Ross sat on the bench alone, waiting for what was next. He considered leaving, no one was there to threaten him or tell him that he couldn’t leave. Maybe now was his chance to go home and to be left alone to his grief. He stood up and once again made his way to the path that would lead him of the park.
“Ross.” Someone called his name from across the park. Ross turned around to find an eccentric looking young man jogging toward him. Ross continued walking.
“Ross. Wait. WAIT.” The young man called. Ross began to walk toward him. The new man wiped his light brown hair out of his gray eyes.
“I’m Louis.” He said extending his hand.
“Ross Kübler.” Ross said shaking Louis’ hand.
“I know.” Louis said happily.
“I—um. Okay. What is it that you want?”
“Do you wanna go on the slide with me?” Louis asked.
“Aren’t we a little old for that?” Ross asked.
“You’re never too old to have fun.” Louis said seriously.
“Fine. I’ll ride the slide with you.” Ross said.
“Great.” Louis said smiling. “I’ll lead the way.” Louis pushed past Ross and began walking to the decrepit playground that was once the gem of the park. The monkey bars were rusted and looked as if they would break if someone as much as touched them. The chains on all but one of the swings were broken and trailing on the ground, the leathery vinyl seats hanging sideways. Louis began to climb the steps to the slide. The ancient medal creaked underneath Louis weight.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” Ross said uncertainly.
“Live a little.” Louis scoffed. Ross climbed the steps of the ladder leading to the slide. He could feel the rusted metal buckling under the weight of the two average sized men.
“Are we going to slide or what?” Ross asked agitated.
“Just take a moment.” Louis said. “Let it all sink in.”
“Let all of what sink in?” Ross asked.
Louis swept his arms over the expanse of the park. “This. Take in the world Ross Kübler.” Louis took a deep breath and dropped his arms. “Take it all in.”
Ross looked at the park that he had spent so much of his childhood in. The run down play ground that he and Louis now sat it. The basketball courts with missing nets and cracked blacktops. The tennis courts with their net stolen. The main gravel path that led straight through the park and the smaller dirt paths that had been beaten down by the footsteps of many park goers. Ross looked at the river and the trees, the wildflowers and the large spray painted rocks. Ross took it in, like Louis suggested. He took a death breathe.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Louis said smiling.
“It’s a nice park.” Ross nodded.
“It’s a beautiful park.” Louis countered.
“It was a beautiful park.” Ross said.
“Why can’t you just accept the park is beautiful?” Louis asked.
“It’s a tattered mess.” Ross said.
“You’ll get there.” Louis muttered. “You’ll get there.”
“What?” Ross asked.
“I said lets ride the slide.” Louis said. “Here hold onto me.”
“I can ride the slide by myself.” Ross grumbled.
“But I’m asking you to ride with me.” Louis said. “C’mon, get to it.” Ross hesitantly wrapped his arms around Louis waist. Louis grabbed onto Ross’ clasped hands that rest on his stomach.
“On three.” Louis said. “One…two…three.” Louis pushed his feet against the smooth metal of the slide. Ross and Louis flew down the slide, quickly tumbling into the ground. Ross groaned from the pain in his knuckles. Louis laughed from the feeling of the wind through his hair.
“Let’s go again.” Louis said.
“Let’s not.” Ross groaned, trying to shake the pain out of his hands.
“I’ll make you a deal.” Louis said.
“A deal?” Ross asked.
“A deal.” Louis confirmed.
“What kind of deal?”
“What kind of deal do you want it to be?”
“It doesn’t matter to me; you’re the one who wants to make the deal.”
“Alright. If you ride the slide with me one more time, I’ll bring your mother back.” Ross’s head whipped around to look at Louis.
“What?” He hissed.
“If you ride the slide with me again. I’ll bring your mother back.”
“Do you have a hearing problem? I said—“
“I heard what you said. How did you know about my mother?”
“Do not say I told you. I didn’t tell you. How did you know?”
“It’s part of my j—“
“If you say ‘it’s part of my job’ I might have to punch you in the face.”
“Zayn said you were a calm person.”
“Well maybe I’ve seen the light, maybe I’ve come around to Zayn’s way of thinking.” Ross said walking toward Louis.
“Do you want to make a deal or not?” Louis asked.
“I want to know what you know about my mother.” Ross spat.
“How could I not know?” Louis said.
“How did you know?” Ross’ teeth were gritted and his eyes held the sort of angry that was normally severed for one’s greatest enemy.
“Zayn told me.” Louis blurted. “And Niall. Niall told me too. Zayn and Niall, that’s who told me.”
“I didn’t know that what I was telling Niall and Zayn was up for open discussion.”
“It’s not.” Louis said quickly. “But I’m in the... same line of work as they are and word spreads.”
“Well what did Niall and Zayn tell you?”
“They told me what happened to your mom. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks.” Ross muttered all traces of his early rage gone.
“I want you to know that I don’t agree with either of them.”
“Agree with them on what?” Ross asked.
“How to deal with this.”
“My mother death?”
“Yes. Her death. I think Niall and Zayn have it all wrong.” Louis said. Ross gave Louis a questioning looks. Louis huffed but began to explain nonetheless.
“Niall thinks that you should just deny that any of it ever happened. Zayn thinks you should be angry about it.”
“And you disagree?” Ross asked.
“Yes.” Louis nodded, “I disagree. Denial and Anger are fine to experience, but they won’t do anything for you. The best way to get what you want is to bargain for it.”
“Bargain? Like, make a deal?”
“Make a deal, exactly. You can get virtually anything for the right price.”
“Are you saying there’s a price for my mother?”
“No. of course not. But you might be able to make a trade.”
“You know tit for tat, eye for an eye, a cheek for a cheek.”
“You do know you’re using eye for an eye and a cheek for a cheek out of context.”
“Haven’t you ever made a deal before?”
“Well, yeah. But I don’t see what this has to do with my mom.”
“When you make a deal,” Louis said. “You say what you want and some else says what they want and you guys come up with a way for both of you to get what you need. Yeah?”
“Tell me about a deal you’ve made.”
