How do you begin a story when you don’t remember the exact moment that your life changed forever? Do you start with the dream about your dead brother? No, wait, we’ll get back to that. Let’s start this story before then, before David died. How can you care about my life or my brother’s life… or death, if you don’t even know our story, if you don’t even know who we are?
It’s important that you know who we are, or at least who I am. The story that I’m about to tell you, well it sounds pretty crazy, pretty messed up. It sounds like something from a Hollywood movie or a television show. If I hadn’t lived through it, if others didn’t share the same experiences that I did, or at least most of them, I would think I was crazy too. Please, just hear me out and afterwards, if it’s too far-fetched for you to believe, well, it’s okay if you want to think of this as just another one of those crazy fantasy novels. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I wish it was just a story.
Let’s start with my brother David. When he was ten years old he got one of those GI Joe dolls as a Christmas gift. It was one of the really old ones, the kind they don’t make anymore. I don’t know where my mom found it, probably at a garage sale, but it was still brand new in the box. My brother never put that thing down and even took it with him to Afghanistan, for good luck, he’d said. David knew since he was little what he wanted to be, a soldier, fighting for freedom and doing the right thing. It probably had something to do with the fact that our dad had been a military man. He’d died serving our country, fighting the never-ending war against terrorism. We were just little kids back then. I don’t even remember him, but David was old enough to remember. To him, dad was the hero that he wanted to be when he grew up.
It feels right starting this story with David, my older brother, my bodyguard, my best friend. I remember the fight we had when he enlisted. I told him not to do it. I said I didn’t want him to end up like dad. He promised me he wouldn’t. He said that combat is mostly just drones and computers now and that he would be totally safe. I didn’t believe him. I was so angry at him that I refused to talk to him the last night he was home, before he went away to start basic training. I ignored his calls until mom yelled at me and told me to talk to him. I still feel guilty about that because I was basically a mean and nasty teenager at that point. But nothing I said seemed to phase David. I think he’d grown up a lot and seemed to understand that my anger at him was just my messed up way of telling him that I didn’t want to lose him. I wish he’d listened to me.
David is three years older than I am. I was sixteen when he left to join the military. When most kids were picking out what college or university they wanted to graduate from, David was planning his military career. He wanted to make a lifelong career out of it, move up the ranks, and eventually retire a well-respected and decorated veteran. David was only 24 years old when he died. He died a hero, saving others and decorated with honors. At least part of his dream came true. Which means, of course, that my story, the real story, the one that changed my life, began when I turned 21.
Several years after dad had passed away, mom met a very nice man at a support group for single parents. Archie Wheeler was a simple man who owned a construction company and was raising two boys. His wife had recently died of cancer and he was finding it difficult to cope without her. He and mom hit it off right away and a year later they started dating. I was ten at the time and I certainly didn’t make things any easier. I accused her of trying to replace dad, of trying to replace me. Archie was so incredibly kind hearted and patient with me. After a while I stopped being so angry at him because I’d found friendship in the most unlikely of places, his sons Mark and Michael.
That was also the year that I met Sheila Gibson.
You have to understand that me, Sheila and the boys, we’re a team. We’re like family. We take care of each other. Sheila and I have gone on double dates together, took our dates to the prom together, we even took some of the same courses together at college. And now we work together as journalists. So when my step-dad, Archie, gave us the duplex, of course I asked Sheila to move in. She is my best friend.
When I say, us, I mean myself, Michael and Mark. We share two halves of a duplex. The boys live on one side and Sheila and I live on the other. My step-dad owns Wheeler construction and the duplex was the display model for the last subdivision that they built. He bought it for us to live in because he wanted to be able to keep an eye on us. I also think he just wants to make sure that the boys show up for work every day. I think Mark enjoys the work but I know that Michael would rather be a mechanic. Archie, however, has other ideas. He wants the boys to take over the company when he retires. I can’t really blame him for that. He’s put a lot of work into the business over the years and now it is one of the most sought after construction companies in the area.
This takes us to the beginning of the story, well not really the beginning per say, but close enough. I could spend hours telling you about all the antics that Sheila and I got up to as teens and all the times that Mark and Michael bailed us out of trouble. But I know that you are anxious to get to the story, to find out what happened.
The story of what happened begins with an argument over the Super Bee.
“What the hell, Michael?” Sheila was angry, really angry, tapping her foot with her hands on her hips looking like her mom, angry.
