Short Story — “The Gatherers”

Clearly one of the themes in The Eye-Dancers is learning to cope with mystery, with things beyond the scope of our understanding.  Marc Kuslanski, in particular, feels the need to explain every irregularity, every new experience that lies beyond the purview of his knowledge.  How he ultimately learns to deal with this is his great dilemma (and opportunity for growth) in the novel.

The protagonist in “The Gatherers,” a short story I wrote shortly before beginning The Eye-Dancers, is faced with just such a dilemma when he spots a small group of people linking hands, standing in a circle.  On the surface, this does not seem particularly odd or out of the ordinary.  But there is more to the story . . .

I hope you enjoy “The Gatherers.”

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intersection

“The Gatherers”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

Christopher Burriss was frustrated.

He’d wanted to take a right-hand turn, head to the drug store, and buy the strongest over-the-counter pain medicine he could find. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had driven straight through the light, cursing and slamming his fist into the dashboard.

It wasn’t that the intersection had caught him by surprise, or came up more quickly than he anticipated. He just could not seem to make the turn. It was as if a force, an invisible presence, had locked the steering wheel in place.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said to the dust bunnies floating inside the car. He just wanted something to take. To dull the pain.

Yes. The pain. The flaring, mounting pain that had overtaken him without warning. He’d been driving . . . where? He couldn’t remember. Had he been shopping? Running an errand? Going to work? When, suddenly, his head began to throb, then to pound, as if someone had lobbed a grenade inside his skull and pulled the pin. And his side. His entire left side ached. A knifing, jabbing pain, spreading from his rib cage, up to his armpit and down to his hip.

He thought of turning around—the intersection, and the drug store, were still close behind. A driveway came up on the left, and he slowed down, signaled. Trailing him, a white Subaru, too close for comfort, waited for him to complete his turn.

But he couldn’t do it. The steering wheel wouldn’t budge. Was it stuck? Making sure that his foot was planted securely on the break pedal, he exerted more force, but still the wheel would not move. The car behind him honked its horn.

“Shut up!” he yelled back. “I’m trying! You think I’m doing this for fun?”

He pulled as hard as he could. Nothing. The driver behind him continued to beep, and now others joined in. A line of traffic was forming in his rearview mirror.

“Great. Just beautiful.” He pressed hard on the gas pedal, and sped forward. The Subaru followed, still closer than he liked.

The pressure in his head was unrelenting, and his side was a lit fuse. He didn’t think he could drive much longer. It was difficult just to stay in control of the vehicle, to keep it within the lines. He felt himself swerving into the wrong lane, toward oncoming traffic. The car behind him honked again, perhaps thinking he was drunk or falling asleep. He wished he were drunk. Anything to numb the pain.

He drove for miles. He wasn’t sure how he managed to, but he did, even as his condition became more serious. Houses, buildings, trees flew by him like mirages. He had no concept of time, of how long he’d been traveling. All he knew was that something else seemed to be in control. He had tried several times to pull over, onto the shoulder of the road, to let the traffic pass him. But he couldn’t. Maybe the wheel was stuck. Maybe it couldn’t be turned. But that was impossible. He had rounded a few curves, it had swiveled effortlessly then. It—

“Mom, Mom, why? . . .”

“Sssshh, honey. Be quiet. We just have to hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

“But, Mom. Why? Why won’t . . . ?”

The voices weren’t clear. But he recognized them. How could he not? Sharon, and Mollie. Why was he hearing them? They weren’t here. Sharon was at work, wasn’t she? And Mollie. Mollie would be in school. She had just started the second grade. She was excited, eager to get back to her school friends, looking forward to new adventures, new vistas.

Another sheet of pain flared and exploded along his nerve endings. Had someone taken a razor blade and sliced open his left side? He actually looked down, checking for blood, sure that he would see the beige fabric of the seat stained with red. But there was nothing. No hint of a wound, no evidence of an attack.

He felt the car swerve again, and he righted his course just in the nick of time. An 18-wheeler whined past, in the other lane, honking an accusatory horn at him.

