“Hey,” I greeted him, a grin on my face at his startled jump.
“Hey,” he said, smiling back sheepishly. “Ready to head out?”
I sighed. “Yeah. Getting far away from here would be wonderful.”
Jason unlocked the doors with his remote and slipped into the driver's seat. I took one last look around at the laughing students heading to their own cars, but I didn't see a glimpse of red. Somehow I knew I'd see her again soon. I joined Jason in his car and he revved the engine. We sped out of the lot, music blaring.
Jason pulled to a screeching stop in his usual spot in front of my building. I had debated telling him about Marci for about five seconds on the way over, but I knew it wasn't really an option. This mess was getting bigger and bigger, and keeping this from him was one way I could stop him from getting more involved. Soon enough, someone would find Marci's body, and then all hell would break loose. I wanted to keep the peace until then.
He turned off the engine, and the music shut down, the sudden silence jarring me out of my thoughts. I turned to Jason, who was already watching me. He smiled and glanced at my building through the window beside me.
“So, we're hanging out tonight? Keeping you sane?”
I nodded and got out of the car, with him following behind me as I unlocked the front door and stepped into my quiet apartment. My dad was at work again. He would be home all day the next day, but I had one more night of full reprieve until his usual days off, since this was his late night. Everything looked the same as when I had left this morning, except for some dirty dishes in the sink from my Dad's breakfast. He must have been in a good mood to be hungry this morning. Usually he just dragged himself out of bed, downed a few beers, and powered through his morning routine before heading off. At least someone was having a good day.
Jason grabbed a bag of chips from the top of the fridge on our way through to my bedroom. I closed the door behind us and we both plopped down on the bed. I didn't know about him, but I was ready to hole myself up for the night and not come up for air until the morning. I made a quick call to my manager at the book store, who was very understanding about me taking another day off. He must have heard about Kim through one of the other part timers that went to school with me. My coworker David, who was a senior, usually got to the store two hours before me, because he had a work/study schedule. He had probably filled them in on all of the gossip. It made things easier for me, so I was okay with it.
I laid back down on the end of the bed. Jason had moved to sit up against the headboard, snacking on the chips as I made my call.
“It's weird how everyone just sort of got over the Kim thing in a day,” he said, putting the bag down. “It's like they don't care. I know she had lots of friends, but you wouldn't guess it by the way everyone was acting.”
“Maybe they're all in shock,” I replied, staring at the ceiling, “I think I have been for two days.”
We lapsed into silence. Tonight was much more morose than our usual nights, laughing and pigging out on junk food. I felt old. Ancient. My exhaustion was catching up with me.
“I think Marci went home after lunch,” Jason said, punctuating his words with crunches as he stuffed more chips in his mouth. “I asked some of the other cheerleaders, and they hadn't seen her.”
Flashes of dark hair pooling with blood went through my head. Her lifeless eyes were still clear in my mind, probably burned there forever.
“Maybe they were friends,” I replied.
I didn't know what else to say. “That's because she was murdered and her body is rotting behind an empty portable” wasn't really an option. Jason was still crunching away when the phone rang shrilly, startling us both. I rolled over and grabbed it from its resting place on my bedside table.
“Hello?” I said, hoping it wasn't the detectives again.
“Tricia,” a low, feminine voice replied.
“Yes?” I asked, not recognizing it.
“We need to talk. Meet me at 11 at the diner you went to last night.”
Her voice clicked into place. The woman from earlier in the day. I hadn't even gotten her name. The phone went to a buzzing dial tone before I had the chance to reply, and I held it out in front of me, looking at it dumbly for a moment before setting it back down in its cradle.
Jason was watching me, crunching on the chips. “Who was that?”
“I don't know.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I met her earlier. I think she might be able to help me with my problems.”
“Is she the one who left the meat on your bed?”
I hadn't even thought of that. She had been following me for days, so she very well could be.
“She wants me to meet her at J.C.'s at 11.”
Jason nodded, wiping his hand off on his shirt and rolling the bag closed. “I'll go with you.”
I shook my head. He didn't know about Marci, and this woman was a complete question mark at this point.
“Don't argue with me, Trish,” Jason replied, mock sternness in his voice, “you can't get between a man and his cheeseburgers.”
“Yeah, well, when I see a man around, I'll remember that.”
“Oh! She wounds me!” Jason exclaimed, holding a hand to his heart.
I grabbed a pillow from beside him and hit him in the face with it. I couldn't help but chuckle when he sputtered an “oof” and fell over. His goofiness was contagious.
We had about 6 hours to kill before we needed to start heading out to the diner, and Jason hadn't eaten since lunch, so he suggested we make a snack and work on some of the last minute schoolwork the teachers insisted upon assigning in the days before summer break, including the english paper I still hadn't written. And by “we make a snack”, he mostly meant “I make an entire meal while he does his very best to mess it up and entertain me at the same time”. It didn't take a lot to convince me. I needed to take my mind off of things, and I still had enough in the kitchen for spaghetti and meatballs for him and meatballs for myself. I'd make enough so there'd be some leftovers when my Dad got home. No sense in ruining his good day. Jason flipped through channels on the TV while I boiled the water and rolled the meat into large blobs. I used all of the beef that was left in the fridge. If I wouldn't be eating the pasta, there'd have to be a mountain of meat for me to snack on. My stomach was already missing the burgers, and my dead friend's blood had just made it worse.
