Under the Light
The light above poured down. Huddled figures shrunk behind him and the crowd melted away, their cheers muted into a dull roar. The boy clenched his hands, then gently bent over, digging his cleats into the chewed up grass. Boisterous cries directed the shuffling of feet all around him, but his eyes remained locked ahead.
At once, his body lurched forward. Quick steps turned into strides as the boy broke down the field. His foil stumbled, now trailing far behind. Twisting his head at the precise moment, just as he had practiced hundreds of times before, the boy raised his hands. The ball struck his awaiting palms and, instinctively, he drew it towards his chest in a single, fluid motion. The boy had done it. The cheers around him dampened, and a flash of light took him.
Then, he woke up. The alarm clock violently shook his bedside table, and his mother’s footsteps echoed down the hall in a hurried manner. He smirked, rubbing his eyes as they adjusted, then dragged himself into the shower.
For a moment, the boy looked at his figure in the mirror, glancing at the ascending notches on the wooden frame. He threw his jersey over his shoulders, tousled his hair, and smiled. It was on a day like this that he was proud of himself, and he knew his parents were, too. Tonight was important, but, more importantly, she was going to be there.
Casual head-nods graced his approach to a wall of lockers. Wearing his jersey, he felt himself stand up straighter, and people seemed to notice.
“Good luck tonight, man!” A voice chirped.
“Thanks,” the boy said, ruffling around in his locker before turning to face the source. “Won’t be like last year.”
The other boy strung his arm around the pair of broad shoulders next to him. “Not with you out there. I mean, look at you.”
The towering frame twisted away and smiled.
“So did you invite her, anyway?”
The voice seemed to expect an incoming excuse.
“Ya, I di…,” the boy began before being interrupted. “Hah! Nice job, man. Honestly, didn’t think you would.”
The bell rang and both boys walked down the corridor in high spirits before parting ways and fading into the sea of expectant faces.
In truth, he hadn’t wanted to invite her. It was the first game of the season— of course she was going to be there. He had worked hard over the summer and wanted her to watch him play, but what right did he have to invite someone? She’d be there regardless, and asking her personally only exposed his feelings. At least, this is what he had thought.
A couple of days back, his father had miraculously convinced him otherwise. When the boy had broached the subject, his father had instructed him to follow him outside. His father would often sit out here— a place that signaled a solemn seriousness. Two chairs overlooking a sprawling yard that rolled into a lonesome hill in the distance, framing the night sky above. The boy explained his troubles. His father relaxed in his chair, looked up into the night, then began to speak. An urge to refute his advice ignited inside him, but something had held his tongue. “It’d make her feel special,” his father had said. “…And it would cost you nothing that wasn’t already at stake.”
The team’s stampede onto the field was met with an eruption of whistles, horns, and enthusiastic hollering. The boy was near the front of the charge, but fell behind as his eyes danced across the stands. His heart leapt when he saw her, uncharacteristically adorned in school spirit gear among a crowd of rowdy fans. “Did she dress up for me?” He wondered, letting out a smile. Though she couldn’t have seen this through his helmet, a mirrored grin crept across her face.
“Damn man, play like that every game and we’d never lose,” his teammate snickered. It felt good, but he didn’t know what to say. He really wasn’t used to being complimented, and he doubted that he’d ever be. Hands slapped his shoulder pads as he made his way to the edge of the field.
Leaning over the fence, his mother held him, and his father rested a firm hand on his shoulder. Joy and laughter beamed between them, but their brief chat was broken when, out of the corner of the boy’s eye, he noticed a figure in the periphery. His father glanced in that direction, then shuffled away with the boy’s mother in tow.
“Hey, I was looking for you,” the boy said sheepishly. “Thanks for coming.”
He rested himself along the fence, confidence boosted by the feigned sense of security it provided.
“Of course…and you were great,” she said, resting her hands atop the post between them.
He blushed, then began to collect himself. “…thanks,” he managed to muster out. Cleats trotted behind him, then a voice boomed. “Is she coming, too?”
Slender arms wrapped around him and squeezed his torso with a delicate embrace. Her warm hair flowed across her shoulders, brushing against his exposed skin.
“A hug for good luck,” she whispered in his ear. His neck relaxed.
“It’s my last final, and I’ve already gotten into college…I’ll be fine,” the boy said with confidence he really shouldn’t have had. The girl noticed.
