11 - Friday
There was something about the man that called himself Sandama. Something in his posture, his manner, the way he spoke. Something was wrong about him. He was somehow...different. Even stranger, however, was how I believed him.
Could I really meet my birth parents? I would’ve thought the timing of it all was just ridiculous…impossible. But Sandama said he needed me. Some kind of medical condition, I guessed. Maybe it had to do with blood type. I didn’t even know my blood type, but my parents would know, right? They’d have birth records. Maybe they kept them just for such a case. People kept their stem cells for just such a reason. I didn’t, but people did. Maybe that’s all I was. All I was good for. I was a stem cell deposit. My parents’ health insurance. That was the extent of my value. Why, after seventeen years, they decided to come back for me. Faced with your own mortality, you tend to seek extreme options. Where’s that kid we abandoned? Can we get him back?
If that was the reality of it all, then screw them. If that’s all I was to them, they could both go to hell. It would be sooner than later, apparently. If he was sick. If he were dying.
But no. Something told me that there was more to it. Somehow. There was a piece to the story either I didn’t know or wasn’t considering. Like the fact that they lived so far away. Eastern European sheep farmers would not have a reason to deposit their bastard child in the quiet Chicago suburbs. It just didn’t happen. If they could afford the plane tickets, why go through all of the effort? It didn’t make sense. There were other options.
Maybe my parents were wealthy. King and queen of...who knows where. Maybe Atlantis. Maybe that’s why Sandama’s accent didn’t sound like anywhere. Maybe he was from a place that people didn’t know about.
My head went round in circles. The possibilities of who my parents were, no matter the scenario, no matter how ridiculous, how far-fetched, how sci-fi I allowed myself to believe, were overshadowed by the factor of distance. No matter who they were, if Sandama was to be believed, they went through too much trouble to get rid of me. Which only told me they thought about it for awhile. They planned it, somehow. Maybe even picked the Woodsons…I was like Superman, that way. Placed with a good family and raised right.
I couldn’t help but smile at that. At the way Superman’s story had parallels to Orion’s. At the way I really wasn’t like either of them. I wasn’t a friggin hero. I was just a kid. Not even a very good one. I couldn’t even talk to girls without breaking into monsoon sweats. It was nuts.
It was thoughts like these that kept me from sleeping at all. Maybe I dozed for a few minutes, but otherwise, I just sat in my car and listened to the radio, drove around a little bit. Before the sun was up, I’d managed to make it back to familiar territory. I sat outside Ken’s house for a while, just watched his bedroom window, wondered if he was in there. If he knew I came by.
Mostly, I just thought. For eight hours. Ten. The sun came up, and I was starving, and the point I kept circling and coming back to, the place all roads led, was the fact that if I wanted to know why my parents went through so much trouble to get rid of me, I had to go with this Sandama guy and ask them.
I got a greasy breakfast – eggs and bacon, pancakes, toast and a muffin – at Joe’s Diner. The whole time the waitress kept giving me this look, like shouldn’t I be in school. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom. The water was kinda brown and sputtered as it came out of the tap.
By the time I made it back to the car, I’d decided that I would go. Going didn’t mean I was consenting to donating any organs or giving blood or undergoing any painful medical procedures. They’d need my signature for that, and I wasn’t signing squat until I heard the whole story. There was too much to consider.
Since I’d decided to go, I thought I’d better get a few more supplies. Like batteries. The music player I had wasn’t the kind you recharged. It wasn’t that nice. It used batteries. And if I was going to the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt, it might be a while ’til I got my hands on a new power source. I pulled in to the gas station, grabbed about thirty batteries, some candy and snacks, licorice, bubble gum, a couple twelve packs of pop. I put what I could in my backpack, threw the rest in my trunk. I assumed I’d be driving. At least to the airport. I made a mental note to get a large suitcase from my parents…from Craig and Patty’s room. They kept that stuff in their closet.
