“It could always be worse, Mikey.”

Mikey…

…my middle name and the family nickname.

My little brother had always called me that, even when I still lived at home. Now, at nearly thirty, he my junior by a little over ten years, I had come to expect it of him. He’d grown up so fast and in such a different manner, but it was the one thing he’d never grown out of.

I was always “Mikey.”

Even the day he’d called me about the accident.

Mom and dad.

“Hello?” I’d said, not recognizing the caller ID.

“Mikey, it’s Caleb.”

My head spun. I’d not spoken to my little brother in, what? Maybe eight years? Ten?

Turned out it’d been nearly twelve.

“Mo…mom and…dad are…”

I braced myself for the next sentence as I listened to my little brother choke it out.

“Mom and dad are dead.”

My brother asked as he choked back a mouthful of spit and tears if he could come and stay with me. I didn’t know what to say. He needed a place to live. The state had no further disposition for the estate. Caleb had inherited everything, including a lump sum of life insurance and monetary inheritance that had been set back for his college tuition, which he had yet to undertake. I mean hell he was only eighteen. Caleb had received assistance in selling the home and banked the money, spending only enough to fulfill our parents post-mortem wishes. The rest he’d set back, amazingly enough, to re-establish himself.

At first I’d made excuses when my brother had come into town. He’d wanted to go out and do things, see life, enjoy the new town. Parasailing, sporting events, hunting, skydiving, cliff jumping, you name it. Neither of us had mourned our parents death in the typical manner. Most kids spend days, weeks or months crying, asking some celestial, non-existent being in the heavens “why?” There’s the eternal laundry list of things to do, paying off bills, enduring the aftermath of media and state attention. But we’d managed to dodge most of it. The brief mourning period was overcome by life. The things “we” had to take care of.

I didn’t have time for that…mourning I mean. My parents had died a long time ago for me, and had simply been replaced by two identical hosts that pretended to be parents and act as thought they’d given birth to me. They’d spent nearly two decades telling me who I was, what I was supposed to be, and why I was the worst thing that had ever happened to them.

I gave them “worst” when I emancipated myself from them at sixteen. I was well on my way through college, having overcome financial setbacks and a lack of parental support for my Running Start collegiate program. By eighteen, I’d finished a degree in Computer Applied Science, going on to MIT to major in Urban Studies and Planning. Thinking back, the day the paperwork settled, before all the accomplishments I’d nailed down, I remember my father saving his most cutting and painful remarks for that  moment.

Failure…failure…failure…the words echoed in my mind like a canyon.

“…worst mistake I’ve ever made…”

Okay, I get it, I thought to myself.

“…wish I’d never had you for a son…”

“Enough Charles!” I had turned around and snapped at him in the middle of the courthouse.

The same old man he’d always been. He’d raised his hand to strike me, right there in front of the cops.

“Strike me, Charles. Go ahead, add assault to your list of accolades!”

The old man had enough foresight to slink back into his hollow frame, swallowing a spoonful of humility along the way. Middle-aged bastard somehow had managed to call himself a parent for sixteen years.

The officers nearby stepped in quickly and made sure we went our separate ways. My mother had the human decency to give me a hug and tell me to take care of myself, but my sympathy in reciprocation was simply, “I’ll be fine, Karen.”

I stayed with my godfather, a ripe old man of sixty-seven. He lived in Massachusetts, which carried me on to my school accomplishments. Post-graduation, he’d afforded me a handsome sum of money, which I set aside while I hunted for a new home out in Colorado Springs. My family had spent their entire lives in New England, Maine specifically. I’d had enough of the east coast and took in the sights of the Colorado Rockies for a while. Initially I moved in with some friends in Pueblo, but found my home just south of the Colorado Springs city limits within a few years.

Brayden and Amy were partiers and swingers, creatures of a dangerous sort. But they were friends. We’d gotten to know each other through an online game and had enough in common that our friendship transcended the medium. It was the first time the three of us had met up, but it was like we’d been friends forever.

It wasn’t long before I had moved out and re-established myself in the community. I’d started up my own computer business, building computers and competing in gaming tournaments. I won first place in a popular online game player-versus-player tournament, pulling down forty thousand dollars, which I turned back into my business to expand upon it.

Working anywhere from four to eight hours a day, on top of general income requirements for the business, I managed to take home an average of eight to ten grand a month. I’d expanded and hired a few employees, contracting them to do the repair work and construction, leaving me time to take on the lucrative business of data recovery.

The income was more than enough for my apartment, car, insurances, and then some. I moved into a house in a quiet suburb and purchased a few other items. I bought a home gym, among other things, and made a habit to at least get some exercise each day, despite my otherwise quiet and home-bodied lifestyle. I managed to stay in decent shape, made a few friends here and there, and settled down quietly, sans the leash of my parents or the constant nagging of my little brother.

