This is a short story that I originally wrote in response to a competition called "Family Matters." Based on a true story, this is a fictionalized tale of my childhood and the disappearing, so to speak, of my aunt and uncle around 13 years ago. It definitely feels strange to be posting something so closely resembling reality - please know that creative liberties were definitely taken in the telling of this story, and it was written out of a place of utmost love. Aunt Di was always one of the biggest supporters of my art (my favorite birthday gift to date is the art table that is still in my old bedroom at my mom's house), and I like to think that she'd appreciate the attempt to turn her story into something creative and even a bit creepy. I miss you always, Auntie Didi! I hope you enjoy the story, wherever you are.
Miska, Diane. Section A West. Site 24C. Sidney repeated the information to herself and pulled the hood of her jacket over her head. She took a breath, swung open the heavy glass door, and stepped out into the rain, where her car was waiting with the engine on. She thought about jogging to it, but the rain felt good on her face. It was cold, and she felt more awake than she had in days. So present in this moment, so close to a place that for most of her life had been home, the air still carrying the faintest remains of childhood's fading familiarity. The raindrops slowed until they were nearly floating beside the contours of her face. In each of them, a tiny reflection of Sidney stared back at her. She pulled her hood down her back and closed her eyes, feeling the cold drops as they fell atop her head and forged golden brown valleys through her hair.
"Sid! What are you doing out there? It's freezing out!"
Sidney opened her eyes and returned to her body, which was in fact cold. And wet, even under her jacket, where the rain had seeped through the opening around her neck.
"I'm coming," she said. It was barely a whisper, her voice thin as a ghost's. She walked over to the car, wiping rain from her forehead, and opened the door to sit down in the driver's seat.
"Are you alright?" The boy in the passenger seat gave her a worried look. The boy was Kevin, and he had known Sidney since she was a young girl, growing up in the same neighborhood a few miles from where they were now. Where they were now was a cemetery, St. Augustine's, on Chicago's northwest side. It was a Tuesday afternoon in November, winter creeping in, and Kevin had no idea why Sidney had brought him there.
"Yea, I'm fine. It felt good, the rain. That's all." She shot him a grin, and put the car into drive. "A West."
"A West. That's where we're going. So that's what you're looking for."
"What's in A West?"
"Who's in A West. Not What. It's a cemetery. These are people, Kevin, didn't anybody ever tell you that?"
"Yes, smart ass, I am aware that these are people. What I'm not aware of is the purpose of this bizarre outing to a cemetery, with me, on this uncomfortably cold afternoon. So who is in A West, and why are we here?"
"Don't worry about the reason, it's just something I have to do. And as for why you're here …" She paused. He ran a hand through his hair in frustration.
"No, I do worry Sidney. Because I don't know what's been up with you since you got back. Maybe it was something that happened to you there. Maybe you just changed, Christ, people do. But it doesn't feel like that. You look like you haven't slept in days, and you're bringing me to a cemetery in the middle of the afternoon, telling me not to worry. I am worried, for you."
"Jeez, Kevin. I'm sorry. Look, you don't have to worry. Let's all just take a breath. I look like I haven't slept in days, because I haven't been, sleeping. Not well, anyway. And that's part of the reason why we're here. Because of this dream I had, and this show that … you know, it's just really dumb."
"No. No, it is dumb. But it's something I want to do. Visit this person. My aunt. The person is my aunt. Well, was. She's dead. Diane, that was her name."
Kevin reached for her hand, unsure of what to say.
"Kevin, stop," she sighed, withdrawing her own hand. "It's not like that. She's been dead a long time. I'm fine. I've just … I've been thinking about her lately. I had this really messed up dream, of her. It really freaked me out, and that's why I haven't been sleeping well. That's how it started, anyway."
"What was the dream?"
"Yea, it was just her face, close up. But it was spinning around and around above me. And she was screaming. I couldn't hear her, but I could see it in her expression. That's all I saw. It felt like only a minute, and then I woke up, sweating and scared.” Sidney stopped talking and looked both ways before rolling through a four-way stop. The place appeared to be empty aside from them, with exception of the dead, who didn’t seem to mind.
