Originally written for the 2014 Wish Fulfillment Week at the Tol Eressea community. I filled the wish of Ink Gypsy, who requested: Sean works for an antiques dealer and while going through the effects of a recently-deceased client, he comes upon the above photo in a bunch of old photo albums, circa 1940's. Captivated by the beauty of the young man, he becomes obsessed with finding out who he was, going so far as to try to track down his descendants in hopes of finding answers, eventually finding a grandson or great-grandson who bears a striking resemblance to him.
Note: The 16th Infantry Unit is apocryphal; it didn't feel right to use one that actually existed. Manip near the end made by me. The photo of Elijah was created by Ink Gypsy. Any and all factual errors are mine. Manip at the end made by the lovely and generous Hildigard Brown.
The four large cardboard boxes were waiting for Sean Astin on an old refectory table in the work area adjacent to his office. They were labeled 'Pearce Estate Papers' and to the average person probably looked about as interesting as a can of dried paint. To Sean, however, they were oysters waiting to be pried open, perchance to reveal a priceless pearl.
One man's trash is another man's treasure. Truer words had never been spoken, he often thought.
Sean pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves and slid the elastic band of a disposable dust mask over his head, securing the mask over his nose and mouth. He sometimes felt a little guilty that his emotions at such a moment were excitement and anticipation; after all, he was about to sort through the effects of a dead man. But there was nothing prurient in his interest, far from it. He treated such effects with the utmost respect, even reverence, whether they turned out to be pearls or merely grains of sand.
This particular client had died intestate. According to Sean's boss, Ephraim Pearce had never married or fathered any children. He had no siblings and both his parents were long dead. Which was not an unprecedented situation by any means, but still, it saddened Sean. The distant relations who were inheriting Ephraim's estate had made it plain that they were only interested in the money. Everything was to be sold that could be, and the proceeds divided among a slew of cousins, all of whom lived on the east coast.
And that was where Sean and the antiques appraisal company he worked for came in.
His particular area of expertise was photographs and ephemera, the sorts of items that the descendants ought to value because they were personal and told the story of an individual's life and interests: school records, newspaper and magazine clippings, postcards, political buttons, invitations and menus, theater programs. It was amazing the number of keepsakes a person could accumulate during his or her life. It was Sean's job to sort through them for any that had resale value, and in a case like this, with no one to claim them, the rest would be disposed of - recycled or put in the trash. A poignant commentary on the fleeting nature of human existence, he supposed, but hopefully some of the material in these boxes would eventually be sold to an appreciative collector and live on.
Sean began sorting, placing a few items that he knew to have resale value into protective Mylar sleeves and setting them in a plastic Rubbermaid container. His white gloves soon grew grimy with dust and newspaper ink; wherever they'd been stored, it was clear Ephraim's effects hadn't been disturbed in years. He swapped the gloves for a clean pair - he went through dozens of pairs every month - and resumed his task. He supposed some might consider it tedious, even boring, but Sean loved it. It was painstaking, exacting work, for everything had to be thoroughly sifted, each individual document examined, but he never tired of it. People and their possessions were endlessly fascinating.
When he'd gone through the first box, creating three different piles - items of obvious value, items of no value, and items that would require further research to determine their value - he set it on the floor and turned his attention to the next box. By the time Sean broke for lunch, he'd sorted three of the four boxes and didn't have much to show for his work, at least from the standpoint of an appraiser. Ephraim Pearce appeared to have led a simple life without many outside interests, certainly not ones that he'd cared to preserve.
Among Ephraim's effects was a program from his retirement party. From it Sean learned that he'd worked at a Ford factory from 1948 until 1982, advancing from the assembly line to become a line supervisor - a highly respected one, to judge from the glowing tributes printed in the program. Sean also found the box that Ephraim's retirement gift had come in - a gold watch, natch.
But what Ephraim had done after his retirement was less obvious to discern. And Sean considered that curious, for the man had managed his money wisely and died, if not rich, then comfortably well off. Enough to travel or enjoy any number of different hobbies, not to mention pursue an active social life if he wanted.
Sean found few photos of Ephraim among his effects, and those were group shots, taken at various work-related functions over the years. He'd been a good-looking man, a little on the short side, a little on the stout side, but blessed with a thick head of chestnut hair that had gradually turned silver as he aged. It occurred to Sean, examining one of these photos, that he might be looking at himself in forty or fifty years' time. There was a definite resemblance. Good-looking, huh? he thought with amusement as he set the third, now empty box on the floor. Ego much, Sean?
