Fear spiraled through me before I even opened the letter, and as my eyes darted across the ink, my heart dropped. Anger replaced terror, and my fist clenched so tight, bones popped out of my flesh. If my children weren’t sleeping a few doors down, I would’ve yelled, but at this time of night, all I could do was stuff the waves of frustration and hatred deep down inside of me.
I don’t want to see them. Memories of high school flooded back to me, and my body shuddered. The laughing, the lunchroom, the three years I spent with them: pain consumed every corner of my days there, and now, this letter asked me to return. Even worse, it had my nickname on it, the one that I’d tried so hard to forget they gave me. I still went by it, despite the pain that it brought me whenever I thought back to them, the ones who’d called me friend.
My breath turned to thin, white puffs as the room dropped several degrees, and as the door creaked open, I noticed my wife’s pale body approach me. Her calm, blue eyes revealed nothing as they ran over the paper, and for a minute neither of us spoke.
“Is something wrong?” She eventually asked, and stomaching the frustration, I shook my head.
“No, I’m just getting ready for bed.”
“Bad memories?” I shook my head. “You know, we can talk about it if you want.”
“Thank you, but there’s nothing to talk about.”
“I know.” A concerned expression crossed her face. “You’ve told me that before, but… if an invitation to a reunion makes you… like this, it’s clearly not the case.”
“And I don’t want to talk about it.” If I did, what would I even say? Would any response justify such frustration at the prospect of a high school reunion?
“Honey.” She sat beside me, dark hair falling around her shoulders. “Do you really want to keep this from me forever?” Her eyes locked with mine. “Whatever you did or whatever happened to you, I’ll love you regardless of that.”
“It’s not that, and I’m not talking about it with you because it won’t impact you.” I sighed. “I… it’s something I can’t explain, not even to myself.”
“If… if you don’t want to go, we can burn the letter. Half the people didn’t even come to mine last year.”
“No, they invited me, so I have to go.” My eyes dimmed as I reread the name of the person hosting reunion, and my fist further tightened.
“They invite everyone.”
“But they want me to come.” From reading the letter, I could tell parts of it had been custom-made for me specifically. “If only, they’d forgotten about me.”
“I assumed you knew them.”
“Well, regardless of what they did to you, you don’t owe them anything. If they bring up bad memories, just ignore them.”
“But I do owe them.” I muttered, and when she fixed me with a puzzled gaze, I leaned my head back against the pillow. “Look, can we just agree that I’ll tell you about it later?”
“As long as I can hold you to that.” She nodded after a moment of silence, and then with a flick of a light switch, darkness surrounded us. Shadows crept up to my sides, and even through the blanket I could feel their merciless grip. Laughter echoed in my ears, and I shuddered as I went back to my time there, ten years ago.
We were so happy, the nine of us, although if honesty mattered, we likely wouldn’t have been much of a crew without Tom. Due to being held back once in third grade, he was the oldest and sort of the big brother of our class. Despite not playing sports or possessing any specialties, he was almost always chosen first for teams and invited to parties. Still, there was something about him that made him appealing. He didn’t come off as being above people, and more than anything else, he was just likable. It was little wonder he made class president our senior year and that he was the one organizing the high school reunion.
If only it’d been someone who didn’t know me, then maybe I could ignore it. However, with Tom’s signature lying at the bottom of the invitation, there was no escape. After all these years, they’d finally cornered me, and I’d have to see them again. I wondered how they’d react. Would it be scorn after I spent so long avoiding them, or even worse, would they welcome me back like nothing ever happened.
Why couldn’t they just forget about me? Why couldn’t I just be some face in a nameless crowd to them? Of course, the reason was obvious. It was the same reason I even knew them in the first place. They were good people.
If only I could return to how things were my freshmen year. Sure, it wasn’t perfect and didn’t bring me very many fond memories, but at least, it was simple and allowed me to know my place. I wasn’t anyone’s friend and I wasn’t anyone’s enemy. I was background fodder, the type that did things that impacted no one, and people generally ignored me. They say high school is the worst for those who got bullied, but at least, they get to know that they’ll be missed should they ever disappear.
Truly, my life before them was far from luxurious, and perhaps, that was why I so eagerly accepted their hand. I wanted friends, and the idea that they wanted to spend time with me was too good for me to question. The funny thing was I completely expected for them to ask for something in return, but they never did. I wasn’t particularly wealthy, but I had some money. However, that wasn’t what they were after, and they never used me for anything that they didn’t already have. They treated me like a genuine friend, because they were my friends. There wasn’t anything in it for them, but they made me one of their own.
