I’m not sure when it happened. I remember the day was cold, the sun was setting on our small town and Colin and I were on the road. No one else was there, just him and me, best friends reminiscing over college days. He was never a good driver: cheated on his written test, bribed the instructor, and based all of his knowledge on racing games. But I didn’t think he was bad enough to slip on ice and lose control. We rammed into a giant tree and when I gained consciousness again, he was already pale and scarred and thrown halfway through the windshield. I don’t even remember calling the police. But when they came, I didn’t want to move. I couldn’t leave my friend, a loving father and husband, a son, a brother. What would I tell everyone? They eventually got me in the cop car, with much resistance. I was in shock for a while, hours, but once I got in that car I broke down. Gasping for breath, clutching to the chafing leather until I reached the hospital. Colin didn’t deserve this. He was supposed to live on, there’s nothing for me here. Not without him.
When I woke up again, Amy was there; of course in tears, clutching balloons and her daughter’s hand. My vision, dazed and faded, began to clear after some hard blinks. Amy immediately let go of the balloons and rushed over to me. I hugged her as we both sobbed in each other’s arms. I looked past her shoulder and smiled down at their perfect child. I cleared my throat and gestured for her to come to me. She smiled her spotted smile and trotted over. Even at a time like this, she could always make me smile.
“Hey Chloe, how are you?” I asked, chipper, hiding the pain from my bruises. She hugged me back.
“I’m happy to see you, Sammy! Mommy won’t let me see Daddy yet.” Those words were like a spear to the chest. “Where is Daddy anyway?” she asked.
I froze and stuttered for a moment. I looked up at Amy. Her hazel eyes begged me not to say a word. This is wrong I thought. But I nodded.
“Uh-h-he’ll be back soon, ‘kay Chloe?” Her green eyes seemed to get a little brighter. I let her down and she ran to the other side of the room to reach for those balloons. This was my and Amy’s time to talk. “What’d they say?”
“You know what they said, Sammy. He’s gone,” she sighed. I pushed myself up as carefully as I could. My eyes shook while Amy sat down, nearly in tears again. “Why us? Why him? Colin did nothing to deserve this,” she rubbed her face, hoping that some of the sorrow and stress would fall with every stroke.
I looked over to Chloe. “You’re not gonna tell her?” She looked up at Chloe and smiled. The smile turned back into sorrow.
“I can’t. I don’t know how, Sam.” Chloe made one final leap and snatched the balloons from the air with a loud thud.
“What’s best for her now is that you’re here. I’m here, her family is here.” I took her hand rubbing the jewel Colin had given to her six years ago, the one I helped him pick out, pay for even. Amy was back in tears.
They released me to my suburban home the next day. I unlocked the door, staring at the keys in disgust. I was greeted by my giant Saint Bernard, Howell. His slobber covered my hand as I scratched under his chin. I walked further into my house, looking at the surroundings. A lounge area for us Alpha Phi Alpha members to watch the playoffs around October, like always. A giant kitchen for almost any holiday you can name. My photo wall, with tables covered in framed photos and snow globes of vacations. I dropped my bag there and stared at them. Me when I was young with my mom, nothing ever seemed to go right did it? My first drink at the college house surrounded by my brothers and sisters. I scoffed and picked up the photo of Colin and me, holding Chloe. Too many feelings to describe washed over me in that instant. I gripped the photo tighter, making all the muscles in my body pulse and quiver. I screamed and all that surrounded me was broken glass and a torn photo. I gripped the side of the table and convulsed, which later caused me to vomit.
I cried harder than I had in years. I was laying there shuddering until Howell came over and licked away my tears. I looked up at him; the innocence in his eyes kept me together temporarily. I went back to crying. He gently bit onto the side of my shirt and began pulling me up. I held onto his neck as he walked me over to the couch. I praised him, “Good boy, Howell,” and rested my head against the cushion, still staying on the floor. He hopped up and lay down next to me, his head touching mine, reminding me that someone was there.