After so many years as an appraiser, Sean had developed a sort of sixth sense for when he was on the verge of a major discovery, and the moment he set his hands on the last box, he knew. It was almost a physical sensation, a kind of giddy buzz as if he'd just downed a large glass of champagne, and very rare, but when it occurred, it never failed him. Something special was in this box. Something important. Something valuable.
His hands almost shook as he pulled back the flaps. It was, after all, for these moments that he'd studied and trained and worked for so many years. A major find on Antiques Roadshow, on which he'd appeared several times, was the icing on the cake for an appraiser, but this was the cherry, because it would be his find and his alone.
The first thing Sean's eyes fell on was a small oblong box with a clear plastic lid. Inside was a pin: a silver musket on a light blue background, on and over a silver oak wreath.
Though military insignia weren't his main specialty, Sean recognized the pin. It was a U.S. Army Combat Infantry Badge. His impression and opinion of the man whose effects he was appraising instantly skyrocketed. Ephraim Pearce had not only served in World War II, but had personally been in active ground combat and under hostile fire. Unlike the faded, dusty items in the other boxes, the silver was still bright, as if it had been well cared for over the years, which was as it should be for a man of such outstanding bravery.
Sean set the pin aside. It wasn't exceptionally rare or valuable, but he would find a good home for it. He had several clients who collected heavily in this area and would pay top dollar for a CIB with provenance and in such good condition.
It turned out that everything in the box related to the years that Ephraim Pearce had spent overseas, rising through the ranks to end his career as a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army. Sean found Ephraim's discharge papers, his dog tag, his unit insignia, his I.D. card, a few yellowed newspaper clippings about his unit and the end of the war, several blank picture postcards. But no letters, from either family members or a sweetheart. In Sean's experience that was rare, and he wondered if Ephraim had been estranged from his family and if so, why. He'd probably never find out. He didn't work as a biographer or genealogist, only an appraiser, and the contents of these boxes were the limit of his involvement in Ephraim Pearce's life.
He methodically worked his way through the box, waiting to be wowed. That sixth sense was still talking to him, but when nothing fit the bill, he began to wonder if for once he'd been misled.
He sifted and sorted until finally only one item was left in the box: an 8x10 manila envelope, unsealed, with the flap tucked in at the back. Well, it was this or nothing, Sean thought as he picked it up, and then he almost gasped aloud at the intensity of the sensation that coursed through him - as if he were touching a live wire. Never had he experienced a premonition so intense. Restraining the urge to tear the envelope open, he forced himself to follow procedure. First things first. He examined the envelope with his customary thoroughness, finding it completely unremarkable, without any mark on it. Only then did he pull open the flap and peer inside. The envelope contained a single object: a piece of heavy, cream-colored card stock, the kind that had commonly been used at that time for photographic portraits.
Sean slowly drew it out, his heart hammering so loudly it drowned out every other sound. Photographs were generally not to be among the most valuable collectibles, with a few notable exceptions. Was this one of them? He turned the photograph over and stared, half in spellbound wonder, half in confusion.
He was looking at a black and white photograph of a young man in a wrinkled dress shirt and suspenders. He had one hand deep in a pocket of his trousers and he stood half in shadow, half in light, framed against an opening in what appeared to be an old stone building of some kind - a barn or cottage. The image was skillfully framed and shot, but not by an Alfred Eisenstaedt or Margaret Bourke-White. Nor was the young man himself recognizable as someone famous or noteworthy. In point of fact, Sean's expert eye told him that the photo had no intrinsic value whatsoever.
Yet despite that, the feeling of urgency didn't dissipate; if anything it intensified as he stared at the young man's face. Never before had he beheld a human being so beautiful. Not beautiful in the conventional sense of male beauty; but there was something at once ethereal and heartbreakingly human in the contrast between his flawless features and the somber, even grim, expression he wore.
He was gazing off toward the right, not directly at the camera, as if being its focus made him uncomfortable. Sean wondered what it would be like to have the full weight of those large, luminous, utterly remarkable eyes turned on him. If Sean could have willed it to happen, he would have. He wondered what color they were, but most of all he wondered, Who the hell is he?
Nothing was written on the front of the card, so Sean flipped it over. In the bottom right corner he could just discern two capital letters, written in a spidery hand in fading black ink: E.W. That was all.
But it might be enough. It was a starting point at least, a clue to go on, and even if the photo was worth less than the card stock it was printed on, he meant to go on. The thrill of the chase was nothing new; a large part of Sean's job involved establishing identity, provenance and that all-important authenticity. This, however, was different.
