Connor

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12 - Saturday

It was weird. The last day of my life didn’t feel any different than any other day. Well, the last day as it had been. My life as I knew it. Sure, there was a bit of anxiety and expectation, but the day didn’t begin with fireworks or music. Maybe I expected a parade, it’s hard to say.

I woke like any other morning, except I woke on the floor of Jake’s bedroom with no recollection of how I got there. I remembered being in the living room. I remembered struggling to stay awake on the sofa, watching a movie.

But I woke upstairs, on the floor, lying across a pile of blankets. I was still in my clothes. My mouth had a sour taste in it.

I sat up, rubbed the back of my head and stretched. I felt stiff, like I hadn’t moved at all as I slept. I probably hadn’t. My head hurt.

I looked around, saw daylight coming in through half-opened blinds. Jake was in bed, his covers tossed haphazardly. He was in his boxers, sprawled out on his stomach. His hair stuck up in odd places. Freckles on his back.

That’s the way the day began. It was nothing like it ended. It began so normal. The day everything changed.

I looked at the clock. It was just after ten. The party didn’t start until seven.

While I didn’t have a cell phone, Jake did, and it was sitting on the side of his bedside table. I took it, typed in Audrey’s number, and sent her a message that said, Hey, it’s Connor.

After a moment, she sent one back that said, Hey u! #? I think it meant, Hey, you! Whose phone is this?

I sent back: Jake’s. I need to talk to you.

Oh, so I shouldn’t store this number? Smiley face. Just kidding.

A second message followed behind the first: You know you can talk about whatever, but can it wait ’til later? You okay?

I’m okay, I sent. I guess it can wait.

I feel bad. I’m just walking in to practice.

It’s okay. But later. Promise?

Cross my heart, she sent. Your mom called last night, pretty late. Didn’t say much. Sounded worried. Wanted to know if I talked to you. You sure you’re okay?

Don’t worry about me, I sent.

I’ll text when I get out of practice.

It’s okay. I’ll just see you at the party tonight.

Smiley face. Didn’t think you were going. Now I have a good reason to go. Promise I’ll make time to talk.

I didn’t reply. A minute later, she sent another, just said, See ya then.

I set the phone down, got up, went into the bathroom.

Eventually, Jake woke, and we went downstairs, found food, watched another movie. I called Scott, made plans to meet up, got his grandma’s address. We’d pick him up on the way.

Jake tried to ask questions like, “How you feeling?” and, “This really the end?” I just met each with either silence or, “Jake, I don’t wanna talk about it.”

In truth, I felt alright. I felt good. I’d made a decision to go, and it felt like the right decision. I didn’t know how else to explain it. I was like…at peace with it. For the most part.

I did feel nervous, but it seemed to only be nerves regarding the party, being out of my element. I wasn’t the kind of guy to do parties. Not the drinking ones, anyway, which was exactly what this was likely to be. It wasn’t my scene. So I was nervous about that, but even more so, I was nervous about seeing Alicia again. Nervous and excited. The kind you feel all over your stomach, keeps you from eating a lot.

I tried to call Ken a couple of times. I thought about going over there, but I didn’t. Nobody answered the phone. I just left messages. In case he was screening his phone. I just wanted him to know that I cared. That I still considered myself a friend. That I was there if he needed someone. There was nothing worse than feeling alone. Alone and not having a number eight on the speed dial. Maybe the last thing Ken needed was drugs, but maybe I could be his number eight. At least a little bit. Maybe I could help him not feel so lonely anymore. I also told him about the party.

Around five, we drove over to pick up Scott. He wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt, no jacket. It was brisk, but the shirt would be enough, and it covered his tattoos. The only things that made him look any different were the little beard hairs on his chin and the hoops in his ears.

I wore a light jacket and jeans. One of Jake’s button-down shirts. It didn’t feel like me, but Jake said it made me look a little better, and I’d need it if I intended to hook up with Alicia. I didn’t argue, but felt a little uncomfortable.

We got out of the car to meet Scott as he approached. We hugged. He and Jake did a hand shake thing. He said, “Jake, been a while.”

“Scott, hey, how you been?” Jake answered.

