This is the song . . . la la la-la . . . Elmo’s song. . . .
The bright light burned Steve’s eyelids. It was hot. Really hot.
Not right. Ice was cold. Was supposed to be cold. And gray. Cold-gray.
Only it wasn’t.
Daring to open his eyes, he had to blink three times before he believed what he beheld.
The powder-white sand glistened beneath the brilliant sunshine, the turquoise water glimmering before him, waves lapping lazily at the shore, leaving a trail as foamy as the head of an egg cream. He was sitting up in his wheelchair, but not on the pool terrace. Closer. Much closer. He was parked in the sand itself, mere feet from the shore. Looking down in his lap, he found his sketchpad, but his seascape drawing was barely begun. Compelled to finish, he searched his lap and the table nearby, but there were no pencils.
“It is beautiful, is it not?”
The question startled him because he had been sure he was alone. Turning cautiously, he saw a colorful beach chair about three feet to his right, its occupant gazing towards the horizon, sipping leisurely from a small, simple glass. The neon board shorts and baseball cap threw him for a second, but on closer inspection he recognized his companion.
“Hello, Steven.” Erskine turned and raised the glass towards Steve, nodding.
Steve took a deep breath, preparing himself. “Am I dead?”
“Dead? What an odd question. That would make me dead as well, wouldn’t it?”
“You are dead.”
Erskine looked to ponder that for a moment before shrugging. “Oh? In that case, perhaps not such an odd question.”
Steve looked around, finding nothing but beauty on all sides. If this was the afterlife, it wasn’t too bad. Sure beat cold-gray ice. Still, he felt anxious. Uncomfortable. “I’m not finished,” he heard himself say, though he didn’t remember formulating the words. He looked down at the incomplete sketch on his lap.
“How do you hope to finish in that chair with no pencils?”
Steve had no answer, wondering if he was again trapped, frozen, unable to move. He was relieved when his hand followed his simple direction, reaching to wipe the sweat from his brow then dragging over his saturated tee shirt. “Sure is hot. Very hot.”
“Is it?” Erskine turned back towards the ocean, sipping from his glass, as if Steve were no longer there. The heat didn’t look to be bothering him at all.
“You’re angry at me, aren’t you?”
“You’re a disappointment, Stevie. Always have been.”
That wasn’t Dr. Erskine’s voice. Steve knew that voice. He recognized it now; recognized the face glaring at him when he turned to his left as well. “What are you doing here, Dad?”
“You think I want to be here?” His father wasn’t dressed in beach attire like Dr. Erskine. He wore his blue work pants and a stained, gray button-down shirt. Steve studied his scrabbled face, trying to see past the hard features and the five o’clock shadow to a time his mother might have found this man attractive; a time when maybe this man might have been happy.
“So, I am dead. What do you represent? Hell?”
“Watch your smart mouth, kid.”
“Or what? You gonna hit me? Take your best shot.”
“Steven, you need to focus,” Dr. Erskine cautioned. “Where are your pencils?”
La la la-la, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .
“Um, in the suite, I think. In the villa.” Steve turned quickly over his shoulder, seeing a beautiful villa, but it was in the distance. The far distance.
“Still scribbling on paper, huh?” his dad asked, looking at his pad. “Is that what you do all day? Sit in a cripple’s chair and doodle? What a life.”
“I don’t remember this chair, Steven.” Dr. Erskine was pointing at him, confused.
“I’ve been sick, Doctor.” Steve looked down, shamefaced. “I’ve ruined your serum. It’s gone.”
“Nothing lasts forever, Steven. But tell me, where are your pencils?”
“My pencils?” Steve remembered the sketch. Not wanting to disappoint Dr. Erskine again, he resolved to find his pencils no matter what it took. Setting the sketchpad down on the table beside him, he held tight to the arms of the chair to pull himself up and stand. He waited to fall, or to get dizzy, or need to vomit, but the only thing that happened was his father laughed.
“Sittin’ on your lazy rump so long you forgot how to stand?”
“Why do you hate me?”
“You don’t get to know that,” his father answered with a sneer.
“Doesn’t matter.” Steve had to focus. He took three steps, enjoying the feel of the sand between his toes. He had wanted to walk on this beach for so long. Only, he hadn’t pictured doing it alone. He had wanted to do it with—Tony.
