Lost and Found
Lost and Found (part 1)
Lost and Found (part 2)
Lost and Found (part 3)
Finally, as Jo was somehow dozing after all that coffee in the light of a setting sun, her phone pinged. The message from Ethan was brief – an apology for his delay in contacting her and the address of a diner where they could meet for breakfast in the morning. Jo needed only name the time. So, she did, then set a pot of water on the stove to boil. There were two packages of ramen in the cabinet above the fridge, a dish even Jo could make.
Lost and Found (part 4)
The next day dawned bright, not a cloud in the sky. Sunshine touched everything in sight and set it ablaze. Jo felt the nerves burned off her. This new day brought with it anticipation, a determination of knowing that left no room for anxiety. She dressed comfortably, ordered a ride and sent Ryan a crossed fingers emoji.
The diner Ethan had chosen was a bit off the beaten path on a rather picturesque road a few miles from the highway. There were only three cars in the parking lot as hers pulled in, and she wondered if one of them was his. They were all pick-up trucks and that had never been the kind of vehicle Ethan would drive. The diner had a fifties theme with a giant guitar in the center of its sign. She could see through the windows that each of the tables had one of those little jukeboxes you could scroll through using a single quarter to make your selection. She always kind of liked those, purposefully picking the most obscure song in the bunch.
And then, there he was— in the left most window facing the door. It was Ethan— her best friend whom she hadn’t spoken to in over five years. Just there. Jo discreetly crossed herself before pulling the door open. Cool air rushed at her, bringing goosebumps to her exposed flesh before going to battle with the Arizona heat behind her. The savory smell of coffee and bacon reached her instantly, reminding her that she was actually rather hungry.
Ethan’s eyes found her almost immediately. She recognized him, sure; five years of absence can’t erase nearly thirty years of memories. But the man that sat before her was decidedly changed from the one she once knew. He was much thinner— at least twenty-five pounds— but it looked like it had been taken from more than just his body. His spirit sagged a little— the energy and warmth of the old Ethan didn’t reach its fingers out to her. His expression was somber, he didn’t smile. If she hadn’t experienced it herself, she never would’ve believed that this person had once been capable of running a marathon or climbing the tallest mountain in the Appalachians or making a twelve-dish Thanksgiving dinner. She wouldn’t have believed he could spend hours playing in the sand with four small children or digging in the dirt of his personal vegetable garden. He just looked so… less… than before.
Jo made her way down the aisle toward her friend. She felt slightly ashamed to be focusing her eyes on the tiled floor instead of his face. Two other tables and a counter stool were occupied, all men. The lone woman in the building appeared to be the middle-aged waitress, who was refilling the cup of the man at the counter from a full coffee pot. She had given Jo a slight nod as she entered.
It wasn’t until she reached the table that Jo finally looked up again, observing that, up close, everything she had seen at the door was still true. Ethan still didn’t smile. He clutched his mug of coffee with both hands and looked down at them himself as Jo slid into the booth.
“Ethan,” she said, a little breathlessly. “Hi.”
Jo’s mind had swirled with dozens of questions, but none of them came clearly to her mind now that she was here. Her eyes fell over her friend— his hollow cheeks, the deeper setting of his eyes, the dark hair at his temples turned gray. Has it really only been five years, she thought?
He finally looked up at her and all of the anger and bitterness that Jo had felt intermittently over those lost years evaporated like the morning’s dew. She felt tears building behind her eyes the longer she looked at him. One spilled over the edge just as the waitress approached the table, the corner of her white apron held the red vestige of some former stain.
“Coffee?” she asked. She held the coffee pot, two menus and an empty mug in her hands.
Though she wasn’t sure she wanted any, Jo found herself nodding in the affirmative as she swiped at her eyes. The woman seemed to understand that something unspoken was transpiring before her. She laid down the menus, poured the coffee and said simply, “Take your time.”
Her entrance and subsequent departure had changed something in the air. Jo was shaken from her trance and that previously held anxiety returned though, luckily for her, in small measure. She busied her hands because that’s what she did when her emotions were threatening to get the best of her. She opened two thimbles of cream and poured them into her coffee, followed by two packets of sugar. Ethan hadn’t moved.