“Good to see a familiar face.”

“Hey, you too, Scoot.” He laughed to himself. “Remember when we used to call you Scoot?” Jake asked.

“Nobody ever called me Scoot,” Scott told him with a smile.

“No, but it would’ve been funny if we did though, huh?”

Scott tried to fake a laugh, then sighed. “I can see you haven’t changed much.”

“Hey, thanks man.”

“That wasn’t a compliment. The last time we saw each other was four years ago. I’d have thought you might’ve grown up a little.”

“That’s funny,” Jake said, sarcastically, flashed him an insulting smile.

Scott ignored him, turned to me. “So what’s up with you?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, I called your house last night and your mom was a mess, like she’d been crying all day, and she said you . . .”

“Oh, that,” I said. “I’ll tell you in the car.”

As I drove away, I told him the story of the last two days. He listened curiously. At the end, he swore quietly, said, “You’re kidding!”

“Yup.”

He was quiet a minute. “You’re lucky,” he said. “My parents are so screwed up. I’d give anything to start over with a new set.”

“That’s not what’s going on,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about it. But I thought you were happy, Scott?”

He shrugged. “Happy enough, I guess. Just trying to get by.” He fell quiet for a minute, and Jake turned up the radio. Scott sat in the backseat, leaning up between us. “One last hurrah, huh?”

“It’s our job to make sure he has a memorable night,” Jake said. “So he can’t stay away for long.”

“I thought we weren’t talking about it,” I said.

“You’re not talking about it,” Jake said. “I never agreed to that.”

“So where am I going?”

“To Gregor’s.”

“Right. Which is?”

Scott and I looked at Jake. “You know where Tina Lasseter lives?”

“No.”

He sighed. “Maybe I should drive.”

“You scare me driving. You’re not driving my car. Just give me directions.”

He did.

Turned out, Chris Gregor lived toward the outskirts of town. I’d passed his house the other night, on my way out to the empty farmland, the empty road. Chris’ family didn’t exactly live on a farm. At least, not a working one. They had a few acres of land and a metal pole barn out back. The nearest neighbor was about a half mile away, so there weren’t any noise complaints.

I recognized the house once I saw it, remembered the Halloween party he had in that same barn in third grade. They had apple bobbing and hayrides and everybody did the Monster Mash. Something told me this party wouldn’t be like that one.

We got there just after seven-thirty. The long driveway was already loaded with cars parked along either side of it. Music boomed as we approached, something that sounded like hip-hop. Something with a lot of bass. And the house looked dark. It was a two-story place, big, with pillars on the front and arched windows.

We found a spot to park, and as we stepped out, I could smell the burning of a campfire in the crisp, autumn air. It was nice. For a minute, I thought the party might not be all bad. Audrey would be there, after all. And Rowen. Plus, I’d get to say goodbye to everyone. Except Ken. But I figured I could write him.

The front door was open, and we stepped into the living room. It was large, walls lined with couches and chairs. Every seat occupied. Music videos played on the TV, but nobody was watching them. Instead, they were all kissing each other. Maybe I recognized some of the people, but in the dark, with their faces pressed together, it was hard to tell for sure. There must have been a dozen people, all just making out. But everyone had a red plastic cup.

“Oooh,” Jake said. “They must have a keg.”

I followed him deeper into the house, into the kitchen. There were a few people in the kitchen, drinking. Girls laid back on the counter, their shirts pulled up to reveal their stomachs, and guys were taking shots from their navels. A clear liquor of some kind. It smelled like burning.

One of the guys looked up as we entered, wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, smiled. “Jake!” he said. “You made it just in time.”

Jake looked at me. “You remember Cory?”

I nodded at him.

“Hey, Connor,” he said. “Wasn’t sure if you were coming.”

“Me either,” I said. I pointed behind me. “Did you know Scott?”

Cory came around to get a better look, blinked a few times, tried to recall through the stench of liquor on his breath. “Scott Silver?” he said. “Holy shit, it’s been a long time, brother.”

Scott smiled slightly. “Yeah. Hey, Cory.”