“I used to make deals with my sister when we were little but—“
“What kind of deal?”
“It was mostly trading stuff like getting to use the car for doing chores.”
“Ross Kübler, I want to tell you something.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
“Did you know that your mother used to bargain?”
“She bought stuff on sale at the store? ‘Cause that’s no secret buddy. She did that, all the time.”
“No.” Louis rolled his eyes. That is not what I meant at all. I mean she used to bargain with the universe.”
“Bargain with the universe?”
“Or maybe it was a deity?”
“Sure, God will be a great example to use.” Louis said brightly.
“No.” Ross said quickly. “No, I think you’re misunderstanding. I’m saying she bargained with God, she was religious.”
“Yes!” Louis said happily. “It was God that she bargained with.”
“Okay.” Ross said uncomfortably. “It that it or is there something more.”
“Right.” Louis said. “Bargaining. She made bargains with her God quite a bit.”
“What kind of bargains?” Ross asked.
“Well, if I’m going to be completely honest they were mostly about you and your sisters.”
“She made bargains for us?” Ross asked, eyebrows raised.
“Yes.” Louis said. “They started out as mostly things like, ‘If you bring their dad back I’ll go start a mission in Africa.’”
“My mother didn’t like the missions in Africa.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“What other stuff did she say?” Ross asked warily.
“For a really, really, long time it was still all the dad stuff. When she realized that wasn’t happening she moved onto to small things like getting ‘A’s on tests or… winning baseball games.”
“And when she got sick?” Ross asked.
“When she got sick is when she made the most bargains.” Louis said.
“What she say?” Ross asked. He was hooked now, this encounter was completely different than the ones he had with Niall and Zayn. This guy knew something, yes it was slightly unsettling to Ross, but finally getting answers over giving them blinded him to any sort of uncomfort. Louis didn’t answer. The stood from the ground the two of them were still lying on. The slide rising into the heavens. Ross toyed with the thought that maybe the slide could take him to his mother.
“I’ve said too much.” Louis said, dusting off his trousers. “I have said way too much.”
“You can’t just leave me hanging like that.” Ross whined.
“I can and I will.” Louis said. “C’mon.” Louis began walking toward the swings. Ross, realizing what was happening, quickly stood up and ran to catch up to Louis.
“Oh good.” Louis said. “You’ve made it.”’
“Why are we going to the swings?” Ross asked.
“I like the swings.” Louis said.
“We can’t even use them.” Ross reasoned. “They’ve been broken for years.”
“I know.” Louis said. “That’s why we’re going to fix them.”
“We’re going to fix the swings?” Ross asked. “With what?”
Louis smiled at Ross and reached into his suit jacket. This was the first time Ross noticed Louis clothing. He wore a tailored navy suit; his white shirt had the top three buttons undone. He had on black leather shoes. Louis pulled from inside of his jacket a pair of pliers, a wire cutter, and a sizeable amount of thick chain.
“C’mon.” Louis said cheerfully. “Let’s step to it; I’ve been dying to play on the swings. I can’t remember the last time I was on the swings.”
“Me neither.” Ross said, grabbing the chain from Louis. “They were always my favorite part of the park.”
“Me too.” Louis said. “Now climb up the top of the set.” Ross began to shimmy up the poles holding together the swing set.
“Why am I the one climbing?” Ross grumbled as he rose higher into the air.
“Because I am wearing this rather expensive suit that’s I would like to keep looking nice.” Louis said.
“Why are you wearing a suit in a park anyway?” Ross asked, straddling the bar that held the loose swing chains. “Wire cutters.”
“I happen to like how I look in this suit, thank you very much.” Louis said as he handed Ross the wire cutters. “Why are you wearing an old pair of jeans and a ratty sweatshirt?”
“I was at the hospital. I didn’t feel the need to dress up.”
“Just because you’re in a depressing place it doesn’t give to an excuse to not look your best.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind for the next time I am in the garage fixing my car.” Ross muttered.
“You don’t own a car.” Louis muttered.
“How did you know that?” Ross asked as he continued to work on the swings.
“I know a lot of things about you Ross Kübler.”
“That’s odd, you say you’re different than Niall and Zayn, yet you sound just like them.”
“I’m different than Niall and I’m different than Zayn, but the nature of our jobs require us to be slightly similar.”
“So, you’re in the same line of work as Niall and Zayn?” Ross asked. “Hand me the other chain”
Louis did as Ross asked, grabbing the other side of the chain and reaching it up to Ross. “You could say it is the same line of work. If you can call it work.”
“If it’s not work than what is it?” Ross asked. “Pliers.”
“I’m tempted to say play, but that’s not true. It’s not work because I like it. Call it a passion.” Louis said as he handed the pliers to Ross. Ross pried at the rings in the chain.
“A passion? A passion for what exactly? Denial? Anger? Bargaining?”
“A passion for helping people.” Louis said. “We just do it differently. Niall believes it’s best for people to just pretend the bad things never happen. Zayn thinks that be covering every other emotion by anger your mind is free to work everything out. I think a trade; a fair trade is the best way to deal with something.”
“How does making a trade help people? People who are—who are like me? How does trading help anything?” Ross had finished fixing the first swing by now. He slid on the beam to the second wing and once again began fixing the chains.
“I know you’ve said that you’ve made trade, but have you ever made a clean trade? A sound trade? Have you ever bargained? Begged? Bargaining… is what helps people.”
“How does bargaining help people?” Ross asked. Louis shoved his hands in his pockets and immediately removed them, running them through his hair.
“It makes you feel like you have a chance, yeah? Like, you can get what you want.”
“So you want people or deliberately feel like they have a chance.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” Louis said. He grinned widely. “Beggars can’t be choosers. Ha. Get it? ‘Cause we were talking about begging?”
“I get it.” Ross smiled weakly. “Grab the chain.” Louis once again grabbed the chain of the swings and threw it up to Ross. Ross grabbed it and once again began opening the chain with the pliers.
“Do you bargain much? The bargains with your sisters don’t count, mind you.” Louis said.
“Then no, I can’t say I’ve bargained much.”
“Never? Even for something you wanted most in the world?” Louis asked in amazement.
