“If we don’t stop soon, I’m gonna piss myself,” Chase mutters under his breath after cutting me an annoyed look. The pad of his thumb taps the steering wheel erratically as he drives us toward the unknown. Doubt ebbs away at the back of my mind. The tension in the beat-up car is palpable.
For the umpteenth time in the past two hours, I glance into the rearview mirror. Like each time before, there’s only the asphalt road stretching out for miles behind us.
“Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?” he snaps, eyes frantic as he follows my lead and checks the mirror himself. Perhaps paranoia is contagious.
I take a deep breath and force my body to relax into the seat. “It’s nothing. You can pull over at the next gas station. I need to stretch anyway.” If Ace or his thugs were following us, I would have seen something by now. There’s no place to hide out here.
Twenty minutes later, the car screeches to a stop in front of a crumbling gas station. Clicking off the engine, Chase clambers out of the car and races through the doors like his ass is on fire. My own bladder threatens to punish me, so I’m not far behind.
The lingering odor of sewage forces me to pinch my nose while I pee in the disgusting bathroom. After buying a pack of cigarettes, I rush outside and gulp in the fresh air. Dropping to the curb, I light up and use this time to observe our new surroundings. The sun peeks over the mountain. There’s enough light for me to spot a narrow path in the underbrush. My eyes follow it until it disappears behind the old building. With a fleeting look through the window, and still no sign of Chase, I decide to check it out. If I had to guess, my traveling companion is wrecking that poor restroom, giving me plenty of time for a much needed walk.
Smashing the cigarette under the heel of my boot, I begin to follow it. After a hundred paces or so, the dirt path comes to an abrupt end at a chain-link fence. Farther ahead, the cracked ground drops into a deep canyon. Hopping the rusted fence and ignoring the yellow “Danger Ahead!” sign, I hike onward. Coming to a slow stop at the edge, I hold my breath and peek over the side. A shallow river flows steady through the narrow gorge. Kicking a rock, I watch as it crashes against the jagged walls of the canyon until taking its final plunge into the murky water below. The hairs on my arms and neck stand on end when a bird shrieks in the distance.
A strong gust of wind, a flying leap, a single misstep; that’s all it would take for me to go tumbling over the edge. The searing image of Andrew’s seizing body, the horrified look on Marybeth’s face; they would be wiped from my thoughts forever. There’s no such thing as a ‘clean slate’. It’s just something assholes say to convince their loved ones that they’ve changed this time around. But what if I destroy the slate altogether? Some would call me a coward. Others would rejoice, but it would be a sweet release from the anguish that buzzes through my veins like a thousand angry bees. I endure my feeble existence, this condition worse than death. Do I deserve to be punished?
Perhaps I do.
But I’m so very tired.
Do you hear me? I’m fucking tired.
With the bloody crown of guilt weighing me down, I let out a sigh of relief and take a small step forward. Beneath the balls of my feet, something shifts under my weight. I’m jolted forward unexpectedly. With a terrified yelp, I kick up a cloud of dust, digging my heels into the ground as I drop backwards and land hard on my tailbone. One dusty boot hangs off the edge of nothing. I let out a shaky breath, listening to the sound of pebbles as they make their long journey to the bottom.
Before my eyes, the canyon transforms into a gaping monster. The jagged rocks are its gnashing teeth, and the water below, its intestinal juices waiting to dissolve my bones and swallow me whole.
My hands fly out behind me as I scuttle backwards. It’s the same kind of panic that causes a child to scream and cower beneath a blanket. When I’m far enough away that I can no longer see down the yawning mouth of the canyon, I draw in my knees and squeeze my face between them.
I quench the arid ground with fat tears as I begin to sob.
I cry until my throat is raw and my nose drips with snot; unable to stop, even when I hear soft footsteps and feel a comforting hand rub circles across my back.
I cry until a splitting headache takes root at the back of my skull and I can’t squeeze one more tear from my bloodshot eyes. I hate myself for leaving Alder Grove, but I hate myself more for being too much of a pussy to rid the world of my miserable existence.
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but I tried to kill myself last year.” Chase’s voice rumbles from beside me. “This was before I met Andrew and became friends with you and MB. I stole a bunch of Ma’s pills and washed them down with Dad’s most expensive bourbon.”
Lifting my head, I sniffle. “What happened?”
He lets out a harsh laugh. “Well, I forgot to take into consideration that my dad used to be a trained paramedic. My brother called him, and I guess he jumped into action to save me. After he got me breathing again, his buddy rushed over with a vial of something. They hooked me up to an IV and were able to counter effect the drugs.” His face contorts as he thinks back. “Man, was he pissed. Not because I tried to kill myself, nah, but because if anyone else found me, I would have been taken to the hospital. The doctors would have questioned him about all the bruises on my ribs and back.” His head shakes in disgust.
“That’s fucked up.” I bite the inside of my cheek in anger. “Why didn’t your mom protect you from that asshole?”
“She used to when we were kids. Would threaten to leave him and take us with her. He would always laugh and say, “Yeah? Well, there’s the door, sweet cheeks.” She would get as far as the town border before she’d start crying and turn right back around. He knew she would never leave. Ma had no family or friends, he made her burn every bridge so she would be isolated. Manipulative fucking bastard.”
“No wonder you wanted to leave”—I scoff—“Jesus, our parents suck.”
His gaze meets mine. There’s a desperate hope that lies beneath the surface. “But now we’re finally free, Reap. We’re out of that fucked up town full of fucked up people, and we don’t ever have to go back.”
“I’m scared,” I admit. I wrap a strand of hair around my finger so tight that the blood flow is cut off, and the skin begins to pale.
Everything crumbles to ruin around me. Please don’t let me bury this broken boy under the rubble.
“Me too. So, let’s make a deal right now. No matter what happens, you’ve got my back, and I’ve got yours. Forever.” He spits in his palm and holds it out to me.
I stare at it for a moment before snorting. “You’re joking right?”
He doesn’t respond, only waits with his outstretched hand. There’s not a trace of humor in his honey brown eyes.
I sigh in resignation. “Boys are truly disgusting creatures.” I spit in my dusty hand and place it in his.
With a firm grip around my knuckles, he shakes it once, then twice. He releases it with a solemn nod. “You and me against the world, Reap.”