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Over the Distance
A soft blanket of mist gently covered the town streets as the last trickles of rain made their way down from the dismal clouds above. Shining through this fog was a red light, and behind it was the green car in which Billy and his father sat. Billy was a third grader who delighted in sharing his experiences with others more than anything else: whether it was about something funny a friend of his said, an out-of-the-box observation, or an exciting episode of Scooby Doo, he would give his dad every single juicy detail that he could conjure up. His words were always simple but delightful; at school, even his teacher, Mrs. Hickory, could be taken adrift by one of his imaginative ideas.
However, the lips from which those enchanting words came remained sealed shut and quivering as their owner gazed out the window. There was nothing for his sapphire eyes to see from the fogged up windows, but Billy wanted his mind to be the same—empty. He rested his head, crowned with brown, untamed hair, against the seat. Other than the occasional long breath, nothing came from this unmoving Billy.
His father tilted the rear-view mirror towards the backseat and saw before him this rare portrait of his son. Sure, Daddy had tried as hard as he could. He felt useless when his son locked himself alone the first night, but he was the shoulder upon which Billy cried the next day. He tried the two following days to get his son out and about again. Just to get Billy outside and shooting a few hoops took all the persuasion in the world. Yet, all of those efforts came to naught, for Billy just cried even harder during his halfhearted play as he more vividly remembered Jimmy.
Jimmy so often had appeared at their house that Daddy sometimes had to remind himself that he had only one son, not two. But no longer. Jimmy had been walking around the block in such excitement that he would nearly break into skipping as he rounded a corner. Above him as he stopped to tie his loose shoestring was an old, giant tree branch. For ages it had been withering, and with so many other moments when it could have happened, the branch snapped right then. Ms. Irving immediately called for help when she looked out her window at the noise, but the help was too late. Jimmy, who had first set foot down here only eight years ago, had just taken his last sidewalk stroll.
The memory of receiving the horrific news and gradually realizing that he would never be able to tell Jimmy just how much he appreciates him rolled through Billy’s mind. Though Daddy tried to ease their mood in the ride with fun songs from the radio, they seemed merely to tell Billy that he would never again be happy enough to appreciate them.
“So... do you think you’re okay for this?” asked the father to his son as they pulled into the parking lot by the cemetery.
Tears flowed from Billy’s eyes, but he was not openly sobbing: that stage had passed. Now, his misery was no longer a surprise, so tears simply rolled down his cheeks as naturally as his breaths came. He gave Daddy a nod as he tried to stop his mouth from quivering.
Even when some moments each seem to be an eternity, they sometimes meld into memory as one collective instant, as the funeral did. From watching Jimmy’s mother sob uncontrollably to seeing third graders bury their weeping faces into the pant legs of their parents, so many tears came together in one big picture to remember. In such a scene, the parents, for the sake of their children, had to try with all their might to stay strong as they felt a natural sympathy for a fellow parent who had the worst ever nightmare come true. Recollection of the funeral’s events was little, but the memory of the shared pain was one to never fade.
“Why does God hate Jimmy so much that he’d do this to him?” asked Billy out of the blue on the way home.
As parents watch their children grow before their eyes, nearly every opportunity to savor the moment and talk is a blessing. However, to discuss with a child issues that perhaps even the adult is at least a bit insecure about is like walking a steady tightrope: the parent must be mostly honest, but must not stir up even more anxiety. Perhaps a minister would have known the best answer for Billy, but for Daddy to expose himself as anything less than omniscient at a time like this would just render his son feeling even more helpless.
“God doesn’t hate Jimmy: he’s in Heaven, happier than we could ever understand,” replied the father, “I know this is the hardest thing in the world for us, but just try to remember that he is actually better now.”
Billy remained in the somber state he had possessed on their way to the burial. Without turning his head or his eyes, he asked, “Then why does God hate me? Did he take my best friend away because of something I did?”
