“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it,” I say.
Ethan looks up at me with his sparkling blue eyes. Then he leans toward me, craning his neck, and squints, as if trying to read my mind.
“A dollar!” he says at last.
I draw my hand out of my pocket and give him the dollar.
“Right again, buddy,” I say.
I watch as Ethan stuffs the dollar into his own pocket. He’ll never get a chance to spend it, but he’s happy to have won it at least. He’s happy, and right now that’s the only thing that matters.
The Pocket Game, as we call it, is a tradition that my father started on my first day of kindergarten. We were one of those “weird” families that were supported financially by a working mother. Dad stayed at home, except when he was taking me to and from school, or when he had to run some errand. And every day, when he picked me up after school, those were the first words out of his mouth.
“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.”
In the beginning, it was always a piece of candy. Then sometimes it was a quarter, or a baseball card. If it was something new that I couldn’t be expected to guess, he would carry it again the next day, and I knew to guess it then. But usually it was candy or money. That moment of truth when I had to guess was always the highlight of my afternoon.
Then one day, after he spoke the challenge as usual, I said, “Dad, I’m too old for that game now.” I don’t remember exactly when that was, but I can still see the disappointment on his face. He reached into his pocket anyway and handed me what had been inside of it. It was a quarter, the last one he ever gave me.
Back then, a quarter was a good amount of money for a kid to win in a guessing game. Accounting for inflation, I figure that a dollar today is worth about what a quarter was then. So that’s what I give my son.
“Let’s go, Dad,” Ethan says.
I realize that I’m just standing there, imagining him outgrowing the game one day too. I blink and start moving.
Without prompting, Ethan reaches up to take my hand, and we step off the curb and walk out into the parking lot toward our car. We have to go slowly; every step is painful for him. He’d rather walk on his own than let me carry him, though.
“Do you think I can go back to school next week, Dad?” he asks.
“Maybe. You can go back as soon as you get better.”
It’s a lie I’ve grown used to telling, but it hurts me just as much now as it did the first time I told it. I want nothing more than for Ethan to be able to go back to school; but I know it’s not going to happen. His condition is progressing just as the doctors predicted.
One more week, maybe two, is all he has left. All I have left with him. This is probably our last trip to the hospital together. That’s good, I tell myself, because I don’t want him to have to come back here. For him, playing the Pocket Game is the only good thing about these trips.
“I knew it was a dollar this time,” Ethan says. “And I knew it was candy yesterday.”
“I guess you’ve learned to read my mind,” I say.
He shakes his head. “No, I’m just lucky.”
I smile, both at the contradiction in his thoughts and on hearing him call himself lucky.
When we finally reach the car, I withdraw my hand from Ethan’s and fish around in my pocket for the car keys. My fingers brush against the Tootsie Roll that I put there this morning. Tomorrow, I’ll put it in my pocket again, together with a new dollar. I can’t stop my son from dying; but if he leaves this world thinking that he’s a lucky boy, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something right.
* * * * *
This story was my entry in Writer’s Digest‘s “Your Story” competition. The prompt was, “Write a short story, of 750 words or fewer, that begins with the following line of dialogue: ‘If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.'” You can read the finalist entries here.