“Two creams, two sugars,” he said softly, finally speaking. “Same old Jo.”
He looked down at his hands again, the two of them knowing that nothing was the same, not really. Jo put a spoon in her coffee and listened to the tinkling of it hitting the sides of the cup, remembering the hundreds before that the two of them had conversed over. Before her appetite could be lost to her, Jo flipped open the menu and looked over the options. Ethan waited quietly, not touching his own menu. When he could see Jo had made her choice, he motioned the waitress back over. She came with the coffee pot, once again, its contents never seeming to diminish, and refilled Ethan’s cup as she asked, “What’ll it be?”
Jo ordered a Western omelet with a side of home fries. Ethan asked for only some white toast with strawberry jam. She collected the menus in her deft hands and departed. They were left, once more, with only each other.
With nothing left to distract her, Jo felt her scattered questions and emotions reforming. Making eye contact with her friend again meant she could hold back no longer.
She half-blurted, with more acerbity in her voice than she meant there to be, “What the hell happened to you?” At this, Ethan cracked the hint of a smile. There was his Jo, the woman could only hold her tongue for so long. He had been thankful for that a time or two. Life never really got the best of Jo. She never let it.
“It’s a long story.” Her eyebrows nearly touched her hairline. “One you deserve to hear. One you maybe deserved to hear a long time ago and I’m sorry for that, Jo. I really am.” He paused, fidgeting with the cup in his hands, unable to look at her. “It’s been hard.”
“It’s me, Ethan.”
After another moment, he took a deep breath, sat back against the bench seat, and explained the last five years.
Lost and Found (part 5)
He spoke for hours, through their breakfast, through the switch from regular to decaf to water, through a second round of toast for him and heavily recommended slice of rhubarb pie for her. He told her everything, or at least what seemed like it. He revealed the reason for his absence, but also much more. How he’d had to write her phone number down on a small scrap of paper that he kept in his sock, so that when he had nothing else the scratch would remind him that she was still there. How he owed thanks to that little piece of paper for being able to find her again.
Drugs. It was drugs. Jo actually shook her head in disbelief — that this could happen to someone she loved, that she had never known. Ethan was as stable a person as there was. He was a great father, a good husband, he’d been at the same job for decades. But he had suffered in silence for years — depression, several suicide attempts. In the beginning, he had been too embarrassed to tell her, to tell anyone. His ex-wife tried to be understanding about his missed days of work, the skipping of family functions, the forgotten responsibilities. But she had never been the most forgiving of women and learning of his addiction to painkillers had pushed her over the edge. She and his daughter, Emily, stayed in the house and Ethan got a one-bedroom apartment on the opposite of town.
The dissolution of the marriage only served to worsen Ethan’s condition and he couldn’t cope. Painkillers turned to cocaine and then to meth and heroin. It wasn’t six months before he lost everything. And if he had been embarrassed before he was fully ashamed now. Emily would barely speak to him. He had shown up high to her high school graduation, and she’d left in tears vowing never to see him again. That had, in fact, been the last time he’d spoken to her.
Once he had lost his job and his apartment he was on the streets, doing whatever he could do to get his next fix. Jo cried fresh tears as he described some of the situations he had found himself in. She cried for his pain, for his loss, for the very notion that he ever felt he couldn’t call her. She cried knowing how alone he must’ve felt.
It had taken nearly four years for Ethan to get things back on track. He had gone to rehab (more than once), the only silver lining of the period he could find was that he had managed to stay out of jail. He had spent some time at a halfway house and, with the help of his sponsor, found a small efficiency to call his own. He’d been there for a month before he unfolded the dingy piece of paper containing her number and texted her. He’d wanted to call, knew that was probably what he should’ve done. But no matter how much he thought about it nothing quite seemed right to say, not in that way. He needed to be there in front of her, face-to-face, for it all to come together.
Ethan didn’t cry, not once, throughout the few hours they sat there talking. He didn’t appear unfeeling – on the contrary, Jo wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him so affected. The thinness of his face had made it more expressive than usual. But it was clear he was keeping his emotions harnessed, as if the idea of them overflowing was something he could not handle at this moment. Jo could understand that. She couldn’t imagine what he must’ve been feeling while recounting all those truly hard times. Everything that had kept him from coming to her in the past hadn’t vanished, he had simply chosen to accept it and push it aside. That took something more than Jo could ever comprehend.
