw she did not smile. She did not laugh. There was a shadow over her eyes. A shadow that would stay there many months to come.
It was not Danny who came to meet us at the porch. As I watched the two strangely suited men with long, sullen faces and lowly spoken words, I could not understand them. As Mother collapsed to her knees, her hands clutched before her face, I felt a foreboding dread about these men. I began yelling for explanations, for Daddy, for Danny.
It was Mother's voice, tattered and broken like an autumn leaf wrested from its branch of safety that finally brought clarity to my young mind. “My Danny,” she wept, “my Danny . . . he's gone . . .”
And I sensed then that my world was changed forever.
~ ~ ~
ONE YEAR LATER
My ninth birthday was celebrated by what Dad called a “house-cleaning” party that we would do for Mother. But after the year of hell we'd just lived through, I knew better. He and Mother had yelled all night about it, it seemed. This morning she wouldn't come out of her room.
“Cleaning” Danny's old room and stuffing all his belongings into the attic meant, in her mind, that we were forgetting. I could understand that. I'd been forced to grow up a lot in the last year, and I didn't want my brother's room emptied any more than she did.
He was my brother.
And every day, my heart broke all over again.
After that cleaning day, Mother was more shut away than ever. Dad had to hire a babysitter when he was gone for work all because she couldn't pull herself together to take care of me. I hated the babysitter like I hated everything else. She was a spindly old bookworm with the ugliest glasses known to mankind. And when Thanksgiving vacation pardoned me from the endless, miserable drawl of school, I, too, retreated the way Mother did. But instead of seeking out my bedroom, I fled to the outdoors, the unexplored wilderness around our New York home that Danny had so loved.
“My little Rose,” he used to say, “someday, we'll be great adventurers in these forests! We'll tame the untamed wilds and beasts.”
The wilds and beasts were ideas frightening to most kids I knew. But not to me. I knew Danny would protect me.
But he was gone now. Dead. Buried in the dark recesses of the earth. Was he afraid of the dark? He'd always said he wasn't, but he had slept with a nightlight for as long as I'd known him. Did the darkness of his grave scare him? There was no nightlight down there.
The unknown brought my frail composure to tears that afternoon on Danny's favorite trail in the woods where I'd come with my bike. I huddled beside his rock, my arms hugged around my head, my tears soaking through the knees of my jeans.
“Danny . . . Danny, please come home.”
“Who are you looking for?”
I looked up with a gasp and scanned the trail. Standing not two yards from me was a boy about Danny's age, maybe a little older. His ruddy hair was askew, his slate blue eyes were distant. And despite the pronounced autumnal chill, he wore a light summer jacket.
I sniffed and rubbed my eyes. “What do you want?”
His eyes still did not find mine, but stayed off to my right, as though he spoke to somebody else. “What is it you want, Rose?”
“How do you know my name?” I asked, sincerely irritated.
“I just do.”
Oh, what a stupid answer! “Go away,” I growled.
“What is it you want, Rose?”
I huffed a breath. “A flute. That's what I wanted for my birthday, only we never celebrated it. Now shut up and go away.” I had thought my learning the instrument would make Mother happy, remind her of Danny, but the moment I brought it up, she walked out of the room.
A breeze sifted through the dull, brittle leaves and carried a tinkling sound to my ears. My brow furrowed a little and I glanced over at the strange boy. He had a hand in the pocket of his jacket and he withdrew it as a clenched fist. I watched in frightened awe as he opened his hand and let a slim new penny whistle fall to the earth. Only instead of falling at the speed it should have, the flute descended slowly, defying gravity.
I gawked at the little instrument for a long moment, then glanced up at the boy again. He was gone. Looking back on that moment, I can understand the reasoning, but in my still youthful mind, he must have run away while I was staring at his gift.
I didn't take the flute home. It reminded me too much of Danny. He'd learned to play it a few years ago. I used to walk beside him, grinning from ear to ear in pride as he blew tune after tune into his little silver instrument.
At home, I eluded the scolding I no doubt would receive from Babysitter Gloria and went upstairs to Mother's room. I knocked. She didn't answer. I didn't expect her to. I went to my own bedroom and stayed there all evening, even when Dad got home and begged me to come down to supper.
The following morning, I was swiftly drawn back to Danny's rock. The flute, now covered by some leaves and a bit of dew, still remained on the ground. I picked it up. I don't know what I expected exactly – fairy dust? Mist? Air? But the instrument was whole, solid. There was nothing unreal in its substance.
I rubbed it on my shirt and put the mouthpiece to my lips. Inhaling shakily, I blew into the flute. A light string of cacophonous sounds proceeded, so unlike Danny's skills. He had mastered it overnight, it had seemed. But then, Danny could master anything he wanted to. I was the unskilled and blundering one of the family.
Footsteps crunched almost soundlessly on the leaves. “What is it you want, Rose?”