“Man, good to see you.” He turned to the rest of us. “Go on out back. Kegs on the patio. There’s a bonfire. Other shit going on in the barn. Bedrooms upstairs if you guys…you know. Just put a sock on the doorknob so nobody disturbs.”

Jake looked at me. “Wanna go outside?”

“Well, I’m not going upstairs with you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Dick,” he said with a smile.

I looked at Scott, and he nodded. We followed Jake outside, where the music was much louder.

The patio was in-laid brick, a woven pattern. On one side, three large, plastic garbage cans filled with ice and kegs. On the other, a table outlined in large speakers. A guy, someone I didn’t recognize, looked maybe in college, stood behind it, headphones on, swaying to the beat. Hand hovering over a plank of knobs and dials.

Jake moved for the kegs, took a plastic cup and filled. He passed one to me, one to Scott. Scott drank eagerly. I took a small sip, made a face, and just decided to hold mine for a while. I wasn’t a beer drinker. Jake said it was an acquired taste. I hadn’t acquired it yet. Wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to.

We stood on the patio for a bit, listened to the music, talked to some people as they passed by, either for the kitchen or the kegs. I had words with people I hadn’t talked to in four years of high school. Not glowing conversations, mind you. But people that passed me in the hall while avoiding eye contact actually said hi. Said, good to see you.

I didn’t pay attention to most. My gaze focused away on the fire about a hundred feet out, large and warm. I felt beckoned to it. Maybe because of the warmth. The night was colder than I’d thought. Just past the fire was the barn. Beyond the barn was just an open field. Dark and empty. The barn was lit up like Vegas, the big sliding doors open to reveal at least two hundred people. More speakers set up by the entrance there, and the interior had turned into a riotous dance floor.

I looked back at Jake, saw that he and Scott were talking to a couple of Sophomore girls, and wandered off the patio toward the fire. As I neared, I could see about fifty people sitting on the circle of logs around the fire. Some were huddled together or under blankets or both. Some passed around a cigarette. One would take a puff, pass it along to the next. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized it didn’t smell like any cigarette I knew.

I took an empty seat on one of the logs, sat there for a minute, staring into the flames. They were hypnotic. For a moment, I didn’t realize anything else, didn’t pay attention to the muffled conversations happening around me, the snickering laughter, or the music thundering behind and all around me like a dance club. All that registered were the dancing flames. The light, the heat. I felt warm.

Someone tapped my shoulder and I turned, saw the boy to my left, the doobie in his hand. He was offering it to me.

I looked at it, considered it a moment. I shook my head. “No thanks,” I said. I’d never done drugs. Never felt the need or desire to. I never wanted to feel out of control, never wanted to numb the pain or distract myself from the thoughts in my brain.

The guy shrugged, took another hit. “Take it and pass it,” he said, his voice strained. He was trying to hold it in. I’d heard that’s what you did. Held the smoke in your lungs. You got the most out of it that way.

I took it, eyed it curiously. I turned to my right, saw the girl sitting there, Tabitha…something. She was in my math class, second hour. She reached for it. As I brought it over to her, I smelled the smoke coming off of it. Felt my head spin just a little. And I took a drag. Felt the heat and the burning enter me, let it in to my lungs, held my breath.

After the week I’d had, I thought I deserved a night of mindless bliss. Who would care? My parents? Which ones? My real ones probably wouldn’t mind.

I passed it to Tabitha and sat there. Until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Then I started coughing, breathing smoke like a cartoon dragon. I coughed a fit, and the guy next to me just looked over at me, laughed a little. I felt many eyes on me. “Easy, man,” the guy said. “First time?”

I nodded. Couldn’t stop coughing.

“Cool, man.” He smiled, turned to the girl next to him. “Popped his cherry.” There was laughter.

A few minutes later, it came back around to me. Or maybe it was a fresh one. I didn’t know. But I took another drag, more eager than the first. Took another. By the time it made its way around to me a third time, I was feeling pretty good. I felt loose, free.

I’m not sure at what point I noticed it, but eventually, I became even more obsessed with the fire. It was…magical. I didn’t know how else to describe it. It seemed to flow like water. I watched the sparks pop as the logs crackled. They swirled up with the flames and danced toward the sky, floated up toward the faint clouds and became stars.

