(published 6th May 2019)
don’t think just act don’t think just act don’t
The metal girder was cutting through Eddie’s tracksuit, slicing through the fabric and into his knees as he strained. He cursed, yelled, but he wasn’t strong enough to pull both children to safety simultaneously, risked letting them fall.
‘Listen,’ he said, into the hole. ‘I need to let go for a second.’
‘Don’t leave,’ said one of the boys. ‘Don’t leave me.’
Eddie leaned over the edge and said, ‘I won’t. I promise, mate.’
He felt small hands release their grip tentatively. Two faces stared back at him, and beneath them only darkness. Both boys were standing on a thin, jutting groove a few feet from the top of the wide concrete hole. He couldn’t see how far it went down.
think just act don’t think just
He looked around at the construction site frantically to see if there was anything he could use as a rope or a pulley.
A gasp from inside the hole, and one them cried again, ‘Don’t leave,’ and Eddie leaned back over to show them he was still there.
Neither boy looked older than ten years old. Both seemed terrified, but one was keeping it together better than the other. Eddie made the decision instinctively: the boy closest to panic was most likely to fall first, and take the other with him too.
act don’t think just act don’t
‘What’s your name?’ he asked the first boy.
A whimper. ‘Tommy.’
‘Tommy. Good. Listen, I’m going to pull you out first.’ To the other boy he said, ‘You stay strong, mate. You’re doing great. I’m going to grab your pal and then you. This will all be over in ten seconds. Can you hold on for that long?’
The calmer of the two nodded.
‘Hurry,’ said Tommy. ‘Please.’
Eddie dug his knees under the girder for purchase. He ignored the pain and reached down into the hole to grab Tommy by his outstretched arms and heaved him up. When the boy could grip the edge, Eddie switched positions and hooked his arms around the boy’s torso. He wrenched him up and out to the ground and turned to the other boy, but Tommy clung to Eddie.
‘Hey. Hey,’ said Eddie. ‘You’re safe, mate. You’re safe.’
Still he wouldn’t let go, and Eddie had to forcefully disentangle himself. He leaned back over the hole.
think just act don’t think just act
‘You okay?’ he asked.
The other boy nodded up at him. Eddie jammed his knees under the metal. He reached down to the boy, who stretched to meet him.
The squeak of a trainer slipping against concrete echoed around the hole, and then the boy was moving away from Eddie. As he fell, he smiled awkwardly, and it was as if the darkness rushed up and swallowed him rather than the boy dropping into it.
After too long a time, Eddie heard a thud, the sound rolling like a single thunderclap miles away.
don’t think just
A nurse had stitched up the cuts on his knees by the time Eddie’s cousin and agent, Phil, arrived at the hospital. He eyed the swollen red gashes with concern as Eddie told him what had happened.
‘I was only passing,’ said Eddie. ‘The next song hadn’t come on yet,’ he added, as if that explained everything.
What he meant to say –- and what he would eventually get across over the next few days as he would tell and retell the story –- was that he was driving back from Monday night training at his football club, past a construction site for new block of flats. As he waited at a red traffic light, in the fraction of dead space between two songs playing on the car radio, he heard a scream for help.
He turned off the music, rolled down the window. The shouts continued and drew him from the car, cautiously at first, then with intent. He followed the sound to an opening in a fence, and into the construction site, and finally to the deep circular concrete hole.
‘They were standing there on this ledge. Barely anything to balance on,’ said Eddie. ‘What the fuck were they doing there?’
Phil shrugged. ‘Probably a dare. You know what it’s like being a boy. You don’t want to back down, be called a pussy. The shit I used to pull,’ he said, chuckling for a second before abruptly going silent and serious. ‘You know, the press will want to cover this. Maybe even TV. You will have eyes on you. You saved that boy.’
But not the other one, Eddie wanted to say, but didn’t. He flexed his legs, wincing.
‘They told me to rest until the stitches come out,’ he said. ‘Not to kick even one ball, they told me.’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Phil, but he was looking at his phone. ‘Hey, back in a sec, just got to make a call.’ He walked out of the room and just as the door closed, Eddie thought he saw someone standing there, just a glimpse, but he blinked it away as the door clicked shut.
The club medical staff looked at his knees the next day, and signed him off for the next two matches at least.
He felt antsy sitting alone at his home that evening, so he left and caught a train to Dagenham, where he was born and raised. On the train, he put his feet up on the seat in front of him. There was a petty security in this, like he was a rebellious young child again, dreaming of the life he now led as an adult, a footballer on the cusp of real stardom.
The train stopped at a station and his carriage emptied. In front of him, rows of dual headrests lined up, and as he stared between them a dome of black hair started to slowly emerge a few seats ahead.
