It Should Have Been Me (A Short Story by Tyler Scott Hess)
Sam Youngward digs his nails into the grains of sand beneath his faint shadow. He coughs and spits out the murky sea water that had gathered in his system. He gasps for breath while looking up to the full moon’s light. This is a feeling he never thought he’d experience again. And one he doesn’t believe he deserves. It never should have come to this.
Sandy rushes to his side, followed in haste by Jeanine, then several of their friends hustling close behind.
“Where is he?” Sandy asks. “Where is Jonathan?”
Sam coughs and spits again before sinking lower toward the soft white beach below him, wanting to rest his weary body.
“Answer me!” Sandy demands, wanting to shake him, but afraid of breaking him. “Where is Jonathan?”
It was a fair question, and quite a serious matter, but Sam has neither the ability nor the capacity to answer her at this time. He can hardly breathe, let alone speak. His mind isn’t right. He shakes his head, staring at the tiny pebbles and shells scattered around a lonesome white feather left behind by nature.
“No?” Jeanine asks softly, trying to coax some sense into her young, newlywed husband.
He looks up to see the long strawberry blonde hair crashing into her face with the wind blowing steadily upon them. He is beginning to gain feeling in his arms and legs, and his shoulders start to shake, but he can’t compose himself enough to ask for help.
Jeanine motions for a towel from one of the chairs around the fire pit, which is where they would have been gathered this evening, if not for their concerns over the whereabouts of the two missing brothers.
Sandy calls the guard tower to inform them of Sam’s reappearance, but her words are shaky, and her speech barely discernible. It’s much worse than it was this afternoon when the young men had failed to return from their trip to the tiny island across the lake.
It’s a short trip for two experienced swimmers, one that the two boys had often taken with their older sister over the years. There isn’t much else to do so far away from their city home and it was always nice to escape the lazy days and old stories their parents would tell them about their younger years at their family’s summer cabin.
But the weather took a sharp turn today and the two boys failed to return by lunchtime as they had promised. Jeanine thought they might have decided to wait out the storm, but decided to call local officials to check on them just in case something had gone awry. The look on Sam’s face tells her it was as bad as she could have feared, especially after local authorities failed to locate the brothers anywhere on the island or at sea.
Jeanine leads Sam back to the cabin, where he is able to warm himself by the fire and rehydrate from his day of misadventure. He sits in a rocking chair, mumbling to himself, but refusing to respond to Sandy’s intermittent interrogations.
“Where did you two go?” she asks him. “Did you make it to the island? Is Jonny still there? Is he hurt?”
Sam shakes his head and mutters toward the chaotic fire that haunts his eyes and warms his body.
Jeanine kneels down in front of Sam, takes his hand in hers, and tries to catch his eyes into her gaze. “Look at me, Sammy. Why can’t you answer any of Sandy’s questions? We’re only trying to help.”
“Because,” he sputters.
“Why, Sam?” Sandy demands. “Why can’t you answer me. We need to know.”
“Because it should have been me,” he says.
“What happened, Sam?” Jeanine presses, squeezing his hands with her own.
“We were headed out to the island,” he says quietly, staring into Sandy’s eyes, ignoring Sandy’s irritated growls beside him. “Just like we always do. But Jonny said he wasn’t interested in going to the island. He wanted to go to the other side of the lake.”
“The other side?” Jeanine asks.
“You’re not supposed to go to the other side,” Sandy huffs.
“I tried to tell him that,” Sam sighs. “But he said those rules are our parents’ rules, not ours, and they aren’t here to enforce them. And we’re adults now. He said he had heard of a great jumping spot on the east side that he had to check out.”
“Is that what happened?” Sandy asks, her eyes melting with every word they exchange. “Did he hurt himself?”
Sam doesn’t have time to respond before they hear a solid, curt knock on the door.
Sandy rushes to the door. Two young guards stand tall before her. She stares at them for a moment, waiting for them to speak, before pointing out her younger brother as he takes the towel off his shoulders.
“Did he call in to gloat yet?” Sam asks the guard.
“He’s alive?” Jeanine asks, falling to her knees.
“Gloat?” Sandy asks, standing up in shock.
“He’s fine,” the guard answers. “We made contact with tower forty-two. They said two young men had wandered into their office this morning that fit the description you gave us this afternoon. I’m glad to see that you’re safe, sir.”
Sam nods after pulling a shirt over his head. “Of course I’m safe. I told them over there that I could make it back on my own. Not my fault the wind was against me. I would have made it in time on a normal day.”
“In time?” Sandy asks, demanding an explanation. “Was this all some sort of joke to you?”
“You worry too much.”
“You little weasel! Why didn’t you tell us what happened?” Sandy continues.
“I was out of breath,” Sam cuts back. “It’s not my fault you always overreact to everything.”
“I do not!” Sandy quibbles.
“Yes you do,” Sam laughs as the guards take their leave.
“I’m going to get you for this.”
“That’s what you always say.”