Life started to pass me by. I met a girl from Denver. We played a common video game online and had started chatting one night. She’d come to Colorado Springs and we’d spent some time together. Eventually we started dating, though she never moved in with me. I wasn’t ready for roommates by that point.

It wasn’t until I found out she was sleeping with half of Denver that the relationship came to an end. I went into the doc’s office and had him run the gamut of tests to make sure I wasn’t “positive” for anything. Thankfully, the tests came back in the clear.

Life resumed.

Then the phone call came.

“Mikey, it’s Caleb.”

“My name’s Ethan now, Caleb.”

“Mikey, mo…mom and…and dad are…”

The words echoed, but offered little in the way of impact.

Mom and dad are dead? How?

“Boating accident.” Caleb had managed to choke out.

They’d bought the yacht three months before I’d hit them with the civil action. Since Caleb was eighteen, they didn’t have to babysit or coddle him like they were wont to do. So they’d been spending more and more time on the yacht out at the lighthouse.

I found myself listening to my little brother’s world falling apart around him. He’d been packing things, trying to live without any sense of guidance. Too young to be left on his own like that. Eighteen isn’t the age you should lose your entire support framework in an instant.

“Sure Caleb, you can come live here.”

Wait. Did I really say that? Did I agree to let him come here, to bring the emotional and psychological baggage of my past to this place? How did he even find me? I’d changed my name years ago.

I wasn’t Michael Westwood anymore. I was Ethan Black.

He showed up just a few weeks later. He’d wrapped up the last of his business in Maine and had quietly left the area. He had a few friends that were upset to see him go, but after explaining the situation, they understood for the most part.

We spent weeks barely speaking. Caleb was constantly leaving the house, constantly coming back at all hours. He’d tell me briefly about his exploits, but I made sure to move the house around so the majority of my time was spent either in my bedroom or my office, both of which were “sanctuaries” where Caleb rarely treaded unless absolutely necessary.

Finally he caught me on a Monday afternoon before I left for grocery shopping.

“Hey, you want to go shoot pool with me on Friday?”

The question came as a surprise, but curiosity caught me before reason and routine.

“Sure man.”

And so, life changed.

I found myself going out on Friday night with Caleb almost every week. Shooting pool, the strip club, drinking, night clubs, a bar brawl here or there.

It felt different, new, fresh.

Caleb had inherited everything from our folks, a tidy sum of money on top of the ludicrous life insurance policy my parents had. He’d invested some of it, then used the rest to enjoy his newfound life. He’d started college and was making good grades. The majority of his free time was spent away from the house, and I’d started to accompany him more and more as the weeks passed.

At first, I’d put up some resistance to new things. He wanted me to go boating with him, which I’d made an excuse for. Then he told me about parasailing, so I gave it a shot. The adrenaline rush was a little more than I anticipated, but it was enough to make me go again. Eventually, it was just another part of life. Life started taking on new perspective. The old flame from Denver called me up one night and tried to drag me back into the nights of video games and home slavery, but I’d blown her off.

It’d hurt her, but it was the truth, and I needed to break away.

Finally, Caleb came to me with the most daring outing yet.

“Want to go skydiving with me on Saturday?”

Skydiving? Seriously?

“Yeah…yeah, man, let’s do that.”

The day came, eXtreme Skydive, Inc. A company that had been jumping out of plans for nearly a decade. All of the masters had nearly thirty thousand jumps. Caleb, to my surprise, cashed in with enough jumps that he could jump with me in tandem.

Twelve thousand feet and a lifetime of adrenaline was nearly more than I could take as we shuffled to the door and the kiss of heaven blasted us in the face, wind whipping by at over a hundred miles per hour.

“You ready?!” Caleb shouted over my shoulder.

“Let’s do it!” I said back, the lump in my throat turning into a sick feeling in my gut as Caleb shoved us from the door.

Falling.

Endless falling.

The wind tore past us, blasting into my ears. Caleb maneuvered us through the clouds, the feeling of condensation building up and tearing off in an instant. The ground seemed an eternal distance away, but rushing up all at once. I felt Caleb reach down an tug the cord. The chute flared.

A brief snap.

Falling again.

The chute hadn’t deployed properly. Caleb reached for the reserve and tugged it free.

The second silken lifeline flared, then tore free.

Endless falling.

The distance to Earth slowed, nearly to a standstill. Frames of my life glittered before me in a dreamscape of memories, milestones, and regret. It had taken me thirty years to come to this point. To this one, timeless moment of freefall to a fate more horrifying than the end result itself.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.

I’m too young to face this fate.

 Life was too short to end like that.

As adrenaline surged into my veins, urging me to fight, to resist the fate that rushed up at me, I could feel Caleb maneuvering, twisting. My vision went skyward, the clouds, the heavens beckoning me, calling me home from the nightmare that the endless seconds ticked through. I could hear a voice. Shouting.