My boss kept me home for the next week. He said something as traumatic as that deserved rest. Ironically however, I worked at the pharmacy downtown from my house. So I found myself there quite often having chats with my work buddies. They tried to laugh with me as much as they could until I clutched my stomach in pain. I was handed the pills and slugged away trying to drive out dark thoughts of Colin. I reached for my car keys and my hands started shaking. I unlocked the door and opened it. Candy wrappers and empty Gatorade bottles covered the seats and floor. I pushed the wrappers away and slowly climbed in, minding my bruises. My hands rested on the wheel and turned pale. I squeezed my eyes shut, breathing heavily. It was the third time that week I’d been at that damn pharmacy and that pain wasn’t getting any better. A tear subsided from my pale skin and I shuddered. I sniffed, sighed and stared into my rear view mirror. Cars zoomed by with such disrespect and ignorance. What were they doing? Didn’t they know what happened last week? Why were they so slapdash in blissful ignorance? I sighed and wiped dry tears from my cheeks. “You’re okay,” I traded looks with myself in the mirror. My black eyes stared back at me full of fear and sorrow. “No, you’re not.” I doubted. A knock on my window startled me and I scowled at the silhouette. I reluctantly unlocked the door and started the car.
“Hey Sam! I see you stopped by for a quick visit,” he looked at the pharmacy. “So what the hell are you still doing in my car?” He grabbed the pills and tossed them to the back seat.
“It’s my car Phillip, has been since ‘96. I was just leaving anyway, came for my pills.” I rolled my eyes.
“How many times do I have to tell you Sammy, just ‘cause I’m your stepdad don’t mean you can call me Phillip.” He shifted unsettled in his seat.
“No of course not. I can call you Phillip because I’m a twenty-six year old adult who’s just lost their best friend and is trying to cope.” I snapped. He sighed and I looked over at him, hiding my tears with puffy eyes.
“Listen Sam, I know you’ve been through a lot lately, but just know I’m here for you.” I breathed heavily gripping the wheel again.
“Everyone seems to be here for me, Phillip. But I was supposed to be there for Colin. So what does it matter?” I faced away from him staring out my windshield.
“Get out,” I looked at him urgently and demandingly. He turned his eyes soft, but I kept my ground; he opened the door.
Another monotonous night passed when I got home. Panic attack, followed by convulsions and crying, until Howell dragged me to my bed around midnight. I woke up in cold sweats, startling myself with every waking nightmare. I often woke up screaming his name. I kept wishing for Colin and I to be at some dicey bar filling our bodies with bad alcohol. I wished we could be laughing at widowed men hitting on underage girls with fake IDs. I wished he and I were scoping out slightly intoxicated people for me to take home. But when I stopped wishing, I found myself in the dark next to my big dog in my bigger house yet small town. Only without Colin, my best friend.
It’s been years. A lot has changed since then hasn’t it? Amy remarried for example. Some technician named Brandon Lester, three years strong. I helped them move house last year. I held it in every time I saw pictures of Colin, and I think Amy did too. Chloe turned 8 a few months ago. Every year on her birthday she seemed to get happier, slowly forgetting the sadness that came with losing a father. None of us could handle it. We didn’t even have a service for him. His ashes lay untouched in his parents’ living room. I used to visit them often after we heard the news. But they’ve moved on too.
That morning, I got up with more pep than usual. I walked over to my calendar and crossed off the day with red marker. I walked into my bathroom and got ready, staring soullessly into my black eyes, combing through my black hair. I poured Howell some food and got dressed. I looked into the vanity in my bedroom and put on a fake smile. My eyes trailed down to the infamous wedding day photo, Colin and Amy kissing under stars as I toppled into the wedding cake. I sighed, “Happy Thanksgiving, Colin.” I managed a smile. I grabbed the keys out of their bowl and drove to celebrate it.
When I walked through the tall double doors, I was greeted by toddlers and Chloe smiling up at me. I picked her up and pecked her on the cheek, her blonde hair covered her smile. The scent of pie and meat filled my nostrils as I inched closer to the kitchen. Brandon stopped me midway and smiled cheerfully. I set Chloe down and greeted him. “Brandon, how are you?”
“I’m alright Sam, you?”
I leaned against a chair and reassuringly lied to him. “I’m great. Where’s Amy?” He gestured to the kitchen and I smiled brightly at a woman covered in flour and sugar. “Hey Amy, happy Thanksgiving,” I said. She tossed a set of rolls in the oven and wiped some excess flour from her apron.
“Sammy, hi! I thought you might not be able to make it.” I shrugged and hugged her, minding the powders. “The food’s almost done so if you could help me with the table please.” I almost immediately turned and grabbed a set of plates. She always could make me do what she wanted. Brandon tended to the children while Amy and I set up the table.
She looked at me, “So, Sammy.”
I chuckled. “Two more kids. That’s commitment.”
She chuckled after me. “Well what can I say? I love children. But two more wasn’t my choice, they’re twins.”
