As we approached the alley where my life took a sharp turn for the worse, all we could see was a jam of flashing red and blue lights. There were police cars surrounding the building the alley bordered, and the road was blocked off to traffic in both directions. Jason pulled over to the curb at a decent distance and parked the car. We were both peering intently at the scene in front of us, neither willing to admit that things might have just gotten a whole lot more difficult.
Jason opened his door with a creak and pulled himself out of the car, taking his keys with him. I followed closely behind, my curiosity overcoming my trepidation at the chaotic scene before us.
“This is the place, right?” he asked in a low voice that I could just hear over the chatter of the crowd gathering along the yellow police tape marking off the front of the building.
“Yeah,” I muttered back, peering toward the alley just out of the cordoned off area.
“Are you sure?”
I gave Jason a look, “It's not something you really forget.”
He gave me a sheepish shrug. We'd all be forgiven our moments of stupidity today. We had reached the back of the crowd. Jason easily peered over the backs of people's heads, having the height advantage. I, at a perfectly average 5'4”, managed to be stuck behind the tallest group of gawkers in the entire city. I let Jason watch the police who were milling around, glancing at the alley again. Surely if this were something serious, they would have searched it. It seemed like pools of blood would probably be behind the yellow tape. So maybe it was a major production over a heart attack or something. I tore my gaze away from the dim alley entrance and looked up at the red brick building. It looked almost exactly like my building from the front. Two doors at street level and an open hallway in between, leading to more doors and the stairs that would take you up to the upper level apartments. The whole street had rows of buildings with the exact layout. I used to get confused about which one was mine when I was little, so my dad had gotten permission from the landlord to paint our front door a bright blue. My mom had loved the color, and tried to convince him to paint the inside blue as well. She had left before he got around to it, and now all we had was the peeling paint that still hung on, fading more each year. I was tempted to paint over it, but there was no point, really. It would still remind me of her.
I shook thoughts of my long gone mother out of my head and scanned the building facade. I was having a major case of deja vu. I knew this building. And not just because it looked like all the others. Before I could finish the thought, Jason pulled me by my arm to the front of the crowd. The gawkers in front of us had lost interest and were heading back down the street in a freakishly tall group.
“This can't be a coincidence,” Jason said, leaning close to me so that we wouldn't be overheard.
I nodded my agreement as I tried to refocus on the building. Suddenly, it hit me.
“This is Kim's building.”
Jason frowned, looking up at it. “Kim, like advisory Kim?”
“Yeah, Kim Beally.”
In my 3 years of high school, Tricia Barnes and Kim Beally had never had another B name come between them. Jason Ross had always been in an advisory far away with the end of the alphabet, so I had tried to get to know her a little. I had been sitting in front of her every morning, and we had a friendly relationship. We had lived on the same street that entire time, but I had never visited her at home. She was in pretty much the same situation as me, with one parent and a life that was too busy to include anything more than a part time job. My stomach dropped as I began to realize that this couldn't be a coincidence. Waking up in an alley next to a building where someone I knew lived. I must have been there for a reason. If only I could remember. Then another, more disturbing thought occurred to me.
I looked up at Jason with dawning dread, “She wasn't in advisory today.”
Jason's frown deepened and he mirrored my worry as he looked back at the police who were still standing around, waiting for something. We stood in silence, lost in our own fears, oblivious to the conversations around us that seemed far too casual for what was looking more and more like a crime scene that I wanted to be far away from. There was an ambulance sitting close to the middle entrance of the building, parked. I hadn't thought much of it when we arrived, but now it sat ominously, obviously waiting for someone who wasn't going to be rushed to a hospital anytime soon. Or ever again. I felt stupid for even considering otherwise earlier.
The weather was getting warmer as the afternoon wore on, but I felt colder than I had since I woke up on the ground the night before. The wait was killing me, but I also never wanted it to end, because I was positive that my life was about to get even worse. One of my classmates was probably dead, and I was almost certainly involved somehow.
And then, the wait was over. A radio crackled to life, and one of the policeman talked back into it, before motioning to the others to move toward the crowd. They formed a rough line just inside the tape, obviously in case the crowd got out of hand, though by this point it had trickled off, and we were two of only about a dozen people still standing around in morbid curiosity. There was movement from inside, and some more policemen in uniforms came down the stairs, followed by some people in suits, carrying a gurney. A black body bag was strapped to the gurney, bouncing a bit as they jostled it down the stairs and out into the daylight. I had no way of seeing who was in that bag, but I knew. Kim was dead. Kim was dead, and I had stitched up gashes covering my stomach from something that happened at her apartment.
They loaded the gurney into the waiting ambulance and shut the doors. One of the men in suits motioned to the driver, and the ambulance roared to life, pulling out from between the police cars, and driving right by us after the tape was pulled back for them to get through. The police started gathering into a group, not concerned with the crowd anymore, and I grabbed Jason's arm, and pulled him with me toward the alley. We had enough time to disappear into it while everyone was distracted. We quickly moved far enough in to not be easily seen from the street, but it didn't really make a difference, because the crowd was pretty much dispersing, now that the body had been taken away.