“Never.” Ross said. “I’m more of a roll with the punches kind of guy.”
“You do understand how essential bargaining is, yeah?”
“Sure. I think its important y’know? Just not for me.”
“I don’t think you truly understand. Ross Kübler, we have everything in the world worth having because of bargaining. Like this playground, they didn’t just decide to make this park and build a playground. They—“
“No.” Ross interrupted. “I’m pretty sure they decided to build the playground. That was kinda the reason they built the park. There were too many kids here to not have a playground. They did just decide to build it.
“They bargained.” Louis continued, glaring at Ross. Ross shrugged. “I am certain that there was one man in the room when they were deciding on building this park that said ‘No. We mustn’t have a playground.’ I am certain then, that there was another man in the room who said ‘we must. I will give you anything you want, because we must have a playground for the children who live here.’ You have this park, your safe haven because of a bargain.”
“How did you know this was my safe haven?” Ross asked.
“Zayn told me.” Louis said hesitantly.
“I didn’t tell Zayn that.” Ross said.
‘Lucky guess?” Louis offered. Ross glared at him from up on top on the swings. He finished with the chain on the second swing and moved onto the third.
“You can’t just guess stuff like that. Someone told you.” Ross said.
“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll bargain with you. If you can beat me in a race, I’ll tell you.”
“I don’t want to race you Louis.” Ross said. “Chain.”
“No.” Louis said, putting his hands on his hips.
“What?” Ross asked looking down on him.
“I’m not giving you the chain.” Louis said.
“Is this because I don’t want to race you?” Ross asked. “Because that’s nothing against you, I just don’t like racing.”
“It has nothing to do with whether or not you’ll race me.” Louis assured. “We’re done fixing swings.”
Ross looked down at the swing set he was sitting on. He had fixed two of the swings already, but there were still three swings ahead of him.
“We have three swings left.” Ross said. “It’ll only take a minute to fix.”
“I admire your dedication. Wanting to finish what you start is a very good quality. However, I am afraid that you aren’t ready to finish rebuilding the swings.”
“Are you saying I don’t know how to fix the swings? You just watched me fix two of them.”
‘I’m not saying that.” Louis said. “I’m just saying that you aren’t…prepared to fix the swings.”
“I can’t leave this have finished.”
“You’ll get to finish it later. But not until you are down with this.” Louis said firmly. “Get down. Step to it.”
“Step to it.” Ross mocked under his breath as he jumped off of the swing set.
“Did you say something?” Louis said as Ross regained his balance.
“No, not a word.” Ross said sarcastically.
“Walk with me.” Louis said, taking his way down the path. Ross followed behind Louis.
“What I don’t understand,” Louis said. “Is how you can live in New York City and not have made a decent bargain in all of your life.”
“I haven’t lived in New York for my whole life.” Ross said.
“You’ve been living there for three years,” Louis said. “That’s practically a life time.”
“I grew up here.” Ross said. “Eighteen years in this town, on the same street in the same house. Three years has nothing on that.”
“You’re missing the point Ross Kübler. The point isn’t whether or not you’ve lived there your whole life. The point is you’ve lived there long enough to be able to pick up some of the valuable life skills you are missing. And you’ve failed to do that.”
“I’ve learned a lot of this.” Ross mumbled.
“I’m not arguing that.” Louis said. “I think earning a Bachelor’s in English is a great idea. But you’ve become book smart, not street smart.”
“I’m street smart.” Ross said defensively.
“Then you would know that being able to bargain is an essential skill.”
“I never said it wasn’t.”
“Do you want to learn how to bargain?” Louis asked.
“Sure teach me how to bargain.” Ross said.
“You’re trying to get something you really want.” Louis reminded him. “That’s the goal of this.”
“Okay.” Ross said.
“What are you going to try and get?” Louis asked.
Ross hadn’t put a lot of thought into that. There were lots of things he wanted, lots of things he wanted dearly. He wanted his landlord to like him. He wanted his roommate to pay his fair share of the rent. He wanted his coworker to break up with her boyfriend. He wanted to date said coworker. He wanted to know whatever happened to Tricia. He wanted to jump into the river and its treacherous waters. He wanted a promotion. He wanted a car. Most of all, Ross wanted his mother. He wanted her back. He wanted to hug her and complain about the peeling wallpaper in the kitchen and the color of the hallway. He wanted to be able to call her every weekend like he used too. He wanted her to be there when he got married and he wanted her to be there when he had his first child. He wanted her to be there when he graduated from NYU. Ross wanted a lot of things, above all her wanted his mother back. He wanted her back, alive and breathing and smiling. Always smiling.
“I don’t know.” Ross said shyly.
“Yes you do.” Louis said. “You want your mother back.”
“Yeah.” Ross admitted sheepishly.
“There’s nothing wrong with that Ross Kübler. It’s fairly common.” Louis said.
“I want my mother to not be dead.” Ross told him.
“That’s a good thing to want.” Louis said. “So what are you going to give for it?”
“Excuse me?” Ross asked.
“What are you willing to exchange for your mother to be here, next to you?” Louis asked. They had walked the perimeter of the park already and Ross saw that they were stopped in front of the tree he had broken when he had been with Zayn. Unconsciously, Ross looked at his knuckles. Still bruised, still bloodied. He clenched and released his hands. The pain was still there.
“Would you like to sit and think about it?” Louis asked, motioning to the bench Ross had spent most of the day on.”
“Sure.” Ross said weakly. He sat down on the right side of the bench where he had sat before. Louis sat on the left side like Niall and Zayn did.
“Take your time.” Louis said crossing his legs.
What would Ross give to have his mother back? Everything, he supposed. He would give up his partial scholarship to NYU; he would give up his dreams jobs. He would give up the apartment and his roommate who never paid his fair share of the rent. He would give up trying to jump into the river. He would give up the park. He would give up trying to date his coworker. He would give up trying to find out what happened to Tricia. He would give up the money he had saved to buy a car. He would give up everything he had.
“Try to think outside of what you would give up.” Louis advised.
“It’s just hard, y’know?” Ross said. “I can’t put a price on my mother’s life.