“He doesn’t hate you,” replied Daddy as he contemplated in his mind the rest of his response.
Unconvinced, Billy went on, “I know last year I was bad when I hit Austin back, but he wouldn’t stop, and it hurt so much, and—”
“Billy,” interrupted his father, “you haven’t done anything wrong.” He took a deep breath as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “What you’re feeling now is something everyone goes through some time. We won’t always be happy, but if we make the best out of everything, then it will turn out alright.”
“How?” Billy asked, finally turning his head with an attentive look towards his father.
“Well,” said Daddy, “angels can look down from Heaven, right? Mommy’s always been with you, so I’m sure Jimmy is, too. In fact, I bet both of them are looking down at you right now.”
Billy spent the rest of the ride upright as he pondered how these angels might help make everything turn out okay. For the first time, he imagined the possibility of his being happy again—Daddy never lied. Although the father took to heart only some of the comforts he gave, he was pleased to see that what he had said was enough to satisfy his son. Plus, he may have seen a few moments where the tears stopped for the first time in four days.
Yet, those tears inevitably returned the next day. When they could arise from any form of communication or play, there was little for the father to do but suffer Billy’s same depression. Daddy could help his son with his homework, counsel him of his relationships, and fix his meals, but he was now rendered useless in the greatest of tribulations. The father continued to compel Billy into his typical activities with the hope that one might recover for the boy his usual enthusiasm.
Thus, almost against his will, Billy emerged from his garage on his bike (after Daddy made sure his helmet fit “good and tight”). He and Jimmy had plotted an amazing route through their neighborhood: it took them through twisty but quiet streets, sent them on a smooth path through a park’s forest, and then back to their street. From the speeds they could reach to the people they could encounter, there was always an adventure to find.
But not today. Instead, Billy drifted melancholily, going down whatever streets his wheels guided him. The sun above shone brightly as though the world were fine, and the birds delighted in their ignorance as they sang happily and planned to go south. Billy passed the forest that had so enchanted the two friends, but merely turned his head away from the trees and their branches. Eager to end his mandatory sentence, he coasted back to his driveway and sealed himself up back inside.
As the sky turned orange and the sun but peeked through the distant hills, Billy acquiesced to going into the backyard and putting his basketball hoop to use again. He could make many of his close-range throws hit their mark. However, as soon as he meandered to what he and Jimmy had agreed was the three-point line, Billy could only hurl the ball towards the hoop and then watch it ricochet off the backboard and to the ground.
“Jimmy could do it sometimes, he was the three-point king,” he mumbled to himself as he withdrew to the fitting silence of his room.
As Billy poked at his lunch the next day, his father, seeing a relatively lopsided clay pot sitting on the kitchen counter, remembered to compliment Billy for the masterpiece he had made in art class last week.
“Thanks,” stated Billy, who did not lift his eyes up from his macaroni and cheese. “Jimmy made a ring,” he continued, lowering his voice.
His father could feel the conversation heightening, but perhaps it would be a fairly casual means of discussing Jimmy. He decided to take the chance.
“That’s neat,” Daddy said, “Did he make it for his mother?”
“No,” stated Billy, “his girlfriend.”
“Oh yes, Melody.”
“Yep,” said Billy casually, oblivious to his father’s little grin, “Melody and him were getting pret-ty serious: they’d share each other’s lunches and go on dates on the playground all the time.”
“Always sounded like he was quite the gentleman,” the father said.
“Yeah, some people said they even kissed once,” continued Billy, “so I guess he had to marry her next.”
Tears began to emerge from his son’s eyes, so Daddy decided to shift the topic. “Have you seen Melody lately?” he asked.
“Dad,” replied Billy, who was suddenly recovering some of his energy, “you know I shouldn’t try to take his girl!”
His father suppressed a laugh and replied, “No, I mean as a friend.”
Billy’s eyes jumped away from his dad’s face as he swallowed another spoonful of macaroni. “I’m scared,” he said.
