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Goodbyes Never Last


Crystal Bay

     Me, my dad, my mom, my little brother, Mason and my little sister, Christa. We were one big happy family in the traditional sense. It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that I realized that our family wouldn’t be a family any longer. I remember how it happened. And it wasn’t because my parents divorced or anything like that. My brother Mason was only five-years-old when he was taken from his room late one night, the night before his sixth birthday. We had a big party planned for him the following day, with hired clowns to perform tricks and make balloon animals and a rented pony. But when dad went to rouse him from sleep at 8am that morning, he was horrified to find his only son gone from his bed. The initial response from our family was that he just wondered off somewhere to play and we’d find him soon. But hours later, the reality sunk in. Mason was gone.

            Christa was only seven when it happened but she was heartbroken. She cried every day for months. We all did. But Mason had been Christa’s best friend. They were so close in age, only 11 months apart and they were even in the same class, a kindergarten and first grade combination classroom. I was much older than my brother and sister, and being eleven-years-old at the time, I felt that Mason was my burden at times. But when he disappeared on July 13, 1995, I felt a vacancy in my life bigger than I’d ever imagine. I missed my baby brother.

            Any day now, I thought Mason would turn up, that that wonderful phone call would come where the police announced that my little blue-eyed brother had turned up, eager to have us smother him with hugs. But the days turned into weeks and soon, years. After awhile, we got used to Mason being gone, though we never forgot him. My mother was the one who made us pray every night at dinner and in our prayers we included Mason, hoping he would return to us safely. Sometimes, I dreamed about him. I saw his chubby face, still baby round and smiling, with blond hair and freckles sprinkled across his button nose. I remembered his sticky fingers around my neck and his high childish voice calling my name. In those dreams, he was running towards me and I had my arms out, but he never made it into them. He always seemed to fade away and I’d wake up feeling empty. I remember he always spelled like monkey bars and dirt. I guess every little boy has some rough-and-tumble smell to him. When I had these dreams, I always awoke with tears on my pillow.

            “Kelly, do you think he’ll ever come back?” Christa asked me one night. We shared a bedroom, even though Mason’s room was unoccupied. Christa didn’t want to sleep there and neither did I.

            “You mean Mason?” I asked.

            “Yeah. He’s been gone for almost two years. Do you think anyone will ever find him?” Christa’s voice was full of doubt and sadness.

            “Yeah, I think someday he will come back.” I said, but I didn’t really believe it. I would have believed it a year ago, but not anymore. It had been so long since I had seen him. I calculated in my head how old he’d be and what grade he would have gone into, and it was hard to believe that he was eight-years-old and going into third grade. Last I had seen of my little brother, he wasn’t even halfway through kindergarten. I had come to believe that the picture of Mason in my head no longer existed as a real entity and was now just a memory. I was a teenager. I watched television and read newspapers. I knew that the chances of Mason being alive were very slim. But Christa was still little and I didn’t want to tell her the truth.

            “He’ll be back.” I said.

            Soon, mom and dad’s relationship became strained for whatever reasons. Maybe it had to do with Mason or maybe they just realized they were no longer in love. But three years later, they called Christa and I downstairs from our bedroom for a family meeting and announced the terrible news. They were getting a divorce. It was like something that happened on a Lifetime television special. Not something that happened to our family. I hadn’t expected it and I’m sure Christy didn’t either. We were shocked when dad announced he was packing his things and moving to a one-room apartment across town. He assured us that we were still a family and that we would see him every weekend. But I knew better. Our family, the happy life we had before Mason’s disappearance was officially over. I would have given anything to put the pieces back together, to have that happiness our family shared years ago. The Christmas vacations we spent at the Lockhorn Ski Resort, the summers we spent in the backyard pool. Even simple things, like the five of us around the dinner table, laughing or even arguing, over food. But they were over. I stayed in my room the evening dad packed his bags and took off in his pick-up. I felt like our family had been sliced into pieces and scattered about and my heart felt just like that as I cried into my pillow.

            Just like every family around the world, you get used to change, bad or good and learn to adapt. Mom found a boyfriend and on February 18, 2001, they got married. His name was Jared and he worked as a news anchor at the Channel Eleven News station. At first I didn’t like him, but Christa did. And soon, I learned to like him as well and at their wedding I felt like maybe our lives were finding some sort of order. I was happy that my mom and Christa were happy.

            On March 7, 2002, I was working on my trig homework in the living room and eating wheat thins and cream cheese when the phone rang. I picked it up with a mouthful and said hello.

            “Yes, is Mrs. Valtrez home?” The voice on the other end inquired. I could barely make out the words. The phone line sounded full of static.

            “Nope.” I replied. “And she isn’t Mrs. Valtrez anymore. She’s Mrs. Henderson.” I said. “Can I take a message?”

