MIA

I woke up and lay staring at the ceiling for a long time. I'd painted an elaborate forest canopy mural on it a few months before, but the blowing curtains made the light coming from the street lamps move in such a way that it seemed like the leaves were blowing in the wind. The canopy had been Daniel's idea, and even though I'd been against it, I'd let him convince me to paint it. After all, it was his bedroom, too.

I had to admit that once it was done, the effect was very nice, especially when you woke up in the morning with green leaves and blue skies over head. Sometimes it used to get on my nerves, the way that the leaves never changed. It had been summer for two years. It reminded me of the farm. The apartment where Daniel and I lived was in Mercersburg, only a short drive away from the farm where I'd grown up, but sometimes it felt like an entirely different world.

My parents wanted me to move back home with them. I guess they just thought I could just quit my crappy waitress job and start working on the farm again. I could give little kids riding lessons. I could train horses. I'd always been good with the horses; I guess they thought I could just go back to where I was before Daniel left, and that everything would just be the way that it used to be, that I could just live without knowing. But, I couldn't move on like that, I had to wait until I knew for sure that he wasn't coming back to me and six months wasn't long enough.

* * * * *

"Aw, what's the matter Danny-boy? Am I kicking your ass?" I laughed and darted away from him as he made another unsuccessful attempt to grab the basketball from me. We were playing our version of basketball in my parents' driveway. When we were kids, we'd managed to crookedly nail a basketball hoop to the wall of the garage and somehow it had stood the test of time. Even though we no longer lived with there, we still played around with it every time we went to visit the farm.

"You know, it's not really fair when you stuff it inside your hoodie like that." He said pointedly and made another grab for it.

"Sure it is. You've got other advantages to balance it out."

"Advantages?"

"Like height . . . and the actual ability to play . . ." I laughed when he finally caught a hold of me and pushed the basketball out of my hoodie. It rolled across the macadam and came to a stop in the grass by the house. "That's out of bounds, you know. I get the ball back."

"So . . . are we going to talk about it?"

"About what?"

"You know what."

"I do."

"Callie, come on. I know you're mad about the Marines."

"Why would I be mad? I want you to get killed. I like it when people shoot at you. It turns me on." I batted my eyes and walked around him, sitting down on the basketball. He flopped down on the grass next to me and shook his head.

"I always wanted to be a Marine." He said simply. He pulled up a long blade of grass and began absently knotting it.

"Yeah. I always wanted to be a fairy princess, what's your point?"

Daniel shook his head, "Callie just give me a chance!"

"Sure, do whatever you want. I'm not going to stop you." I snapped. "I think its time for dinner. You coming?" I stood and picked up the basketball, hugging it against my chest. Daniel smiled at me, but I saw that I'd hurt his feelings. His eyes were so expressive, every emotion he felt was reflected in their smooth gray depths. "Come on, Daniel." I said, and held my hand out to help him to his feet.

* * * * *

I hated my job. There is no point in pretending that it wasn't the absolute truth. There was nothing to like about it. The most frequent customers that came into the diner were greasy men who worked at the sawmill and looked forward to coming in just so they could stare at my breasts through their lunch hour. Sometimes they gave decent tips. Sometimes they dropped it on the floor so I'd have to lean down to pick it up and they could get a better look down the front of my shirt. Sometimes I was clumsy and dropped food on them. Oops. Don't get me wrong there were a few nice folks who came in, they were just rare.

I was wiping down the counter when Mr. and Mrs. Coales came in with their two little granddaughters. They were cute twins with matching blonde ponytails. It was nice to have some customers that were polite and gave a decent tip. When I brought their change back from their bill, Mrs. Coales laid her wrinkled hand across mine and smiled at me sadly. "We want you to know that we've been praying for Daniel, and you, too." She said and patted my hand comfortingly.

I jumped up on the table and stomped, screaming hysterically, "You prayed for us? You PRAYED? Well, doesn't that fix everything? Because you're praying everything is alright and we'll just be happy from now on, huh?"

Actually, that didn't happen. I didn't jump up on the table and scream anything. I just smiled and nodded and told them I hoped that they'd have a nice day. It was so hard to be so polite when they were ripping your heart out and telling you that they hoped you'd feel better soon.

* * * * *

"If like getting shot at, you can run around in the yard and I can chase you with the paintball gun." I commented, carefully straightening his collar. My hands were shaking, so I tugged on it with a little more force than was absolutely necessary. "We could be done by lunchtime, you know."

