Catching Up

Fiction
Beth Labonte


She shivered and pulled her coat tightly against her body. Even with the heat blasting, her car had taken on an unusual chill as she glanced into the passenger seat at her brother.

It had been so long since she’d seen him. Brown hair, freckles. He looked so much like her, yet she had never noticed it when she was younger. But now, she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He looked so different, not older, just different. He had been sick the last time she saw him, but this time, what a difference. He was glowing.

He hadn’t spoken much since she picked him up that evening. She wished he would, at least to refresh her memory of, well, of him. His personality, his sense of humor, all the things she now spent her life seeking out in other people, finding bits and pieces in this person or that person, pathetically trying to reclaim some of what she lost when he had left.

They chatted about what was going on in her life. About current events. A brilliant mind to say the least, technology fascinated him. Politics amused him. The world as a whole was an untapped treasure chest of events, bewildering to anybody, but to him extraordinary. Yet there was awkwardness between them that she had never felt before.

Don’t waste this. She lightly pressed the brake.

“So what made you come back?” she asked. Her voice shook, unsettled by this new situation.

“It’s been a while,” he said. “I missed you. I missed this.”

“This? I remember how much you loved this town when you were here…”

“You know what I mean,” he said with a smirk. “I see your sarcasm has developed nicely.”

“Hey, I learned from the best.” She shrugged. A weight began to lift as the tension eased. But something else was creeping in. Loneliness. The all encompassing kind of loneliness that hit without warning, regardless of how many people she was with. It started in her stomach and radiated through her entire body until she wanted to do nothing else but crawl into bed. She recognized it from the school cafeteria, from the pub after work, and from home alone late at night when all was quiet. The impossibility of changing the life she had been dealt struck her with full force in this, the most impossible of moments, and tears started down her cheeks.

“You’ve missed most of my life, you know.” High school, college, marriage. She counted up the years.

He shook his head slowly. Guilt crept in, though he hadn’t meant it. “No,” he said. “Not true. I’ve always been around, you just never noticed until tonight. It took you long enough. Did I remember to say happy birthday?”

“No, you didn’t. But thanks.” She lowered her eyes. “You too.” Same birthday, six years apart. The icing on the cake.

She made a right turn onto Main Street. They had gone in a bit of a circle.

“Can I go with you?” she asked. She was well aware of what this entailed, but her life was not perfect, so why not?

“Not yet, you know that. But I’ll come back for you.” He winked. “You always were my favorite.”

“Favorite what?”

“Dork,” he answered, straight-faced. He never missed a beat.

“Hey!”

“Just kidding. My favorite person. My favorite human being, anywhere. And I’ve been everywhere.”

She reached over to playfully punch him in the arm… just like old times in the back of their parents’ car… almost forgetting… until her hand hit the empty seat.

Looking over, nothing met her eyes but the passenger side window and a cemetery gate locked for the evening. Over the years, fleeting glimpses of his face in the crowd had not convinced her—not at dance recitals, not at graduations, not even at her wedding. Wishful thinking had its place in everybody’s life, and she was not a woman of faith. But tonight there was no mistaking who was standing on that sidewalk, watching cars and waiting. The night of her thirtieth birthday. He would’ve been thirty-six.

She thought of the way his face caught the glow of Christmas lights from passing houses as they drove. How it had turned from red to green to yellow. Transparent and unreal. Yet more real than anybody she had met in the past fifteen years. He too had been her favorite.

A single snowflake fell onto the windshield as she reached down to turn up the heat.
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Beth Labonte was born in Salem, Massachusetts and received a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently working as an Administrative Assistant, she has taken to writing as her creative outlet in an otherwise mundane workaday world. She hopes to someday write full-time, because it is more fun. E-mail: bethlabonte[at]gmail.com

War Diary

Flash
Merle Drown


Jean had to wait until her Uncle Bill died to read his World War II diary. In 1941 Bill had joined the paratroops and until ten years before his death at eighty, crowed that he still fit into his uniform. A lifelong bachelor, several times a year he packed a suitcase and a cooler of beer and drove across the country to look up army buddies.

Anticipating fascinating stories, Jean read Uncle Bill’s closely penciled writing aloud to her husband. “Eggs and toast, really good. The stew today had plenty of meat. Jell-O with cream. I love this coffee. Got a letter from Sister Helen at home.”

Helen was Jean’s mother. He didn’t say what was in her letter. Jean skimmed the pages. “Food, borrowing a quarter, lending a dollar, food, food, and more food.”

“Look up the month you were born,” her husband said. “Maybe he had a reaction to that!”

For March 1942 Jean found food. “Every morsel listed and rated. I always thought there’d be something interesting, something I hadn’t heard before.”

“Maybe that’s why he never let anyone read it,” her husband said.

“Then why did he keep it for forty years?”

“He’s the one who listed everything he ate. Why would he throw it away?”

“What do you think he talked to his army pals about all those years—food?”

“No one else in the family wanted to read the diary but you,” her husband said. “What did they know that you didn’t?”

“He lived his life,” Jean said. “He didn’t write it.” She was disappointed as hell.
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Merle Drown is the author of stories, essays, plays, reviews, and two novels, Plowing Up A Snake (The Dial Press) and The Suburbs Of Heaven (Soho Press, 2000), trade paperback (Berkley Press, 2001). He edited Meteor in the Madhouse, the posthumous novellas of Leon Forrest, published by Northwestern University Press in 2001. Barnes and Noble chose The Suburbs of Heaven for its Discover Great New Writers series. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NH Arts Council. He teaches in Southern N.H.U.’s MFA program. “War Diary” is from his collection-in-progress, Shrunken Heads, miniature portraits of the famous among us, or Balzac in a nutshell. Pieces have appeared in Amoskeag, Meetinghouse, Night Train and 971 Menu. E-mail: merle[at]drown.com