“Where’s Tony?” he asked, panicking when he couldn’t see Tony anywhere.
“The machine is broken, Steven. Mr. Stark cannot use the vita-rays anymore.”
“Not Howard. Tony. Tony Stark.”
“Mr. Stark?” Erskine asked. “A brilliant man, yes.”
“Smart enough to recognize a loser. Look at you.”
Steve looked down, gasping. He was short and thin, the clothes Tony had bought for him hanging comically from his pathetic frame, like a little kid dressed in his dad’s pants.
La la la, la la la laaaa. La la la, la la la laaaa. . . .
“I’m sorry, Dr. Erskine. Sorry I failed you.”
“Me? What are you talking about, Steven?”
“Your serum. I was the only one. Now it’s lost. I went down in the ice. I thought that was it, but . . . but there was more. More in the ice. In the cold-gray. Didn’t want to remember the ice. Being there. Maybe if I’d had the guts to remember sooner, the Asgardian drug wouldn’t have tried to fix me. I don’t know. I don’t understand most of this.” He pointed to his father who was laughing again. “I don’t know why he’s here.”
“I’m always there, kid. You think you can get rid of me?”
“So, you don’t plan to look for your pencils, Steven?” Dr. Erskine sighed and tsked.
“My pencils? Why? Why does that matter?”
“Because you’re not finished.”
“Oh, Stevie’s finished, all right. Sissy boy’s going to go crying to his mommy now.”
Steve exploded, a level of rage he’d never experienced charring his insides, seeking to rupture. Hot. So hot. He’d never felt this hot. “You don’t get to talk about my mother! Not ever!”
“Steven, that is the wrong color,” Dr. Erskine stated with calm certainty. He was holding Steve’s pad and shaking his head. “You need to try again. Find the right color.”
Steve unclenched his white-knuckled fists, looking past his father’s belittling glare towards the picture in Dr. Erskine’s hand, seeing that the ocean and the sand were colored gray. Cold-gray. “That’s wrong. Look at them. They’re beautiful. Why did I do that?”
“You need the right pencils.”
Steve pointed at the villa, squinting to see it in the distance. “I have to go back there for the pencils. Too far.”
“Nobody wants you there, Stevie. You can’t go back. Look at yourself.”
La la la, la la la laaaa. La la la, la la la laaaa. . . .
Steve could feel himself getting smaller. The sleeves of his shirt were heavy. Couldn’t lift his arms. His pants were sagging around his legs, making walking impossible. He was stuck in the sand. Like ice, only hotter.
“Did you keep your promise, Steven?” Dr. Erskine asked.
“You don’t remember your promise to me?”
Dr. Erskine was standing now; standing directly in front of Steve, his index finger pointing, tapping the center of Steve’s chest twice. Steve had to think. Think.
“To stay who I am. Not a perfect soldier . . . but a good man.”
“Did you keep your promise, Steven?”
Steve searched fragments of memories swirling through his mind, like a broken puzzle scattered to the wind. He couldn’t connect enough pieces to form a positive answer, but his heart calmed in his chest, no longer beating rapidly. Trusting his heart, he nodded. “I think I did, sir.”
Erskine smiled at him. A kind smile. A proud smile. Adjusting his glasses to sit straight on his nose, he nodded as he stepped backwards, sagging into his chair, eyes closing.
Steve ached, not wanting him to go. “No. Wait. Please come back. I need to talk to you. I need to understand.”
“You gonna cry now, mama’s boy?”
“Yeah, maybe I am,” Steve responded, not ashamed. “Dr. Erskine was worth crying over. He was worth ten of you, for sure.”
“Don’t dawdle, Stevie. The doctor asked you to find your pencils.”
Steve’s head swung around at the familiar voice. “Mom?”
His mother stood close to the shore, the waves lapping over her bare feet. She wore a pretty blue dress that Steve had never seen. There was no apron. No blood. Her hair was free, riding the gentle breeze, tossing this way and that, and she didn’t bother to try to pat it back down, or primp it into place. “Don’t be forgetful, Stevie. The doctor asked you to find your pencils. Do as you’re told.”