Never before had he experienced such an immediate personal connection to an old photo. It wasn't a question of wanting to find out who E.W. was and what his place in Ephraim Pearce's life had been - it was a question of having to. It was vitally important, for reasons Sean didn't yet understand. But he sensed that the young man had been important to Ephraim, and already clues were slotting together in his brain and forming theories. He was too wise to trust in his fledgling theories; intuition only went so far. What he needed, what he intended to find, were facts.
When Sean left for the day, he took Ephraim's World War II effects with him, after transferring them to a sturdy Rubbermaid container. It wasn't unprecedented for him to work from home, so no one remarked on it, but he was aware that his reasons were intensely personal and that he wasn't acting in strict accordance with the ethics of his profession. But everything would be returned - except for the photo of E.W. That Sean intended to keep; it was destined for destruction if he didn't.
After gobbling down a hasty supper, he laid out the contents of the container on his dining room table and examined them again, this time with an eye to discovering E.W.'s identity and his tie to Ephraim Pearce. He brought his laptop to the table as well as several guidebooks on military collectibles and insignia from his extensive personal reference collection.
At the end of several hours of examination and research, all Sean had gained was a headache. The identity of E.W. remained as elusive as ever, even while Sean's sense of his importance grew stubbornly stronger.
It was nearly one in the morning when Sean replaced everything in the container, except for the photo. Frustrating as it was to have run into a dead-end in identifying E.W., he did have one possible escape route, a narrow alley that could lead to a more substantial road.
Based on Ephraim's discharge papers and his insignia, Sean knew that he had served in the 16th Infantry Unit of the 7th Infantry Division. If, and it was, Sean admitted, a large if, E.W. had also served in the 16th, it should be possible to find out who he was from a list of the men attached to that unit. But while that sounded simple enough on the surface, it wasn't. The military records he needed couldn't be googled. He was going to have to visit, on his own time and at his own expense, the National Archives in St. Louis.
Sean was burning to make a start, but it was late, too late to make the necessary arrangements: ask his boss for a rare day off, schedule an appointment at the Archives, book a flight... All in the name of a strange obsession with a photograph.
But what a photograph. Sean took it with him when he went to bed, propped it against the base of the nightstand lamp and lay there studying it for far too long before finally shutting off the light. It was almost frightening, the depth of feeling the young man invoked in him.
Maybe I should be paying more attention to my sex life and less to my career, Sean thought, because there was no getting around the fact that his interest in the mysterious E.W. wasn't simply academic.
If he's still alive, which is doubtful, he'll be in his, what, late eighties? Early nineties? You know you're setting yourself up for a giant letdown, right? I hope you aren't going to be so stupid as to fall in love with a chimera. And that's all E.W. is.
It didn't seem to matter, though. His feet were now set on a path to discovery or disappointment, and until he reached its end, he wouldn't, couldn't, stop.
Sean flew from Los Angeles to St. Louis three days later and took a cab directly from the airport to the National Archives. It wasn't his first visit, as he'd had occasion in the past to examine records there, but he was aware of an internal tension that had been lacking those other times. Even the couple of days' delay had been irksome; the need to know was as persistent as a mosquito bite demanding to be itched.
The microfilm he'd requested was ready and waiting for him. Several hours later he had another headache and a stiff neck from looking at day after day after day of morning reports and unit rosters for the 16th Infantry Unit. But he also had two names, Edward Wilson and Elijah Wood, as well as the soldiers' serial numbers. One of them very likely could prove to be the man in the photo.
Outside the sun was setting and Sean had to hustle to make it back to the airport in time for his return flight to LAX. But he was a giant step nearer to solving the mystery of E.W., and he knew exactly the person to contact to close the case. It paid to have friends in high places, or, in this case, in military history. The records he needed to access were off-limits to him, but not to Carl Lundgren, military researcher extraordinaire. Sean wasted no time, but made the call from his taxi.
"Hi Carl, it's Sean."
"Hi Sean, what's up?"
"I need your help. I have the names and serial numbers of two men who served in the 16th Infantry Unit in the Pacific. I want to find out more about them - anything at all that you can turn up will be terrific."
"Sure thing. Do you have a deadline?"
"No specific deadline, but the sooner the better. And photographs. If you can turn up any photographs of either man, I'd really appreciate it."
"Okay. Give me the info you have and I'll take it from there."
Sean read him the information and then said, "You're a life saver, Carl. I can't thank you enough."
"You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," Carl quipped. "You've come through for me more times than I can count."
"That's 'cause I'm a saint."
Carl laughed. "Really? Well, Saint Sean, I'll call you back as soon as I turn something up. Talk to you soon."
They disconnected, and Sean thought that Carl's call couldn't come soon enough. But hard on the heels of that thought came another: So what are you going to do after you find out which one of them is your E.W.? The answer came immediately: I'm going to find him, even if it's only a grave in a military cemetery.