            “As a matter of fact, you can.” The voice said. “This is the Santa Monica Police Department. We wanted to inform you that we have Mason in our custody. Could you tell Mrs. Valtrez to report to the police station as soon as possible?”

            My crackers were stuck in my throat but seconds later, I screamed into the phone. “Mason? Mason Valtrez? My little brother? Are you serious?”

            The voice chuckled. “Just have your mother or father report to the station as soon as possible.”

            I called my mom at work and then I called my dad. Both hung up on me before I could tell them to come get me. I was going to call Jared to have him pick me up then I remembered that he was away in New York on a business trip. I was so ecstatic and shocked that I was ready to run to the police station by foot, only I didn’t know the address. Anyways, Christa was at basketball practice and she might want to know where everybody went when she got home.

            Christa came home around four that afternoon.

            “Where’s mom?” She asked.

            “You won’t believe it.” I said. “But they’ve found Mason?”

            “Mason?” Christa stared at me. “Mason?”

            “Yes! They’ve got him down at the police station!”

            Christa sat down on the couch. “You’re kidding me! They actually found him?!”

            “Yep! But you remember him, don’t you?”

            “Of course. How could I forget?” Christa leaned her head back against the couch in deep thought. “They’ve found our brother.”

            When the front door swung open hours later, the strapping young man who was just entering his teens didn’t enter the house. Instead, a little boy, with wild blond hair, freckles, and laughing eyes burst in, grinning. Mom and Dad were at his side too.

            “Mom, Dad, where’s Mason?” I asked.

            Mom smiled at me, a tight-lipped smile, and looked at Dad. Dad just looked dazed. Finally, Mom spoke up.

            “Well…this is Mason.” She said. She gestured to the small boy.

            And then I recognized him. Small, young, and bright-eyed as though seven years had never passed. Mason was as he had been, that summer back in 1995. He looked untainted by time and he clutched Mom and Dad’s hands like he had years ago on a stroll through the park.

            “Mama, when am I gonna get my birthday?” He asked. “We was supposed to have it today.”

            Mom covered her eyes with her hands and hurried to her room, seemingly overcome with emotion. Dad put his hand on Mason’s shoulder. “You’ll have your birthday soon, kiddo. Okay?”

            Mason grinned. “ ‘Kay. You better.”

            Dad sat down on the couch next to me. Christa cocked her head and looked from Mason to Dad. “Are you telling me….this is our brother?”

            Dad stared straight ahead. Then he slowly nodded. “Yes. Mason is home.”

            I closed my eyes and shook my head. “No…No, this can’t be Mason. He looks the same…it can’t be Mason.”

            “Well, it is.” Dad got up. Mason was on the floor, on his knees, bouncing up and down with the usual childish impatience of those under seven.

            “What’s for dinner?” He asked. 

            The next few hours were spent just watching Mason. It seemed so unreal. The same boy who had left, returned exactly as he had been. I wanted an explanation, there had to be some sort of explanation for this, but Dad wouldn’t give me any. Mom stayed in the bedroom for what seemed like forever. She finally came out a little later, a Kleenex bunched in her tightly closed fist. The atmosphere in the house was eerie and for a while, I thought maybe I was dreaming.

            After playing on the carpet with a pair of Jared’s tennis shoes, Mason stood up suddenly. “Where’s Christa and Kelly?” He demanded, even though Christa and I were sitting right in front of him.     

            Mom cleared her throat after a pause. “Christa and Kelly are sitting right there.” Mom said, nodding towards the couch. Mason stared at us. Then he giggled.

            “Them ain’t Christa and Kelly.” He said, wrinkling his nose and laughing. I could see tears forming in Mom’s eyes.

            “Come here, honey. Come and sit on mommy’s lap.” She whispered.

            Mason obeyed. He crawled up into Mom’s lap and held onto the hands that wrapped around his small waist. Mom buried her face in his soft hair and I could hear a muffled sob.

            “Mama, why you crying?” He asked.

            Dad, who had been sitting on the other sofa next to Christa and I, got up quickly and sat next to Mom and Mason. Even though his head was down, I could see it scrunched with emotion. Mom and Dad were talking softly in the living room when we finally went to bed later that night. A little while later, I saw Mom and Dad tip-toe past our room to Mason’s room. I tossed and turned for hours. A churning in my heart kept me awake. Finally, I threw back the covers and headed down the hallway to Mason’s room. The bright red numbers on Mason’s old alarm clock read 1am.

            Mom was sitting on the edge of Mason’s bed, stroking his hair, her chin down against her bosom. Dad was next to her, his hand on Mason’s covered foot. I sat down beside Dad.

            Mason was fast asleep, his soft cheek buried in his pillow, his long eyelashes lying softly against his lightly-freckled skin.

