Spotlighted by a shaft of dull morning light, a stray lock of brown hair lay weightlessly across her eyelid and nose. Even while sleeping, the corner of her mouth was upturned in a faint smirk leading up to a slightly dimpled cheek, an echo of some past humor. Lost in the moment, Ben would’ve gladly surveyed the tanned topography of her face forever, but the very real tingling in his right arm begged for a reprieve.
Moving like a child playing Operation, he carefully maneuvered his arm between the bed and the slight curve of her neck. As his fingertips cleared her dimpled chin, a brown eye flashed at him and the upturned corner of her mouth turned into the top half of a full smile.
“Trying to sneak off again Slut?”
“Tough to sneak off when I live here, Trouble. I was just trying to avoid losing an arm.”
She yawned, her smile shifting shapes but never fading. “Yeah yeah. Just another boy trying to sneak out of bed before he has to talk to me in the morning.”
Ben smiled, before catching her contagious yawn, “Just another boy? I feel so cheap and used.”
“OK fine, you’re the boy who makes good pancakes. Better now?”
“I dunno Trouble, you cut me deep.”
“Can I kiss it and make it better or are you going to keep being a big baby?”
Sliding his hands around her tiny waist and pulling her against him, he said, “I suppose it can’t hurt to try.”
His lips landed squarely on the exposed teeth of her smile. Kicking her short leg over his, she pulled herself on top of him and kissed him again, lingering an inch above his face. “I said kiss, as in one. Now you’re just cheating.”
Ben sat up to chase her quickly retreating smile, “Humble apologies Trouble, just can’t help myself.”
With both hands on his bare shoulders, she tried to push him down again. He gave a token resistance before melting back into the warm blue sheets of his bed. She glanced at the morning light pouring in from the window, and back down at him. She paused, unsure of what to do next, before she collapsed back onto his chest.
“Ooof,” he said, kissing her forehead.
Looking up at him she said, “I told you that you’d be mad in the morning if I woke up here.”
He smiled the toothiest politician grin he could muster and said, “But you were wrong Trouble. Look at how happy I am.”
That was the truth. Ben couldn’t remember a feeling of more complete contentment than he felt right now. Running his fingers through her mussed brown hair, he tried to block out the inevitable consequences that he’d have to face for this. He tried to tell himself that it would be fine, and that begging for forgiveness would work. The lies he told himself settled uneasily in his stomach like a saccharine tablet but the die had been already been cast. Best to live in the instant before it came to rest on the felt.
“Ew, that smile is gross. You look like Richard Nixon. Don’t do that again.”
“Whatever you say Principessa.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled again, plopping over and sinking back into the bed. Ben kissed her on the forehead once more and climbed out of bed.
Grabbing his cellphone from the charger and walking into the kitchen, he noticed five missed calls with voicemails from home, along with a text from his mother to call home immediately. The call times had started at 3:47AM until the text was sent at 5:15.
A knot immediately formed in his stomach and his right knee started to shake uncontrollably as he punched his phone to call back. Nothing good would come from the other end of the line.
His mother picked up after the first ring, and it was obvious that she’d been waiting.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
Her voice cracked before she’d even made a sound, and he knew before he heard the words that his life was no longer the same one he’d known as he fell asleep the night before.
“Your brother was killed last night.”
Those six words slammed into his stomach like ipecac, expelling its contents and the life he’d known with the force of a firehose. He placed the phone on the counter without replying to his mother, bracing his unsteady legs against the wet formica edge.
From the bedroom, Rachel laughingly asked if he was alright, a question which lingered unanswered in the putrid air.
His next recollection was Rachel leaning over him in his oversized T-shirt with a towel. A horrified look cast upon her face. His face was clammy with cold sweat, the acrid taste of vomit remaining in his mouth. He blinked slowly and deliberately, taking in the scene between painfully gulped half breaths. He saw her mouth forming words, but the sound of a faraway kazoo buzzing lightly through the ringing in his ears was all that registered in his rapidly spinning mind.
