By Mohammad Samra
Twenty-year-old Marco Morales walked into the two-story home he has lived in since before he knew how to crawl. He walked passed the poorly-lit living room, through the cramped kitchen, and up the flight of stairs into the cluttered room where he slept every night. The house was eerily silent since Marco’s dad was gone on his latest retreat, a hobby Marco himself enjoyed until he was 14. Marco stared at the cracked mirror until he lost himself in the greenish-brown eyes that were piercing back at him.
He slung his grey, tattered backpack onto the ripped-up carpet and collapsed onto the bare mattress where he spent countless hours trapped within his thoughts. He cracked open his window to let the late-night moonlight bathe his dirty room. The smell of nature and the feeling of wind gently kissing against Marco’s skin always eased his mind. A single tear rolled from his eye and down his rough beige skin before swiftly falling asleep to the sound of leaves falling outside his window.
Growing up, Marco was one of the brightest students not only in his family but in the entire city of Chicago. Anything lower than an “A” was foreign to him. Marco was athletic, witty, popular, and smart all wrapped into the 120-pound frame that occupied him. As he exceled through elementary school and middle school, it was always a given that Marco was going to leave a mark on the world in whatever way he chose to, that was until he got to high school.
Thirty minutes into his first class at Lane Tech, Mrs. Robinson, Marco’s Math teacher, put an algebra question on the board and challenged any of her students to come up and attempt to answer it. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Marco raised his hand and confidently made his way to the board. As he picked up the white chalk, he studied the problem. It was one he didn’t know how to solve. No matter how many different ways he tried to find the first step in the equation, it always led to an answer that didn’t make any sense.
Shaken by his failure to answer the question, Marco slumped into his desk and laid his head down until the base of his forehead met the wood of the desk that seated him. He wasn’t used to being wrong, and he certainly wasn’t used to the pit that began forming in his stomach.
Over the course of his freshman year, Marco failed ten of the fifteen tests he took that year, but somehow managed to pass with straight “D’s.” Fourteen-year-old Marco sat, staring out of his window when his father stormed into his room with Marco’s report card tightly clenched in his veiny fist.
“What the hell is this?” Marco’s dad said, waving the crumpled report card.
“I don’t know.” Marco replied.
“What do you mean ‘you don’t know’, obviously you don’t know anything if you’re bringing me home straight D’s!”
“It won’t happen again.”
“You’re right, it won’t.”
In one swift motion, Marco’s father swung his fist towards Marco. The force of the punch sent Marco tumbling out the window, head-first into the bare bushes two stories down. Miraculously, Marco picked himself up and trudged back into the house. His father tried to apologize for the confrontation, explaining he only wanted what was best for his son, but Marco stormed back up into his room and slammed the door. Marco and his father were supposed to go on a retreat that weekend.
Marco’s alarm sounded at promptly 5 a.m. His father still wasn’t home from the retreat so he didn’t have to worry about any potential interactions with him. He opened his window and climbed out onto the roof, before maneuvering himself up to the highest point of the house. He enjoyed watching the sun light up the crisp, night sky before having to throw on his torn, black and grey Nikes and survive another day living a life in shoes he barely fit in.
“I told you how many times not to sit on the damn roof. “
Marco closed his eyes and sighed deeply before turning around to find his father joined atop the roof with him. Ever since their interaction from his freshman year, Marco’s relationship with his father has been uneasy at best. Marco glanced at the untamed, blackish-grey beard that consumed the entire bottom half of his father’s face.
“I’m twenty frickin’ years old I can do what I want, this is my relaxation.”
“You can relax when you actually do something with your life!”
Marco’s father threw a nearby rock at Marco, causing him to stumble over his own feet and fall two stories down, into the same pile of bushes as he did six years ago. The cracks of the branches and Marco’s bones cut into the early-dawn air. Marco began stumbling to his feet to extract revenge before collapsing onto the nearby sidewalk. He tried getting up, but his body would not obey him.
Marco panicked as he frantically searched for a way to get his body to listen to him. It was a problem he didn’t know how to solve, and no matter how many different ways he tried, every step he attempted led to a solution that didn’t make any sense. Marco’s eyelids slowly shut over his colored eyes as the sirens wailed in the distance.
Marco opened his eyes to find himself back on the roof. He examined his body and noticed no blood or scars. He vividly remembers the fall, but it feels like it never happened. Marco slid through the window back into his room and glanced at the uncracked mirror. He was startled by the fact that his eyes were now only brown, and his brownish-black hair stood uniformly on his head compared to the wild blond jungle that usually occupied it.