“What?” Michael asked as he carried another box over to our garage. “I need to make room for The Bee”. Sometimes Michael could be selfish and this was one of those times. As soon as he put down the box, Sheila picked it up, carried it across the garage, dropped it behind the Super Bee and glared at Michael.
“Your box, your garage,” she spit out, her Irish temper flaring. “I swear if you bring one more box over to our side…”
“Guys, let’s not argue over a bunch of boxes, okay?” It was time, probably past time, for me to mediate this argument. I looked around for Mark. With his even temper, which he had obviously inherited from their dad, he would be able to calm his brother down before things escalated to the breaking dishes stage. I started to wonder if maybe I had made a mistake in inviting Sheila to move in. Michael and Sheila had a past and she had assured me that she was over him. I was beginning to think maybe she was lying about that.
“Hey, what’s going on guys?” Mark had arrived and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sheila pointed to the Super Bee in their garage and our, rapidly filling up with boxes, garage. I knew she was angry because she wanted to put her SUV in the garage and that was out of the question with all the boxes piled up. All the boxes full of their stuff.
“We got a basement,” Mark shook his head at the two of them. “Come on, Michael, help me carry the boxes to the basement.” Michael sighed and grabbed one of the boxes. He shot me a sheepish look and followed his brother. I could hear Mark scolding him as they moved out of sight.
“You sure you are ok with living here, Sheila?” I asked her. The last thing I wanted was for my friend to be miserable. I reached out and touched her shoulder. She looked at me and nodded her head.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just wish your brother wasn’t such a dick, you know?” She picked up one of the boxes that actually belonged to us and carried it into the house to unpack. I picked up another box and trailed along behind her. “I swear, you’d think that damn car was his baby.” The car was the reason why they had split up in the first place. Sheila said Michael was more concerned about her accidentally scratching his car than he was about hurting her feelings. Now, don’t go thinking that Michael is an irredeemable bad guy because he’s not. If some guy was hurting Sheila, he’d be the first one to knock him out. But if it came down to spending time with Sheila or working on his car, the car would come first. Every time. Even if it was just a break light that was out.
We started unpacking boxes in silence. What could I possibly say to my friend to make her feel any better about Michael’s obsession with The Bee? The worst part was that my brother didn’t even drive the car. Most of the time it sat in the garage with its classic license plates. The only time he drove it was to load it onto a trailer to haul it to some car show. Even Mark was annoyed with him, mainly because he had to use his truck to haul the car to the shows. Michael would never part with that yellow car. He was too proud of it. I had my suspicions that he planned to be buried in the thing.
After a few minutes of working in uncomfortable silence, my cell phone vibrated in my pants pocket. “Hey mom,” I said by way of greeting as I excused myself to talk to my mom in semi-private.
“What happened to giving me a call once you made it to the house?” I thought mom wouldn’t be that annoyed that I had forgotten to call her, but I still felt a twinge of guilt. I loved her to pieces but she could be a helicopter mom sometimes.
“Sorry, I forgot,” I admitted. It was usually better to just say sorry up front to save myself the hour long lecture about how much she worried about me when I didn’t call her. Guilt trip parenting 101. My mom could give lectures. Seriously.
“Try not to forget it next time,” she said, her tone serious. “That’s not really the reason I called. Archie called to let me know you guys made it there safe. Apparently Mark took time out of his busy schedule to call his dad and let him know you guys all made it there in one piece…” I tuned mom out for a few moments as she continued on about how I should be more considerate like Mark. “… There’s a box that contains your dad’s medals and I want to make sure they didn’t get lost.”
“His medals?” I asked. What I really wanted was for her to repeat that last thing she said without her realizing I hadn’t been paying attention for the past ten minutes she’d been talking to me. Sheila probably thought I had abandoned her to do all the unpacking by now. “I thought you were keeping those.”
“No, David wanted you to have some of your dad’s personal stuff. I have the folded flag and some other things. He told me before he left for Afghanistan that he wanted to make sure you had Dad’s service medals and his dog tags, to keep them safe for him. They’re packed away in one of the boxes marked fragile. I wanted to make sure you got them. I’m sure Mark will make a nice display case for them if you ask him. No need to spend money on some piece of junk made in China when your brother is such a skilled carpenter. That way, when David gets home, you can give them back to him as a gift.” Once again I tuned her out and inserted a few affirmative noises here and there into the phone conversation so she would think I was paying attention. “Make sure you give me a call once you find them,” she insisted before hanging up. Mom must have really been annoyed with me. I sighed and pocketed my phone.
“Mom troubles?” Sheila asked when I returned to the kitchen.