I looked at the clock, saw it was almost ten. I drove to the house, slowed as I approached, made sure there were no cars in the driveway. I went inside, charged my laptop, downloaded a few new songs and transferred them to my music player. I grabbed two suitcases from their closet, and packed what I could, clothes and books, my roller blades. I raided the medicine cabinet, took a few bottles of stuff like pain relievers, antacid tablets, and cough drops. I thought of the brown water in the diner, grabbed a few bottles of spring water, just in case.
I wanted to be prepared, wanted to make sure I had what I needed. But the fact of packing everything up, my clothes and all, was too depressing. I loved Craig and Patty, and no matter what Sandama said, I would be coming back. I made up my mind right then and there. I would be coming back. I wasn’t taking everything.
That’s when I started to think of it as just a vacation. I put most of the clothes back, emptied out an entire suitcase, but kept the water and medicine. I took a blanket, an extra jacket, quite a few pairs of socks. I left the extra books, realized the two in my backpack would be enough. I had notebooks and pens. If I wanted a new story, I could write one. Maybe I would feel like writing, wherever I went. Maybe I’d feel better after everything was settled. After my parents told me the truth. Maybe I wouldn’t hate them when it was all said and done. When I came back to Illinois, maybe they’d send Christmas and birthday presents every year.
After I packed everything up, I sat down and wrote a note. I thought about it for a few minutes, thought of how I would phrase everything. I started to write Craig and Patty at the top, stopped. I scrapped the page, wrote Mom and Dad. I wasn’t really thinking of them that way so much, but I didn’t want to sound like I was over-the-top mad. Didn’t want them to think I was running away. I would be back.
I wrote: “I know now about my birth parents. I understand you wanted to be the first to tell me, that you didn’t choose the timing, and while it took me awhile, I’ve forgiven you for that. Maybe even respect you for that. No matter what I think or feel right now, you’re still my parents. You were the ones that raised me and know me and love me. I see that. I’ve also spoken with the man, Sandama, who works for my birth parents. He told me what I’m sure he told you: that my birth parents need me for some medical condition. I’m the right kind of donor or blood type or something. I’ve agreed to go along and hear them out. This is not goodbye. I promise to come back. It turns out, they’re the only ones that can tell me why they abandoned me, and I have the opportunity to find out. I may not have this chance again, and I’m not sure I can go through life without knowing. I hope you understand. I’m not sure where I’m actually going, but I promise to return as soon as I can. Thank you for everything. I do love you both.”
As I wrote the last words, I realized that I meant it. I meant the entire letter. I did love them. I had forgiven them. But before things could go back to the way they were, I had to have answers. I couldn’t just ignore the questions. And no matter how I tried, even though I felt abandoned by my birth parents, I couldn’t turn my back on them. Not when they needed me.
I left a note on the table and took a shower, brushed my teeth with clean water, and loaded everything up. Shampoo and all. Threw it in the trunk with the pop.
Scott had written his number down and I had it on a slip of paper in my wallet. I called him from the house line, got his voicemail. I told him I wouldn’t be home, not to call back, but I’d try him again later, that I wasn’t at school today. Hoped to see him soon, maybe tonight. Tomorrow at the latest.
I didn’t know how much time I had, but I didn’t tell him that. If I said it like that on his message, “I don’t know how much time I have left,” it would sound like I was dying from something terminal. So I didn’t say that.
As I pulled away from the curb, I felt something strange. It was more than just fear, more than just sadness, more than just excitement. It was some strange mystic brew of all three. And a voice in my head said, “You’re really doing this.” And I knew I really was.
I didn’t know how to get hold of Sandama to tell him my decision, but I figured he found me once, he’d do it again. Besides, I wasn’t ready to go yet. I had to say goodbye to my friends first. I felt a little guilty for not saying goodbye to my parents in person, but I knew if I saw them again, I might change my mind, either because I was scared – and let’s face it, I was effing terrified – or because they would convince me not to go.
I couldn’t say goodbye, not yet. Everyone was at school for a few more hours, except maybe Scott, but he wasn’t answering his phone, and I didn’t know where his grandma lived. But I didn’t want to stay at the house, just in case someone came home. Sometimes Patty did, time to time. She came home on lunch. I didn’t want to be there if that happened.
