I normally stick to fantasy when I’m writing. I enjoy being able to let my imagination run wild. But occasionally, something or someone inspires me to write something different. This story was inspired by my late step-grandfather, Nuelan Rehlander, affectionately known as Nute. I would like to dedicate it to him. He was only a part of our family for a short time, but we loved him dearly. Although the main character, Mr. Waylan, is very different from Nute, there are a few things they both have in common: a love for others that is unhindered, courage, and the strength to survive life’s tough seasons.
by Brianna Boes
It’s been close to a year since I came home from the corner gas station, smokes in hand, to find my son missing. I should have seen it coming, looking back, but I didn’t. I was too preoccupied with my own troubles, my own grief.
For the two months after his mother died and before he disappeared, George hardly said two words. He mostly kept to himself. The night before he left, I found him crying on his bed, cuddled up with the blanket Marjorie had made for him when he was a baby. It looked rather small next to his full grown body, but I knew his ten year old mind didn’t care. I started to go in, to try to comfort him in some way. For some reason I turned around and left him there.
I sat in the hallway. The cold laminate floor sent goosebumps up my legs as I leaned my head back and stared at the old family portrait hanging on the opposite wall. I couldn’t help but smile at Marjorie’s big blown out bangs and the oversized sweater that camouflaged her wide hips into a block of blue knitted fabric. I loved all of her, from the first time I saw her, whole and vibrant, to the day she died, broken and exhausted from a long battle with cancer. I thought about how we used to dance in the living room late at night to Sinatra and Nat King Cole. She would blush and smile as I placed my hands on her hips and pulled her close, challenging her routine lamentations over her full-figured silhouette.
After almost an hour of staring at the pictures on the wall and recounting the last few decades of my life while listening to my son sniffle in the background, I finally decided I should talk to George. I stood up, gritting my teeth against the popping of my knees and the ache in my joints.
“You should’ve appreciated that twenty-six-year-old body,” I said, wagging my finger at the ungrateful younger version of myself in another photo, perpetually smiling on my wall of memories as he balanced a four year old George on his shoulders. I rubbed my lower back and peeked inside George’s room. He was sniffling in between long, deep breaths characteristic of the sweet embrace of deep sleep.
I’ll talk to him in the morning, I thought. As quietly as I could I made my way over to where George slept, the small blue blanket embroidered with elephants still clutched in his hand. I gathered his comforter from the foot of the bed where it lay bunched up and wrinkled and carefully pulled it up to cover his legs, just the way he liked it. Ever since he was a boy he despised having his upper body weighed down beneath cumbersome blankets, but he wanted his legs nice and toasty, even if that meant changing his shorts at 2 A.M. because they were soaked with sweat.
Sleep came in short bursts of relief that night. Eventually, the sun started to make its way from the window to my bed until it assaulted my eyes with its overwhelming bright light. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, blinking repeatedly until the spots behind my eyelids were gone. I remembered the night before, when I had been too weak in my own sorrow to comfort my son, and I buried my head in my hands. I needed to talk to George.
“But first, I need a cigarette.” I opened the drawer to my side table and grabbed the pack of Marlboros. I looked inside and groaned when I found it empty and remembered taking the last one the day before. Marjorie always wrote down the things we needed on the list she kept on a dry erase board on the refrigerator. We often had little tiffs concerning that list.
“I need cigarettes,” I would say (or my favorite cheese crackers, or shaving cream, or whatever).
“The list, Richard,” Marjorie would say. We talked about it almost on a daily basis; there really was no need to expand.
“I don’t need to write things down,” I would tell her. “My memory is as sharp as a toothpick!”
“A toothpick? Really?” Marjorie would sigh, and proceed to write it down on the list for me. And then she would make sure I had it within a day or two. She was good to me like that. Now I wish I had just once used that stupid dry erase board, to make her happy, to keep her from having to utter an annoyed sigh every day at her stubborn husband.