The dumpster was still there, smelling even worse than I remembered, if that was possible. Jason followed me around to the other side of it, both of us scanning the ground, trying to see in the dim light that filtered in from high above our heads. The gravel was dry. I dropped to my knees, rubbing my hands around in disbelief. Nothing.
“It was right here,” I said, my voice catching, “there should be blood. Tons of it.”
Jason kneeled down next to me. He looked around at the rest of the area, but it all looked the same. What was going on?
“I know I'm right,” I said, afraid that he would think I was losing it, or I had gotten the wrong place. “I know it. What the hell is going on?”
A door slammed loudly behind us, back on the main street, and we both jumped. Jason let out a loud breath and turned to me.
“Maybe someone cleaned it up,” he said, and it came out as more of a question.
I rubbed a hand over my face, sitting down on the ground, “why would someone do that?”
“I'm thinking it's the same person who knew what you needed to eat.”
He sat down next to me as I pulled my legs up and dropped my face to my knees, dark blonde strands of hair falling down to cover it even more.
“How is this my life?” I asked in a muffled voice. “Just yesterday, I was right on track.”
Be careful what you wish for. My old life was looking so much better to me now. I wasn't happy, exactly, but it all made sense, a place for everything, and everything in its place. No naps in dirty alleys, no gashes on my body, no unsolved mysteries.
Jason rubbed my back with his hand, and I knew his eyes would be full of compassion if I chose to look at him. I couldn't handle that right now. I was confused and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and my stomach was still a rumble in the background. The fact that I was glad it was a manageable rumble just depressed me more.
“We'll figure this out, Trish.”
He was trying to be supportive, but knowing I dragged him into this only made it worse. I wished I was a strong enough person to go it alone and let him go back to his regularly scheduled life, but I wasn't. He probably wouldn't do it anyway. He was that good of a friend.
I sighed and picked my head up, and his hand dropped. He hauled himself off the ground and brushed off his pants. I looked up as he held out his hand to me. Somehow, him helping me stand did make me feel a little better. I'd let him try to help, even if I felt bad about it. He could be my rock. It's what he had always wanted anyway, though he probably hadn't anticipated this.
“I'll take you home.”
I followed him back to the car, because, really, what else could I do?
We decided to spend the rest of the day at my house, trying to distract ourselves. Trying to pretend like everything was normal, because we knew the next day would be hell, once news of Kim got out. If it was Kim. Of course it was Kim. We holed up in my room and laid on my bed, Jason telling stories of his antics at school and home, and me listening. I was his best audience. I sometimes suspected that was why he liked to spend time with me. He was nothing, if not an attention whore.
My dad got home around 8, and when I heard him close the front door, I realized that I was going to be late for work. Jason made me call in sick, which was probably a good idea, since I wouldn't be able to concentrate anyway. The last thing I needed right now was to get fired. Or to get noticed. Getting noticed might be worse. Jason called his mom and told her he was studying at my house, although I wasn't sure if she really bought it, with so little of school left, but she readily agreed to let him stay out as late as he wanted. She saw me as his responsible friend, which was paying off this time.
When he finally ran out of ways to distract me around 10, he got quiet and we just laid together. The room was silent except for the sounds of the TV coming from the living room. I chuckled when his stomach growled loudly.
“What, I'm a growing boy, and we skipped dinner,” he said sheepishly.
I smirked at him, “we should get some food into you.”
He got off the bed and went over to the door, opening it just enough to stick his head out and look into the living room.
“Your dad's still awake.”
“He probably thinks I'm at work.”
“If he didn't see my car.”
I shrugged. It wasn't something my dad would notice after a day at work. He was probably laser focused on the beer and TV, in that order.
“We'll sneak out the back,” he said in a conspiratorial voice, throwing in a wink for good measure.
I grinned back and grabbed our bags. He opened the window and pulled himself out, once again falling over the edge with an “oof”. I handed the bags to him and pulled myself out after. We made our way around the building and through the back chain link fence, closing it behind us. As I turned to make sure it was closed completely, I caught a flash of red out of the corner of my eye. I pulled my head around quickly and saw the back of someone with long red hair disappearing around the next building over. I dropped my bag and ran after the figure. It jarred my memory of the night before. I had seen the same thing when I came to, I was certain of it. Jason called my name as I reached the corner and turned to peer down the street. There were a few people out walking around, but none of them had long bright red hair. Damn. Another piece of the puzzle, but they were making it hard for me.
My shoulders dropping, I headed back to where Jason was standing with the bags, his eyes questioning.
“Nothing, thought I saw something,” I replied to his implied question.
Something to think about later. Right now I was basking in denial land by going out for food I probably couldn't eat with a starving teenage boy. It would be easy enough to distract him. I didn't even have to make the effort, though, because he shrugged it off, already thinking about cheeseburgers, if I knew him at all.
