Closing the Wound Part III

“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.”

“He did?”

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.”

“Okay.”

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?”

“Maurice Applegate.”

“Really?”

Yeah, really.

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?”

“Chris?”

“Yes. Have you seen him recently?”

“I saw him yesterday morning at B.C.”

“Do you remember what time it was?”

“Before eight.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Briefly.”

“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.

“Yeah.”

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.”

“Maurice, please.”

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.”

“Anything new?”

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?”

“Yes.”

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…

Closing the Wound Part II

I said earlier Chris was a good kid, but a follower. In the summer of 1995 he had met this other kid. His name was Chris as well, but for the sake of this story, we’ll call him Christopher. Okay? Good.

Christopher wasn’t really a leader or a follower. He was one of those middle of the pack kids who dabbled in drugs and liked to talk big, even though he was thin like a rail and looked like a damn weasel. He looked like he could be mean and controlling and Chris was just the person he needed to associate with, someone he could push around, someone he could control.

They became friends. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. During the time period from late July to Halloween, Chris took a decided step backward. I think Chris knew better, but who was I? Just someone he knew from Church and Christopher wasn’t about church. Christopher was about Christopher.

Chris stopped coming to services and in the months that followed he went from a smiling, seemingly happy teen to a brooding, frowning, grump.

Talking to him did no good. It just pushed him further away and made him hang out with Christopher more. I know. I tried. Maybe he thought Christopher was the only person who ‘understood’ him. Maybe he felt like he ‘belonged’ while hanging out with Christopher. Maybe he was just trying to be friends with the new kid in town. Why not? It makes sense to me. Chris had been the new kid at once and I don’t think he ever felt fully accepted among his peers.

A couple weeks before Halloween, Chris came back to church. He brought Christopher with him. Could he have been trying to sway Christopher to a different path? Could he have realized something was terribly wrong with the way things had gone? I don’t know…

They were both dressed in jeans and t-shirts and their clothes weren’t clean. That really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but what it showed was significant. For Chris, it was a far cry from how he would normally dress for church. Or, really for anything. Sure, he wore jeans from time to time, but he always wore a nice shirt and occasionally a full on suit. He wanted to look his best for the girl of his dream, a former girlfriend who had dumped him long before he met Christopher. He also wanted to be accepted by those in the youth group and possibly by the adults at the church.

[[Sidebar: I can relate to the brooding personality–I am one.

I can also relate to the need to be understood. Maybe not necessarily accepted, but understood. I was once the new kid at a church where none of the other kids were like me. They all came from mostly well off families and they all spoke alike and their humor was different than mine and they were all… joyful. What a contrast for me, a brooding thinker by nature.

The need to be understood went so far as to one evening at the church I went to when I was a teen having the kids sit in front of the congregation and answer questions from the adults. It was daunting and most of us sat quietly.

I don’t remember the question that was asked of us, but I remember responding to it. After no one spoke up for a few seconds I finally did and what I said was that, as teens, we needed the adults to understand us. Not to just write us off as teenagers who don’t know anything. To understand that we are smart and that if we were given a chance by the adults that we could be counted on for more than showing up for the youth group and playing games.

At the time I was sweet on one of the girls there and the comments were aimed more at her father–who was not fond of me at all and with good reason–than anyone else. Sadly, the comments went over his head.

I can relate. I bet many of you can as well. End Sidebar]]

The two youths sat on the back pew and they reeked of what many of us thought was marijuana. But, there was something else. They smelled like crap and that’s not a metaphor or an analogy. They smelled like crap. Not to try to sound funny (or punny), but it raised one hell of a stink with several members of the congregation.

They were confronted by a few folks. I’m not sure those folks were in the right or the wrong, but I know Christopher was indignant to the whole affair, even smiling about it as if he did it on purpose, as if he meant to cause a ruckus among those holy rollers who spoke of God. Maybe Christopher was trying to make a point to Chris, that the church members didn’t care about people who weren’t like them, who didn’t dress nice and give their tithes and sing in the choir and… Hmmm… all the things that Chris had done. Maybe he wanted to show them to be hypocrites.

Maybe he succeeded.

Chris would only come back to the church once after that.

The day before Halloween fell on a Sunday, much like this year. I headed down to the Sunday School wing to do a head count while services were taking place. There were kids in children’s church and the nursery still was not accounted for. I did this every Sunday. Just the normal routine. I opened the door to head into the Children’s Wing and stopped.

