Jonathan Kinkaid woke up in a darkened room; his room. The wary light of the dawn crept through his window and lightly graced the wall above him as he stirred. He felt his pajamas against his skin and the silky sheets that enveloped him on his hands. The springs beneath him poked into his back uncomfortably. He swung his arms in an attempt to throw his blanket off him. It took a few more tries before he succeeded.
He sat up and looked around. He sat on his wooden twin-size bed, hand-carved for his dad by his dad’s grandfather – his great-grandfather. Beside that stood a bed-side table with a glow-in-the-dark alarm clock, its arms pointing to 6:01. Jon committed the time to memory. There was an alligator skin glasses case. He opened it to find his red-framed glasses, a massive scratch on the right-side lens. It happened during PE if he recalled correctly. He put on the glasses and looked around the room once more.
Across the room was his dresser. Next to it was a large wooden chest. His old toybox. He got up and walked over to his dresser and opened the drawer second from the top. Shirts. One stood out in particular – a shirt he’d gotten at science camp. It was in pristine condition; there wasn’t a tear or stain on it. He liked that shirt.
He returned to his bed. His Batman sheets. They were a gift from grandma. Jon always liked Batman. His commitment not to kill. His technical prowess and use of gadgets. Jon liked technology since he was a kid. Woke up before the sun to get on the computer as early as the age of two.
Jon let out a huff as he gave his room one more scan. His Halloween costume hung on the wall. A Batman costume he made himself from construction paper and scraps of fabric. He’d hung it on his wall for a whole year. He’d always wished he could afford a real Batman costume. Or even just better materials. Beneath it was a plastic crate – his comic book collection.
After checking the time – 6:05 – he went to his closet and started looking through the shirts. Almost all of them were smalls. A few mediums. One extra-large that his great-grandmother got him: a Hawaiian shirt. She was old and senile, so it was understandable.
He peaked out his window at the house across the street. It was a yellow brick house with slate grey shingles and pretty, white curtains. There were three cars in the driveway: Mr. Garland’s grey convertible, Mrs. Garland’s cobalt blue minivan, and Sally Garland’s tan four-door. She’d gotten it as a present for her sixteenth birthday. Despite being used, it was in perfect condition. The bumper wasn’t dented. The doors were all placed as they should be. Not a scratch on it.
Jon had always had a crush on Sally. She was pretty. Had wavy, black hair that cascaded over her shoulders, bringing out her pale face. Bright blue eyes. Dimples that pressed deep into her cheeks when she smiled. She was five years older than him, though. For a while, it seemed like she thought it was cute that he had a crush on her. Eventually that faded. Him noticing that her body was pretty nice, too, didn’t help the matter.
Jon looked up at the multi-colored fan affixed to his ceiling. He reached up to pull the cord that would turn it on. It was just out of reach. He could reach the cord that would turn on the lights, though. But neither one would do anything as long as the switch on the wall was in the ‘off’ position.
He sat down on the floor and felt the shag carpet with his fingers. He evaluated himself. He’d gotten used to doing it every morning. Being conscious of his own mental state. To his surprise, he didn’t feel depressed. He didn’t feel hopeless. Didn’t feel like his life didn’t matter. Didn’t feel like dying. In fact, he felt kind of happy. He hadn’t felt that good in years.
He took in a deep breath. He smelled the dust. He smelled the house – that smell you grow so accustomed to after living somewhere a long time you don’t even notice it. He smelled dog potty-training pads.
His family’s Spanador. They’d gotten her the summer after he finished fifth grade. She had brown fur, and big, droopy ears that were too big for her head.
He sat on the floor a while, thinking about the last thing he remembered before waking up in his bed. He certainly hadn’t gone to sleep there, but the details were a little hazy. He was in a car. Going somewhere. By the time he gave up trying to remember, he looked to his alarm clock again. The hands were close to 7:00 now.
He couldn’t remember what time he’d set the alarm for. Probably 7:00. Either way, time seemed to be moving at a normal rate in a linear fashion. He probably wasn’t dreaming. He waited a few minutes and, sure enough, his alarm went off right at 7:00.
He stood up off the floor and turned off the alarm. He opened the door and made his way into the hallway. The shag carpet continued under his bare feet. As he stepped into the hallway, Sophie jumped up from where she was laying down outside his parents’ bedroom door. Her entire rear-end shook from her wagging her tail as she waddled happily to Jon’s feet.
He bent down to pet her. Felt her soft fur on his palm as she excitedly licked his wrist. He felt her floppy ears as he looked into her big, black eyes. He smiled as a tear rolled down his cheek. “Love you, Soph.” After petting her for a few more moments, he looked at the hall around him.
