The flicker across the wide screen cast a series of colored shapes on the rear of the living room wall as Mrs. Palmer sat quietly in her knitting chair, desperately trying to keep the needles steady in her hands. The images on the screen watched her husband as they wandered in and out of the movie knowing he'd catch up with them again. This night she wouldn't have cared, except for the story portraying a young boy carrying out foolish tricks with his friends.
Suddenly, she jumped up, rushed over to the recliner, and dug deep inside to locate the remote control. She switched channels as quickly as her fingers would move. She couldn't afford for her oldest son to catch a glimpse. It was too soon.
In fact, it was too soon for most of her family. The blanket of stillness slowly waffling through each room, stifling the once boisterous laughter and antics of the children, had compressed and baked itself into the fabric of their daily lives.
She returned to the rear of the living room. The basket and accessories were missing from the empty chair. In her haste, she hadn't realized they scattered the moment she darted toward her husband. Her heart slowed to a familiar beat as she quietly gathered the equipment and calmly placed them back into the basket.
Just in time, she thought, as the slamming of drawers and shuffling of boxes ceased behind the door to the second largest room down the hall.
With a dismayed look, she stared at her husband and shook her head. She could barely see his body, as he slumped down into comfortable embrace of the recliner. It wasn't surprising that the loudness of the television, together with the commotion in the room, didn't wake him. He was digesting dinner.
Mrs. Palmer put away her knitting basket and headed towards the kitchen. She looked down the hall and noticed a shadow appearing under the door displaying movement from one side of the room to the other.
Gingerly, she walked the length of the hall. She wanted to check on the progress her oldest son, Gary, was making on his plans to move.
Perspiration beaded up in her palm as she placed her hand on the doorknob. She hesitated, then slowly opened the door. Two half-filled boxes stood in front of the larger closet. Being the oldest, he was allowed to claim the one that accommodated his belongings.
Mrs. Palmer's glance then shifted to the top berth of the bunk beds. The bed was neat. The giant plush bear, action figures, and others toys lined the back of the bed against the blue wall in descending order of height. Hardly any room was left for her youngest son, Sean, to sleep. But that was the way he always used to want it. To be surrounded by all the things he loved made him feel safe.
Her eyes settled on the computer desk in the far corner. Gary sat quietly with his head deep in his folded arms. His shoulders heaved. Startled, he looked up suddenly and reached for a tissue to wipe away the tears that streamed down his face.
Mrs. Palmer led Gary toward his bed. They both sat, rocking back and forth. Her heart was heavy as she didn't know how to help him. All she could do was listen.
"Has everyone forgotten Sean's birthday is next week?" Gary wiped his face on his sleeve, trying to keep the sniffles at bay while he talked.
"No, son. We'll never forget your brother's birthday. It's just that we all deal with tragedy differently. That doesn't mean we're not hurting too. We think of him and will carry his memory in our hearts forever." She tried to hold her voice steady. It was the only way she could think to help him work through his hurt.
"I can't carry him in my heart, mom?" Gary was crying profusely now. He tried to continue through his sobbing. "And he doesn't want to be in my heart either because I'm the one responsible for his death. That's why I have to move out of our room."
"Gary, if you move to the next room, how will that solve anything? You'll still be in the house. Sean is everywhere."
"I thought I could continue to sleep in here. But I can't stand it any longer. At least I won't have to look at his face everyday with his picture and toys in the bed above me at night. I can feel him blaming me."
"Now Gary!. Stop it! Listen to me, Mrs. Palmer stated sharply. You're not responsible for your brother's death! It was an accident. He made a childish decision to accept a dare from his equally childish friends. He was only eight, and he made a decision that cost him his life."
It had been six months since the accident. Gary accompanied Sean and three of his friends to the lake to watch over them. Sean and his friends were always adventurous and daring each other to perform diving tricks. They didn't know about the undercurrent that day. All three dived into the lake. Sean didn't return to the surface. His friends panicked and were fighting to stay afloat. Gary helped them to shore. Inching closer the water, he stood frozen, unable to dive in himself and attempt to rescue his brother.
"But I'm ten years old and should have protected him. I'm just a coward." Visibly shaking, Gary jumped up from the bed and went to his desk drawer. He pulled out the paper.
Looking at it brought back the memories. At seven, he began having dreams about water chasing him. Upon waking, he knew it was silly. But the dreams became increasingly disturbing. Each time, the water came closer. He'd wake many nights sweating and screaming for fear the water would overtake and drown him.
Gary transferred this to a fear of getting close to any body of water. His parents tried to enroll him in swimming classes thinking this would help. His younger brother, Sean, and two younger sisters, Hannah and Theresa, enrolled. He refused.
His parents didn't pressure him after that. He became increasing agitated being near water, so they sought professional help.
Gary read the diagnosis out loud. "This is what the therapist called it: Aquaphobia. It's the fear of water and drowning."
Mrs. Palmer took the diagnosis from Gary and returned it to the drawer. She drew her hurting son close. He tucked his head into the folds of her dress. Her arms immediately surrounded his head, rubbing it gently. "We all know, son, and we've been trying to help you. But you stopped therapy after your brother's accident."
Suddenly, Gary's dad interrupted their conversation. "May I join you? I've been listening from the other side of the door. Why don't we celebrate Sean's birthday next week however you want, son. Just let us know."
The next week was complete silence from Gary. The family didn't pry. Then on Sean's birthday, he surprised his family when he told them he wanted to visit the lake. He opened his arms wide, inviting a group hug. Within the hour, they prepared for the short trip.
"Wait a moment. I forgot something important." Gary dashed into his room, retrieved an item from the desk, and stuffed it in his pocket.
Again, silence as the family entered the beautiful lake front. They headed toward the pier. Standing at the edge of the grass, Gary reached in his pocket and pulled out Sean's picture. He studied the wall behind the upper bunk bed where his brother's favorite Superhero Fathead covered the entire section. He saw Sean rolling among all his toys and laughing.
"I should have been your superhero, Sean. I'm sorry I let you down. What if something were to happen to our two annoying little sisters, and I can't help them?" Gary paused and looked out over the lake.
He turned to his family.
"Mom and dad, you always told us about going as far as we could go; but that there would come a time when we'll have to make a decision about which direction we wanted to continue. I didn't understand it then. I still don't fully understand it, but I feel ready now to decide. In other words, to take the plunge. Either I can walk away from this water or walk into it." Gary hesitated; his voice a bit shaky, but continued, "can we start therapy again so I can work toward taking swimming lessons? Then maybe I can qualify as a lifeguard."
"Yes, we can. But take it slow," his mom replied.
"Whatever decision, it's yours to make." Mr. Palmer placed his hands on his son's shoulder.
Gary looked at Sean's picture again, and thought, this will be so hard, Sean. But I can do it if you'll be with me. He placed the photo back it his pocket, and smiled.
His family led him to the edge of the pier. They sat eating lunch, talking, and looking out over the water.
Story Word Count: 1519
My story is in response to the Ink Well Prompt #32: a fork in the road
The Ink Well Prompt #32 + Flash Fiction Contest Update