I swung my feet from the bed, and they met with my cozy slippers out of habit. I looked at the clock. 6 A.M. I looked down at my white t-shirt and cotton blue and white striped pajama pants and decided that if the teenagers could walk around all day in stuff like this, I could run to the gas station to get smokes without showering and pulling on my khakis and button-up shirt. I thought about Marjorie, and decided, in her memory, to at least put on my matching blue and white striped robe and brush my hair and teeth before leaving the house.
The gas station was only about five minutes down the road. I pulled my Cadillac into the handicapped parking space, which is one of the benefits of having a pacemaker. That and your heart keeps beating properly. The cashier was a young man, tattooed from the neck down. I wasn’t fully awake enough to try to decipher what they all were; each tattoo ran into another, and they blended into his skin like a child had attacked him with sharpies. At least, that’s what it looked like to me. I’ve got no problems with tattoos that mean something; heck, I’ve got a Navy tattoo on my arm that I’ll show off to anyone willing to hear my stories of “the good ole days.” But as I took my pack of cigarettes from his tattooed hand – was that a mustache tattooed on the side of his finger? – I couldn’t help but shake my head.
I’m glad I never have to see what he’s gonna look like at seventy, I shuddered at the image of the colors and images all over his smooth youthful skin fading and wrinkling into a jumbled, sagging mess of curse words and weird animals.
On the way home, I thought about what I would say to George. Maybe we could go visit his mother’s grave and he could talk to her there. Maybe that would make him feel better. Or maybe he needed a little fun to take his mind off of Marjorie, or rather the absence of her. A trip to the beach? George loved building sand castles. Maybe…
I still hadn’t decided exactly what I would say or do to cheer up George when I pulled into our driveway. I pulled out a cigarette and thought about it until I decided to start the day off by making George’s favorite breakfast: chocolate chip and banana pancakes. A little more confident in my plan to rid George of his depression, even if just for one day, I went inside and started making pancakes. While they were cooking on the griddle, I set out George’s medications with a nice big glass of iced tea. It had been hit and miss with the medications since Marjorie passed, but I thought surely the chocolate chip and banana pancakes would make the pills go down a little easier. I looked at the clock. 7 A.M. Time for George to get up.
“George!” I said as I swung open his bedroom door. “I made your favorite-” I stopped mid-sentence when I realized I was talking to myself. There was no George. I checked the bathroom. No George. The backyard. No George. With each room I checked my panic grew. No George.
I called the police. They were all ears until I began to describe my thirty year old son.
“Sir, we can’t label it ‘missing person’ until he hasn’t been heard from for twenty-four hours. Did you check his work place? His friends?”
“No, you don’t understand. George is…well, the doc says his mind is like a ten year old’s. He’s like a kid. He can’t always take care of himself; he’s a good boy, a smart boy, but he needs me.”
The policeman agreed to send someone over right away to file a report, and he said they would send out an alert.
“Stay home in case he comes back; we’ll be looking for him. Don’t worry, sir,” they said, but George didn’t come back, and they didn’t find him.
The first eight months were filled with phone calls and printing flyers and passing out the flyers and driving around aimlessly within a two hour radius of my house, hoping to stumble upon my son in alleyways and grocery stores and homeless shelters. I routinely checked nearby hospitals. One day it occurred to me that my son, if he was alive, surely didn’t look like the clean shaven, well dressed, happy middle aged man in the pictures I was handing out. That day I cuddled up on George’s bed and cried until I fell asleep.
For two weeks, I sat in my armchair and watched the news and Wheel of Fortune. I ate chocolate chip and banana pancakes every morning, and I moved my favorite portraits of Marjorie and of George from the wall to the love seat where I could look at them from my armchair and pretend that they could hear me as I talked about how “nothing good is on T.V. these days.”
One afternoon I was talking to Marjorie and George about how divorce court shouldn’t be showcased on television for entertainment when the phone rang from its perch on the small round table next to my armchair.
