By Gayle De Blake
Four lifelong friends have an incredible opportunity to relive the past 20 years, which takes them back to 1999 and their college years. They enter this thrilling re-do, knowing all of what happened the first time around. As they consider and re-evaluate their choices, they soon learn the future is more uncertain than they ever imagined...
Wish Me Luck
Dusk, May 2nd, 2019
David Stern slumps in the driver’s seat of an eight-year-old BMW that represents everything he despises about himself. The car is neither old enough to be considered a classic nor new enough to signify the status he so desperately yearns for but hasn’t been able to achieve. He grips the steering wheel and stares blankly. How did I get here?
Outside, the evening sky blackens. The county road is deserted. He’s parked on a gravel path that leads below the bridge in front of him. He glances at the front passenger seat strewn with unpaid bills, delinquent notices, letters from collection agencies—an avalanche of bad news enough to make anyone drink. The pint of cheap vodka resting in the cup holder of the car’s center console calls to him, mocks him, emboldens him. David grabs it viciously, presses it to his lips, and throws back a long drink. Winces. Then does it again. Tears stream from his eyes and tinsel his cheeks as he chokes back a sob. Pitiful. He slams the steering wheel so hard he hurts his hand. Goddamn it!
David doesn’t remember opening the driver’s side door or climbing out. When he gains awareness, he’s beneath the bridge, standing on a concrete abutment between rusted columns, the Fleming River raging below. The dark water is like a black hole willing him forward, promising a quick end to his months of anguish.
Do it, just do it. He blinks. Did he say the words or only think them?
David sees that he still holds the bottle. Disgusted with life, disgusted with himself, he hurls it, watching it sparkle with reflected moonlight as it arcs over the river. It shatters against the opposite abutment, exploding in a spray of shards that disappear into the water.
The act of throwing the bottle and hearing it smash has vented his anger and he’s at a loss for what to do next. He notices the steel stairway to the bridge and starts upward. Within a few steps, he feels winded and stops to grasp the handrail to catch his breath. The air rasps the back of his throat. He swallows painfully and waits a few minutes for his pulse to settle.
Another wave of anguish flows through him. His inability to climb even this short distance without feeling like he’s inviting a heart attack underscores how much he’s let himself go. Years back, he was a collegiate athlete, a champion. Now he’s a doughy mass of failure and self-pity.
Too fraught with anxiety for exercise or healthy routines, he drinks and eats too much. A thick gut flops over his waist. Red-rimmed eyes stare from the flabby-faced man in the mirror, pretending to be him.
David starts up again, this time by hauling himself along the handrail. As he proceeds step by labored step, self-recriminations heap upon him. He was the one most likely to succeed. He married the prettiest girl. He was the one everyone invited to parties to bask in the radiance of his confidence and optimism. Even now, many of his business associates still consider him a winner; that’s how well he’d been living this lie.
For two years he has been juggling the books and borrowing to pay for his gambling addiction. They don’t call it EZ credit for nothing. Now he has liens on everything with his name.
Most nights he awakens in a cold sweat from night terrors. Stress eats at him like a tumor. His insides feel scrambled like when an elevator drops too fast and you get the fleeting sensation that it’s going to crash against the bottom. But that sensation of certain doom is no longer fleeting, it’s a constant presence.
His days are a whirl of ignoring phone calls, answering others, and when he’s cornered, stoking his charm so hard it’s a steam engine of bullshit that he hopes keeps him going another day, another chance for Lady Luck to save his ass.
But it wasn’t the lack of luck that buried him. It was his arrogance, his pride, his unwillingness to compromise, and his delusions that he always knew best. And his gambling.
Once on the bridge, he inches along the narrow edge of concrete, the steel railing against his back. It’s a drop of fifty feet to the river frothing below. He sways as he walks, and he tells himself that he’s not drunk even as he burps vodka.
He halts and looks down past the toes of his shoes, the swells beckoning him, inviting him to end it. David takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes. Opens them. A watery grave is seconds away. Nothing has changed.
Panic overtakes him. He clutches the handrail with both hands, suddenly aware of the danger. He scoots along the edge of the bridge, fear wiggling along his spine and down the back of his legs.
A moment later, he reaches the top landing of the stairway, hands trembling, knees threatening to buckle. He wipes sweat from his face and lifts his gaze to the sky. A thin overcast sky obscures the stars and the moon; the effect is like the universe is oblivious to his torment.
Like he doesn’t matter. But I do matter. Defiance pushes aside his despair. An electric rage burns along his nerves, and the hopelessness consuming him suddenly evaporates. The veins in his temple throb.
A renewed strength energizes him, and he bounces, stumbles down the stairs toward his car. He collapses in the driver’s seat and gulps air. He gropes for his keys, and they hang from the ignition where he had left them. A quick twist and the engine growls to life.
He looks back to the bridge, to the trough of river water sloshing between its banks. I could be a fucking dead man, a corpse sinking to the bottom of the river. Or do dead bodies float? Who the hell knows? But what the fuck was I thinking?
He opens the glove compartment and swipes at the pile of bills and legal papers, knocking some to the floor and crumpling others in his fist. He shoves them all back into the glove compartment and slams it shut. With the heel of his right hand, he blots one eye, then the other. He takes a deep breath to cleanse himself of this spell of bad juju, throws the car into gear, and speeds off.
