A moving and emotional short story about friendship and brotherhood.
I examined the box before me in a trance, with the breath caught in my lungs. No return address. No label. No branding. Just a brown paper box with ‘BARNACLE CLUMPERSNATCH’ scrawled shakily in its center. My mouth dried up in the low hum of tense silence.
Those words… that name… The package could’ve only come from Danny. But why? And more to the point, how? I felt the colour drain from my skin.
I stared at the package for what felt like a lifetime before gathering the strength to reach for the rogue corner that stood up ready to be tugged. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as my hand brushed the cold smoothness of the paper, my arms developing an unsettling gooseflesh from the anticipation.
The package smelled as dusty as it looked. It must’ve sat for a long while somewhere. And I hoped so too. It was too frightening to allow my brain any notion of otherworldly forces or fantasies, though the thoughts did race across my mind of their own accord.
Stupid… Get real.
With each tear of the paper the memory of that day came flooding back in waves, each stronger than the last, until I was fully submerged in it’s warm embrace.
In moments I was back there again, nine years old with my father’s arm draped over my shoulder, watching out the kitchen window as a tired Ford Mondeo pulled carefully onto our driveway. The gravel snapped and popped under the driver’s tires as she ground to a stop.
Dad had been dating her for a while but we’d never met—Which suited me just fine—and today she was bringing her kid along with her to be introduced for the first time.
Apparently just because he’s my age I was expected to automatically get along with him. And ain’t that a fat-load of parent logic.
I eyed them getting out of the car and couldn’t help but recognise how pretty she was. She looked a lot like Mum, with her athletic build, long mousy-blonde hair, and bright blue eyes. Well, before the chemo at least. After was a different story entirely.
The cancer left her nothing more than a pallid skin-sack of brittle bones. An anorexic Sphynx with shining bright eyes, reflecting all the life trapped inside the lifelessness of her ravaged body, desperate to get out and dance through the world. I’d never forget her spine creaking and cracking and protruding from her body as she leant forward in the bed.
Great, dad’s found us a replacement. A healthy, living, replacement. Screw this.
I wiggled myself free from under my dad’s arm as he went toward the door, stalking off outside to hide in the old decrepit barn in our yard. There was not a chance in hell I wanted to play make-believe for a single second with this new build-a-family. Forget that. Nope. No way. Not me.
Dusty beams of sunlight filled the forgotten space as I shoved the door open, the rotten wood slats groaning against the uneven floor. I’d tried sweeping it once or twice but it only filled the air with the density of ground-dirt and found somewhere else to land minutes after. In the end I settled for my own almost-circle space in the centre of the cobweb-ridden, oversized shed. It had become ritualistic in a way: get in, close the door halfway behind me, sweep my little playspace to be sure that no creepies came a-crawling and my butt stayed dust free, then sit and play with whichever toys or games I fancied that day.
Seeing it in this condition, It was hard to believe that just a couple years back this tattered structure was mum’s favourite place. Bustling with life, light, and energy. We had a few horses that we’d ride most evenings, with a collection of paying guests and aspiring riders to boot, and mum would just smile. Always. That big, beautiful smile that made me feel the world was a safe and magical place.
I’d only been occupying myself for around fifteen minutes before the young lad popped his head round the door and crept inside. He was dressed in brand new jeans, some white Adidas trainers, and a Ralph Lauren polo. Clearly his mum had bought his outfit especially for today. Try hard much.
He cast a long, slim shadow across my Marvel action-figures, which must’ve have painted a visual annoyance all over my face because he quickly jumped out the way of the door and apologised with a nervous smile.
“Alright mate. They sent me down here to find ya. Was bored anyway.” He flashed that half smile once more and hovered around the doorway kicking dust awkwardly. Was that a Pokemon backpack? That’s pretty cool. “I’m Danny,” he said.
“Yeah I know,” I replied, focused on the way Tony Stark’s arc reactor fit into his chest piece, tracing its plastic edges with my finger, committing the shapes and depth to memory so I could later draw it better than the last time I tried.
Danny sighed and circled to the spot behind me where hay bales were stacked at various heights. He parked his arse behind me on one of them, leaning up against another sat two-high. Like a throne. He started to rummage through his bag, and after a few moments of tapping and clicking, the sound of the Pokemon Sapphire menu music replaced the awkward silence.
“Your old man’s alright, ain’t he?” He asked rhetorically.
“Yep.” He had to be after mum died, or Nana was gonna take me away from him, but I wasn’t gonna tell him that. It was a group effort, a united front. I had to grow up fast to help him cope. To support him. To make sure I stayed with him, always.
“You like those movies then do ya?” He gestured to my Marvel figures.
Ugh, that accent is so obnoxious. “Of course. I wasn’t born on the moon.”
