Sunday, May 11, 2014

ORIGINAL FICTION: The Homecoming by JC Hemphill

I wrote "The Homecoming" a while back and thought I'd share it today. It isn't Mother's Day themed, but it is about a boy finally connecting with his mother.

My own mom was a big part of my life and I'm grateful we were never forced to go through the tribulations Devin and his mother face in this short story.

Thanks for reading and Happy Mother's Day!

The Homecoming
by JC Hemphill

The house was quiet--
It was noisy.
There had been a lull between songs when Devin returned home from school and now Elvis' Blue Suede Shoes was blaring over the stereo. All the shades were drawn and the lights were off except for a single yellow glow at the top of the stairs. His mother's voice filtered down through the music, her lyrics a slurred step behind the King's.
She was drunk.
Dad would've said she was as drunk as a skunk. Or was it a monk? He couldn't remember. He'd have to ask Dad when he saw him.
Devin sighed and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. It was unusual for her to be drinking this early in the day--she usually waited until after dinner to open the wine--the risk of getting another DUI on the way to McDonald's was too great--but today was an unusual day. To top it off, she wasn't drinking wine. According to the half-empty bottle on the kitchen counter, she was drinking whiskey. Knob Creek, by the label. He recognized the honey-colored bottle from Dad's old stash, except he remembered it being full with the seal intact.
A thought bloomed: the bottle, which had been locked away in the museum that was Dad's study, was out while Mother was upstairs, undoubtedly dancing in front of the mirror with a lowball glass in one hand as she belted "Go cat, go."
Which meant there was a good chance she had left the study door unlocked.
As the track changed from the upbeat Blue Suede Shoes to the crooning Heartbreak Hotel, the atmosphere shifting from motivated to melancholic, Devin made his way toward the study. A buzz of excitement filled him when he saw the door sitting open. Mother hadn't let him enter the study in a long time. Not since she had caught him using the old ham radio to contact the aliens. He'd been twisting the dials as he'd watched Dad do, trying to find the right frequency to communicate with the mothership. All he wanted was to ask them to bring Dad back. He'd trade all his toys and even his bike, a real fast one with good tires, but Mother wasn't having it. She had stormed into the room,  eyes redder than the Devil's buttocks, snatched him by the arm, and dragged him out.
The bruises healed in a couple of days, but Devin would always remember her in this way. It was the moment she had changed from an ally to a speed bump in the road to finding Dad.
Devin stepped into the room. The desk and bookshelves were shadowed outlines. Even in the dark it seemed familiar. Being in there reminded him of the feeling he got on their family trip to Disneyworld. Although Devin had never been to Disney before, he had instantly felt a part of that jubilant place. Not that there was anything jubilant about the study, but he received that same tingling sensation of being connected to a place he knew he was only visiting. It would end, this visit, this feeling, and that made the joy sad in a way.
"Hey," a sharp voice said from behind him. "What're you doin home already?" Devin turned to face his mother. She stood in the hallway with one strap of her halter-top hanging off her shoulder. Her white jeans looked wet at the bottom as if she'd waded through a flood to get there. "And what're you doin in that room? Huh?" She cantered forward, paused, and leaned against the wall to keep the world from pitching her sideways. She looked up at him, her face twisted in something between anger and concern.
"I ..." Devin said, unable to think of anything else to add.
"Yeah? You what?" She tilted her head, waiting for a reply.
"I ... um ... saw the door open. I was just going to close it for you."
"Pssh. Don't lie. You're lying. I can tell. A mother can always tell when her boy is fibbing."
Devin looked away. His cheeks and ears felt hot. "I'm sorry."
