February 10th, 1998: a clear night, an old motel just off the interstate in rural Montana
Usually, when he wakes up in the middle of the night - eyelids burning and chest heaving from memories of the fire - the darkness of the motel room and the sleeping form of his brother in the bed next to his come as a comfort. Usually.
Tonight the memories don’t go away when he opens his eyes. Tonight he’s sweating and he can’t breathe and the darkness is blinding. He feels an impossible weight on his shoulders and he knows that there is no one who can lift his burden. He’s alone. Well, technically he’s not, as his brother’s muffled snores remind him. But he feels like he is.
The tragedy that befell his family had nothing to do with him. He knows that, but sometimes he can’t help but think that maybe it was his fault - maybe he could have saved her.
And as he quietly slips out the door into the frozen winter night, he feels like he’s being crushed. He feels the solid weight of the gun in his hand and he tells himself that he only grabbed it as a precaution - for protection. A reflex, almost, after fifteen years of sketchy motel rooms and close calls. He tells himself that he hadn’t thought about it when he grabbed it.
But he had - he has.
He has thought about it long and hard and he cannot fathom how the beating of his heart feels more like punishment than salvation.
The gun is getting heavier.
His hand is burning. The nursery was burning; he couldn’t have saved her if he tried. He was only a kid.
His heart beats faster and he’s suddenly aware that his cheeks are wet from tears he doesn’t remember crying.
And that’s the problem. He’s everything his father told him not to be. He’s everything emotional and weak and human.
And, god, how did he end up in a life where that was wrong? Where being vulnerable was so unforgivable?
Raising the gun in the moonlight, watching his hands shake uncontrollably, he thinks about what it would be like. It would be quick and easy and he could be with his mother and maybe, just maybe, he could be at peace. At rest.
He feels the cold metal press against his temple.
But he cannot shake the feeling that he doesn’t deserve that. He doesn’t deserve the easy way out. He hasn’t earned it. Bar fights and one night stands and hangovers and scams and lies don’t earn anyone peace. And all these things don’t even come close to his worst offenses. The things he’s done in the dark, high on adrenaline and vengeance and fear.
The crippling fear that he can never seem to escape.
He doesn’t deserve a reprieve.
So he lowers the gun.
He buries it, and his hands, deep in the pockets of his father’s old leather jacket. Looking up at the night sky, he lets out a broken sob.
But he doesn’t cry.
He curses whatever it was that tore his family apart that night, all those years ago. That ripped his childhood from his hands and forced him to grow up before he even understood what had been taken from him.
That young, innocent boy who ate his pb&j with the crust cut off and cried the first time he fell off his bike was thrown into a life where he was taught how to fire a rifle instead of catch a football.
He was so young. Even now, he’s only nineteen. He’s just a boy.
But tonight, in the parking lot of this old, run-down motel, he vows to leave that boy behind. He locks everything he is away in the farthest corner of his mind and prays that he can throw away the key.
In the morning he will be someone else. Somebody who is strong and confident and brave. Who saves the day and gets the girl and lives the happily ever after. He won't be haunted by the past. He will be someone who loves his life and believes that everything will be okay.
that is who he will be.
But tonight, standing under a sky that he should be able to recognize as beautiful, he realizes that he feels nothing.
Right now, he knows he is nothing.
And all he can do is look up at the stars and pray - with what little faith he has left - that someone is watching over him. And that maybe someday, someone out there will convince him that he deserves to be saved.