And then what?
But to that, Sean had no answer.
Another three excruciating days passed before Carl called Sean back.
"I've found your information," he said without preamble. "I'm just about to send you an email with the documents and photos attached."
"Bless you, Carl." And Sean meant it with all his heart.
"Hey, I thought you were the saint."
"Believe me, I'll gladly hand my halo over to you."
Carl laughed. "That's all right. You can keep it."
"At the very least I owe you a drink next time we see each other."
"Okay, it's a deal."
They said goodbye, and even as Sean disconnected, a beep alerted him to incoming email. Ignoring the attached documents for the moment, he went straight for the photographs. He clicked on EdwardWilsonIDCard.jpg and waited impatiently for the photo to open. Then he let out a sigh of disappointment as he beheld a blond young man with a receding hairline. Edward Wilson was definitely not his E.W. That left ElijahWoodIDCard.jpg. For a moment, Sean hesitated, finger hovering over the mouse button. This was it. If Elijah Wood wasn't E.W., then he was back to square one, with very little hope of ever solving the mystery of his identity.
Just do it, Sean. He clicked. The photo gradually opened. Sean actually gasped aloud as a familiar face revealed itself to him. He had found him. Tears filled Sean's eyes and he bowed his head, nearly overcome by the emotion of the moment. Sean lifted his head and those mesmerizing eyes that even a poor quality scan of a ninety-forties Army I.D. photo couldn't diminish were looking straight into his, as he'd longed for them to do.
But the ID card contained more than a photo, and from it Sean learned his full name, Elijah Xavier Wood, and his rank, Sergeant.
"Sergeant Elijah Wood," Sean said softly. "But what happened to you? And what were you to Ephraim Pearce?"
He turned his attention to the other documents that Carl had sent, a copy of Elijah's discharge papers and an obituary from the Cedar Rapids Gazette dated November 13, 2009. Sean stared at the unarguable truth confronting him. He'd expected to discover that Elijah Wood was dead, but it hurt nevertheless. There had been something about him, a kind of radiance that shone clearly even in old black and white photographs. It was terrible to think that such a light had been snuffed out. He was willing to bet that even into Elijah's eighties it had continued to burn bright. How he wished he'd had a chance to meet him.
The obituary was detailed and provided Sean with the answers to most of his questions. After an honorable discharge, Elijah Wood had returned to his home in Iowa, married his childhood sweetheart, Peggy, and had a son, Warren, in 1952. He opened a delicatessen in downtown Cedar Rapids and ran it with his wife until his retirement in 1990. Peggy died in 1997, his son Warren in 2005. Elijah had lived to be eighty-nine and had been buried with military honors in the Iowa Veterans Cemetery beside his wife. According to the article, he was survived by two grandchildren, Elijah and Hannah, both of Cedar Rapids.
Sean tabbed back to the I.D. card and stared into eyes that, thanks to the details on his discharge papers, he now knew to have been blue. They stared directly back at him, and it seemed to Sean that they held a secret in their luminous depths: the secret of what he and Ephraim Pearce had meant to each other. Something niggled at Sean's brain; he went back to the obituary. The words leaped out at him: In 1945, he was awarded the U.S. Army Combat Infantry Badge for bravery in combat.
Was it possible that the medal among Ephraim's effects was actually Elijah's? Nowhere had Sean seen specific mention that Ephraim was the one who had been awarded it. It had been the logical conclusion, but now he had to wonder. And if he was right, what did it mean that Ephraim had had it in his possession? That after sixty-nine years, not so much as a speck of tarnish could be found on it?
"I need more answers," Sean said aloud. "We aren't through yet, Elijah Xavier Wood."
There was another Elijah Wood who might have some answers, and he intended to meet him.
The whereabouts of the 'other' Elijah Wood, as Sean thought of him, were easily discovered. A Google search established that he still lived in Cedar Rapids, where he was employed by the city school district as a systems administrator.
With the phone number he'd jotted on a slip of paper burning a hole in his pocket, Sean boarded a flight to Cedar Rapids. As soon as he was checked into his hotel room several hours later, Sean made the call. As the phone rang, he wondered what the young man's reaction would be. Would he think Sean was completely nuts? Or downright refuse to meet with him? He couldn't blame him if he did. But he sure hoped he wouldn't refuse. Even knowing as much as he did about Elijah Wood's grandfather, it wasn't enough. That strange sense of urgency was still with him, unresolved, undiminished.
The phone rang several times and just when Sean thought that it wasn't going to be answered, a voice said, "Cedar Rapids Schools, Elijah Wood speaking." The voice had a soft Midwestern twang.
