The computer chimed that the massive audio file had finally finished sending. It always made Alex Roth nervous, wondering if his latest jingle would arrive in time to the corporate producers. He swiveled in a gray office chair to look at his wall calendar. It hung beneath the shadow box of the burial flag from his father. Heather liked to make him a calendar every year, bringing her camera roll and set of duplicates into the local print shop. She had a talent for seeing people and capturing a moment.
It was Sam’s birthday and he’d promised his son a road trip. With his project completed and nothing else yet commissioned, he opened his black planner and the over-sized State-by-State Road Atlas he kept on the shelf beneath the calendar.
He drew a deep breath and exhaled.
After thirty years, it was time to return home.
“Bemidji?” asked Heather. She was drying the dishes with a threadbare hand towel. “I thought you said you’d never go back there.”
Alex poured the last of his Pabst into the mini mason jar in front of him. The orange kitchen light framed her in a magical glow. She looked as young as she had when they’d met in community college and yet somehow more beautiful with her hair tied back in a ponytail and baggy t-shirt. Aging together had that effect.
“I don’t know why, honey, it just feels like it’s time. Something’s calling me.”
“That’s strange. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Me either,” he sipped the beer. “I think it’s because Sam’s going to be seven. That’s how old I was.”
She nodded and put away a scratched glass. “What’s there for him to do up there? I don’t want to just stand around while you put flowers on headstones.”
“Way ahead of you,” he pulled a large packet from beneath the phone book and phone cradle. “I called the travel center earlier this summer and asked them to send some brochures. Looks like plenty to do downtown at the waterfront and outdoors at the parks and trails. Thought we could take him to the water park to do the slide and bumper boats one afternoon.”
“This is something you need to do, yeah?” she asked. She had a way of knowing when he had his mind made up.
Two weeks later, Alex had the Pontiac TranSport van loaded for the long Labor Day weekend. It looked like a triangular space shuttle on wheels, but it sure packed nicely. Alex suspected that Sam’s future children would giggle and scoff over photos of the van but everyone had one.
“Ready, sport?” he called to Sam. The boy was pumping his legs on their swing set. His baseball hat and khaki shorts were too large on his scrawny frame. When Alex looked at his son, it was like a mental time machine brought him back to his own insecurities at that age. But he’d had so much more to deal with than his son. He wanted to protect that innocence forever.
After five hours on the road, they drove through Bemidji. The town was nestled on the side of the kidney-shaped lake, the northern-most point on the mighty Mississippi River. With the lake on their right, they rolled through town, then out into the country where the road followed the lakeside property before it turned east and back south past the State Park. Before they returned to the southeast side of town, they pulled up to a row of small, log cabins. A resort buried in the trees at the edge of the water. It was the long way around but he wasn’t ready to cross the bridge yet.
Alex got out of the van and looked at Heather and Sam. She rolled her neck and rubbed a shoulder. He reached to the sky and stretched his back.
When did he get so tall? Alex asked himself.
After they brought the luggage into their cabin, they took a stroll to the shores of mighty Lake Bemidji. It was less than a half-mile to where the old trestle bridge crossed the Mississippi as it turned to flow south. The three of them waded into the lake and skipped stones, laughing and splashing playfully.
“What do you keep looking at, Dada?” asked Sam. He sent a rock zipping to Alex’s left. Always perceptive.
“See that?” he pointed.
Sam squinted. “The bridge?”
“Right,” he said. He turned to Heather, “Let’s walk the shallows.”
She raised her eyebrows.
As they waded, Alex took Sam’s hand. It felt warm, teeming with the boy’s energy. He sighed and looked at his son.
“Sam, I don’t know the best way to do this. Bemidji is where I was born. But I haven’t been here for thirty years, when I was your age.”
Alex gulped. “Well, this is where my family died.”
I was riding in the backseat of the station wagon. It was a sunny day. So sunny it made your eyes hurt from squinting. It was scorching hot and we had all the windows rolled down to at least get some airflow.
Danny, my older brother was in the front seat. Mom had started letting him ride up there since Dad got sent to Vietnam. Anyway, he was fiddling with this new sky blue lunch box toy set he bought at Ben Franklin. We were cruising out of town after Mom took care of her weekly errands.
“Danny, please,” Mom scolded, “Just wait until we get home. I don’t want pieces all over the car!”
“I almost have the ties off, Mom! I have to see if I won the grand prize!”
“Prize?” I perked up from the back seat. I slid over from behind Mom to poke my head into my brother’s seat. He had just turned ten and was really tired of having a little brother always weaseling into his business.
