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Rated: E · Short Story · Adult · #2205264
Following a tragic accident, a young man gives a seemingly impossible promise.

It was too dark. I swear it was. Too dark for that kid to have been out, riding his bike on the street. Too dark for me to have been driving that fast. No, it wasn’t, actually, now that I think about it. I was driving safely, and I was only going 5 over the speed limit. Nothing I could’ve done. The courts agreed with me. I can still remember the look on the family’s faces when they said I wasn’t guilty. They all had a mix of fear, disgust, grief, and indignancy displayed for the world to see, but it
felt like I was the only one looking. I walked out of the courtroom 15 minutes later. Against the judgement of my lawyer, I approached the family, who was sitting on a bench in the foyer. The oldest brother, who looked to be around 15 or 16, made eye contact with me. I went to say something but the words got caught in my throat. “I….I’m sorry,” I stammered quietly.
“Sorry ain’t gonna bring him back,” the boy replied. His father was standing behind him now and my first thought was that he looked like the grim reaper, hiding behind his next victim, ready to take another life. I realized the vulgarity of what I had just thought and pushed it out of my mind so fast it might have been on wheels just like the car that hit him. And while I knew that what the boy had said was true, and that there was nothing that could bring his little brother back, I still felt the need to say something else. It was as if the little angel on my shoulder was telling me to, and the little devil on the other was telling me to run away and never look back.
“If there was anything at all that I could do to bring him back, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” I said. The father’s eyes were like daggers. He could see right through me, and I think even then he realized how shallow my words were.
“There isn’t anything that can,” the father replied coldly.
“If there was thought, I..I’d do it, I promise,” I replied.
“I think it’d be best if you walked away and let us be.” And so I did.
Months passed. I had nightmares of the accident almost every night. I went to counseling because I felt guilty, even if I wasn’t. That lasted for a few weeks but eventually, the dreams stopped and slowly the accident slipped from my mind. Life went on for me. I found other sources of stress to replace the accident, not including going back to school. But halfway across Wake Forest, there was a family still grieving the loss of their youngest child, who would never get the chance to go to university, much less even start kindergarten. Then the first Thanksgiving after the accident came and went. After that, Christmas. I sent the family a letter letting them know I was thinking about them. I didn’t get a reply.
It was a cold, dreary Thursday in February when the dreams started back. I considered going back to therapy but after I met Grace Thornup, that wasn’t needed. That woman was the girl of my dreams. Beautiful, smart, caring, and blonde. She knew the accident was a touchy subject for me, and that it wasn’t something I liked talking about, but she listened intently and seemingly asked all the right questions on the rare occasion that I did talk about it. I loved her, and she loved me. We moved into an apartment together after a few years of us dating. By then, the accident had no more place in my life. I only thought about it on the yearly anniversary, on December 8th every year. Other than that, it was no more than something that had happened, like the death of a distant family member.
It was 5 years after the accident and 4 years after I started dating Grace that we got married. A few months later we found out she was pregnant. We had just pulled into the driveway after a day of shopping at different maternity stores when I caught the tail end of a headline on the radio that said something along the lines of “...to life.”
         Later that night, long after we had retired to bed, I laid awake thinking. Thinking about life, about my wife, my unborn child. About the accident. That was weird. It was March, and I hadn’t thought about the accident in a long time. I tried to remember the family, for some reason, and the only thing I could remember was the way the father looked at me after I said something to him after court that day. How he had this look of...contempt and dislike so strongly it was almost like I was responsible for the death of his son. And how caustic his tone was to me, like he was blaming me for his kid running out in the road, like he was blaming me because he let him ride his bike at night, like he was blaming me for his lapse in parental judgement. It bothered me more than it should’ve. I mean, it had been over half a decade since it all had happened. Why was it all of a sudden bothering me again? Something didn’t feel right. It felt like that same little devil on my shoulder was whispering to me, reminding me about every little minute detail about it.
I dreamt of the accident that night. It was the same exact dream I had so many times years beforehand, and it always started with me leaving my house to get something to eat. Every time I realized I was having the dream again, I told myself that I needed to wake up over, and over, and over, but I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. And I couldn’t just jump out because the doors wouldn’t work, either. It always followed the same exact route that I had taken that Friday night. I could control the car, but no matter what street I turned down, it was always the next one that I had taken in real life, all the way until I got to the residential neighborhood that I had taken the shortcut through. Then, as I approached the scene, it was like time slowed down. I still couldn’t stop in time, just like I couldn’t have in real life. The little boy, no older than 4, rode his bike out in front of me. My foot instinctively hit the brakes and a squeal and thud later, I was stopped. I heard the boy’s older sister, who was then around 9 or 10, scream. I always got out, and just as I reached the front of my car, the father came sprinting out of the darkness behind me and tackled me. It was then that I would always wake up sweating with tears in my eyes.