“We’ve already gotten into college,” she corrected gleefully. “...as long as you finish the year strong.”
“Sometimes you sound like my mother,” he smirked.
She poked him in the chest. “That’s a compliment. Speaking of, what time should I come over for dinner?”
He heard her, but was too lost in thought to respond. She really did remind him of his mother.
The young man scanned the aisle, but his mind was decidedly elsewhere. "Did I get the order right?” His brain twisted trying to find the answer. Feeling guilty, the young man supposed extra snacks would atone for his mistake.
He walked briskly through the misty morning air. Few were out this early on a Sunday, there was no class today, after all, but those who were seemed composed of unnatural determination. The young man took a short-cut through a park, and, when he was sure no one was watching, began to jog. He hurried up the building’s stone steps and took a moment to catch his breath before opening the door.
The young woman was wrapped in a blanket on the couch, her head barely visible, peeking just through the covers.
“Here,” he said, reaching into a bag and withdrawing a wrapped bagel. The blanket didn’t stir at first, but as the aroma engulfed the room, a hand slowly extended forward.
“I think I got your order right,” he stated nervously.
He was always worried, but he was never wrong. The young woman sat up and pulled down her blanket hood, revealing a floppy bun that fell in front of her face. She groaned, brushed it away, then took a bite.
The young man waited in anticipation. To his surprise, she put the bagel down on the table and faced him with a curled lower lip and the widest eyes he’d ever seen. Then, she collapsed in his arms. The young woman groaned again, briefly massaging her temples before burying her face in his chest. The young man watched her lay still for a moment, before she pulled herself back upright, stretching towards the bagel. “I must’ve got the order right,” he thought to himself.
The man had said he understood, but that was a lie. The call had ended awhile ago, but he continued to pace back and forth across the courtyard. A restructuring, the voice on the phone had called it. And right after they had moved into a new place? The man slumped on a nearby bench.
Emotions swirled within him, conjuring an aching feeling that bubbled up and left him powerless. The man sank into his arms, but nearby footsteps startled him.
“That’s where you went off to,” the woman hollered. “Dinner’s ready.”
The man began to wonder how many more dinners he could afford, and he couldn’t help his head from bowing towards the ground. The woman sat beside him and slid her hands around his open palm.
“I lost my job”, he replied. Though it made no difference, it felt better to say it this way— as if it was simply misplaced, and not that he had utterly failed.
The woman squeezed his palm into a fist. “I know you can get through this…I know we can get through this”, she proclaimed. “Now, let’s eat first, then we’ll figure it out.”
She stood and pulled him up behind her. They walked in silence before the woman spoke again.
“This was always much more than I needed”, she whispered, slipping a polished ring off her finger. “I’d prefer something smaller any— .” He stopped her, pushing it back on her finger. The man didn’t let go of her hand until they got back inside.
The man’s father reached into the old wooden box between them and fingered two cigars. He lit one, then extended it beside him.
“I’ve been saving these,” the man’s father said.
“Have you now?” The man questioned, clearly interested in what he meant.
“In a way, my job is done,” the man’s father whispered through puffs of smoke. “And the rest of your life begins— a celebration of endings and beginnings.”
The man took this in for a moment, then began to speak. “I guess you’re right.”
The man’s father ashed his cigar on the railing, then turned around. “Him,” he stated, motioning inside through the tiny apartment window. “That’s what life is about now.”
The man peered through the glass and spotted his newborn son in a deep slumber.
After some time, a nearby door opened and the woman joined them outside. She exhaled, then tied her arms around the man. He didn’t dare move— this brief respite was the least he could offer.
“I’ll go find your mother, it’s time for us to be going” the man’s father said, putting out his cigar and tip-toeing inside.
The man traced his fingers through the woman’s hair before resting his chin on the crown of her head.
The child bobbled along a winding path towards the hill at the edge of the yard. Some years back, the man’s father had etched a crude trail through the brush that, in time, was further eroded by tiny footsteps. At the top of the hill, a solemn tree watched over the yard and its inhabitants, and a quaint swing hung from a broad, sturdy branch. An attempt at enticing more visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s, no doubt.
Secretly, the man was jealous, for he wished his father had built such a toy for him. Instead, an endless blanket of grass had covered the terrain when he was a boy. At least, his son could experience it, and that made him happy. Glancing at his father’s eyes, he could tell it made him happy, too.
