It was getting dark. Darker than usual, Todd thought. The sun should be going down in about fifteen minutes or so, and that meant his damn mother would be more worried than usual because he wasn’t home. He was nowhere near home.
He had pulled his bike off the path about a mile back and covered it with branches. Making his way through the woods was easy going for a while, but then he started thinking. He had roamed these woods all his life. Just never at night. He thought about the wisdom of hiding his bike. Once off the path, the bike would have been useless in the woods. But now he wondered if he’d even be able to find it again.
Even if he had changed his mind, he could make camp, spend the night, go back and find it in the morning. Boy Scout training had taught him to “Be Prepared,” but he wasn’t going to change his mind. The best thing to do now was to keep moving forward as fast as he could and get to the wall before he ran out of daylight completely.
Why did everything have to be such a problem all of a sudden? Cut from the freshman football team because he was too small. Hadn’t they ever seen the movie Rudy? (Dad loved it and made them all watch it.) Ginny had dumped him for a junior. They had been together for about five months, then all of a sudden, it was the old, “We should see other people” routine his older brother had gone through a few times. And who knew that algebra would be so hard? Who cares what x equals?
The worst part was that his parents just told them they were getting a divorce. His baby sister didn’t know what that was or what it meant, but he knew, and Charlie knew. It wasn’t good.
He could see the lights of the city glow brighter the darker it got. He watched New York City slowly come into sight off to the left. He guessed he had about a mile and a half to go, so he tried to pick up the pace because from sundown to utter darkness took about a half-hour. The woods knew nothing about streetlights.
“Charlie! Where’s your brother?” came the familiar bellow. “The sun went down a half-hour ago!”
“Was it my turn to watch him?”
“I am not in the mood for a smart mouth, Charlie. Go. Find him.”
“Now. And, yes, it’s always your turn. You saw how he looked this afternoon after our conversation. Go.”
“Can I take the car?”
“Are you still here?! Don’t come home without him! Go!”
Todd kept thinking of Ginny and how much he missed her.
She brightened his days, laughed at his jokes, encouraged him to try out for football because he loved it so much, and made him laugh — the same way Mom used to do for Dad.
Without Ginny, all he knew was — he hurt like hell. He even cried in his room. Put that all together, and all he felt was this enormous hole somewhere near his heart.
Maybe it’s better this way, he thought. Suppose they had gone all the way through high school together, then college, got married, later ending up divorced like Mom and Dad.
Nope, he decided. It’s definitely not better this way.
Oh, Jeez, what was happening? He stopped, and bending over, put his hands on his knees. Gasping for air, he felt tears rolling down his cheeks.
“This can’t be real,” he screamed!
The lightning, however, was real, and it wrenched him from his little “poor me” trip. And — he was walking into it.
Charlie took the car, because what the hell, she didn’t say no. The trick now was to find Todd. He hadn’t looked good after their parents blew their cover this afternoon, either. At least Charlie had seen it coming. The fighting, the silences, the looks. Even at 17, Charlie knew what was up. Todd was such a good kid. But still a kid.
He called Todd and left a message — again.
The woods were thinning out now, and Todd could see a faint glow about a half-mile ahead. It was hard to judge distance in that light, but he knew it meant he was getting close to the wall.
The timing here also meant that if he turned around and went home now, he’d really be in for it. But turning around wasn’t even up for consideration. He’d made a decision.
A decision? About what? What 14-year-old kid is equipped to make a decision about the rest of his life? About Ginny? Everybody says he’ll get over it. Ha! Football? Man, he loved football. But he was cut in the first week. What did that say about his skill set? There goes your football scholarship! If it kept on like this in algebra, he’d definitely need a scholarship.
His football buddies were too busy with practice. His more “academically inclined” friends didn’t understand what he didn’t understand about algebra. And like most teens, he could hardly talk to his parents about anything. Already he felt like he’d have to choose a side.
Todd loved both his parents. He could kind of see they were suffering almost as much as he was. Charlie never let on that anything bothered him. But this time, even Charlie was shaken up.
Oooooh, shit! Rain! And thunder and lightning! He wasn’t even at the clearing yet, but once he got there, he had a hundred yards to go before he got to the wall. He decided to take cover under some heavy branches and wait it out.
Charlie would start by taking a drive-by Ginny’s house.
On second thought, he wouldn’t knock because maybe she was with her new boyfriend, that moron Denny.
As he got close to the house, he could see that there were no cars parked on the street, a sure sign that Denny wasn’t around. What self-respecting high school junior would walk to his girlfriend’s house from a mile away when he could drive? Even Charlie would have his own wheels by Christmas if he could just save up another $200.
He decided to call Ginny.
“Hi, Ginny, Charlie here.” Pause. “Yeah, I know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, does it?”
Pausing, he held the phone out and looked at it questioningly. “Yeah, I guess. I’m also guessing that Todd isn’t there, right? No, no, I’m just calling because — it’s dinner time and he’s not home. — Okay. Right. — Okay. Thanks.”
Completely at a loss, Charlie pulled over. Todd, where the hell are you? Charlie knew a football buddy, so he drove to Dougie’s house and talked to him. He got some other phone numbers from him and called them. Nothing.
Then something one of them said to him jumped out of him.
“Did you try the wall?” he said.
“Nah,” Charlie said, tossing it off. This new kind of amusement place in town had one of those rock climbing walls. But to Charlie’s recollection, Todd had never seemed to have any interest in it.
