Mother was in tears and had been for days since Matt’s disappearance. What she hadn’t known were the real reasons why he had left in the first place. Isaac knew and kept his thoughts to himself, knowing that if he opened his mouth, his mother would want a fight, usually quoting passages from her beloved Bible.
“I don’t understand… why?!”
“Ma… it’s gonna be fine, just wait and see. He’ll come back.” Isaac replied reassuringly. He caressed her neck softly, knowing it’d usually soothe her, but Mother had lost all hope. “He’ll be back, I know he will Ma, just gotta have faith.”
“The Lord… will bring my baby back home to me.” Mother replied through a mouthful of tears.
At the kitchen table, the light above flickered on and off, illuminating the dusty bookshelf across from them. Isaac stared into the cobwebs forming at the corners of the shelves and wondered if this time, Matt was really gone. Then suddenly, like a strange tickle at the root of his spine, he panicked. Oh no, oh God… what if he’s in trouble… or lying somewhere like I was!
“What are ya doing, Isaac?” At the sight of him rolling away with such haste, Mother’s reddened face turned pale in a matter of seconds. She stood up moments later and brushed the apple-pie leftovers off her bosom.
“I’m calling Fred—“
“What do ya mean? Who the hell is Fred?”
“Ma, it’s my friend from down the road a ways over on Hillside.” Tugging at the wire from the rotary phone sitting on the kitchen counter, Isaac leaned over, and with his right hand, he spun the dial.
Balancing the phone on his shoulder, Isaac muttered, “Come on Fred… Come on damn you.”
“Uh… helluh, this is uh, Fred?”
A few days ago, on the porch, while Isaac wrote into his journal, Matt lit up a cigarette and sighed. “I can’t be ‘round her anymore, Isaac. We can’t even look at each other in the eye anymore.”
Isaac had been left in a wheelchair in an accident involving one drunk old man driving a white van; he had been rescued from a ditch twenty feet away. Mother thought it a miracle that he had survived, but Matt disagreed. Evidently, since their mother was a devout Protestant, anyone who differed was evil. Her tantrums could be triggered by anything that contradicted her beliefs, these episodes often led to broken plates, ripped upholstery, or even bruises. “Come on, you know to her you’re always gonna be her little boy.”
Matt shook his head, and noticed that at the end of the driveway, his old baseball bat sat forgotten in a pile of discarded candy wrappers and soda cans. He marveled at it while he smoked his cigarette, and behind him, inside the house, he could hear his mother shouting, “Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!” along with the pastor on the TV.
“What is it, Matt?”
Matt turned, and jerked his thumb towards the house. “I can’t live with that!”
Shifting in his wheelchair, Isaac brushed his long greasy hair away from his eyes. “The sun’s awfully bright, ain’t it.”
Matt sighed. “Stop ignorin’ me.”
Finally, Isaac put his pencil down hard and turned to look at his younger brother in the eyes. “Where ya gunna go huh? You don’t think I wanna just… get up and walk out of this damn wheelchair?”
Matt lowered his head instinctually. With the cigarette smoldering away in his fingers, he got up and walked away.
“Where you going now?” Isaac called after him.
Matt turned around and said, “Just for a walk.”
Isaac sighed; this hadn’t been the first time. “Bring me a can of Cope will ya?”
Matt smiled absentmindedly, with his back turned. “Yeah.” He tossed the cigarette dismissively, where it landed on the yellowed grass, and stared into a cane field, marveling at its decadent beauty, undisturbed by the harshness of the cool October winds.
When Matt turned seventeen, two years ago, Isaac took him on a trip in his old Harley through town and they ended up going all the way to Georgia. Riding along I-20, they didn’t want to stop. With his arms extended out, Matt screamed with excitement, at being set free from their jail cell, where the warden often enjoyed baking delicious apple pies and always wore stained aprons.
“Where are we going?!” Matt shouted. The helmet on his head was a few sizes too big, and the rim covered his eyes, making him look like an old airplane pilot. The goggles he wore kept sliding down the rim of his long nose, and since he couldn’t stop from laughing and smiling, they were on the verge of falling off.
“I don’t know! You always said you wanted to go to Atlanta didn’t cha?!” The traffic slowed to a painful stop-and-go. “We gonna stay for just a short while. Alright?”
“Yeah, yeah alright.” He let go of his brother and readjusted his goggles.