“Well try.” Louis said harshly. “Sorry. Think about stuff you would do in order to get your mother back.”
Ross went back to thinking. If he could have his mother back he would donate to a cancer society. If he could have his mother back he would start going to church again. If he had his mother back he would talk to his father again. If he had his mother back he would move back home. If he had his mother back, he would give up his jobs just to be home with her. If he had his mother back he would go back to coach his old baseball team. If he had his mother back he would go teach English, even though he promised himself he would never do that. If he had his mother back he would hug her and tell her he was story for all the wrong he ever did her. If he could have his mother back, he would fix up the park, no questions asked.
“I think you’re forgetting something.” Louis said.
“What?” Ross asked.
“You.” Louis said.
“Me?” Ross asked.
“You.” Louis nodded.
“What am I forgetting about me?” Ross asked.
“You’re forgetting to give up yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” Ross asked.
“Ross Kübler, you are willing to give up everything you own. You are willing to do things you don’t want to ever want to do. But you haven’t considered offering the thing that you have that is of the most value.”
“What would that be?” Ross asked. His mind wandered to his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, his new laptop, and his signed Nirvana poster.
“You.” Louis said,
“I’m the most valuable thing I have?” Ross asked. He knew he was smart, but he was nowhere near that smart.
“Your life.” Louis clarified.
“Excuse me?” Ross asked.
“Would you give your life to get your mother back?” Louis asked.
“That seems counterproductive. If I gave my life, how would I be able to enjoy having my mother here?” Ross asked.
“You wouldn’t.” Louis said. “The point is that she’s alive, not whether or not you get to be with her.”
“Why would I give my life if I don’t even get to see her?” Ross asked.
“So you’re okay with the fact that she is dead?”
“No! No, I’m not. I’m not okay with her being…gone. But if either if us is dead why would we give our lives for the other person? We wouldn’t get to see them, wouldn’t get to be with them? So why?”
“Because you would give what is most valuable for them to be here and what is more valuable than a human life?”
“Louis.” Ross said “That’s insane.”
“You don’t think human lives are valuable?” Louis asked.
“Of course I do.” Ross said. “I just don’t see the point in sacrificing my life if I don’t even get to see the person I am saving again.”
“Ross Kübler, you are making this very difficult.” Louis said.
“How?” Ross asked.
“You’re extremely selfish.” Louis told him.
“You think I am selfish?” Ross asked in a low voice. This bothered him. Ross tried very hard within reasonable means to be a selfless person. He tried to help others as much as he could and he frequently put others people’s needs before his own.
“Yes.” Louis said. “I think you are extremely selfish.”
“What makes you say that?” Ross asked.
“When it comes to the everyday stuff, you are more of a giving person. But when it comes to the bigger things, well you drop the ball a little. A lot. You drop the ball a lot. If it came between saving someone you care about or saving yourself, you will save yourself. That’s how you’ve been conditioned. But it is not a good thing, Ross Kübler. That is what makes you selfish.”
“What kind of bigger picture things?”
“Let’s take for example, Tricia Stein. You let her father stab her in the stomach while you cowered in fear on the other side of the room.”
“That’s not true. I—“
“You let your mother die, instead of taking action.”
“That’s a lie. There—“
“You let your father walk out, instead of begging him to stay.
“How is that—“
“You were willing to let your sister get hit by a car.”
“You were willing to let your friends take them blame when the police—“
“That’s enough.” Ross said firmly. “That’s enough Louis.”
“You are a selfish man.” Louis said.
“Sometimes, you can’t protect other people. You just have to think for yourself.”
“Life isn’t a Darwin survival of the fittest game.”
“Yes. It is. That’s exactly what it is.”
“All those times, with every one of those events, you could have bargained. You could have proved that you can stand up for yourself, for other people. All you proved was that you are a coward.”
“I am not a coward.” Ross stood for the third time to walk away. He didn’t need to prove anything to Louis, he owed Louis nothing. He was determined to leave the park this time. It was Louis’ voice that stopped him.
“Then why’d you run away?” Louis asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“The hospital.” Louis said. “When your mother died. You ran away. You ran out of the hospital and you came here. To your safe haven. To look at the river. You met Niall and you met Zayn and you met me. You can hide it from them, but you can’t hide it from me. You ran away. You are a coward.”
“You had so many chances to strike a deal Ross Kübler.” Louis said mournfully, his head in his hands. “So many chances to show that you weren’t afraid. That you’d risk it all, to save someone or to get what you want. But you never took them. You shied away. Why? Why did you do that to yourself?”
Ross walked back to the bench. He sat down next to Louis.
“I don’t know.” He said softly. “I honestly have no idea.”
“Why? Why did you do that to yourself?” Louis repeated.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am scared of something.”
“Why? Why did you do that to yourself?”
“For the past twelve years, I’ve never thought about me. About if what I was doing was for me or for someone else. It was Tricia or my dad or my mom. I felt guilty for what happened to Tricia. I felt guilty for what happened with my dad. I felt guilty for what happened to my mom. I spent all my time thinking that if I was better, maybe none of that would’ve happened, y’know? If I was stronger, if I’d gotten into sports earlier. If I was more assertive Tricia’s father wouldn’t have hurt her. If I was more into baseball, if I applied myself more a school, If I liked fishing more than reading, maybe my dad would have stayed because he had a son to be proud of. If I listened more, payed more attention in church, maybe my mother wouldn’t have gotten sick. I know none of this is my fault, things happen because they happen, but there is a part of my that feels if I was better, if I did more, than none of those things would have happened. I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Why? Why did you do that to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” Ross repeated softly. “I don’t know.”
Louis didn’t say anything, his head still buried in his hands; He appeared to be sobbing, his shoulders shaking. Ross reached out and pat his back.
“Are you. Are you okay?” Ross whispered.
“Will you try again?” Louis asked.
“Try what again?” Ross replied.
“Bargaining.” Louis said. “Will you try to bargain again? For me? One more time?”
“Sure.” Ross said, taking a deep breath. “I can do that. I can try.”
“Good.” Louis said sitting up. Ross could see the tear tracks on his face. “Good. I’m glad.”