I looked at Tabitha and said, “I never knew where the stars came from before.”

She looked at me blankly for a minute, and then she started laughing. “Oh God,” she said. “You’re one of those.”

“What?”

“Just…you get…” She stuttered her words for the laughter. “Philosophical.”

I thought about that for a minute. Philosophical. The meaning didn’t quickly take hold, but I thought of the word itself, the structure of it, the way it sounded. I repeated it several times, but I couldn’t say if it was aloud or in my head. For some reason, I just found it fascinating.

I don’t know how long I sat there, how many passes, how many pulls. It could have been weeks. But Jake and Scott approached. I heard their voices first. They seemed to come at me from out of a dream, but then I turned to see them.

“There you are,” Jake said. “I turned my back for two minutes, and you disappeared.”

“I was having a good time,” I said. “It’s cool.”

I stood, turned to them. I was still holding my beer, and it startled me. I’d forgotten about it. I looked into the cup, stared at the amber liquid. As I watched it, I realized I was quite thirsty and took a drink.

“Tastes like piss,” I said.

Jake watched me for a minute, took hold of my arm. “Come on,” he said. He was smiling about something.

Scott asked, “Is he normally like this?”

“No,” Jake said. “He’s normally pretty boring at these things.”

“He’s had a big week,” Scott said.

“I have,” I said. “It’s been a hell of a week.” Somehow, I knew it was true, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember a single thing that happened. In the moment, I’d spent a week staring at the fire and puffing and passing. I spent a week beside Tabitha and that guy. I didn’t even get his name. I turned back to the fire after a few steps and said, “See ya, Tabitha.”

She waved, laughed, and turned back to the flames.

“Where we going?” I asked Jake.

“Audrey’s in the barn,” he said. “She was looking for you.”

“Oh, good.” I looked around, expecting to see her. We were tromping across the lawn, stepping over sticks and rocks, kicking our way through grass that was a bit too long. I watched the ground as we walked. It looked different somehow. Like one of those posters where you relaxed your eyes and saw a sailboat. The grass and rocks looked as different from what I remembered as one of those poster sailboats looked from the original. Like I was somehow seeing another side of it. Another angle.

I heard Audrey’s voice then. She talked with Scott and Jake, but I don’t know what was being said. I didn’t know why, but I started laughing.

“Connor?” Audrey said.

I barely heard her. I was listening to the music. I thought it sounded incredible, somehow.

“He’s high,” Scott said.

“Seriously?” she said.

I felt her hands on my face. Our eyes met. Her hair was down on her shoulders. She looked beautiful. I could’ve kissed her right there. “Connor,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“I’m great,” I said.

“I promised you that I’d make time to talk to you. Do you want to go somewhere and talk?”

“I saw where the stars came from,” I told her. “And this music sounds incredible.”

“You might want to take him back to the house,” Scott said. “It’s quieter there, less distractions.”

“You wanna go back to the house?” she asked. “And talk?”

Her words sounded so slow. “Yeah, Audrey. Of course.” I looked at Jake and Scott. “I’ll see you guys in a little bit, okay?”

Scott gave me a thumbs up, and Jake said, “Yeah, okay, Conman.”

As we walked, I could smell her. She wore perfume and lotion, and it was mingled with the scent of the bonfire and the cold tinge of the autumn night. I looked over at her, and she at me. She smiled.

“Hi,” I said.

“Yes, you are.” Her tone was amused.

“Are we going upstairs?” I asked. “Cory said the bedrooms were available. We just needed to put a sock on the door.”

“You want to go upstairs?”

I thought about it a minute. We were halfway from the barn to the house, halfway between sets of speakers, and the music was as quiet here as it was likely to get. I stopped and mustered all the focus I could and looked at her.

“I’m a mess,” I said. I watched her eyes. Her patient eyes. “I smoked weed.”

She nodded, smiled a little. “I know.”

“I’m sorry. It’s not like me, Audrey. You know I don’t do stuff like that. But I…”

“Connor,” she said. It seemed like the words took an entire day to come out. She held both of my hands in hers and looked me straight in the eyes. “Something’s happened. It’s been a hell of a week, I can tell. Jake mentioned some stuff, said something about you leaving. What is going on?”