The black hair kept rising until a small face filled the space. The boy, the one he didn’t save. The same shy smile when he fell, as if embarrassed to have caused such a fuss.
Eddie blinked hard, slowly and deliberately. When he opened his eyes again, the boy was still there in the gap between the seats. Smiling that smile. Eddie stood and shuffled down the jerking train. The boy’s dark brown eyes followed him from between the headrests. Eddie drew nearer, but once he had a full view of the seats there was no boy.
He grunted, as if he had expected this. He returned to his seat and pulled his hoodie up over his eyes, put earphones in and turned the volume up and felt the train judder along.
It was just a short distance from the train station to his old neighbourhood. As he walked, he began to relax into familiarity. So many of his evenings had been spent playing football on these streets and pavements. His vision would be diminished by the fading light, so he would have to trust his other senses: the feel of the ball against his foot, the sound of his opponents breathing, his awareness of the physical space they occupied.
And the will to act, to shoot for goal. That maybe more than anything. His father’s words: Don’t think. Just act.
These were what made him the player he was today.
He strolled past the grounds of a wasteland that had once been a car factory, where his father had worked before being laid off. The factory had closed down not long after that, and had finally been demolished a few years ago. The land was now flat and neglected and empty, but the same old metal railing lined the perimeter. Those rusting bars clanged in his memory, an unrelenting goal netting.
As he walked, the railing bisected his view of the wasteland, and again, and again, and then between two of the bars he saw the boy. An impossible trick of perception, the boy staring at him but his form not extending wider than the space between the bars.
Eddie felt his head float and spin, and ignoring the pain in his knees he took off at a sprint down streets he had once known so well.
He lied to the club medical staff when they asked if he’d been running, but he told them a half truth about the boy.
‘I’ve been dreaming about the other boy,’ he said. To the doctor’s unchanging face, he added, ‘The boy who fell.’
The doctor sighed kindly, pursed her lips. ‘Your knees could be healing better,’ she said, and then pulled over a stool to sit down. ‘Tell me about the dreams.’
‘It’s nothing, it’s just… I’m in a room somewhere or walking down a street and he shows up. Doesn’t do anything, just stands and smiles at me.’
‘And how do you feel afterwards? When you wake up, are you scared?’
Eddie frowned, then said, ‘No. Not really. Well, sometimes.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s hard to describe. It’s not always one feeling or the other.’
She nodded. ‘You know, no one at this club would think any less of you if you took more time off. You wouldn’t be punished for it, far from it.’ She put a hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry about the dreams. It can take a while to process an experience like you had, and the brain does it in strange ways.’ She pursed her lips again. ‘Is there any history of mental health problems in your family?’
Eddie sat up straight. At her words, it felt like someone had put a scalding hot piece of metal to his skin.
‘No,’ he said, trying to keep his voice calm and steady. ‘No, all good there. Mum’s still got her marbles if that’s what you mean,’ he added, trying to laugh. ‘My sister is mental, though. Vegan. Really into her homeopathy.’
She smiled, chuckled quietly. ‘No, that’s not exactly what I meant, but that’s fine. Your Dad?’
‘Died in a car accident. I was eight.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ She stood up and went over to her desk. ‘Look, I can give you a prescription for some sleeping tablets. Don’t mix them with alcohol.’
‘I won’t,’ he said.
‘No, seriously. I know you boys think you’re invincible, but you’re not.’ She scribbled a prescription on a pad, tore the page out and handed it to him. ‘The dreams should pass soon. If they don’t, you can come back and we can have a longer chat. And do have a think about taking more time off.’
She handed him a small plastic container as he left, and he went into the bathroom to give a urine sample. He pissed into a cup and washed his hands in the sink. The water spiralled down the drain and he watched it disappear.
Something glistened in the plug hole.
Eddie bent low to look. There was something in there, something white and…
‘Fuck!’ he yelled, and backed away, as what looked like an eye blinked up at him from inside the drain. He forced himself to breath until his legs felt strong enough to take him from the bathroom.
‘Well, I think that would be a mistake,’ said Phil, on the other end of the phone.
‘Yeah, Ed. You don’t need more time off. Sitting around on your own, nothing to do but think. I know you, you’d go crazy. You need to get out there and let people see you again. The hero returns! What a fucking story.’
‘It would still be a story in a few more weeks,’ said Eddie, quietly.
‘Ed, I’ve had calls from Premiership teams,’ said Phil. ‘The top clubs. We have their attention now, we just need them to see you play. So, don’t worry about head stuff. Look after your body, and your mind will look after itself,’ he said.
Eddie didn’t reply, just let the silence build and build until Phil said, ‘Cousin, we are so close to making it. You are so close to making it.’