“What is this?” he said. “What’s happening to me?” He needed to get control of himself, right now. If he kept this up, he would be a candidate for a soft-cushioned room with calming pastorals hanging from the walls.

An intersection was coming up. He didn’t know which one, but it didn’t matter. He was determined to turn off of this road. He’d had enough of it.

But when he saw the street sign, he reconsidered. Blakely Avenue. Unless he had a good reason otherwise, he avoided Blakely. It was a nightmare—a congested mess, a snarl of traffic jams, of hot metal, bumper-to-bumper, broiling in the midday sun, matched by the hot tempers of the motorists. Every week, there was an accident. Better to wait until the next intersection, and turn off there.

For some reason, though, he merged into the left-hand turn lane, and flicked on his signaler.

“No!” he said. “I’m going straight.” He tried to turn the signaler off, but it was stuck. He fought with the wheel, trying to force it to the right. It wouldn’t budge. It didn’t matter anyway. The lane next to him had filled with cars. He was trapped. He had to take the left turn now.

“This is unreal.”

The left-hand turn arrow flashed green, and he turned onto Blakely, merging into the extreme outside lane, past a gas station with a sign by the road boasting of fresh sub sandwiches and soft drinks inside. He swore under his breath. This was unreal. Ahead of him, through the maze of cars, he could see a long line of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and chain stores. And, coming up on the right, the mall. The largest mall in the city. He hated it, and yet . . .

A hammer blow to his head sent him reeling. He desperately needed some painkillers. The mall would have a drug store inside.

He inched along, crawling with the traffic, before stopping at a red light. The mall’s entrance was just ahead now. He signaled for a right-hand turn, and, intuitively, knew that the steering wheel would oblige this time. A chill ran through him, as if someone had just poured five gallons of ice water into a gaping wound. Now the water rushed through him, mixing with his blood, freezing him to the core. There was something about this spot. Something familiar. Something . . .

“Something what?” he said. There were two cars ahead of him. As luck would have it, the car in front was going straight, blocking his chance for a right-on-red.

Anxious, fidgety, having a hard time just sitting there, not being able to make sense of anything, he glanced toward a strip of grass that lay just beyond the sidewalk, in front of the mall parking lot, and spotted a small gathering of people—about a dozen of them. (Where had they come from? Had they been there a minute ago?) They were all looking down, hands joined. Solemn. That was the word. They were solemn. And they were . . . He blinked. Again. And again. That confirmed it. They weren’t all there. It sounded crazy, but that was the only way he could describe it. He was sure he could see the sun rays hitting them, traveling through them, as if they were composed more of air than of flesh-and-blood organic matter.

He felt inexplicably drawn to them, almost as if they exerted a force, compelling him to join them. But he didn’t want to. The idea of it was intolerable. He wasn’t sure why, but he was determined to resist. He would just go into the mall, buy his pills, then get out.

The light finally turned, and he drove past the people who were there, yet not there, and pulled into the mall parking lot. His head was getting worse, if that were possible, and the pain in his side was unrelenting.

He struggled out of the car, the world losing its focus as he stood up. He grabbed his side, doubled over, coughed. He was in even worse shape than he’d thought. If he wasn’t careful, he’d pass out right here, on the asphalt. He had to pull himself together, buy those painkillers. He needed to focus only on that one goal.

But the people gathered near the lot entrance made that impossible. He glanced back in their direction, his view of them only slightly obstructed by a row of shrubs flanking the perimeter of the parking lot. He could see their bowed heads above the shrubbery, the specter-like quality of their skin. Again, he felt a powerful urge to go to them.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. I won’t.”

He closed his eyes, turned away from them, and then dared to open his eyes again.

“Don’t look back,” he said. “Just get those pills. You’re all right. You’re okay.”

But he wasn’t okay, and the mere act of walking was a struggle. He concentrated, willed his feet to move, one step, two, three. Left foot in front of the right, right in front of the left. He tried not to look too far ahead. He didn’t want to be discouraged by the distance he still had to cover. So he focused on the ground directly in front of him. A single step was an accomplishment, navigating a foot of pavement a victory.