I turned to the strange boy. He still wore his summer jacket. He still did not look at my eyes. “Okay,” I began. “You did this, and I want to know how.”
“We don't get to know the how of everything in life, or the why. Some things are simply for us to accept.”
“What, are you a student of philosophy or something?”
“Aren't we all?”
He paused for a moment, his posture relaxed and comfortable like Danny's was. “What is it you want, Rose?”
I clasped my hand around the penny whistle. “You can give me anything I ask for?”
“Do you believe that because you have seen it?”
I cocked my head. “Huh?”
He laughed a little. “What is it you want, Rose?”
“Something to make my mom happy, I guess.” If any such object existed.
The boy smiled faintly and turned his gaze even farther from me as he reached into the pocket of his jacket. I waited with a little dubiousness. He withdrew his fist, held it out from his body and opened his hand. Again, the wind carried that tinkling voice of anticipation. The small object met the ground, and I stepped towards it. This time, the boy stayed where he was.
I held it up. My breath caught in my throat. A simple heart-shaped photo of Danny in our backyard captioned with the pen-scrawled words, Happy Thanksgiving. I had no recollection of the picture, when it was taken or where. But I was in it, too, standing beside him, my auburn hair a mass of unruly snarls, much like Danny's.
“Where did this come from?”
The boy didn't answer. I glanced up. He had already taken off. I frowned in petulance. Did he have to be so weird all the time? And yet, despite the oddity, I felt no inhibitions about coming back tomorrow. His presence seemed to put me at ease, if only for a little while.
I returned home with the photograph. Mother called me into her room after I knocked, and I found her sitting in her chair at the window, gazing into the backyard below, but I knew perfectly well, not seeing it at all. My heart squeezed painfully as I held out the picture.
“Look what I found.”
She looked. For the longest, most agonizing moment, she did nothing. I feared I had been correct – nothing would make her happy again. But then she looked up at me, her eyes more open than I'd seen them in months.
“Rose . . . where did you find that?”
I froze just a little. “Uh . . .”
“I lost that one,” she told me, her words rushed and amazed. “I looked for it. I thought your dad had destroyed it, maybe, or it had been thrown out . . . You found it.” She was smiling now, through her tears. “Oh, Rose. This photo . . . it was the happiest moment of my life when it was taken. We were all together, laughing together . . .”
Next thing I knew, I was in her arms where we cried together. But these tears were different. They didn't enhance the burning hole in my heart. They brought a bit of peace to my pain by bringing to Mother a bit of relief.
That night, she ate dinner with Dad and I downstairs.
~ ~ ~
I was bound by pouring rain and Gloria's reprimanding to the house for two straight days. I was terrified the boy would not be there when I returned to Danny's rock on the third day. I already knew what I would ask him for – the engagement ring my mother had lost only a couple months after she and Dad were married.
But on the third day, and every day after that, he was there. He never made eye contact, and he never changed that odd jacket, but I didn't care. During the weeks that I made the almost daily trips to the rock, I saw my mom come back to me. Dad fired Gloria – fired her! - much to my delight, and Mother . . . She was always there. Present. At peace. Maybe not completely happy, but at peace was good enough for me, her attention-starved daughter.
Looking back, I can so clearly see the relief I felt during those days. I once even asked for a dog like the one Dad wanted. He didn't pull that from his pocket, of course, but all he had to do was smile, turn towards the woods, and we had a dog. It was like magic. Maybe it was magic. I never told a soul about it. It was my special secret, one I only shared with Danny as I lay on my bed at night and whispered to the shiny little flute. I remember thinking how excited Danny would have been at these mysteries.
It was on one such night after I finished telling Danny about my adventures that day and thinking how he must be proud of me for being the adventurer he wanted to be, when I fell into a sleep deeper than any I'd felt before. When the nightmare came, I couldn't shake it. I saw those men, the two police officers, on the porch. They kept telling us the news over and over. Mother was screaming and crying. Dad was walking away. I was screaming. I saw the strange boy, too, standing at the edge of the yard.
“What is it you want, Rose?” was what he kept repeating as I kept screaming. “What is it you want, Rose?”
“Danny!” The word escaped in my sickened terror. “Give Danny back!”
In the culmination of the screams and the panic, I awoke.
It was still early and not yet dawn when I shoved my feet into my boots and left the house, giving our dog a treat from the refrigerator to keep him quiet as I fled to the woods. We had very little snow thus far, so the forest was a smokey gray, drab in the earliest light and fog. I ditched my bike halfway to the rock and sprinted the rest of the way if only to expel the panicked energy still tight within me from the dream. From the nightmare.
“Are you here?” I called upon reaching Danny's rock. “It's Rose. Please, I need to talk to you.”
It took only a moment for the familiar footsteps to approach. I nearly cried when I saw him, but he spoke first, his voice quiet and gentle, as if he were soothing a frightened kitten. “You've lost something, Rose.”