That same evening, Lissa Benton sips herbal tea in bed and settles in to watch a YouTube video. She’s transfixed as the screen opens on an ethereal panorama of the earth as seen from 150 miles in space. A quote is superimposed over the view. Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did.—Mark Twain
Lissa wonders, Twenty years from now I’ll be in my late fifties. What will I regret? Am I not living my best life?
The narrator begins in a deep, resonant male voice. “We all experience joy. We all experience pain, success, failure, love, and heartbreak. It is all part of the cycle of life. Part of the amazing journey that opens up to us every day.”
As he speaks, the view from space descends, the geography of the earth taking shape. Continents. Oceans. Mountain ranges. Deserts.
Closer now. A montage of human activity: cities teeming with life, suburbs sprawling, endless beaches, deserts sands rising like tidal waves, countryside filled with farms and forests.
The narrator says, “It’s not what happens to us, but what we do when things happen. How we respond. How we grow and evolve.”
Lissa coaches herself. Yes, I must remember not to be a victim of my circumstances but rather see growth opportunities in the difficulties that arise.
Closer, the everyday cycle of life and a juxtaposition of cultures and ethnicities, people working, cooking, jogging, dancing, crying, celebrating, arguing, laughing. People in love. People at war. People living and dying.
The narrator asks, “Do you look back with regret, or do you rejoice in your journey? What would you do differently if you could go back in time? Would you choose a different course or stay steadfast in the flow of your life as you know it?”
Oh, now those are loaded questions. I mean, who doesn’t have regrets? Oh, and what if you go back and things are worse than before?
“The future is ours to shape. How we shape it begins with the decisions we make today.”
When the screen goes black, Lissa smiles. “So true.” With that, she places the iPad at her bedside, flips off the light, and tries to sleep, but the questions posed by the YouTube video whirl in her mind.
Kate Stern sits in the office of Dr. Stanford. His degree in general surgery from the University of Michigan Medical School hangs prominently above his cherry desk. Like Lissa, Kate is about to turn forty. But unlike her slim best friend, Kate is a solid twenty pounds heavier than she was in college. Years back, Kate had a figure that could really turn heads.
The door opens and Dr. Stanford walks in dressed in sage green scrubs still creased from the laundry. He’s a slender, light-skinned black man with silvery hair and a gleaming smile who looks like he’s straight out of central casting for a medical soap opera.
As the doctor sits, he hands Kate some paperwork. She anchors her elbows on his desk and smirks. “So, can I get a tummy tuck as a gift with the purchase of the mastectomy?”
Dr. Stanford laughs, shakes his head. “Oh, please. You don’t need one of those. Besides, I’m focused on the task at hand.”
Kate sighs. “True.” She can’t argue with that.
“We’ll get you all fixed up when you return—okay?” He leans back and crosses his arms.
“Sounds like a plan,” says Kate. “I’ll try to forget about it all while I’m poolside, soaking in the Mediterranean sun.”
“Now you’re making me envious. Family trip?”
“No. David and I are traveling with my brother, Todd, and his wife. We’re leaving the kids at home.” She looks left and right as if others might be eavesdropping and in a hushed voice, says, “I love my kid, but I can’t wait to be free of him. Does that make me a bad mom?”
Dr. Stanford chuckles. “No, that makes you human.”
Kate dramatically wipes her brow. “Phew. Because I was going to ask you if there’s a cure for that.”
Dr. Stanford chuckles again, then discusses the procedure and post-surgery instructions he gave her. “Now, get out of here, and have a fabulous time. Doctor’s orders.”
Kate pops up from the chair. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Dr. Stanford.” She reaches across the desk to tap his arm. She says, “Thank you for giving me peace of mind,” and slips out of the room.
Todd Benton measures his breathing. He swipes one hand over his buzz cut, the remnants of what once was a proud mop of blond hair. The stride of his Nikes is a muted slap, slap, slap on the pavement. He passes a distance marker and checks the time and his heartrate on the wrist monitor. All good. I’m right on pace for a personal best. Pretty damn good for a man in his early forties.
Then he hits the dreaded wall. Just like that, his legs feel like lead weights. The effort to move them saps his resolve. His confidence wanes and he second-guesses his decision to run this marathon. What was I trying to prove?
As he passes the twenty-six-mile marker, he recalls an argument with his father. It ended in name-calling—the kind of words that leave scars that will never heal. When his father challenged his dreams for his future, Todd spoke the searing words, “God forbid I end up like you!” Todd shivers and shakes off these thoughts just as he spots the red, white, and blue balloon arch. This sight always lights a fire under his belly. What a sight! He powers towards the finish line, amazed he has anything left in the tank.
As he strides across, a young woman exclaims, “Congratulations!” and hands him a chilled water bottle and a foil blanket to help regulate his body temperature.
Todd tries to say thank you, but no words come out, only a low moan. Spent, he shambles from the finish line, feels his legs at last give out, then props himself on his knees and gasps for breath. He waits for his body to recuperate. He’s not sure how long he’s in that position—a few minutes or maybe even ten. Racers stagger and collapse around him, but he hardly notices.
The victory of the marathon fades and regrets burden his mind. Anguish replaces his physical pain. Tears sting his eyes. He begins to sob. Shamed by his loss of composure, he gathers the foil blanket over his head, hiding his face. The weight of some memories is too heavy a burden.
Was I an awful son?