“Man, I hadn't thought about her in so long,” she kept one hand on the wheel and rubbed her left knee with the other while she spoke. “She died when I was in high school, I think I was 17. I loved her so much, and yea, I miss her, but this was just out of nowhere. It really freaked me out."
"Yea, it sounds freaky. But you know, Sid, nobody really understands what makes us dream things. Maybe you saw something that subconsciously reminded you of her, and you ate some spicy food or whatever, and there you go."
"Yea. That's what I thought too. It was a weird dream, and that's all, so I tried to forget about it. But I haven't told you the weird part yet."
"A West, the sign said left. What's the weird part?"
"So I'm having dinner at my mom's house two nights ago, and she's got the TV on. Same as always. She's watching this baking show, some kind of competition thing. They have all these challenges and they get voted off, whatever."
"American Bake Off."
"Sure, I guess."
"What about it?"
"Well if you'd let me finish…" Sidney pulled over to the side of the narrow, winding road and put the car in park. "My mom's watching the show and she asks me if I recognize this woman, one of the contestants. I told her I didn't. Well it turns out, this lady is the sister of my uncle, the one who was married to Diane."
"Yea. Uncle Terry." Sidney sat staring at the rain skittering down the windshield, her tired eyes blank.
"I think I remember that name."
"I'd be surprised if I didn't talk about him while we were growing up. I'm a little surprised you didn't know of Aunt Diane, but there are so many stories about Uncle Terry."
"Yea, didn't he used to dance on a fish tank or something like that?"
"Ha!" Sidney laughed out loud and beat the staring wheel with her hand, accidentally honking the horn. "Whoops. Oh, man. Yes, the fish tank dance. But he didn't dance on a fish tank. He did a dance about cleaning off the fish tank. But whatever. Here's Uncle Terry in a nutshell: He was a real strange guy, very childlike. Definitely had the mentality of a kid, not a towering man, which he was, in appearance. He had epilepsy, pretty badly, I think. He had seizures fairly often, and all of us kids - my siblings and cousins and I - we knew to leave him alone for a while after that happened. But other than that, we played with him all of the time. He was goofy, he giggled a lot. His shoulders would bounce, and he swayed back and forth with his hands in his pockets, belly bulging in a white, pocketed t-shirt. He always looked the same, like a cartoon character. Hanging out with us kids, all the time, giggling and swaying."
"Did he speak?"
"Well yea, but I can't remember about what. He'd tease us, make silly jokes. Tell us not to get him excited so he wouldn't have a seizure. I don’t remember ever seeing him have adult conversations though, not really. Even at her funeral, all I remember is him sitting with us at this table in the snack room downstairs, giggling that same way, surrounded by kids and coloring books."
"I mean, it was normal to us. That's just who he was, I never even knew it was that weird. He was funny to us, we laughed at things he did. Like for exercise, he'd walk back and forth in their little two-bedroom apartment with a pedometer on, counting his footsteps. He tried to walk something like 10,000 steps a day. But he barely ever went outside. He'd go out there with us, when we were playing in the yard. Or a couple of times he walked us down the block to the playground. But I don't think I ever saw him go anywhere by himself. Well, at one point he had a job, stocking shelves at a Jewel-Osco at the end of their street. But it was part time, and he could walk there. I don't even think he knew how to drive."
"How could your aunt be married to this guy? Did they…I mean, they didn't talk, so I assume they didn't do other things?"
"I really don't know. It's something that as I got older I realized how bizarre the whole situation was. I remember asking him once if he and my aunt ever kissed. He laughed and shoved me away and said something like, 'That's none of your business.' I never saw them show any affection if they did. But there were some normal things. Like she would nag him to clean up, and he would yell at her for nagging him. Same as any couple. This one time, they got in a real fight when we were staying over. I don't even know about what. But he she was yelling at him, about how he couldn't do anything without her, and he got angry and left. Just walked out the front door. She huffed around for a minute before we went out to find him. We drove around the block a couple of times but didn't see him. So we went to the drug store, where he worked. Sure enough, there he was, in the back of the store."