“I know all this doesn’t excuse me,” he said. “I know it’s my fault and that I should’ve known all along that you would be there. I didn’t respect our friendship, Jo. I can’t ever make up for that…” She silenced him by putting her hand on top of his in the middle of the table, the remnants of their meal on either side, her fingers slick with her own tears.
“You don’t need to. I missed you, of course. We missed you. I was angry. But I was also worried. I didn’t know. I’m sorry, that I didn’t know.”
They held hands and looked at each other, plenty more being said without words. The sun was rising high in the sky, warming them through the window.
“Come and see my place,” Ethan requested. “It’s not much at all, but I’ve had next to nothing for quite some time.”
They slid slowly from their seats; the hours spent sitting as well as the weight of emotions having settled in their bones. Ethan had paid for their meal, despite Jo’s protestations, and the waitress called to him with a warm smile as they exited. “See you later, Ethan.”
The midday heat clung to Jo’s skin in a way that made her feel slightly damp. She squinted against the light as she fumbled in her purse for sunglasses.
“Do you come here a lot?” she asked.
He pulled a hat she hadn’t noticed before on to his head to shield his eyes and replied, “I work here.”
That plain statement made the whole thing seem real to Jo in a way that hadn’t yet sunk in. Ethan was working in a diner. Her college-educated, white collar best friend was working in a roadside establishment that kept squeeze bottle ketchup on the table and had a revolving case of desserts next to the front door. Jo wasn’t judging – it was damn good pie - but Ethan could’ve held his own in a Michelin-starred kitchen, and instead he was flipping pancakes and washing dishes 6 days a week. He felt no indignity. He was grateful.
There were a few more cars in the parking lot now than when she’d first arrived, and Jo turned to Ethan once more. “Which one’s yours?”
He smirked, an expression with which she was becoming more and more familiar, and pointed up the road. About a quarter mile in the distance, she saw the small bench of the bus stop she’d rode by on the way in. Ethan shrugged and started walking.
Lost and Found (part 6)
Ethan’s apartment was in a rundown motel-style arrangement of buildings. He had prepared her, on the bus ride over, for the state of his current living conditions. Again, the details weren’t shared with contempt but rather gratitude for the smidgen of stability he had managed to secure. He told her even more as they sat together bumping along the road. It occurred to Jo that she had never been on a city bus. Ethan had been to hell and back and she hadn’t even dipped her toes into public transportation. The paths on which life takes us, she thought.
There was a text from Ryan. It was two hours old and contained only a line of question marks. Jo knew he must be anxious, but this wasn’t the kind of revelation that could be put into a few sentences, nor did it deserve that. Instead, she typed a short reply that all was well, she loved him, and she would call later.
The iron of the banister burned her fingertips as they climbed the three flights of stairs to unit 321. Ethan was greeted by several people along the way. He had related to her that the Sunset Bay apartments were a common landing zone for those working their way out from under addiction. Though he had only been there a couple of months he was well-known and liked. He cooked meals for people when he wasn’t working at the diner. He sat up late into the night keeping company with those that were struggling. He had a rotating schedule of meeting buddies, each person keeping another accountable. Even a few years on the streets couldn’t drive out Ethan’s helpful nature. When it came down to it, he knew how to take care of people.
His apartment was expectedly small but tidy. He had the basics – a futon that he pulled out at night to sleep, a coffee table which doubled for dining, a decent selection of pots and pans. A small dresser in the corner held his clothes, two pairs of shoes lined up in the closet under a handful of hanging chef coats, pants and aprons. A little nightstand next to the futon held a reading lamp, alarm clock and one frame with two photos. A little bathroom was set back off the kitchen.
Ethan watched as Jo looked around, taking small steps about herself. There was no decoration in the place to speak of.
“Haven’t quite gotten out of the habit of keeping it simple,” Ethan said humbly. “Seems easier this way. For now.”
“It’s nice,” Jo said sincerely. “You’re doing well.”
