This story is by Sharon Hetherington and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
…“Hey buddy, wake up! I’m so happy to see you! Wow, you’ve grown, son!”
Luke Tucker opened his eyes. “Am I dreaming? Dad, is that you? Are…are you alive?”
Looking around, Luke realized he was surrounded by branches and leaves – and he was floating! Far below in the ravine, his lifeless form lay under a twisted heap of bicycle. Weird; he saw it but wasn’t scared at all! In fact, he was vibrating like a ball of energy ready to soar into space!
“Oh man! My bike’s wrecked! Mom’s gonna kill me! Hey Dad, um…you there? Think you can fix my bike?” said Luke trying to find his balance.
Bobbling in place, Luke heard familiar whistling and beamed as his dad appeared out of thin air. Lieutenant Tucker, looking sharp in his Service Dress Uniform air-walked toward Luke like a shadow coming to life. Excitedly, Luke tried to air-run to his Dad’s open arms but somersaulted instead.
“Whoa!” he giggled dizzily as his dad laughed and pulled him in for a bear hug. Luke absorbed his dad’s energy. Looking into his father’s eyes, Luke’s smile faded. “I wish you could come home again.”
“Me too son.” Lieutenant Tucker looked intently toward the edge of the ravine where a group of boys stood staring down. He wrapped his arm around Luke’s shoulders and air-walked him to a nearby branch. They sat, gazing solemnly past their dangling legs at Luke’s still body.
“Umm, so Dad…” Luke said hesitantly. “You gonna take me back with you to Heaven?”
Lieutenant Tucker hugged Luke closer. Luke sighed into the comfort. He’d really missed his dad. “Son, that has to be your decision. But I’m here to guide you – that’s what Dads do, right?”
“I guess so” Luke shrugged against his dad’s chest. He could feel a lump forming in his throat.
“I’m not scared, Dad. I feel like…I have a glowing light inside of me; like all the bad stuff’s gone. I feel like now, I can be anything – do anything…like not a loser” Luke finished hoarsely.
With a sideways look to where one of the boys was now screaming at a cellphone, Luke whispered shakily “And anyway, maybe no one will even miss me”. He buried his face against his dad’s chest. Tears streamed down his cheeks onto the Purple Heart pinned to his Dad’s uniform.
Lieutenant Tucker gently squeezed his son’s shoulders. “Your mom needs you. And your brother needs you – now more than ever, Luke. He’s been…so lost since…” his voice trailed off.
“Dad, he hates me! I don’t know what I did to make him so mad” Luke said rubbing his eyes.
“Son, he’s not mad at you; he’s mad at me for leaving him. He’s older, but he’s not strong like you.” Lieutenant Tucker’s eyes were wet as he smiled sadly at Luke. “I need your help getting through to him.”
“But how, Dad?” sniffed Luke. “I’m with you now.” Sirens wailed and cherry red emergency lights flashed across their faces.
“Luke, you can choose life! You can still go back!” his father implored. “I want you to live and I promise you, things will get better.”
Lieutenant Tucker pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket. Unpinning his Purple Heart, he wrapped the paper around it. He zipped the package into a small pocket in Luke’s jacket. “When the time is right, you will know what to do.”
Seeing the Rescue squad climbing down into the ravine, he hugged Luke tightly then gently pushed him away saying “Son, remember that I love you – I’ll always be near. I’ll follow where you want to go. You have nothing to fear.”
Luke nodded through tears “I love you too Dad and don’t worry; we’ll be okay.” He watched his dad air-walk through the leaves, fading back into a shadow before disappearing.
Days later, in the hospital, Luke drifted in and out of consciousness. That dream relentlessly teased at his mind the way one strains to see detail in a blurry picture. Eventually, scattered flakes of memory slowly floated back, sticking together like snowflakes collecting on a windowpane.
Almost daily last year, Luke had been bullied by Ethan’s gang. They stole his lunch. They cornered him in the washroom and forced him to eat toilet paper. They gave him wedgies. They taunted him, knocked him down and kicked dirt in his face.