Putting his left hand to his face, Ben pulled it back down and saw that it was covered in blood. Wobbling onto his knees, he pulled himself to his feet and the ringing ceased. She gently placed the towel on his head, her ashen white face a mirrored reflection of his own.
“Ben what’s wrong? What happened? Are you alright?”
His hand closed around hers, holding the towel to the throbbing cut on his head. His tear filled eyes caught the brown, almond shaped ones looking up at him. Wracked sobs and streams of hot tears was his only response.
The vibrating of his phone on the counter jarred him out of the daze. Letting go of Rachel’s hand, he wiped the phone on the towel and placed it to the unbloodied side of his head.
“What happened Mom?”
She started to tell him the details of the accident, but he knew that he didn’t actually care. There would be no sense of satisfaction or comfort to spring from the particulars. The only fact that mattered was that Ryan was dead. The rest was a mere assortment of morbid and irrelevant details.
Ben wanted to do was to throw his phone against the wall to stop the sobbing voice on the line from talking. With each whispered detail, the happy life he’d known 20 minutes before slipped further and further from view. Instead he patiently waited on the line, mumbling “alright” and “yeah” in nearly inaudible tones at the prescribed intervals.
Rachel stood silently in front of him, barefoot in his body’s adverse response to the news. Anxiety and helplessness etched indelibly into her face. She seemed rooted to the spot, waiting for the next response to the news. Ben desperately wanted her to leave, to not see him in this disgusting display of grief, but he just stood there slackjawed as his mother continued to explain the circumstances of his older brother’s death.
As his mother began losing steam in the telling and tears began to overpower her words, Ben told her that he had to get off the phone. He told her he loved her, and that he’d call back to tell her when he’d be driving home.
Placing the phone back on the counter, he slowly knelt down on both knees with the towel to wipe up the sludge from the floor.
“Ben, stop. I’ll get it. Just say something.”
Head down, tears still streaming without end, he kept wiping with increasing vigor.
In a husky, cracking voice that he didn’t recognize as his own, he replied, “Nothing to say Trouble. Why don’t you go get in the shower while I clean up this mess.”
Seeing the knees in front of him weren’t making any motion, he said again, “Go Rachel.”
She started to move, but reached down and put her hand gently on his tear stained cheek. She stood there and looked down at him, her dark eyes betraying her complete inability to assuage his pain. As her touch grazed him, he instinctively recoiled then looked up at her, his sapphire eyes floating in puffy seas of blood red.
He put the towel down, wrapped both arms around her and buried his face in her stomach, crying like a man on the verge of salvation.
Several hours later he was on the interstate headed south, showered but not yet steady. Rachel had pleaded with him to wait a few hours, that it wasn’t a good idea to drive that far in his current state of mind. She offered to drive him, but even in saying it, she knew that he’d never let her.
Once on the road, the bright blue sky of the day seemed to mock Ben’s grief. 78 degrees with only a few puffy clouds, he normally would’ve had the windows down with the radio blasting country music. Instead, the vent audibly blew stale air back at him as he repeatedly punched the seek button on the radio, barely hearing a station before changing it.
The resultant jumble mirrored his mental state, a cacophony of intersecting yet divergent thoughts and emotions that never reached any sort of conclusion. Thoughts of his brother curled around his mind like smoke rings, seemingly well formed until the instant that they dissolved. He feared that the memories of Ryan would remain that way; shadows chased into dark corners, vanishing just as they seemed to be within his grasp.
Passing the familiar corn and bean fields of a drive made far too many times, Ben’s grief started to ebb, as the guttural emotions do, into the dull omnipresent pain of one who can no longer sustain the sharp, fiery pain of loss. Yet, that sharpness would return at some point, of that there was no doubt.