“What is it you want?”
Just for once, I wished he would look me in the eyes. “I want . . . I want . . .” Tears jammed in my throat, muddling my words. “I want my brother back.”
The crippling grief I had learned to deal with crashed upon me and drove me to the earth. I held my arms around myself as sobs racked my body. “I want Danny,” I gasped. “You can do that. I want my brother.”
The boy came up beside me, but I did not hear the tinkling of the wind that had become such a comforting voice. Instead, I heard him speak one word. “Rose.”
My heart stuttered to a stop. I lifted my blurred eyes to his face and met his eyes. They were now vibrant, alive, fixed upon mine, clear and alert. His smile was so genuine and so tender.
“D-Danny?” I dared to whisper.
He held out his hands to me as the sunshine exploded through the forest branches, warmed the air, made his eyes glow. I gasped out his name once more and leapt into his arms. My pain turned to such lightened joy I was sure my heart could not contain it.
“Danny . . . Danny . . .”
“I'm here,” he spoke near my ear.
It was a long moment before he stepped back and stood where the sun would blaze upon him, illuminating his smile, setting his hair aflame. He placed a hand on my cheek, sealing forever the reality that this was so very real. “My little Rose . . . I'm so proud of you.”
I glanced for a moment at his summer jacket and relished the clarity that stormed through my mind like a ray of this brilliant sunshine. This was the jacket he had worn the last day I saw him. It had been summer then.
“Proud?” I repeated, dazed. Wonderfully dazed. “For what?”
“All these weeks, you only asked me for the things that would help our mom and dad. You could have asked for me that first day I was here. You didn't.” His smile widened. “You were very brave, Rose.”
A little giddy laugh bubbled over inside me. “Oh, Danny. Let's go home and see Mom and Dad!”
His smile faded, but not the joy in those perfect eyes, their light blue buoyancy, their elated hope. “No, Rose.” His words were quiet. “I was sent only as a messenger. I have a home. Another home.”
I didn't understand him. “What do you mean? Don't you want to see Mom and Dad?”
“You were the one I was sent to.”
“By God. To bring you, our whole family, some comfort. Unity. Peace.”
“But . . .” I shook my head. “Danny, don't say that. Don't leave me.” A shudder raced through me.
“I'm not leaving you. I'll always be inside your heart. But you have to let me go back.”
“Back?” I felt the rise of panic.
“It's not forever, Rose. You'll join me there someday.”
“Danny!” It was just like my dream. I could feel him slipping from my presence. “Danny, no!”
“Let me go, Rose.”
My pulse quickening, I forced myself to meet his gaze. That sounded like a plea.
“Let me go. There are glories waiting for you in heaven that I've already seen. ” A giddiness rose in his voice despite the now obvious pleading in his eyes. “You've never seen anything like it. The streets glow with gold, and the music! Oh, I've never heard such music. It's never dark, it's always light. Rose, it's all so beautiful! It's just . . . beautiful. You can't imagine it.”
He was right. I couldn't imagine it. All I saw was the horror of losing my brother all over again.
“My task here is done now, and I'm ready to go back to the Father who sent me. Please, Rose. Let me go.”
I never thought much about God. I didn't think Danny did, either. I was wrong.
“But you'll . . . you won't be here,” I whispered. “With me.”
“Yes, I will.” He smiled softly and removed his jacket. My heart nearly tore into two as I held it. It smelled like springtime. Like orange trees and apple blossoms. “Keep that for me. I won't need it.”
He began to move away from me, walking backwards, an increased joy on his face. “Rose?”
I swallowed hard. “Go. Tell God . . . I'll be there someday.”
I gasped out a small sob. “I love you, Danny.”
Now several yards from me, Danny bowed. “This is where we can say a proper goodbye. We couldn't before, you know? Everything happened too fast.”
“You never liked things to move slow,” I remarked as my heart wept within me. “Danny-”
“Thank you, Rose. I'll be waiting for you!” His voice grew distant as he reached the spot where I'd first seen him standing. “There's lots more to explore up there! I can't wait to show you!”
His childlike exclamations died as a light brighter than the morning sun enveloped his body and raised him skyward. His name escaped my lips one last time, and I heard whispered beside my ear his very last message.
“I love you too, Rose.”
And there I was left in the morning light which now seemed dim compared to the light I had just witnessed. I held Danny's jacket close to my body and waited for the onslaught of grief to return. It didn't. Through this encounter, I could move on. Mother could move on. Dad could move on.
And one more thing I knew, a reality that would live forever deep in my soul, even still to this day as I reflect on that one lonely fall morning where it all began.
Perhaps it was the fullness of the message he brought back to me. It was the truth that sustained me after that day, a certainty rooted deep in my soul.
Danny lives on. I have his jacket, and I have this hope.