If anyone saw, Ethan would hook a big arm around Luke’s neck, and laughingly say they were just goofing around. He threatened Luke with a gruesome death if he ever told. Luke kept quiet. He was good at hiding the bruises; he was not so good at hiding from Ethan.
Luke wished those memories had not come back to him. He wished he could forget how Ethan’s gang corralled him behind the dumpsters on the last day of school; how they shoved him around, gave him a verbal smacking and tried throwing him in the dumpster. He’d somehow escaped, jumped on his bike, and peddled for his life.
The haunting memory was of him riding by Devil’s Creek Ravine and looking over his shoulder to see Ethan’s gang peddling furiously after him. Hearing their war cry, then hitting a rock, and then eating air. After that – he remembered nothing. Well, technically not ‘nothing’. There was still that dream…
Luke had spent most of the summer in a leg cast. Now, limping to his first day of Junior High, the memories unnerved him.
Luke flinched at the verbal assault, stopping dead in his tracks for a split second before limping forward. His eyes narrowed into panicked slits, darting side to side in search of escape.
“HEY! PUKE SUCKER!”
The sound of feet scuffling behind him now; Luke tried not to look scared. The hairs on the back of his neck bit like fleas, making his shoulders scrunch. Fifty yards to the school fence – and safety. With all his might, Luke willed the fence to move closer as he moved faster; skip-limp-skip.
“RUN FORREST GIMP, RUN!” slammed into his ears, cackles of laughter trailing behind. Luke’s bad leg jerked violently, upsetting his balance, but he recovered and kept moving; skip-limp-skip.
‘Only a few more yards to the fence!’ The fear of another beating drove Luke forward.
“Moomph!” Luke’s thoughts shattered into smithereens as his face was side jammed into the school’s chain link fence, making the galvanized metal jangle. His glasses were mangled, and his nose mashed behind the beefy hand. His mouth puckered outward in a forced pout.
“Soooo, Puke Sucker” hissed Ethan into Luke’s ear, “Back for another year of fun, eh? Well – at least fun for us! We can’t wait to initiate you into Junior High, eh boys?”
Snickers of laughter vibrated the fence where the gang had Luke sandwiched. Luke squinted sideways through Ethan’s sweaty fingers, and thought he saw a twitch of remorse in the bully’s face.
In an instant, the ‘dream’ from Devil’s Creek Ravine flooded Luke’s senses. He choked back the urge to puke Cheerios into Ethan’s hand.
“PAY ATTENTION LOSER! I’m talking to you!” Ethan smooshed Luke’s face harder, and abruptly Luke blurted “Dude soont yoo hoo moosage!”
“Huh?” Ethan’s hand dropped. “What stupid gibberish are you spouting now?” His face slowly morphed from intimidating to uneasy.
Luke rubbed his cheeks and straightened his glasses. “I said; Dad. Sent. You. A. Message.”
“You’re full of crap, loser” Ethan shifted nervously.
“I’m not! Dad came to me at Devil’s Creek! I…I thought he was taking me to Heaven, but he told me to come back to you and Mom” Luke said, his eyes stinging with tears.
Ethan clenched his fist.
“IT’S TRUE!” Luke yelled, remembering the package. He unzipped his pocket and smiled triumphantly when his fingers closed around it. “Here, Ethan. Dad told me to give you this.”
Ethan nervously opened his hand to accept the object. He opened the package and gasped when he saw the Purple Heart he knew was buried with his father. Smoothing the scrap of paper he recognized his father’s handwriting:
‘Ethan, I want you to remember to never give up no matter what. I want you to keep moving forward even if it hurts. I want you to understand that life can be unfair, but you have the strength to overcome. Son, I want you to remember that I will always be near. Love Dad’
Trembling, Ethan looked from the medal to the paper, then incredulously at Luke. The gang had watched stunned, but as the first bell rang, they disappeared through the gate chattering excitedly, leaving Ethan and Luke behind.
Ethan carefully refolded the paper around the medal and tucked it into his pocket. Eyes brimming with tears he opened his arms to Luke, and the two brothers embraced, letting grief wash over them. Forgiveness and healing would come in time, through their father’s guiding spirit and the immeasurable power of his Purple Heart.