If only I could’ve ignored their invitation back then, I wouldn’t have this gaping hole inside me. However, I didn’t, and now, just thinking about those pleasant memories left a bitter stinging inside me. Those people had no right to do what they did, and yet, they made my life so much better than I ever deserved.
On the other hand, what had I done for them? I was no one. They didn’t gain anything from including me, and yet, I made them waste so much time becoming my friends. Their lives would’ve been the same if not better without me, and it was that fact that made facing them so hard. After all they gave me, the fact that I couldn’t return the favor, even slightly, tore away at my insides.
After high school, I slowly began to lose touch with them, not out of malice but simply in an attempt that they would spend their time with people who wouldn’t waste their time. Even so, I kept looking ways to repay them. When Julia hosted a charity drive, I donated. When Samuel finally got married, I made sure to buy as expensive of a gift that I could that wouldn’t arise suspicion. Still, no matter how hard I tried to repay them, I knew nothing I could do would ever amount to enough.
I was alone in the world before them and would’ve remained that way without them. My time with them genuinely changed me, and if I hadn’t met them, I wouldn’t have any of things I now possessed. My wife, my children, my job: I owed it all to them. They gave me a new life, but only once I started living it, did I realize how much I owed them. After all, when they gave you everything and you gave them nothing, how can you possibly face them.
For countless years, I dreamt that I’d somehow become a millionaire overnight and that I’d have enough money that I could give them whatever they wanted. It was funny. Most people would talk about what they would do if they had a million dollars, but all I wanted was to free myself of my debt to them. Perhaps, that’s why I kept dreaming it, because I knew only in a place devoid of reality would I ever become a person who could repay them.
If only this letter could be a part of the dream too, but it wasn’t. This was reality, and now, I had to see them again. After all these years, they’d finally see how little I’d done with my life. There was nothing special about me, and there never would be. Despite all their effort, I was just a pathetic, forgettable grain of sand in a desert. I was the same as when they’d first saved me, and now, they would see that all their work was for nothing. Worst of all, would they think that I didn’t appreciate all they’d done for me?
I shuddered, and a gleam of orange drew me out of my thoughts. Turning my head, I notice the horizon flooding with color, and slowly, I rose from a sleepless night. Had I really been thinking that long, and beside me, my wife sat up.
“Good morning.” She yawned, and our eyes met. “Sleep any?”
“Yeah.” I lied, but my faltering gaze gave me away.
“Well, I’ll go make breakfast. When I get back, let’s talk.” As her slender body disappeared from view, I sat up and leaned my head into my palms. She was another one I didn’t deserve. This was my mess, and despite keeping her at a distance, it was clear she was treating the situation she didn’t understand with as much care and compassion as possible.
Why was this so painful? Why were people so kind to me? Why couldn’t they be cruel or using me? At least for those people, you don’t have any obligation to repay them. The worst pain isn’t the kind inflicted on yourself, it’s the kind you inflict on those you care about, and as I sucked in a deep breath, I turned to the rising sun.
“If only you’d never been so kind to me.” I muttered, and slowly, my words disappeared into the horizon. However, no matter how much pain I felt, I couldn’t change what had happened. I was in a never-ending debt, and every day, I sunk deeper. If only I could go back in time, I’d…
I shook my head. No, I wouldn’t. They were my friends, and they helped me in ways that I never knew possible. They didn’t do it out of any obligation or greed but because they chose to let me be a part of their lives and to be a part of mine. If I went back in time, I couldn’t change anything because, if I made it so we weren’t friends, then I’d be disrespecting their choices they made to make us friends. They decided how to spend their lives, and for me to want to change thing so I could counter their choices, what would that say about how I viewed them.
The letter still laid crumpled in my hand, and slowly, I unraveled it, gazing once more at the text. Indeed, Tom had invited me to the reunion. He didn’t have to, but he chose to. Just like back then, he chose to be a part of my life, and even if I couldn’t repay him in gifts, I could repay him by respecting his decision, all of theirs.
Sunlight drifted through the windows, and the shadows of debt cloaking me peeled back. It’d been ten years since I’d last seen them, and for the first time in what felt like eternity, I was looking forward to it.