‘Yeah,’ said Eddie, finally. ‘Yeah, okay.’
‘You can feel it, can’t you? It’s right in front of you. An open net.’
‘You’ll feel better once you get to play again, Ed. I promise you,’ said Phil. ‘You rest up, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ There was a moment of silence and then Phil added, ‘Hero,’ before hanging up.
Eddie stared at the phone until the screen went black.
That was what he’d called Phil to talk about, before they got side-tracked with taking more time off. Hero. How was he a hero when one of them fell?
What was he to the other boy?
A couple of hours after the call with his cousin, Eddie became very much aware of spaces and angles.
As soon as he had started to make good money with the club, the size of his house had seemed important to him. It had to be big. He remembered how tiny and claustrophobic the house he’d grown up in had felt. The walls were thin and you could hear every word spoken in the house.
don’t think just act don’t think just act don’t
It wasn’t until he moved in that he realised he didn’t know how to fill a house this size. Two years later, there were still empty rooms as bare as the day he bought the place.
A lot of space between things.
That was where the boy who fell showed up.
In a dressing gown and socks, stoned on sleeping pills and vodka, Eddie stumbled around the house, and where there was an unfilled gap, there was the boy. In an impossibly narrow crevice between empty bookcases. Beneath the leather couch. Just before shadows met between wall corner and doorway. Under a chair. In a small open triangular groove of a table leg.
Eddie laughed each time he saw the boy, pointing at him and cheering.
The boy peeking out through a barely open door.
That same awkward smile on his face.
Later that week, Eddie was sitting in his car with Phil beside him, outside a red-bricked house in the suburbs. They had been there, engine still running, for nearly five minutes.
It was a foggy morning but, for a moment, Eddie was sure it was the car exhaust smoke gathering around the car, rolling across the doors and bonnet, across the windscreen. It was like they were in a confined space and the poisonous fumes were searching for a crack to come inside the car.
think just act don’t think just
‘I don’t want to do this,’ he said, for the fourth time.
‘Tell me why,’ said Phil, as if talking to a small child. Indulging but not understanding. ‘Honestly, Ed, just tell me. You saved his life. He wants to see you again. To thank you properly.’
Eddie stared out the side window into the fog. Did he see someone standing in the space between two houses? A child? He couldn’t be sure.
Phil sighed, an exhalation that segued into a squeak of leather as he stretched in the car seat. ‘You were there for this boy. This boy is alive because of you. That’s a thing, Ed. That’s a real thing.’
Eddie looked back into the car, across his cousin and out to the house. He wondered why no one was suggesting he visit that other boy’s family. He guessed it was to give them peace to grieve, but it still seemed callous to him. It was like everyone – Phil, the club, the press – were pretending the other boy hadn’t even existed.
The fog still surrounded the car, and Eddie stared into it.
act don’t think just act don’t
‘You need this,’ said Phil.
‘Publicity,’ said Eddie, coldly.
‘No, Ed. Not for publicity. For you, for your peace of mind. Wait till you see him. You’ll see how you’ve saved a life. Focus on that, even if you focus on nothing else this morning.’ Phil reached across him and turned off the engine, the car cutting to silent immediately.
And still the fog gathered around the car. Phil opened the side door, and Eddie wanted to tell him to stop, the fumes will send them to sleep and they’ll never wake up but he didn’t.
Forced himself to act and step out of the car.
The air was cold and fresh in his lungs.
‘Come on,’ said Phil. ‘Tommy is dying to see you.’
Tommy was very much not dying to see him, and Eddie nearly burst out laughing when he realised. The two of them in a small sitting room that felt like it was shrinking in size by the minute, neither of them wanting the other there, but both having to pretend otherwise.
Tommy because his parents were hovering over him, Eddie because of the press photographer perched on an armchair.
Eddie tried to flash the kid a knowing smile, but the boundaries between adulthood and the world of a child were too high and too wide. Neither would be able to understand the other, not until it was too late.
That was something Eddie knew all too well.
don’t think just
‘We warned him so many times not to play around there,’ the mother was saying, glancing at the photographer. ‘He’s usually such a good boy.’
Eddie reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair, and was rewarded by the electronic sound of a camera clicking.
‘Do you have something to say?’ asked Tommy’s father, in a tone of voice that was more statement than question.
Tommy muttered, ‘Thank you.’
After a small moment of silence, Phil cleared his throat and said, ‘Maybe a hug?’
Eddie winced inwardly, but seeing his discomfort mirrored less covertly on Tommy’s face, he tried again to form a rapport with the boy, a shared solidarity. Tommy was having none of it. Eddie could feel the boundary like it was a physical wall.