“Yeah, she’s pissed I forgot to call her. She’ll get over it,” I shrugged and returned to the boxes, searching through them for the box that mom had specified. “Would you do me a favor?” I asked after a couple minutes of fruitless searching through the two boxes marked “fragile” that I had found. “Let me know if you find a box that has my dad’s military stuff in it. Mom insists I call her the minute I find it.”
“Today is your lucky day, then,” Sheila responded with a big smile. “I already found that box and put it in your room. I figured you’d want to unpack that yourself.”
It must have been hard for mom to pack away Dad’s medals and give them to me. At least when I was home she could pretend to be keeping them for herself. Of course she had Archie to take care of her now, but I knew that she missed my dad. They were soul mates.
As I lay in bed that night, I traced my fingertips over dad’s name on his dog tags. Elijah Collay. There were photos of him but since I had no memories of my dad, he never seemed like a real person, just stories my mom told me. But holding his dog tags gave him a tangible existence that I hadn’t felt before. My dad was once a living, breathing man with hopes and fears and dreams and love for his family just like any other man. I fell asleep with the tags clutched in my hand and the chain wrapped around my wrist like rosary beads.
Thinking back on that night, that first night I had the first dream, the dream that changed my life, I can’t help but think that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that mom sent me Dad’s stuff or that I fell asleep with his dog tags in my hands. I wonder if this newfound connection with my dad somehow brought me closer to my brother. Maybe that’s how he was able to visit me in my dreams.
“Wow, Celia, you’ve grown up so much since I’ve been away.” My brother smiled at me. He looked like he hadn’t changed a bit since I had last seen him. He was still in his high school varsity jacket, looking every bit like the quarterback that he had been when I had said goodbye to him a few days before he’d left for basic training, the day we had had our fight.
“You look the same,” I replied, confused that I had changed so much but he had stayed the same.
“That’s because this is what I was wearing the last time we spoke,” he gestured around the room, “In the kitchen, at home.” I looked around and realized what this was.
“This is a dream,” I said and looked at him for affirmation. He nodded and smiled. “Listen, David, what I said when you enlisted, I’m sorry.” I recognized this dream. But it wasn’t the same dream I always had, about the same argument we had before he left, and the mean things I said to him that I wanted to take back seconds after they were out of my mouth. I wanted to forget the look of hurt in his eyes that he’d tried to hide. I told myself that my words didn’t hurt him but I knew it wasn’t true. The dreams reminded me of that.
“I know,” he said softly, “but that’s not why I’m here.” The dream shifted and David changed. He was older, lines of sorrow and worry etched into his face. No longer a carefree teenager but instead a man in military uniform, a man who had seen things I would never understand, a man who had risked his life in service to his country. This was a new David hardened by experience and haunted by what he’d done.
“Listen, this is important and I don’t have much time.” He took my hands in his and smiled a sad smile of longing and regret. “I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything. Just tell me what you need.”
“Tomorrow, the Register News is going to send you and Sheila out to interview a woman for a fluff piece about a miracle baby. Sheila will want to say no. You need to get her to say yes. You both have to take this job.” He let go of my hands and took a step back. “Promise me.”
“I promise.” As soon as I spoke the words, the dream shifted again.
We were no longer standing in the kitchen but instead we were on a battlefield in some foreign country I didn’t recognize. My brother was lying on the ground next to a mangled vehicle. Pieces of shrapnel peppered his left side and leg. He was slowly bleeding out on the ground while trying to crawl to the radio to call for help. This was my deepest fear coming to life before my eyes, something I would normally not even allow myself to think about.
I raced to him and tried to put my hands on his leg to stop the blood but my hands just went through him like he was a hologram. He looked directly into my eyes and said “I’m sorry Cece. I’m so sorry.” Then he closed his eyes and I could feel him giving up, giving in to the darkness. I wanted to yell at him, I wanted to shake him, I wanted to tell him to hang in there until help arrived, but I couldn’t make a sound. I watched helplessly as my brother died in front of my eyes.
I awoke drenched in sweat, bleeding from dad’s dog tags that I still clutched tightly in my hand.
“Seriously?” Sheila sat back in the chair, crossed her arms and glared at our boss. I sighed and shifted in my chair uncomfortably. How was I going to tell Sheila that I had dreamed about this last night and that in my dream my brother, who was away in Afghanistan, wanted us to take the assignment?
