Ben heard the door open excitedly. He knew a door couldn’t open excitedly, but it felt like good news. The door didn’t sound heavy when it opened. It didn’t slam against the wall, punching another hole through the plaster. No, there was happiness in that door opening.
Noah’s voice flooded down the hall.
Ben tried to ignore it, this maths homework wasn’t going to write itself. No
matter how much he wished it would.
Footsteps followed his name.
Excited footsteps. Now, footsteps, he knew, could be excited. There was a whole
lot of emotion behind each step. The thump of his school bag, the screech of
the cat who, for reasons unknown, lays in the middle of the hall all the time.
These steps were a welcome change from the heavy thudding at night. The uneven steps. The screeching from the cat as he drunkenly steps on it. The slurred calls of that ‘ffffffuckingg cat to ffffuck offh.’ He bounces off the walls like a pinball before he crashes onto his bed. The springs and mattress sighing loudly.
Noah barges in, dressed in his work uniform.
“Ben!” Noah says for a third time, almost shouting. In his hand he is holding up an envelope, like he won Wonka’s golden ticket. He crashes on Ben’s bed looking at the envelope. “Finally,” he says, almost reverently.
“What’s up?” Ben asked with a grin.
Noah sat up, showing him the envelope, “I got it.”
“Got what?” he said, feigning ignorance.
“The last paycheck I needed.”
Ben’s eyes went mockingly wide, “You finally quitting ‘The Sandwich Club’?”
“No!” Noah whined but Ben ignored him and continued.
“You’ve been there since you were thirteen, before you were legally able too. Two long years of making sandwiches, hell you’d probably be CEO in another year or-” he ducked as Noah threw a pillow at him. It landed on the desk, scattering his paper and pens and sending his textbook crashing to the floor.
“Ok ok,” Ben said, his hands up defeated. “I know. You have enough money now.”
Noah nodded his head enthusiastically.
“What was it you were buying again?” He pretends to think, “Oh right! You were getting me a new car.”
“Oh yeah. You’re getting me new sneakers.”
“Remember, I’m a size 10.”
“I prefer something with a bit of colour. You know, to match my personality.”
Another pillow tossed and this one landed square across his face. He laughed.
“Don’t be a jerk!” Noah said.
Fiiiiiine. But just for a minute.”
Noah glared at him.
“So you got enough?”
“Yep!” Noah said, while nodding as if saying ‘yes’ wasn’t enough.
“Counted it myself.”
“That’s why I’m asking.”
Noah rolled his eyes.
“When are you getting them?
“Dad said he’d take me tonight. They’re releasing at midnight.”
Doubt pricked up Ben’s spine, but he said nothing. He couldn’t. Noah’s eyes were so wide and bright, he exuded so much happiness that Ben couldn’t help but smile. He’d been saving up for months for these sneakers. Ben didn’t understand the obsession with them, they were just sneakers, but Noah was completely obsessed with basketball, and he wanted them because he thought it would improve his game.
He doubted it, not because sneakers don’t have that ability, but because Noah was terrible at basketball. He could do the basic fundamentals alright, he could dribble, he knew how to shoot but athletically, he was short, he was slow, and he couldn’t jump very high. He was last in the rotation at school, and probably only on the team because they needed the numbers.
Ben would never, ever admit this to his brother, and he supported him in whatever he wanted to do. He was his big brother, his protector. He was at every game, he told him how good of a job he did. He cheered him on. And he might get better. He might grow into it. It’s happened before, kids develop at different ages.
His phone buzzed on his desk, and he picked it up.
It was a text from dad. Incoherent as usual but he got the gist of it and his heart sank. He looked at his brother, hoping not to betray the anger and sadness he felt.
“Was that dad?” Noah asked.
“What did he say?”
Ben hesitated for a second, but it
was enough. Noah saw it in his face, the light in his eyes fading. The slight drop of the head. In that instant, the hope and dreams of a 15-year-old kid had been sucked out, replaced by the reality of life. The holes in the plaster, the crooked picture frames knocked off-kilt by his drunken stumbles, the messy kitchen, the empty fridge. The deadbeat dad.