“I love twins. Maybe for different reasons than you though.” She shook her head and
looked out at Chloe. She played with barbies while the two boys raced trucks across the hardwood floor. “How’s she been handling all of this? You told her right?” she clutched the set of silverware in her hand and looked down.
“She still gets nightmares about it. I waited a good year or two, leaving her to wake up to scream and cry for me and him.” She spoke slowly and quietly on the verge of tears, “In second grade she learned about death. She asked me, ‘if I can’t talk to Daddy, then is he dead?’ and I couldn’t face the answer. But she’s smart – no trait from me. She figured it out on her own.” I looked down and shivered. “But once I met Brandon, she was mad. A tantrum here, some hitting there, until finally she broke down in school and said she wanted her daddy back. I drove her home in tears. She wouldn’t speak to Brandon, and as far as she was concerned it was just me and the twins in her life.”
I looked back to Chloe. Without knowing something bad had ever happened to her, you couldn’t tell that she was really sad on the inside. I guess I reflected her.
After dinner, we all gathered in the living room and shared what we were thankful for. Chloe went first. “I’m thankful for my two baby brothers, Daniel and August. I love them so much. I’m thankful for my mommy who I love.” She curled her small hands into a heart and faced it toward Amy. “I’m thankful for Sammy, my real Daddy’s best friend,” she turned the heart to me. I smiled. “And I’m thankful for my fake Daddy because you got us this big house!” We erupted in laughter and applause. I picked her up and gave her a long hug.
“You’re next Sammy, guests go next!” she smiled. I thought for a moment there was so little to be thankful for.
“I-I’m thankful that Amy and Brandon invited me to their wonderful home with their beautiful children who I adore. I’m thankful that I get to see Chloe smile one more holiday. And I’m thankful for Colin, my best friend and Amy’s husband, and Chloe’s father. I couldn’t have done it without him. So thank you, wherever you are.” I smiled to hold back tears. I looked over at Amy and Chloe. Amy was on the verge of tears and Chloe was already there, gallons of water streamed from her eyes to her rosy cheeks to the floor. We all smiled at each other.
I’d been stuck in traffic for a good hour. The sun had already fallen, and the moon peeked over the mountains with stars. I put my car in park as the surrounding vehicles came to a halt. I turned up my radio, blasting Kansas through the car. Reaching in the glove compartment, I popped open an extra pill bottle and gulped down a few. They don’t go bad right? My eyes darted to the radio as a familiar song came on. Colin and I used to sing this all the time. Guns ‘n Roses, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” I groaned and shut it off, growing tired of everything that reminded me of him. I took the car out of park and sped down the highway.
I ended my night on the couch watching reality tv. Howell lay next to me staring up at the moon, howling at it. I pet him, keeping him quiet for a moment. He walked over to the door and started barking. I looked back and groaned lazily. “Howell, what’s wrong?” I pushed myself off the couch and walked to the door. I opened the door to a cold snowy street. Howell growled at the street, and I stared at it tentatively. In the dark, hidden by broken street lights and a faded moon stood a tall silhouette facing me. Its featureless face looked back at me unmoving. I slowly closed my door and locked it. Howell stopped growling and whimpered, running back on the couch. I went to bed unsettled that night.
I was alone that Christmas. Howell and I stood in the snow. I sat by a fire while he trotted through it digging holes that almost immediately got refilled by snow. We went inside at half past five, and I made a small ham and biscuits. Howell joined me in the kitchen drooling over the ham. I began cutting into it and tossed him slice patting him on the head. I began cutting my own slice and jumped at the sound of my doorbell. Howell immediately jumped up and barked at the door. I wiped my hands and walked to the door.
“Hello?” I stood still staring at the mysterious figure that I’d seen for the past month. Their green eyes looked at me. Their hands squeezed their pockets tightly and their face looked frozen against the cold December wind. They smiled at me and walked closer to the screen door. This isn’t happening. I thought. “I don’t–” And my porch light caught the features of his face and my heart stopped.
“Hey Sammy, I can’t find Amy or Chloe. So I thought I’d come by and hang out with you for Christmas. Let me in?” Colin’s familiar voice rang in my ears, and I shook away the dazed feeling. I stared at him. “C’mon Sam, it’s cold out here.” I nodded my head and stumbled over my words.
“Y-yeah yeah, sure Colin. I just didn’t think I’d see you again.” I opened the door and Howell cried out to the moon. Colin howled back and laughed petting his head.
