We all have one moment when we decide our life’s course. Most of us don’t recognize our moment until we’ve driven past it, but it is there, the touch of the dominoes that sets the whole thing off.
Homecoming was my moment. How could it not be? Quarterback and sure-fire homecoming king. One push. It’s all it takes. One push, and the world falls. One push, and you give up control.
The transmission to my ‘Vette sat in pieces in the garage, waiting for my old man to sober up. I walked the tracks towards Fairfax, one of those little towns that pop up around the railroads all throughout the Midwest. There are a million of them, all the same, but I proclaimed myself king of this one.
Derek walked with his head down, looking at his shuffling feet through his Coke-bottle thick glasses. The tape still wrapped the frame from when I broke them two weeks prior. Derek’s family didn’t have the money to replace them. His ankles peeked out pale beneath high-water jeans. Derek wiped his nose with the sleeve of his hand-me-down flannel. He didn’t see me. He couldn’t have seen me, or he wouldn’t have come that way.
His awkwardness disgusted me. He was poor. I get it. Not his fault at all. But he was weak. Pearson men do not tolerate weakness. We met right at Kellerman Curve.
“Dweeb-rek,” I yelled. Derek saw me. The approaching train whistled. The crossing rang out a warning. “Do not move, Dweeb-rek. Keep your ass right there.”
I wish he had run. I would have caught him. I’d have kicked his ass, but we wouldn’t be near that train.
“I thought I told you to stay off my road, dumbass.”
“Just leave me alone, Andy. I live on this road, too.”
“You do not use my name. How many times have I told you that?” When we were little, Derek and I used to play in my yard. My dad hated his family. He said they were losers. I’m not sure when I started agreeing with him.
“You’re wasting your time, Andy. There’s no one here to cheer you on. There’s no one to impress.”
“You think I care?” The train started past us. I backed Derek closer to the tracks. We yelled over the noise. Dust battered my eyes as cars flew by, one by one.
“About impressing people? It’s all you care about,” Derek said.
“I didn’t need anyone cheering me on when I banged your mom.”
“Are you sure we aren’t talking about your mom?”
My face burned.
“Andy, I’m sorry,” Derek said. “I really didn’t mean it. I wasn’t thinking.”
But I was. My mom went to prison my sophomore year. She slept with a bunch of the guys on my football team. I couldn’t look at my friends without wondering if they had fucked my mom.
It was a scandal. CNN aired the trial. I hadn’t seen my mom since her arrest. My father said she was an embarrassment. He was right.
“I didn’t really mean your mom, specifically.” Derek said.
“I mean, I meant your mom, but not YOUR mom. Just…like…generic mother insults—“
Derek tried to explain. Tried to apologize. I didn’t hear it. I heard my mother’s moans. I saw my friends in a writhing pile on top of her. I felt the stares at school. How pathetic they must have thought me to be. I felt weak. Pearson’s do not tolerate weakness.
I pushed. The dominoes fell.
In a movie, time would slow down. In reality, Derek exploded before I knew what I had done. His legs lay scattered in pieces before me. They found his right arm underneath a dog food car when the train finally stopped. They never found his left. Bits of skull stung my eyes. Derek’s warm blood soaked my shirt.
I ran home. I showered until the hot water ran out. I stood under the freezing water, scrubbing till the sponge scraped my skin raw. I looked in the mirror to make sure I got all the bits of skull out of my hair. I cried. Weakness. It becomes a habit. Pearson’s are not weak. I slapped myself across the face until I stopped crying, then dried my face with a towel.
As I hung up the towel, I thought I saw someone in the mirror, but when I looked, I only saw my red, welted face.
I played horribly that night. We got our asses kicked. At half-time, a depressed crowd clapped half-heartedly as the school named me homecoming king. The superintendent placed the crown upon my head. I put my arm around Meg Phillips, my queen. The Fairfax Facsimile snapped pictures. My heart nearly stopped when I saw Derek’s reflection in the camera lens. When I turned around, there was no one there.
Derek was dead. The Fairfax Facsimile announced his death in the paper, right next to the picture of Meg and me.
It was him, there in my peripheral vision, in the reflection. I saw him again and again over the next decade, always at the worst possible time, just an image in the corner of my eye, disappearing as soon as I looked for it.
I totaled my ‘Vette on I-29. I saw Derek in the rear-view mirror. I jerked the wheel and rolled six times. I spent a week in the hospital, drinking food through a tube.
I lost my football scholarship when he showed up in the reflection of a lineman’s helmet right before the linebacker bent my knee backwards.
At my wedding, just as I was about to kiss my new bride, I saw him in the glint of her eye, pushing up his broken glasses and wiping his nose on his hand-me-down flannel.
I nearly burned to death camping. Derek showed up in the side of a lighter fluid can. I fell in the fire. Burns covered half my body. The color of the grafted pig skin seemed wrong, and the hairs were too wiry.
I lost my job at Towne Ford. Derek in the windshields of all the cars. My wife gave up and left. She was too weak to be a Pearson. Apparently, so am I.
I killed Derek. I pushed him under the train. I’ve been a prisoner of that moment ever since. I’m still not even sure I meant for him to die. But I pushed. The dominoes fall one by one. Each crushes a piece of my life under its weight.
But I’ve found a way out, a way to stop the dominos’ tumble. I feel the rumbling vibrations through the soles of my shoes as I stand at Kellerman Curve. I hear the whistle. The brakes screech. The bright lights illuminate my pig skin as I stand on the iron tracks.
I close my eyes to the brightness. The last domino falls.