“It’s like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rip-off,” he explained while his fingers twisted at the ties. “One lucky winner gets twenty-thousand dollars if they find a thermos with a golden lid inside. That’s why they come with the ties now.”
My brain couldn’t imagine what that much money looked like.
Mom’s head snapped to look at Danny. “That would change our lives. Do you have any idea, son, do you? We could fix up the home, buy you boys some new clothes, and still send you both to college one day.”
I stared at her, confused. Our home was a little red trailer on cinder blocks in the woods. There was a pond off through the trees and a lake across the road. There wasn’t anything strange about my mom owning a few house dresses and me getting Danny’s clothes after he’d worn holes in the knees and elbows; it was just how things were.
Mom’s flared sunglasses caught the bright August sunshine just right. She looked stunning. I noticed her eyes drifting to Danny’s lunch box and back out her window. She was dreaming about a different life, something more my Dad could come home to after the war.
I snapped back to Danny and slugged him in the arm. “Come on, hurry up and open it!”
“Ow, you stink butt! Take that!” He smashed his elbow into my forehead. We usually got along so well, making forts in our trailer and being soldiers in the woods. Now, he made stars dance before my eyes.
I wailed and furiously rubbed the goose egg forming on my head.
“Boys, what are you—”
The car jerked to the right as she turned to us. There was a bump and then glass shattered and I was flying out of the back seat window. Time seemed to slow like that feeling you get right when you jump off a swing.
“I woke up in the hospital the next morning,” said Alex. They were standing to the side of the river’s exit, looking up at the trestle bridge. Behind it was a second bridge where cars zipped past every so often. He pointed, “The paramedics found me way over there. But the car missed the bridge because of the slight curve. It landed there, killing my mom and brother on impact.”
Sam stood there watching the water gurgle out from the lake. He understood this was a heavy, holy space for his dad. Finally, he spoke.
“What about Danny’s lunch box?”
“No one ever won the grand prize. The toy company just held it in an account, I guess, in case the winner ever popped up. It’d be over one hundred and sixty thousand dollars now. Things are fuzzy; I was laid up for two days while the doctors and nurses bandaged me up and gave me a sling for a broken clavicle. I’m one of the few whose story defies the need for seat belts. Anyway, the lunch box never turned up and I never had the nerve to come back here. Maybe thirty years was too soon.”
He rubbed the goosebumps on his arms.
Sam waded back to the shore, looking for more stones to skip.
Heather wrapped her arms around Alex’s waist and pressed against his back.
“That was brave of you to talk to him about what happened.”
“I hope it doesn’t give him nightmares.”
“What do you hope it does?”
Alex breathed deeply, slowly. “I hope it helps him see why I love him, why I hold him close, why he catches me just looking at him. It can be gone in an instant.”
He turned around, put his arms over her shoulders, smelled her hair. His voice was thick in his throat, “My brother was the best thing in my life. And my mom was trying harder than I knew at the time. My dad was the final domino to fall. I just want a better future for Sam than what I had to endure.”
Heather looked up, then cradled his cheek with one slender hand. She wiped the tears with her thumb. “You did more than endure, honey. You let your heart stay warm when most others would have gone cold. I’m proud of who you are.” She leaned in to kiss him.
They were interrupted by a splash.
Alex turned, his eyes dashed across the shore for his son.
“Sam! Sam, where are you!?”
They clambered out of the water and raced along the shore. They hadn’t kept their eyes on Sam and had no idea what caused the splash. Their voices raised hysterically in pitch.
Suddenly, there was a sputter and Sam emerged from the water behind one of the overpass legs from the second bridge. He scrambled to the bank, gasping.
Alex reached him first, holding him to his chest, “What happened, Sam? Are you okay?”
Then Heather was there, “Sam, baby, it’s alright. We’re here.”
“Dad, you can let me go. I found it.”
“What?” he sat back. “What did you find?”
“The lunch box.”
For the first time, Alex and Heather realized Sam had been carrying something when he came out of the water. It was a rusty and mucky blue tin lunch box. They looked at each other.
Sam shrugged. “I just had a feeling. Like a whisper.”
Alex’s skin rippled with fresh goosebumps. He nudged the box and said, “Go ahead, son. Open it.”
After a moment of working, Sam freed the latch and flipped the lid. A glob of water and silt flowed out. Then the thermos clanged onto the ground.
It had a golden lid.
Heather laughed and hugged them. “It’s the winner! Your brother was a winner!”
Alex’s mind flashed with images of playing with Danny. Then Danny in the front seat fiddling with the lunch box ties. Then his mom, wearing sunglasses as she drove and gave her last wish.
“It’s going to change our lives. Sam, the future is yours. Thank your uncle Danny.”