"Hi. My name is Sean Astin, from Cornerstone Appraisal in Los Angeles. I wonder if I might have a minute of your time."
"What is this in regard to, Mr. Astin?" Elijah Wood sounded confused and slightly suspicious; no doubt he was wondering if Sean was some kind of salesman or scam artist.
"It's in regard to a client of ours, Ephraim Pearce, who passed away on July 10th. We were hired to do the appraisal of his estate."
"Did you say Ephraim Pearce?" He spoke the name in such a way that it was clear he recognized it.
"You know the name?" Sean's heart beat faster.
"Ye-es, but what does he have to do with me?"
"According to my research, Mr. Pearce served in the same World War II Army infantry unit as your grandfather, Elijah Xavier Wood. At least, I'm assuming he's your grandfather?"
"He was," Elijah Wood corrected. "My grandfather died five years ago."
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Sean said quietly. If he was affected by the death of 'his' Elijah Wood, he could only imagine how his grandson must feel.
"Thank you. We were close, and I miss him very much," the young man replied simply. "But I still don't understand what this is about, Mr. Astin, or why you called me."
"Yes, of course. Allow me to explain. I was assigned to go through a portion of Mr. Pearce's effects. Among them I found a wartime photograph that turned out to be a photograph of your grandfather. Mr. Pearce died intestate and his belongings will be sold off or otherwise disposed of. It occurred to me that you, or someone in your family, might like to have this photo." On the flight to Cedar Rapids, Sean had decided, with a pang, that he would have to make the offer. The photo wasn't his to keep. He quickly added, lest Elijah Wood jump to the wrong conclusion, "There would be no charge for it."
"That's extremely kind of you to think of us. I'd love to have it." He sounded genuinely delighted at the offer. "It would mean a lot to me, as well as my sister. Can I give you my mailing address?"
"I happen to be in Cedar Rapids right now on business," Sean said. He didn't like to lie, but he didn't know how Elijah would react if Sean told him that he'd come to Cedar Rapids for the sole purpose of meeting him. "I thought we might meet for coffee if you're agreeable. I can give you the photo and perhaps you can tell me about your grandfather and his friendship with Ephraim Pearce." He gave a soft laugh. "I confess to some curiosity. Occupational hazard for someone in my line of work, you might say."
There was a pause as Elijah Wood considered Sean's suggestion. "When did you have in mind?" he finally asked, and Sean gave a tiny fist pump at the implied agreement.
"If you're available this afternoon, that would be great. I have a flight home to Los Angeles in the morning, so I'm afraid my schedule is fairly tight."
"That will work for me. Where are you staying?"
"At the Kirkwood Center Hotel."
"There's a coffee place called The Blue Strawberry on Second Street, not too far from there. How about that as a meeting place?"
"Sounds good," Sean said. "Will three o'clock suit?"
"That'll be fine."
"All right, three o'clock at The Blue Strawberry it is. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me."
"It's no problem, Mr. Astin."
"Sean then." Sean could hear a smile in his voice. "See you soon."
They rang off, and Sean found himself surprisingly drained by the brief conversation. Only in the aftermath did he realize how invested he had been its outcome.
Sean got to the coffee shop early. It was a beautiful autumn day, the sun pleasantly warm on his shoulders, so he nabbed one of the small round cafe tables in front of the store. When the waitress came out to take his order, he said, "I'm meeting someone in about ten minutes. I'll wait until he arrives to place my order, if that's okay?"
"Sure thing," she said pleasantly. "I'll come back in a bit."
It occurred to Sean that he had no idea what the 'other' Elijah Wood looked like. In his mind, he kept picturing 'his' Elijah Wood, but of course there was no reason to assume that the two men resembled each other at all. Perhaps he should have googled for a photo, but he'd find out soon enough.
He tried not to fidget or obsessively check his watch as he waited. Normally he would have passed the time checking email on his phone, but it was impossible to focus. Three o'clock came and went. A sick feeling invaded the pit of his stomach as the minutes ticked by: ten after, fifteen after. Was Elijah Wood going to stand him up?
Then a voice said, "Sean? Sorry I'm late."
Instinctively Sean got to his feet to greet Elijah, and then he froze. He was so taken aback that he couldn't speak but simply stared in dumbfounded amazement at a young man with dark hair, pale skin, luminous blue eyes and features more beautiful than any Sean ever seen - except in an old black and white photograph. Was he hallucinating? he wondered dazedly. Projecting onto the other Elijah the visage of the man with whom he had become obsessed? Surely the illusion would pass. But it didn't.
