“I picked you up. Remember?” I asked Chad and took a bite off a piece of bacon.
“Yeah, I do.”
“I dropped you off at the front of the school like always and you went inside… and Chris walked up to the car.”
Oh yeah, he did…
The sun was out. It was nearing eight in the morning. I picked Chad up in a little blue Escort. Yeah, I was cool. We drove to Brookland Cayce High School, home to the fighting Bearcats.
[[Sidebar: Like most small towns in the South, football is a religion and it was/is no different here. Though, really, it’s been a long time since the football team did much of anything on the field. Truth be told, the B.C. football team has only had three winning seasons in the last sixteen years including abysmal 0-10 seasons in 2007 and 2009. Thankfully, other sports have done well over the years. I’m rambling, aren’t I? End Sidebar]]
I dropped Chad off and went to leave. I stopped before I got started. Chris stood across the street in front of a building that used to be an old bait and tackle shop. Next to it was the barber shop–long gone now. Later that bait and tackle would become a coffee shop called The Pavilion. It’s no longer there anymore.
Chris saw me and I reckon he knew I saw him. He moseyed across the street, met me at that super cool Escort. We exchanged pleasantries, though I think they were a little strained, much like two guys who had been in a fight over a girl would exchange them, both knowing that fight was stupid, but neither being able to take back what was said or done. Especially since the girl chose someone else. He had that sheepish, kid with his hand in the cookie jar look again.
“So, are you going tonight?” I asked.
He didn’t shrug. Not in the least. He said, “Yeah.”
“Good. I’ll call you around four and we’ll figure out what time I need to pick you up.”
Then Chris did something I don’t think he ever did, not even on the day I first met him. He stuck out his hand as if we had made a deal and a handshake sealed it. I took his hand, shook it once, maybe twice and let it go.
“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.
He replied with, “Goodbye.”
Goodbye? I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. How many people still say goodbye? Not many I would think. They say, see yah, bye, later dude, tata for now, ciao, and a whole host of other things, but goodbye?
You say goodbye to someone you don’t plan on seeing again. You say goodbye to a lover you broke up with. You say goodbye to a crappy boss when you quit a job. You say goodbye to someone moving away. You say goodbye to someone who’s dying. You don’t say goodbye to someone you plan on seeing later that afternoon… unless you don’t plan on seeing them.
I watched as Chris walked away, his shoulders somewhat slumped, hands deep in his jean pockets. He crossed the street and who stood at the corner of the old building that was once a bait and tackle shop? Christopher and a couple other teens I never met. Chris disappeared down the street that ran along the building.
I never saw him again…
At four o’clock I called Chris’s aunt’s house from the job. No answer. Fifteen minutes later I did the same thing. Again, no answer.
Since I’m trying to be as honest as I can here, I’ll tell you I got aggravated. I called twice more before I left the shop at five. You guessed it. No one answered.
When I got home, I tried again. And again. And again. At quarter of six I gave up. It crossed my mind that he was out with the weasel boy–yeah, that’s how I thought of him: one rat faced punk with the beginnings of a moustache that could have been his filament whiskers for all I cared. My jaw clenched tight at the thought of being stood up for weasel boy.
I went on to the church, we did our Harvest Festival. Chris never showed up. Neither did his sister. Before we left for trick or treating, I tried calling Chris one more time from the church. You know by now what the result was of that phone call.
My future wife, her sister, my sister and myself piled into my car and we made our way to our first trick or treat stop. On the way we were passed by several fire trucks, their sirens blaring.
Catherine looked back after they passed and said, “I hope everyone’s okay.”
If that’s not something right out of a movie, then I don’t know what is.
[[~But I can still recall the sting of all the tears when he was gone.
They said he crashed and burned I know I’ll never learned why any boy could die so young.~]]
“How did you find out?” Chad asked from across the table. Our plates were gone by then and our drinks sat in front of us. My coffee had grown cold and I nursed a soda for all it was worth.
“I got a phone call the next day.”
“Really? From who?”
The day had been one of those so-so days where work came in spurts. Normally November was a busy month right up until the day before Thanksgiving, but on that day we all just kind of hung out and did what little work came in for us.
The phone rang and someone answered it. A moment later I had the receiver to my ear and there were few pleasantries in the conversation that ensued.
“Jeff, this is Maurice. I need to ask you a question.”