His door was covered in various decorations, most notably: a Batman logo, a radioactive symbol, and a big, red and yellow ‘Keep Out!’ sign. His sister’s door, the next room over, had a glittery butterfly, a rainbow sitting on some clouds, and the head of a unicorn, along with a sheet of pink construction paper with her name, Kimberly, written in crayons of various colors. She’d made the sign with her name on it in kindergarten.
Jon had resented her for a long time. She was born four years after him and seemed to just take away all the attention their parents had previously given him. It wasn’t until they got older that he grew to like her. But by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.
He opened her bedroom door as quietly as he could. The first thing he saw was her pink wall, then the toys scattered across the floor, her bed, with Disney princess sheets that her bright blond hair stuck out of. Maybe she had a nightmare and pulled them up for cover. Or she saw the monster in her closet again.
Jon took in a deep breath and let out a sigh as a smile crept across his face. He closed the door with a soft click. He didn’t want to wake her.
Across the hall from her room was the bathroom. It had a wooden door with a brass knob and a lock. He went inside, closing the door behind him and flipping the light-switch. He shielded his eyes as the light turned on. After giving it a moment, he looked around. The shower curtain with the big sunfish on it. Bath towels with each of his family-member’s names embroidered on them in their favorite colors. His was red, Kim’s was pink, and his parents were green and orange. There were also hand towels with his parent’s initials embroidered on them in gold. The toilet seat was cushioned, with rainbows and unicorns covering it.
Jon looked in the mirror. He blinked a few times before studying his face.
He definitely needed a haircut. He pulled some of his chestnut locks down, and they could nearly touch his cheek if he tried really hard. His hair used to be blond, and in a few years, it would be even darker. He could still see his strong jawline, his dimpled chin, his cheekbones. He felt his cheeks. Perfectly smooth. As a preteen’s face should be. No zits or moles. His ears weren’t pierced. His nose was straight and unbroken. His teeth were just beginning to yellow. If he started brushing now, they’d probably still be white a few years down the line.
He unbuttoned his pajama shirt. Not a single ounce of muscle or fat on him. If he sucked in his gut, he could easily see his ribcage. He didn’t have any surgical scars. Didn’t have any chest or belly hair.
He looked down his pants. Small and hairless.
He pulled up the pant legs. His pencil-thin legs were hairless, too.
He sat, studying himself for a while before he heard movement in the next room over – his parents’ bedroom. He began buttoning up his pajamas and rushed over to the toilet to pee.
“Hi, Sophie,” he heard from the hallway – his mother’s voice – just before a rapping on the bathroom door.
“Just a second,” Jon said as the stream hit the wall of the toilet. His voice was high-pitched. He sounded like a girl.
“Okay!” his mom replied. She sounded happy. He hadn’t heard her sound that way in a while. Not since his dad cheated on her a few years back.
He finished and flushed the toilet before washing his hands. When he opened the door, his mom was smiling.
“What’s gotten into you, washing your hands like a gentleman?”
She had a kind face. Slightly puffy cheeks, with eyes always squinted in a smile, and perfectly white teeth. Her wavy, dark-brown hair was cut just off her shoulders. He was used to seeing it go halfway down her back. She wore a fluffy, white bathrobe, with her and his dad’s first initials embroidered in black on the one side. His dad had a matching black one, with white lettering.
Jon shrugged. Now was as good a time as any to figure out, “Do you know what day it is?”
His mother paused in thought for a moment before smiling excitedly. “It’s my little man’s birthday!”
Jon forced a smile, as cheesy as he could, before stepping out of the bathroom. He made his way down the hall and descended the stairs to the first floor. He made his way to the calendar in the living room. Fourteenth of August 2008. He was eleven years old today. “Jonny’s Birthday” was written in bold, red marker.
His birthday party was going to be at a local kids’ arcade. They served pizza, and you could win tickets for prizes. His best friend, Alan, was going to be there. Jon missed Alan. Jacquie and Dez, too. No one else was going to be there, though. No one else really cared about Jon’s birthday. And Jon didn’t care that they didn’t care. He used to. But not anymore.
He walked into the kitchen and made himself a bowl of cereal: sugary goodness that he hadn’t had in a while. He’d been trying to cut down on his sugar intake recently. But he figured today was as good a day as any to treat himself. He was going to have cake later, anyway. Why not pile on the poor decisions?
He sat down at one of the tall chairs on the side of the island opposite the sink. It had a nice, marble top – uncracked and unblemished. He scooped up a massive bite of cereal.
