The ball spiraled through the air, arcing beautifully through the cloudless autumn sky. Jason could see immediately that it would land far beyond his intended target. "Sorry!" he called out as the football crashed to the ground, bouncing and rolling even further. Samuel, the intended recipient of the throw, charged after it, laughing as the wind tangled his long brown hair. He raced to catch the ball, dodging hedges and piles of leaves as he struggled to get to it before it rolled into the street. Still running, he snagged it with both hands, sliding to a stop with several feet still between him and the hedges lining the curb
"Got it!" He yelled triumphantly. Thrusting his hand into the air, he brandished the ball like a trophy.
Jason laughed, shaking his head. "Nice!" He had to admit, for a six-year-old, Sam was pretty good at football. Jason looked up, shading his eyes against the sun as Sam hurled it back towards him. He barely had to move, the ball falling almost perfectly into his hands. He laughed again. "Good throw!" Grasping the ball, he signaled Sam to come join him. "How come you’re so good at football?" He called jokingly.
Sam trotted over beaming, face flushed with excitement. "Dad was a pro football player. I get it from him!"
Jason's smile faded. "Who told you that?"
"Mom did. She said that I can play in the NFL like dad did!"
Jason shook his head. Eventually, Sam was going to begin to question his mother’s stories. And well he should, because not a one was the truth. It was as though she was trying to fabricate for Sam a father to look up to. And honestly? Jason was okay with that; because Sam deserved a good father, even if he only ever knew him through his mother’s stories. Say what you would about their mother, she was the kindest woman Jason had ever met. She was not beautiful in a traditional sense, rather she carried a quieter beauty. The kind that came from being trapped beneath mountains of pain and suffering, yet surviving just the same. He loved her, he truly did. After his father had made his choice, his mother was all he had left. So, of course, he loved her. He would do anything for her when it came down to it; He loved her almost as much as he loved Sam.
So he let her tell her stories. Because it was better that Sam grow up believing lies about their father than know the truth. “I bet you could, buddy.” He said at last.
Sam’s smile turned wistful. “Jase…” He began. “Do you think that if I do make it to the NFL…” He stopped again, sadness, longing, and desperation flooding his expression. “Do you think dad would come and watch me?”
Regret wrenched his gut. “Sam…” He paused, thinking how to respond. At last, he scoffed, leaping to his feet, brushing dead leaves from his pants. He wrapped his arm around his little brother and pulled him towards him. “Who needs dad?” He grinned and ruffled Sam’s hair. “All we need is the two of us. Just me and you.”
Sam stood still, resisting his brother’s attempt to move him, torn between wanting to argue and the fierce loyalty he held to his brother. At last, he allowed himself to be pulled along. A sad smile worked its way across his lips. “Just me and you.” He echoed softly, sadness and longing filling his eyes.
Jason’s gaze rolled about swiftly, searching for something to change the subject; he hated whenever Sam was unhappy. His eyes flicked towards the row of hedges hiding the street from view. They lined the grass on the edge of the park, providing a windbreak from the autumn breezes, solid but for a few thin, planned gaps every twenty feet or so. Their house lay just beyond them, on the other side of the road. An idea slid into his head, yet he hesitated before voicing it. It wasn’t too far, he could probably run all the way there without his asthma going crazy. He wanted to cheer Sam up, but he didn’t want to have an asthma attack doing it. The hell with it. “Sam?” he asked suddenly, a challenge in his tone. “Do you think you’re fast?”
Sam looked up, puzzled, “What?”
Without answering, Jason threw himself forward, sprinting towards the street, aiming for the gap in the tall bushes. “Race you home!” He called over his shoulder, laughing wildly. He glanced behind him, relieved to see Sam barrelling after him. “Too slow!” He taunted, still running. He chuckled as Sam fell far behind despite the fierce look of determination contorting his face. Jason’s breath began to come in wheezes, then gasps. Shit. It was getting worse with every step. At last, he couldn’t run anymore. Slowing as he reached the line of bushes, he came to a complete stop just before them. His heart pounded viciously, bruising the inside of his chest as he struggled to draw in a breath. Bending over his knees, he coughed, resisting the urge to gag. He wished his lungs would just do their job and let him breathe. Honestly.
After a brief moment, he straightened up, arms above his head, waiting for Sam to catch up to him. Hearing his little brother’s harsh breathing, he looked back, expecting to see him slowing to a stop, pouting in defeat. And yet, if anything, he seemed to be speeding up. He made eye contact with Jason as he bulleted past, holding his gaze as though to make certain that Jason saw the light of victory shining in his eyes. “You said the house!” He howled, loving the rush of pride as he hurtled past his brother. Sam flipped his long hair out of his eyes, bounding towards the imagined finish line, laughing in exultation as he reached the edge of the grass.