"Do you want to get started then?" Ross asked.
"Started, yes. We should get started." Louis said blankly.
"Louis? Are you okay?" Ross asked furrowing his brow.
"Where do we start?" Louis asked. He looked around confused. His eyes unfocused he scanned the entire park
"I was hoping you'd tell me." Ross chuckled weakly.
"Bargaining." Louis said.
"Yes." Ross said. "That's what we were planning on doing."
"Bargaining is a tool." Louis said
"Okay." Ross nodded. "I'm listening."
"Bargaining is how you get what you want. What do you want Ross Kübler? What do you want?"
"I want my mother back." Ross said quietly. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. "I want my mother alive and well."
"Are you willing to offer everything for that?" Louis asked.
"Everything?" Ross said anxiously.
"Everything." Louis said.
Ross thought of his mother, his roommate, Tricia, a car, a promotion, his father, the gold pocket watch, his signed nirvana poster, his new laptop. He thought of his scholarship, teaching English, his baseball team. His family. His mother. Himself.
"Yes. I am prepared to offer...everything."
"Then I suggest," Louis said. "That you start praying."
That caught Ross off guard.
"Praying?" He asked
"Or how ever else you garner the attention of your chosen deity. Prayer is the preferred method in many religions. Although, I have heard of some rather...unusual customs.
"Prayer will work just fine." Ross said.
"Well get to it." Louis said watching Ross.
"It's just-- I haven't really talked to the 'G'-man in a really long time."
"His ears are always open...probably"
"I just don't know how to start."
"Are you there God? It's me, Margaret...."
"Ha-ha. Very funny."
"Give it a try."
Ross clasped his hands together in front of his chest. He closed his eyes and bowed his head as he opened his mouth.
"Kneel." Louis said. Ross looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. "Kneel, deities like it when you kneel."
Ross rolled his eyes, but did as Louis said and brought himself to his knees in the dirt.
"Are you there God? It's me, Ross. I know it's been a while since we've talked. I want to apologize for that. I was angry at you. I was angry at everyone. Anyway, I'm sorry it's been so long. I have to ask you for a favor though. I know I sound like the world’s biggest douche, talking to you again for the first time in twelve years and asking for a favor. But it's really important. You probably know this already, but my mom died today. And I know you're a man of your word and once you've spoken, whatever you said that's the way things are. But I was wondering if you could bend the rules a little bit. I was wondering if maybe I could have her back. I'm lost, I am so lost. I don't know what I am going to do without her. Please, God, please give her back to me I am begging you. I will do anything. Anything. I'll start going to church again. I'll start tithing. I'll fix up the park. I'll be more involved with the community. I'll go vegan. I'll start running. I'll become a business major, even though I hate business. I'll even become an English teacher if that's what it takes. Just please give her back. You can have me instead if you want God. Take me instead. There is so much good my mother can still do. I can't do anything. Take me instead. Please I am begging you let her come back. Please.... I guess that's all I really have to say. If you aren't gonna help me, well... Thanks for listening I guess. And all Gods people said 'amen'."
"I have never heard a prayer like that." Louis said as Ross stood up
“That’s because prayers like that are meant to be quite.” Ross said, wiping the dust off of his jeans.
‘That was so beautiful I think I might cry.” Louis said sarcastically.
“Last time I do what you ask then.” Ross muttered.
“Oh come on.” Louis said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“It bothers me that you just had me kneel in the dirt and pour my heart out to a deity I’m not even sure I still believe in and what do you do when I’m finished? You laugh. That’s messed up.”
“My apologies.” Louis said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Ross grumbled as he sat back down on the bench next to Louis.
“What would you do if she came back, back from the dead?” Louis asked.
“I dunno. I’d probably move back home, get a job around here, transfer to a school around here. I’d want to be close to her because if I’m not I couldn’t protect her.”
“And you would do all those things you said?” Louis asked.
“Well if I can avoid being a business man or teaching English, I will. But I think I could do most of those things.”
“Interesting.” Louis said.
“What?” Ross asked.
Ross and Louis sat in silence for a moment, looking at the river. Louis’s hand shifted in his lap. Ross let out a small cough.
“Hey, Louis?” Ross asked.
“Yes?” Louis replied.
“What happens if—what happened if I don’t do all the things I said?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, if I get my mm back because of the bargains I made and I don’t live up to all of them, what happens then? Does she get taken back?”
“I don’t know.” Louis said. “People always keep their bargains.”
“There wasn’t anyone in the whole world that broken one of the bargains?” Ross asked.
“Not that I know of.” Louis said. “People are pretty serious about keeping their loved ones.”
“Let’s just say hypothetically.” Ross said. “Someone had a loved one that the bargained for, but they didn’t keep up their end of the bargain. What would happen?”
“Well since we’re speaking hypothetically,” Louis said. “Why did they hypothetically break a bargain that they hypothetically made?”
“It doesn’t matter why.” Ross said annoyed. “It just matters that they did it.”
“Well then I suppose, hypothetically of course, that their loved one would die again, or the bargainer would die. I guess it really just depends of the circumstances.”
“Huh.” Ross said. The two men lapsed back into silence. Ross, as always, had his eyes drawn to the river. The water didn’t seem as treacherous as it did when he was with Zayn. In fact, the water looked rather calm. It was a lighter color than it had been, clearer the water was clearer.
“Why do you like the river so much?” Louis asked. Ross wasn’t listening; he was still staring at the water. Louis sighed. He picked his hand up out of his lap; he curled his fingers onto a fist and slammed the said fist into Ross’ left shoulder. Ross’s hand moved to his shoulder and held it tightly.
“Ow!” He said clutching his shoulder. “What was that for?”
“I asked you a question.” Louis said.
“Well I didn’t know that!”
“Because you weren’t paying attention.
“Okay? I still don’t understand why--“
“Now we have to make a bargain.” Louis said.
“Seriously?” Ross asked.
“Bargain with me.” Louis said.
“What do you want?” Ross sighed.
“I want to know why you like the river so much.” Louis said.
“And what do I get out of it?” Ross asked.