"Callie, stop it." Daniel pleaded, and touched my cheek.

"Stop what? It was just a suggestion." I said, but even I heard the quaver in my voice.

"Please. It's a little late for me to have second thoughts, anyway." Daniel laughed.

"Aren't you afraid?"

"Callie, I probably won't even go to Iraq. There are millions of other places that I could end up. Just have a little faith, would you?" He sighed.

"Your bus is leaving, you better get on."

"Yeah." I glanced around us. There were a lot of girls our age crying to their soldiers. There were going to be a lot of tear-spotted uniforms on the bus that was for sure.

I smirked. "You think I ought to cry?"

Daniel laughed, "Only if you want to give me a heart attack."

"Have it your way."

"I'll write as often as I can and I'll call you, too." Daniel glanced over his shoulder and shifted his bag.

"Daniel, I don't want you to go."

"I know, I know." His eyes were sad. I knew he would miss me, but it wasn't enough to make him stay. For some reason, he was determined to be a soldier. Daniel always wanted to be the hero of the story, but he never quite pulled it off. He was always the sidekick, the guy who everyone loved but usually got killed in the first fifty pages of the book. Maybe that's why I didn't want him to go. He wasn't meant to be a hero. He was meant to be my sidekick and I didn't want him to go. When the bus pulled away, I stood and watched until I couldn't see it anymore.

-----------------------------------

I was curled up on the sofa in the living room. It was a ratty lump of padding and wood, but it was comfortable. It even looked nice when we threw one of my mother's afghans across it. I watched the news every night at eleven even though I really didn't want to know what they had to say about what was going on over there. For the first forty-five minutes it seemed like it would be a relatively uninteresting show. They discussed the ever-present potholes on Hillcrest Drive and whether or not the town had the money to repave it. Then they discussed the new playground equipment that had been installed at the elementary school.

Suddenly, there was Daniel's face on the screen and I nearly fell off the couch with my surprise. "Last week we reported on local Private Daniel McIntyre's disappearance. Evidence indicates that McIntyre was captured along with two other soldiers . . ." I flipped off the television, unable to watch another moment of the broadcast. How many times had they said the same thing over and over again? It was as though they didn't know what to say, so they just decided to repeat themselves over and over again. It drove me crazy. Anymore when Daniel's name or face came up, I just turned it off.

* * * * *

"You said that you wouldn't go over there!" I snapped into the phone angrily.

"Now, that's not what I said. I said odds were I wouldn't get sent there. I don't have any control over where they send me." He was frustrated with me, with the situation, with his decision to ever join the military.

"I don't want you to!"

"Well, I don't want to go, but I signed up for this!"

I kicked the kitchen chair. Daniel had helped me paint them sunflower yellow when we moved in. The chair toppled over and one of the legs fell off. "Damn it."

"Don't start breaking things. I know how you are when you're mad." He warned.

"Oh, that's right, you know everything. Just like you knew that you wouldn't get sent into the middle of the desert to get blown up. Great. I believe you." I tried to put the leg back on the chair, but it refused to stay in its hole. Eventually I got mad and threw the leg back onto the floor.

"I have to go Callie. There are guys waiting to use this phone. I love you." He suddenly sounded frightened. He sounded like he had all those years ago when we first met. I'd just given the kid that was pummeling him a black eye. A few moments later I gave him one, too. From then on, we'd been inseparable. I think wanted to make him tough so I wouldn't need to protect him. I guess it worked.

"I know. I love you too. Just . . . be careful, okay?" I said softly.

* * * * *

The phone was ringing. I hated that phone. Daniel set it up so it played that old song "The Entertainer" instead of just an ordinary telephone ring. I glanced at the clock. It was almost two in the afternoon. It was my day off and I was determined to spend it sleeping and to not crawl out of bed until I had to. Things were just less painful when I was asleep.

"Sweetie, it's Mom."

"Hi, Mom." I moaned into the phone.

"You had better not be in bed at this hour. Daniel would be appalled at how you've been acting." She scolded. I hated her so much at that moment. "That's not why I called, though. I think you should come out for dinner tonight. I haven't seen you in so long!"

"You saw me two days ago."

"Only at the grocery store."

"What do you want?"

"I'm worried about you."

"If you'll stop harping, I'll come over for dinner."

"Good."