“Alright alright,” he rolled his eyes, “That’d be cool though wouldn’t it, living on the moon? Imagine looking down on the world from all the way up there. Apparently you can see the wall of China from space. You reckon you’d see planes ‘n that flying about?
I looked up at him quizzically—maybe, possibly, just the teeniest bit amused. “No. You wouldn’t see planes from the moon.”
“I s’pose not. there’d be all stars in the way anyway, wouldn’t there? Probly wouldn’t see much at all.”
That, I admit, did force the edges of my mouth into an almost-smile. I may have chucked a little, too, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have heard any more than a quick, nasal, exhale.
“Have you ever listened in a classroom before?” I mocked, “Stars don’t just float about between planets and moons. They’re giant balls of gas just like the sun. They’re millions of miles away from us. They’re so far away it takes around four and a half years for the light of even the closest star to reach our eyes. It’s called Alpha Centauri.
Danny was silent for a moment, looking up toward the ruined ceiling as if lost in deep thought, dust dancing around him along rays of evening light. “So really, when we see the stars at night, we’re looking four ‘n half years into the past then? That’s pretty cool, ain’t it? When I look up tonight and see that alpha whatever, that’s been coming since I was like…” he counted with his fingers… “four ‘n half!” He seemed amused by the revelation.
“Yep, pretty cool,” I sighed, but actually a little mesmerised by the idea myself. If I found alpha centauri, I’d be looking at a time where Mum was still alive.
“Anyway, I don’t really watch them Marvel films. I play footy out on the corner green with my mates. I’ve seen the one with that wizard though and all the bending buildings ‘n that.”
“Yeah, that’s the one! It’s got that posh bloke in it from that Sherlock program ain’t it? Mum watched it loads. Think she fancied ‘im to be honest. Maybe that’s why dad left us?” He winced, as if the idea physically hurt him. “What’s ‘is name anyway? Barn… Barnacle? Barnacle Clumpersnatch!
“Benedict Cumberbatch,” I said dryly.
“Yeah, him,” Danny sighed, “sorry.”
At this point it was clear I’d embarrassed him, and I felt bad for it. I was somber, dry, angry at the world. Most definitely a know-it-all. But I wasn’t mean. I never set out to hurt anybody, especially this cool kid with his chatty personality and obnoxious accent. I fiddled awkwardly with my action figures while he tapped away on his Nintendo.
It took me a few minutes before I could no longer hold it in. “Barnacle Clumpersnatch?” I chuckled. “Barnacle Clumpersnatch?”
Tears welled in my eyes as the giggles grabbed me by the gut and tickled me uncontrollably. Danny started to laugh too, and then we began to laugh at each other’s laughs until we just couldn’t stop, fighting for breath and rolling around the floor as we went. It must’ve taken twenty minutes for us to calm down, and by then we were red faced with blush and soaked from tears. I’m pretty sure I peed a little. My jaw and stomach were sore from laughter. I had never laughed like that before, and I never will again.
From that point onward we were best friends, and eventually, as our parents married, brothers. We were inseparable growing up. Outside of school anyway. I was always more the intellectual while he was the sporty, popular one. We went out together, shared friend groups, hosted sleepovers and hangouts in the barn—which later became a fully kitted-out clubhouse—and went on to drink together. We were eachother’s best man and planned each other’s stag-parties.
Danny Humble was the best friend and brother I could’ve ever asked for. He came into my life exactly when he needed to and pulled me out of the self-imposed darkness I had wrapped myself in. In a way, he saved my childhood. In many more ways, he shaped my entire life.
And then the cancer took him too.
I stared down at the box before me on the table, sitting atop it’s torn, brown paper wrapping. All that was left to do was reveal what was inside.
I exhaled a long, shaky breath, closed my eyes, and pulled the top of the box open. Within was the aged, dusty, Pokemon backpack he wore that first day we met, now ragged and worse for wear. Pinned on the shoulder straps were badges of my favourite Marvel characters.
Resting atop the bag was a single sheet of paper with a short note written in the same black ink as the joke along the packaging.
I know you always loved this backpack… so I saved it for you. Hope you don’t mind the alterations I made for you along the straps.
Somehow you’ve survived a year without me. Keep going mate, I know you and Jenny will be looking out for Sarah for me. I’m sorry I had to leave you. Seriously. Keep our kids safe and make sure they smile and laugh that same way we did in the barn. They better all be close like us too, or I’ll haunt the shit out of ya!
Love you mate. Thanks for being a part of my life.
I stared at the note through a wall of tears for a few moments, collected my thoughts, and placed the lid carefully back on the box.
I smiled and got up from the kitchen chair, vowing to wear that smile as often as I could. For my family. For my friends.
* * * * *
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An avid writer from the UK with a passion for words! Whether I'm posting my musings to social media or creating longform content for the masses, You can bet I'm somewhere trying to make sense of this wonderful chaos we call the universe.