“I’ll tell you what Niall and Zayn wouldn’t.”
“How many more steps you have, how we know so much about you.”
Ross was silent. He wanted to know what these men he had met had in store for him. He was still having trouble making sense of it all. But the river, the river and why he liked the river, that was his own special secret. It would be, he felt, wrong to share the reasons he liked the river. It was hard to explain. On the other hand, Ross liked to think of himself as prepared and if he had to share his reasons for liking the river to find out what was ahead of him, he would. Ross moved his hands, as if he was physically weighing his options.
“The reason I like the river.” Ross started. “Well it’s kinda hard to explain.”
“That’s okay.” Louis said. “Take your time.”
“I like the water.” Ross said.
“Is that all?” Louis asked. Ross shook his head and continued speaking.
“I like the river, I like the water. When I come here I like to look into the river and I know it sounds stupid, but I tell the water everything that’s bothering me. The water takes my problems away, they’re – The current just whisks them away, y’know? It’s just a nice reminder to let stuff go.”
“I’ve never thought about that.” Louis said.
“Most people never have.” Ross said sadly. “Rivers are just part of the world that they own. They don’t take the time to think about anything that isn’t plastic or metal.”
“Ross Kübler.” Louis ginned. “You’re a tree hugger aren’t ya?”
“No. I’m not.” Ross said defensively. “I just like bodies of water.”
“Bodies of water?” Louis asked.
“Y’know, rivers, lakes, seas, oceans. Bodies of water.”
“Bodies of water.” Louis said. “Have you been to the ocean?”
“Yeah. I’ve been to the Atlantic.” Ross said. “It’s kinda dreary to be honest.”
“Sometimes,” Louis said. “We build these incredibly ridiculous expectations and we are thoroughly disappointed when things don’t live up to those expectations.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ross asked.
“Never mind.” Louis said.
“Louis, I do believe you aren’t holding up your end of the bargain.” Ross said.
“You’re supposed to tell me what going to happen to me.”
“Right. What Niall and Zayn wouldn’t tell you.”
“Yes. So, you can start anytime you’re ready.” Ross said smiling.
“Ross Kübler, what you have to realize is that you are going through something so incredibly complicated. It’s a process that has no steps and no rules. What you’re going through it can happen all at once or it can happen at any time or it can happen in a completely different order than the one that you’re experiencing. It can take minutes or hours or days or weeks or months or years. It’s a complicated thing and it manifests differently for everyone. Some people only experience two or three of the steps.”
“What is it though?”
“I’m afraid, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself. I will tell you this; you are going to experience all five steps. Right now, you are on step three, you have two more to go after I am gone.”
“How do you know so much about me?” Ross asked.
“That’s a bit more difficult to try and explain. I wish I could come straight out and tell you, really I do. But that’s not quite possible.”
“But how do you know so much about me?”
“Because…because we are…close with the person who knows you best.”
“I know me best.” Ross said.
“But I’ve never met any of you before in my entire life.” Ross said. “I don’t understand.”
“You will.” Louis said. “Just have a little faith in yourself Ross Kübler. You’ll understand soon.”
“I have faith in myself.” Ross said.
“No, I’m afraid you don’t.” Louis smiled sadly.
“What do you mean?” Ross asked.
“You doubt yourself. You said so earlier. You think that when bad things happened to you or to your family that it’s your fault, it’s because you aren’t good enough and it’s not. It’s nowhere close to being your fault. You are good enough. Yet you convince yourself otherwise. You don’t believe that you are a good enough people to be here, but you are; you’re going to have to trust me on this one. You are a good person. You underestimate yourself.”
“Sometimes.” Ross said. “I underestimate myself sometimes.”
“No.” Louis said gently. “You underestimate yourself a lot. You think too little of yourself. Have faith Ross Kübler. You’re a lot more important than you think you are.”
“Um…thanks?” Ross said, squirming in his seat uncomfortably.
“You’re welcome.” Louis said.
“What do we do now?” Ross asked.
“Well, it seems your deity hasn’t answered you yet. I would try praying again.” Louis said.
“Right.” Ross grumbled. “I’ll get to that.” Ross dropped to his knees in the dirt in front of his bench.
“Hey God,” Ross said. “It’s me, Ross, again. I’m not sure if you got my first message or not so I thought I might try…calling again. As you are probably very well aware by now, my mom’s dead. And that sucks, like it really sucks. I was wondering if there was a chance the two of us could make a deal. I really need my mom and I know that sounds dumb coming from a grown man but I really do need her. My mom has always been there for me and it wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t there for her. I don’t know if you’ve talked to her up there yet, but if you have, please tell her to come back down. You can have me if you have some sort of quota you need to fill. Please…please just send my mom back. I don’t know what I am going to do. I just don’t know any more. I just---Amen.”
“That was a bit more heart felt.” Louis said. Ross glared at him.” It was good. I liked it.”
“I’m so glad.” Ross said sarcastically. He got up off of his knees and placed himself on the bench again.
“You could learn to take a compliment once in a while.” Louis said.
“I could. But where is the fun in that?” Ross asked. Louis didn’t respond and instead turned his attention to the small square rectangle he held in his lap. Ross ignoring Louis lack of response, looked toward his favorite thing in the world; the river. His eyes landed on the banks, the water begging to escape its confines and come onto the land.
“Begging.” Ross scoffed quietly.
Begging. Bargaining. Trading, they all seemed to be the same thing to Ross. It made no difference what you call it. Ross had never liked the idea of pleading for his mother life but it had of course, occurred to him that Louis was right as Zayn and Niall had been. Niall was right when he said being in denial would make him feel better. Zayn was right when he said that getting angry would relieve some of the stress that he felt. So Louis had to be right didn’t he? If he was friends with Niall and Zayn? Ross trusted all three of them definitely. His eyes bore into the water. It was true what he told Louis, he liked to come here to throw his problems away. Ross stood up.
“Where are you going?” Louis asked.
“The river.” Ross said.
“Why?” Louis asked.
“I want to get in.” Louis was alert now.
“What?” He asked as he began to panic.
“I’m going to go into the river and think.” Ross said.