Maybe it would return as he passed the Little League fields where Ryan had taught him to play baseball with ragballs or at the corner of that limestone Catholic school where they’d both attended. He hoped it would. Anywhere, so long as it appeared before he reached the driveway of their boyhood home. The outstanding power of his grief scared him. He had to expel that chest cleaving pain before he had to face his mother and father. For the others he had to be strong.
Grief is at its core, a selfish emotion. Like a piece of chocolate taken from a box, it hand picks the effect of a loss on the individual, attempting to leave the rest of those poisoned treats for others to consume. Ben thought that it was best for him to choke it down quickly, so that his selfishness wouldn’t consume him when others were in need. He didn’t actually think that it would work, but the thought of having an ordered plan helped shelter him from the chaotic mess in his mind.
The hills started their gentle rolling as he neared his destination. Less than 10 miles from the small town he called home, he’d soon have to acknowledge and face the stark reality of a life without Ryan. Peering out of the bug specked windshield, he saw a familiar, black billboard standing resolutely in the cornfield. “HELL IS REAL” ominously posted in white block letters.
Ben smiled for the first time since he’d left the safety of his bed. Ryan always acknowledged that sign as they drove by, usually with a profanity laced riff. He had little respect for the marketing genius of evangelical Christians, even if he held a certain perverse admiration for the dedication of their sales force.
His momentary reprieve was shattered by the “thunkity thunk thunk thunk” of a tire going flat. Even as he was pulling over, something snapped inside of him. With all of the fury that his chest cleaving grief afforded him, he savagely beat the steering wheel with both hands, his pain manifest in the screams he emitted with every vicious blow.
Suddenly the car seemed claustrophobic, and he struggled to free himself from the seatbelt. His grief was too great for a car, too volatile for any enclosure. Tripping in his rush to exit the car, he fell down on the shoulder crying. Laying there, beneath the words HELL IS REAL on the gravel covered shoulder, he spread his arms and embraced it as he had embraced Rachel hours before. In that moment, he knew that the billboard was right.
He had arrived.
Ben had no idea how long he’d been lying there as he felt a warm hand clap upon his shoulder. Turning his face across the gravel to look at its owner, he pushed himself back up to his knees.
A tall, older man in worn blue coveralls was kneeling beside him. His lined, world weary face radiated with the relief that comes when one’s worst fear has just been dispelled.
“Are you alright son?” the man said through his brown mossy teeth.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” Ben replied gruffly, mortified to be seen in such a pitiful state.
“Funny place to take a nap, lucky you didn’t get run over laying there like you were.”
The swirling in his head picking up speed once again, Ben muttered under his breath, “I must’ve passed out getting out of the car. I’m fine though, really.”
“Are you diabetic? Maybe you need something to eat. You sit right here, I think I’ve got a banana in the truck. Just hold tight.”
Before Ben could emit any protest, the man darted back to the wrecker, emerging with an overripe banana sticking out behind his scarred knuckles.
Opening it from the bottom, he leaned over and handed it to Ben, who accepted it with a slight nod. As he took a bite, he looked up at the man with thankful eyes.
“Looks like you’ve got a back left tire that’s gone down. Let me help you get that changed. We’ll have you right as rain in a minute.”
Halfway through the banana, Ben stood up and tried to wave the man off.
“I can get it sir, just give me a second to get my bearings.”
“No. No you won’t, not in your state. Don’t deprive an old man of an opportunity to do his good deed for the day.”
Realizing that there would be no adequate rebuttal to that argument, Ben gave a sighing shrug and replied, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“My pleasure son. Name’s Lee Martin, how about yours?”
“Ben. Ben Watson.”
Ben thought he caught a vague look of comprehension on Lee’s face as they walked wordlessly to the trunk of Ben’s car, but figured that he was imagining things. Lee removed the carpeted base covering the spare tire, pulled it out, and placed it on the shoulder.
“I’ve got a real jack in the truck, no use in using these flimsy trinkets they give you. You just start loosing the lugnuts.”
