This story is by Chris LaRoche and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jack checked his watch as he rapped on the steering wheel, trying to keep time to Jimmy Page’s solo. He was so late. Again. He knew he was running out of chances. Staring out the window, he turned off the car, his reflection warped by the rivulets of rain washing over the glass. A reflection he no longer recognized.
The high school looked lonely. Dark and deserted. Just like him. Tendrils of wild ivy suffocated the front entrance, hiding the crumbling brick façade. Emergency lights lit the lobby, casting the sun bleached linoleum and concrete block walls in a dirty yellow hue.
He wanted to make this right. Right for her. He just wasn’t ready yet. He lifted her corsage from the passenger seat and laid it in his lap. The deep blue orchids rested safely in the clear plastic box, their petals beginning to wither. His fingertips hovered just above the container. A part of her hidden away forever.
The rain beat harder and harder on the roof, battering his resolve. He checked himself in the rearview mirror, a habit of vanity stoked by years of popularity. An unsustainable standard purported by everyone else’s needs. The higher they raised you, the further you had to fall. And right now, he was in free-fall.
The All American Boy. Bullshit! His sunken, tired eyes and disheveled hair revealed his true self. Grabbing his dad’s silver flask from the glovebox, he took a generous swig, the whiskey fueling his despair.
Jack tucked the corsage under his arm and sprinted for the doors, dodging and leaping over puddles like they were defenders on the football field. He could almost hear her cheering him on, her cries but the whipping of the northerly winds. Run Jack, run.
The doors held tight, his own subconscious thwarting his frantic pursuit. Protecting itself. He banged his forehead against the door, his hot breath fogging up the glass. Cutting his finger through the condensation, he smiled sadly as he made a heart with their initials inside. J + J 4-ever! At least it was something to aim for.
He shattered the glass with a brick, sending shards of their heart to the ground. He clutched his chest, feeling it too, the impossibility of ever being whole again. Easing the door open, he crossed over the threshold, his shiny black shoes grinding the glass to dust.
As he ran through the corridors, he caught glimpses of their time together. A stitched reel of memories not found in any yearbook: passing her in the hall with a knowing smile, sneaking a kiss by her locker, carrying her books to class, playfully splashing her with water by the fountain, and even taking her to the prom. All moments he regrettably took for granted.
He paused, watching as their apparition disappeared through a set of double doors to the gymnasium. They looked happy. We were happy… weren’t we?
‘A Starry Starry Night’ rippled across the entrance, the phantom breeze tugging on the loose strings to the banner. She had spent months coming up with a theme, bouncing idea after idea off of him. She was so excited to see her favorite painting come to life. If only he had matched her excitement, but she knew.
Dispatching the last of the whiskey, he flung the doors wide open, tearing the banner in two. “Here’s Jack,” he screamed, his voice filled with self-loathing as it echoed off the rafters above, the room all but empty except for some forgotten decorations. He flipped over tables, sending centerpieces crashing to the ground; He threw chairs across the wood floor, kicking up dying balloons and piles of confetti; He yanked down streamers, shredding them to pieces.
Sweat beaded on his brow, his tirade spilling over to a long table covered in photographs. His breath grew still as he gripped the long white cloth, his eyes settling on a candid photo of the king and queen.
“We were so happy together.” Her voice came from somewhere behind him or was she somehow in his head.
He shut his eyes, escaping to the hidden recesses of his mind. To a place where youthful dreams live on in perpetuity.
“You can’t hide anymore, Jack.”
His grip grew tighter.
“Look at us,” she yelled, her voice reverberating through a series of speakers set around the room.
He winced from the ringing feedback “I don’t want just a moment in time,” he said as he wrenched his hand away, the photos taking flight in a frenzy of glamour shots.
“But that’s all we are. It’s up to us to put them together.”
He spun away, moving in circles of anger and desperation. “It’s not enough,” he shouted, casting aside the tablecloth.
“Then why did you come?”
He stopped cold under the scrutiny of a faux chandelier at center court, his heather-grey tux worn and wrinkled. “Because I want to remember. I need… to remember.”
“You’re closer than you think.”
He felt her intertwining her fingers with his, the fit unabashedly perfect. His heart leapt at her touch, giving himself over to the moment.
“Just one more dance,” she said, removing her shoes.
The lilt of her voice a gentle whisper on his cheek. He twirled her in place, the folds of her strapless white dress flaring outwards above her long, lean legs. He pulled her in close, mesmerized by her hazel eyes.
“You’re doing it again,” she said as she pinned the boutonniere to his lapel.
He lowered his gaze as he kicked off his shoes, his face flush by her beauty. “I can’t help it,” he said sheepishly, fastening the corsage to her delicate wrist. He followed her sweet smile as she nestled into the nape of his neck, the smell of apple blossoms wafting up from her copper-brown hair.
The music stirred. Their feet played as they swayed.
She hummed, the soft vibration binding her to him. He shared a lifetime with her in that moment. A lifetime filled with love and hope, marriage and children, sadness and death.
He held her hand to his chest, watching little by little as her corsage fell apart. The petals fluttered to the floor, encircling them in a whirlwind of shimmering blue.
They continued to dance long after the song was over, their hearts filling in the music. As the beat became one, he broke the embrace, finding himself dancing alone.
“Nothing is forever, Jack,” she whispered, sending his world tumbling out of control.
Jack hung upside down, the tip of his tie resting on the ceiling of the car. His head swam as his senses played catch-up, the silence inciting fear. He looked around in a panic, blood clouding his vision.
What happened, where am I?
His cell phone chimed, a string of texts lit up the screen. A piece of her dress glinted in the light, caught in the remains of the shattered windshield. His stomach lurched, bile burning the back of his throat. He wiped his eyes with his tie, his sightline following the dimming beam from the headlamp.
“No, no, no!” he said in horror as he unbuckled his seatbelt, falling in a heap beside the empty flask, his legs alarmingly numb. Heaving himself out the window, he dragged and clawed his way through a drainage ditch, his hands pressing into the saturated undergrowth, the pulling and pushing making for a sickening sucking sound.
On the opposite embankment, he laid down beside her, her arm sticky with blood. They stared up at the stars as the sound of distant sirens grew.
She turned her head to face him, her smile kind and forgiving. “Are you ready?” she asked, squeezing his hand. “It’s time to let go.”
He closed his eyes, knowing it was finally over. He felt the softness of her lips fade as his world came crashing down.
Church bells rung in the distance, calling the faithful to worship. A call he wouldn’t answer, knowing his life was forever bound to a wheelchair and to what he had done.
She looked so beautiful in her cheerleading outfit, his boutonniere pinned to her chest, their photo from the prom clasped in her hands. We were happy. “That’s where I’ll find you,” he said, resting his cold hand on hers. And as he placed her crown atop her head, he sang softly in her ear. “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.”