He cautiously made his way downstairs to find his clean-shaven father reading the latest edition of The Chicago Tribune.
“Hey son, I know you have finals coming up and I just wanted to tell you good luck and that we’re proud of you, regardless of how you do.”
Marco stood; eyes widened as he stared at his father. Marco’s dad had only been kind to him when he was younger. He also replayed the “We’re proud of you” statement in his head; it confused him.
Marco’s mom passed away right before he graduated high school after a long battle with stage four pancreatic cancer. Marco inched his way into the living room, almost collapsing as he saw the back of his mother’s iconic tight, coffee-brown ponytail. Before he could come face to face with her, everything went black.
Marco woke in a cold sweat. His red shorts and white tee had been replaced with a hospital gown, and he was tethered to tens of tubes. He tried mentally connecting each tube to the body part it was connected to, but lost track once he got to the assortment of tubes covering his scrawny right arm. Marco’s blondish hair partially obstructed his vision. He tried screaming at the top of his lungs, but only managed a faint cry. Nobody knew Marco was in the hospital. His father told doctors that Marco attempted suicide, and went on another retreat before anyone became suspicious.
Hours passed as Marco tried figuring out what it was that he saw, and how he could get back. It was a problem he didn’t know how to solve, and no matter how many different ways he tried, every step he attempted led to a solution that didn’t make any sense.
Marco tried sleeping again in hopes of getting back to that place, but for the next three days everything was black. His subconscious told him that it was a dream, but Marco knew it was so much more; everything felt way too real.
Marco opened his eyes to find himself back in his neatly made bed. He glanced at the mirror to inspect his neat haircut and brown eyes; he was back, and he knew it. Marco rushed down the stairs and into the living room.
“Your mom left for work already, you just missed her.” Marco’s dad said.
Marco slammed his fist onto the marble table, forming a small dent before storming out through the front door. He was determined to get to his mom, even if it meant walking for miles until he reached the industrial building where she worked.
After about ten blocks, Marco bumped into a tall, brown-eyed and blond-haired woman in her early 20s. He didn’t even have to study her face; he instantly knew it was Samantha.
Samantha Ledesma was Marco’s girlfriend of five years before she tragically passed away in a car accident involving a drunk driver in 2017 during his freshman year at Northern Illinois University.
“Be careful coming back, a lot of these idiots are wasted when they’re on the road and I don’t want anything happening to you.” Marco said.
“Chill babe I’ll be careful, don’t stress over me. I’ll text you when I’m close.” 19-year-old Samantha replied.
Samantha was supposed to join him atop his roof at midnight that night. Samantha and Marco always loved getting lost in the stars and playfully planning out their wedding or how many kids they were going to have.
She pulled up to the curb of the house before eyeing Marco, grinning at him and jokingly shaking her head before unbuckling her seatbelt and turning off the engine. As she prepared to open the car door, the speeding Toyota directly crashed into her red Nissan, sending Samantha lunging through the windshield and onto the street.
Marco nearly fell off of the roof as he stumbled through his open window before rushing down to the scene. Neighbors had already called 9-1-1, as Marco frantically shook Samantha’s limp body. Samantha’s beautiful face was covered in a mask of her own blood, while the shards of Marco’s instantly broken heart began to relentlessly stab him from within. She didn’t even make it to the hospital.
Samantha saw passed his different hair and eye color and instantly recognized Marco and wrapped her arms around him, almost cutting off Marco’s air flow.
“I’ve missed you” was all that Marco could manage as they stood, drowning in their own tears of joy.
Marco was awoken by the pain of nurses changing his IV. Even as he lay conscious, no doctors or nurses acknowledged him. He attempted to put together a sentence, but managed only slurred noises. A nearby radio mentioned the date. April 13th, 2020. Today was his birthday.
Marco had been at the hospital for over five months now. He didn’t know his father fled to San Diego with a woman he met while his house was in the care of his uncle and aunt from Green Bay. Word got out that Marco was in the hospital, but no one came to visit him. After the death of his mother, Marco cut off everybody except for Jonathan, his lifelong friend who was studying abroad for his junior year at UIC.