“Hello?” I said, waiting impatiently for the person on the other end to speak. It was the police. I sat up, eyes wide, as they told me a man who matched George’s description had been seen at an emergency room in St. Louis. It was a little shocking that George had traveled from the coast of North Carolina to the Midwest, but for the first time since Marjorie died, I felt like my world wasn’t caving in. I knew where George was, and that was more than enough to give me some hope.
“Is he alright?” I asked.
“He was treated for a small laceration that required stitches and let go. They didn’t realize who he was until after he had gone. He gave them his real name. We’re pretty sure it’s your George.”
“Okay. So, you can find him then?”
“The St. Louis police department has alerted their guys to keep an eye out for him, but we believe him to be homeless and the city is large. They might spot him tomorrow, or he could leave St. Louis and they might not find him at all. I can’t guarantee anything, Mr. Waylan, but this is a good thing.”
“Thank you,” I said and as I hung up the phone, I knew there was only one thing to do. “Don’t worry, George, I’m comin’,” I said to George’s portrait leaning against the pillows of the loveseat. I picked up Marjorie’s portrait and took it with me to the bedroom. I sat her up against the backboard of the bed we used to share.
“I’ll find him, Marjorie; I promise.” I hadn’t packed a suitcase by myself since, well, I don’t know when, so I rattled off the things I needed as I laid them out on the bed, hoping that somehow looking at a picture of Marjorie would impart to me some of her know-how.
I dusted off the pre-paid cell phone Marjorie had insisted we buy a few years ago, but which I never touched. It had been charging on her side table for almost a year. To my surprise, the thing turned on when I flipped it open.
I’ll have to buy some minutes to put on this thing; Marjorie used to do that part… I thought. I unplugged the charger, stuck it in my suitcase, and called the police department to let them know how they could reach me while I was gone.
With my phone in my pocket, my suitcase rolling behind me, and my debit card in my wallet, I left the house and locked the door, determined to find George myself. I had called a taxi, and waited for it to arrive as I adjusted and readjusted my footing. It finally showed up. A short bald man, probably in his forties, helped me load my suitcase into the trunk. When we were both in our seats, he looked at me through the rear-view mirror.
“Where to?” he said as he smacked a piece of gum between his teeth.
“The Wilmington airport,” I said; I decided to forgive the gum smacking. After all, he had gotten out and helped me with the suitcase.
By the time we arrived, I decided that I definitely still hated country music. The thirty minutes about trucks and drowning sorrow in whiskey and love gone awry would normally thoroughly annoy me, but today it reminded me of how every time I turned the key in my Cadillac after Marjorie had driven it alone, I was almost always startled by the sudden twang of country music blaring from the speakers. So, I tolerated the country music for Marjorie; I shouldn’t have complained so much about her taste in music.
I dipped into my savings to buy a one way plane ticket to the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Well, I thought, Who cares about money if I don’t have George? I was willing to spend every last penny if it meant I could eat chocolate chip and banana pancakes with George at our breakfast table again. It took four hours to get to St. Louis because of a layover in Charlotte, and by the time I stepped foot out of the terminal with my suitcase and had figured out which shuttle I should take to get to a car rental place, I was annoyed and exhausted.
When I arrived at the Rent-a-Car, the first thing I did was take a mint from the glass dish on the counter and shove it to the side of my mouth. I asked the lady at the desk about their cheapest deal for a responsible senior citizen and a recommendation to the nearest extended stay hotel.
“As for the hotel, there’s an Extended Stay America nearby. All of our cars have a GPS, for your convenience, so once we’ve got you set up with a vehicle, if you don’t know how to-”
“I can work a GPS,” I said, a little more sharply than I intended.
“Right, well, of course, sir,” she said. She cleared her throat and continued, “Well, let’s get to your car rental shall we?”
“Lets.” I hurried her along with a wave of my hand and cracked the mint in two between my teeth.
“Okay. We’ve got the economy car; it’s the best deal, and we have a senior citizen special. Thirty dollars off of two hundred and fifty dollars for seven days!” She smiled and looked at me like I should be pleased.
