Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Child's End

The writing challenge continues from Indie Ink. Each week about 30 of us come up with an "idea" or a "challenge" which then randomly gets submitted to another person on the list. (You can visit the blogs of the other writers taking this challenge in the column to the right...) For me, this is week 2. As always, feel free to leave comments, suggestions, and other neuronically-fired feedback either in the comments here, or on Twitter or Facebook!

This one was rough...
Week 2.
My Challenger: JT Whitaker
My Challenge: "in the end...was it worth it?"

Previous Challenges:
[Week 1.]



A Child's End


I


The end. Depending on what you've been watching, this is either a relief or a sadness.

The end. Or perhaps it's more about the finality of the words. "No more road," so to speak. "The trail ends here." "Do not pass go" and what not.

The end.

Hindsight has the added benefit of, not 20/20 vision as so many people are apt to conclude, but blinding clarity: of the mistakes, the consequences, the growing pains...

The growing pains...

The end.

*

"You sure this is what you want to do," my father asked from where he sat in the living room.

I glanced up at him from the lowered foyer, through the banister. Sweat had collected everywhere on my body. "Yes." No! I turned back to peaking out the window beside the front door, waiting for the man to show up.

My mother had left half an hour ago, wanting to avoid the leaving. My leaving. Second oldest, first to leave the nest. She instead opted to go with a friend to get a tattoo. In hindsight, glaringly obvious. At the moment, hurtful. Robbed. Angry.

I sensed my father shaking his head. "My peace-nick son, off to the army."

He wasn't far off. The large, rainbow tie-dyed blanket with the large, black peace symbol in the center hanging from one bedroom wall was a testament to my "Make Love, Not War" philosophy. The matching pillows on the twin-size bed built into the small 8 x 10 bedroom I had demanded two years ago were further witnesses. Peace had been gained between me and my two brothers when that bedroom was finally built, allowing each of us boys the sanctuary our two sisters had never gone without--a space of our own.

But now I was off to war--or so I imagined. What else does a sheltered eighteen-year-old think? That he was really just doing this to pay for college? To see the world? To experience life away from a church-centric world of his home?

I heard the car pull up, and I turned to Dad. "He's here."

The recruiter walked up the charmingly-woodsy sidewalk, and I opened the door before he could ring the bell. My father came down from the living room to see me off, offer a final handshake, one last out. "You're sure?"

I nodded, never so unsure of anything else before this moment. I lifted my suitcase, waved good bye, blinked back the tears.

The end.


II


The end. No, it was an "Exit" sign. Just an exit sign. If I opened that door, used it for the stated purpose, however, it would be an end.

Two a.m. Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. Or, as I had learned from my fellow in-training soldiers, Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery. It was the only time you could cry and not lose face.

Two weeks in, and everything I thought I had ever known in life was gone. I'd never been so far from anyone in my family before, especially my siblings. A week was the longest I had ever gone away from either of my parents; my siblings, however, had been there from my first memory. In school, on the bus, in the halls, at grandma and grandpa's house, at summer camp, on the playground, in the yard... My world had been removed, however voluntarily on my part, and I hadn't been prepared in the least. It felt like the end.

Muscles constantly ached. Sleep was fleeting. Yelling was a constant. The food sucked. And I felt so utterly alone. Next week, week three, we would be allowed, for the first time, to call home.

Home... The word had lost physical meaning. It was now something I only glimpsed in dream-like states, in fits of sleepless nights: when lying exhausted on the ground after my 200th push-up; when gasping for air as I ran that fifth mile in full battle gear; when silence reined but mind raced at night, wondering if I could do this, if I had made a mistake, if my body would fail like I'd seen it fail so many others around me...

The end. There seemed to be no end. Wake up at three, make your bed, shower, get dressed, clean the barracks top to bottom, exercise for three more hours, shower again, eat breakfast--all before 7:30 a.m. Then more exercise, weapons classes, more exercise, firing range, more exercise, army conduct classes... Bed by 10 p.m., unless you had guard duty that night... Over and over...

There was no the end.


III


Ring... ring... ring...

"Hello?"

Tears. "Mom? Mommy?"

"Jason? Oh, Jason..."

There were more tears than actual conversation. And something about a new movie that had just come out, Forrest Gump. OJ was apparently still on trial. She had made a Jewish Apple Cake, only I hadn't been there to enjoy it.

But it had been, albeit briefly, home.

*

Ring... ring... ring...

"Mom?"

"Jason! It's Jason, every body!"

"I graduate in two weeks."

"From boot camp?"

"Can you come?"

"I don't know... We'll try..."

"I miss you so much."

"I love you, too."

*

Ring... ring... ring...

"Mom?"

"Hi, Jason! Are they feeding you? How are you?"

"No, I'm good. How are you guys? How is everyone?"

"We're coming."

"To graduation? Really?"

"Me, and your dad, and Mike, Sylvia, and Cynthia. Tom can't make it, work and all."

"Oh... but you're really coming, right?"

"See you in two weeks, Jace the Ace!"


IV


Starched uniform. Check. Polished boots. Check. Shining medals. Check.

Waiting.