“Again?” He turned back to me and blasted some Christmas music.
“What? Oh nothing. What’s up?” I sat down on my couch dazed and confused.
“Nothing, I just thought I’d bring you a Christmas gift: me.” I laughed. This was a Christmas miracle. He took off his coat and sat back with Howell. We spent the rest of the night talking. I don’t know what brought him here, but it was my job to keep him.
Colin stayed in my guest bed for the next month. We didn’t do much besides catch up. He told me about how he and the family were supposed to go to Brazil this season but he couldn’t find Amy. He told me that he was being kept in the hospital. He could hear us talking about him. He could hear Chloe asking for him – the things sent chills down my back.
“I tried to say to her, I’m right here, baby. Daddy’s right here. I screamed to you all but it’s like I didn’t even exist. I didn’t leave until Thanksgiving day. So I went home. No one was there. I saw a vacant house with a “For Sale” sign laying in the front yard. So I came here and no one was home. Where were you?” I stayed silent and he sighed. “It doesn’t matter. But I would like to see Chloe again. Take me to her?”
I smiled and sighed. “Uh s-sure. I’m sure she’d be overjoyed to see you again, Colin.” He gave a toothy smile and started singing off key but cheerfully. I joined him, and before we knew it Howell was singing along too joining us in imperfect harmony.
That Valentine’s Day Colin and I made it apparent that he was going to see his family. I called up Amy and told her I had a surprise and to bring Chloe over. They got there within the hour. I greeted Chloe with a kiss on the cheek and a big hug. Same for Amy. “C’mon you’re gonna love this,” Chloe ran with me laughing and jumping excitedly.
When they saw him they froze. Amy grabbed Chloe’s hand in fear and looked at me in fury. “It’s him, he’s back.” I smiled.
“This is unholy. It’s wrong. That’s not Colin.” She marked a cross on herself.
“Mommy, look it’s Daddy. Sammy was just hiding him.” She laughed and ran to him. I smiled as Colin leaned down and hugged her tight. “Daddy, I missed you. At least tell me when you’re dead alright?” He chuckled in confusion.
“I missed you too baby. I missed Mommy and Chloe so much.” Tears fell from his eyes as he looked up at Amy. She traded looks with him, then me, and Colin again. She finally gave in and hugged him. Tears flew from her eyes. “I missed my beautiful girls so much. Don’t ever leave me again.”
“You don’t ever leave us again, okay Colin?” Amy said through sobs. He hugged them tighter.
Later in the evening Amy and I went to my room to talk. I closed the door and sat on my bed.
“Alright Sam, spill it.”
I shot a face of confusion. “Spill what? He’s back that’s all there is to it.”
“What did you do? Praying, voodoo, or was it just some universe screw up?”
“I didn’t do anything. He came to my house on Christmas.”
“Christmas? You’ve been hiding him from me since last year?” I shrugged and she began pacing around the room. “I can’t do this, Sam. I finally got my life together after everything. What the hell am I gonna do?” She started to cry.
“I don’t know Amy. But do what’s best for Chloe. I think you know what that is.” I twiddled my thumbs.
“I can’t do that, Sam. Brandon and Daniel and August they are a part of my life and I can’t leave them. Even if I could go back to my perfect life.” She sat down and cried in my arms. What did she want me to say? There was nothing that could be done.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “This is all my fault. If I had never shown you two… I just feel like everyone is learning to cope with his death. And I….I just can’t. You’re all moving on, but I can’t. So why can’t I just deal with it like the rest of you?” I began crying too. I couldn’t keep doing it. My life wasn’t getting any better without him, but it’d ruin everyone else’s with him there. I shouldn’t have brought her here.
“No. Sammy it’s okay, I promise. We’ll just have to think of something is all.” She smiled at me. Colin knocked on the door I quickly wiped my eyes.
“Guys? C’mon, Chloe wants to play charades.” We sat there for a moment. “What the hell is wrong with you two?”
I laughed. “Nothing Colin, just spreading rumors about you.”
He scoffed and chuckled. “Back to your college ways I see?”
I laughed. “I never left them.” We joined Chloe in the lounge.
They left later that night with sad faces. Colin tried to go with them, but Amy and I came up with lies to keep him here. He listened. He and I stayed up with Howell until about three. “Isn’t this something?” Colin interrupted the silence.
“What is?” I asked he turned to me.
“Well, this. Two best friends living together after our four years of college. Reunited after Amy and I settle things. It’s destiny. Fate even.”