"Well, as soon as he saw us, running. Through the aisles, my rather large aunt waddling after him, 'Terrence! Terrence, you stop!'"
"Me, my sister, and my little cousin, we followed them both back outside. We got in the car and followed him as he walked, nearly ran, across the street to the police station. My aunt got out, told us to wait in the car. So we did, in the heat of the day in the backseat, for about a half an hour until they came out together, shaking hands with an officer."
"It was. Just another weekend spent at our auntie-slash-babysitter's with her child-husband."
"How old was he, really?"
"I don't know. My aunt was in her early forties when she died, and I think he was around the same age as her. They met because he followed her home from high school on the bus."
"Yea, that's the story. She was always a bit on the unattractive side, and her nature was very caring. I assume he was always just as strange, so maybe she felt bad for him or something. Or bad for herself. I have no idea. And I can't very well ask now. I suppose I could, if we find her grave, but I doubt she'd answer."
"Well what happened to Uncle Terry, do you still see him?"
"We have no idea, that's the thing. The story gets weirder, just wait."
"I honestly don't think it could get any weirder, but I'm listening."
Sidney sat looking out the window, squinting her eyes in an effort to read a distant sign.
"Let's walk and talk. I think the rain's done for now, and there's a sign over there. I can't read it from here."
Kevin agreed and they climbed out of her maroon Chevy. Their breath turned to steam in the cold, grey air. Sidney zipped up her jacket and reached out for Kevin's arm, and in turn a bit of his warmth. He was Sidney's oldest friend, and though at one point they had been out of contact for several years, they reconnected after running into each other at a neighborhood block party and neither could remember why they had stopped talking, if there was any reason at all. A few years later, when Sidney returned from a year of living abroad teaching English in Chile, she felt disconnected from people she had been closer to before she had left. But she was still drawn to Kevin, this lasting connection to times long past and the person that she was then. He was familiar, gentle, nonthreatening. True, he had confessed his love to her one summer before they drifted apart, but she rejected him kindly and he never mentioned it again after that. Whether he thought about it or not, she didn't really know, but he never acted on it if he did. And for that she was grateful.
The fact was, Kevin was one of a handful of people that Sidney still felt even remotely close to, and of those people, he was by far the most comforting. And that is what Sidney needed today. Because she was spooked, for the first time that she could remember since she was a little girl and she thought she saw Jesus in the corner of her bedroom the night of her First Communion. And because it was cold and rainy, and despite all the bodies, a cemetery can be an extraordinarily lonely place.
"Ok, so, what are we looking for here?" Kevin stood staring at the sign, but thinking about the girl hanging on his arm, shivering. "You're freezing, Sid. This jacket is soaked."
"Oh, I'm fine. We're looking for…24C. Over there, I think." She pulled her arm away from his and pointed to a hilly patch of land in the back corner of the entire place, tucked behind the chapel. She was already walking by the time Kevin had a chance to look up. He hopped over a slushy puddle and caught up to her.
"Slow down, kid. Don't forget you've got a story to finish."
"Right, sorry. I got excited," she smiled, and put her arm back in his. She was glad to have him with her, and for someone to listen to her story. Memories she had long forgotten were flowing freely now in her head, leaving a strange sensation of nostalgia mixed with grief. She continued, "So I was 17, when my aunt passed away, like I said. A junior. I came home from school, and my mom was home, which she never was at that time. I walked in, and calm as ever, she tells me that my aunt, her oldest sister, died that day. She walked into work at the hospital, where she was a nurse, and she collapsed. She just dropped dead right there. We never really did find out why, exactly. They thought it was an aneurism in her brain or something. Just like that, she was gone."
"Damn. I'm sorry."