So I drove over to the middle school and sat on the bleachers. I figured it was as good a place as any. I lay on the top bleacher, just like I used to with Audrey, and watched the sky. There weren’t stars, though. Not in the middle of the afternoon. But I watched the clouds. Tried to make out shapes in them.
As I sat there, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Audrey, so long ago. It had been a lazy Sunday. It was sometime after the conversation about feeling dirty. We watched the clouds, dreamed of the past, speculated on the future. Of course, we were dating then, so the future had us married. Maybe settled down with kids. Maybe travelling without kids.
Audrey always sat two bleachers down from me. Before we talked about the future, we were quietly pointing out shapes in the clouds. She found one that looked like a lizard. I found one that looked like a can of beans. Then we were silent for so long we might’ve fallen asleep.
Eventually, Audrey asked, “So what are you thinking about?”
I didn’t answer right away. “Just…that there has to be more out there.”
“You mean?” She smiled, sat up to get a better look at me. “Connor Woodson, you mean to tell me that you believe in aliens?” Her hazel eyes were questioning.
“You make me sound so...I don’t know, hokey.” But I smiled. “Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, sure I have,” she said. “But like a movie-type thing, ya know. I’ve never seriously considered it.”
“There’s no proof,” she said, ran her fingers through her long brown hair.
“That’s my point. What if there really is some other life out there. Just think how big space is, and how only a small fraction of it has been explored and mapped out. You never know. What if God did it as like some kind of game...an experiment?”
“What?” she asked. There was a startled unbelief in her voice, but I wasn’t sure if it referred to the aliens or to talk of God. She didn’t like thinking of God anymore. It made her feel dirty.
“No, hear me out. What if He created like three or four planets out there, like a million light years away. Let’s say He started them all the same way: with two naked people, a garden, and a tree and all that . . .”
“You know, He watches them. He keeps a book, writes down stuff...like a science experiment, I don’t know. The sole purpose of it, you see, is to see which world is the best off at the end. We’re pretty much screwed. We’re out of it already. Look at us: we’ve destroyed this planet. We’re probably hinging on a nuclear holocaust.”
“So why haven’t we ever contacted any of these other civilizations then, huh?” she asked. Her tone was challenging.
“Because they’re no more advanced than we are. It takes us, what, ninety years to reach Mars.” She arched an eyebrow. “Alright, so not quite ninety, but it’s a good number. It’s not like flying to Europe.”
“Okay. You may have a point.” She laughed a little. Maybe there was something there, even then, between the laughter, just like there sometimes was with her.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“No, come on. You asked me a simple question.”
“Well, it’s just that you’ve solved the theory of creation. You’ve answered the question that Eastern philosophers and the Dali Llama have been pondering for centuries: What is the meaning of life? And all along it was that simple. To be the best planet. The most righteous, huh?”
“I guess.” I thought about that for a minute, the meaning of life. “Jake told me once that the meaning of life was to tell others about God and love each other like hippies and all that.”
“You believe that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But the alien thing, right? Say you’re God.”
“I’m God,” she said.
“I’m gonna smack you,” I said.
She giggled a little.
“So, you’re God. It would seem kinda silly to make only one planet full of people just so they can tell each other about you and then you take ’em all to Heaven or whatever. You’d want to see which planet will have the most people believing in you when it’s all over. The end of the world. It’s not too crazy, is it? Kinda gives you a new spin on things. And of course, nobody knows it’s a game, ’cause if they did, they’d play differently. Try to win. Cheat, even. But you can’t break any rules if you don’t know what they are.”
“Oh,” she sighed with humor. “What am I gonna do with you?”
I thought for a second. Shrugged. “Whatever you want, I guess.”
The loose jawing of a bird pulled me out of the memory. I sat up, wearily, wiping my eyes. I felt a little like I’d fallen asleep. I hung somewhere between states of consciousness.
My watch said it was a little after one. School would be getting out soon. I thought of going to pick up Jake, but as I sat up and looked toward my car, I saw him coming through the hole in the infield fence.
I jumped from the bleachers, crossed over to him. “Am I that predictable that you just know where I go?”
“Well, you weren’t at the pond this time. I thought I’d walk to your house, see if you were home. Or you still not calling it home?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Your mom called last night,” he said. “Looking for you.”