He expected it to taste amazing. For the first bite to be the best he’d ever taken. He hadn’t had it in so long. But, when he put the spoon in his mouth, he felt nothing. It was just like eating anything else.
Jon sighed as he tried to focus on the night before.
The last thing he remembered was being in the car. Maybe on the way home?
As he tried to remember, his mom came into the kitchen. She had put on sweatpants, and an old t-shirt from college – that’s where she and his dad met. She started making coffee – something she drank every morning but told Jon to stay far away from. He elected to ignore that advice.
After pressing the button to start the coffee maker, she walked over to the cabinet.
“Are you excited?”
Jon forced another smile – not as cheesy this time. “Yep!”
She pulled out a mug – her favorite mug – it was white, with pink and red hearts all over it. His dad got it for her for Valentine’s Day 2007. It was basically a bowl. “What are you most excited about?”
Jon pursed his lips and chewed as he thought about the question. “I think seeing my friends.”
His mom grinned widely as she poured the coffee into her mug. “You see them almost every day, and you’re still excited to see them. That’s true friendship right there; hold onto that, it doesn’t come easy.”
Jon’s smile fluttered for a moment. “I will.”
He ate in silence for a bit while his mom mixed some cream and sugar in before sitting down next to him. “What do you think you’re going to get?”
Presents. Jon liked presents. He wasn’t sure when the last time he got any was. Probably Christmas. He finished chewing his bite of cereal before answering, “Well, what I’d really like is an Xbox. But I know that’s not gonna happen. And an iPod would be nice, but I know that’s not gonna happen, either. So, probably… Fable III, some socks, some shirts, a $20 Walmart gift card, a $20 bill, and… a new Nerf gun.”
His mom gave a faint smile and shrugged slightly as she took a sip from her mug. “Good guesses.”
Jon chuckled. He finished eating before taking his bowl to the sink and rinsing it out. If he was right, the dishwasher should have been run the night before. He looked to his mom. “Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean.”
She smiled. “Yes, they are.”
He set his rinsed bowl and spoon in the sink and dried his hands before opening the dishwasher. It was almost empty – they ran it just about every night. He started taking dishes out of it and putting them away.
His mom’s face twisted into a mixture of happiness and confusion as she took another sip of liquid energy. “What’s gotten into you?”
As he shut the cabinet, he turned to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like you just turned into a young man overnight. You wash your hands, you don’t talk with your mouth full, you put the dishes away.” She gave him a teasing smile. “What did you do to my son?”
Jon froze for a moment before shrugging. “Maybe I just feel like being a better person.”
His mom shrugged and took another sip from her mug. “Well, I’m not complaining.”
After putting his bowl in the dishwasher, Jon made his way back upstairs to get dressed. He put on a pair of basketball shorts and his science camp t-shirt before sitting on his bed and staring out the window. He looked at the beautiful blue sky, where white clouds drifted across the atmosphere. It didn’t look like it, but it was going to rain. Not that that affected any of their plans.
He looked at his alarm clock again. Almost 8:00. Three more hours to burn until his birthday party.
He went back downstairs and to his desk. He pulled out the drawer that had all his games – some of which his dad gave to him from when he was in college. He looked through them all before deciding on one to play. It felt like forever since he’d played. He expected to be a bit rusty but seemed to do even better than he remembered. For three hours, he let the world move around him, without a single care. He missed that feeling. The only thing that broke him out of his zone was his dad’s voice.
“Time to go, Sport. Put your shoes on.”
Jon closed the game and got ready to leave. His sister grinned widely at him. He smiled back.
The family made their way out to the car and drove to the arcade. His friends were already there waiting.
Alan stood several inches taller than everyone else – probably because he was older than everyone else. He’d been held back in second grade, when he met Jon and they became best friends. The last time Jon had seen him, his hair was pretty long, almost as long as Jon’s was now. Now, he had a buzz cut. He had a scar on his right cheek from when he tried to shave like his dad.
Jacqueline – or Jacquie as everyone else called her – was the shortest of the bunch, with bright blond, French-braided hair that reached almost to her waist. She always wore flannel and jeans, even in the middle of the summer, with cowgirl boots. Everyone at school thought she was weird, but Jon liked her.
Dez – not Desmond, just Dez – was a larger kid. Jon got in more than a couple fights with kids bullying Dez. For his weight and his dark skin.
Jon held back tears as he looked at his friends. He smiled, nay, grinned, as he held out his arms. “Group hug!” he yelled.
They all ran forward and embraced. They saw each other all the time. But they never got tired of each other.
As Jon clung to them, he couldn’t hold back. Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks. He felt them leave his face as they soaked into Alan’s shirt. “I love you guys.”
