Six years ago today, I was sitting in Property I, learning about the feudal land system and who can own the wily fox.  It was my first Friday morning in law school, and I was in the front row of the lecture auditorium, favored Pilot V5 pen perched incorrectly in my hand, rubbing what would become a three year callous on my third finger.  Scribbling out the theories of property ownership, the thought pulsed in the back of my mind, as it had since January, when I had asked for a few nights off from waiting tables to prepare for the LSAT: I can do better, this time around.  My misspent collegiate hours can be rectified, this time around.  I will graduate at the top of my class, this time around.

A secretary knocked softly on the big metal doors to the auditorium, slipped into the room, quietly handed the professor a pink scrap of paper, and then disappeared.  He glanced at it briefly, and continued on, not missing a beat in the lecture, and my hands did not tremble, did not pause in their note taking.

A half hour later, at lecture’s end, the professor dismissed the 160 of us 1Ls, and then remembered the pink scrap.  Is Charles Stone here?  Message for him. I sat there surprised at the mention of my dad’s name – how funny to have a law school classmate with the same name!  But no one responded to the professor’s announcement, and after a moment, I said to him, “That’s my dad.  Is the message for me?”  With a shrug of his shoulders, he handed me the pink scrap.  I clutched it in my hand as I slung my laptop over my shoulder and left the auditorium, scanning its brief contents as I went.  FAMILY EMERGENCY.  CALL HOME AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

We do not have emergencies in my family, not the kind that interrupt lectures.  We are Presbyterians, after all.  The metallic taste of fear flooded my mouth, closing my throat, liquefying my knees.  I pushed my way through the double glass doors to the courtyard, and shakily found a seat under a cheery green umbrella, frantically digging for my cell phone, turned off for the property lecture.

Dialing the one phone number I still knew by heart after two years of a cell phone existence, my mind raced through endless macabre possibilities.  My dad’s voice, generally measured and confident, broke through the lines, weak and questioning and so quiet.  I closed my eyes as I felt the eyes of my classmates upon me, trying not to stare at my distress as they enjoyed their cigarettes and gossip and just-met-you-repartee in the courtyard, between classes.  At the end of the phone call, I felt a strong grip on my elbow, and I opened my eyes to see the kind girl from Alaska, who had befriended me under a taxidermied moose at the local watering hole earlier in the week.  The only two in our class with up close and personal moose experience, she and I had laughed about the city kids who were simultaneously impressed by far-western-Virginia’s blue mountains and yet judgmental of its lack of infrastructure, its hour drive to Wal-Mart and its dearth of nail salons and take out Chinese.  She asked me nothing about the contents of the phone call, but simply scooped up my books and my laptop and my pens in her strong arms, and led me out of the courtyard, across the street, and up the hill to my little apartment.  On the way there I told her, in a voice that came from deep inside me but that I did not recognize, that my baby brother, a sophomore at Ole Miss, was missing.  His fraternity house had burnt down, and he was missing.  I had just spoken to him on the phone a night or two before, but he was missing.

My Alaska friend said little as she took the keys from my shaking hands and unlocked the door to my apartment.  I wandered around, looking out the windows, opening and closing my cell phone, babbling to her about how I had to go home, right away, but seemingly unable to do so.  She opened my closet and lifted my suitcase, that I had just finished unpacking from my move across the country the night before, from the top shelf of my closet.  She selected two sleeveless sundresses, added a pair of brown flipflops and a bikini.

It’s supposed to be so hot this weekend, she said.

She went into my tiny bathroom and collected my contact lenses, my glasses, my face wash.  She placed them in the suitcase. The story about the fraternity house fire at Ole Miss hit CNN and my cell phone began ringing off the hook.

Is it your family calling?  I shook my head.  Don’t answer.

She went into my bedroom and lifted my good black suit off the closet rod and folded it gently into the suitcase.  She wrapped my black pumps in a plastic grocery bag and tucked them next to the flipflops.  She opened my jewelry box and put my pearl earrings and necklace into a ziploc, cushioning them in my makeup bag.

Just in case.

She loaded the suitcase into my truck and offered to drive me home, four hours out of the coal canyon, down the swells of I-77, around the hairpin turns of Lover’s Leap and U.S. Hwy 58.  I refused her offer and climbed into the driver’s seat,where she fastened my seat belt around me.  I said to her, haltingly, “He probably walked some beautiful girl home last night, and he’s just asleep on her couch.  It’s an hour earlier in Mississippi.  It will be fine.  I’m just going to go home and be with my family.  I’ll be back Monday.”

And I was back on Monday.  But with a wrinkled, tear sodden suit, and without my baby brother.

Howard Hillhouse Stone // September 19, 1984 – August 27, 2004

On Napi Point, Glacier National Park, Montana, just weeks before his 20th birthday.

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