This short story appears in my new collection entitled Strange Hwy: Short Stories. It’s the story of a young man dealing with a heavy burden he’s carried for more than thirty years.
When We Were Kids
It’s the third time in a month that I’ve seen you cutting grass or jogging or playing in that park where we hung out when we were kids. You were always on the baseball diamond—even now. I suppose it has something to do with the uniforms. The colors are always different, but the style hasn’t changed in thirty-odd years.
Dana Rickleman still talks about you whenever I run into her at the Winn-Dixie. Well, she’s not Dana Rickleman these days. Neither is she hot anymore. She married Donnie Soba fifteen years or so ago, had a kid, put on more than a few pounds, and ended up deciding she’s a lesbian. But maybe we already knew that way back when. Remember how she used to say Becky Fordham was enough to turn her?
Speaking of Becky, her younger brother Todd is gone. He went to Iraq during the Gulf War and never came back. He stepped on the wrong spot and left nothing behind but his dog tags. Becky turned into a boozehound after that one. Last I heard, she’d been in and out of Burnside Psychiatric Hospital.
The old neighborhood has completely changed. You wouldn’t recognize it now. All those families we knew back then no longer live there. Kids grew up and went off to college, got married, chased careers out of state. Parents became grandparents, got old, retired, moved to Florida, and died. I drove through there a few months ago. Not a single familiar face among those I saw. Our old house is long gone. The family that bought it from Mom and Dad, after I moved out, lost it to fire. They rebuilt on the lot, but the house looks nothing like the original. And there are trees where there weren’t any before. Crazy how that works, huh?
I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m rambling. I don’t mean to. I’ve had a lot on my mind since, well, you know. I still struggle with things, Adam. It’s always there in the front part of my mind, where it often blocks out my view of the world around me. I think that’s why Mallory and I got a divorce. She saw those issues, tried to help me, but in the end, she just had to let it all go. It’s not her fault. Even Mom says she’s surprised Mallory didn’t leave me a lot sooner—and you know how Mom was always my biggest cheerleader.
I won’t lie to you. I’ve thought about it more times than I dare count. It’s usually when I’m driving alone, just as the sun dips below the horizon, taking the sky from pink to orange to purple, and that day smacks me in the face all over again, the pain growing only stronger with the passing of time. The way I’d do it, I’d aim my car at some far away tree, mash the gas pedal to the floor, race toward it, and be done. But then I’d hear your annoying voice calling me a selfish little prick—the way you always did when we were kids.
When we were kids . . .
There’s so much hurt wrapped around those four simple words.
When we were kids, we dreamed of playing Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Braves.
When we were kids, the only thing important to us was being able to stay outside for an hour or two after the streetlights came on.
When we were kids, we went everywhere on our bikes—and we never got tired of it.
Speaking of bikes, do you remember that time we decided we were going to train for the Tour de France? We spent that entire summer riding all over hell’s half acre, thinking that’s all it took to win that stupid race. In your version, you and I would finish in first and second place. Of course, our versions differed as to which finished where. In my head, I was always the victor. And the prize money, well, that was spent a thousand different ways. Always on something foolish or needless—it would mostly be squandered on selfish desires. Mom would rein us in by taking charge of our fabled earnings. Into the bank, it would have to go. After all, we had college to think about.
I worry about Mom since Dad died. It’s not that I doubt her ability to carry on and live a productive life; she’s done that well enough in the three years since. It’s that profound sadness that envelops her when a birthday or anniversary or an old TV show worm their way into her cocoon, threatening to pull her out before she’s good and ready to deal with life as a changed species. She went out to dinner with Mr. Griffith from the church once—but that felt too much like adultery, essentially killing any notion of date number two. I just don’t want her to be miserable. It’s just her and me now, from our nuclear family. You always hated that term. You used to say it made you think that families could explode, taking entire cities with them. There’d be a mushroom cloud over our town—and it would mostly be Dad.
I miss his yelling about this and that.
Okay. So, here’s the thing: I’ve never told anybody about that day. I never even told Mallory—and I told her a ton of major important things. I just can’t seem to make myself speak those words out loud. But I have to. It’s wrecking me, brother.
It was an accident. I swear on it.
I’m the one who locked you in the shed that day.
The day you died.
I did it. It was supposed to be a joke—a prank. I padlocked the door, expecting you to pitch a fit at being locked in. I’d leave you in there for a few minutes before letting you out. Then you’d sock me in the shoulder, and we’d have a laugh about it. But Donnie Soba showed up with a pocketful of fire crackers. I didn’t mean to leave you in the shed. I meant to unlock the door. I got sidetracked.
I didn’t know it could get so hot inside there.
I swear on it, Adam.
It was Dad who found you. He’d called the police after you failed to come inside once the street lights came on. He stomped around the living room, threatening to ground you for a hundred years, every so often yelling your name out into the night. Once Carson came on, the police were called. They drove the neighborhood, spotlights trained in the dark corners, searching for a wayward boy. I don’t know what it was that made Dad go out to the shed. It didn’t occur to me until he grabbed the key for the lock.
“I killed you, Adam.” There. I said it out loud.
It doesn’t make it easier.
I’m not just a killer. I’m the guy who killed his own brother.
I need to hear your voice, Adam. I need to know your thoughts on my transgression. Where are you? What do you see? What do you know? Have you been watching these thirty-odd years? Is everything I tell you already known?
Have you seen God?
Does He hate me?
Sometimes it’s like coming down with a cold. My body aches, my head throbs, and I can’t bring myself to get out of bed. It’s as if joy ceased to exist when you left. But I know that’s not true. Other people still experience joy and happiness and laughter. I’ve heard it. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. I’ve just never grabbed hold of it for myself—no matter how hard I try.
There really is no need for you to worry. Notions of wrapping my car around a tree are greatly exaggerated. I can’t do that to Mom. Neither can I put myself in front of God before my proper ending. For all I know, I’ll have to continue on well past the century mark, carrying the years as a burden.
Can you put in a word for me—the way you did when we were kids?
But would a simple word really count for anything?
I’m the reason you died, Adam.
Please forgive me.
Maybe it’s desperation that has me hearing your voice.
“Let it go, twerp.”
It comes audibly to me, as if you’re standing right beside me, speaking it directly into my ear.
My left ear.
“Is that you, Adam?” I ask it aloud, hoping for more.
But there’s nothing else.
“Tell me again—just once more.”
I think of Mom. Of telling her. Of unburdening my soul.
I won’t, though. I cannot.
It’s you I needed to tell.
It was always you.
And tonight, you heard me.
Of that, I am certain.
My burden isn’t gone just yet, but it sure feels lighter.
“Thank you, Adam.”