I didn’t speak right away. Maurice was a cop at the time. He’s since retired, but at the time he was as active as they came. Why did he need to call me? And why call me at work? He didn’t have my work number. Where did he get it from? Red flags waved in the landscape of my mind.
I spoke, but cautiously. “Sure, Maurice. What is it?”
“Have you seen Chris?”
“Yes. Have you seen him recently?”
“I saw him yesterday morning at B.C.”
“Do you remember what time it was?”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Do you mind telling me what you talked about?”
Interrogation. That’s what happened. I was being interrogated and that could only mean something bad happened. I remembered how I felt the day before, when he shook my hand and said goodbye, you know something you never say to someone you plan on seeing again.
“I asked him if he wanted to come to the Harvest Festival. He said he would go and I told him I would call him and let him know what time I would pick him up.”
“Was he with anyone?”
The truth was no. He wasn’t. Not while we talked. But, was it the complete truth? Chris walked away and met up with a few people across the street, remember?
“He met some people across the street.”
“Was Christopher one of those people?”
Well, damn. What was I going to do? Mike was in cop mode and I had a feeling the questions were official business. Lying could be bad. Lying could be detrimental.
He paused with the questions. In my head I saw him jotting down notes on a little pad that sat within a black leather hard cover. I could see him with his head cocked to the side, pressing the phone against his ear while he wrote.
“I appreciate your time, Jeff. If you hear from him, can you give me a call?”
“Maurice,” I said. A sudden desperation swept over me. I knew something was wrong and a huge part of me knew it was the worst possible thing in the world. “What’s going on?”
“Jeff, I can’t go into that right now.”
He was a cop and he had a job to do. But, more than that, he knew my family. He and my mom went way back to when they were both single. He probably shouldn’t have told me anything. “There was a fire last night in Starmount. A body was found. We can’t determine if it was Chris or Christopher and we can’t find the other one.”
There’s more to the conversation, but really, that’s all the detail I need to go into. I don’t remember a good chunk of the rest of it, anyway.
I hung up the phone and sat down on a case of paper beneath the counter. I stared at the copier in front of me, its beige and white sticking out much brighter than ever. The floor stood out, the dimensions like stacked blocks. Voices echoed in my ears and somewhere off in the distance the phone rang again.
“Hey man, you okay?” I looked up. Eric the Red (as we called him) stood above me. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his red goatee seemed to shine against his pale white face. His bald head glistened.
My face felt hot.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Wow,” Chad said.
I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even nine-thirty yet, but it felt much later. I wondered if Catherine was awake and wondering where I went. I wondered if Chloe was awake. I wondered if I would even be awake if Chad hadn’t called me.
“What happened next?”
I shifted in the booth seat, putting my back to the wall and stretched one leg out on the cushion.
“We had church that night.”
The pastor was a good fellow, last name of Earls. He had been a chaplain in the military. Don’t ask me which branch–I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. A couple years later he would preside over the wedding of me and my lovely bride, but that was still off in the future and troubles all their own would happen between those two points in time.
Pastor Earls gave me a call. I had been home only a couple minutes when the phone rang. I answered it and on the other end was Earls’ somehow very calm voice.
“Jeff,” he started, stopped, then picked back up again. “Is it possible for you to be at church a little earlier tonight? Something happened last night and I’d like to discuss it with a few folks before the service.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, then added, “This is about Chris, isn’t it?”
In my mind I could see him nodding, the pinched way his lips came together when he was in thought. I could also see sadness in his eyes. I heard it in his voice. “Yes,” he said, then it was his turn to add something. “I guess you’ve heard.”
“For the most part. Maurice called me at work.”
A deep sigh followed. “I just got off the phone with him as well.”
Silence can be so damn loud it says everything you could ever need to hear. It spanned the space between us. Another deep sigh followed. I wondered if Earls was struggling to stay composed.
“Well, they’ve confirmed the identity of the young man in the fire.”
He didn’t have to say who it was. I knew.
“So that means they’re looking for Christopher?”
I squeezed the bridge of my nose. A headache was forming and I think it started somewhere in my chest with that confirmation.
“Does Steve know?”
“I don’t think so, but I’m going to tell him soon.”
“Don’t,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”
“You told Steve?”
I nodded, lips puckered. “Yeah. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
To be continued…