“It’ll be all right, Mikey. Just don’t panic!”

I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything. My senses were numb, cold…

…dead.

A second later, my world went black.

Beep…beep…beep…

Mechanical cold and precision droning were distant echoes and memories in the days, weeks, and months that followed. Voices, the feeling of needles in my skin, the occasional nurse giving me a sponge bath and changing my linens. I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t speak. Life was an endless expanse of white light, disembodied voices and a prognosis that wouldn’t register.

“Mr. Black. We’ve discovered a…”

A what? Discovered a what?

“…can be treated…”

Treat what? What are you talking about?

“…only we had caught it earlier…”

Caught what? Why can’t I speak? Why can’t I ask questions?! Would you tell me what is wrong with me?!

“…survivability rate is extremely…”

What?! What are you talking about? Why can’t you hear me?! Would you fucking answer me?!

I mustered the resolve and inner strength to reach for the documents the specialist had left on my food tray. The paper was a jumble of medical speak and lingo that I couldn’t understand, but words like “metastasis” began to make the picture clearer. With the final prognosis: cancer, the world suddenly came into a sharp focus.

Painfully sharp.

Could life really be so cruel? Without the capacity to form words, the only thing I had left for release was laughter. I laughed, so hard it hurt. I laughed until a nurse came in and told me I had to stop. I laughed until stitches ruptured in my side. My abdomen hurt from both the stitches and the aggravation of the demon eating my guts. I laughed until they sedated me, the world suddenly going hazy and serene.

I could hear the doctors talking about psychosis, about psychological block, about brain dysfunction associated with trauma. Post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Really? Was my brain broken too? What are you going to tell me next?

I fought against my own body to stay silent. I combated the endless lack of speech and communication. Eventually, I gave up. I gave in. I stopped trying. Then, it started to come back naturally, as though waiting for me to stop struggling. Speech returned, slowly, but almost as though it had never left.

There was a letter left for me. What is this?

—–

Mr. Black,

We’ve learned of your talents and would like to discuss some matters of high importance. While this medium is not appropriate to go into the details, we would like to see you in Philadelphia if you are willing to come. This is a one-time offer, and we will meet you at the airport if you do choose to come. You will not need anything, and we can assure that your estate will be taken care of in your absence. We have three simple stipulations for you to understand.

  1. You will not be harmed, we give you our word as a company.
  2. Should you be unable to complete our contracts, you will be compensated and afforded all fees necessary to ensure your return to Colorado Springs.
  3. You must agree to not discuss the nature of our inquiry or any subsequent activity with anyone.

We look forward to your arrival, Mr. Black.

Sincerely,

——

I couldn’t read the name at the bottom. It was a scrawl of flowerly lettering typical of a corporate CEO stamp. There was no typed ink to indicate who it might have been.

Removing a plane ticket from the envelope, I glanced at my watch. The only thing the medical staff had no removed from me on my arrival, surprisingly. The next day. I was supposed to be in Philly the next day. Thankfully I had not slept through my opportunity. Having been in traction for months, my bones finally having knitted themselves back into some semblance of a skeleton, with my job on hold for countless weeks or months, with my brother gone and only fate knew how much was left in the accounts he’d agreed to inherit to me, the bonus money or the opportunity for a fresh start was re-invigorating. I could make a life back in Philly. My body, broken as it was, still was able to function enough to get out of this god-forsaken medical cell. I could go back to New England. Get laid, get drunk, play pranks, fuck with local law enforcement. Well, maybe not the last one, but enough to get my mind off this death sentence living in my body. I could forget about everything here for a while. Far as I knew, the stated had probably issued me a death certificate, just waiting to sign and dry the ink.

Mustering a newfound strength I’d seemingly not felt in years, I rose from my hospital bed. Tearing away the pasties across my body, I grunted under the feeling of stretched skin. Reaching for my IV, I noticed a nurse hustling into my room.

“Sir, you can’t do that.” She said, surprised that I was out of bed.

I nearly tore the IV out of my hand, grunting under the pain. Grabbing a cotton ball from a small glass jar on the table next to my bed, I covered the wound and wrapped surgical tap around it as the nurse looked on in horror.

“I’m done lying down nurse. I’m leaving.”

“Sir, I can’t let you leave until the doctor authorizes your release.” She said as the doctor walked in.

“Mr. Black, your health is in jeopardy the minute you walk out the door. We can treat you here and attend to your medical needs. It’s a very bad idea for you to leave.” He added to the nurses argument.

“You’ve done little more than condemn me to die here, doctor. I’m through waiting for death. Let it find me where it will.” I said.

With that, I pushed past the two staff members standing in my room in disbelief, the medical droning of a flat line emitting from the heart monitor by my bedside.

–Jimmy

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