"Sean? Mr. Astin? Are you all right?" Elijah was regarding him with concern, looking so much like his grandfather that it robbed Sean of breath.
With an effort Sean gathered his scrambled wits. "It's nothing. A momentary light-headedness - stood up too fast, that's all," he said. He held out his hand.
Elijah took Sean's hand and shook it. At his touch, Sean experienced the same premonitory shock he'd felt when he picked up the envelope with the photo that had started him on the improbable path to this meeting. As he released Elijah's hand and sat down again, he wondered if Elijah had felt it, too.
The waitress appeared and took their orders, and when she was gone, Sean said, "Thank you again for agreeing to this meeting."
"I'm the one who owes you a thank you for taking time out of your business trip to bring me my Granddad's photo."
Sean hesitated. He hated to lie to Elijah. It didn't seem right to begin their acquaintance like that. "I'm afraid I wasn't entirely truthful with you about why I'm here," he confessed. "You see, I came to Cedar Rapids specifically to meet with you if I could. There is no business trip." He gave a sheepish laugh. "I guess I was afraid you'd think I was crazy to come all this way simply to give you a photograph that I could have stuck in the mail."
"Eccentric, maybe, but not crazy," Elijah replied with a smile. "Thank you for telling me, Sean."
Relieved that Elijah had taken his confession so well, and glad that he'd decided to come clean, Sean bent to his briefcase, opened it, and removed the photo. Looking at it with the 'other' Elijah sitting a bare few feet away, the resemblance was almost shocking.
"Here's the photo," he said. He'd expected to feel regret when it came time to part with the photo, but he felt a soul-deep sense of rightness as he held it out to Elijah. "It took some research to discover your grandfather's identity. The only thing I had to go on were his initials on the back."
Elijah took the photo between his hands, carefully, and studied it. It seemed to Sean, watching him closely, that he was close to crying, although no tears appeared.
"I've never seen this photo before," Elijah whispered. "It's weird to see him looking so serious. He was a pretty happy man. I used to hang out in the deli when I was a kid, and he was always singing - he loved music - or trying to make the customers laugh. Everyone adored him." He looked up at Sean, his eyes so blue that every other color seemed washed out by comparison. "Thank you for this. I'm amazed you went to so much trouble to find out who he was."
Sean raised his hands in a shrug. "Tell me, have you ever had a premonition about something? Because the instant I discovered your grandfather's photo, I sensed that it was important somehow. I'm not sure I had any choice about doing the research, Elijah. I felt compelled, I suppose you could say, to find out who E.W. was."
"Selfishly I'm glad, although I expect it was a lot of work," Elijah said quietly. "And well, maybe you'll think I'm crazy, but when I picked up the phone, I had the same sensation, that the call was important." He smiled again, and Sean thought that he, like his grandfather, was a happy man who liked to smile and laugh. "If I came across as a little weirded out, that's why."
Sean returned the smile. "You didn't. But I hope you weren't disappointed that it wasn't a sweepstakes company calling to tell you you'd won a couple million dollars."
Elijah laughed; he had a delightful laugh, infectious and uninhibited. But what he said filled Sean with a warm glow. "I'm not at all disappointed, Sean, honestly."
Their coffee arrived and the conversation was suspended for a few minutes. When they were alone again, Sean said, "I have something else for you, Elijah. I'm not positive, but I think it may have been your grandfather's. I found it among Ephraim's effects from the war, in the same box with the photo." He took the Combat Infantry Badge from his pocket and slid it across the table. "Do you recognize this?" he asked.
Elijah set aside the photo and picked up the CIB. His brow furrowed and he said, "I'm afraid not. What is it?"
"It's an Army Combat Infantry Badge. They were awarded to infantrymen who personally fought in active combat and under enemy fire."
"This is Granddad's medal?" Wonder was in Elijah's voice. "He never talked much about the war, but one time the local paper did an article about him and the deli, and they knew that he'd gotten it and asked him about it. He only said that he'd done his duty and wouldn't let them make a fuss or even mention it in the article. But later I asked him where the medal was. He said that he didn't have it. That he'd given it to a friend, the bravest man he knew, who deserved it more than he did."
"Ephraim Pearce. He gave it to Ephraim Pearce."
"He must have," agreed Elijah.
He made to return the CIB to Sean, but Sean shook his head. "No, you keep it. It belongs to your family. But I think it's pretty clear that Ephraim treasured it. I take it that he and your father were close friends. Did you ever meet him?" Finally, he broached the topic that more than any other interested him.
"No, I never did. As far as I'm aware, he never visited Granddad. But my dad's middle name was Ephraim. Did you know that? That's why I recognized Ephraim Pearce's name when you called me. It was no secret who Dad was named after. But..." Elijah stopped, fiddled with the plastic box in his fingers.