I took a deep breath, breathed her in. “I’m adopted.”

Her hands squeezed mine. She was silent for a minute, and I tried not to listen to the music even though it sounded so great. It was a dance remix, one I didn’t even like that played on the radio constantly. I looked at Audrey.

“And now you think nobody loves you?” she said. Her voice was quiet. Her lips pursed. She looked down. “And you’re running away?”

“I’ll be back,” I said. “I just…my parents need me for something and…I just have to go away for a little bit. I’ll come back.” I stopped, tried to think of the words to say. I knew there was something I wanted to tell her, couldn’t remember what it was. “This was easier earlier. To talk about.”

“What are you feeling right now?”

“Maybe a little numb.” I tried to take another sip from my cup, realized I’d drank it all. I shrugged, looked at her. “I’m a light-weight.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m confused, mostly. Maybe a little angry. Sad. I think part of me feels maybe free. Like maybe, my whole life, I knew something was off. I felt different. Part of me is kinda happy because now that I know Craig and Patty aren’t my real parents, that maybe it explains it.” I watched her watching me. “But mostly I’m just confused.”

She nodded.

“First, the whole thing with Ken. Then I thought my folks were getting a divorce, but they weren’t. Well, now it kind of feels like they’re divorcing me, but I know that’s not true either. And I’ve just been feeling so lonely all the time lately, and you’re seeing movies with Brad…”

“Wait, is that…?”

“And then Alicia and Moore broke up, and maybe I have a shot with her because of the video store, and…”

“Connor. Do you still have feelings for…?”

“Then we saw Alicia at the video store, and Jake made me talk to her, and I did. I really did. And I felt great after that, but then I felt guilty as hell for forgetting about Ken. But I didn’t really forget about him. Not for good. And now I can’t even find him, so that’s hard because I wanted to say goodbye to Ken, too. And Sandama came and told me about my parents and how I have to go because they’re dying and need a kidney or something. I mean, this is probably my only chance to find out why they gave me up and why they went through so much trouble to drop me off in the middle of Podunk, Illinois. Ya know?”

“Connor, hang on a second. You said, me and Brad. Did I do something or…?”

“Nah. You didn’t do anything. I broke it off with you. I was scared, I guess. But then you called and asked about Alicia and if I liked her… What was that about?”

“She asked about you,” Audrey said.

“Really? Because she asked if I was going to be at the party. Jake said, because I’m leaving, I should hook up with her. That I might not get another chance, and… Is she here? Have you seen her?”

“Connor, hang on. What if you don’t go? What if you stay here? Brad and I…we’re not…”

“Is Alicia here? I haven’t seen her. Jake said, maybe I could…”

“Will you listen?”

I listened for a minute, heard the music. Heard the bass and the drums and the whiny, falsetto voice pumping through the speakers and turned to see the crowd in the barn dancing and shaking and moving, pounding like a heart.

When I turned back to her, her mouth had been moving. I didn’t understand the words she said, but she looked so soft and lovely saying them. Then she said, “Don’t go.”

“It’s okay,” I said. And then suddenly, I was overcome with the urge to use the bathroom. She started to say something else, and I stopped her. “Hold that thought,” I said. “You stay right here, and I’ll be right back. I just have to pee, okay?”

She nodded. “Okay. Right here. You’ve got five minutes.”

I winked at her and shuffled off to the house, slipped through the patio door and stumbled down the first hallway. As I neared a closed door, it opened, and Cory staggered out of it. “Bathroom’s clear, bro,” he said. And I entered.

When I came out, I nearly bumped straight into a blonde girl.

“Sorry,” I said. Then I saw her face, her eyes. “Alicia,” I said.

She smiled. “Hey, Connor. You came.” She had a beer in her hand.

“Yeah,” I said. “Been out by the fire. I think I was there like a week.”

She laughed, maybe a bit confused. “Alright.”

“So, did you just get here?”

“I’ve been out dancing at the barn,” she said. “I just came inside to get away from Moore for a minute. He’s been talking shit all night.”

“You want me to talk to him?” I said. “I can set him straight.”