She didn't reply. He sensed her presence, heard her feet shifting. He expected the admonishment to persist, but it didn't. His mother was quiet and Devin thought that was the worst possible response. Taking the words from her was no small thing and it usually meant the rage welling inside was so great she had to remain speechless to contain it.
Devin risked a glance in her direction. Her face was red, but not with anger. She was crying. Silently. She pressed against the wall and for a second Devin thought she might collapse.
"Mother?" he whispered.
Her crying became an audible sob. She tried to speak, but only a few words made sense, "I ... sorry ... father ...", and then her entire body trembled as if a phantom had grabbed hold and started shaking until the crying became so intense that Devin couldn't hear Elvis anymore. "Devin," was the last word he made out before she began a slow slide down the wall to the floor.
"I'm sorry. I won't go in there again. I was curious, is all." Devin closed the door and crouched before his broken mother. Being the adult came easily now. "It's okay, Mom."
The crying slowed. She lifted her face, revealing twin streams of tears. "Mom. You called me Mom. Always Mother, never Mom. You ... you ..."
Her face twisted as she tried to hold back another pang of grief.
"I know," Devin said. He thought about reaching out and touching her face the way Dad used to. Whenever she was sad, he would run the back of his hand down her cheek and pinch the tip of her chin. Devin almost did just that, had his hand out to do it and everything. But he stopped at the last second. Something like that, on this day, wouldn't help. It would only make her remember.
He wished he could somehow pass his faith to her. That way, she too would understand that this year, this anniversary, would be the one. It was October nineteenth after all, two years to the day, and something deep inside told Devin that this time, unlike last year, Dad would be coming back. It was a homecoming and deserved to be treated as such. They should be renting all the action movies he'd missed over the last two years and putting up Welcome Home banners and calling the local news channels so they could do a special report like they did for returning soldiers.
If only she had seen what he had seen.
"Just wait," Devin said. "He's coming back. I promise."
A major shift occurred on her face.
"No, Devin," she spit, his name becoming a curse word. "He ain't. He ain't never, never, never coming back. That deadbeat ran out on me 'cause he hated it here. Never told you that, but your daddy always thought I was holding him back, like he was destined for something great but as long as I held him chained here, he would never amount to more than a sack full of dog shit." She scrambled to her feet, the only evidence of her tears being the streaks in her mascara. "'Cause'a me, Devin! And 'cause'a you. I was the chain and you were the lock and he busted free and he ain't coming back. And where is he now? The cover of Forbes? Curing cancer? Shoot no. I bet he's in a gutter someplace." Her face looked to be on the verge of exploding. "I just bet that cockroach is dead."
A rusty nail was driven into Devin's heart. 
"That's not true," he screamed, swelling with so much raw emotion he had no choice but to pop. "Aliens took him and he's coming back. Tonight." He turned to run away but stopped. With his hands balled into small fists, an adolescent rage boiling inside, he twisted back around and, simply because he knew she hated the word so much, always said it made him sound stupid, added: "Duh, Mother. Duh."
"There's no aliens." A wave of booze-laden air accompanied her response. "You made all that up. Even doctor Redman said so. You're coping, is all; it's a mechanism. Your father left us for a better life and he ain't coming back. Get. Used. To. It."
She twirled around and stormed toward the kitchen. She grabbed the whiskey bottle as she turned and disappeared into the living room. Elvis' voice loudened--I Got Stung--followed by the hollow sound of her stomping up the stairs.
And then it happened, the inevitable: Devin cried. His only consolation was the fact that today was the day. It was the two-year anniversary and Dad was coming home. He had to be.