The next day Grace had an appointment with her OB/GYN at 9 in the morning. I woke up from my dream at around 5 and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up and made a pot of coffee and sat down at my laptop, intending to find something on the internet to read while I waited. I made my way over to some news website and what I found there made me choke on my coffee. The third article down on the homepage read “AMERICAN DOCTORS SUCCESSFULLY REVIVE DEAD CHILD.” I wiped the bit of coffee I had spilled up with my shirt and clicked on the link.
Atlanta, GA - Doctors have finally figured out how to play God.
In an extraordinary feat of science and human ingenuity, doctors have successfully brought a dead child back to life using a willing donator’s life. The process, which as of right now has not been fully disclosed to the public, has been proven to work on rats and other small rodents, but this is the first time it has ever been tried on a person. There is a downside, though - the donator’s life is lost, a sacrifice that they know they’re making going into the procedure.
I stopped reading. I realized I was shaking, and at this point, I felt fear. Genuine, my-life-is-in-danger fear. And then it hit me; the headline I heard on the radio the day before was for this. I checked the article date - March 28th, 2018. I checked the date on my computer. March 29th, 2018. I realized then that the reason I had the dream again was because I knew, somehow I knew what the radio had said. I just didn’t want to hear it, because I remembered the promise I made that family 5 years ago. The only problem was is that 5 years ago, I didn’t have anything I had now. Sure, I had my actual family, but I didn’t have an unborn child then. They couldn’t possibly expect me to keep that promise regardless - it was their fault the kid got hit, not mine. I was driving, but he ran out in front of me. I didn’t hit him on purpose. If I had, I’d be in prison, and my life would be completely different than what it is now. I sat there at my kitchen table for the next hour or so, thinking again (Looking back, regardless of the outcome, at least it got me thinking again. Maybe everyone should get into a soul-crushing ethical and moral dilemma just so we get people to think). Grace came down around 7:30. I cooked us a large breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and sausages. I drank another cup of coffee, my 4th that morning. Grace had iced tea.

I’ll be honest with the reader here for a second. I expected a visit. I knew that it was inevitable. Something the person who is responsible for the death of your child says isn’t easily forgotten, and with the right stimulation, every word they said can be recalled. I didn’t expect them to not take me up on my promise, and I knew that they would expect me to keep it. I can only assume that their grief, even after 5 years, was still strong enough to be willing to destroy someone else’s family if it meant that they could be happy again. I just expected them to be better people and come tell me they wanted to die in person rather than through the wondrous United States Postal Service (I guess they felt guilty about not returning my letter from Christmas a few years ago). I’m still not sure how they found my address, but Wake Forest isn’t that big. And with the right motivations (like finding the guy who promised to bring your dead son back to life), it’s far from impossible.
And so, over 5 years after their son died, my wife opened the letter that said they wanted me to keep the promise. I was upstairs reading a Stephen King novel (Pet Sematary) when she yelled for me to come downstairs. She sounded scared, and that scared me. She was not the type to be easily shaken. I came downstairs and she handed me a handwritten letter.

To whom it may concern,
We know that this letter is unexpected. Do not fret.

Almost 6 years ago you took the life of our son. You were found not guilty in an outrageous act of injustice that has left our family in ruins. After the verdict, you approached us with an apology and a promise that if there was anything you could do to bring our son back, you would. And that is why we write to you, to beg you to keep it. We know that things might be different now; we know that it won’t be easy to keep the promise, but we are begging you to.

If you would like to meet with us and discuss these things, please call us at (XXX)-XXX-XXXX

We are awaiting your reply.

