The day arrived later than usual; around 2pm, sunlight storming the room with heat and glare.
Earl planned to rise earlier, for that early morning round with the boys, then dropping in on the girls at Celine’s, then popping in on lonely mum, for that cheer-up visit he always intended. Mid afternoon he would be on the water crewing on Rog’s thirty-two footer. It was to be a wonderful day, until Albert messed it up on New Year’s Eve.
Dear clumsy Albert was an old high school problem, the joke of the class, who didn’t cope among conceited youth. Albert was serious, taking kind words as promise of eternal friendship.
Earl should have left Albert to the calamity of his existence. Yet, for some stupid reason, Earl cared, chipping in at times to rescue Albert from social disaster. It wasn’t cool to help Albert, so Earl kept it light, but Albert saw it differently, leaning on Earl for the oft needed rescue.
That was years ago and each had forged ahead since then. Albert was long gone and forgotten, until last night.
The regulars gathered to watch the exploding sky, at the regular spot, more crowded than usual. They were lubricated and frisky and Earl eyed Louise, his frequent happy target. The night was balmy and atmosphere expectant, buoyant with good humour and giggles.
When Earl looked up he froze at the sight of Albert, just metres away, looking at him with sorrow and disapproval. Their eyes locked and Earl blushed, accusation impaling him. He looked away then flashed a glance to check on Albert, who was gone.
Quickly on his feet Earl scanned the dim-lit crowd. No sign of Albert.
Flopping beside Louise again Earl wondered if it really was Albert. Was he just imagined? Earl checked his glass. He distinctly remembered passing on the stuff passed around, but he’d been heavy on liquid amber, so maybe that explained it.
“But why Albert?” he mused.
Memory came as a cold knife to his chest.
It was the last New Year at school, Albert was low, again, and Earl at his side, anxious to help. “This year,” he promised, “I’ll be there for you.” Albert wept and smudged snivel into Earl’s shoulder.
The new school year brought its swag of opportunities and Albert was low priority against wonderful moments the final year afforded. Albert watched Earl’s achievements from the sidelines. Occasionally Earl brushed past his friend, with a cheery shoulder pat and encouraging words. But the promised care was forgotten, at least by Earl.
The night suddenly chilled. “Let’s go somewhere,” Earl suggested.
“Why?” Louise asked cheerily. “This is the best spot we’re gonna get. It’s nearly midnight.”
Dazed, Earl stood and smiled, scanned the crowd and stumbled toward his car. Everywhere he looked he thought he caught hint of Albert.
Driving home he heard punctuated firework bursts, colours reflecting around him. What burst in his head seemed much more important.
Why did he let Albert down? Why promise in the first place? Why were people like Albert in our world? Why did life demand responsibility we don’t want to give?
At 1am Earl sat up, searching for Albert. “What happened to him? Did he go to Uni? Where did he live? Wasn’t he an only child?”
Earl woke at 3, head pounding and stomach churning. With that relieved he returned to the search.
When sunlight woke him, Earl struggled with an aching head and heavy chest. Keyboard imprint adorned his face. He stretched and flexed the stiffness.
New Year’s Day. Time for resolutions. His was already made. He owed Albert a year, and this would be that year.