The wind was strong, moving not just the leaves on the ground, but ripping healthy ones from limbs, violently pitching them on a night flight through the cloudless sky.
This was definitely the night. The energy was perfect. The hour, the location--his backyard--even the Denver Broncos ball cap he'd been wearing the night they took Dad.
Devin glanced back at his house and remembered that night. He'd fallen asleep on the couch waiting for Dad to come home. The wind had awakened him. It was so loud, whipping and wailing and beating against the windows. Mother had been upstairs in bed. Their room faced the front yard so she hadn't seen the lights or heard the shouting. And then it was over. The wind died, the spotlights blinked off, and Dad was gone, vacuumed into the sky.
The worst year of his short life had begun that night--the misery of losing his father, the trauma of seeing it happen, the temporary loss of hearing that he attributed to the wind but doctors said was a 'mental numbing of the senses.'
Eventually the trauma subsided into a compact ball within and the misery slid away, justified to the knowledge that the aliens would return his dad some day.
And, eventually, his hearing returned.
It was his mother who didn't heal.
As he gazed at the house, white against the dark, a few lights shining through the windows in clean yellow squares on the lawn, he got the sense that this was the night she finally improved. Once Dad came down, deposited on the very lawn he was stolen from, a bit weary but in fine shape overall, she would never be sad again or need to drink just to fake a smile again. She would be cured; they all would, a family of three.
Devin turned away from the house and watched the sky. There was so much space out there--so many stars, so many worlds, so many possibilities. The entire of space seemed to echo of those possibilities. If another life form from another planet could travel across the universe to take his dad away, why couldn't those same creatures bring him back? It shouldn't be too much trouble for an advanced species. They were always here, always taking people to study, so why not stop by exactly two years later to return what didn't belong to them? Why not right a wrong?
The wind intensified.
Yes. The energy was perfect. This is how he remembered that night.
After the wind picked up, a distant red light had appeared, growing larger by the second as if Mars was hurtling toward Earth, filling the sky, inch by inch until it came to a halting stop above him. This new red ceiling on the world had grown bright, casting white spotlights over his yard, searching, searching, searching until they found what they wanted. The lights zeroed in on Dad who was standing at the back of the yard. It appeared that he had just climbed the fence and dropped onto their side of the grass a second before the lights found him. Fear, then awe had crossed Dad's face. He looked trapped. He reached an arm out, yelled something, some final message that was lost to the wind, and he was rising, rising into the lights and then ... nothing.
Dad was gone.
Devin searched the sky for that red light. There was none. He checked his watch. 11:16. One minute past the anniversary.
He was going to cry again. He felt it coming along with an overwhelming sense that he had been tricked. It was the fool's feeling, the sudden realization that his core beliefs were fraudulent and that everything he had hoped and stood for was nothing but a mirage in a well textured delusion.
But the tears stopped, because, after all, there it was: the red light--a speck, a power indicator seen from afar, a tiny symbol of sanity resolved. His heart ached to do backflips and frontflips and endzone dances and everything else happy things do. He started shouting at the growing light, waving his arms, guiding it to his yard in case they forgot where he lived. The wind grew stronger, louder, beating the planet with hurricane force. It was frenzied, deafening, and he wondered if he would lose his hearing this time. His clothes whipped to one side, pulling against his bony frame. A single spotlight, white, struck out, scanning the yard behind his house and the one next to it and a few others before swinging to his. "Yes, that's it," he yelled. "Here, here. It's this one. Drop him here." He was smiling; so happy, so proud. They came back. They actually came back. Dad was almost here. The aliens wanted to right a wrong. They had morals. They were good and good--the real stuff, not the fake sitcom stuff--was a rare commodity. It only made sense that an advanced species would know better. What else would they be but good?
Devin stopped jumping and yelling. His arms dropped, his shoulders sagged. The shaft of light moved on, touching his neighbor's yard before vanishing beyond his house.
The wind settled.
A pair of spotlights burst to life, this time from the floodlights on the side of the house. The sliding glass door from the kitchen opened and his mother stepped out. She had changed. Instead of a halter-top and white jeans she was wearing a dress with a flower print and padded shoulders.
"Devin, honey," she called as she crossed the lawn to him. "Are you okay? I heard yelling."
Devin turned around and faced the night sky. He remained silent, focusing everything he had on willing the spacecraft to come back. Why had it moved on? They saw that this was the spot, so where was Dad? Where? Why? Please aliens, please, come back. Bring him back to me. Please...
Tears, hot and blurring, swelled in his eyes.
"Honey," his mother said behind him. Her hands rested on his shoulders. "What happened?"
Devin heard her, but his answer was slow coming. Too many emotions battled for attention, too many thoughts and questions fogged his mind. But then the answer came and he spoke it with a brittle voice: "A police helicopter flew over the house." He paused to absorb this. The clarity of hindsight made his stomach clench. "I thought it was the aliens bringing Dad back. It wasn't."
Devin unconsciously recoiled from his mother's touch. Two years worth of deferred agony was budding inside him, made tenfold by the fool's feeling.
"Hey," his mother said. He bent his neck back to look up at her face. She smelled clean. Looked it, too. Her hands on his shoulders were warm. And most surprising of all, when she spoke, it was with a steady voice, the pre-dinner-and-drinks voice. She'd done a lot to clean herself up in the last seven hours. "I remembered something. Seeing you in the study, I mean. It got me thinking. About you climbing around in there when your dad wasn't home. You'd play with his things and pretend you were him. You'd say things like..." The edge of her smile quivered. Emotion became a tangible thing in her voice. "You'd say ... say things like 'Come in breaker one-nine, this ... this is Big Hoss on the airwaves, c-come back.' And darn it if it wasn't the ... the cutest thing. I'd forgotten all about that. Locked the memory away with everything else in that room. I wouldn't expect you to remember, but ... I don't know." 
She no longer appeared happy or sad. It was shame that colored her face.
Part of Devin wanted to look away, pretend he wasn't hearing her. But he couldn't. It was her--Mom. Finally. After two years, she had returned.
She wiped the tears from her eyes and shrugged. "Another thing I realized: there's always next year. Right? I mean ... maybe they're not bringing him back until next year. You know what they say:" she squeezed his shoulders tenderly, "third year's the charm."
His eyes went wide.
Those words were true. Tonight was wrong. It was next year. And besides. The power of three sounded like something an alien would live by. "You're right. What was I thinking? It's not this year. It's next year." He threw up his hands and shook his head as if he'd made a simple math mistake.
"Yeah," she said, her voice warm, her smile even warmer. "Duh, Devin." After a long moment of staring skyward together, she added, "And you know ... if he don't make it back then at least I'll be waiting here with you. From now on, aliens or no aliens, Dad or no Dad, I'll be right here. I promise you that."
Devin didn't object when she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. They stood that way for several minutes, so warm and confortable, each of them searching the stars, finding their own constellations among the speckled dark, and, for once, thinking of the future instead of the past.

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