A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER ONE // THE DAY THE HERO DIED

My dad was my hero. I know that’s cliché, but it’s true. He held my family together even when it felt like it was all falling apart. He was so good. Everyone who ever met him fell in love with him—in the platonic sense of it all. People called him Ace for a reason, and it wasn’t because that was his name. Dad knew how to unite people, how to fix their brokenness, how to convince a panicked crowd that everything would be all right. People trusted him. So did I. I leaned in with every word he ever said, captivated by his unwavering ability to remain strong and loyal and wise. I wanted to be everything he was and so much more, but I’ll be lucky to be half the man he ever was.

That’s the thing. I keep trying anyway. And I don’t know how the hell he did it.

This is the story of me trying.

. . .

Schools end in May in Kansas. Summer starts earlier for us here. So when May came in the late spring of 2002 and school had wrapped for the year, we were all making our plans to hit the pools, the parks, or the roads. My brothers were bargaining with Dad over where to go for the summer. Reece, my nine-year-old brother, wanted to go to all the Royals games. Jarod, who was ten, wanted a trip to Power Play or Worlds of Fun. Arcades and amusement parks were his favorite places to go. Mom grumbled about five-year-old Kaleb, who wouldn’t be able to handle the noise or the crowds. Places like that always overwhelmed him, resulting in a screaming match with the world. Kaleb was born with good lungs. Too good.

I had two other siblings—Sabrina and Chris—but they weren’t as interested in the family planning. They were sixteen and fourteen, respectively, and they had grown out of the desire to be seen in public with our large family. Chris never cared about going out. He was always such a homebody, preferring to stick to books and knowledge. Sabrina had her friends—the cheerleaders—to make plans with. Then there was me. The oldest. Seventeen with one more year to go before graduation. I’d like to say that I was different from them. In a way, I guess I was. I liked family. I liked being around them. But for the most part, I could never seem to shake Dad. His magnetism always pulled me into his orbit, drawing me in, holding me close.

As a child, I used to have nightmares of losing him. He would fall through ceilings and floors or burn in fires. Even then, I knew our family couldn’t exist without Dad holding it in place like the glue that he was. Every night, I would unnecessarily worry that I would wake up to him gone, our family crumbling in the aftermath. Now I think maybe my childhood fears weren’t anxieties, but truth. They saw a future without him in it. Little did I know that the first day of summer vacation would be his last.

Dad had to go to work. Jarod and Reece were still arguing with each other over which activities would make the most of their summer. Kaleb was screaming as he usually did when our brothers got loud.

Over the years, Mom had perfected what Chris dubbed her “Town of Bliss.” Whenever the house got loud and chaotic, she was somehow magically able to escape it without ever physically leaving. You could throw an egg at her face and she wouldn’t flinch. I know. I tried. There was never any shushing or yelling from her when she was in Bliss. She’d somehow tune us all out. That’s what she was doing that afternoon as Kaleb tried to hitch a ride on Dad’s leg.

Sobbing in an uncontrollable fit of anxiety, my youngest brother had wrapped his body around one of Dad’s lower limbs, squeezing tight. Mom sat at the kitchen table, pouring over her notes, oblivious to the hellfire around her. Dad wanted to be gentle—I could tell—but if he didn’t get a move on, he’d be late.

“Austin, a little help here.” He motioned to my distraught brother, who was getting snot and tears all over Dad’s dark slacks. I worked to pry my brother off, but he fought with all the determination of an angry bee who hadn’t yet used his one sting for revenge. Constrictive like a boa, he refused to loosen his grip, and it took all my strength and willpower to remove him. The second Dad was free, he was gone.

There was a storm that night. It was kind of hard to forget. Mostly because I was on the phone—the kind that still plugged into the wall—and every other clap of thunder would cause my girlfriend’s voice to distort for a few seconds. She was getting annoyed at the number of times I asked her to repeat phrases. After a while, I had resorted to pretending to understand her. I’d hoped she wasn’t saying anything too important. Catherine had a tendency to quiz me like teachers do when they think you aren’t listening. At one point, the phone line disconnected altogether, the lights in the house flickering like an eerie warning. Storms like that were common that time of year. It was tornado season, after all. Early summers in Kansas weren’t always bright and sunny like on television. I wasn’t concerned.

Sabrina screeched in surprise from another room, followed by Kaleb’s wails. The lights flickered back on, my alarm clock flashing the incorrect time. Holding the landline in my hand, I waited for Catherine’s inevitable call.

“Please tell me you didn’t just hang up on me,” Catherine said, gearing for an argument. She was always so cute when she got mad. I could picture the foot stomp, her fist at her hip, her brown ponytail swaying, that weird little dimple in her left cheek that always seemed to be begging me to kiss it. I’d have kissed it right then and there if we weren’t at separate houses.