"But?" Sean prompted after a few seconds. His heart was beating faster. What was Elijah going to say?
Elijah met his gaze squarely. "But I've sometimes wondered if there was more between Granddad and Ephraim than friendship."
Sean was a little stunned to have his private theory spoken so bluntly and openly, and by Elijah Wood's own grandson. "What makes you think that?" he asked.
"Nothing concrete. I don't have any proof. Only, if I add a few things up, I can't help but wonder if it was the case." Elijah looked away, his expression somber, and for a moment he so resembled his grandfather in the photo that Sean's heart clenched with pain, but also with joy, for this Elijah was no photo but a living man.
Sean said, "I admit I've been wondering that same thing, and I'm very curious to hear why you believe it may have been the case."
"The first reason is how Granddad reacted when I came out as gay," Elijah said. "I was sixteen, and very close to him. I was terrified that once he found out about me it would ruin our relationship. But when I told him, he didn't get mad or anything. He gave me a big hug and told me that he was proud of me and always would be. And then he got a look on his face that I'll never forget: a kind of sad, faraway look. He said I was lucky to be able to come out to my family, because when he was young it was completely impossible for a gay man to do that."
"He was right. It would have been ruinous."
"I realize that doesn't necessarily mean he was talking about himself. I'm sure he knew plenty of gay men in the army if nowhere else. But there were a couple other things, Sean. One was that whenever Granddad mentioned Ephraim Pearce, and it wasn't often, maybe a handful of times in my presence, his face just... glowed. I can't ever remember seeing him look like that. And Gram - she always seemed uncomfortable when Ephraim came up." Elijah sighed. "I think she knew, even if she didn't admit it to herself. Don't get me wrong: Gram and Granddad loved each other and they were happy. I never heard them argue, ever."
"You could be right, Elijah," Sean said. "That she knew in her heart even if she didn't admit it to herself. I'm glad they were happy and it didn't cast a shadow on their marriage."
"If it did, they were careful not to let us see it," Elijah replied. "But there's one more thing, Sean. Every year in September, Granddad would go away for a long week-end. He said that he was attending an annual army reunion, and maybe he was. Only, I tried to look it up online once and I couldn't find any army reunion scheduled for that weekend. I do know that he flew to LA, because I drove him to the airport a few times."
"Where Ephraim Pearce lived."
"Yeah. Like I said, it's not concrete proof, but I do wonder."
"And how do you feel about it? If it was true, I mean?"
"Sad, but also glad." Elijah smiled ruefully. "I mean, I wouldn't be here if Granddad hadn't married Gram, but if he loved Ephraim, too, then I'm glad they had a little time together."
"Ephraim never married, Elijah. And I suspect that if he had this secret to keep, he wouldn't have left any record behind that could hurt or damage your family. I wondered at the lack of letters or photographs among his personal effects, but it makes sense if your theory is right. He seems to have been a very private man, in any case. But like you, I'm glad to know that they may have had a little time together."
They sat quietly for a few minutes. Sean thought about Ephraim and Elijah, stealing a few days every year, until at last one year Elijah didn't show up. Had Ephraim known when Elijah died? And had he had other lovers during his life? Sean accepted that he would never have the answers to all his questions, but the most important had been answered. He didn't doubt that Elijah was right, even if there was no concrete proof.
Elijah broke the silence. "Sean, I brought a photo to show you. It's the reason I was late. I stopped at my apartment to get it before coming here." He took something from the pocket of his tan corduroy jacket. "It shows some of the soldiers in Granddad's infantry unit. He's in it and so is Ephraim. I thought it might interest you. It was taken in 1941, not long after Granddad enlisted. It's the only photo of Ephraim that Granddad had, as far as I know."
It was Sean's turn to take a photo carefully in his hands. It showed a casual gathering of six infantrymen, in varying states of undress; but Sean had eyes only for the two men who in such a short time had come to mean so much to him: Ephraim and Elijah, looking serious and heartbreakingly young. And perhaps it was projecting, but to Sean's mind they looked very much a couple.
"You know it's funny," Elijah said, "but I just realized that you kind of look like Ephraim."
"If you take away at least twenty years and a bunch of pounds," Sean said ruefully. "But I'm not related to him, as far as I know. You, on the other hand, are the spitting image of your grandfather."
"You noticed, huh?"
"It would be hard not to notice, Elijah." Sean looked from the photo to Elijah and back again. The resemblance was truly uncanny. "He was an exceptionally beautiful man, your grandfather," he said. "And you can take that any way you choose."