They found an old diner next to the Garnett Station, and inside there were rows and rows of stacked chairs, even though the open sign hung on the little window of the entrance. The outside of the diner was crumbling with age, with paint-chipped and cracked walls like elongated talons. On the windows there were posters taped on like relics, with the names of bands that Isaac had never heard of, but he wondered what they sounded like. His curiosity bloomed as soon as he heard the jukebox, and a feeling urged him to listen.
“It looks closed.” Matt lit up a Pall Mall.
Isaac took his helmet off and hung it on the handlebar; the Harley glistened under the sunlight, and while the city flowed with life at a distance, there was nobody walking on the streets. From inside, the music on the jukebox boomed: “She’s changed the lock on our front door. And my door key don’t fit no more.”
“Who is that on the jukebox thing?”
Matt had finally taken off his helmet, and his goggles were hung from his breast pocket. Matt exhaled a cloud of smoke and said with a croak, “Hank Williams,” he coughed and spat.
Isaac smiled. “He was one of dad’s favorites huh?”
“There are people inside, let’s check it out, eat something, and leave.” Isaac replied.
The walls inside were blue, and above the booths on their right, pictures of old stars like Rita Hayworth, James Dean, and Elvis Presley, smiled upon them, and like a thin layer of skin, there was dust on everything.
The waitress behind the bar wore a bandana to keep hair out of her face, which she readjusted with annoyance. “Hiya folks, welcome to Daisy’s Diner.”
Isaac and Matt waved awkwardly in return, while noticing the men at the bar giving them looks of surprise and pure disdain.
“Go ahead and take a seat anywhere ya want,” she lit a cigarette carelessly, and through a cloud of smoke added, “I’ll get ya taken care of.”
The burgers tasted old and dry, while the tomato soup tasted as sour as spoiled milk; the coffee however, was good compared to everything else. The waitress left in the same hurry as when she arrived at their table, but Isaac quickly muttered a thank you despite his curiosity.
“You know what would be cool, Isaac?”
Isaac turned his attention to his brother, and said, “What, to know why the hell we’re here or what really happened to dad?”
“Ma’s lying about him being dead and all. But nevermind that. What I wanted to say,” Matt laced his fingers and accidentally planted them on the spoon’s handle from inside the bowl. The blood red sludge splattered on his hands. Instead of reaching for a napkin, he licked them clean. “What if we bought this place or something like it, and turned it into something new, ya know what I’m trying to say? Maybe we could actually leave home for good.”
Isaac shook his head, “You’re too young to be thinking about investing in sorta stuff like this Matt.”
Matt sighed. “What about… you.”
While his brother’s head tended to stay in the clouds, where most of his ideas float on forever, Isaac liked to keep both feet on the ground where it was solid and real enough for satisfaction. “What about me?”
Matt shook his head, “I know,” he took a sip from his coffee and finished, “I know dad woulda liked that idea. I am sure that’s what he—”
“Our dad left us!” Isaac’s face turned red with anger; a cup fell crashing to the floor, the shattering glass distracted Matt’s attention, but Isaac’s eyes remained on his brother’s. “Do you understand me?”
Matt bit his lip. “Yeah, yeah.”
“Sorry, but ya need to stop acting like him sometimes. He left us. That’s what he really did. Him dying? That’s not what really happened. He left Ma with nothing to hold on to but a pair twenty dollar bills. I’m sure that was his way of saying, ‘I love ya’”
Isaac sighed and stared down at his legs. Gone, if he’s gone I dunno if I can forgive him. He was staring at his life: two feet permanently planted on two iron peddles. There was nothing he wished more than having his old life back.
Fred’s old Ford came in like a ship crashing to earth with smoke and pebbles spraying from the backend when it roared to a stop. Leaning out the window, Fred yelled, “Come on what are ya waiting for, ya dumbshit!”
He was waving his left arm around like one of those inflatables you see at car dealerships with the lifeless smiles and spikey heads. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
Fred spat noisily into an empty can of Budweiser, and clasped the can tight with a loud POP sound that made Isaac uncomfortable. As Fred turned a corner and began the incline up Hillside Street, the cane fields on their left and right gave way to dry backcountry. Shortleaf pines, cherry trees, and dry earth revealed the three trails leading towards a creek that fed Weiss Lake. The air here was dry and thick when it blew in from the opened windows; the air took a firm hold on Isaac’s throat and made him choke, but because he did not want Fred knowing, he swallowed dryly. The back of his throat felt like sandpaper, and with his dried up tongue he massaged the roof of his mouth and said, “You got any water, hoss?”
