This story is by Scott Richburg and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There are days.
I don’t want to be me.
Old gym. Like a shoebox. You put the crayon drawings and pieces of string and the rocks and the dead hamsters.
It’s opening up to me. I slip in. I slip in.
So this is it. The day.
You’ve grabbed my shoulder. You’re nudging me toward the center of the floor.
Stop it. Just stop it Dad. The weight.
“Josh Broadbabb.” Explosions. The mic. “B’s B’s B’s popping popcorn. Rifle fire. “Josh Broadbabb, everyone.”
They have the screen set up. Big silver thing. Ski slope. Sliding down. Heading heading down and down.
“So, Josh, tell us.”
What’s the screen for. Did they tell me. The screen’s shimmying under the air vent. Skiing is shimmying. Sliding down the ice. Eyes shut.
Falls down, never rights itself again under the air.
Then I wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t remember me at all.
No faces. Just fog.
No voices. Just hum.
Fog and hum.
Hum and fog.
Both in my head.
Pushing into my chest.
I’m all tight. Could I die. The falling over. In front of globs and globs of teenage hormones. Pimples. Xanax, Xanax. Dad. Dad. They hate me. They hate me.
They’ll die of boredom.
“So, Josh, tell us.”
So, Josh tell us.
Not my voice. I’m not talking. Who’s talking.
Days like this.
“I came because I have things I want to say to the student body.”
You wish for metal. You wish for the white sheet. You wish.
Then the no light.
They black out the lights. Blacking everything out. I’m blacking out.
Big black tennis balls.
Firing at me. From every angle.
The screen. It’s still waving back and forth (if it falls, under it is where is where). I’m weaving. I’m about to tilt. And fall under it. And it’ll be finished. It’ll all go away into black.
Dad I can’t do this. I can’t. Is this what it’s worth. I can’t. I’ll die.
You have to. We did a lot of string pulling. And his folks were kind to us. They don’t want to see you end up nothing, too.
But to stand up and do this. In front of all those kids. They’ll hate me. I’ll hate me.
You’re being silly. You’ll do this. To try to make things right. Community service. My God, Josh. It’s a gift. A gift.
It’s like dying.
You’re not the one dead, now are you.
On the screen. It’s fire. Eating up the black tennis balls. Melting the slopes. It’s all being dragged in it. The fire on the screen.
Not the one dead.
But it’s the metal.
Pieces of metal. My I can’t think it. My truck is my truck. My truck. Was, not is.
They’re showing it. Through the fire.
A voice: “. . . .homecoming dance. Saturday night. Then this. It forever–”
On the screen little pieces of blue stuck to the jags of what was the door. No door anymore. No getting out when there’s metal shredded and raw.
The blue. Does anybody else see it.
I’d forgotten the blue.
It’s the blue I remember it now.
“One foolish act. One foolish act. And an innocent life, best frie–”
The blue sweater. Coming undone, strand after strand. In the face of such metal and tree and tree and metal and the breaking of everything against things that come at you in the dark. Metal ripping jowls crushing down and in. Then you’re gone except for little pieces of blue.
And his face.
They’re showing his face. Doesn’t move. Un-alive except for the open eyes that never blink.
And the memory of a smile.
They’re seeing the mole above my pubes.
The appendix scar. Rotten plum smear. Knowing it all about me.
God. I am naked. I hate plums Mom little worms under the plum blooms on the ground in the plum meat rotten and gross. The hot wild smell. Hate.
“This is Richie. This is Richie.”
Was. Was. It’s was.
“A veterinarian. His plans. Four years at Auburn. Then his own practice.”
A white light I was born into–nothing but white light when I came out of it. Shiny baby. Days later. There are days.
You wish you’d been the blue sweater.
Strand after strand.
Like going through a buzz saw, they said.
Dad had no face. Lines and dots where the face should’ve been. No words. Nothing but his face missing. Up against the window where sick yellow curtains hung. Wet paint sliding to the floor in pools that spread until the whole hospital was ugly yellow. Eating up to his socks.
Oh Josh. Oh Josh.
There are days.
“And here’s a picture of Tadley Elementary, second grade, 20–”
Little balloons. The faces are little balloons.
“Little did they know, that one day–”
One of the balloons. Blue shirt. Big red stripes. By His stripes we are healed, Brother Findley had whispered at my bandaged ear.
By His stripes.
If it’s 20–, I’m in there.
The blue shirt with big red stripes moves, is moving, is no longer still. Miracle. Un-alive things moving.
It’s the light that moves him. Or the big black tennis balls.
They’re waiting at the sides where it’s dark and you can’t see.
Or the slopes cracking and falling under his feet.
Watch out, little boy.
Daddy am I jello. You’re jello. Mommy’s jello. Beanie’s jello. The whole world’s jello.
They laughed. Cute, cute, Joshie-Washie.
“Now it’s all over for one of them.”
He’s out of it now.
Holding a paper football. A ruler. A crayon.
Oh it’s me again. There are days. When you’re surprised by life. It leaps out at you and says Boo! And in spite of it all, you’re still alive, no matter if you’re scared to death or sliding down slopes you never got to slide down because this is Alabama and it burns like hell all the time and now there’s no snow-covered peaks rising in your future. Ever, ever.
The blue shirt with the big red stripes (the little me I was) he’s coming in and out of a blur.
“All because of one foolish decision–”
The little boy in the blue shirt with the big red stripes, no sun anymore, yellowed sky and nothing but ice. Pale and scared for a thousand reasons he doesn’t understand.
He will, though.
Son you do this and you start to make it back. It’s penance. Do you understand that? You get to start over.
No, they’re giving you a second chance. Would you like prison.
Oh sweet little blue shirt with the red stripes.
Sweet little balloon that looks like it’ll float away any second. Where will it go? I’m grabbing at the string.
It’s you it’s me.
I want to hug you and it’s been forever since I wanted to hug anything. I hugged a tree once when I was drunk and people died.
Second chance, son, a second chance.
And I do. Hug him. The little blue shirt with the red stripes.
They’re watching me. The fog and hum. The no faces. Sitting on hard bleachers, cursing the day I was born. Waiting for the floor to swallow me up.
My fault! My fault!
My fault! My fault!
Hurt me bad.
Crying. But it’s not being sad.
It’s being happy. Crying happy.
On the screen I’m sitting under the lights.
Old fluorescent kind. Dead bugs stuck behind the glass. They never get cleaned out. The same old dead things under the same old dead light.
Beside me, beside me, is it, could it be he wore a blue sweater.
On that day too.
I want to give him something, maybe the paper football, maybe something too big to give.
But I can’t because everything’s stuck in the picture on the screen.
No reaching out.
“You see it’s hard on him. Every day of his life.”
Dad’s voice, my God. Calling me back out of the grave of that picture.
“I’m sure Josh will be glad to answer any questions you have.”
Gnashing of teeth.
Every day of his life.
The light’s alive again. It’s everywhere. Walls fall away. Black blobs whirl to the rafters and vanish.
No reaching out.
Or giving anything.
On a day like this.
“So how do you feel about all this?”
A spit ball. A pinch. One buddy to the next.
It’s Richie. And me.
Waving like a warning flag at the edge of the cliff.
So how do you feel?