These two words told Daddy all he needed to know. Nearly all of Billy’s escapades had the same pattern: he would stay near his best friend, who was much more comfortable in the company of other kids than he was. Without Jimmy to lean on, how was Billy to enjoy being around others? He assumed that, to many of them, he was just the quiet boy Jimmy played with.
Then again, Melody was different: any friend of Jimmy was a friend of hers, so perhaps Billy could keep his nerve around her. Though he was reluctant, he and his father derived a plan for him to play with Melody the next day. She had enjoyed going with Jimmy and Billy on their intricate bike route, so Billy called her, and she accepted for the next day.
Emerging from a week inside spent with her supportive parents, Melody rolled in front of Billy’s house. Her face swiftly lit up as she gave an eager wave. Her brunette hair, complete with a pink flower clip, reached down to her shoulders, which were covered with a small, pink tank top and a larger black one underneath. These ran down to her sky blue shorts, sitting on a colorful bike. Some thing called a “smile” may have appeared on Billy’s face, for a bike ride with a friend would surely be better than his lonely drifting.
As Billy rode out with her, his father turned back inside. He went into the master bedroom and opened a drawer next to the bed. In it was a beautifully framed picture of a smiling woman, whom Billy had lost just hours into his life. Gazing at the picture, Daddy said to Mommy, “You’ve always watched over us; please, keep watching over him.”
Meanwhile, Billy and Melody rode down their street as they enjoyed the fine autumn day. A cool breeze danced through the scene as birds above them migrated. Billy and Melody gently rounded a turn and steered into a park. Some children utilized the blacktop, others the playground, and others the fields of grass as some mothers talked on the benches. Riding on the bike path towards the forest in the back of the landscape, Billy and Melody passed a four-square game.
Billy sighed. “Jimmy was a pro,” he said to himself.
“Yeah,” said Melody, hearing Billy, “remember when he stayed in the first square all day?”
“Mmmhmm,” replied Billy, ready for the discussion to end.
As they rode further, Billy glanced at a bunch of kids playing an intense match of capture the flag by the woods.
“You remember playing capture the flag, too?” asked Melody.
Jimmy was right: girls could read boys’ minds. “Yeah,” replied Billy, “Jimmy always picked me for his team. It was always fun to have us together.”
“And you were pretty good!”
“Not that good...,” replied Billy, red.
As they pedaled into the forest, Billy remembered the very first time he played capture the flag with Jimmy. They gathered all sorts of kids together, so the teams were huge. Neither side could breach the other’s defenses. However, Jimmy made himself a decoy, and Billy was able to grab the flag and run. Everyone knew his name after this glorious victory. Instead of crying at the nostalgic memory of Jimmy, Billy smiled.
He and Melody, actually chatting along the way, made their way through the forest, found the road again, and eventually made their way back to the street.
“See you later, Billy!” Melody called as she waved and pulled into her driveway.
“Bye!” he called back, finding his house a minute later.
The orange evening sun complemented the leaves upon the big tree behind Billy’s house. Beneath these falling leaves was Billy with his basketball as his dad watched. Billy told him every single juicy detail of his jaunt with Melody.
“Sounds like you two talked a lot,” Daddy commented.
“Yeah,” replied Billy, meandering back to the three-point line.
“I thought you’d be too scared without Jimmy.”
“Well,” said Billy, missing his shot, “you told me that he was with me.”
“Do you believe me now?” asked Daddy confidently.
“I guess,” Billy replied as he recovered the ball.
Billy dribbled the basketball twice and then poised himself back on the line. His eye on the hoop, he shot the ball. It bounced against the backboard and circled the inside of the hoop slowly—until it came to a stop and went in. Billy stood frozen in awe.
“Jimmy must be with you,” Daddy told his son as he patted his shoulder. “He wants a new three-point king.”
A little, happy tear wandered down Billy’s cheek as his face lit up, and the golden sky shined as though to share his smile, all as three birds above flew together over the distance.
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