“Can’t you, can’t you just think from the riverbank?” Louis asked.
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“You shouldn’t go into the water.” Louis said.
“You don’t know what’s in there.”
“What if there’s a body in there?” Louis asked. Ross, who wan kneeling on the ground untying his shoes looked up at Louis and grinned.
“If there’s a body in there, then I’ll get out.” He said.
“What about sharks?” Louis said. He was clearly panicking now. His eyes were wide and the hand he reached out toward Ross, who was already beside the river, was shaking.
“Sharks?” Ross laughed. “We in the Mid-West, in a fresh water river. The closet shark is 670 miles away.”
“I’m sure there are freshwater sharks.” Louis muttered.
“What are you guys so set against me going into the river?”
“You mean me and Niall and Zayn?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Louis said. Ross’ eyes lit up. He crawled back onto the solid ground and walked toward Louis who stood a foot in front of him.
“Not even if we make a bargain?” Ross asked.
“You want to make a bargain?” Louis asked delighted.
“Yeah, I want to make a bargain with you.”
“Okay what is it you want?” Louis asked eagerly.
“I want to know why I can’t go into the river.” Ross said.
“I don’t think I can tell you that.” Louis said.
“It’s a secret.”
“Secret, secrets are no fun, unless you share with everyone.” Ross chanted.
“It’s not a schoolchild secret, it’s important. Very important Ross Kübler.”
“It’s important Louis. I understand, but why can’t I go into the water?”
“We never made a bargain, so I don’t have to tell you.” Louis said childishly. Ross grabbed Louis right hand and held it in his own.
“You tell me why I can’t go into the river and I won’t go in.” Ross said quickly, he shook his right arm shaking Louis hand with it.
“So, why can’t I go into the water?” Ross asked.
“You tricked me.” Louis said staring at his hand in disbelief.
“Louis, did you hear me? Why am I not allowed to go into the water?
“You tricked me.” Louis said staring at Ross.
“You tricked me.” Louis yelled.
“I don’t understan—“
“You tricked me.” Louis was close to tears now, staring down at his hand.
“Louis, what’s the big deal?”
“I can’t tell you Ross Kübler. I can’t tell you why you can’t get into the water. It’s a secret.” Louis was in hysterics now.
“Shh. Shh. It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.” Ross said gently.
“I do. I do.” Louis wailed. “I do because a bargain is a bargain and we shook hands. Why did you make us shake hands? Why did er have to shake hands?”
“I’m sorry.” Ross said in a panicked voice. Louis and his sobbing were beginning to scare Ross. “I didn’t know.”
“I can’t break a bargain.” Louis sobbed.
“Just tell me as much as you can, then we’ll be done. Okay? Okay, Louis?”
“I can’t what Louis, what can’t I do?”
“You can’t go into the water.” Louis said. His sobs were beginning to subside.
“Why can’t I go into the water?” Ross said gently.
“You aren’t ready.” Louis whispered. He sounded like a child and he looked like one too. His hair was disheveled and strands of it were between his fingers. His eyes were large, red and puffy. His cheeks were blotchy and stained by tears.
“I’m not ready?” Ross repeated in the same gentle voice.
“No.” Louis said shaking his head. “You aren’t ready until you finish step five.”
“So, once I finish step five, I can go in the water?”
“How much longer is this step?” Ross asked.
“Not much longer.” Louis said. “I think you still need to do a bit of bargaining with the deities, but technically you’ve completed this step.”
“What’s the next step?” Ross asked.
“I can’t tell you that.” Louis said sitting back down on the bench.
“Why not?” Ross asked sitting next to Louis.
“It’s a secret.”
“Why is this full of secrets?” Ross asked. “I am tired of secrets.”
“It’s the rules.” Louis said.
“You have rules?” Ross asked. Louis nodded. “Who makes them?”
“Who makes what?”
“The rules. Who makes the rules?”
Louis looked Ross straight in the eyes. Gray on Gray. “You.” Louis said.
“Me?” Ross asked. “I make the rules?”
Ross scoffed. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know any of you. I’ve never heard of you guys, I’ve never seen you guys until today. I don’t even know where you are coming from. How can I be making the rules you play by?”
“You know us better than you think.” Louis said.
“No.” Ross said shaking his head frantically. “No. I don’t. I don’t know who you guys are.”
“Yes. Yes you do.” Louis said.
“If I’m the one making the rules, then you are free to tell me all the secrets the three of you or the five of you or whatever have. In fact, fact you have to tell me.” Ross said.
“It doesn’t work like that.” Louis shook his head for what must have been the hundredth time.
“What do you mean?” Ross asked. “I’m the one who makes the rules, right?”
“Yes, you’re the one who makes the rules.” Louis said.
“So…I can’t change them?”
“That’s right.” Louis said. “Only the other you can.”
“The other me?” Ross asked, his voice raising an octave.
“There’s this you, the one I’m talking to, and there’s another you, the one that sends all of us here.”
“This is messed up.” Ross said, running his fingers through his hair.
“A bit.” Louis said.
“I don’t understand though.” Ross said. “If I’m the one in charge then shouldn’t I already know all of you?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Louis said. “Just forget I said anything. It’s not important.”
“Uh—I—okay. Okay, sure.” Ross said. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing; he was the boss of all the people who had been coming to see him. So why wouldn’t they tell him anything? Ross shook his head trying to clear it. It didn’t work, there were too many things on his mind.
“I still don’t get it.” Ross said.
“Seriously Ross Kübler, don’t look too much into it, yeah? It was stupid of me to even mention it.” Louis said.
“I’ll try. I was just caught off guard, I wasn’t expecting you to say something like that.” Ross admitted.
“Where were you expecting me to say?” Louis asked amused.
“I dunno.” Ross shrugged. “I was thinking maybe it was Erika or Eva, or Aaron.”
“Who’ Aaron?” Louis asked. “Your boyfriend?”
“No! No.” Ross said wide-eyed. “No, Aaron’s my best friend from here. He says he’s to macho to talk about his feelings or whatever. Knowing him he’d send other people to talk to me about my problems.”