“Those are synonyms,” I joked. He sat back. “Besides I don’t really believe in fate. If it happens, it happens – that’s my motto.”
“Ah, you’re no fun.”
“What?! I am so fun.” Colin looked at me questioningly. I looked to Howell and even he seemed to be mocking me.
“Okay, so if you’re so fun, dive bar. Right now.”
“It’s three am.”
“That’s when all the fun begins! Sammy, c’mon.” He nudged me and reached for the car keys. He jangled them in his hand, and my heart stopped. I snatched them away.
“No. I’ve got work tomorrow anyway. I’m gonna head to bed.” I got up and closed my door, dragging my back against it. My face welled with tears, and my hands shook. That was one thing that could never happen. It could seal his fate.
“Don’t mind us….” a voice called. “Just passing through.” It was calm and quiet. I was almost drawn to it.
“Through what?” I whispered back.
“Your dream silly. I have business to attend to.” I walked to it.
“Like what? It’s a dream after all.” The voice seemed to draw near.
“I have to fix a mistake I made. It appears I’ve jumped to conclusions.”
“I know that feeling.” I looked behind me and an image of a sleeping Colin lay there.
“What’d you do?” I asked. They stayed silent for a moment; I could almost feel them thinking. It was like a pulse.
“I-we tried to fix a family. It didn’t work so I must restore his fate.” I stood upright.
“His fate?” A cloud of whispers loomed over me and gradually got louder. I covered my ears until they eventually hushed up. “Whose fate?” The voice chuckled; it was deep and subtle.
“I think you know.” I tightened my body and tried to find the voice.
“What are you gonna do to him?” My breathing became strained.
“I must fix the mistake,” the voice got quieter.
“Wait, what are you? Are you….God?” I shuddered.
“Just below God. Don’t you remember me, Sam? The last time I was here, it was the worst day of the year. Who do you think saved you? It wasn’t your time Sam.” I stepped back in fear. I could feel their bones creak almost like they smiled at me. They began to drift away.
“W-wait! You don’t have to kill him. I-I can do it,” I regained my confidence.
“Can you? Better than me?” the voice called back.
“It’ll be another accident. Please just two more weeks,” I pleaded.
“Hmm. I am here for that exact time. How about this: by February 29 of this year, you must kill Colin. I cannot help you, and you cannot tell anyone. If you fail, Colin and his daughter will both be killed by me, and I am not a friend. For my protection, I am going to hurt someone you love. Only temporarily but once you finish, they will be back to normal. The world will be back to normal, and my job will be done. So what do you say, Sam? Do we have a deal?”
My heart dropped as I contemplated what had to be done. Could I kill Colin to save someone I loved? I sighed and let out my hand. “Deal.”
Their bones creaked again and they shook my hand. I jumped awake and squeezed my bedsheets. I immediately ran into the guest bedroom and found Colin in deep sleep. I exhaled and turned around. Howell jumped from the couch, and I let him outside. I turned on the stove and took out some breakfast food. The phone rang, and I raced over to it not to wake Colin. “Hello?” I went back to cracking eggs.
“Sammy?” Amy called through tears. I shifted myself to pay attention to her.
“Amy what’s wrong? What happened?” she sobbed louder and spoke through tears. “Chloe’s sick. I woke up this morning and she was in the bathroom. Her face was covered in blood. The doctors are saying it’s a terminal illness.” I started to tear up myself. This is what the voice in my dream was talking about.
“No, this wasn’t supposed to happen. She was the one person who was supposed to live on.” We both cried. I turned off the stove and drove to the hospital.
I’d been there for almost two weeks. I had three days to get rid of Colin and save Chloe. I had too many sleepless nights fighting over what to do. The voice kept yelling at me to make a decision, and every night I cried out for someone to help me. But nobody came.
I’d made my decision. I couldn’t keep living like that. I remember the day now, thanks to the voice. It was there watching me on that leap year, four years ago.
I woke up late. I barely spoke, knowing what was coming for us, for me. I couldn’t tell anyone. I just told Amy vaguely that Chloe would be okay, but she just wouldn’t see Colin again. I waited until sundown and kissed Howell on the nose. I looked at my photo wall again, but instead of crying in sorrow, they were tears of joy. I sighed and sniffled.
Colin sat on the couch channel surfing as usual. I grabbed my keys and looked out at the fading sunlight. “Hey, Colin, you wanna go for a ride?”