Happy Wednesday, e’erybody!
(For those of you that have been following this chain of posts, please take this as my sincere half-promise that this is the [likely] second-to-last blast this story will get. But the response has been pretty nice and, again, this one meant a lot. So we’ll cheers to it once more as I fan the hammer on it, then onto another of my more recent favorites.)
(If you’re new: Weeeeeee! Glad you’ve joined us!)
Without further adieu…
Rachel watched from her perch while Eddie got her son into his wet suit. The breeze salted her cheeks and she quietly hummed a tune in rhythm with the waves. He had been so good with Wesley since losing his dad the year before. There was a period of adjustment, to be sure, but she had been so much happier after he’d moved in. “Thanks again for doing this,” she said as Eddie approached and gave him a kiss.
“Hey, no problem,” he laughed, his Hawaiian accent sweetening the smile that came with it. “Besides, I have to show him those trophies ain’t fake. What better way than to get him out here with me?”
“Still, you didn’t have to. Hey, Wes,” she called over Eddie’s shoulder. “Be careful, honey. Wait for Eddie to go out there with you, okay?” The boy looked over and gave a halfhearted smile, but stayed standing with his feet in the tide. Eddie gently brushed her sandy-blonde hair with his hand.
“He’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ll keep him close.”
“I know. I just worry.”
“You worry too much.”
“Maybe,” Rachel sighed. “I don’t know. It’s just been really hard on him. He was doing so well in school, helping around the house, he even got his purple belt, and then it’s like he just let it all fall apart on purpose.”
Eddie raised a timorous eyebrow. “You think it has to do with me?”
She was quiet for a beat before saying with a smile, “It’s okay. Kids are kids, after all.” She kissed him again before breaking away suddenly. “Wes? Wesley!” she screamed.
Eddie spun around to see the ten-year-old boy walk slowly out into the waves and get pulled down by the undertow.
After they checked him out of the hospital, Wesley’s mom wanted to take him to see a therapist that afternoon. It was Eddie who suggested they come home first to let things settle. So they called his school and Wes had spent the last two days mostly in his room. He lied in his bed, staring up at the popcorn of his ceiling and listening to the adults in the hallway outside.
“Let me try and talk to him,” came Eddie’s muffled voice.
“Listen, honey, I love you and I know you want to help, but he doesn’t need to talk to you. Not right now. He needs a psychiatrist.”
“Probably, sure. Just let me try first. He’s been stone-quiet ever since he got back. If he shoos me away, then what’s the harm?” It was quiet for a bit after that, but there came a soft knock at the door about a minute later and Eddie stepped through. “Hey Champ, mind if I come in?”
Wesley didn’t say anything at first, but just sat up against the wall. He folded his arms around his knees and hid his chin behind them. “Sure.”
Eddie closed the door behind him and sat at the edge of Wes’s bed with his hands folded. “So,” he began slowly, “you weren’t too keen on surfing, hmm?” Wesley replied with a chuckle but didn’t say anything. Eddie gave him a minute and then continued. “You know, you really scared your mom and me.”
“I know,” said Wes, with more a tone of irritation than guilt. “You don’t have to tell me that. I know.”
“Hmm, sure, sure. Then you know what I’m gonna ask next then, yeah?”
“Well, why’d you do it?”
Staring into the covers of his bed, Wesley was quiet and contemplative. Eventually, he lifted his head and looked out the window at the clouds. Heavy tears welled up in his eyes before breaking and rolling down his cheeks. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Hey bud, I’m hear to talk, but I’m mostly here to listen. I’ll believe you, whatever it is.”
“You say that,” Wesley laughed between the tears. He wiped his eyes and saw the sincere look on Eddie’s face. “Alright,” he said and sighed. “What if I told you that I wasn’t ten years old?”
“Okay.” Eddie held a waiting pause. “What would you say you are, then?”
“I’m twenty-five.” Eddie couldn’t hide his reaction, despite his efforts, and gave a suppressed, coughed chuckle into his fist. “Yeah,” Wes continued, “get it out of your system.”
