1 The Arrival
It was unusually warm for the beginning of April, so the car windows were rolled down in celebration. The wind whipped inside the vehicle, tousling the boy's dark blonde hair.
"Mom! What time will we get there?" Ethan yelled over the sound of the wind and the interstate.
"The GPS says we have another hour or so," she answered him for the eleventh time during their four hour trip.
"It's taking forever!" he complained, focusing on the game in his hand.
Jennifer reach one hand from the steering wheel and squeezed her forehead in an attempt to calm her stress. "Yeah, I know, but it'll be worth it once you're there. Anyway, you were the one who insisted on coming down here."
"Couldn't we have just rode a plane?" he retorted.
The sounds of the gravel crunching beneath the tires of the car announced their arrival. Pulling into the driveway, they were a strange combination of excited and exhausted all at once. More than anything though, Jennifer was relieved to finally be there. Ethan sprang from the backseat, eager to be free of his confines. His tiny legs moved quickly across the yard as he found his way to his grandparents who had already begun making their way to the car. They had been anxiously peeking through the curtains of the large bay window for hours.
"Grandpa! Grandma!" Ethan said as he came within arms reach of them.
"Ethan, my boy! I'm so glad you're finally here! We're going to have so much fun!" his grandpa, Thomas, exclaimed as he lifted Ethan into his arms. "My goodness how you've grown! How old are you now--ten, eleven?"
Ethan giggled as he reminded Thomas that he was only five.
Jennifer followed behind them with one of many suitcases in her hands. They made their way up the steps and into the brick house. Despite the house's location, an impressively safe area with beautiful woods on one side and kind neighbors on the other, she was filled with doubt over her decision to allow Ethan to spend a couple weeks here. She had never been away from him for more than a day and the thought of being without him filled her with a sick dread. He had been begging her for months to be able to return to his grandparents' house, after he had the time of his life during their visit the year before. She wasn't sure if it was the county fair or just the go-karts that had won him over. He had been too small to drive on his own, but his father had driven for him while Ethan sat proudly on his lap. So much had changed since then.
Once they finished packing in the luggage and had a quick bathroom break, they all gathered into the kitchen. Ethan was famished, despite the five bags of chips he inhaled on the car ride there. His grandma, Judith, set about making him a grilled cheese sandwich as he sat at the kitchen bar, swinging his legs impatiently. She finished the sandwich quickly, much to his relief, and he dug in.
"Would you like anything, Jenn?" Judith asked.
"No, thanks. I'm not really hungry. We made a lot of pit stops on the way here and I'm full up on tons of junk food."
Judith watched as Jennifer eyed Ethan. It was obvious that she was beginning to question whether or not this was a good idea.
"Jenn, stop being such a worry wart. We raised you, I think we can handle taking care of him for a couple weeks. Besides, with everything going on right now, I think it will be good for him to get away for a bit and give you a chance to get things done."
Jennifer ran her hand through Ethan's hair. "I know. It's just so hard to be away from him."
"Don't worry, Mom!" Ethan chimed in between bites. "Grandma and Grandpa will take good care of me."
Later that night, Jennifer unpacked Ethan's suitcase as he got ready for bed. She arranged his clothes, toys, electronics, and books in an effort to feel some sense of control over the situation. Ethan hopped into the bed and pulled the thick blue blankets up around him. She handed him his favorite stuffed animal, a stained green elephant that he had been obsessively attached to for the past two years.
"Can you tell me a story before I go to sleep?" he asked her as he clutched the toy.
"Sure, which book do you want me to read to you?" she said as she leaned back on the headboard and stretched out her legs.
"I want to hear about the little boy I saw in the hallway," he answered, looking up at her.
She inhaled sharply as her muscles tensed. Inwardly, she told herself that he had obviously misspoken. "The hallway? Do you mean you saw a picture of a little boy in the hallway?" She offered up as the only logical explanation for his bizarre question. She couldn't allow herself to entertain the idea of anything else.
Ethan was unsure how he should answer her question, so he nodded and shrugged at the same time. Then, giving up on the truth, he nodded a definite yes. Jennifer felt immediate relief at his answer.
"Well, what did he look like?" she asked him.
"He had brown hair and he was about my size," he explained simply.
"Oh," Jennifer said, fighting back her own insane thoughts. "That little boy's name is Michael and he was your grandpa's younger brother, so that would make him your great uncle."
"Then how come I've never seen him before?" he asked innocently.
"Well," she said as she crossed her legs at the ankles, "Michael died when he was around your age. Your grandpa really doesn't like to talk about it, so try not to mention it to him, okay?"
"Okay, I'll try but," Ethan paused and fiddled with the blanket.
"But what, sweetie?" she prodded.
A few seconds passed before he finally answered, "But can you still read me a book?"
Jennifer hesitated, feeling as though he had wanted to say something else, but she decided to drop the subject and reach for a book. She began reading to him and before the book was finished, he was sound asleep. She waited there beside him, watching the gentle rise and fall of his chest and thought about the current messy state of her life. After enough time passed that she was confident he would be asleep for the night, she slid off the side of the bed and made her way to her own room. She drug her fingertips along the wall absentmindedly as she walked.
Once in her room, she changed into her night clothes and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash the filth of the day from her face. She stared into the mirror and frowned at the obvious signs of stress that had begun to transform her once youthful skin. She pulled her limp, brown hair into a scrunchie and made a mental proclamation to start taking better care of herself.
She returned to her bedroom, slipped off her house shoes, and climbed into bed. She burrowed herself inside the covers and allowed exhaustion to overtake her. In only a few minutes, she began to drift away, and, just as she did, a quick thought passed through her nearly unconscious mind--she didn't notice any pictures of Michael in the hallway.