Then it hit him. This wasn’t the wall Dougie was talking about. About four years ago, Todd had begged Charlie to watch him climb this wall out by the Audubon Society reservation. It was more like a 200-foot high cliff. They rode their bikes out there, and for a 10-year-old kid to do this, Charlie was quite impressed. Todd had seemed tall for his age then, but he just seemed to stop growing when he got to high school.
Hand over hand, Todd slowly worked his way to the top while Charlie pretended to watch. Angling across the cliff face at one point, then straight up at another location, then angling across the face again to finally reach the top. When he got there, he was jumping up and down shouting for Charlie to try it.
Charlie had said something idiotic like, “Can’t leave the bikes,” but that wasn’t it. Charlie was chicken. Plain and simple.
He hollered up for Todd to come on down now, but Todd hollered back that it was more dangerous to climb down than up. He told Charlie to take the bikes and meet him at the end of Weaver Street. Todd would walk back through the woods and meet him there.
When they finally met up, Todd said he had been doing this for about a year. He had always found it mind-blowing to be in charge of his own life like that; to have his whole life in his own hands.
Charlie had stared at him in pride and disbelief. But now, he turned the car and headed for Camp Road and the base of the cliff.
It was as dark as it was going to get. It was just after ten and the rain had stopped about five minutes ago. While the sky overhead was deep black punctuated by clear pin-pricks of light, it was separated on the Eastern horizon by the glow of New York City. To the South, the distance of a football field was barely lit by the steamy glow of two streetlights in the parking lot at the base of the wall.
It was now or never. Todd didn’t quite know what he was going to do, but he knew that the decision-point was straight ahead, just one touchdown away.
Todd started to run.
Slowly at first, then tucking the invisible football under his arm and stiff-arming opponents out of his way as he zigged and zagged down the field. At last, there was only one player between him and the goal line. He faked left and somersaulted over the player diving at his knees, rolling into the end zone victorious!
As he lay on his back, soaking in far more than atmosphere, he started to whisper the only thing that was meaningful or that he could remember from his English class.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
It seemed like he and old Hamlet had some similar issues.
What to do, what to do?
There were three ways to settle this. He could do nothing and wait to see how it turned out. Maybe he could fight back and perhaps even win. Win what? Against whom? Or he could take a flying leap off this wall and put an end to it all. In the end, the choice was his. He had control — of what? Ginny was with Denny, Mom and Dad had been crystal clear, Rudy was a movie, and he still didn’t care about X.
He slowly got up and walked to the edge of the cliff.
“That is a long way down. I wonder how long it would take?”
Turning left on Camp Road, Charlie saw the parking lot.
It was a half-mile down on the right. Pulling in, he turned off the car lights and looked around. No sign of Todd, so maybe Charlie was in time to stop whatever was going to happen. This trip was just a hunch, obviously, but he felt like he was on the right track.
Bum — ba — ba — bum — bum — bum.
What the hell was that? He looked at the cliff and caught the tail end of a couple of rocks falling. He couldn’t tell how big they were, but they were big enough to make a noise that got his attention.
Bum — ba — bum. Again. But smaller and quieter this time.
Charlie turned the engine on and moved the car so that the headlights faced the cliff. The surface was wet and shiny, illuminating the old quarry from whence it came. Suddenly, something shifted, about halfway up the cliff.
Holy shit. It was Todd. He didn’t know whether to shout or hold his breath.
“Thanks! That helps! I can see now.” shouted Todd.
Rather than do something to shake Todd up, he shouted back, “Welcome. Whatcha doin’ up there?”
“Oh, just hangin’ around.” came the reply. “You?”
Then Charlie saw something that unnerved him. “You’re going the wrong way, ya know.”
“Not this time. I started at the top.”
“Isn’t that the more dangerous route? Even without being wet?” Charlie said, trying to sound calm.
“Yep. Proving a point. To myself.”
“Ah,” said Charlie. “Can I help?”
“Yeah. Shut up and let me focus.”
“Okay.” Charlie didn’t know what else to do. “Here if ya need me.”
Todd was moving with a speed and confidence that amazed his brother. How does he do that? It was like he was determined to finish this phase of a race and get on to the hard part. About fifty feet to go.
Suddenly, Todd dropped about ten feet in a second. His feet landed on an outcropping, and his hands grabbed something overhead. “Oh, Jesus,” Charlie muttered.
“I’m okay,” he shouted.
My God, he’s said that all his life. When Todd was about two, he was running in the kitchen and ran into a step-stool holding a stack of pans. The noise filled the house, and Mom and Dad came running, expecting to find a bloody mess. Instead, they found Todd, picking up the pans. When they saw him, they didn’t know what to make of it, but he beat them to it, calling out, “I’m okay.”
From that point on, whenever he ran into something, he would cry out, “I’m okay” as soon as he could, just to let them know that there was nothing to worry about. It was the family joke.
The last stretch moved quickly in two blinks of an eye. As if he’d traveled that wet, sodden path before.
Charlie had slowly moved toward the cliff as if he could catch him when he fell. When Todd landed, he looked up the cliff and grinned with a confidence and sense of accomplishment that said, “I can do anything now.”
“See? I was here for ya. Feel better now?” Charlie asked.
“Not for nothin’, but — why?” Charlie couldn’t hold back anymore.
Todd paused a long time before answering. “Dunno. Power trip? Taking charge of my life?”
Charlie nodded slowly and said, “I guess that’s as good as anything. Ready to face, Mom?”
“Thought ya had it made, didn’t ya?” Charlie laughed and said, “Get in the car, Stud.”
Originally published at https://www.sarasotawritingservice.com.