Finally, he pushed his way through the doors of the mall. It was crowded in here, but at least the drug store was close—the second store on the left. He dodged a band of teenagers who seemed oblivious to anyone but themselves, and staggered into the drug store, heading straight to the nonprescription painkiller aisle. He wanted to find the most potent product on the shelf, but it was not possible to be discriminating. His head felt like it would blow up in a minute; his side was a minefield of live ammunition. He grabbed the first package he saw with the words “extra strength” written on it.

He leaned against the shelf, dizzy now, on top of everything else. The store was spinning, spinning. Another bomb burst exploded in his head, and a thousand nails poked and prodded his left side. He was aware of noises, sounds. Where were they coming from? Beeps. A soft, whirring hum, like a faint heartbeat. An antiseptic smell. And then voices . . .

“Christopher . . . can you hear me?” Sharon. Why was he hearing Sharon?

“Dad, Dad . . .”

“Mollie,” he said, closing his eyes. “Mollie, but you’re in school. Aren’t you?”

More voices, blurring, blending, like a musical score gone out of control.

“Faster! Hurry! Move!” A strange voice, this one. It sounded like a young man. “You gotta go faster! Hurry!”

“Good morning, Mr. Burriss.” A woman’s voice, one he had never heard before. Or maybe he had. He couldn’t tell. “Sunny today. About time, too. After all this rain.” And then he heard her footsteps, walking away, growing fainter, then coming closer, louder again. He felt her—how could he feel her? Fingers brushing against his forehead, slightly moist, the smell of soap . . .

“Dad!” Mollie again.

And then Sharon, “Christopher, honey . . .”

And the frantic screaming of the young guy. “Move it! Hurry, hurry!”

“Shut up!” he yelled. He rammed the palm of his hand against his head, once, twice, three times. “Just . . . shut . . . up.”

He tried to walk, the store still doing cartwheels in front of his eyes. He groped, like a blind man, using the shelves as support. Glancing at the checkout counter, he saw a ponytailed blonde in a blue smock ringing up a heavyset man. Two old women stood in line behind him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t. I don’t have the strength.”

He wasn’t a crook, but there was no way he could wait for the cashier to check out those customers. He’d collapse right there in the line. He needed the pills now. He needed relief now. Pocketing the bottle of painkillers, he left, as quickly as he could.

Stumbling out into the mall, he found a nearby drinking fountain, and swallowed half a dozen of the pills. There. Hopefully that would take the edge off. But what could he do about his throat? Why was it getting so hard to breathe? And his eyesight. Why was everything spinning? Why were his surroundings growing hazier? The passersby were now two-dimensional, black-and-white. The color itself was being drained from the world.

“Need to get out of here,” he said. “I just need to get home.”

“Dad . . .” Mollie again, but her voice fainter now, farther away. “Dad . . .”

He wanted to follow that voice, go to it, but how could he do that? It was a hallucination. Wasn’t it?

It seemed to take hours to reach his car. He could barely see now. Shapes were merging together, blurring—so much so that the spinning had stopped, or perhaps it hadn’t. He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. Except that his side and head continued to torment him. The painkillers hadn’t helped at all. If anything, the pain was getting worse.

He looked straight ahead, through the mounting haze. Beyond the shrubs. the small gathering of people still stood there, heads bowed. And again, the force—he didn’t know what else to call it—urging him, prodding him to join them.

He shook his head, put his hands over his eyes. No. It was the only word he could think of. No. No. No. He wouldn’t succumb to their mesmerizing hold on him.

But then he was looking at them again. (How did that happen? He hadn’t remembered taking his hands away from his eyes.) Only, he wasn’t just looking. He was staring, riveted. Something was different about them now. They no longer looked like wraiths. They had fleshed out, like sketched characters who had received a finishing touch of paint. As the rest of the world dissolved, the gatherers became more solid.

“Dad . . . dad . . .dad . . .”

“Chris . . .Chris?”

The voices, fading . . .