“Listen, you both are new at this,” Derrick Howard leaned forward in his chair. He was one of those men that made being bald look good. “I get it. And I’ve got a really good feeling about you two, but let’s be honest. I can’t afford to give the best assignments to a couple kids just out of college. Your portfolio is impressive, don’t get me wrong. I love the writing. I love the photos. I love the collaboration. But here’s the thing. If I give you a great story, right up front, what are the rest of my guys going to say about that? I’ll tell you what they’ll say. They’ll say screw this, I’m going to the Post. And I can’t afford to lose my best journalists to the biggest paper in the area. So, you see my dilemma.”
“Everybody loves babies,” I offered sheepishly. Sheila glared at me and I squirmed uncomfortably like a bug caught under her fingernail. “How bad can it be?”
“Tell me I did not waste four years of my life getting a journalism degree only to write fluff pieces about babies.”
“It’s not just any fluff piece about a baby,” Howard offered, sliding a manila folder across the desk with a slender mocha fingertip. “It’s a story about a miracle baby. A birth the doctors say is impossible. Woman has what looks like a miscarriage months before. She thinks she lost the baby, the doctors say she lost the baby, yet now, here she is, the proud mommy of a beautiful healthy baby. Now, you tell me there’s not a feel good story in all that.”
“Well that is pretty weird,” Sheila admitted. I knew that if she was curious I would only have to nudge her a little bit to get her on the hook.
“And you love mysteries,” I reminded her. “This story is a total mystery just waiting to be solved. By us,” I added for emphasis with an encouraging smile. Sheila narrowed her eyes and blinked at me, suspicious.
“Why are you so interested in this crap story?” Sheila finally asked me and gave me the look. I knew that look. Howard sighed, probably regretting his decision to hire us.
“No reason,” I squeaked and backpedaled. “The sooner we get this fluff piece done, the sooner we can get to working on those award winning stories, right?”
“I don’t believe you,” Sheila said “but we’ll do this story. I swear if this turns out to be a crap article you will be the first photographer in the history of journalism to be credited with writing it.”
“Great,” Howard said and stood up, completely ignoring the fact that Sheila was still angry. “All the details are inside the folder. Keep me updated on how the story goes. I want a fantastic piece with some amazing photos.” He practically pushed us out the door. “Call me,” he smiled at us encouragingly and slammed the door to his office shut.
“Well, that went well, don’t you think?” I asked Sheila. She just rolled her eyes at me and shoved the folder into my hands.
“My life is hell,” Sheila muttered as she stalked off. The other journalists slunk deeper into their chairs and avoided eye contact. I didn’t blame them. After a few moments of awkward apologetic stammering, I excused myself and scurried to catch up.
I sat on the couch thumbing through the folder that Howard had given us. The first page was just a Google map printout of the location. The second page held what little information there was from the person who had called in the tip. As I was reading, Sheila walked into the room and sat down next to me. She pulled the file from my hand without comment. A small rectangle fluttered to the floor. I picked it up. It was a postcard from Meramec caverns.
“Sullivan, huh? Isn’t that where we went on that grade school trip to Meramec caverns?” She asked. I flicked the postcard at her and it bounced off her shoulder. She glared at me. “Real mature, Cece.”
I ignored her obvious attempt to rile me with my childhood nickname. “Yeah, it would be great if I could get some shots of the caverns while we are there.”
“I don’t think they let you take pictures. Probably afraid the flash from your camera will knock down a stalactite or some such nonsense.”
“More like they just want you to buy their overpriced photos from the gift shop. Besides, we are reporters. We have a press pass. I’ll just fib and tell them we’re doing a piece on the caverns if anyone asks what I’m doing.”
“I’m a reporter, you are just a photographer.” Sheila never missed an opportunity to remind me.
“Whatever,” I said in my most immature voice. “The drive is only like an hour and a half. Probably take less than an hour to interview the mom. Then I’ll get a few pictures of her holding the baby. And we can spend the rest of the afternoon being touristy.”
“You can spend the rest of the afternoon being touristy. Those caves are full of bats and bat poop,” Sheila shook her head. “No thank you.”
“Guano,” I corrected her. She gave me the look again. Twice in one day. She was half Irish but she was also half Italian. I was doomed. “Since when have you ever been squeamish about anything?” I asked her.
“Since bats carried rabies,” she stood up and smacked me with the folder. “Now, come on, let’s get a move on. Grab your camera equipment and stuff. While you are taking pictures of the caves, I am going to do some snooping around. See if I can dig up some dirt on this ‘mom’.” Sheila made air quotes around the word mom. “I am not sold on this whole miracle baby story. Something fishy is going on. I can feel it in my gut.” Her stomach growled.