“No, no. I’m sorry. Just, you’re going to have to explain this one to me.”
“I’m not really sure where to start.”
“Okay. How about with how, if you’re that old, you came to be a…a little brah…again?”
“Because,” Wesley sighed, “because I wished for it. I was going through a real tough time and made a stupid, fleeting wish. And it worked.”
Eddie took a deep breath and leaned back on his hands. “Wow,” he said. “You know, if I could go back in time, I’d probably play-”
“The lottery?” Wes interrupted. “Yeah, I talked to people at work before all this happened and that’s what most people said, too. Listen, I get that you don’t really believe me and you just think you’re playing along, alright? But trust me that it’s way more complicated than that.”
“Okay,” Eddie agreed, nodding his head. “Then walk me through it and how that leads to what happened on Saturday.”
Wesley tossed his hands up. “What does it matter? I’m mostly just telling you any of this because it feels nice to finally let out. Besides, no one will believe you and I can’t get back anymore, anyway.”
Wes groaned into his knees. “Because I lost my lucky coin.”
“That old one your grandpa got you for your birthday?”
“Yeah, I kept it in my wallet but it’s been missing for a week. It’s what I made the wish with to get here. I was going to use it to get back, but now I’m stuck.” Eddie made a puzzled look on his face that annoyed Wes. “What?” he asked.
“No, sorry. It’s nothing.” Eddie smiled at the boy and shook the thought away. “Come on, you were saying?”
It took several minutes of tug-of-war with Wesley before he opened up, but eventually he started explaining.
“It’s not that simple. ‘Play the lottery’, ‘stop crime’, ‘graduate early’. Everyone has a plan they think will work out. Firstly, I never played the lottery, and if I did, I don’t remember people’s phone numbers, let alone the Super Jackpot from fifteen years ago. Secondly, stop crime? If I have to remind you, I have the authority of a ten-year-old. Even if I did start telling the cops about a robbery, vandalism, or arson I knew would happen, that doesn’t turn me into kid-friggin’-detective. They’ll rightly assume I heard it somewhere and either dismiss it or it’ll implicate the adults around me. And fly through school? Okay, assume I do that. I ace every single spelling test and math quiz until I graduate high school at fourteen. I don’t want that.”
“Really?” said Eddie, wide-eyed. “Why not?”
“Because,” said Wesley, standing up forcibly from the bed and pacing around his room, “I won’t be some genius, exceptionally dedicated, or anything, just a guy who’s unexpectedly smarter than middle-schoolers. Plus, then that shoots me passed everyone I knew or would come to know and brings me into a world I don’t want. Never knowing my friends, probably prompting moves to new school districts, or whatever. And not doing that? Well, now I’ve been spending my days trying to pay attention, feeling patronized, surrounded by kids I’m supposed to but do not relate to. Every day is an act, every word is a sham.”
Wesley gave him a frustrated look from below his eyebrows.
“What? Listen, I’m not saying that it sounds a little over dramatic – which it does, but – this all means you should know how many people would kill to be kids again. Heck, man, you’ve heard me joke about it.”
“Oh, no. It felt like a vacation at first – having meals made for me, going to a super easy job, having a ton of energy. Not to mention getting to see my mom again, being as nice as I should have been when I grew up the first time, and making her super proud just with my grades. Not so much fun after a few months, though.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Hard to find anyone to have a good conversation with, first off. Can’t really do it with my classmates. I can’t do it with any adults because I’m trying to keep this cover going or because they won’t take me seriously.”
“Hey, whoa. I take you seriously when you want to be serious, Wes.”
“Really? Would you say that like that to your buddy Tom? Or be interested in discussing Machiavelli or the government’s response to 9/11 with me? The point is, we talk differently to adults than we do with kids and in this circumstance, Eddie, it’s annoying. Besides, the internet sucks now.”
“Okay, then if you want to be serious,” Eddie said with a sudden grim tone, “that thing you mentioned about getting to see your mom again. Does something happen to her?”