As if tugged by a magnet, he walked toward the group. He could no longer resist their pull, had no strength left to fight it. There was a sense of inevitability now, of things coming to an end. Or perhaps a beginning. Somewhere overhead, he thought he heard a gull sqwauk, but maybe it had been a crow or a jay, or nothing at all.

As he neared the patch of grass where the gatherers stood, hands still joined, the pain in his head and side escalated to an intolerable crescendo. It no longer felt like knives cutting into him. Now it felt like metal, jagged teeth, rusty but sharp, gripping, biting, eviscerating. And his head. Was it even still there, attached to his shoulders? Or had it burst into pieces like shrapnel?

He fell to his knees, gasping—so hard to breathe. And finally the people let go of their hands, broke the circle, and approached him. He was aware, yet not aware, of the traffic noise in the road. It sounded like the hum from some other world, some gap in a dimensional barrier. But then another sound emerged, near, close, and horribly loud.

Tires screeching. Get out of the way! Too late, too late . . .

Impact. The feeling of being torn, broken, trapped in a heap of wrecked metal. Pain, flaring, shooting through his body. His head on fire. His side a shattered mess. And his last thought before the blackness came . . . Mollie. Sharon. What will they do?

The people were upon him, the only figures left that were real. And he understood now why this spot felt so familiar. Why he had experienced a chill of recognition when he’d reached the parking lot entrance . . .

“Hello, Chris,” a bald man with a gray mustache and a long, beak-like nose, said.

“How do you know my name?” he asked. And he realized, as he stood up, that the pain was gone now. Not lessened, not dulled. Gone. And his breathing had returned to normal, an easy, gentle rhythm. He had never felt better.

“We just do,” the man said. Apparently he was the group’s leader.

“What’s happened to me?” he wanted to know. The sound of the traffic was now completely muted. He could still see the cars, the road, the mall behind him in the distance, but they were outlines now, light pencil marks blending in with the empty white space of the blank page.

A middle-aged woman with short black hair and a pleasant smile said, “You know now, don’t you, Chris?”

He again remembered the screeching tires, the never-ending second before impact. He had been pulling out of the mall—he’d come here to meet an old friend who wanted to meet for lunch at the Food Court, a long-lost buddy, out of the blue. The other car never even attempted to stop, never slowed down. . . . He had been preoccupied, thinking about the visit with his friend, the way life sometimes threw curveballs at you, reintroduced you to people you knew once, and then almost forgot. He hadn’t looked left or right, he just went when the light had turned green.

“But the voices. The . . .” Then he stopped himself. It all came clear. Sharon. How he wished he could kiss her again, hold her, just one more time. And Mollie. Sweet, pretty Mollie . . .

“You fought hard, Chris,” the old man said. “Very hard. You almost made it, against the odds.”

“Who are you people?” he said.

“As you are all too well aware, Blakely Avenue is a busy road,” the old man said. “It’s taken its share.”

“You mean . . .?”

“I was killed in sixty-six, the year after they put the first shopping plaza in,” the old man said. “Hit right near where you were. Drunk driver got me.”

“I was blindsided about a quarter mile down the road,” a young guy, who looked no more than twenty, said. “Never even saw it coming.”

“I was hit by a truck,” the middle-aged woman with short black hair said. “My car was wrecked beyond recognition.”

On and on they went, a dozen accounts in all. And now, he would join them. When the next time came, perhaps next week, or next year, or three years hence, he would relate his story, along with theirs.

“We’ve got to stick together, you know,” the old man said. “Wouldn’t be right otherwise.”

“But Sharon. And Mollie. Will I . . .?”

The man nodded, smiled. “Yes. Of course. In due season.” He extended a hand. Chris, reassured, took it. Then the black-haired woman reached for his other hand.

They formed into a line, all thirteen of them, and, with hands clasped, walked away into the distance.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Jump”

The Eye-Dancers is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story for the main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton.  Journeying through a strange and distant world, each boy must confront, and overcome, the self-doubts that have always held him back.