I smirked, lounging on my bed, imagining that kiss. She’d have swatted me away and I would have laughed. Catherine always blamed my kisses on my need to change the topic of conversation, but she didn’t understand how her anger changed the topic first. I wouldn’t have felt the need to kiss her if she hadn’t been so darn cute.

“Relax. The power just cut out,” I said, smiling at the images in my own imagination.

She groaned and I could practically see the accompanying eye roll. “Whatever.” Then she jumped right back into her story about how she and another cheerleader had gone to eat at local diner the night before and how the waiter tried to hit on her friend. “Anyway, so she wrote that fake number—you know, the rejection hotline?—on the bill and told him to call her. Boy, was he in for a disappointing night.”

I knew from our twenty months of dating that Catherine wanted me to laugh at that part, but I only managed a weak chuckle. I couldn’t, in good conscience, make fun of a fellow man for going out on a limb to get a girl’s number. It was a case of bad luck to have been assigned Catherine & her friend’s dinner table. They were always extra mean to the men who didn’t tick off every item on their list of qualifications. I was lucky enough to have made the cut almost two years before and lucky enough to have kept Catherine interested all those months. She was the type of girl every man wanted and, somehow, that was rewarding in and of itself.

“Oh, come on. It’s funny and you know it.” I wasn’t getting away with my shortened laughter.

I rolled on my side, continuing to hold the phone to my ear. Kaleb’s screams had quieted to softer cries. Mom must have left Bliss to comfort him. “Speaking of guys hitting on girls,” I said, leading into my proposal. “How do you feel about tomorrow night being the night.” The night. I’d almost forgotten about that conversation. I had no idea how much things were about to change and not in the way she and I were hoping for.

“Are you serious?” Catherine asked, excitement and surprise filtering her tone. I’d told Catherine not long after we started dating sophomore year that I didn’t believe in sex before marriage. Well, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe that it happened, but I was raised in the evangelical Christian church—the one my dad spoke so highly of. I did everything to make him proud of me and for some reason, my tenth-grade self had believed that remaining a virgin in high school was going to keep him proud. I’d been preached at far too many times that the possibility of getting a girl pregnant wasn’t worth the risk. For a long time, Catherine respected that. But lately, it seemed she wanted more out of our relationship. And honestly, so did I. We were almost eighteen—give or take a few months—and at the time, I swore I was gonna marry that girl. So I’d decided. Saturday was gonna be the night.

“I’m dead serious,” I said, pulling open the top drawer of my bedside table to make sure that the condoms I bought the day before were still there. In a house full of siblings, I could never be too careful where I hid things, so I’d made sure to lock them in a box in my end table.

“What are you doing right now?” She asked, giggling through her words.

The doorbell rang.

“I—”

Mom’s shrieks pierced through the air like javelins at a track and field event. Without thinking, my thumb inadvertently pressed the end call button, Mom’s words gripping my insides and weighing them down. “He’s dead! He’s dead! Oh my God!”

Someone was dead. Somehow, my brain knew exactly who it was without being told. My feet hit the floor, pounding into the wood as I made my way to the front door. There, on the porch steps, stood three of Mom’s uniformed co-workers—all from the Sherriff’s department—as they recounted the details of Dad’s untimely death.

There were many reasons for cops to be on our doorstep at seemingly random times. Mom was a detective in the investigations department. If a sudden lead in a case came up, she’d be out the door, leaving with one or two of them. This time wasn’t like those times. These cops had tears in their eyes too—sad for mom, sad for us, sad that they had to be on our doorstep at all.

My lungs locked, refusing to let in another breath of air. There had to be a mistake. Maybe it hadn’t been Dad in the car. Maybe it hadn’t been him in the ditch by the little lone tree off Granada Road. Maybe it had been someone else. Anyone else. But not Dad.

“No.” I said it more than once, but not really counting. The number wasn’t important. The air rushed into my lungs, burning with every sharp breath, as I continued to say it over and over again. “No. No. No.” My feet had brought me past Mom, who had dropped weakly to the floor. My fists were pounding chests, rubbing against vinyl. Strong hands had gripped my arms, pushing me away, but I was barely conscious of my own movements, of my own words, of my own thoughts. I just kept saying, “No.”

In school, that’s what they told us to say when we didn’t want something to happen. When we didn’t want someone to give us drugs. When we didn’t want someone to steal our belongings. When we didn’t want someone to touch us. “Just say no,” they’d told us, hammering it into our heads. But why wasn’t it working in this situation? Why wasn’t the word “No” reversing the event? Why wasn’t it bringing my father back?

So much for magic words.

. . .

Mom stayed on that floor for hours. Or at least, that’s what I’ve gathered over the years. At the time, I didn’t actually know that. Because when I left my room the next morning after a long night of tossing and turning and crying and begging, she was gone too. And I couldn’t care. The muscles in my chest ached too much to care that she was missing. I told myself that she would come back when she was ready. At that moment, I knew how important Dad had been in keeping us all together, because with him gone, there was no chance that the rest of us would stay under the same roof at the same time ever again.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.