“I think that’s hunger. We can stop for breakfast along the way.”
“Mrs. Glass, why don’t you tell us what happened.” Sheila sat cross legged on a chair across from the young mother. The baby was greedily sucking on a bottle. I had set up my camera to film the interview session and was making sure that everything was recording smoothly. We always filmed interviews to ensure that all quotes in article were accurate. So far we hadn’t had anyone refuse to be filmed for an interview. Most people just wanted their fifteen minutes of fame.
Mrs. Glass brushed a few strands of hair from her face. “That video isn’t going to be shown publicly, right? I’m a mess.” She laughed nervously and the baby squirmed.
“No, ma’am,” I reassured her.
“Well, in that case.” She smiled and looked at the infant in her arms. “She’s such a little miracle. We named her Hope. I know, it’s an old fashioned name but Stan said no when I suggested we name her Miracle. He thought that was too modern. I’m Veronica by the way. Veronica Glass.” She laughed nervously.
“She’s a beautiful baby,” Sheila said. I knew she was trying to get the woman to relax so she would open up and tell the story. “You and your husband are very lucky.”
“Oh, you have no idea. Let’s see, I was four months along when I started bleeding and having cramps. Stan rushed me to the hospital. This wasn’t our first rodeo. It would be our fourth, no fifth, yes fifth, miscarriage. I was such a mess, cried the whole way there.” She blinked her eyes several times. “Gosh, look at that, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.”
“Take your time,” Sheila said, sympathetically and handed her a tissue. Despite her flaws and her temper, Sheila had a natural gift when it came to interviewing people.
“Well, the doctors took one look and rushed me in to have an ultrasound done. They said there wasn’t a heartbeat and the baby had died. Well, you know we were just devastated. All I wanted to do was go home and bury myself in blankets and just cry. Stan took me home after that. They asked me if I wanted to induce labor so we could bury the remains. We’d done that before and it doesn’t make the loss any easier. So I just shook my head and we went home.
“I thought that was the end of it and then a few days ago, bam. The cramps started up again. I didn’t know what was going on. Stan was away at work and I was by myself. I was going to call him but the pain was just so overwhelming. Then my water broke. I can tell you I was shocked. I ended up having the baby on the kitchen floor without any help at all. When Stan got home he rushed us up to the hospital. They checked us over. The doctors said I was fine. We were both fine. And then they sent us home.”
“Wow, what an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.” Sheila stood and flipped her notebook closed. Do you have a bathroom I can use? Celia will need to take a few pictures for the article, so please don’t get up.”
“Sure, down the hall, second door on the left.”
I gave Sheila a quizzical look and she motioned for me to keep the woman busy. I knew she was plotting something. It probably involved some unethical snooping around the house.
“Why don’t you hold the baby up a bit more so we can get some close up pictures of her adorable little face,” I practically cooed at the woman. She beamed at the praise of her baby and I was able to get several good shots before Sheila returned.
I saw Sheila fold up a piece of paper and stick it in her pocket. Great, now we were thieves as well as snoops. “We all done here?” Sheila asked me while nodding at the woman and giving her a reassuring smile.
“That baby is totally photogenic. I can tell she’s going to be a model when she grows up.” Sheila elbowed me.
“We’ll be in touch and let you know when the article runs in case you want to let all your friends and family know.” She handed the woman our business card. “In the meantime, if you can think of any other details that you think are important to the story, please feel free to call the number on the card.”
“Thank you so much for your time, Mrs. Glass. It’s been a real pleasure working with you.”
Mrs. Glass stood up, cradling the baby who was now fussing. The baby was making grunting noises and squirming. “Please, let me walk you to the door,” she insisted.
On the way back to the car, I confronted Sheila, “You could’ve gotten us both in trouble,” I hissed at her.
“It’s totally worth it,” Sheila stated, mysteriously. “That woman is hiding something. I know it.” She pulled the paper out of her pocket and handed it to me. “Don’t look at it now. Just keep walking to the car. You can check it out later on. I’m going to go see if I can round up more medical records from that hospital visit.”
“You got her medical records?” I asked as she opened the driver’s side door.
“No, I got her discharge papers from the hospital saying she miscarried. She signed off on having the fetal remains buried.”
“That’s not what she said.”
“I know. I think she’s lying to us. The question is, if she lost her baby, where’d she get that one?”
“And, why isn’t anyone looking for it?”