"I'm going back to sleep now."

"Callie . . ." I hung up the phone and didn't let her finish. My mom knew how to drive me crazy better than anyone else in the world. I couldn't believe that she would call me and tell me what Daniel would say. The fact of the matter was that Daniel wasn't here.

I lay on my side for what seemed like hours, unable to fall asleep. I couldn't help but study the space where Daniel should have been laying next to me. There was a hollow under the brilliant white sheets. For the first time, I realized that it might really be a permanent space. What if Daniel didn't come back? What would happen to me? I would survive, of course. That's just what I do. I soldier on, excuse the pun.

* * * * *

When the doorbell rang I thought that it was the UPS man delivering a pair of heels that I'd ordered out of Newport News. Instead I was greeted with two grim-faced uniformed soldiers who informed me that Daniel was missing, presumed a prisoner of war. They gave me a lot more information, but I couldn't comprehend what they were telling me. I could only stare at them. When they were done, they glanced at one another and asked if I understood what they were telling me.

I remember asking them to repeat themselves. I thanked them and told them to have a nice day. Before I even thought about what I was doing, I was already in my car and on my way to my parents' house. I guess I was in shock.

* * * * *

Dinner with my family was uneventful. It was uncomfortable, and my brother and his girlfriend excused themselves early, I assume to go make out in his bedroom. My parents and I discussed everything we could think of before we finally came back to what they really wanted to talk about. My mother really wanted me to move back home. Even if it was just temporary, until this whole thing was resolved. She thought it would be better for me to be away from the apartment that the two of us shared.

"Daniel's not dead, you know. I don't know why I'm supposed to act like he is." I snapped.

My mother looked quite horrified by my statement, "Sweetie, no one said he was dead. We're just worried about you. You haven't been yourself."

Suddenly I was enraged than I'd ever been in my life. Steam probably shot out of my ears. "And if Dad was carried off by a band of armed rebels you'd do what? Make brownies? Throw a Tupperware party? What exactly do you expect me to do, Mom? I'm going to work, I'm eating, and I'm sleeping. I'm doing everything I need to do. I do laundry, clean the apartment. Don't you get it? I don't need you to keep trying to fix me, to make me all better. Do I look like I'm made of glass to you?"

My dad was always the quiet type of man. He rarely said anything when my mother and I were having one of our arguments, but I guess he realized that this argument wasn't like the others. "Mel, Callie! Enough!"

"I think I'm going to go home." I said and stood. I gave my father a quick hug and glared at my mother as I left.

* * * * *

It was a blue-black night, the kind that you only see in places where electric lighting hasn't managed to blot out the night sky. The summer air was wet-towel humid and it clung to my skin with dogged determination. That kind of air makes you feel like you're drowning. The air is thick and you have to drink it rather than breathe it in.

The drive was surprisingly short. Before I knew it, I had arrived at my house. There was a man waiting in the parking lot when I came home. I knew that the only person he could have been there for was me. At first, I didn't want to get out of my car, but I knew I had to. The man nodded to me politely as I approached him. Before he could speak, I held up my hand. "Is he alive?"

"Yes ma'am."

The flood of relief that I'd expected didn't come immediately. At first I could only stare at him. I guess in some part of my mind, I was expecting Daniel to have been gone for good. I had been preparing to never see him again. To my amazement, the soldier was still speaking, but I couldn't understand anything that he was saying. He seemed to understand how I was feeling, so he waited until I asked him questions.

* * * * *

Daniel had been shot in the shoulder. Because he didn't receive immediate medical attention, let alone antibiotics, an infection had set in which damaged the nerves in his left arm. It wasn't paralyzed exactly, but he couldn't do a whole lot with it. I barely recognized him when I walked into the hospital room. He was a ragged, sunburned creature easily thirty pounds lighter than the man who'd left home not that long ago.

For a moment, we were silent. I could do little more than stare at him, but before long I had rushed to his side. We didn't say anything right away, but I kissed his face over and over again. I realized that I was crying hysterically and that I could barely see him for all of my tears. He laughed and rubbed at my face with his good hand. Very seriously, he looked at me, and then said, "I guess I did get shot, Callie."

"I was scared."

"You're crying."

"Yeah. But it didn't give you a heart attack."

That night, I lay in my bedroom trying to fall asleep when I realized that the yellow light from the streetlamp below had turned the leaves of the canopy orange. The endless summer had faded into autumn.