“So, two hundred and twenty dollars for seven days? And that includes gas?” I asked with one eyebrow raised.
“Um, no sir. It’s got a full tank, but you’ll need to return it with a full tank, so you pay for your own gas.”
“What kind of economy are you people living in…Hannah?” I raised my voice as I leaned in to read her name tag, and the lady’s smile faltered.
“I assure you, sir, our rates are very competitive,” she said.
I grumbled as I pulled out my debit card and handed it over, watching my bank account dwindle further as she ran the card through her machine. I shook my head and continued my under-the-breath ranting until she handed over the keys and escorted me to a small, blue, two-door Kia Rio.
“At least it’s clean,” I said as I got in and slammed the door shut, not bothering to smile or wave back at Hannah. I felt a little ashamed about ten minutes later as I thought about how my wife would have chastised me.
“She’s only doing her job, Richard,” she would have said.
“When I return the car, if she’s there, I’ll apologize,” I said aloud.
The hotel was just down the road. I sat down on the end of the twin sized bed and surveyed my new temporary home. There was a desk and chair against a large window to my right, a low and wide chest of drawers with a TV and DVD player on top, a kitchenette to the left by the door, and a bathroom across from the kitchenette. I missed my house.
“It’ll have to do.” I shrugged my shoulders and lay down, too tired to unpack or change. I didn’t even take off my shoes. Marjorie would’ve shook her head and taken them off for me.
I kept my word and apologized to Hannah when I came back to rent another week with the Kia Rio. The third time, Hannah and I chatted for a few minutes before I drove off, and the fourth time, I told her why I was in St. Louis. She cried a little for me and for George, and after that, I decided that Hannah could be labeled a friend.
The fifth week I came in, Hannah pulled me aside.
“Mr. Waylan, I volunteer sometimes at a homeless shelter just south of the downtown area with my boyfriend. Anyway, I told them about George. They keep records; people who come in for med kits and personal care packs have to sign-in, and a George Waylan is on a couple of their sign-in sheets. I think he’s living around there. The homeless switch between the shelters and soup kitchens, rotating between them, but they tend to stay around the same general area of the city. But, Mr. Waylan, that part of town is kind of shady. The homeless shelter is on the outskirts of the worst parts, but I think my boyfriend and I should go with you if you want to check it out.”
I looked at her for a moment, trying to process what she had told me. I had been in St. Louis for over a month, combing over parts of the city carefully and checking hospitals and shelters with no luck. There was no word from the police. I had begun to wonder if he was even alive. To find George’s trail so suddenly was a bit of a shock. The weeks of searching from morning to night, barely eating, watching how the homeless lived and picturing George laying on a sidewalk on top of old newspapers came crashing down on me. I broke there in the rental car lobby. I couldn’t stop myself. All at once I was sobbing against Hannah’s shoulder, and bless her, she let me get it all out while she patted my back like a mother does to a small child.
When I was done and her shoulder was sufficiently soaked, I timidly asked for a tissue. She obliged and asked me to meet her and her boyfriend in the parking lot around 6 P.M. I agreed, and a little embarrassed about my all out break down, I left quickly and headed back to my hotel. I took a nap and then watched T.V. as I anxiously waited for time to go by.
“Please be there, George,” I said at 5:30 as I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and prayed to God that I would see my son today.
Hannah and her boyfriend, Kyle, let me ride in the backseat of their Toyota Camry. They let me ramble on about North Carolina and George’s childhood and Marjorie on the way to the homeless shelter.
Thank God for good people, I thought, and it was the first time in a long time I genuinely thanked God for anything.
We pulled into one of only about two dozen parking spots lined up along the back of a large warehouse-like building. There was graffiti here and there along the walls, and I didn’t see any windows. We walked up to an entrance labeled “Volunteers Only.” Hannah had to swipe an I.D. card before the light above the handle turned from red to green. I followed the couple into a kitchen where two men and a woman scrambled to and fro stirring pots and checking ovens and chopping vegetables.
