This story is by Brian Reed and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The screeching tires, the acrid stench of burning rubber, the image of the truck’s grill piercing the passenger door, the shattering glass blinding him, the blood spattering up his arms and face as he reached to shield his son, the blackness engulfing him.
Later, shades of gray and the words,”…the boy didn’t make it.” A silent scream as he struggled in the dark. They must be wrong, he still had time, if he could just get back to him. But he couldn’t move, only the darkness and those words and the scene repeating endlessly.
He slammed the car door as if to silence his mind. Stop the never-ending reel that played over and over again since that day two weeks earlier.
As he walked across the street more screeching tires. A Ford Mustang with smoke from the tires, an angry driver, head out the window… yelling… seemingly at him. He continued across the street. He partially opened the door to the coffee shop. A line. He let go and the door closed. He turned to walk up the sidewalk as the scene kept playing, the image of the truck grill, “…the boy didn’t make it…”, blackness. He stopped walking. He turned left, then stopped. He turned right towards the street. Then turned down the street, looking for something, not sure what, running from something, his wife’s sobbing words, “You should have pulled over…god… why didn’t you pull over.”
Was it your fault? Who decides?
These questions planted in his mind, somehow stopping the replay. He looked around for a source, then realized no one had spoken the words. They were just a new addition to the never-ending replay of the tragic event that had taken over his world.
Was it my fault? he asked himself but quickly dismissed the question. Of course, it was. He was driving when he heard the sound. The sound of his son choking in the seat next to him. His wife had asked him, why he didn’t pull over. It was clear she believed it was his fault.
Maybe it was just an accident.
Another voice inside his head. He looked over to his right. Just past the entrance to the coffee shop, a young boy sat with his back against the wall. His clothes dirty, his hair long but matted together, and his face unwashed. His cap was placed on the sidewalk upside down. A single dollar bill inside, beckoning each passerby to ante up. They boy glanced up at him.
Jack asked, “I’m sorry, was that you? Did you ask me something?”
“No, I was just saying it looks like rain.”
Jack looked up and felt a raindrop on his face. He looked back at the boy. He couldn’t be any older than Joshua. Geesh, what happened to this kid that he has to beg in the streets. Homeless for sure, but so young. As the rain started to come down, he remembered hearing that this storm would be a wet one.
“Slow day?” Jack asked as he glanced at the dollar in the cap.
The boy looked over at him, and then down at the dollar. “Seems so,” he said and went back to his artwork.
He noticed the boy had only a t-shirt and jeans and would not fare well in the storm. He walked back across the street to his car. This time he looked both ways first. In the trunk, he found a small umbrella and a rain parka. He gave these to the boy and dropped a ten-dollar bill in the offering cap.
“How old are you? About 9?” Jack asked.
Is that how old he was?
Jack shook his head. “Huh?”
“I said yes. And thank you for the gift,” the boy replied his calm, brown eyes fixed on Jack’s. The peacefulness contrasting the exhausted sadness that Jack’s eyes betrayed.
“Oh… I thought…,” Jack started, but stopped himself. “Well, try to have a good day. Find some shelter if you can. This storm’s supposed to pack a wallop.”
Jack walked away slowly still thinking about the boy. On the sketch pad, the boy had drawn three sunflowers, one shorter than the others. All were bent over, the shorter one with petals nearly touching the ground. Jack wondered what they represented.
As he walked the voice came again. You can talk to him, I can help.
Jack found himself distracted by the boy. The constant replay of the crash was interrupted when he was around him. His plight saddened him, but unlike his last day with his son Joshua, he might be able to help him. With this boy, it wasn’t too late. He made stops at the coffee shop a part of his daily routine.
“Why sunflowers?” he asked the boy one day.
The boy stopped drawing and a sadness crossed his face. “My mother told me that sunflowers are like people, if you give them attention they’ll grow big and strong. When they’re bent over like this that means they need some attention.”
“Your mother’s a smart lady.
“Yes, she was.”
Jack noticed he spoke of her in past tense. He wondered whether his father was still alive.
“I’m sorry about your mom. Is your father still around?”
“Maybe someplace. I don’t know where. He didn’t want me though.”
“Oh…I’m sorry for that. It’s hard to lose people. I lost a son, he was about your age. We had an accident and he didn’t make it.”
“I know,” the boy said.
“What? How could you know that?”
“He came to me. He wanted me to tell you that he doesn’t blame you.”
“What?” Jack said. “He came to you? How could he…”
The boy looked up from his sketchpad at Jack.
We’re all boundless Jack if we let ourselves be. How do you think I’m able to communicate with you without speaking? You’re hearing me now, but are my lips moving?
“What? It is you, but how can you..? What did he say? ” Jack asked.
I can take you to him. He’d love to tell you himself. Just sit and grab my sleeve.
Jack was skeptical but what did he have to lose. He sat next to him, put his hand on his right arm, and the world in front of him was transformed. He was on a beach, he heard laughter.
“Oh my god, is that him?”
“You know it is. You can go to him.”
His vision cleared and there in front of him was Joshua.
“Look daddy, it’s flying,” Joshua yelled as he ran down the beach a kite in tow.
Jack ran after him, caught him, and hugged him hard.
”Daddy, that hurts,” Joshua said.
“I’m sorry son, I’ve just missed you.”
“You don’t need to miss me daddy. I’m right here. I have a lot of friends here. Thanks for being my dad.”
Jack had no words.
“Don’t worry dad,” Joshua said, “I forgive you for missing the light.”
“Joshua, come on,” he heard his son’s friends call. Jack watched his son run off. He turned briefly and said, “Dad, don’t forget Jen’s birthday!” He faded into the distance, his laughter still ringing.
“Wait… no, come back here… Joshua please, I’ve missed you.”
But the images faded and he was back sitting next to the boy. Except the boy had now had mysteriously transformed into a man in his early 30’s, about Jack’s age.
“What, who are you? I need more time with my son. Please take me back there.”
“I’m just someone here to help Jack and remind you that you are boundless. You don’t need me to be able to see your son. You can see him and talk with him any time you like.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a gift-wrapped box.
“What’s this?” Jack asked
“The new iPhone that your daughter wanted for her 16th birthday today. She misses you. Your wife misses you too.”
“How did you…how do you…? Jack asked, followed by “Who are you? ”
I’m you Jack.
The man smiled and said. “Don’t be late for your daughter’s party Jack.”
“But I have to pay you for the iPhone.”
He laughed. “I have no use for your money Jack.”
“But please, I need some way to remember you, some way to know this was real,” Jack said as the man began to walk off.
Check your pockets.
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper. A drawing of four sunflowers, two still drooping, the other two standing tall, a kite attached to the shortest one. Jack looked up confused. The man had stopped walking and turned to face Jack. His face betrayed a hint of sadness.
The other two just need some attention Jack. Use that as your map. Keep it where you can see it.
Weeks later the framed drawing sits on Jack’s desk, four sunflowers standing tall.