In the short story “Jump,” which I wrote approximately one year before beginning The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist must face a similar nagging self-doubt.  A strange, unforeseen warning in a supermarket threatens to trip up the plans he’s made after wrestling with his fears and insecurities.  Can he learn from the failures of his past and slay the demons that, far too often, have held him back from pursuing his dreams?

I hope you enjoy “Jump.”

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“Jump,”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

*************

The young man with the long black hair stared at Joe.

“You know,” he said, his head tilting to the side, as if he were pondering the mystery of the universe, “you better stay home tomorrow.”

Joe blinked, tried to reorient himself.  What was going on?  He’d been browsing the boxed desserts in the baking aisle, thinking of a sweet treat he’d enjoy making that evening.  A few customers walked by, nothing out of the ordinary.  But then this kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty—had strolled up to him.  He didn’t have a shopping cart, and apparently wasn’t here to buy anything.

Joe stood behind his grocery cart, instinctively using it as a buffer.  He eyed the products he’d placed in the cart already—too many carbs and sweets, as always—and he felt a mark of shame rise to his cheeks.  The kid before him was fit and trim.  He probably thought Joe, who was thirty-five pounds overweight and gaining, was a heart attack waiting to happen.  Still, that didn’t explain why he’d approached him.

“What are you talking about?” Joe asked.  He pushed his cart further down the aisle, hoping the kid might take the hint and leave him alone.

No such luck.

“Look,” the young man said, brushing greasy bangs from his eyes, “just stay home tomorrow, all right?  It’s weird.  I mean, I get these feelings, man, you know?  And when I just spotted you now, I got a feeling.  Real strong and clear.”

Oh boy.  He was dealing with a nutcase here.  Either that or someone with a perverse sense of humor who had too much time on his hands.  He wheeled his cart into the next aisle.  Chips and soda.  Great.  As if he needed more junk food in his cupboards.  A middle-aged blonde woman sped by, smelling of Chanel no. 5.

“A feeling?” he said.  Dumb.  Real dumb.  Why engage in conversation with this kid?

“Yeah,” the kid said.  “Like, I mean . . . I don’t know, you know?  Sometimes my feelings aren’t so specific.  But this one was powerful, man.  Like a punch to the gut.  It’s like this.  If you leave your house tomorrow, I mean, like, if you even just like step outside, something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

He stopped, his hands tightly gripping onto the cart handle.  Was this more than just a coincidence?  Did this kid know Janine?  Had he caught word of what Joe intended to do?  But that was impossible.  He hadn’t told a soul about his plans.

Still, this was too weird.  He didn’t need this.  He was nervous enough about tomorrow already.

He got moving again, ignoring the kid.

“Hey!  Don’t you get it?  I’m trying to help you.  I’m not getting anything out of telling you this, you know.  It’s just, like, I’m trying to warn you, y’know?  Just being a good Samaritan, that’s all.”

A young couple stopped their cart a couple of feet away.  The man reached for a bag of pretzels, while the woman wrinkled her nose but said nothing.

“If you want to be a good Samaritan, why don’t you just go on your way?” Joe said.  He didn’t want to come off as rude, but enough was enough.

The kid shrugged.  “Okay.  Just remember what I said.  About tomorrow.  By Sunday, you should be good to go.  But tomorrow, man, lock your doors and stay inside.”

With that, he walked away.

The woman who had wrinkled her nose at the pretzels eyed his retreating figure, then looked at Joe.

He almost blurted out, “I don’t know him, don’t look at me!”  But he just glanced away and pushed his cart down the aisle.

Joe sat on his couch, looking out the window as darkness fell over the neighborhood.  He’d just finished supper, and he had gone all out, just as he’d planned.  Lasagna with a zesty marinara sauce and fresh-baked Italian bread, followed by a lemon pound cake for dessert.  He felt like he’d gained five pounds since morning.  The food did nothing to still his nerves, though.

He wished Janine were here.  He could always talk to her, tell her feelings he could never share with anyone else.  But she was visiting a sick girlfriend tonight, on the other side of town.  Besides . . . she wouldn’t be the one to confide in about this, anyway.  He was planning to surprise her, after all.  Tomorrow.  He sighed, and slunk back into the couch.