Jason and I plopped down onto a torn booth that had seen better days. We had ended up at JC's, a nearby 24 hour diner. They were '50s nostalgia themed, in a way that could be positive no one designing the place had lived through the decade. It was a garish mishmash of celebrities, movie posters, and pop art ads. I loved the kitschiness of it, and Jason loved the diner food.
He handed me a menu from behind the coca cola napkin holder. The plastic was sticky, and the choices were displayed in faded, off-color photography alongside their descriptions and prices. Jason wanted a greasy hamburger, and this place made the greasiest one in town, at least the greasiest one available after 11 pm. When the town went to sleep, JC's could be counted on to cater to the insomniacs and the drunks. At this point, Jason and I both qualified as the former. We had been up for two days straight, but we were both too wired to sleep. If we went home, the confusion and fear would basically just keep us both lying awake, staring at the ceiling. Or, at least, I would be lying awake. Jason was a pretty heavy sleeper, so he might have a chance at some rest. Plus, as much as he would say I was wrong, this wasn't his problem to deal with. He wanted to support me, but in the end I was the one who would have to deal with this. And it was getting harder all the time. The hunger never went away. I could feel it aching every moment. Taking Jason to the diner was not selfless on my part. I was going to do a little experiment. One way or another, I'd get rid of the aching pit in my stomach. If I couldn't, well, I'd see just how much I could bear before I lost my mind. If I hadn't already.
The waitress wandered over to our table. She looked about as enthused about being awake at this late hour as we did. And I thought I hated my life. Jason ordered his greasy double cheeseburger and two cokes, and I added an order of a plain hamburger to his. Nothing but meat and bread. This concept eluded her, so I had to explain in detail that all I wanted was a big slab of overcooked meat between two buns. She gave me a look, which surprised me. Maybe she wasn't as jaded as I thought. Maybe the whole world was just tired tonight.
“I take it you have a theory,” Jason said, after she wandered away to, hopefully, put in our order.
Considering that there were only two other tables present, I was guessing she would get it right.
“Just trying it out. Thank god I'm not still in my vegetarian phase.”
Jason snorted, “Yeah, that phase lasted until I reminded you that bacon is 100% meat and 100% delicious.”
“Can you blame me?” I retorted with a tired grin.
He grinned back at me.
I was building a misshapen house of sugar packets when our order arrived. The smell of cooked meat made my stomach clench. It was, by far, the best thing I had ever smelled in my life, even better than the mysterious meatloaf. Jason dug into his cheeseburger with a sigh, never one for manners. I took the patty out of my burger and brought it to my mouth. I hesitated for a second before taking a big bite out of it.
Oh yeah. This was the stuff. My stomach gurgled happily at me. I could feel Jason's eyes watching me eat, the blue standing out against the paleness of his face. There were dark circles under the blue, the strain of the last two days breaking through his usually jovial demeanor. His hair was looking greasy in the harsh florescent light that covered the booth. He needed a haircut, as usual. He always joked that the girls loved long hair. I knew that he was actually just too lazy to deal with keeping it short, but he was always quick with an answer to all of my complaints. Not that I could say anything. My hair had been long for most of my life, out of sheer functionality. Short hair meant time in the morning styling when I could be sleeping a few extra minutes. Long hair meant a quick ponytail. My hair was faring a bit better, but not much. I probably looked about as bad as Jason did. We blended in with the other diners, all of whom looked to be on the tail end of a bad bender.
I finished my burger patty and sat back in the booth, the bun laying forlornly on the cracked off white plate it had come on. Jason finished soon after me, mirroring my pose, his plate empty except for a few crumbs and a limp looking pickle that was too sad for even a teenage boy to consider eating.
“Are you okay?” he asked me, chewing on the straw in his soda, his concern bleeding through the forced nonchalance of the question.
I gave him a genuine smile, nodding. I was still hungry, but it had faded away again, a comfortable aching in the pit of my stomach. I was learning to live with it. That should have concerned me, but I was too relieved to care. I knew that no matter how much I tried to explain the utter relief of the constant pain dying down, he wouldn't understand. He had no frame of reference. I hadn't either, before now. I could feel the day catching up with me, and I was suddenly hit full force with my exhaustion. Maybe I would sleep tonight.
Jason's voice, as lethargic as I was feeling, broke through my thoughts. “We should head out. My parents tend to freak out when I'm gone for too long.”
I couldn't help but toss him another smile at the thought of his parents. It must be nice. They always made sure I knew that they cared about me and wanted to be a part of my life as well, but it wasn't the same. I hung onto it like a drowning man with a life preserver, he treated it as an annoyance half the time, even though he knew it wasn't a bad thing. Another frame of reference difference between us. I grabbed my bag, but Jason was already throwing cash on the table and pulling himself out of the booth.
“You can get the next one,” he said, holding a hand out for me.
That was his polite way of making sure I never paid for anything that I didn't absolutely have to. I knew that next time he would do the same thing. Sometimes it grated on me, but I could never really be mad about it, I was too practical for that. It was times like these that I felt like Jason knew me a little too well. His manipulation was subtle, but always there. Better to have him use it in my favor, then.
I let him pull me out of the booth and we headed for home, away from the most depressing diner in town.