“I thought she might.”
“You been by there? Talk to them? They’re worried, Conman.”
“I’m not talking to them,” I said.
“Because I’m not ready for that.” Jake didn’t say anything. “Look…about what I said yesterday…”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You were hurt, I get it. It takes more than that for me to get pissed at you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “So, why aren’t you in school?”
He laughed to himself. “Got suspended. Funny story, actually.”
He held up his hand, revealed a small red firecracker, about as thick as a cigar, clenched between thumb and forefinger. “I, uh, got busted with M-80s.”
“What, did they search you?”
“Not quite. I kind of, uh, blew up one of the stalls in the boys’ bathroom. I flooded it. Man, they blow nice. It was so cool.”
“I don’t know. Tyler and Cory dared me to.”
I smiled faintly. “I’m glad you have other friends,” I said. “It’ll make things easier.”
“What are you talking about?”
I sighed. “I guess I better tell you now. I’m leaving for a little bit.”
“I’m leaving. I…had the craziest night last night. That guy from the video store…he works for my parents.”
“Okay,” he said. “So say I believe that. Is it not just totally bizarre timing that he’d show up now? How does that happen?”
“I know how crazy it sounds. Believe me. There’s…a lot to tell you, I guess.”
And I told him. All of it. And at the end, he just stared at me.
“I know,” I said.
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know. As soon as I can, but I need answers.”
“Hell, yes, you do. You might not get another chance. I mean, if your folks are going to die…”
“It’s like your whole life just flipped in a single week.”
“When do you leave? What happens next?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just wait for this Sandama guy to find me again.”
“What about Alicia? The party?”
“I’m still planning on going. I don’t know if I’ll be able to or not, but…”
“Hell yeah, you better. Think of it now. Especially with you leaving…dude. You have no excuse now. You better tap that.”
“She’s single now. When you come back, she probably won’t be. She’s hot. She’s not gonna wait for you, ya know. Unless you can get in there and give her something worth waiting for.”
“That’s not the word I would use, but yeah.”
“I don’t know if I can do that…”
“Dude, why not? You’ll probably never see her again. Your whole argument for running off to meet your parents is to not have regrets. To not live the rest of your life without knowing. Same thing with Alicia. You can’t leave and then wonder for the rest of your life what her sweet ass tastes like.”
My face flushed. Nervous laughter squeaked out.
“You know I’m right,” he said. “You know you want to.”
I didn’t deny it. “We’ll see,” I said. “I don’t even know if I’ll be able to make the party.”
“Alright,” he said. “So what now?”
I shrugged. “Can I crash with you tonight?”
“And I wanna give Scott a call. I don’t want to miss him again.”
I told him about the hospital.
“I guess that wouldn’t be the first thing on your mind,” he said.
“Maybe we go by Audrey’s work, get some burgers. See if Scott wants to come. Maybe go see a movie. You up for that?”
“Why not, Conman. Maybe our last day as buds. Let’s do it all.”
Eventually, I got hold of Scott, but he couldn’t do anything. He had errands or something for his grandma. Something to take care of. Yard work, I don’t know. But he promised to catch up with us for the party. I was a bit disappointed, but I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t even know if I’d be at the party.
After that, we went back by the video store, got a few movies. I half-expected to see Sandama there, but he wasn’t. I looked for him every place we went, but he wasn’t anywhere. I was glad for it. I needed to say goodbye. I didn’t know how long I’d be away.
Audrey worked at a burger joint most nights after school. We went there after the video store, got some food, but Audrey wasn’t there. She was off for the weekend. We got food, went back to Jake’s place. I called her, got her voicemail. Left a message, left Jake’s number.
So it was just the two of us, like it normally was, and a quiet evening, which I was glad for. I’d had too many surprises lately. But I was so tired. I hadn’t slept the night before.
As the first movie began, I thought about the next couple days. “I guess I have to go to the party now,” I said. “Not much of a choice. I have to say goodbye.”
“Okay,” he said. “So then tomorrow’s the day.”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “The day everything changes.”
I was asleep not twenty minutes later.