The TV was on—a meaningless late-season baseball game, with half the players from both sides having recently been called up from Triple-A.  He was hoping for a diversion, he supposed.  Something to take his mind off tomorrow, off the troublemaker at the grocery store.  But nothing worked.

“You’re such an idiot,” he said aloud, just as the twenty-two-year-old first baseman on the television grounded into an inning-ending double play.  “Get over it.  That punk doesn’t know you, doesn’t know Janine.  It was just a fluke, that’s all.  A coincidence.”

Maybe it was, but it nagged him.  Why did this have to happen now?  Of all the tomorrows in his life, why was he cautioned about this one?  The one where he planned on making the boldest, most challenging decision of his life.  Was the young man, with his uncanny warning, trying to tell him not to go through with it?  Not to take the chance?

“That’s stupid,” he said, just as the last commercial ended and the ballgame started up again.  He had wrestled with this decision for months, painstakingly going through the pros and cons, trying to overcome his fears.  He had finally built up the courage.  How could he let a stranger’s sick sense of humor or pathological need to create a stir get to him like this?

“I guess maybe they were right,” he said.  “Those kids.  Maybe I’m just chicken.  Always hesitating.  Always reluctant to take the . . . ”

 

“ . . . jump!  Let’s jump it!”

They were standing at the edge of a gash in the dirt road.  It was about three-and-a-half-feet wide.  The only way to cross was to jump.  To the left, a steep, wooded hillside blocked the way.  It would have been nearly impossible to navigate.  To the right, the remains of the road abruptly fell away to a rushing stream, which thrashed its way through boulders, pieces of twisted metal, and fallen tree limbs.

“Wow,” Joe said, more to himself than the others.  “Look at this.”

The two boys with him shrugged.

“You should’ve seen it last year, just after it happened,” the taller boy, Bobby Hartstock, said.  “They cleaned it up since then.  This is nothing anymore.”

Joe swallowed, listening to the stream speed along on its course.  It was water, the destructive power of water, that had turned this section of road into the impassable mess he saw now.  He hadn’t been here when it happened, last fall.  His parents had just moved to the area a few weeks ago.  But he’d heard the stories.  About the storm, the flood, and the road that got washed away.  Still, hearing about it and seeing it were two different things.

What they were standing on, in fact, could hardly be classified as a road.  The entire right side was gone.  This stretch of the road was now a narrow footpath.  Bobby and the other kid, Peter Collins, stood next to each other, in front, and Joe stood close behind them.  There wasn’t enough room for the three boys to stand together, side by side.  If one of them took just a couple of steps to the right, he would fall off the edge.  Where the road had been, only a ragged, steeply sloping ravine remained.  Rusty outflow pipes jutted out like sawed-off knives.  The guardrail, which had once hugged the right side of the road, protecting motorists from the thirty-foot plunge to the fast-flowing, rock-filled stream below, was suspended in midair, hanging there like a dying snake.  It was hard for Joe to believe that a real road had been here, just a year ago.  It hardly seemed imaginable.  The only saving grace was that no homes had been hit.  This stretch of road wound through uninhabited forests and meadows.  Joe’s new neighbors had told his mom that it had been used as a shortcut before the storm.  Residents doubted that the road would ever be repaired.  Too much money involved, and not enough justification to fix it.

“So, you wanna see more?” Bobby asked.  He had turned around to look at Joe.  He and Peter Collins lived a few houses down from him.  They had seen him walking alone one evening, and joined him.  School had just started, too.  And they were his first friends since moving here.  He was thankful for that.  He didn’t make friends easily, and starting ninth grade in a new town was challenging enough, without the additional pressure of finding people to hang around with.

“I don’t know,” Joe said.  “How can we?”

Peter rolled his eyes.  “You just gotta jump, that’s all!”  He motioned to the gash in the road, the one that blocked their forward progress.  It lay there like an open wound.  The drop was fifteen, maybe twenty feet.  There were small stones mixed with broad-shouldered boulders at the bottom, before they fell away to the right, toward the slope that led to the stream.

“What’s up ahead?” Joe wanted to know.