Ben smiled; he wasn’t going to let him ruin Noah’s hard work.
“He’s going to be late. Said we would have to fend for ourselves.”
Noah’s expression darkened, “So we can’t go?”
Ben moved from his chair and sat next to his brother, putting an arm around his shoulder. “You know what, I’m seventeen, you’re fifteen. We can manage a short trip to TexMex and then…” he paused, and Noah looked up at him, his eyes full of hope and a tinge of excitement.
“Then…I suppose..well…I guess I could take you to get your sneakers.”
Just like that, the light was back, vaporising all that darkness and Noah leapt up from the bed, dancing with joy.
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou” he sang in one long, nonsensical word.
Ben laughed and went back to his desk.
“Can we go now?” Noah asked.
“Yeah, it’s almost midnight.”
Ben looked at his watch, “Dude, it’s not even seven.” He pointed out the window, “It’s barely even dark out.”
“People will already be waiting,” Noah insisted. “Come on, I don’t want to miss out!”
Looking from his brother to his homework and back, the hope on his brother's face won out against another late night trying to finish his homework.
“Alright,” he sighed dramatically, making it sound like it was a huge effort. “Get changed and we’ll go.”
Noah whooped with delight and sped out of the room like the Flash.
“Remember to rug up, it’s going to be cold!” he called out.
“It’s freezing,” Ben complained, shivering. Despite the t-shirt, the pull over, the jacket, the gloves and the knitted hat he could still feel the biting wind as they walked down the darkly lit streets towards the Hillside Shopping Centre.
Noah was basically dancing beside him, basketball bouncing with each step.
Each bounce echoing off the brickworks of the buildings on either side of them. They stood like silent soldiers, their windows dark, and curtains drawn. Snow hadn’t yet fallen but it seemed an inevitability at this stage.
Ridiculous to be out here for a pair of sneakers, Ben thought.
“You know my mid-range shot is gonna be automatic once I get these sneakers,” Noah said, dribbling the ball around imaginary defenders. “I’m gonna jump so high, I’ll probably touch the net.” He pulled up and shot the ball. It sailed through the cold air, throwing a shadow as it passed a streetlight before bouncing and he chased after it.
“Not gonna be like Mike?” Ben asked, watching the red number 23 on his brother's back hurrying after the ball.
Noah regathered the ball and continued bouncing.
“It’s like you said, right?”
“Fundamentals are more important than looking flashy.”
Ben laughed, “That’s right. You have to be able to shoot, dribble and defend. Get your shot right, learn the game and you’ll be on your way.”
“All the way to the NBA,” Noah said with another dribble and shot. “I’m going to jump so high now. I’m going to fly.”
There was an extra bounce in his step, he already looked like he was jumping higher than before.
“Well I don’t know about that,” Ben said. They rounded the corner and he almost barged into someone standing on the sidewalk, “Woah,” he said.
The shoe store was a hundred metres ahead of them, lit up like Christmas against the dark sky. The line snaked back along the path to where they stood. “This is a long line,” Ben said, unable to believe people were actually out here waiting for a pair of damn sneakers.
“Why?” Noah asked, pulling on his sleeve.
“Why don’t you know about that?”
“Oh,” he said, adjusting his brother's knitted cap. “Because there are no Noah’s in the NBA.”
“What about Noah Vonleh?”
“Or Joakim Noah.”
“You’re a jerk,” Noah said and started bouncing the ball.
Ben laughed and stole the ball from him. “I’m only messing with you,” he said. He bounced the ball, keeping it away from Noah who tried to steal it back. “Come on,” he teased. “You’ll be the first good Noah in the NBA.”
Noah lunged for the ball, tripped and fell.
Around them he heard the crowd chuckle.
“Ignore them,” he said, kneeling besides Noah. “You alright?”