She smiled. “Would you?”

“Yeah,” I said. I pretended to be macho for a minute. I pretended like me standing up to Moore in the middle of our entire senior class was the most logical thing I could do. “I’ll go talk to Dick Less,” I said. “That’s what Jake calls him. ’Cuz his name is Richard Moore, and he’s a dick.”

She laughed a bit. “Yeah, I get it.” She watched me a minute. She finished her beer, and set the cup down on a small table in the hallway, one holding a potted plant. She licked her lips to get all the beer flavor from them and said, “You’d do that for me?”

“Sure. Let’s go.”

I tried to step past her, but she put her hand on my arm. She turned me around. “I have a better idea.”

Then she kissed me.

My shoulders collided with the wall behind me, but I didn’t care. Our lips were touching, and then parting, and I could taste her, taste her tongue. She tasted like beer, but I didn’t care. I smelled her shampoo.

Seconds ticked by. Minutes. Maybe another week. We stood in the hallway, both of her hands holding my face, both of my hands on her hips, our lips massaging wetly into each other. I could’ve stayed like that forever.

But I heard Cory call my name, followed by footsteps, and then a cry broke out. Sounded like a wounded bobcat.

I felt Alicia’s body tense beneath me, felt her pull away, and when I opened me eyes and turned toward the kitchen, I saw Moore, backed by a gaggle of his friends: Brad, Trevor, Christian, and Rowen. They were all football players, and they were all assholes. Well, apart from Rowen. Why he ever hung around Moore, I had no idea.

“You’re dead!” Moore shouted. It took me a minute to realize he was talking to me. Behind him, I could just make out Chris Gregor in the patio door. And beyond him, the crowd surged like a horde of zombies.

As Moore reached for me, Chris stepped forward and grabbed him. He said, “No fighting in my house.”

Moore huffed like an angry bull, nodded, and stepped past Chris. Alicia cried out, yelled, “Get away from him!” But Moore grabbed me by the shirt collar, twisted the fabric around his knuckles and jerked suddenly, threw me off my feet. Then he drug me through the living room and out into the front yard.

I kicked and screamed and squirmed.

Things moved so fast, but I could tell the crowd was following us out into the night. I saw Brad, Christian and Trevor in the lead, bloodlust in their eyes. Rowen and Alicia trailed slightly behind them, confusion, maybe terror on their faces. But also helplessness. I kept thinking that Rowen could stop this. Rowen could step up, make Moore back off. It wouldn’t even take much. Rowen was clearly bigger, physically. But Moore was aggressive, angry. And for some reason, people looked up to him. I guessed because he was the quarterback, because the others were his linebackers. Because he called the plays, and the others just backed him. Even when he was wrong.

But I could see the battle in Rowen’s eyes. He wanted to step up. But he wasn’t. I didn’t give up on him, though. I held out hope that he would do something. He would end it. He had to. Because I couldn’t be the only one that still thought the oath we took had power. I wasn’t the only one who still thought we were friends forever.

My legs dragged across the uneven driveway, the gravel rocks tearing at my legs, my butt. My hands held tightly to Moore’s wrist, my nails twisted and dug into his skin, scraped against. I knew it wasn’t for nothing. I felt his skin beneath my nails.

Then he threw me. My back and shoulders collided against the bumper of a pickup truck, my head threw back against the tailgate. It made a tremendous noise and hurt like hell. Then I crumpled over onto my hands and knees and looked up at him.

“The hell is your problem?!” I spat.

“You are, maggot.” But he didn’t say maggot. I didn’t like the word he said. “Alicia’s mine. You have no right…”

I managed to stand shakily to my feet and said, “You don’t deserve her, Dick Less. You aren’t even worthy of lacing her boots. So you can go screw yourself and jump off a bridge, you lazy…”

The first blow was to my stomach, took the wind out of me. I doubled over. His knee hit next, burst my nose open into a shower of red that sprayed the gravel drive. The next was a right hook to the temple that spun me and dropped me to the ground. I felt the sharp gravel in my hands as I landed.

“That’s enough,” came a voice. I didn’t see who it was, but it was seriously pissed off. “You’ve gone too far, Moore.”