            “Hi, you guys.” Mom, Dad and I looked up to see Christa, standing in the doorway, her arms crossed and leaning against the door.

            Dad sat in his own world, his hand on his son, as though he were reliving a moment in an old photograph. The room was stuffy silent, as it had been earlier, as though we were living through a faded memory, where nothing real existed. I closed my eyes and expected to wake up any moment. Finally, I leaned my cheek against Dad’s shoulder and let the tears fall. After a few seconds, I felt Christa’s head against my own shoulder. The four of us sat there, holding onto this perfect moment, the moment we had hoped for years ago, and had definitely not expected seven years later. Our family was bonded together after years of being torn apart. We were a family again, if just for that moment.

             “Mom…” I said softly. “Mom, how can it be him? How?”

            Mom was quiet for a moment and even though it was dark, I pictured her with her lips pressed together in thought. “I don’t know.”

            “Come on, Mom. You must know something. What did the police say?” Christa asked.

            “The police…” Mom’s voice trailed off.

            “What? What about the police?” I pressed.

            “They had no idea.” Mom was quiet again. “They had no idea what we were talking about.”

            “What do you mean?” Christa questioned.

            Mom’s eyes gazed over Mason and I could see the light from Mason’s Spiderman nightlight reflecting off her tears. “They said they never called us. They said they hadn’t found Mason.”

            The room was eerily silent again.

            “They didn’t find Mason.” Mom whispered back. “We did.”

            “But…how?” Christa’s voice was high and sounded anxious. I could hardly blame her. My own heart was thudding in my chest.

            Mom smiled in the darkness. “He was waiting for us outside the station. His beautiful smile…his little hands held up pleading for a hug….I knew it was him when I saw him, even though it didn’t make any sense. I just knew.” Mom pressed Mason’s small hand against her face. “Dad knew too…we both did. We held him, breathed him in, kissed his sweet face…it doesn’t make any sense, but I know this is my baby.” Mom’s face contorted into a sob. Tears were streaming down my face and the shoulder of my pajamas were soaked with Christa’s tears. “It doesn’t make any sense.” She repeated. “But this is my baby. I can finally hold my baby again.”

            We gazed down at Mason, sleeping soundly in his bed, like an angel. Mom sat quietly and stroked his tiny fingers and his soft pale hair for what seemed like eternity. Christa and I watched, fascinated, emotional, and filled with bittersweet memories that had been stored in the dark dusty corners of our minds. They were suddenly real and alive. Things I thought I had forgotten popped into my mind like a magic cloud of love and joy. Little boy running to me, tears in his eyes, after scrapping his knee from falling down while playing tag with Christa. Little boy, full of energy, jumping over couches and hopping on love seats, singing songs of childhood. Dinnertime, with Mom, Dad, Christa, Mason and I, talking about school, talking about the good and bad, Mason grinning across the table at me with a mouthful of chewed-up peas. Just yesterday. I’m eleven-years-old again and my beloved baby brother that I took for granted with so many frustrated shouts and exasperated sighs, is here with me, his warm body just inches from mine, breathing, happy, content, young and alive.

            There are moments in time that we wish would last forever. We sit in that moment for what feels like an eternity, hoping somehow that our hearts can stop the future from taking over and stirring us back to reality. I sat next to Mason for hours, knowing that as soon as I left, this moment and feeling would be over forever. Mom, Dad and Christa must have felt the same. The four of us sat with Mason until the sun started to peak through the window. It was 6am. We couldn’t hold out any longer. We soon slumped over and sleep took over.

            Hours later, I awoke. Christa and I were sprawled out on the floor and Mom lay at the edge of Mason’s bed. Dad was slumped over where the shape of Mason’s body was molded in the covers. But Mason was gone.  Somehow, I knew he would be. I knew the moment couldn’t last forever. Goodbyes never last forever.

            That morning, the phone rang. Mason had indeed been found. His small body had been discovered by two fishermen at Lake Watchasoo. It wasn’t one hundred percent that the skeletal remains were that of Mason, but we all knew. We were told that the child found had probably been deceased for about seven years. And it was a male…about six-years-old.

            The encounter with Mason seemed surreal. We don’t talk about it much. Perhaps it was a dream we all shared, a special moment that we got to say goodbye to the youngest and most beloved member of our family. Maybe he really had come home that night to say goodbye. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I think we all hold it privately in our hearts as a sort of goodbye. I know I do. That night, the memories of my precious baby brother were re-ignited, like a dying flame suddenly coming alive again. It never died out again. I remember my brother with a smile and whenever I see Mom, Dad or Christa happening to gaze upon an old school portrait of Mason or stumbling upon something he would have enjoyed, I see them smile too.

   Goodbye, Mason. We love you.

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