"Yea, me too. She really did help raise us. She had no kids of her own, but six younger siblings, including my mom, most of whom had children too. I was really close to her, the oldest of the nieces. And it was so unexpected. When my mom told me, I was shocked, I think. I mean, we had our fair share of deaths in the family, starting with my dad, you know that. So, I figured I was just used to it, when I didn't cry or anything. But I think it just took a while for it to really sink in. I know I cried at her funeral."
Sidney approached a cement marker in the grass next to the dangling arms of a willow tree and stopped walking.
"What did I say, 24? I think we go left here. I don't see any numbers, I guess just look for her name. Miska. Diane Miska."
"Hey, that wasn't an order, it was a request." Sidney gave Kevin a bit of a shove and instantly worried he would misconstrue her need for his company as a desire for closeness of another kind. Her cheeks flushed.
"Loving wife, daughter, sister, aunt. Rest in Peace," Kevin had righted himself and stood reading a plain, grey headstone.
"You found it?" Sidney walked over to his side, looking down at it too. Diane Miska. There was something so strange about seeing the name of a dead person on a headstone. This place, where their name still exists, maybe the only place left. And the knowledge that somewhere down there, beneath your feet and the manicured grass, is a box of their bones and whatever else may have survived in the deep, cold, darkness. Sidney stood quiet for a few minutes, with Kevin at her side. She was quiet out of respect, and out of a lack of anything to say. But she was quiet especially due to the air having been knocked straight out of her lungs by the wall of memories and feelings flooding toward her now.
"Do you want me to go…?"
"No. Stay. I want to finish my story. You still don't even know why we're here."
"You're here because you want to be, and I'm here to support you."
"Sweet," she said with one eye on him, and one eye on a droplet of rain hanging precariously from a blade of grass over the headstone. "So where was I?"
"You came home from school, and your mom told you about your aunt. She died at the hospital."
"Right. Fast forward to the funeral, where, like I said, Terry was behaving like his usual childlike self. After that, I don't know exactly what happened to him, but from what I can remember, the story goes like this. Terry had to move out of the apartment, because he couldn't take care of himself. And his family, who have money, mind you, but left my aunt to care for him completely on a nurse's salary, were apparently unwilling to take him back. So he moved into the YMCA, over on Irving. He lived there for a while, I think maybe even a year. Well, my aunt's life insurance money came through, and legally, it was his. I don't know how much it was, but you've got to figure around $100,000 or something. So he gets the money. My grandmother, who had been like a mother to him since he followed my aunt home from school, and who was also fairly poor and living in a small apartment in the city, told him to let her or one of her daughters help him out with the handling of the money and finding him a more permanent place to live. He said he would think about it. And then he just left."
"What do you mean he left?"
"He just took off. My grandmother called him about a week later at the YMCA, but they said he checked out several days earlier, no forwarding address. She contacted Terry's parents, but they hadn't heard from him either. He had no credit cards, no driver's license, just a life insurance check and a severe case of epilepsy that left him dependent on medication and at high risk for an accident, or worse. He was gone."
"You never heard from him again?"
"Once, about a year later. He called my grandma from a pay phone, asking her for money. She said she had no money to give him and asked where he was calling her from. But he hung up on her without an explanation. It was a 424 area code, California."
"Man, how'd he get all the way to California?"
"That's the big mystery. Well that, and what has happened to him since. In my head, I don't picture anything good. I mean, he was so vulnerable, and the man I remember, I hate to say it, but he was pretty helpless. He ran through all that money in just a year, making his way to California and on God knows what else. But Kev, I'm so curious. I swear, it's like this mystery that's always kind of haunted me. First of all, how did she die, really? Why? I know she was overweight, and in bad shape. She drank wine from a box every day of her adult life. But still, she was so young, and nothing had happened, that we know of. And to add to the mystery, what happened to Uncle Terry? This man was a staple of my childhood. And then boom, she's dead, and he's gone, and in reality, I'll probably never really know what happened to either of them."
"Yea, Sid, that is a pretty messed up story."