“I don’t care about pencils. I want to stay with you.” He ached to embrace her, to move closer, to feel her, to smell her, but he was stuck. The heavy clothing was weighing him down and making him hot. So hot. “Please come closer.”
“The water is beautiful today.” She swished her foot, making playful circles in the water with her toes. She was holding up the edges of her dress to keep it from getting wet. “Do you remember when we went to Coney Island for your birthday when you were twelve?”
The memory was vivid for Steve. His mother fell ill not long after, needing her limited energy to fight through every day, none left over for excursions. “Yes, you took us. The three of us. Me and Bucky rode the Cyclone.”
“Bucky and I,” she corrected.
“Right. Bucky and I. And it was Bucky who talked me into riding the rollercoaster.”
“Not a good idea.” She shook her head.
“You still let me go.”
“Yes, I did. Had to let you go, my darling boy.”
He loves to sing, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .
“Puked like a little baby,” his dad taunted.
“You weren’t there.”
“I’m always there, kid.”
“Mom, am I dead? Is that what this is?”
“Dead? From riding a silly rollercoaster?” His mother smiled and shook her head. Again Steve tried to move closer to her, but his feet were frozen in sand.
“I don’t want to talk about rollercoasters.”
“This is a beautiful beach.” His mother shielded her eyes with one hand and looked up and down the shoreline. “Not crowded like Coney Island. Peaceful. Lovely. Did you draw the beach, Stevie?”
“Not finished,” he muttered, looking towards the table and the monochrome gray sketch. “I used the wrong color.” He hoped there would be lemonade on the table. He was real thirsty, his mouth as dry as the sand. Too hot. When he looked up again, the beach, the water, the sky, the sand, were all as gray as his sketch.
“I had to keep you safe, angel-mine,” his mother said sadly.
“I know.” Steve realized he was sitting in the gray sand now and it burned against his body. “I remember. You wrapped my arm real good and tight and tucked me on the couch until you finished packing. I was cold and tired and scared and I hurt. So afraid he would come back. Couldn’t sleep. Kept listening to you. You kept singing so I wouldn’t be scared, even though you had to be hurting and scared yourself. You cleaned the glass. The blood. Your hands. And then you packed. You put me in my warm clothes, even though it was summer, and then carried me in one arm and the suitcase in the other. I said I was a big boy and I could walk, but it was dark outside. Scary. I pressed my face into your shoulder and I could smell your hair. You walked all the way to the hospital. And after Dr. Morgan was finished setting my arm, you said we were ready to go.”
“Time to go, Stevie.”
“Time to go, Stevie,” he repeated. “But we never went back. All a bad dream. Every night you told me, before you sang to me in the new apartment. The small apartment that didn’t have any of your things in it. The one far away. Stevie had a bad dream. Fell off the couch and broke his arm. A bad dream. Eventually, it faded like a dream.”
“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie. Do I need to get the soap?”
“You lied, Mom.”
“Don’t talk to your mother like that!”
“She lied because of you,” Steve accused, glaring at his father.
“Stevie, we all make our choices,” his mother said sadly. “No excuses.”
Steve gasped as he saw his father walk toward the shore, coming up beside his mom. “Leave her alone!”
“He wasn’t always like this,” she said wistfully, her hand reaching out toward him as he hovered just out of her reach. Steve found the thought hard to believe, but she seemed sincere.
“Because of me, right? That’s why you were with him. Because you got pregnant. A mistake. I was your mistake.”
“A choice, Stevie. Always my choice. My angel baby. Sent from heaven just for me. From the first moment I felt you inside me, I knew. Seeing your beautiful face every day helps me more than you know. My precious Stevie. Did I ever let you go a day without feeling my love?”
Tears burned down Steve’s cheeks as he ached for her cherishing embrace. “You stayed with me, Mom. In the ice. In the cold-gray.”
“Thought you didn’t remember the ice?” his dad challenged. “That’s what you tell everyone.”
“Didn’t want to remember. Wish I didn’t remember the ice or you, either. But I remember Mom’s voice in the cold-gray. Couldn’t move. No heartbeat. No breath. But couldn’t sleep. Not in my head. The doors wouldn’t stop opening and closing. But Mom would talk and sing and I wasn’t alone in there. She helped me let go. After an endless time, I could finally let go and sleep, just like when I was a kid and the bad dreams came. Mom would help me sleep.”