Jason rolled his eyes at his little brother’s antics, following him towards the road. He had said they were racing home. He closed his eyes, smiling as he listened to Sam’s joyful cries; hearing his running feet pounding out a rhythm as he neared the road. He hadn’t been this happy in a long time. Sam had that effect on him; he was just that kind of kid. He always saw the good in everything; always saw the silver lining. Where others saw cold, wet snow, Sam saw building material. Where others saw a ragged stray cat, Sam saw a potential new friend. This friendliness towards homeless cats had landed him in trouble on more than several occasions; their mother was severely allergic to cat hair and had not taken kindly to Sam bringing home flea-bitten cats he had met in the street.
Despite the fondness of the memories crossing through Jason’s mind, a queasy feeling roiled in his stomach, uneasiness making the hair on the back of his neck rise as shivers rocketed up and down his spine. Dread crashed over him and he knew that something was about to happen. Something awful. He could feel it. It roared in his ears, urging him to do something, anything. Yet he could do nothing but watch his whole world shatter into pieces.
There was nothing he could have done. There was no way he could have stopped it. No way he could have done anything differently. That was what they told him anyway. He was too far away. There was no way he could have seen the car. No way he could have pushed Sam out of the way. There was nothing he could have done.
Jason’s strangled scream burst forth for but a single moment before it was drowned by the desperate squeal of brakes. Drowned by the sickening sound of a life being crushed. Too stunned to cry, Jason threw himself forward. Football forgotten, asthma forgotten, everything forgotten; he needed to find Sam. There was no doubt in his mind that Sam had somehow miraculously survived. He had to be alive. Because if he wasn’t… No. Stop. He’s fine. He silently railed at himself to shut up; Don't be stupid, of course he’s ok. Of course Sam was fine. He had to be. His eyes raked the pavement, searching for his brother. If he tried hard enough, he could almost pretend that the violent crimson splatters weren't there. That his little brother’s life wasn’t scattered about in so many scarlet puddles.
The driver of the silver minivan looked as shocked and terrified as Jason felt. Her hands were clenched desperately around the wheel, knuckles white and bloodless. Jason couldn’t see anything, tears blurring his vision. He swiped at his eyes, brushing the tears away only to make room for more and more as they spilled from his sockets in endless waves. He stumbled towards the wreck, his feet forcing him to approach the battered and broken body of his baby brother. Sam rested impossibly far from the now stained minivan. His arms lay under him, legs and neck twisted in unnatural ways as his joints bent into angles in which they had never been meant to. He sank to his knees, blood soaking his jeans, as his brain accepted the truth even as his soul screamed that it was untrue. His hand reached out of its own accord, gently ruffling his brother’s thick brown hair. “Please,” he whispered. “Please come back.” He swallowed painfully, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat. The lump that made it hard to breathe, hard to talk, hard to do anything. “I need you. I… I…” He sobbed uncontrollably, “Please!” He gathered his little brother in his arms, rocking back and forth gently as he used to when Sam was a baby and wouldn’t stop crying. Police sirens wailed in sorrow as they approached, mingling with those of an ambulance. Together, they combined into a macabre funeral dirge; they made it real and final. They made it seem less a dream and more a waking nightmare.
Jason didn’t glance up as a shoe scuffed the pavement behind him. “I'm sorry! I’m so sorry!” He didn't respond as the woman from the car collapsed beside him. “I didn't see him! He just jumped out in front of me, I… I… I killed him.” She rambled desperately, needing to express the guilt churning inside. “I… I killed him. He’s dead and it’s my fault.” Hysteria spread across her face, rising in her voice. Tears began rolling down her face. “I killed a child. I killed him.” Jason said nothing. He didn’t acknowledge her presence, didn't hear a word she said, so consumed by grief and pain that he could see nothing but the dead boy in front of him.
He did not resist as the paramedic gently removed Samuel from his lap and wrapped him in a sheet. He did not resist as they led him to an ambulance and draped a blanket over his shoulders. Instead, he was still. He was shattered, perhaps irreparably, lost in the terrors of his own mind. Forever replaying his brother’s final moments; forever wondering what he could have done to change them.
Still in shock, Jason allowed himself to be led to the front door of the trailer he lived in. The officer guiding him knocked once, softly. When he received no answer, he knocked again, firmly this time. Still no answer. He turned to Jason, “Son?” he asked. “Are you sure your ma’s home?” Jason looked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment before nodding slightly. The officer sighed in pity, turning to knock once more.
