This story is by Michelle Shinn and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s strange how a few seconds can feel like they last a lifetime.
First, there was the football, bright red, like a warning sign, innocently bouncing into my path. Then came the boy, all arms and legs, blindly in pursuit, no awareness of me bearing down on him.
I gasp, my mouth gaping open in horror, as my foot slams down on the brake, so hard that it feels like I might break through the footwell. I already know it’s not going to be enough. The speed I’m going, how close he is to the car. How can I possibly avoid hitting him?
The ball is in his hands as he turns towards me and his eyes meet mine, widening with fear as he freezes, realising his mistake. They are a bright, cornflower blue, the same colour as the sky today. How can this be happening on such a beautiful day?
The weather forecasters had been right for once, the much-coveted heat wave had materialised, even in rainy Manchester. When I’d woken this morning, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen, and I realised the persistent requests of the kids for a BBQ had finally rubbed off on me. After packing off Sam and Kate to see their dad, I’d grabbed my shopping bags to try and scavenge what I could from the supermarket, convinced that all the good stuff would be gone. The shelves were emptying quickly, as we reconnected with our inner caveman, gathering meat for our families. As I closed the boot of the car, pleased with my hoard, I reflected that I’d got there just in time. I couldn’t wait to see Sam’s face later as he bounded in, realising the tempting smells of grilled meat were coming from our house. If only I’d been ten minutes later, if only it had rained today, if only…
Cars line the street to my right like sentries, creating a wall of steel, impossible to penetrate. My only option is the pavement on my immediate left. My arms are poised on the steering wheel, ready to swerve out of the way, when I register who is on the pavement where I’ll end up.
Neighbour. Friend. Second Father. Known as Grandpa to my kids.
How can I…? What do I…? A knot forms in my stomach, and I suddenly feel sick.
Ted and Rose. We hadn’t even known their names when Ian was still at home. They were just the elderly couple that lived next door. And then Ian left me and I fell apart.
The kids were young then, and one day I was trying to open the front door, Kate in her pram, shopping bags in one hand, Sam pulling on the other shouting and chattering at the same time. I had lost my temper with him, right there at the door, yelling at him to be quiet and yanking his arm so hard he burst into gushing, snotty tears. I went to pieces, sweeping him into my arms, crying myself, telling him how sorry I was.
Rose appeared from nowhere, opening the door, bringing in the shopping as she ushered us inside. After she had settled the children, she brought me a cup of tea with three sugars “because you need it dear,” after my protests fell on deaf ears, and she listened, intently, as I poured my heart out. That was the start.
I would guess the little boy’s age as five or six, a mop of white blond hair framing his head like a halo, freckles peppering his pale skin. His legs are covered in scrapes, scabs that kids get from falling so much. They fall so hard at that age and they look at you for a moment, like they’re checking if you saw. It’s only when your eyes meet theirs that they start to cry. I notice that one sock has fallen down around his ankle, and I have the overwhelming urge to pull it up.
As time went on, Ted and Rose became like a second mum and dad to me. My mum died when I was eighteen and my father and I have never been close. He lives over a hundred miles away with his new wife, the one he left me and mum for when I was six. When my husband Ian left me, it was like history was repeating itself, and my feelings of anger and abandonment intensified. After Ted and Rose came into my life, they helped me to move on, putting me back to together, piece by piece.
Rose was my confidante, but Ted, quiet and reliable, had been there whenever I had needed him. “Any jobs?” he would say, fixing the leaky tap, putting together the kid’s new bedroom furniture, pruning the bushes. Often I wouldn’t have to ask, and I’d confess my guilt to Rose, who would laugh, saying he loved being handy, it kept him busy now that he was retired.
Why didn’t the little boy go to the park? It’s less than a ten-minute walk from here. They have a massive football pitch, that’s where I used to take Sam; he’d be there for hours sometimes, running around with his friends, I never understood where he got all that energy from. Where are his parents? How could they be so irresponsible to let their child play so near to the road, didn’t they think it was dangerous?
My ex-husband, Ian, had never had time for the kids. It was one of the things that angered me the most after he left. I had tried to become mum and dad, but I couldn’t do everything. Ted had been the one to teach Sam to ride a bike after my countless attempts were unsuccessful. After I’d got a promotion that meant I needed to work longer hours, he and Rose would sit with the children after school. I remember noticing how much Kate’s spelling had improved, and when I asked her, she’d explained that Ted would go through each word with her every night, helping her to practice until she remembered every one she’d been set.
Rose’s illness was unexpected. It had been sudden, and aggressive. She had only lasted for a year after her diagnosis and her death had hit us all hard. Ted had spiralled downwards. I had found myself deliberately breaking things in the house as an excuse to ask him round. I’d time it so that he would be there just before we’d have dinner and insist that he stayed. As time had gone on, he’d pop round just to say hello. I had found that he had become my new confidante, listening as I unloaded my latest worries, whether they were about work or the kids.
The car throbs under me, the engine growling like a lion, hungry for me to make the choice. I can feel it’s power, it’s nose nudging forward, ready to devour anything in its path.
If I hit the boy he may never walk again….or worse. He’s so young, he’s got his whole life in front of him, who knows what he could achieve, what impact he could have on the world.
How would I tell the kids I killed Ted? What would they say if they knew it had been me, me who had taken away such an integral figure in their lives. I picture their faces after I had told them about Rose, Sam, eyes full of pain but trying desperately to be brave for his sister, Kate, face crumbling into tears immediately.
The little boy’s body is so frail, so delicate. How would his parents feel if he died? Does he have brothers and sisters? Suddenly his face is Sam’s and my heart wrenches.
Ted turns, and our eyes lock. All I find in those eyes is love and understanding.
Ted glances at the boy in the road and he nods to me, willing me to choose as he deems right.
I decide. As I feel the car connect with flesh and bone my world shatters. Misery tears through me and I scream, long and loud, and in the confines of the car, it feels like my grief could break the glass.
The red ball lies still in the road. So does the boy.