Ethan offered her a glass of water, which she accepted, the day’s heat having given her a thirst. They talked a bit further, catching up on five years of news. Ethan asked after her kids, a sadness rising in his eyes as he realized how much he had missed. At first, Jo tried to keep it superficial, not wanting to make him feel badly. But he pressed her for greater details, and she offered them. Her daughters and son would be so happy to hear from him again when he was ready. She was happy to be able to at least tell them that he was alright.
After an hour, Ethan rose to use the restroom and Jo’s gaze fell on the frame situated on the table behind her. Two photos sat loosely side-by-side, each a little crooked. On the left she found herself looking back at her. She recognized the photo. She had been the one to send it to Ethan just before things went silent. It was from her daughter’s birthday. The remainder of the stellar cake Ethan has made sat in front of the group cut and enjoyed. It was the last time they had all been together. Someone’s phone propped on the counter; timer set to ten seconds. Jo remembered how just before the screen flashed the number one Ryan had said something funny that turned everyone’s pleasant picture expressions into a display of boisterous laughter and genuine love. It seemed like just yesterday. Jo hoped they’d be there again.
The other photo was smaller, a bit more aged around the sides. It appeared as if part of it had been ripped away at some point. It was a teenaged Emily, standing in front of her high school, clad in baggy sweatpants, wet hair dangling in front of her face. She was clutching a medal with a huge smile on her face. She had been a rather accomplished swimmer, even going to college on a full scholarship. Jo couldn’t imagine missing such important years of her own kids’ lives, or not being in contact with them. Ethan and Emily had been close, best friends as much as father and daughter. Jo would’ve thought nothing could tear them apart.
She was still gazing at the picture when Ethan re-entered the room. He ducked his head when he saw what she was looking at, sat himself back down, took another drink.
“Have you really not spoken to her since graduation?” Jo asked. “Nothing?” Ethan shook his head, his eyes on the floor. “Have you tried?” she asked further.
Again, he nodded. “I wouldn’t know what to say. How could she ever forgive me?” And now, for the first time that day, Ethan cried. Through the telling of his entire ordeal, the demonstration of his current conditions, he had been strong, reserved. He’d seemed to have accepted the way things had gone and was intent on moving forward. But some wounds run so terribly deep.
“You’re her father, Ethan,” Jo offered. “She’ll forgive you. Talk to her, like you talked to me. She’ll understand, just like I do.”
It was several minutes before he was able to calm himself, but there was nothing awkward about those minutes. Ethan and Jo had been in each other’s lives long enough, closely enough, to have seen the other cry a time or two. Jo rubbed a hand along his shoulders in comfort.
After a time, he said sniffling, “I wouldn’t even know how to reach her. What kind of father doesn’t know how to contact his own daughter?”
Jo didn’t have an answer for that. But she had something else. She pulled her purse into her lap, retrieving her cell phone from the side pocket. She hadn’t spoken to Emily in over two years; how likely was it that her number was still the same? When Ethan realized what she was doing, his face went a little pale. His eyes narrowed just a bit and his lips pressed into a thin line. He looked up at Jo, fear behind his eyes.
“You could try. I’m sure she wants to talk to you, to know that you’re okay.”
He continued looking at her, his eyes pleading.
“Ethan, I’m right here. Everything’s going to be okay.”
He closed his eyes, taking deep, even breaths, one hand twisting in the other. After a moment, he went still, his attitude now comprised of determination. He looked at Jo’s phone, gave her a single nod and said, “I can try.”
Jo took a deep breath herself, found Emily’s contact in her phone and pushed the bottom that would dial her. He tried to hand the phone to Ethan as it began to ring but he waved her off. Instead, she hit the speaker button and put it down on the table in front of them.
After five rings, when it seemed as if this opportunity was going to pass them by, the line clicked and a voice that was instantly recognizable to both of them came on.
“Hello?” it said.
At that simple word, tears reappeared in Ethan’s eyes. He swallowed several times.
“Hello?” it echoed.
The air in the room was as still as a windless desert night. A sob broke free from the other end of the line.
Editor's note: Lost and Found has been serialized across six issues. Don't forget to catch up on the first five installments if you haven't read them yet.