“What?” replied Wes, embarrassed. “Ah, no. Not really, anyway. It’s just…hard to raise a teenage boy by herself. It took a lot out of her.”
“So, you guys never met me?”
“No. Because, in my life, I’d quit judo by now, so we never went to regionals. Which means I’ve already messed up and gotten something wrong.”
“Hmm, is that so bad, though? Say this life goes differently than your last one. I’m not such a bad guy, am I? We have fun.”
“Yeah, sorry. I don’t mean it in that I dislike you for you. You’re…you’re pretty cool. I just…”
“I need things to say the same. There’s someone I can’t risk not meeting, and it scares me to think that I might not.” The tears began to well up in Wesley’s eyes as a soft knock came from his door. Eddie placed a compassionate hand on the boy’s shoulder and answered it. Wesley saw his mother briefly while the door was open and when Eddie came back in he was smiling.
“Hey, do you want to go for a hike?”
Wesley looked at the clouds through his window and replied with a shrug and a thumb’s up.
“So,” Eddie panted as he pulled himself up onto the overlook with Wesley, “you sounded like you were in the middle of a big point.” His words may not have, but there had been a change to the way Eddie spoke to Wes over the course of the afternoon – his tone, his voice, his eyes – it felt like the two were speaking on the same level. Wesley wasn’t being spoken down to and he appreciated it.
“Yeah. Just that things are scary.”
“I’m sure. But come on, there was more than that. You were saying you wanted to get everything right, keep things the same?”
“Yeah, but even all of that is a craps shoot, and I’m terrified. I’m terrified because I don’t know the rules. I’m not the person I was when I was nine, nobody is. People change. People change because they have experiences and they grow. But what if this is some Back to the Future shit? What if I don’t have an experience that shaped me, either because of butterfly effect happenstance or because now I know how to handle it? Do I lose the part of me that grew from that in the first place like an old photo? Because if so, to keep who I am, I have to live every day frantically trying to relive every day, as it happened, for years. I’ll spend fifteen years never changing, never growing, constantly paranoid, ‘learning’ the same lessons, or else I lose getting to be me in the first place.”
Eddie stayed quiet but just looked at the boy. He shuffled off his pack, set it beside the both of them, and took a seat on the rock with his legs dangling off the side. He took out a couple of sandwiches and handed one to Wesley. “Hmm, and that was enough to make you wanna end it?”
“Not…really,” Wesley said, timidly taking a bite of bologna.
Eddie watched Wes closely. “Why, then? A few years with us seem so bad you need that way out?”
“No. It’s not that.” Wes was staring at the rock, away from Eddie.
“Mmhm. Who was she, this person you need to meet again?” Wes looked back up with redness in his eyes and a quivering chin. Eddie wrapped a strong arm around the boy’s shoulders and held him while he cried. “I know, brah,” he said. “It’s always a girl.”
“Her name’s Carmen,” Wesley said between sobs.
Wesley told his stepfather everything. He spoke about how the two had met in high school and made fast friends. He told him the tumults of their relationship then and later, and how he’d known the moment a friend introduced them that he wanted her in his life in a meaningful way. He told him of how even though their life together wasn’t perfect, he loved those imperfections. He loved the way she would talk about the things she wanted to do in life, and how he imagined doing them with her. He loved the way she would joke about things she would change if given the chance, and how he would quietly think of how grateful he felt to have her as she was. He loved deeply how, despite the infinite number of ways they couldn’t have wound up together, the universe had seen fit to provide the one where they did.
“And I know,” continued Wes, “that they’re all the cliches, but I really do miss just being able to look into her eyes. I miss waking up to her voice, to the dimples on her cheeks when she’d smile. I miss comforting her when she was ever scared. I even miss the crushing pain of crying with her if she was ever hurt. And most, I miss listening to her heartbeat like it’s the only sound that exists, praying that between us I get to be selfish enough to die first because I don’t want a world without that sound.
