First, the doorbell rings. I think it is way too late for visitors and assume it is the police. My sister Jeanne is a teenager and always seems to be in trouble, at least with my father. I sneak out of bed and crack my door open to hear who it is. I hear a muffled conversation so I slowly crawl down the hallway on my stomach, basic training style. When I get to the corner where the hall reaches the staircase, I can hear my father and another man’s voice. I peek my head around the corner to catch a glimpse of the stranger and listen to this late night conversation.
“No,” says my father.
“But I’m here, now,” says the young man. He’s tall, like my Dad and my brother Mike, so he seems handsome to me immediately. That is how I see the world of men – if you’re not at least as tall as my Dad, you don’t stand a chance.
“It’s not a good time.” My father doesn’t move from his place, framing the door. But I can see sincerity in the young man. I wonder if he’s one of my sister’s suitors. They’re not usually this talkative or well-dressed, though. And boy, if they knew anything about my father, they certainly wouldn’t come round late at night.
“When will it be a good time?” I get a weird feeling in my gut, like they’ve had this conversation before. Like I’ve listened to it before, too. My arms are tired from propping myself up and being squashed under my chest. I adjust an elbow and accidentally bump the coat closet door. My Dad turns his head to see what the noise is and I hold my breath.
“Please,” the young man says, “I only want to talk to her. She’s never even met me.”
“It’s too late, Steven.” I hear my father close the door and start to come up the stairs.
And then I wake up.
I have had this dream hundreds of times since I found out I had a brother who died the year before I was born. It was my first recurring dream but thankfully, not my only. My other ones were better, they were of flying and joy. This one unsettled me, every time. It has been many years now since I had the Steven dream. I used to wish it would come, so I could imagine what he would look like, had he lived. He would always be nine years older than me. When I graduated high school, I imagined he was off having a career somewhere – maybe in the military or that he was a spy and that’s why he couldn’t contact me. When I was in college, I thought maybe he hired a private investigator to report back on what I was up to. It would explain the feeling I occasionally had of being followed (and not that I was afraid of being so far away, on my own.) When I had my son, I wondered if he had children of his own, too. I had an entire life in my head and my heart for him, and I always promised myself that if he showed up at my door, I would let him in.
But that’s not how death works. Robbing a family of a boy with a brain tumor doesn’t allow for fantasy like that.
My father, after he’d had a couple of beers, used to tell me stories about Steven. He said I was just like him, a little squirt. That he was sweet but serious. I remember hanging on to his every word, not wanting him to start napping so I’d offer to get him another beer. Or hold the lighter while he lit his cigarette. I remember thinking, he was only eight years old, how much life or personality can one person really have by then?
And then I had my son.
When Jackson passed his eighth birthday, the same age Steven was when he died, I realized I hadn’t had the dream in a while. And it hasn’t been back since. Part of me hopes I will again one day, if only to see my father and imagine what Steven would look like now. I could live there for a while, in my dream.