They were sitting down now, on the wet grass, their jeans and knit gloves soaked. What was left of the daylight was fast subsiding, and the wind nipped at their exposed skin. Sidney wondered to herself why she had come here. Yes, it was a messed up story, and yes, the mystery haunted her. But the answer wasn't here, if it was anywhere. She wasn't even sure that an answer existed, or why she needed to find it. That dream, that terrifying dream. It was what children's nightmares are made of, the kind that she read about but was fortunate enough never to experience herself growing up. That and the television show, which aired only two nights after the dream. It was a very strange coincidence, if not something more. As the years passed, she had thought about Diane and Terry less and less. And in recent months, having just returned from a life-changing adventure, all of her focus on trying to figure out what was next for her on this uncharted journey, they could be no further from her mind than they had been before the dream. And now, they seemed to be all she could think about; their presence, strong and discernible, keeping her up at night. She needed to know why.
"What are you thinking, Sid? Talk to me."
"I don't know, I'm just trying to figure out what I'm doing here. What this all means. This television show…"
"Yea, let's talk about this television show, now that I know the history," he paused, stroking the cold stone at his feet. "This sister, what's her name?"
"I don't even know. Claire, I think?"
"Ok, Claire. Tell me about what happened on the show, did you watch it?"
"Yea, I did. Most of it. The end."
"Did she win?"
"It's not over yet. She didn't get eliminated, it was a joyous time," she snickered, and he laughed with her, grabbing her hand. This time she didn't pull away. "At the end of the episode, the host … I don't know his name either. Anyways, he announced that next week they are going to have a surprise."
"Ooh, I'm at the edge of my grass."
"You should be, so am I. Get this. The surprise, I kid you not, is a visit from the contestants' families, whom they haven't seen since they arrived to start shooting the show."
"Really. I promise you. I looked over at my mom when he said it, and her mouth was open too. We were both thinking it. Uncle Terry. What if it's Uncle Terry?"
"Oh my God, do you think it will be?"
"I don't know."
"Do you want it to be?"
"I don't know. Yes, I think. It would be crazy just to see his face again, and good to see he's alive, and with his family."
"You don't sound confident."
"No. I'm not."
"I don't know. I just think it's much more likely that when Terry called my grandmother, he was in trouble. And I don't think he had the capacity to get himself out of real trouble. I don't think he ever had to do anything like that on his own. And while I probably wouldn't have given him enough credit to think he could make it to California, even knowing that he did, I'd still bet he couldn't find his way back again. But, if he did … well, then he's a different man than I ever saw of him in the time that we were family."
"It's a scary thought, isn't it? How different people look through adult eyes than they did when you were a kid. You grow up thinking everything is how it is, and then you learn things. And you realize that it's so much more complicated."
"Sometimes, yea. This time, definitely." Sidney's voice shrunk back to a whisper. The cold was settling in her bones, and while she didn't want to move she knew that they should go. She looked at Kevin and motioned with her head toward the car.
"Yea, kid. Let's get you into the heat."
They got up slowly, carefully maneuvering their frozen limbs. Neither could feel their toes in their boots. They walked, unhurried at first and then more quickly, dodging headstones as they made their way toward the road.
"Hey did you drop something by the car, Sid?"
"No, I don't think so. Why?"
"There's something on the ground over there, it looks like a cell phone, or a weird pager or something. Have you picked up a new career I should be aware of?"
"No, you jerk, and my phone's right here in my bag."
They walked up to the car arm in arm and Kevin bent down to pick up the small, grey plastic box.
"What the heck is it?" Sidney asked, grabbing it from his hands. She stared at it blankly for a moment, running a finger across three rubber buttons that sat in a row below a small, rectangular screen.
"Sid," Kevin said, pausing to process his own realization. "I think it's a pedometer."
The hairs on Sidney's arms stood straight up against the cold, wet cloth of her jacket, and the skin on her head pulled taught. She looked around the hazy, grey lot thinking perhaps the cemetery isn't such a lonely place after all.
Chicago-born citizen of the globe, rich in the things that really matter. Let's get weird.