“Sounds like a fun guy.” Louis said.
“He is.” Ross nodded. “He’s been my best friend for years.”
“Do you think you’d try and bargain if he was gone?”
“Yeah. He’s like a brother to me.”
“Did he ever make any bargains?”
“Like, deity bargain?”
“Yeah, he did when his dad died.” Ross said. The two men lapsed into a still silence.
“I think now would be a good time to put your socks and shoes back on.”
Ross laughed. “You’re probably right.” Ross stood up off the bench and wriggled his toes in the dirt. He moved his right foot onto the dry, partially dead grass. His left foot followed. Ross stopped moving, he stood a step outside the dirt circle around the bench. He opened his arms out, threw his head back and took a deep breath. He stood there for a moment, just taking in the feel of the grass on his feet and the smell of fresh air in his nostrils. Ross dropped his arms and his head and continued walking toward his shoes. Louis watched at Ross put one white sock on his left foot and one white sock on his left foot. Louis gaze didn’t falter as Ross put on and laced up both of his shoes.
“Come back and sit with me Ross Kübler.” Louis said. Ross walked back toward Louis and stopped just outside of the benches dirt circle.
“I want to try one more time.” He said.
“Try what?” Louis asked.
“The…deity thing. Praying.” Ross said. “I think I should try one more time.”
“It can’t hurt.” Louis said. “Third times the charm.”
“Right.” Ross said as he knelt for the third time in the dirt. “Hey God. Me. Again. Just wanted to know how you’re doing. You doing good? I hope so. Anyway, I was wondering. Why did you take my mother? I mean, she’s a great lady and everything and she makes amazing company. But do you think maybe you could send her back here? I know she’s probably doing some great stuff up there but I really, really, need her here. My sisters need her. The community needs her. I’ll do anything you ask, just say the word and I’m there. I’ll do whatever it takes. I swear, well I’m not swearing like ‘Damn you!’ but more of swearing like with my word and stuff. I just really think it would be better if she was down here with us instead of up there with you, not that you’re aren’t a great guy or anything. But we need here down here with us, more than you need her up there with you. Again, I’m offering myself as payment. Bring her back and you can have me. I don’t have a lot of great qualities, but I’m a pretty good storyteller. I could tell you a story if you like. I guess that’s about it then. Uh—amen.”
Louis didn’t say anything as Ross stood up and sat down on the bench next to him. Another still silence ensued.
“You aren’t very formal are you?” Louis asked.
“What do you mean?” Ross replied. Louis’ eyes scanned Ross’ old jeans and his old shoes and his old sweatshirt. His eyes traveled back to the bent glasses and messy hair.
“You just aren’t a very formal person, yeah?”
“I guess not.” Ross shrugged.
“It shows.” Louis said dryly.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Ross asked.
“Your prayers. You act like your deity is someone you’ve known for a very long time.”
“Well, isn’t he?”
“You haven’t talked to him for twelve years. You shouldn’t be so familiar.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Aren’t you supposed to treat your deities with respect?” Louis asked. Ross shrugged. “Well I think you’re supposed to and you aren’t doing a very good job.”
“You think that’s why He’s not responding to me?” Ross asked. “Because you think I’m talking to him disrespectfully.”
“Yes.” Louis said. “I think that’s why you aren’t getting what you want.”
“Did it occur to you, Louis, that maybe He isn’t answering because He isn’t going to do anything?” Ross asked. “I pleaded with Him, for months, to make my dad come home. I begged. I got nothing. No whispers in the night. No signs. No burning bushes. No message from any preacher. He didn’t answer and my dad didn’t come home. Maybe He isn’t answering because I’m not going to get what I want. My mother’s dead. Maybe He says dead is dead. Would I like a call saying ‘Hey Ross, by the way, no, you aren’t getting your mother back.’? Yes I would. Am I going to get it? Probably not. It’s probably for the best He doesn’t respond.”
Louis stood and faced Ross.
“Come with me.” He said. Ross stood without question and followed Louis. Louis walked around the park in a slow circle.
“Where are we going?” Ross asked.
“You’ll see.” Louis said. They kept walking until they reached the slide.
“Ride the slide with me.” Louis said. Ross nodded. “You first this time.”
Ross nodded again and climbed the ladder up the slide. He sat down at the top and surveyed the park. The grass, the flowers, the playground, the river. Ross felt Louis warm arms wrap around his abdomen. He felt Louis lace his large fingers together.
“Ready when you are.” Louis said. Ross pushed his feet against the smooth metal and together the two of them flew down the slide. As they landed in the dirt, Ross thought about how the slide had looked impeccably large when he was a child, it had dominated the playground and by extension the park itself. But now, a grown man of twenty two, the slide seemed small and insignificant. It did not draw his eyes as it once did. It was no longer the center of the playground or the park. Louis didn’t laugh like he had the first time the two of them had ridden on the slide. He stood and dusted off his suit.
“C’mon.” Louis said. Ross stood and followed Louis without bothering to wipe the dust off of his jeans. Louis led him to the swings.
“We are back at the swings.” Ross said.
“Yes. We are.” Louis said. “Do you know why we are here?”
“To fix the rest of the swings?” Ross asked.
“Yes and no.” Louis said. “You can fix the third swing; you’re ready for that now.”
“When do we fix the other swings?” Ross asked.
“Not we, you. And you’ll know when it’s time. C’mon, step to it.” Louis said. Ross nodded and climbed once again to the top of the sing set. The beam creaked under his weight. Ross shimmied himself to the partially repaired third swing. He worked in silence, something that was new to him. Louis looked toward the horizon as Ross opened and closed the rings in the chain.
“I’m finished.” Ross said jumping off of the swing set.
“Then so am I.” Louis said. “You should go sit back down on the bench.”
“You’re leaving?” Ross asked as Louis followed him to the bench.
“I am.” Louis said as Ross sat down.
“Goodbye, I guess?” Ross said.
“It’s not goodbye.” Louis said. “It’s never going to be goodbye with us Ross Kübler.”
Louis walked away leaving Ross to think about all he had said.
Ross found himself on his knees in the dirt, begging for him to stay.