Ben knelt beside the flat tire. He noticed a significant puncture as he wrestled with the lugwrench. As the sound of steel rolling on gravel grew closer, Lee’s now familiar hand clapped his shoulder once again.
“Just coming behind you Ben, let’s get this puppy up in the air. Nothing that can’t be fixed here.”
Jacking up the rear of the car, they quickly had the tire replaced.
As Lee wheeled the jack back to the wrecker, Ben fumbled to find his wallet in the front seat, finally removing a crisp 50 dollar bill to pay Lee for the help.
As he walked back towards Lee’s truck, the old man turned around and waved him off.
“Ben there’s no way I’m going to take that. You put that back in your pocket and get on home. I wouldn’t accept anything from Ryan’s brother anyway, let alone on a day like this.”
Realizing that his earlier hunch was correct, Ben looked directly into Lee’s knowing eyes. He started to speak, but found himself at a loss for either breath or words.
The old man looked back at him for an instant, tears welling in his own eyes. He then averted his gaze onto the corn field, coughing as he did.
“You knew my brother? How did you…?”
Lee pulled an oily red rag from his back pocket and wiped his eyes with it.
“I’d just heard about the accident on the radio not five minutes before I came upon your car. Your brother used to be my auto parts delivery boy while he was in high school. When I shook you awake, and saw your face, I thought I was seeing a ghost.”
He paused before continuing, “I know there’s nothing I can say to fill that hole in your heart right now, but I want you to know that your brother was a good man. World can’t afford to lose men like that, not enough of them to begin with.”
This morning Ben had heard the details of his brother’s demise, but this acknowledgement of the man Ryan had been hit Ben even harder. The world was a worse place after Ryan’s death, not just his, or his parents’, but all those who would never again have a chance to interact with the man he’d called his brother these last 23 years. The enormity of Ryan’s death hit him in that moment.
Lee motioned Ben to the back of the truck, where he leaned up against a rusted steel ramp. Taking a place on the opposite ramp, Ben finally mustered the words of a reply.
“Thank you for that Lee. You’re a good man for saying it.”
“Aw hell, I’m no better or worse than the next guy. I just think that some things deserve to be said. Especially when someone needs to hear them.”
Gazing back across the cornfield, Lee continued on, “I’ve seen my share of loss in this life, maybe more than my share. Buried my only son and less than six months later, buried his mother.”
“There were days that I thought I couldn’t get any lower. Can’t say I know what you’re going through, because times like these show a man how he’s different from the rest. Some men drink and some men find Jesus.”
“Some men just start hating everything.”
“I reckon if you’re anything like your brother, you’ll be alright. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. Always had a smile on his face, Ryan did. Seemed to me that he had more things figured out at 16 than most do at 70.”
Ben smiled in spite of himself, “Yeah, he always was an old soul.”
“Well that just means he didn’t need to be taught the same lessons over and over again. He took the good with the bad and learned something from it. You were lucky to have a brother who knew how to do that. Hell I was lucky to know someone who could do that. Too many people let things beyond their control dictate their lives. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot we can’t control. An awful lot.”
“But you get on home now, just don’t drive too fast on that donut. Stop into the shop when you can and we’ll get that tire fixed up for you.”
Ben reached out his hand to Lee in gratitude as he stood up. Lee’s knowing eyes welled up with tears again as he spread his arms. Ben walked into his arms, crying those same bitter tears of loss, and hugged a man who only minutes before had been a stranger.
As they broke their embrace, Lee looked down at Ben and said, “You’ll get past this, and the life you knew with your brother will be replaced by a new one, no better or worse. Doesn’t make today easier, but tomorrow will be a new day. Think fondly about the past, because that’s what got you here, but know that today is the only thing that you can control.”
Ben wiped his eyes and nodded. Slowly walking back to his car as the sun sank into the cornfield, he turned and waved. As Lee pulled the wrecker onto the highway, Ben felt the life he had known pulling away from him as a new one took its place.