*

The van pulled up into the parking lot below the barracks. Our van. My van. I stayed at the window. I had almost believed they weren't going to make it. They were one of the last families to arrive. The excruciating pain of hope evaporated, leaving a hole of questioning reality.

Ten weeks...

Dad looked a little more salt-and-pepper. Mom's red hair more lustrous. My little brother taller. My two little sisters more excitable.

I couldn't move from the window as I watched them pile out of the van, or, as we had always called it, "The Tan Van With the Plan Driven by the Man, man..." We had fancied ourselves 50s poets, I suppose, me and my siblings. My older brother was missing, and I felt that more, I believe. That absence more tangible than the others' presence.

Ten weeks...

I turned and raced down the stairs, boots clumping, heart racing: I was five again, playing dress up with my uncle Scott's cowboy boots and hat, wanting Mom and Dad to see how grown-up I looked.

Except they almost didn't recognize me. It took eternal seconds for the realization to wash over their faces that this soldier who had come to a racing stop before them was their son; their brother; their family. Painful, forever seconds.

I was no longer five years old. I was not playing dress up. I was not playing grown up. More than that, I had needed them to see that, I believe, to break free, to fly on my own. It was not enough that I had done it, that I had reached an end. I needed them to see it. To see me.

Ten weeks...

A scattered chorus of "Jason?!"s echoed, landing me back in the present.

The end.


V


Three days. I was no longer in the collective. Sharing moments with the three siblings who had come along were one-on-one. No longer as a tribe.

Alone in the hotel room with the baby of the family, Cynthia, as she was reaching the angst-ridden stages of mid-puberty.

Alone on the balcony with my other little sister Sylvia, who had realized she was as beautiful on the outside as she was on the inside, starting to date.

Sipping sodas by the hotel pool with younger-but-finally-bigger-than-me brother Mike, who had dropped out of high school, wondering what he should do with his own life, adrift on the seas of possibility his young eyes saw.

Out to eat with Mom and Dad, conversations which are lost to time, but remembering how different they were. How grown-up those talks were.

The end.

22 comments:

Marian said...

Jason, this is gut-wrenching, spoken as the mama of a seven-year-old and an almost five-year-old. oh, sigh. please figure out how to continue this story next week because i want more!

Jason Hughes said...

Thanks Marian. This was harder for me to write about then I thought it was going to be. I hadn't really hashed through those memories before. I'm glad you enjoyed the read, however, and depending on what next week's challenge is, perhaps I will make it a continuation :)

evenstarwen said...

Oh, my goodness. There is so much heartrending emotion here, I felt it to the core. My eyes lingered over one stunning sentence after another:

"You're sure?"
I nodded, never so unsure of anything else before this moment.

Home... The word had lost physical meaning.

The excruciating pain of hope evaporated, leaving a hole of questioning reality.

That absence more tangible than the others' presence.

I can't even pick a favorite. You, sir, blew me away.

Jason Hughes said...

Thank you so much, evenstarwen!

wordyliving said...

What an excellent piece, it's just sucked me in.

Jason Hughes said...

Thanks Wordy!

jtwhitaker.com said...

really enjoyed seeing what you did with the prompt...i like the style you chose too.

great job!

:)

Karla said...

This is lovely, Jason. Nice way to step up to the challenge!

Fina said...

I agree with Marian and JT. This is wonderful. I'm so thankful that you've signed on with the Challenge. Your talent inspires me!

supermaren said...

Thank you so much for sharing these memories with us. Your relationship with your family came through so clearly. Excellent work.

Zee said...

I loved reading your post. I really felt the part about the absence of your older brother, even in the presence of the others. Look forward to reading more...

Jason Hughes said...

You are all too kind! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, it means a lot!

Kerri Anne said...

YES.

Loved the way you told these stories-within-a-story.

I still remember the day "home" lost its physical meaning for me, too. It was simultaneously gut-wrenching and full of so much freedom.

anastasia mcdonnellism said...

As the mother of a boy, this broke my heart. The abandonment at your delicate moment of exit, the heart-wrenching phone calls, the descriptions of "no 'the end'" - it overflowed with emotion. So well done, Jason. I want to hug you now, even so many years down the road from this.

flutter said...

This shattered me and that speaks so much to your talent

Jason Hughes said...

Thank you all! The fact that you took the time to read, and knowing that it touched you in some way, humbles me again and again. Love to you all!

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

Great job, dude. I've never written about my transition from high school to basic training, which is odd because that's more or less the foundation of everything else I've written about since. You really captured the pain and confusion of being forced to grow up in a short period of time. It makes one realize just how efficient the entire process really is.

Mandy said...

Jason, you're a wonderful writer. It's such an honor to be part of the IndieInk challenge with you. I'm looking forward to reading more...

San Diego Momma said...

How you formatted this lent itself to your words.
How you ended it brought it full circle.
And all of it was heart-wrenching and real and raw and wonderful.

Lazidaisical said...

My hubby used to be in the Air Force and reading your story almost made me cry because it reminded me of his graduation! You know you've done a great job writing something if it almost makes someone cry. :)

wendryn said...

I like the way you laid this out, how the many endings were worked in. It's an interesting take on the prompt.

Fina said...

I agree with Marian and JT. This is wonderful. I'm so thankful that you've signed on with the Challenge. Your talent inspires me!