Chris stood in the small breezeway between the two buildings. I closed the door and stood in front of him, a little shocked to see him there, especially after what had happened a couple weeks before. He was dressed nicely in clean jeans and a button down shirt. He had a tie on. He didn’t reek of dope or… well, you know. He looked sad, terribly sad.

“Hey, Chris,” I said.

He gave his hello and it was as if he were the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked down at his feet, then out toward the road, behind him to the Children’s Wing; anywhere but up at me. His hands were shoved as far as they would go into his front pockets. I think he wished they could have gone further and maybe taken the rest of him with them.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

A nod followed and then that shrug–that simple gesture of the shoulders that said he didn’t know just how things were going. He confirmed it with his answer. “I don’t know.” His voice was small. It cracked a little. He still didn’t look at me.

I looked passed him, beyond the steps and sidewalk behind him to the blue pick-up truck that belonged to Steve, who also served as the youth pastor. The road ran along that side of the church, ending at the main road that ran along the front. I scanned what little bit of area I could see. From where I stood it was about ten feet to where the sidewalk T-boned. If you went right, you headed toward the front of the church and the main road. If you hooked a left, you went toward the parking lot and the Fellowship Hall. I couldn’t see much more beyond the walls of the building and that blue pick-up.

With Chris standing there all sheepish acting, I wasn’t sure what was going on myself. Part of me wanted to step down the steps and look around the sides of the building. The other part of me–that cautious bastard who I normally toss aside like any other stupid male–said it would be wiser if I stayed put. For once in my life I listened to the cautious side.

“Where’s Christopher?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said and looked up at me. His eyes were the color of bruises, not that they were blackened by a punch, but more that shade because of exhaustion or maybe drugs. “I’m done with him.”

I couldn’t help but lift my eyebrows at this; maybe I cocked my head to the side. “You’re done with him?”

A nod. A shrug. “Yeah.”

“What’s that mean? ‘Yeah?'”

“I’m done with him. He’s into drugs and he scares me and I don’t want to be around him anymore.”

It was my turn to nod.

“I’m sorry,” he said. I believe he was sincere. It’s hard enough being an adult and saying you’re sorry, but being a teenager faced with the reality of things that you’ve done wrong… that’s tough.

“You’re sorry?”

“Yeah. I want to make things right. I want to apologize to everyone. I want to get right with God and with everyone here.”

[[Sidebar: This last part I had to think about a little. In my head I recall this conversation clearly. It was a Sunday morning and we were in the breezeway between the two buildings. That part is correct. However, I was wrong in my earlier recollection that it was the day before Halloween. The day before Halloween didn’t fall on a Sunday in 1995. It fell on a Monday. I called my wife at home as I sat and pondered this. She even said Halloween fell on a Monday that year.

Not satisfied with both her and I thinking the same thing, I looked it up, that’s right on the world wide spider’s web. I went to the Almanac and lo and behold, Halloween fell on a Tuesday that year. That would put the conversation Chris and I had on Sunday, the 29th of October.

It’s funny how trying to remember the past sometimes escapes you. The finer details have a way of fading out in the wash and leaving only the major part of the story to be told. It’s kind of like having a pair of socks and both of them go in the wash and then the dryer, but only one of them comes out when everything is said and done.

“You know we’re having the harvest festival on Halloween. It’ll give you a chance to talk to some people, you know? If you want to come, I can pick you up and bring you.”

“I don’t know. My sister might be here and if she is she’ll want to go trick or treating and–”

“We can bring her along, too. Then afterward we can take her trick or treating. I know I’m taking my sister and Catherine’s taking hers, so you guys are welcome to come along.”

I should have known by the slow nod, by the way he had that trapped look on his face, the one that said I have other plans that I don’t want to tell you about. I should have known. In hindsight, I guess I really wanted to believe he was done with the other Chris, that he wanted to make amends and get things right… to straighten his young life out. Maybe he did, but he hadn’t worked up the courage to tell Christopher yet.

“I tell you what, I’ll call you before I get off work and you let me know. If you want to go, then I’ll pick you up.”

“Okay.”

I find it interesting and sad that I don’t remember anything else of that day. I don’t recall if he went into the church or if he turned around and walked away. Did we go out to eat after church? Did he stick around long enough to make those amends he claimed to want to make? I have no clue. I’m willing to bet not many people remember things that don’t seem to matter at the time before a tragedy. Little things that are said or actions that are done are forgotten as soon as they have occurred.

The next thing I remember is Halloween morning.

To be continued…