Bobby smiled.  “It’s even better up ahead!  The road goes up higher, and the drop to the stream is awesome up there!  C’mon.  Let’s go.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bobby leaped across the gash.  Joe closed his eyes, afraid that he might trip or stumble on a small rock, and then fall, headfirst into the hole.  But when he dared to look again, all he saw was Bobby standing on the other side, waving for Peter and Joe to follow.  Peter did.  He made it seem easy, just like jumping over a kid’s dirt hole in the backyard or playing a game of hopscotch in the neighborhood.

Joe walked to the lip of the hole.  He knew it was his turn.

Bobby cleared his throat.  “Well?”

He looked up, as if trying to garner the courage.  A crow flew overhead, cawing loudly, its voice echoing down like an accusation.  Joe wished he could sprout wings and follow that crow, over the hillside, clear across to the other side of the valley.

He noticed all the loose rocks, the strewn pebbles and fallen leaves.  So many things that might cause him to trip and fall, just as he readied himself to jump.  He didn’t want to fall down that hole.  If he landed on those boulders, they would—

“C’mon, are you coming or not?” Peter said.  “We don’t got all day, Joe.”

“Um.”  He knew he couldn’t jump.  And he hated himself for it.

“Whatsamatter?  You chicken?”  It was Bobby.  “A little girl could jump that hole, Joe.  Don’t be a wuss.”

He started to sweat, then.  He could feel his shirt sticking to his skin, despite the late September chill.  He was stuck.  Found out.  There was no place to run.

“Geez, I thought you were different,” Peter said.

Bobby shook his head, and the boys turned to walk away, further up the road.  They turned a corner, and were gone.  They hadn’t even looked back at him.

“Wait,” he croaked, to the air, to the hardy insects of early fall, the ceaselessly rushing stream below.  “Wait.”

But all he did was stand there, stranded, unable to follow, unable to . . .

“ . . . jump.  Sometimes, you just have to step out in faith and take a chance, you know, Joe?”

He knew, and he knew she was right.  Janine usually was.  But how could he make such a commitment?  How could he know it would all work out?

They were sitting on her sofa, in the apartment she had rented uptown.  It was February, and snow was falling like fluffy popcorn from chalkboard-gray clouds.  He had known Janine for over two years now.  They met at work.  He had been new to the city, didn’t know anyone.  She bumped into him, literally, in the narrow hallway that spanned the front of the building.  He blushed, stuttered, but, miraculously, she had invited him to join her for lunch.  He did.  Then he fell in love with her.

But what she was asking of him now . . .

“Look, I know your mom and dad split up.”  They had.  His first year of college, his mom had called him in his dorm room, crying.  Dad had walked out on her.  After twenty-five years, he just walked away without an explanation.  Joe always thought they were happy together.  If his parents couldn’t make it, who could?  “But you’re not you’re father, Joe.  We’re not them.  Or any other couple who’s broken it off.  We’re us.  Can’t you see that?”

“Yes.”  The sofa cushions felt soft on his back, too soft, as though they were trying to suck him in, trap him.  He leaned forward.

“Joe, you know I love you.”

He looked at her.  The beautiful blue eyes, close to tears.  The long brown hair.  It amazed him all the time that she could love him.  But she did.  He never doubted that.

“And you love me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.  But I . . . I need a little more time.  I’m just not sure if I can . . .”

She got up then, looked out the window into the white heart of the snow.  She stayed like that for minutes.  It felt to Joe like hours.  Finally, she turned around.

“I don’t want to be with anyone else, Joe, you know that.  But I can’t be expected to wait forever.  I’m not trying to rush you.  I’ll give you more time, if you think you need it.  But . . . I won’t wait forever.  You know I want to have a family.  You know. . . .”

He nodded.  He wanted to say something, to comfort her, encourage her with his words.  But he didn’t.  He couldn’t.

All he could do was get up, walk to her, and take her into his arms.  Neither of them said another word, while, outside, silently, ceaselessly, the snow continued to fall.

