The house was quiet. Clinking silverware was about the only sound my wife, Elaine, and I made at dinner anymore, and sitting outside on the patio afterward, it seemed like even the crickets spoke in hushed tones.
I longed to hear rock music booming from upstairs, or the rattle of skateboard wheels on our driveway. Elaine glanced up at the dark balcony overlooking the patio and I followed her gaze.
Stop it, I thought. It had been six months since the motorcycle accident that killed our 16-year-old son, Austin, and it was time to stop looking for ghosts. The silence was haunting enough, a pervasive reminder of his absence.
Elaine began to cry. I moved close to comfort her. But what could I say? She couldn’t let him go. Any more than I could. Neither of us could fill that aching void Austin’s death left. What parent could?
Often, Elaine told me she had visions of him. The night after he died, she said he came to her in a dream so real that she felt his touch. “He’s reaching out to us,” she said. “I know it. He wants to comfort us. That’s the way Austin was.”
I wasn’t so sure. As a newspaper publisher for 16 years, my job was to collect facts, evidence. Report on things objectively. All I could see was that empty balcony where Austin would stand before going to bed and shout, “I love you guys!”
The memory brought tears to my eyes. The last thing Elaine needed was to see me lose it. “I’ll get you some tissues,” I said, and went inside to our bedroom. I spoke into the darkness. “Son, we’re suffering. If you’re reaching out, let us know you’re okay.”
I composed myself and returned to the patio. Elaine had stopped crying. “Your phone buzzed,” she said. On the patio table, my phone flashed. A text. I didn’t recognize the number. I clicked on it and saw there was a document attached.
“Do you know this number?” I asked, showing Elaine the phone.
“It’s so familiar,” she said, studying it. Then she froze. “It’s Austin.”
Impossible. We’d cancelled his account.
I couldn’t open the attachment on my phone. All I could see was the header: I MGOO.
“I’m good…” Elaine suggested, her voice a whisper.
I forwarded the message to my computer in the den. Now we saw that I MG was the file name for an image…001, 002 and so on. Elaine leaned in close. I could feel her heart pounding as I clicked on the first attachment.
A photo popped on screen: a picture of my father—Austin’s grandfather—to whom Austin had been extraordinarily close. It had been a year to the day—exactly—since Dad had died. Another photo loaded up, and another—20 in total.
Austin jumping on a skateboard. Austin on the patio, playacting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with his girlfriend. Austin photographing himself in a mirror. As Elaine and I flipped through them, the house seemed to fill with his presence.
There had to be some logical explanation. Had someone gotten hold of Austin’s cell phone? I checked the kitchen cabinet. There it was, switched off, sealed in a plastic bag, untouched, exactly as we had left it six months earlier. That night I could barely sleep. Lord, I prayed, are you trying to reassure us?
First thing the next morning I drove to the AT&T store. “Has this number been reassigned?” I asked a salesman.
He looked it up on his computer. “No, sir, it’s out of service. No one has it.”
Not long after, Elaine came to me with another dream about Austin. This time, he’d come with a message. “He said, ‘Tell Dad I know. Tell Dad I heard him,’” Elaine said. “Does that make any sense to you?”
No logical sense, no. Elaine couldn’t know about the plea I had made in our bedroom, alone. But I’m a believer in what I witness. And what I know now is that our son isn’t gone. Not forever. He’s someplace else, and he’s “good.”
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