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Past the Sneakers MAG
He stares at the clock and the glowing numbers 3:19 look back at him. He's sprawled listlessly on his bed, his hair a mess. He hasn't moved for three hours, doing nothing but breathing and blinking as he watches the minutes run from him. One arm rests across his sore stomach, the other beside his face, all muscles slack as his fingers inadvertently curl inward.
Aaron doesn't remember when he fell asleep, or if he slept at all. He sits up once the clock reads 6:30. Robotically, he gets out of bed and changes. He's brushing his teeth, his eyes gazing dully into the mirror out of habit. They take in his disheveled appearance and the clothes he's carelessly thrown on that coincidentally are all black. He has the feeling he might continue the trend for the rest of his life. It makes him look pale, and his eyes shadowed. His gaze lingers on the black beanie on his head. It's old, with a faded imprint of a silver eagle. He tugs at a loose thread. It's comfortable; it used to be his favorite. His little sister, Diane, had asked for it, and he'd refused her flatly.
The moment he sets foot on the first floor of the house, he feels the difference. Stepping off the stairs, he enters an atmosphere that feels like cotton in his ears. The old dishwasher churns lackadaisically; his mother is in the family room, folding a heap of laundry on the sofa. Aaron's father is sitting at the dining room table with a coffee mug in front of him. He's talking on the phone while absently filling out a table in his Sudoku book.
Neither parent looks at him. He touches his ribs through his sweatshirt. The bruises have healed, but phantom pains sting through to his bones. Moments pass, and there is no change, just the voice of his father, the sound of pen on paper, and the quiet noise of fabric being folded. It all reaches his ears, but only half registers. He stands in the kitchen, between the family room and the dining table, his backpack slung over a shoulder. He hasn't had breakfast in a month. He just takes the keys to the car.
He doesn't turn the radio on during the drive to school. He stares straight ahead at the road. It doesn't even matter anymore, but he can feel the passenger seat staring at him, accusingly, whenever he thinks of anything other than the road. He parks the car with an ease that mocks him.
“Aaron,” a voice breaks through the haze. It's the substitute history teacher. He's forgotten her name. He looks up and realizes that he went to class on autopilot and it's over. He wonders vaguely if she noticed that he hadn't heard a single word of her lecture, and decides he couldn't care less. “Are you okay?” she asks. Aaron can tell that she knows it's a pointless question.
Rather than be offended at the clipped response, she nods and touches his shoulder gently. He almost shrugs her off.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” she asks. Her hair is pulled back, exposing her neck. She's wearing an eagle pendant.
“I let Diane sit in the front seat,” he tells her. “She was too small.”
He doesn't elaborate. She doesn't ask any more questions.
He gets up and makes his way to his next class, thinking that it's almost funny how she's the only person who asked that question, and she's only known him for a month. The rest of the day slips through his fingers like water.
Back home, his father hasn't arrived yet; his mother is sitting on the couch in the family room, all the laundry folded. She's staring at the television. It's not on, but she seems mesmerized. Her eyes are shining with tears.
Aaron slowly walks over, and stops in front of her. She makes no sign that she's seen him. He stands there a while and then goes upstairs to his room and does his homework. He doesn't come down for dinner; no one comes up to get him. He brushes his teeth, changes, and gets into bed.
He gets up in the middle of the night for a glass of water and is passing his parents' room when he hears it. It locks his legs into place.
“I can't stand it anymore. I can't even look at him, Harvey.”
“I know. I just wish I'd driven her that night.”
“It's wrong, he's still a child himself, but-” his mother's voice cracks. “If not for him, our little baby would still be here,” she continues, her grief strangling her words.
Aaron remains in that spot for a long time. After half an hour, he finds the strength to go back to bed.
The next day is Saturday, so he doesn't bother getting up. He watches the clock until 4:02 p.m. The numbers burn brighter than usual and it takes him a moment to realize why.
April 2nd is Diane's birthday.
Suddenly he finds the covers of his bed heavy and smothering. He writhes and kicks them off. He doesn't bother changing out of his sweatpants and T-shirt; he just goes downstairs and takes the keys again. His parents won't notice.
He's driving again, straining to hear anything from the passenger seat. He would do anything to hear Diane, his tone deaf little sister, singing along to that god-awful pop song. He would do anything to hear her asking him about how fortune cookies are made, or where soda bottles come from. He wants to see her mismatched socks and glitter-covered neon shirts. Most of all he wants to give her his beanie hat.
He arrives at the parking garage. He drives up level after level, the chorus of the song replaying in his head. He parks at the top and slides out of the car. It's a simple matter of walking to the edge and climbing over the edge.
He'd been driving Diane to a birthday party. He'd turned on the radio and let her sit in the front seat. It had been raining, and he'd lost control of the car. The air bag saved him. She'd have been fine if only she'd been in the back.
And he'd gotten out of the goddamned car with only bruised ribs.
Aaron's breathing in the vertigo, swaying as the nonexistent breeze toys with his feeble sense of balance. He looks down at his sneakers and the ledge. Far below, he sees an empty parking space framed by a silver minivan and a burgundy sedan. He ponders the chances of landing there, instead of damaging the cars. Then he leans back to look at the expanse of blue above him. A handful of wispy clouds accentuate the pleasant shade of the world's far-off ceiling.
It's a beautiful day.
Then he takes a step.
Gravity wraps its tendrils around his extended leg, entwines up until it has his shoulders and neck as well. He lets his eyelids drift shut.
Then something grabs his arm and his stomach contorts. Gravity is no longer grasping his limbs; it's wrenching at him greedily and his shoulder feels dislocated. The air explodes from his lungs as his chest twists uncomfortably. The grip on his wrist is joined by a second pair of hands. He squints up at the perpetrators. They're unfamiliar; a man and a woman. Soon they've pulled him back up onto the roof. He sits, mind blank, and the woman kneels in front of him. Her face is stained with dark tears; her makeup's running.
She slaps him across the face.
He almost doesn't notice, but suddenly his eyes are pointed in a different direction, and his cheek is stinging. He turns to face her again. Then she throws her arms around him. He can vaguely hear the man calling someone on his phone.
The woman is crying; his shirt is getting wet. She's babbling something about how stupid he is, what a horrible decision it was. He's so young, she says, and he still has his whole life to live. She doesn't know him, and she has no idea what he's done. Half of the things she's saying don't even apply to him.
It's a slow transition. His breath hitches, and his imprisoned body shudders. His face is breaking, twisting into a picture of agony as the sobs tear from his chest, ripping through his throat; the muscles in his neck are taut. His hands tense and he's winding his arms around her too, catching the fabric of her shirt in trembling fists as he wails.
“I'm sorry, oh my god, I'm so sorry.”