“The cafeteria is right through here,” Hannah said. She led me to a door on our right which opened up into the cafeteria. I stopped for a moment, surprised to find that at least half of the people picking at their plate of chicken and mac’n’cheese were women and children.
“What are all these kids doin’ here?” I whispered back to Kyle.
“Sad, isn’t it,” he said.
“This is a day shelter; you should see where these poor moms have to take their kids at night. The lucky ones have found places in special homes and programs run by churches and non-profits that will eventually help them get jobs and get back on their feet. A lot of the families you see just can’t afford food, you know?” Hannah said.
No, I didn’t know. I tried not to stare; in my head I had pictured a bunch of dirty old men, half drunk, and there were a couple of those, but never would I have guessed that there would be tired men and women with hungry kids.
We walked over to a small glass window with a speaker protruding from its center. The man behind the glass smiled at Hannah and Kyle and pushed some kind of button to unlock the door next to the window. Kyle opened the door and waited for us to enter an office area before closing the door behind him and thanking “Ted” for letting us in.
“Hey, Lisa!” Hannah waved at a woman filing paperwork. Lisa nodded and raised a finger.
“Just a minute,” she said. Lisa walked over to a pile of papers on a desk and sifted through them. “Yeah, um…you’re looking for George Waylan, right?”
I nodded my head vigorously. “My son, George,” I said. “Have you seen him?”
“I checked our sign in sheets, and George hasn’t gotten any supplies from us for at least two weeks. He may have eaten at the cafeteria, but we don’t make people sign in for that,” Lisa said. “You can look around if you want.”
And we did, but no George. He wasn’t in the cafeteria, or the men’s bathroom, or the showers, or the rec room.
“He could be anywhere,” Kyle said.
“Or he could be in the area,” Hannah said. She turned to me. “Mr. Waylan, it’s still light out. We could walk around the area for an hour or so, if you want.”
Kyle started to object, but Hannah promptly elbowed him and he smiled and said “Of course, if you want.”
“I do; thank you both,” I said without hesitation.
An hour later, the sun was starting to disappear, and my hope had begun to disappear with it. As always, still no George.
“I’m sorry,” Hannah said, and I knew she meant it.
We began to walk back to their car, and as a last desperate attempt, I carefully looked down each alleyway. There was a homeless man sitting by a dumpster down one alley and another laying inside a makeshift cardboard lean-to down the next, but neither of them were George.
I turned to look down the last alley, while Hannah and Kyle reminded me that we needed to leave before dark. I froze and blinked several times, rubbing my face with open palms, in case I was hallucinating. I couldn’t see the man’s face, but the newspapers only covered him from the waist down, and he was curled up just like George, on his side with his hands balled up under his chin. I took a few steps closer, and my breath caught in my throat. Dingy and stained, clutched in the man’s hand was the little quilt embroidered with elephants. I looked closer, and beneath the dirt and the chin length hair and the overgrown beard, was George.
“George?” I said.
He stirred, and when he opened his eyes he scurried to a sitting position and pushed himself back against the brick wall behind him. He buried his face in his knees; he began to shake and whisper. “Please don’t hurt me; I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything.”
I stumbled back a few steps. My dear boy. What’s happened to you? Tears came unchecked as I knelt beside George and touched his arm. He flinched.
“George,” I said again. “It’s me. It’s Dad.”
“Dad?” He said, peeking above his knees.
I nodded, and he scrambled close to me, rocking back and forth as I held him. My knees cried out in pain against the pavement, but I didn’t care. We were both weeping with relief; Marjorie’s death, George’s disappearance, and the pain of the last ten months seeped out of my inner being with every tear. I stayed there with George until I knew he felt safe and until we both ran out of tears.
“Let’s go home, George,” I said.
“Okay, Dad,” George said. I wanted to know what he had been through. I knew there was a long road ahead of us. He would need therapy and it would take hard work to get him back on his medication and into a normal routine. But for now, “Okay, Dad,” was more than enough. It was exactly what I needed to hear.