Teetering on the Edge

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2014

Emily Knopf
Teetering on the Edge girl is crying

I wipe the tears from my moistened eyes and look at the photograph

I lie on my stomach, my elbows standing to support my heavy head, my thin navy-striped cotton shirt the only thing that separates my skin from coming into direct contact with the torn and uncomfortable rough beige surface of the old couch.

Tears cascade effortlessly from my glazed, pale blue eyes, the saltwater creating a trail down my colorless cheeks and chapped lips and making a tiny puddle on the couch that then slips onto the olive carpet as I move. My ruffled, stick-straight, long dark brown hair is an annoyance; it comes into my eyes and I push it away, wishing that I had a rubber band to tie it all back.

I lift my wet face up to the small picture that hangs crookedly in a rusty brass frame on the tawny wall with the word “Family” inscribed into the metal. I wipe the tears from my moistened eyes and look at the photograph. A little girl plays in a plastic red sandbox, her chubby toddler legs in bright pink shorts and tiny sparkly purple sandals on her miniature feet. Over her curly brown pigtails she wears a pink plaid sun hat and on her little baby-blue shirt is a pink smiley face that matches her rosy cheeks and humongous sparkling blue eyes. A thin, lanky eight year-old kneels behind her, his green shirt wet from swimming, his dark blue bathing suit dripping onto the grass, and his golden bangs catching the sunlight and falling into his deep blue eyes. There is a big gap where his two front teeth should be, but his smile is still bright, his dimples are dents in his long oval face as he leans close to the baby. They’re happy. Who would have that thought that the little girl’s curls would turn into straight dark hair, that her chubby frame would grow to be freakishly taller than everyone else in her grade, and that her scrawny older brother would become a tall muscular nineteen year-old. Who would have even considered the possibility that when he turned eighteen he would tell his parents and younger sister that he wanted to join the U.S. military.

*          *          *

I let my mind wander and don’t stop the few tears that spill from my damp eyes. All the memories of Randy creep into my consciousness and I replay them. I can still remember the day we went to the carnival like it was yesterday. It was a sunny summer day and the wind blew through my long mahogany hair and pulled on my thin pink T-shirt as we walked past the endless rows of games and breathed in the intoxicating scents of hot dogs and cotton candy. Children ran around us, squealing with joy, and their parents chased after them. A giant Ferris wheel loomed over all the other rides. It was made of white metal and creaking colorful wooden planks. The seats looked unsafe as they treacherously swayed back and forth. Randy saw my fearful expression. “Come on,” he said, a smile creeping up onto his acne-covered teenage face, “we’re going.”

“What?!” I yelled, my eyes growing wide with fright. “No, we can’t!”

“We’re going, Anna,” he declared, locking his blue eyes with mine. “You can’t be afraid of a Ferris wheel!”

He grabbed me by the hand and dragged me through the crowd of people with only a couple “excuse me’s” as he pushed past children and old people until we got to the horrid ride. Randy took out some pink paper tickets for the ride and handed them to the ticket taker. The ticket taker waved his hand towards a bright orange seat with chipped paint. We sat down and I could feel myself shake with dread as the silver metal bar was pulled down, locking us inside. Randy smiled with a relaxed expression and sank back into the colorful seat. I could hear the gears turning and our seat slowly began to ascend up to the clear blue sky. As we climbed higher, my fear slowly subsided; I realized that there was really nothing to be afraid of. I was amazed as we slowly descended back to ground level and then up again. Randy could see my smile and, satisfied with himself, muttered, “I knew you would like it!”

I was happy, and when the Ferris wheel ride was over, I suggested that we go on again. Randy’s blue eyes were lit up with pride as he gave the ticket taker two more tickets, and we both squealed with joy as the ride began again.

Teetering on the Edge riding a ferris wheel

“I knew you would like it!”

I smile to myself now, thinking of how Randy made me overcome my silly fear of Ferris wheels. He was always doing crazy stuff like that as a teenager. When Mom and Dad weren’t home we would make crazy deserts in the blender, pouring in anything from chocolate to canned tuna to make a crazy, disgusting-tasting treat and then cleaning it up before they got home. He taught me how to skateboard, strapping me in elbow and knee pads and buckling a helmet tightly on my head and then pushing me down the empty street until after thousands of falls I managed to stop myself.

Of course we had fights. He didn’t want me in his room and didn’t want me to talk to his friends. I didn’t like his annoying rock music pounding in my ears and vibrating the floor while I played with my Barbie dolls, or when he hogged the computer for hours at a time. We argued over whose turn it was to do the dishes or the laundry, who had to take out the garbage, and most of the time, who started one of those arguments in the first place.