At last, the door swung open, revealing his mother’s scowling face. “Officer.” She said sweetly, her whole demeanor changing in an instant. “What can I do for you?”
The officer had removed his cap as soon as the door opened and now stood twisting it in his hands, eyes flicking between the ground and the woman’s face. “I don’t quite know how to tell you this, ma’am.” he began. “But there’s been an accident.”
Puzzled, she looked from Jason to the lights flashing across the tops of the patrol cars sectioning off the road. Her eyes moved along the road, pausing for a moment when she came to the stalled minivan surrounded by splashes of red. The blood fled from her face and she steadied herself on the doorframe. She hesitated, needing to ask a question, yet terrified of the answer; she had realized that Sam was nowhere to be seen. “Jason?” She asked softly. “Where is your brother?” Jason slowly raised his head, looking her in the eyes, showing the pain and guilt churning inside of him. “I see,” she said sorrowfully, as though this was a thing she had long known was coming. Devastation settled about her heart, yet it was only visible for a moment before it was gone, hidden away deep inside herself. She didn’t cry, not because it didn't hurt, but because she wouldn’t be able to stop once she started. “Go inside, Jason.”
Jason shuffled through the door. His mother quickly pulled it towards her. The last thing he heard before the latch shut was the police officer saying, “-No way he could have survived, ma’am. If it’s any consolation, he didn’t feel a th-” Jason sprinted to his room, unable to stand to hear any more. No more tears fell, he was numb. He barely made it to his room before he collapsed, falling onto his bed. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force himself to fall asleep, if only to offer an escape from this pain and emptiness. Yet, tired though he was, his thoughts wouldn’t let him sleep. He lay there for what seemed like hours. The voices of his tortured childhood returned, though he had thought them gone, taunting and accusing. It’s all your fault! they screeched. He would still be here if you didn’t make him run into the street! He was too weary to even try to fight the words they said. So he listened, broken and empty, accepting what they said as truth, welcoming the abuse. After all, he deserved it. With the voices, he could feel the old urge returning. The one he had tried so hard to repress for all these years. He tried to ignore it, but the voices wouldn’t let him. Your brother lost so much blood... it’s only right that you bleed too, they reasoned.
“No...” He mumbled aloud. “I promised.”
The voices scoffed, jeering and laughing. It doesn't matter anymore, they said cruelly. He's dead. They laughed wildly, he's dead and it's your fault. Callused laughter rang in his head, making it pound violently. Bile rose in his throat from the truth of their words. Their accusations slugged him in stomach, over and over again. He hunched over miserably; they were right, he thought. They always were. He slid the sleeves of his shirt up above his elbow and flipped his arm over, running his fingers along the masses of old scars. They were faded, for the most part, none of them recent. He had stopped after the first time that Sam had asked him what they were from; he had to. He had to be someone that Sam looked up to, someone he could learn from. And Jason had sworn that he would never cut again, for Sam. He had made a promise to himself that Sam would never know the truth about why their father was no longer with them; that he would grow up unaffected by their father’s choices, and unaffected by Jason’s choices.
Jason shook his head, trying to get his father’s ghost out of his head. His breath coming faster now, he reached into the end table, flailing his hand blindly until he found the disposable razor he used to shave. He peeled the metal ring off of one side, freeing the blades. Slipping one from the head of the razor, he held it between his forefinger and thumb, staring at it; held mesmerized by the way it gleamed in the lonely light trickling in through the drawn shades.
He squeezed his eyes shut as his father’s shadow called out to him. Trying and failing to force it away, he clenched his teeth as terror flashed through him, dragging him down to the darkest part of his mind. They forced him there, the voices. They cackled as they forced him to relive that day. The day that he blamed himself for, even now, years after it had happened. He could never truly rid the images from his mind. The gun. The blood that was spread on the wall, soaking the sheets. The lifeless creature that had been his father lying on the bedspread; one hand still curled around the grip of his pistol, the other desperately clutching a single sheet of paper. Two paragraphs the only explanation his family would ever have.
Pain seared through him, burning away the vision of his past. He looked down, surprised; his hand had moved of its own accord, had drawn the razor across the inside of his wrist. Amazed, he watched as blood began to flow, tracing a crimson path down towards his fingertips where it lingered for an endless moment before gravity forced it to the floor. With the blood came relief. The pain pushed the voices from his mind, clearing his head and silencing the memory of his father. But only for a moment. As quickly as they had left, they returned, worse than before. So he cut again. And again. Over and over until there was no more skin, only a mixed crossing of savage gashes and bleeding wounds. But he couldn’t stop, not now. His head spun, the voices laughing derisively as he desperately tried to drive them away for good. You thought it would be that easy? No, no, no. They grew crafty. You can be with them, you know; you can join them. Jason knew what they meant. It’d be easy. Don't pretend you haven't thought about it. A scene played behind his eyes: himself hanging in his closet, purple and lifeless, yet a look of peace bathing his face. A belt was looped around his neck, suspending him above the carpet, crimson tears leaking from the red gashes covering his arm. Jason squeezed his eyes shut, trying to find a single reason to even try and fight the idea. He squeezed his eyes shut, wondering why he couldn't find one.