The child had often raced his grandpa to the top of the hill, and each victory was duly rewarded with a push on the aging swing. The man’s son never lost, of course, but perhaps today, more than any, he wished he had. The swing was long gone now, and the hill seemed taller.
The man sat back in the chair overlooking the yard and reached into a familiar, wooden box beside him. “To ends,” he whispered.
The woman watched the man through the kitchen window and understood. She sent the boy outside. The child plopped in the empty chair beside him.
“I used to sit out here with grandpa when I was your age,” the man said, breaking the silence.
“What did you do?”, the boy asked curiously.
“We’d watch the sky.”
“The lights are pretty, especially the big one.”
“Yes, especially that one,” the man said.
He crooked his head and squinted as a solitary light dashed across the darkness, an airplane no doubt, but to his son it was still magical. He looked over at the boy, now standing up and pointing.
“The big one is going to eat the little one,” he yelled, turning to his father.
“What?” The man laughed, standing up for a better view.
The man watched as the tiny light approached the moon, then vanished upon eclipsing its edge. Steadying himself, he continued to stare. The moon quickly swelled in size, engulfing stars in its vicinity. The man’s ears started to ring, and the world around him brightened.
Startled, the man looked inside his home. The woman’s silhouette framed an empty figure, then abruptly blinked away. Heart sinking, he reached down to his son, but felt nothing. His hand bled through a shadow, now perched where its subject once stood. The man turned to face the light and watched his son’s form stretch towards its center, entirely consumed. Then, in a moment of anguish, he let the light take him, too.
Suddenly, he felt like he was on his back, and the ringing slowly morphed into recognizable tones. He opened his eyes and above him stood a circle of figures, shrouded in the glaring light. The boy leaned up and began to stand, and the crowd cheered.
“You alright? That was quite the hit,” a concerned voice said. “Come with me.”
The boy nodded, unable to speak, then followed him towards the sidelines. And with each step, crisp memories melted away, and he felt increasingly heavy.
What had happened? The girl…who was she? And what of his son? What were their names, and what did they look like? In his mind’s eye, they formed but blurred outlines. He felt them. He knew them. They must be real, but he couldn’t remember anything about them. Brief episodes in time that carved out deep holes inside him, irreplaceable feelings and short bursts of emotion, but nothing more. Flesh faded into mist, then evaporated in blinding light.
He looked up and noticed familiar faces stepping down from the bleachers. His parents were approaching him…his parents, he remembered them! They grew confused when he wholeheartedly embraced them, but this was surely a welcomed surprise. Oh, how he missed them— so full of life. His mother began to speak, but the boy pulled away, feeling a wave of emotion that demanded privacy. He didn’t want to explain. The boy turned and paced toward the locker room.
He thought he heard a voice call for him from the other side of the fence. Eyes now bubbling with tears, the boy ignored it, and continued forward.
“A small concussion, eh, you might even be able to play next week,” his father exclaimed. The boy stared out the window, praying to catch a glimpse of something he once felt he knew.
The car remained silent for a time before his mother turned on the radio. The singer's voice crackled through the old stereo, forming a smooth melody that spoke of someone dear to him. The boy had heard the song before, but for the first time he listened.
He stepped out of the car and into his yard, then began to walk. His mind grasped at what little recollections he had left, but he felt himself slipping. Lost in thought, he trudged through the brush that blocked a familiar path. Was none of it real? A tear rolled down his cheek, and he looked up at the moon.
“Wake me up!”, he yelled into the night. The boy felt its light graze him, and he dashed into the dark.
“Do you think he’s okay?”, the boy’s father said, peering up from his book.
“I think he’s just disappointed. It was a big game that he’d been training hard for,” the boy’s mother responded. “Losing something you care about is always painful.”
They both nodded, and went back to what they were doing.
The hill seemed smaller to the boy. He stopped at the top, then collapsed into a heap, sprawled over the grassy crest. A curious prick caused him to twist to his side, revealing a sapling nearly drowned in leaves. Under the moonlight, it seemed to glow.
The boy gently patted the ground beside the young tree, then pushed himself upright. He knew what was at stake. The boy wandered back to the pair of lonely chairs awaiting him, heart dancing with each step. And there he sat, alone, smiling under the light.