“You hear the way this maggot talked to me?” Moore countered. “You think I can let him get away with that?”

“With wounding your pride? Because that’s all he did. What you’re doing is too much. It’s going too far.”

“You’re supposed to back me, Field.”

Field. It was Rowen. I’d never heard him so angry. It explained a lot. Like why Moore’s voice quivered with fear.

“I back good calls,” he said. “This isn’t one.”

“Don’t get between this,” Moore warned.

I heard Scott next. “Stand down, you bastard.”

Then Jake: “Alright, Dick Less. You touch my buddy again, you’re gonna have to go through me.”

Moore laughed. “I’m not scared of you, maggot.”

I heard Audrey’s voice next. She called my name, sounded surprised, hurt. She started yelling at Brad to stand up and do something, but Brad shrugged her off. Maybe he even hit her. I didn’t know.

Rowen said, “Don’t.” He said it scary. Probably toward Brad.

My head was spinning, but I found the edge of a car and stood warily, swayed a bit, but didn’t fall again. I saw Rowen, Scott and Jake standing side by side, a wall. Like they were playing a children’s game. Playing Red Rover. Send Dick Less right over.

Moore looked back at me, eyes narrowed into fury. “Your move,” I said.

Moore looked back at Rowen and Scott. Rather, he looked past them. And nodded.

Trevor, Brad and Christian jumped Scott, Rowen and Jake, tackling them to the ground and sucker-punching them from behind. They dropped like rocks.

Moore turned to me, came at me with a solid punch, but I dropped to the side, and his hand hit the rear window of a Buick, left a spider web of cracks. I lost balance, fell on my hands and knees, scrambled for my feet. For some reason, the only thought in my head was to make it to my trunk. Just get to my trunk. If I could only get to my trunk.

I was running. My legs were shaky and not the most reliable, whether from substance or abuse, I didn’t know. But I could see my car. I could also feel Moore right behind me. And he was in better shape than me and gaining fast.

I thought if I could just get to my trunk, just get to the rifle. I wouldn’t shoot him, just scare him. He needed to be taught a lesson.

I heard screaming somewhere behind us, heard someone yell to call nine-one-one, probably Audrey. Behind it all, I heard the music playing loudly.

Moore was gaining on me. I could feel him at my heels and threw a fist at him awkwardly, missed. But he staggered a step, came up fast. There was more running now, lots of feet. I dared to glance back, saw Moore, followed by a chorus of people. Maybe everybody. Nobody liked to miss a fight. I thought of what he did to Marcus, thought of what Marcus looked like after the crowd had parted, thought of how nobody stepped in to help.

I reached my trunk, skidded across it, fumbled for my keys. I went for the driver’s door, hit the trunk release, saw it jump open a crack. Moore skidded past me. As I moved for the trunk, I caught Moore’s boot to the gut, dropped against the side of my car.

“Hit him again,” I heard. But it wasn’t Rowen’s voice this time. And when I looked up, I saw a kid dressed in all black, fishnets on his arms. “C’mon,” he said through black lips. “Hit him. As if I need another reason to come after you.”

Moore stood, turned his back on me and faced Ken with laughter. “Who invited the freak to the party?”

That was met with raucous laughter from the approaching crowd.

I looked up at Moore, saw his hand resting on the back of my car, his fingers dangling there by the open trunk, and I stood. “I invited him,” I said and slammed my hand down on the trunk, smashing his fingers.

He screamed, pulled them back, crooked and bloody. He turned his attention to me, and Ken stepped up behind him, threw him into the car next to mine. Moore bounced off and fell over onto the gravel.

But his goons charged. Trevor and Christian rushed Ken. There was a flash of steel, and Trevor fell over, his hands grabbing his stomach, thick with blood. Christian backed off, and as he retreated, Rowen was there, hit him so hard in the side of the head that he spun.

The next few minutes were a blur. I saw Jake and Scott, Audrey. They crowded me, Ken. I saw Alicia run up to Moore and kick him while he was down.

It was Brad that noticed the blood. He found Trevor, tried to rouse him, said, “Trevor’s dead.” It took a minute before it sank in, then he stood, pointed an accusing finger at Ken and said, “He killed Trevor. He stabbed him.”