Tossing the razor blade aside, he stood. Moving swiftly, he took two steps and threw open his closet door. Grabbing his belt from where it hung, his hands scraped across the worn leather. It was odd, he thought, how such a simple thing could be used to do something like this. Yet suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. What about his mother? He couldn't do this to her. Couldn't leave her alone. Why not? The voices sneered. You won't be around to care; you'll be gone. Guilt and longing clashed in his chest. Yet hope was there too. Maybe, he would finally be free. Maybe, he would finally be at peace. His heart was broken and he was torn in two. His love for his mother fought with the voices in his head... and lost. His decision made, he stepped forward. His hands shook, the buckle rattling.
“Jason.” His mother’s voice was soft. Broken. She stood frozen in the doorway, her eyes taking in the blood still dripping from his hand. “Please don't do this.” She whispered. She knew why he held the belt.
Jason didn’t turn around. “Mom, I- I- just...” he couldn't finish his sentence. His heart was shattered and he had no will to glue it back together; it was easier just to throw it all away. Tears filled his voice, but none fell from his eyes. “I just… I want to be done.” He stopped, holding back a sob. “I want Sam back, I want dad back, I want… I just… I don't want to want anymore.”
She started to step forward, then stopped. “I know, baby, I know.” She hesitated, “I get it, I truly do.” Terrible longing filled her voice, “You have no idea how many times I've wrapped a rope around my neck and longed for death to take me. No idea how many times I've stood in front of a mirror, gun pressed to my temple, trying to find a reason not to pull the trigger.”
Jason stood motionless, silent for a long moment. “Why didn't you?” He whispered, his voice all but inaudible.
“I- I- I wanted to, so bad that it hurt. But then… then I thought of you, and Sam and…” her breath hitched. “I could never leave you, baby.” Her voice was ragged, tears hidden in every syllable. “Look at me, Jason. Look at me, baby.” Slowly, ever so slowly, he turned, putting his back to the closet. The belt was still gripped in his hands, a lifeline that he refused to let go off. “I lived for you. And for Sam. Now, I am asking you. Please-”
“Mom don’t!” Jason begged, his voice small and pitiful. “Don’t ask that! Don't make me stay here!”
Tears streamed down her face, yet her voice rang with steel. “I can’t let you go; I need you. Your father left us and God took Sam, but I will keep you, no matter what it takes.” Her lips trembled and her cheeks shone with tears. Exhaustion hunched Jason's shoulders and made his face haggard and drawn. His eyes darkened with pain as he fought his demons. He groaned, clutching his head in his hands. There was a brutal war waging inside, and he was losing.
His mother stepped close. Her face still gleamed with wetness, yet she held her head high. Proud. Defiant. “Sam is still with us, baby. And he always will be. You'll see him again one day, but not yet. Not yet, angel.” A sob shook her shoulders, but she refused to acknowledge it. “Not yet.” Sorrow blurred her vision, "Please," she whispered softly, her voice a murmur. “Please.” At last, she stepped back, knowing there was nothing more she could do. “Please.” She repeated once more, hopelessly.
That one word spanned a lifetime. It was one of those moments that swallow you whole, consuming everything you are, becoming the only thing you can think about or see; yet as soon as it ends, you can never remember if it ever actually happened, or if it was just imagined; if it was just a dream.
She held her breath, time standing still as she waited for Jason to make his choice, just as his father had once done. Her gaze was fixed on his bloodless knuckles, his fingers clutching the smooth leather, desperately praying his choice would not be the same. All at once, she saw his face still, his inner conflict finished and the victor decided; the tension rushed from his body, leaving his shoulders slack and hunched. His eyelids stayed closed, his eyes unmoving behind them. Then the pools of tears welling in her eyes began to spill over as she watched the hands holding the belt clench, then loosen. She watched as the leather slipped from his hands. She watched as it dropped. Endlessly. Forever. Crashing to the floor. And suddenly, the spell was broken. Relief and joy hurtled through her, and for the first time in years, hope was within reach. For though the road ahead remained dark and broken, she would never have to struggle it alone. Someone had once said: “Everything is a choice.” And just as his father before him, Jason had made his.