Fred smiled, his nicotine-stained teeth looking like an ear of corn. “Yeeeep, got a bottle right down there at ya feet.”
Isaac bent and rummaged through the empty cans of Copenhagen, discarded candy wrappers, and empty beer cans. Underneath it all was a bottle of water which he chugged greedily. “When you get over the Hillside here’s what I wanna do.”
Fred spat, the brown liquid splattered up from the open end, and some of it got on his greasy cheek. “Well, ya know Matt always went to the creek at night tah… tah,” he paused in thought and then said, “I dunno what hee did up there, but ya know it wouldn’t hurt to check.”
Isaac smiled. “Park on the side right there it don’t matter if we have to go through some shitty ol’ trail to get to the creek side. There’s a good chance, Fred. A damn good chance.”
Fred smiled again, this time it revealed a row of piano keys as spittle oozed down the corner of his mouth, he wiped at it carelessly, smearing the brown tobacco juice across the side of his face. “We’ll find him… dontcha worry ‘bout that, hoss.”
The truck rumbled to a stop near a chain linked fence, across the road were the trails, and each one led to different spots on Hillside Creek. Isaac fought to remember which one he needed to take, and wondered if perhaps the nightly search was hopeless. An inkling kept him hopeful; speculation and fear kept him moving. “Turn the engine off,” he said suddenly, “do you have a flashlight, hoss?”
Fred tilted his head and said, “There very well may be one of them small handy ones inside that compartment right there.”
Isaac pulled the plastic lever of the glove compartment, and out came stuffed papers all waded up into balls. Fred’s messiness was beginning to irritate him. “I don’t see nothing but bunch of papers and—” Isaac had rummaged through everything until his fingers fell upon the handle of a small five-inch flashlight. When he took it out he looked at Fred and smiled, “Well, there we go… guess you aren’t much of a hoss after all.”
Fred shrugged, “Guess not,” he paused and asked, “What are you gunna do then?”
Isaac opened the door and said, “I’m going to the creek side to look for my brother, and you’re going to grab me my wheelchair from the bed.”
“Well, I am coming with ya right?”
“No, I am going alone. You stay here and keep a watch in case anybody shows up wondering why we’re here. You tell ‘em we’re looking for someone, which is the truth. Got that?” Isaac replied.
“Gotcha loud ‘n clear, hoss.”
The path he had chosen led to a winding curve round a few shabby trees that reminded Isaac of his brother’s limp arms. With his hands on the bars, Isaac pushed the wheels as hard as he could through the tough terrain, and whenever he’d get stuck he’d simply push his way out by a single hard thrust. Nothing would stop him now, and if the path led to a treacherous spot of the creek, he’d face the consequences himself. His mind kept raving on about who to blame for his brother’s disappearance, and of course in the end, Isaac blamed himself. He’d scold himself anew at every thrust: You should have never let him walk away. With his mouth he held the flashlight, the light bouncing off from tree to tree, and whenever he’d drop it he’d scold himself again: You cripple. You did this. IDIOT!
There was a fork in the pathway, the trail on the left was a lot more treacherous than the one on his right. When he pointed the flashlight in front of him, the light fell on a rotten old sign, and in orange letters the arrow pointing left read: Hillside Creek.
“Shit.” Isaac muttered. He was forced to take the path with jutting boulders endlessly down. He sighed and turned the wheelchair in that direction, but before he began the descent, he looked up to the starry sky and whispered, “If you’re real, God… please don’t let me fall.”
The wheelchair slowly rolled over dangerous rocks the size of baseballs, and with one arm, Isaac heaved his entire weight around a jutting boulder. His left hand still held the flashlight, but his right currently was on the dry surface of the boulder. The earth was becoming mud the farther down he went, and beyond the hill the flashlight pointed towards glistening water. Oh shit, if I fall… I could drown. Can’t let myself fall. Not even once. Even though the creek was about ten feet away, a fall could very well lead him to his death in more ways than one. The small cliff at the end of trail ended so suddenly that if Isaac were to tumble down he’d end up in the deepest part of the creek. Years ago teenagers had built a small damn so that it made it possible on hot summer days to swim, but now it could be the very cause of his death.
Nope not going to happen. Once he was over the sharp rock bulging from the ground, his wheels dug deep into a mud hole, and now he had to either crawl down the ravine or lift the wheelchair. Dammit…. Dammit!