“Oh man, I ripped a hole in my pants,” he moaned, rubbing his knee where the material had split, exposing a fresh graze.
“You’ll be right,” Ben said, helping him up. “You’ll pick up plenty of those when you go pro. Just got to brush them off.”
“Pro?” came a voice from behind them.
The brothers looked up to see a boy Ben’s age. He was dressed in designer clothes and carried a bag with the shoe store logo. He exuded money and arrogance. Ben knew him.
Star basketballer and his former teammate. He was surrounded by his friends, fellow
ballers and Ben’s former teammates.
“Yeah, what of it?” Ben said.
Tyler snorted, “How can he make it pro when he’s warming the end of the bench?”
“What’s it to you?” Ben said, feeling the heat rise within. Tyler was always a dick.
Around them, people turned, watching the scene unfold. Getting some entertainment on this cold night.
“You heard me. He wouldn’t score in the peewee league.”
“Ben, leave it,” Noah said quietly, tugging on his sleeve.
“Unlike you, at least he has heart,” Tyler continued, scoffing. “Fancy that, one of you is all heart and no talent, the other is the talent but no heart. Might be playing state if you didn’t wimp out.”
Ben took a deep breath, reminding himself to unclench his fists. “You think you’re top shit now I’m gone? I saw that game last week. What’d you shoot, 2 for 15? What you lose by? One? Maybe if you hadn’t missed that open layup in the third, you’d be playing state.”
The smile faltered and Tyler looked down the long waiting line. He held up the bag, “Too bad you bailed on us. Wouldn’t have to wait with the plebs for these. But then again, you’ve always been a dirt.”
And with that he walked off, followed by his friends.
“He always was an asshole,” Ben said. He looked at Noah who had gone quiet, he was holding the ball under one arm and was focused straight ahead. “Hey, you ok?”
It was like a dam had burst and tears rolled down his Noah's cheeks.
Ben pulled him into a hug and Noah buried his face in his jacket, trying to hide from the world. “He’s right,” Noah said, his voice muffled.
Ben pulled him back, holding him at arm's length. Despite the crowd still watching, he felt like it was just the two of them there and he looked his little brother in the eyes and said, “Yeah…he is.”
Noah’s head dropped.
“He’s right in saying that you have heart.” He put his hand over Noah’s chest. “This. This is what you need most of all if you want to succeed. No one makes the pros at 15. No one. You’re still developing. You’ll grow. You’ll get faster.
“And we will work. Every day.” He pointed at Noah, “You” - he pointed at himself, “and me. We will work our asses off developing your game and then we’ll see what Tyler Shitbag Murdoch says then.”
“Why did you quit?” Noah asked.
“You know why,” Ben said stiffly.
“Someone had to look after you,” he said with fake cheer.
Noah nodded but was still downcast.
“Look, no matter who you are, you’re going to get people criticising you. Now or in the pros, it’ll happen. That rich fuck is a jealous dickhead.”
Noah was silent for a good minute.
Then he said, “You’re angry.”
“You swear a lot when you’re angry.”
“Darn fuckin’ tootin’”
They laughed and Ben put a protective arm around his brother as they waited.
“All this for sneakers,” Ben muttered. The store was crowded, people were yelling and shouting and pushing and shoving. It was a madhouse. Ben waited behind Noah as he paid. He watched as the cashier frowned as he counted Noah’s money. When he finished, he said something to Noah and Noah slumped.
“What’s the matter? Ben asked.
“Money,” he sniffed.
“I thought you counted.”
“I did. I forgot about taxes.”
Ben’s heart tugged at the look on his brother's face. All that hard work. He scrimped and saved for this day.
“How short?” he asked the cashier.
Ben pulled his wallet out of his pocket and opened it. He had a single fifty-dollar bill to last him the rest of the week. Noah stood there, on the verge of giving up everything he worked for.
Ben smiled, “Early birthday present.” And he handed the fifty to the cashier.