Finally, Tommy said, louder, ‘Thank you for saving me,’ and put his arms around Eddie in a loose hug.
He could hear the camera clicking again.
The hug grew tight and urgent as the boy whispered in his ear, ‘You could have saved him.’
He disentangled himself, and stared at Tommy, who looked jarringly vulnerable in that moment, and Eddie wanted to ask him what he meant.
But the moment passed, the boundary rising again, and with everyone watching him he didn’t feel like he could ask. Instead, he asked, ‘Can I come visit you again sometime?’
‘Of course,’ answered the father for Tommy.
‘He’d like that,’ said the mother. ‘Wouldn’t you, love?’
Tommy looked at his parents, looked at Eddie, and said, ‘No, I fucking wouldn’t.’ He ran from the room, with his mother in pursuit.
Eddie heard the photographer chuckle, and Tommy’s father said, ‘I’m so sorry about that. Since that night, he hasn’t been himself. It’ll pass…’
Everyone made their excuses and left, and Eddie found himself back sitting in his car with Phil.
‘You should’ve let the little prick drop,’ said Phil, and Eddie started the car.
When he got home, he let himself in and stopped abruptly. An archway ahead of him led to the kitchen and the other boy was standing there, smiling, in front of an open door leading to the garage. A horrible feeling ran from Eddie’s hairline to his stomach.
don’t think just act don’t think
Eddie sprinted to him but stopped abruptly as the boy stepped backwards into the darkness of the garage, swallowed up again. Eddie stared into the darkness, unwilling to follow the boy in there.
Match day. His first game back. His head may have been a mess, but his knees felt good at least.
He sat on the bench as a substitute for the first sixty-five minutes, and when the manager called him up, he found he had no memory of the match up till then, despite watching it intently.
He nodded at the instructions given to him as he stood on the side-line waiting to be let on, and when he ran onto the pitch the roar from the home fans was huge. A chant of ‘Hero, Hero’ started up and Eddie held up a hand in salute, acknowledged the response with a brief clap.
The game started again, and the ball rolled to him. He looked down and couldn’t make sense of what it was, what he was supposed to do with it, and then the wind was knocked out of him as someone tackled him hard.
A whistle from the referee, boos from the crowd, and he lay on his side on the pitch, not playacting, just staring into the stands.
In between supporters, between their heads, between their bodies, under their legs, he saw the boy watching him. He shut his eyes, couldn’t bear to see any more space where the boy could be found, and buried his face in the muddy soil.
In the first aid room after the match, he sat on a long examination bench as Phil stood beside him, neither of them speaking.
Eddie could hear his team mates in the changing room next door, but couldn’t bear the thought of going in to them. It was okay, expected almost, for a player to be physically injured and not be able to play. But a breakdown on the pitch? No one would forget or forgive that.
Not the players, not the coaching staff, certainly not the fans.
Finally, Eddie said, ‘No one talks about the other boy. The one who fell, the one who died.’
Phil looked at him and stood up straighter. He exhaled loudly. ‘Well, why the fuck do you think that is?’ he asked, bitterly.
‘No one talks about him, either,’ said Eddie.
Phil stared at him. ‘Who?’
Eddie tilted his head, pleading. ‘You know who.’
‘Your Dad?’ Phil laughed. It was a harsh noise. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Ed. You’re bringing that prick up now? After your little performance out there, you want people asking questions about him?’ Phil shook his head. ‘You have bloody well lost it, cousin.’ He started walking away, and said over his shoulder, ‘You’ve lost it.’
He slammed the door when he left, and Eddie sat alone in the room. He stared at the floor, then heard the door handle turn slowly, and felt ill as he turned to look. The door was now open, just a crack, but that was enough.
The other boy looked in at him.
Eddie wanted to moan, to shout in frustration, but he didn’t. Instead, he inched himself off the bench and walked slowly to the door. The boy’s dark brown eyes followed him all the way, and he moved out of sight just as Eddie reached the door.
‘Don’t think, just act,’ Eddie said, the last words he heard his father say, walking past an eight year old Eddie, striding almost, into the garage. The car engine started and had just kept going and the child-Eddie hadn’t known what to do.
So he had sat and waited.
‘Just act,’ said Eddie, and took hold of the handle to pull the door shut.
The door didn’t move as he pulled. It felt like someone stronger than him was holding it from the other side, and then it was wrenched open, Eddie’s hand still holding the handle and he was pulled forward with it, over the threshold and beyond into the darkness.
Robin Maginn is an Irish writer, living in London. He has had several short stories published in print and online, including with Albedo One and Syntax & Salt. He was shortlisted for the 2010 Aeon Award, placing third; and received Honourable Mention in the Fall 2018 Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award.