*          *          *

It was a warm day in May when he told us. We were sitting around the honey-colored kitchen table eating spaghetti and meatballs, which we ate every Tuesday night. He put down his utensils and cleared his voice. “Mom, Dad, Anna,” we all looked at him, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but,” he coughed, “after I graduate next month, I want to join the military.”

My mom’s blue eyes popped wide with disbelief and my dad almost choked on his pasta, his face redder than the tomato sauce. “You what?!” my parents said in unison, their eyes locked then focused on him. “Why?” my mom yelled, her hands flapping in confusion, agitating her golden curls.

“Are you insane?! You’re only eighteen!” my dad said, his expression angry and confused. “You’re just a child! You could be killed!”

Randy wasn’t alarmed by these demands, as though he had been expecting them. He smiled coolly and calmly, his deep blue eyes mellow, and his pale skin and light lips opening up to a smile. “This is what I really want to do,” he remarked. “I want to contribute to this country and show America how important it is to me by protecting it.”

It was like he had rehearsed it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had come up with the idea a couple weeks before and ever since then been practicing how to convince Mom and Dad to let him go.

I sat at the end of the table, shocked by the news. I watched the scene between him and my parents like a tennis match, looking from my parents to Randy to see their comebacks. How, I thought, can my brother, the boy who always likes to have fun, want to fight in the army?!

I was a witness to my parents slowly settling in their seats as Randy fully explained to them his plan to apply and then hopefully be physically fit enough to be part of this special force he wanted to join. Unbelievably, my parents actually allowed their son to go off and fight in the army.

We all thought we knew that Randy was just the tall thin boy he had always been, never that interested in sports, more absorbed in goofing around and having fun; we thought that he wouldn’t even be strong enough to do a single push-up. Never would we have guessed that when the military officials tested him for physical fitness he got an above average score. We would have never contemplated even the remote possibility of seeing him dressed in his green camouflage uniform and his golden hair shaved off, replaced by a matching camouflage hat. Never, ever, would we have imagined him going to Afghanistan to be on duty, wearing a thick black helmet with a big black M16 gun in his rough gloved hands held tight against his black flak jacket.

Randy visited home whenever he could. We would pick him up at the air port and I would jump into his newly muscled arms. He would tell us about his friends in his unit and all the things they did while they were off duty and all the amazing adventures he had. Even when he was home, it was only for less than two weeks, and then he would be off again, right in the middle of combat.

We skyped and chatted whenever we could find time, early in the morning or extremely late at night. He would never act frightened during a live chat. He would always smile casually and talk to us like he was at a fun summer camp and having an amazing time, not in a war zone.

*          *          *

When they came I was in the living room reading a book. There was a brisk knock at the door. My mom went to the door and my dad followed behind her. The dark wood door creaked open to reveal two men in uniform, their white hats glowing beneath the porch light and the gold buttons down the middle of their shirts reflecting off the light. My heart stopped. As the words slipped out of their mouths, my book fell to the ground. My world went into slow motion and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My mom fell to her knees and cried into her hands and my father’s eyes burst, exploding with tears as he shook his head in disbelief. The officers stood at the doorway, their faces expressionless and no more words to say but, “We wish good luck to you and your son, hopefully everything will go OK.” They made it sound as though he was on vacation and that his plane was delayed in coming home. Then with an awkward salute, with no acknowledgment of the terrible words that were daggers in our swollen hearts, they walked down the stairs and into the darkness of the evening, leaving us in our distress.

The door was closed behind them, and I ran to my parents. We encircled each other, our tears and whimpers blending into one sound of agony. Randy, my brother, my parents’ only son, was MIA, missing in action.

That episode must have only been an hour ago, but it feels like years have gone by with Randy’s disappearance. The doubt and worry of not knowing where he is, not knowing if he’s dead or almost dead, is like a rock that sits on the edge of a cliff, not stable, but not falling.

I need to know that he’s OK, I need to know that he will come home. I need my brother because he is the most important thing in the world to me.

When I was little I would do anything to get a new shirt or a fabulous Barbie doll. Last year, for my twelfth birthday, I asked for a new bike. But those things don’t matter, I don’t need them. All I need right now is for Randy to come home safely, and I would never ask for anything else ever again.

Teetering on the Edge Emily Knopf

Emily Knopf, 13
Teaneck, New Jersey

Teetering on the Edge Gordon Su

Gordon Su, 12
Milpitas, California

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