“We’d been together for seven years before all this happened. It’s been hard sleeping in a bed by myself for the first time in that long. I miss her, a lot, but what’s worst is that now she doesn’t even know me yet. And she won’t for another five years, and if everything goes as it should, we won’t be together for another five after that. And even if that does happen, now I’ll have a secret I can never tell the woman I tell everything: that I knew her before we met and I waited a decade to be with her again. Try telling anyone that without it ending in some kind of paperwork.
“Our life had gotten hard, real hard, and all I wanted was a way out. But now that I’ve had it, all I want is a way back. Meaning yes, badly enough to walk straight into the ocean hoping to wake up like this was all a dream. So,” he said, wiping his nose and standing as the wind picked up, “what happens now? Do you tell mom and you guys sign me up for therapy or check me into some loony bin?” He sniffled with resolve.
Eddie was very quiet. He sat with his jaw jutting and was very clearly just watching the clouds roll by in thought. “Maybe,” he finally said with a big exhale. “But I don’t think so. Those places get pretty expensive, so I figure it’ll be easier to just give you this.” He reached into his pack and tossed Wesley a small, brown, folded leather wallet.
Wesley was stunned. “How?” he stammered.
“Taylor’s dad called yesterday and dropped it off while we were in your room. Apparently your buddy took it the last time you had him over. I told you it wasn’t a good idea to brag about your allowance like that. What were you saving up that much for anyway?”
“It was, uh,” the boy choked, “it was for the bus. I was going to take the bus to San Francisco. That’s where the fountain I toss my coin into for the wish gets built next month.”
“Oof, San Fran?” Eddie let out a puff of thoughtful breath. “Might be kind of a tough to swing it with your mom given things right now. But…”
Wes looked to the man with a dumbfounded, hopeful stare which Eddie returned with a wink and a smile.
The sun shone bright and clear through the window. Wesley reached over to turn his clock to face him. The time was 11:11am. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the almost unfamiliar sheets. Where there had been Spider-Man, there was now a checkered cream-colored pattern.
“Good morning,” came a sweet voice. Wesley felt a kiss on his cheek. “Aw, hey, are you alright?”
“It’s just good to see you.” Wesley wiped the tears away and hugged her. “I love you.”
“Oh honey,” Carmen said, laughing. “I love you too. Bad dream?”
He laughed with her. “You have no idea.”
The Take: This was a good one that came out of my short-lived Soapbox Writers’ Workshop. The parameters were: Romantic Comedy, featuring a surfer and a lost wallet. It came together pretty quickly, but took a lot longer to edit and sharpen. I’d shopped it around for a while, but I to-date haven’t quite found the right market for it, and also realized I’d passed it by a while ago as one of my best/favored manuscripts – I still love it, there’s a lot of me in there, but I’ve grown past it a bit.
It started off with me asking around work, “If you could go back to any age and keep your current consciousness – world view, knowledge, history, memories, opinions, everything – but you had to live your life forward from there, would you?”
The responses were awesome.
Many had the expected knee-jerk responses of “zoom through school” and “play the lottery.” But if pressed, reminding them that, y’know, their history is no longer their history – family, friends, jobs, events – none of that is guaranteed, it became less of an easy question.
Others I respected immensely. I explained the question, they had me clarify, thought on it, and then went, “Oh, hell no. I love my (girlfriend/family/dog/job/friends/you-name-it). Wouldn’t want to risk that.”
Others still, left me pretty flabbergasted…
“Oh, hell yeah.”
“Even though you won’t have your family any more?”
“Yeah, they’ll be fine.”
“No, like, you wouldn’t have your kids anymore.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“Jesus, man. Didn’t you adopt?”
To this day, I’m unsure whether or not they were having my leg, still didn’t understand the thought experiment, or were being serious and just genuinely did not enjoy their life.
Anyway, to cap it all off, writing ‘Fifteen Years’ was an adventure, one that helped me chart out just how goddamn grateful I am for the life I’m swimming through.
Have a good one, y’all.