Noah’s face broke into the widest grin Ben had ever seen. And for Ben, it was worth it just to see that.
With the grin still on his face, his basketball under one arm, the box of sneakers under the other, Noah was ready to rule the world.
They left the store and headed down the empty streets. Ben shook his head, “All this for sneakers,” he repeated, air misting as he spoke.
“The best sneakers ever,” Noah announced. He started bouncing his basketball, but Ben told him to stop. Not here, not on these dark streets. They were empty of all, but a few beat up cars not worth stealing and rubbish rolling across the street like suburban tumbleweed.
Noah continued to talk about his hopes and plans now that he had his new sneakers. He talked about what they’d practice each day and Ben admired his enthusiasm. He remembered when he was like that.
“I’m gonna jump so high,” Noah said. “Do you think I’ll touch the net?”
“I think you’ll jump so high you’ll reach the stars.”
They were approaching a dark alley when someone stepped out in front of them. He was short and skinny, about Noah’s height, wearing baggy pants and a loose-fitting jacket. He was bald and his eyes were bright, fevered. He looked to be in his 20s. He licked his lips, “What do we have here?” he said in a raspy voice.
Ben guided Noah to the other side of him, putting himself between the man and his brother, “Just passing through, man,” he said, head down and he tried to walk past but the man side-stepped into his path.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to pay the toll.”
“Look, man. We’re just trying to get home.”
The man looked from Ben to his brother. He licked his lips again. “And what are two kids doing out on a school night.” He chuckled at his own joke.
“Just heading home.”
But the man didn’t hear him, his eyes were focused on Noah. More specifically on the box under his arm.
“Ahhh,” he cooed. “Been shopping, have we?”
“Come on, let us through,” Ben said, putting his arm out to try to push past, but the man swung his fist, catching Ben on the temple and his world tumbled. Before he knew it, he was on the ground, his ears ringing. He felt like he’d been hit by a dumbbell. His eyes were out of focus.
Ben!” Noah shouted. Then, “Give them back!”
“New sneakers,” the man said. “I’ll take those.”
“No!” Noah screamed.
Ben tried to focus. He tried to get up, but his arms were wobbly. He didn’t know which way he was facing. He turned his head. There was Noah. Blurry.
But what was he doing? He threw something. His ball. It hit something hard.
“Argh, fuck,” the man said, his voice harder.
He grabbed Noah.
“They’re mine!” Noah screamed.
A whip crack echoed along the street, bouncing off the buildings. Was that thunder?
“Oh shit...” the man whispered.
Then there was the thudding of feet on pavement, fading away.
Ben blinked, shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs.
Ben stood up on wobbly feet, looking around. Where was his brother?
“Noa…” he started but his words caught in his throat. His brother was lying in the gutter, unmoving.
Ben was only two steps away, but those two steps felt like a lifetime. He screamed his brother's name and knelt next to him.
His eyes were closed. Ben tried to shake him awake.
His hands came away wet.
“No. No. Nonononono,” he murmured,
trying to make it undo everything. To wake up from this dream.
But it wasn’t a dream.
He grabbed Noah, held him tight.
Rocking him and whispering his name.
But he didn’t answer.
His brother was gone.
Ben cried out. Rage and sorrow and anger and pain and the unfairness of it all echoed off the streets.
His tears ran freely, down his cheeks and dripping onto Noah’s innocent, peaceful face.
“I’m sorry,” Ben whispered. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, desperately hoping his brother would hear it. He looked up to the sky through blurry eyes.
All he wanted to do was fly.
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I love how you built on the emotion of the story. Shock and very sad emotional ending. Well written well done
I thought your command of the dialogue was really strong. It helped move the story while deepening the emotion.
Thank you for reading and your feedback Kevin. I really appreciate you taking the time to read.
Wow, that was such a heartbreaking ending! You did a really good job of building up the emotions and making characters the reader cares for.
Thank you. I’m glad you liked it and had the intended impact. Thanks for reading.