Elijah flushed slightly, but he didn't look displeased. "I'll take it as a compliment. Tell me, do you have any plans for this evening? I'd like to treat you to dinner, as a way of saying thank you for coming all the way here to give me Granddad's photo and his medal, and also," he met Sean's gaze squarely, "as a way of getting to know each other better. If you're interested, that is."
"I'm definitely interested," said Sean, "and in case you're wondering, I'm not involved with anyone right now."
"Neither am I," replied Elijah, and they exchanged a smile that had Sean's heart beating faster. "It's still early, though. How would you like to visit Granddad's grave? The cemetery is near Des Moines. It's about a two-hour drive, but they're open until eight o'clock, so we've got plenty of time. We can stop and have dinner on the way back."
Sean was touched by the suggestion and delighted at the chance to spend more time with Elijah. "I'd be honored to pay my respects to your grandfather. It's something I hoped I might get a chance to do. So yes, I'd love to do that."
"Great!" Elijah's smile was brighter than the sun. "Let's pay for our coffee and get going, okay? We can stop and buy some flowers on the way."
They spent the two-hour drive getting to know each other better, and with every mile that passed Sean understood more clearly the meaning of his premonition. It wasn't to discover the identity of E.W. It wasn't to learn what he and Ephraim had been to each other. It was to meet Elijah. The 'other' Elijah. Thank you, Ephraim, he thought more than once, as he listened to Elijah's laughter or simply drank in his beauty as they drove.
They were heading west into the setting sun, but to Sean it was like the dawning of a new day.
It was still light when they reached the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, but the sun was low in the sky and it was growing chill. The cemetery was set on a windswept green hill dotted with trees ablaze in autumn color. Elijah drove slowly through the grounds past row after row of graves until at last he stopped and parked the car.
He led Sean to a plain gray granite headstone with a cross at the top, identical to all the others in the cemetery. Engraved upon it were the words:
Elijah Z. Wood
World War II
March 15, 1920
November 10, 2009
Beloved Husband and Father
Sean bowed his head, crossed himself, and murmured a prayer for the brave soldier who had touched so many lives, even after his death. Meanwhile Elijah knelt and gently laid one of the bouquets that they had brought at the base of the stone, and the second on the grave of his grandmother that stood beside it.
"There always used to be red roses on Granddad's grave," he said. "I asked about it and they said that someone came every week and brought a fresh bouquet, even in the winter." He looked up at Sean, an arrested expression on his face. "Sean, I just realized something. The flowers stopped in July."
"After Ephraim died?"
Elijah nodded and climbed to his feet, brushing off the knees of his jeans. "It must have been him," he said in an awed voice.
"He probably made arrangements with a local florist."
"Do you think he might also have come himself sometimes?"
"I don't know, Elijah. But perhaps some things are meant to remain a mystery." Privately Sean felt certain that he had, and the image that came into his mind then, of the elderly Ephraim standing in front of this same grave with a bouquet of red roses in his hand, was so poignant that his throat closed tight.
Suddenly a hand slipped into his, gripped it. "Maybe you're right, Sean, but I'm glad that at least one mystery was solved, the mystery of Granddad's photo that you found." Elijah's fingers tightened. "Because it led you here."
"We'll have to visit Ephraim's grave when you come to Los Angeles," Sean said, and turned to face Elijah.
It was nearly dark now, but Elijah's eyes caught what light was left and held Sean spellbound once more. "Elijah," he breathed. Obeying an impulse that seemed almost to come from outside him, he cupped the back of Elijah's head with his free hand and drew him slowly until their lips met in a kiss. The strangest sensation came over him then, as if he were merely the vessel for another's actions. It was unsettling but irresistible, and it shook him to his soul.
"Ephraim," Elijah murmured against Sean's mouth, and then realizing what he'd said, his eyes went wide and he jerked his head back. "Whoa. That was weird. Sean, did you-?"
"Sense another presence?" Sean said in a shaky voice. "Yeah, I did."
Elijah stared at him, wide-eyed as an owl. "Do you - do you think it was them?"
"Who else could it be?"
"Wow." Elijah was silent for a minute, absorbing what had happened. Then he said, "I sure hope that's not going to happen every time we kiss."
He sounded alarmed, and Sean laughed, the release of tension making him almost giddy. "We can put it to the test," he said, drawing Elijah close again. And this time when they kissed he sensed no other presence. It was only him and his Elijah, lips parting soft and warm beneath Sean's.
Sean realized it was true. The Elijah Wood who had led him to this place and time was no longer his; E.W. belonged, had always belonged, to Ephraim Pearce.
And that was okay, because the journey had ended with him discovering an Elijah Wood of his very own.