Marco waited for his dad to come visit and wish him a happy birthday. No matter how bitter things got, the two always celebrated birthdays because of how much it meant to Marco’s mother. Marco studied the hands on the clock slowly make a full circle. It was now 1 a.m. Nobody had come to visit him. Tears blurred Marco’s sight as they streamed down his cheek and onto his bruised, delicate chest. He looked up at the white ceiling of his hospital room, trying his best to return to the mysterious place where he reunited with Samantha.
A week later, Marco found himself in the same neatly made bed that held him the last time he came to visit. He studied himself in the mirror, just to be sure, and made his way down the stairs into the kitchen.
“Did Mom leave for work yet?” Marco asked softly. He wasn’t used to speaking to his father in any tone other than aggressive and confrontational.
“She’s sitting in the living room. When I told her you came back, she called off and sat on your recliner.”
“How long has she sat there?”
“Couple of hours at least.”
Marco walked into the living room and saw his mom sitting only ten feet away. He studied her face as she studied his. Tears began to trickle down her wrinkled face as she slowly stood up. Marco inched towards his mother before collapsing, both physically and mentally, into her arms.
“You’re home so soon!” Marco’s mom said, wiping the tears from her son.
“I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t do it on my own anymore, I needed to come back. I needed to come home.”
The two enjoyed a long embrace before Marco’s mother stared into her son’s big brown eyes.
“As much as I miss you, and as much as I want you home, I need you to go back.” Marco’s mother said. “You need to do what we couldn’t, you need to be somebody.”
Before Marco could say anything, he found himself looking up at Jonathan, who was looking back at him as he fought back tears. Marco had been in the hospital for over a year now, he didn’t even know it was his 22nd birthday. The two didn’t share words, as Jonathan clutched Marco carefully, but tightly.
As the two embraced, Marco realized what needed to be done. Everyone in his other life was no longer in this life, and as long as he was in this life, he’d always be switching until he’s permanently reinstated back into the life where everyone he loves is buried six feet beneath him. It was a problem he knew how to solve, and no matter how many different ways he tried, every other step he could think of led to a solution that didn’t make any sense.
Marco tried uttering an apology to Jonathan, but all he could manage was “I have to go.”
“Yeah alright where are you going in that condition.” Jonathan teased. His expression quickly changed as Marco smiled at him and loosened his hold.
“I’m going home.” Marco said. It was the clearest statement he made in months.
Jonathan quickly scrambled to find a doctor as Marco’s greenish-brown eyes rolled into the back of his head. As the doctors scrambled to keep Marco alive, he began shaking violently, almost falling out of the bed before his body came to a rest. The heart monitor was beeping slower as Jonathan kneeled by Marco.
“Please don’t go bro!” Jonathan said through tears. “Not like this Marco please don’t go!” Marco barely let out a smile. “I’m…I’m home.”
The heart monitor projected one final heartbeat before going permanently flat.
Marco was awoken by the sound of leaves rustling outside. He stared at his alarm clock; it was 5 a.m. sharp. He climbed through his window and maneuvered himself to the highest part of the roof where Samantha was waiting for him.
“I missed mornings like these.” Samantha said.
She inched closer to Marco until he was close enough to put his arm around her as the light of the rising sun slowly shone onto them.
“So, I get to wear shorts to the wedding right?” Marco joked as the laughter of the two rang throughout the crisp air.
After watching the sun rise, Marco and Samantha made their way back into the house and down the stairs into the kitchen.
Red and blue streamers and balloons lit up the otherwise dark kitchen as Marco’s parents embraced him. Marco pulled his mom to the side.
“I’m sorry mom, I just couldn’t stay away.”
“It’s okay baby, I’d rather have you here…Unless you’d like to go back. Don’t let us hold you back, you can have the world if you wanted it.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Marco said, smiling. “I have my world right here, everything I’ve wanted…It’s all right here.”
Laughter and conversation echoed through the Morales household. Marco let the moment consume him. He was reunited with everyone and everything he’d lost. The constant dread and fear of failure was no longer present and the depression that consumed him over the last few years had disappeared. He had a father who didn’t physically and mentally abuse him, he had his mother back, and he had Samantha by his side.
Marco’s mom placed the three-layered chocolate cake on the marble table in the living room, covering the dent Marco had made from before. Marco sat on the one-seated recliner where he always sat, as the group began singing “Happy Birthday.”
“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Marco,” Jonathan quietly sang as his tears dropped from his pale cheeks onto the grave of the friend he lost exactly a year ago. “Happy birthday to you.”