A murmur went up from the crowd, and all eyes fell on Ken. But Ken’s face was blank. Emotionless. Only his eyes gave him away. They were large, panicked. His eyes told me that he didn’t mean to. That it was an accident.

“He charged me,” Ken said. His voice was low, calm. “He attacked me. Look at what they did to Connor.”

“Nobody even invited you,” Brad said.

A flash of white shot through the air above us. Wings flittered from a tree on the far side of the driveway to a tree just overhead. I heard the hoot of an owl. Someone said my name, and I looked around. Saw Christian as he knelt over Moore, helped him up. Wrapped a cloth, maybe an old shirt, around his bloody fingers. The three of them looked back at the crowd. Brad stepped away from Trevor so everyone could see the blood from his stomach that was all over his shirt, all over Brad’s hands.

“Ken,” I said. I motioned for him to come near. I didn’t know what happened, didn’t want something to happen again. I didn’t want Ken to be blamed any more, didn’t want him to be attacked.

He stepped around Trevor, came to stand by us, between my car and the one beside it. Audrey and Alicia were nearby, Rowen stood between us and Moore.

As Ken came near, I gave him a hug. I told him thank you. He thanked me. I didn’t understand why.

Moore looked at Trevor, looked up past Rowen to Ken. I could see the fear in his eyes. “You did this!” he shouted at Ken. “You did this!”

“No,” I said. “You started it.”

Somewhere overhead, the owl hooted again. I thought of Sandama. “I’m not ready yet,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” Jake said.

“He’s high,” Scott said. “Maybe too many hits to the head.”

I felt arms wrap around me from behind, soft and feminine. “Are you okay?” Audrey said.

I nodded. But I wasn’t. I was distracted. I felt warm. Suddenly, almost feverish.

“I’m gonna kill you,” Moore said quietly. “I’m going to kill all of you. Just wait.”

“No,” Rowen said. “You wait. Wait until the cops get here. We’ll tell them what happened. If Ken hadn’t gotten here, that might’ve been Connor.”

I wanted to mention Marcus. I wanted to make him remember what happened there. Marcus had to go to the nurse. He had to have stitches.

It was Alicia that said it. “We all saw what you did to Marcus, Richard. The cops will see what you did to Connor, too. Don’t think you’re going to escape blame on this.”

“No!” he said. Maybe it was more of a roar. “I’ll kill you all!” he shouted, pointed at us. Ken stood next to me. Scott and Jake just beside. Alicia stood near as well.

She held up her cell phone to Moore, and the little screen had captured his words, his anger, his pointing directly at the screen. He stood over Trevor’s bloodied body and threatened our lives and Alicia had recorded it.

I got even warmer. Hot, even. I started sweating, thought I might black out.

Someone said my name.

Moore screamed about something and charged. Rowen stepped forward, threw his fist forward, and knocked Moore on his ass.

Christian and Brad ran for Moore.

I started screaming. My vision started to go dark, knew I was going to pass out, and someone said my name again.

“No!” I yelled. I fell over. Alicia and Audrey knelt over me.

“He’s okay,” one of them said, but there was uncertainty in her voice.

Jake was patting Rowen on his back, and Scott struggled to keep him from toppling over. “You were awesome,” Jake said. “You beat the piss out of him.” Rowen smiled.

I didn’t see anything else. It was just darkness. The crowd had gone. My friends had dimmed to blackness. All that remained was the sound of their voices and the heat surging through me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I felt panic and fear.

I started to shiver, felt my hair stand on end, my teeth began to chatter. Scott said something, but he seemed to be whispering.

Then I saw light. It was as if the heat I felt inside of me suddenly became visible, somehow began to shine from my chest

“What’s going on?” Audrey asked. Her voice was muffled, distant.

“Why are you glowing?” Scott asked.

“You’re glowing too, Rudolph,” Jake said.

The light surged brighter. I heard screaming. Realized it was me.

Someone called my name, and I heard it clearly. It sounded like Sandama. “Time to go home, Connor Woodson.”

The owl hooted.

Then I knew no more.


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