“We love you, too,” Dez and Jacquie said. Alan was a little less comfortable with throwing that word around. Up until he woke up that morning, Jon was, too.
As he continued holding them, he felt his sister wrap her arms around him. He dropped a hand to pat her back before breaking the embrace. He sniffled and wiped his tears away with his arm. “We go inside?”
The group went inside, and each kid got a cup-full of tokens to use on the games. Jon and Alan went straight to the Skee-Ball alleys, and Jacquie and Dez followed them.
They played through a game, in which Alan swept the floor with Jon. He always used to win because Jon would always end up rolling the ball a little to the left of where he was aiming. He didn’t realize until later that he should aim just to the right of where he wanted the ball to go. Now was later.
“Bet you all the tickets you just won I can beat you.”
Alan eyed Jon skeptically. “You hustlin’ me?”
Jon shrugged and reached out a hand. “You know how much I suck.”
Alan narrowed his eyes as he hesitantly shook on it. “Deal.”
If even half his hits were hundreds, he could beat Alan easy – Alan always aimed for the fifties.
He threw his first ball. 100 points. Second ball. 100 points. Third ball. 100 points. Two more and he’d win. But he’d already proven to himself he could do it. What more point was there? He started aiming for forty.
At the last ball, their scores were 450-350 with Jon in the lead. Only then did Alan take his eye off the goal. He aimed for the hundred. He hit it.
Jon smiled at Alan before lazily tossing the ball. Zero. They were tied up.
“You could have beat me.”
Jon shrugged. “In Japan, it’s considered dishonorable to win.”
Alan shrugged before putting his palms together and bowing at the waist. Jon did the same. He missed the weird little interactions he had with his friends.
They played a few more random arcade games before Jon’s mom found them and announced it was time to eat. After eating, it was time for Jon to open his presents. First was a card from Jacquie with a $20 Walmart gift card in it:
To the friend who makes me laugh when I want to cry
And turns my frowns upside-down
I hope you have a happy, happy day
As you put on your birthday crown
As Jon finished reading it, he looked over to Jacquie, giddy with excitement.
“Happy birthday!” she yelled as she threw her arms around him.
He hugged her back before moving on to his next present, a sloppily wrapped box with “To: Jonny/From: Dez” written on it in Sharpie.
Jon ripped through the wrapping paper to find a flimsy cardboard box. Inside were two graphic tees, with characters from one of Jon’s favorite games. He couldn’t control himself as he smiled wide.
“I got you a large,” Dez said, “that way you can’t outgrow ‘em.”
If only that were true.
Alan got Jon a card, too, with a $20 bill inside it, along with a Nerf revolver.
Finally, Jon came to the last box – the one from his parents. It was the wrong size to be Fable III or socks. It almost fit in the palm of his hand. He carefully peeled away the wrapping paper. He had been asking for an iPod since first grade. Now he finally had one.
He thought about trying to get it set up now, but he knew he couldn’t really do that until he got home. Besides, his friends were more important to him now. They played arcade games for another couple hours before eating cake and then heading home.
Jon had dinner with his family – his mother made his favorite, her home-cooked lasagna – before sitting on the couch, trying to decide what to do for the rest of the night. His iPod sat, still in the box, on his desk.
He stared at it for several minutes before looking at his sister. She was playing with Barbies in the living room floor.
“Hey, Kimmy,” he said as he crawled onto the floor across from her, “introduce me to your friend.”
Kimmy’s face lit up. He never realized how happy he’d be to see her smile like that. She squealed excitedly as she talked for several minutes about her Barbie – Beatrice was her name. She was a doctor. That’s what Kimmy wanted to be when she grew up.
First, she wanted to be a knee doctor. Then a brain surgeon. Then a psychiatrist. Then, she died.
Jon stared at the ceiling of his bedroom as he tried to fall asleep. He still couldn’t remember what happened the night before. But one thing was clear: this was no dream. He was no longer in his early twenties. He went to bed last night and woke up with a second chance. Maybe everything before was a dream. He’d be starting sixth grade in less than a week, and if history repeated itself, he’d be rolling down the hill of self-loathing in a month or two. He’d one day wake up, with all his loved ones gone or dead.
But that didn’t have to happen.
He could change the past because the past was now his future. It always had been.
For the past four years, he’d been afraid that he was going to die alone after drinking himself to sleep. That his body would be discovered weeks after rigor mortis set in and maggots had started feasting on his corpse. But it didn’t have to be that way. It never had to be that way. It would be an uphill battle no matter what, but he always could have been a better man. He would be a better man and make their lives better. That’s what he decided. Now he just needed to act on it.
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