“I never leave you, angel-mine.”
“I’m always there, kid.”
“Steven, your pencils,” Dr. Erskine’s voice called, but Steve couldn’t see him. His chair was empty. And the sketch pad was gone.
La la la-la, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .
“I have to finish, Mom.”
“You do, Stevie. But how?”
“Those damn little boy crayons of yours are too far for you, Stevie. Look how far away. They’ve moved on. Nobody wants you there. Look at yourself. Even your sissy uptown boyfriend can do better than a mess like you.”
Steve looked down at his small body tangled in clothes and buried in the sand. He didn’t like it much, but he wasn’t scared. He actually smiled. “I’m Tony’s mess. And he’s mine. Tony and my friends—my family—they don’t care about serum. I was the one worried. All I can be is Steven Rogers. Right, Mom?”
“Nothing shameful about that. Don’t be prideful, Stevie.”
“What’s to be proud of? Weak little runt is never going to amount to anything. Once a mama’s boy, always a mama’s boy.”
“I am my mama’s boy,” Steve declared proudly, able to stand up in the sand.
He wrote the music, he wrote the words. . . .
“The truth is the most important thing, Stevie. When you don’t tell the truth, it scars you inside.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“I was too prideful, Stevie. I never wanted you to see my flaws.”
“All heroes have flaws, Mom.”
Her smile was a wondrous thing. “I’m no hero, silly boy.”
“You’re my hero. Always.”
“I’m sorry for lying to you, angel-mine. Forgive me?”
Steve started, realizing his mother was standing directly behind him now. He turned slowly, afraid she would disappear. She wasn’t gray like everything else. Her hair shimmered with sunlight, her eyes reflecting the turquoise of the ocean. They were the eyes he woke to find watching over him in sickness, the eyes that smiled with pride over every little drawing he made, the same eyes that held forgiveness for him each and every time he had had to say sorry for doing something wrong. How did he forget how beautiful they were, or how they could make a sickly nothing of a boy feel ten feet tall when they shined with pride? “You can only be you, for better or worse. Right, Mom? Of course I forgive you.”
“One day you’ll come to forgive him, too.”
Tensing, Steve looked at his father, skulking near the shore, always there, and shook his head. “No, I won’t.”
Her gaze was as gentle and tough as she was. “Steven, he fought his own wars, same as we all do. He just wasn’t a very good soldier.”
He wanted to understand her words, but the images of his father as a monster were still too fresh in his mind and heart. Dr. Erskine had spoken to him about compassion the night before the serum, and Red Skull had tried to convince him he had left humanity behind, right before he plunged into the ice. His mother’s words must be reflecting those memories in his jumbled brain because surely this was not something she would truly ask of him. How could she ever forgive that man? How would she think he could?
“I won’t lie and say I can do what you ask, Mom.”
“For me, you’ll try, won’t you? Not now. When you’re ready?”
He couldn’t bring himself to deny her. “Of course.”
“You’re my good boy, Stevie. Be happy with the good man you’ve chosen. Your heart is your greatest gift.” She held up a pencil—a green pencil. He could see the color brightly against the background of gray. She extended the pencil toward him. “So you can finish.”
“My pencil,” Steve whispered, afraid to reach for it, afraid his arm wouldn’t work.
“What’s he going to do with one lousy pencil? Can’t make any kind of decent picture with one color.”
“This is not to finish,” his mother explained.
“To start,” Steve concluded.
“You’re so precious to me,” she began singing softly, her hands drawing closer, her cool fingers sliding over the flesh of his burning wrist, turning his hand upward as she placed the pencil in his palm. “Sweet as can be, baby of mine.”
That slight touch radiated throughout his body, both breaking his heart and soothing it. He could feel every bit of her in the brief contact, memory reawakened in a place nestled deep within. He tried to hold tight to the feeling even as he felt himself drifting, caught up in the cool ocean breeze. The heat burning his flesh welcomed the gentle touch of the crisp air. His skin was damp, like he’d been swimming, only he never went into the water. The water was too far. The breeze over his damp flesh sent a chill, but the warm light of the sun dried it.
He wrote the music . . . he wrote the words . . . that’s Elmo’s song. . . .