the McCarthy Family

I read the letter, and looked up at Grace. Her eyes had tears in them. “What does this mean?” She asked, wiping her eyes.
“It was stupid of me, Grace. I promised them after the verdict that I’d give my life if it meant that the kid would live again, but I didn’t think something like that would ever happen in my lifetime,” I said, my voice shaking. “Hell, I didn’t think it’d ever happen.” I set the letter down and went to embrace her.
She pulled away from me unexpectedly. “How can they think that you were serious? It was a long time ago,” she said, a look of indignance on her face.
“I don’t know, babe. But I do know there’s no way that I’m keeping a promise I made because I felt sorry for them five years ago,” I replied, pulling her towards me and hugging her tightly. “I’m going to meet and talk with them and tell them that I’m sorry, but I can’t keep a promise like that. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
2 days later I met the family in their home. It wasn’t a nice place, and the neighborhood they moved into following the accident wasn’t the best. I was nervous, for some reason, but at the same time, I was confident. Confident in my ability to tell them that their son was dead, and that he was going to stay dead. I remembered a line from the Stephen King book I was reading. Sometimes, dead is better. And for a while there, I really believed it, right up until their front door opened and the father stood there. His hair, blown by the cold March wind, had a lot more grey in it than it did five years ago and he had more wrinkles in his face. His eyes still had that piercing look, though, and I think that was what caused all of this. If I hadn’t made eye contact with him in the courtroom that day, if I hadn’t felt this man’s eyes staring straight through me, then maybe I wouldn’t be here writing this for somebody to find in a box of my things when I die.
The father and I stood there for a few seconds, neither of us speaking, and then the mother walked up behind him, scolding him for letting the heat out. She told me to come in. We sat down in the living room. I sat on the couch. The father sat directly across from me in a rocking chair that had a torn quilt thrown over it.
“So...um,” I started, my voice already shaking. Like I said, I was confident in my abilities to tell the family “No” firmly, but the second the door opened, it all went away.
“Do you remember the promise you made me?” the brother interrupted.
“How...how can you expect me to keep a promise like that?” I stuttered.
“You made your bed. You get to sleep in it,” the father replied simply. His wife walked in carrying a glass of iced tea and handed it to him. He took a long drink, staring at me the entire time with those damning eyes.
And so for well over an hour we talked. It was surprisingly pleasant. They listened to me talk about my wife and how we were expecting a child soon. I told them about how I had gone back to school and finally gotten my life back on track. I felt like a defense attorney, and everything I told them was evidence proving me not guilty. And if I was the defense attorney, they were the prosecutors. They told me they had spent his college savings on a down payment to cryogenically freeze his body after they learned that (at the time) scientists were relatively close to reviving the dead. They told me how old their son would’ve been this year. They told me they still wondered what life would be like with him now, what his hobbies would be, and what the think his personality would be like. But I still think even now that nothing was going to change their mind. To them, I was the murderer of their son. That meant that if there was a possibility of bringing him back alive, it was my responsibility to make sure that it happened. This thought emboldened me, somehow -- I think it was a paternal instinct. I realized that if I wanted to see my child’s birth, I would have to leave and never turn back.
“You know what? No matter what you say,” I said, standing up. “I’m not going to die so your dead son could walk again.”
And with that, I crossed the threshold, staring back at the father, who had a look of pure hatred and shock intermingling to produce a quite humorous expression. I grabbed the door handle, turned, and walked out.
I got in my car and drove. I was surprised to find myself back where the accident happened. I guess my subconscious needed to reflect or something. I drove slowly up the street, exactly how I did when the kid rode his bike out in front of me. I stopped the car where he was hit and got out. The house the family was living was now occupied by someone who had a sign in their yard that read “Ban Fracking in North Carolina!”. I walked around for a bit and stood where the boy had lost his life. I tried to put myself in the father’s shoes. Would I want a total stranger to die if meant that my dead son would be around again? Would I be mad at them if they refused to die? What if that someone was going to be a father soon? Would that change anything?
My phone rang and I realized I was talking to myself. It was Grace, no doubt worried about me. I had been gone for over 4 hours, she said. I told her I was leaving their house now. I drove home, gave her a hug, and went to bed.

And so, dear reader, you might be wondering what happened after that. And the answer is quite simple - that wasn’t the end of it. Yes, I thought the accident had no more place in my life. Yes, I walked out of the house that night with the intent to never think about the accident nor the family ever again. But I still do. Even after all these years, and all these good memories, the accident still does in fact have a place in my life. I liken it to a scar from a nasty cut - as the years go by, it heals and it fades, but it’s still there unless you remove it completely. And I tried to. I raised a family. I got promotions, hosted birthday parties, attended backyard barbeques. And for the majority of my life I honestly very rarely thought about it all. But then, as karma would have it, Grace got breast cancer, which was the catalyst for the end of all the good things in my life. Not even a year after her diagnosis she died. And after that, our son, Joshua, moved out and joined the military. So I was alone, with nothing but a big, empty house filled with the reminders of my late spouse and the life I once had. I enjoyed the quiet at first but after a few months with the only human interaction being employees at the local fast food place, the doctors say that I started to go crazy. Every night I would have the dream again. One night in particular I had it 3 times in a row. It all became too much. I started second guessing everything I did, no matter how small or menial the task. Putting on socks? Oh, I wonder if Grace had folded these. Making dinner? Grace used these pans once. Going to bed? The other side of the bed is cold, and it will be for the rest of my life. It was especially bad, however, when I was driving. I got into a fender bender one day before the 30th anniversary of the accident and according to the kind nurse who gave me this pen and paper, had a mental breakdown and attacked the driver of the other car when he tried to get my insurance information; he died in the hospital. The state deemed me a threat to myself and to the public, so here I am, 37 years after a young boy was killed in a tragic accident, in a mental hospital (read: prison) for a completely different crime.
I don’t know where my son is. He hasn’t tried to get in contact with me; I guess if my dad was a wackjob who went crazy because of an accident when he was 24, I wouldn’t want a thing to do with him either. I wish I could see him. I wish I could see Grace. I wish she never died. I bet she would’ve gotten me out of here. Hell, if she hadn’t died I probably wouldn’t be in this place to begin with. But most of all (and I will carry this wish to my deathbed), I wish I hadn’t hit that kid. Or at least, I wish I hadn’t made that promise to the family. If I hadn’t said anything, who knows what my life would be like.
My doctors say that years of bottling up the emotions and thoughts about the accident, in addition to the stress of losing my wife and losing contact with my only son boiled over to the point where I lost control of myself. Now that I think about it though, I wonder if the kid lost control of his bike when he rode it out in front of me. Wouldn’t that mean that he too lost control of his life?
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