That had been eight months ago.  Janine hadn’t brought the topic up again, but he knew she was thinking about it.  There was an expectation about her, a hope, an unspoken pressure she was exerting.

He flicked off the baseball game—it wasn’t helping him to get his mind off himself.  It was just background noise, making it hard to think.

This wasn’t just about Janine, or that old wrecked road twenty years ago.  All his life he had taken the path of least resistance.  Even with his profession.  He was an accountant.  That’s how he lived his life, too.  Always calculating, weighing the debits and credits, wanting things to be sure and safe before daring to step forward.

There was the baseball team in high school.  He wanted to try out for the squad.  He’d practiced his pitching with his dad every day that spring.  But when the time came to sign up, he skulked away.  He didn’t want to fail.  Didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of the other players.  Besides, maybe he wasn’t even any good.

In college, his English professor had encouraged him to enter his essay on the poetry of John Donne into the Mills Award Contest, which awarded a prize of one hundred dollars to the student who turned in the best written document of the academic year.  But Joe never submitted his essay.

There were the girls he liked in school, but never asked out.  The friends he would have liked to make, but whom he never approached.  The words he had always left unspoken for the people who mattered to him.  The opportunities, the chances that had always been there for him, but which he had never taken.

He was tired of it all.  Last night, as he lay there in bed, staring up at the ceiling, he had made up his mind.

He would go to the jewelry shop, buy an engagement ring.  And then he would go to Janine, look her in the eyes, drop down to one knee, and ask her to marry him.  He loved her.  And he wasn’t going to throw it all away because he was afraid.  He was going to take the jump.  Tomorrow.

But then the kid at the grocery store had to come and throw a wrench into things.  Was there something to his warning?  What did he know?  Was Joe making a mistake?  Should he reconsider?

“Oh, just shut up!” he yelled.  But the thoughts would not stop.  They came at warp speed.  Don’t leave the house tomorrow!  Don’t buy the ring.  What if she says no?  What if she marries you, but then leaves you for another guy?  You’re so boring, she probably will.  What if she jilts you at the altar?  It’s happened before.  Lots of times.

In self-defense, he turned on the baseball game again, just in time to see a pop fly to right field end the inning.  Restless, he strolled into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip.  He knew that sleep was far off.  Might as well give himself a jolt of caffeine.

He didn’t even attempt to go to bed.  He just half-sat, half-laid down on the couch.  At some point, deep in the bowels of the night, he nodded off.  When his eyes reopened a short while later, he saw that dawn had arrived.  Tomorrow had come.  His moment of decision was at hand.

He opened the front door.  Sunlight smote him in the face, and he closed his eyes.  In his mind he could hear the kid from the store:  “If you leave your house tomorrow . . . something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

Since waking up, he had wrestled further with his decision, hemmed and hawed.  In the end, though, he knew he had to go through with it.  He wasn’t sure if the kid’s warning was Fate’s way of attempting to hold him back, scare him off.  But it didn’t matter.  Not anymore.  He was through running away.

The threshold was right in front of him.  He knew that as soon as he stepped over it, there would be no return.  This was a one-way trip.

He was surprised at the unease he felt.  He thought, once he had made his mind up, the doubts would pass away.  But they hadn’t.

He looked past the threshold, and there, right in front of him, was the old destroyed road, with the three-and-a-half-foot-wide gash.  The gash came right up to the threshold.  The only way outside would be to jump over it.

He blinked several times, trying to rid himself of the illusion.  But it wouldn’t go away.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Each time he looked, the details of the road became clearer, clearer.  The fallen leaves, the pebbles and stones waiting to trip him up, the guardrail off to the side, floating in midair like some broken metallic arm.  He could even hear the rushing stream below.

Resigned, he understood.  There could be no avoiding it.  It had to be this way.

He took a deep breath.  Stepped on to the threshold.  Looked into the hole, at the boulders and sharp, jagged rocks waiting to cripple him if he should stumble and fall.

For a brief moment, he thought of turning away, retreating into the safe refuge of his home, and closing the door.  But he didn’t.

“Here goes nothing,” he said.

He jumped.

***************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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