He stopped, and convulsively breathed in and out. He thought of all the possible outcomes, and realized that the only possible solution was to ditch the chair. His teeth clamped tight on the flashlight, and moments later it fell from his mouth, tumbling all the way down where it finally settled inches away from the small cliff side. Well, now I don’t have a choice but to say goodbye to my ol’ chair. Isaac thought as he slowly applied the brake on his wheels. He slid down the seat like a snake, and used his dead legs as an anchor for the rest of his body. Finally his wrists were left responsible, holding his weight when he came forward on his hands. Like a soldier, he crawled using his elbows for leverage, pretty soon Isaac realized that the pain he felt on his elbows were due to the broken shards of glass in the mud. Even the flashlight at the bottom revealed broken bottles, discarded plastic K-Mart bags, and once again, candy wrappers. With one hand Isaac reached over and pulled a shard right out from his skin where it had dug itself deeply. Nonetheless, Isaac kept on moving down the ravine; he realized that there was no way he could climb back up the trail on his own. Eventually however, Fred would come to the rescue, but how would he know which path to take?
If he’s stupid he won’t figure out that Hillside Creek is where I’m at.
After a painful crawl down hell’s trail, Isaac reached the flashlight and turned it off to conserve the battery. When he rolled over on his back to take a break, sleep overcame him.
His crumpled pack of Pall Mall’s sat on top of the dashboard next to rolled up newspapers; on the passenger side were three baseball gloves. He is smiling through broken teeth, and with one hand on the steering will he turns and says, “Great day to be out playing some good ‘ol baseball.”
Isaac does not respond.
Next he pulls an old tape and pushes it inside the tape player of his truck. “There ain’t nothing like a good sunny day with my boys and Hank Williams too of course. We’re gonna go up to my favorite place and we’re gonna build a fort like my daddy never built. We’ll play catch there won’t we, Matt.”
Matt’s voice echoes, seeming to come from a different place and time altogether. “Yeah!”
“Remember boys. Remember always that the most important thing in life—”
A slow creaking noise had awakened him. His head was buzzing with pain. The dream was replaying in his head, but he could not understand it. With shaking hands he turned on the flashlight and shone it at the source: a red door, it was opening and closing due to an oncoming breeze. Isaac’s eyes were squinting as he tried to make out the words at the top of the door: NO GIRLS ALLOWED.
Upon realization, Isaac’s mouth dropped in shock. I know why you came here, Matt. I know why! Dad built this didn’t he? You wanted me to remember! He shown the flashlight around the tall rectangular shack and then rolled back over on his chest. He crawled over to the door and pushed it open, he held it and shone the flashlight inside. There was a table, and on top of it Isaac saw a baseball glove; it was old and moth-eaten at the seams. But the flashlight shone on something in the glove’s palm, something that reflected off the light being drawn upon it: the shape of a brown and metallic circle. Isaac crawled over frantically and reached for it. The table was pretty high, but on his left elbow he was able to knock the glove down on top of his lap. The can fell at Isaac’s side as he fell on his back.
Isaac chuckled, “You remembered.” He grabbed it and saw that it was an unopened can of Copenhagen chewing tobacco. He pocketed the can and took the glove, he felt its coarse skin, but also heard rustling paper. There was a note inside, and when he pulled it out with his fingers, he knew instantly that it was from his brother. When Isaac grabbed the flashlight he started to weep uncontrollably, letting the tears fall from his eyes freely for the first time in years, and when he shone the light on the crumpled note, he smiled.
I hope you found this Isaac because I don’t know if you will. I hope you remember this place. Dad took us here a long time ago and he built the shack for us to play in. We would swim here and play catch with this glove I found. Remember how I use to bat rocks into the water? Forget it. It doesn’t matter. Do you remember what dad said though?
Isaac paused and tilted his head
‘The most important thing in life is to find yourself.’ I think that is what I need to do. I needed to leave. I will be back, I promise. If dad really did leave us, that is not what I am going to do. I am going to find him, Isaac. I have to. But I promise I will be back.
That was it. The days of playing catch were over. Lying on the crumpling floor on top of decaying maple leaves, trash, and broken beer bottles, Isaac laughed and did so loudly. Isaac had found him. Whether or not Matt was present, he smiled knowing that his brother cared enough to have left a note.
“Isaac! Isaac! Where ya at!” Fred’s voice echoed from afar.
Isaac’s smile quickly turned into a frown. He wanted to lie there forever, staring up at the cracks in the boards. The cobwebs dripped with water and the old musty smell that filled the tiny space made him feel happier than he had ever felt in his life; perhaps this was where memories began, and where they also ended.