At least her death had affected me somehow, even if it was just a pain in my gut. I tuned Jason's running commentary at the TV out and idly wondered how long it would be before the smell of her body alerted someone that she was out there. And how long after that before the detectives came looking for me again, asking more questions. I felt cold inside, even as the heat from the oven made me sweat. Two girls had been murdered in the last few days, and all I could think about was myself. Maybe I was defective. Maybe I did die that night, and I just hadn't realized it yet. I rubbed at my stitches and stirred the cooking noodles. I didn't know either of the girls very well, but surely I should be freaking out a little more. Then again, none of the other students had been freaking out. Maybe I was in shock.
The timer went off, pulling me from my thoughts, and I drained the noodles and put them in a large bowl, mixing in the past sauce that had been simmering in another pot, and throwing some of the meatballs on top. I scooped some out for Jason and filled my own bowl full of plain meatballs.
He was up and sitting down at the table before I set his bowl down. I rolled my eyes and gave him a fork, watching as he dug in, a contented look on his face.
“Compliments to the chef,” he said through a mouthful of spaghetti.
I wrinkled my nose and dug into my own bowl of meatballs, relaxing as my hunger melted to a dull ache. My time was starting to be measured by how much pain I was in. I made a vow to myself to eat at least two burger patties tonight, no matter how weird it seemed to me. The dull ache in my stomach was the greatest feeling in the world.
We spent the remaining time before my covert meeting watching TV and working on homework, and it was the most normal I'd felt in days. I could spend the rest of my life hanging out with my best friend and goofing off. I didn't know if that made me pathetic or sappy, probably a little of both. Even though most of me felt awful for getting him involved, a small part was grateful for every moment he didn't run away screaming. If the roles had been reversed, I didn't think I'd have been the rock he needed. My life had always been about building myself up for the future, never once considering that the future wouldn't come. Or that the future would be completely different from how I had been working my butt off to make it. It was a startling revelation to have. And yet, I wasn't completely opposed to the idea. I was so strict on myself, letting loose had actually been a little relaxing. I hadn't thought about getting out of my apartment and into a good college for three days, and it felt amazing.
At fifteen minutes until 11, I closed my history textbook with a loud slam. Jason's head whipped up, startled. It looked like he had actually managed to concentrate on his open english book for more than five minutes. I hated to interrupt, but we needed to head out if we were going to meet my mysterious new friend. I helped Jason pack up his bag so that he could go straight home after dropping me off later if he needed to. His parents were used to him being over at my house a lot, but lately we'd been pushing it.
“Milady,” Jason said, with a flourish of his arms as he followed me out the front door. I rolled my eyes and smirked in his direction, locking up behind us.
When we pulled to a screeching stop in a parking space in front of J.C.s – there wasn't any other kind of stop for my best friend – I could already see the redheaded woman through the front windows. She was sitting in a booth near the end of the rows away from the door. She looked up when we walked through, jingling the bell.
I motioned to the lone waitress that we would be joining her, and we made our way through the practically empty diner to the booth. I had never been to J.C.'s two night in a row. It was depressing me with a glow of neon lights and the sounds of meat frying up in the kitchen. Two older men were having a loud conversation about cars near the back right of the diner, right by the swinging kitchen door. The only other customer was a lone 20 something man sitting across the room, nursing a mug of coffee. Probably sobering up before heading home, or maybe off to work a night shift. The whole place had a feeling of despair hanging over it. It fit right in with my mood.
The redheaded woman watched us walk over to her table, raising an eyebrow as she took in Jason's lanky form sliding into the booth next to me.
“You brought a friend,” she said, stating the obvious.
I shrugged, “he's pretty much in the loop.”
“Except about Marci, “ I added silently to myself, praying that she wouldn't bring that up.
Jason smiled at her, his usual goofy grin plus a dash of curiosity. She smiled back at him, a little predatorily. I would have to keep a close eye on that. I didn't know this woman, and I definitely didn't want her around Jason more than necessary until I had a better grip on her motives.
“I took care of the little problem from earlier,” she said, picking up a menu and scanning it.
“Thanks,” I replied softly, ignoring the piercing blue eyes coming from my left.
I wasn't quite sure what 'took care of it' meant, but I could guess Marci wouldn't be found for a while.
Jason was obviously confused about that cryptic statement, but he thankfully let it slide. It looked like he was going to let me run this show. I was more grateful than he knew.
“What's your name?” I asked, since it had been bugging me all afternoon.
She smiled and held her hand out to me, dropping the menu. “I'm Amy, pleased to meet you.”
The happy tone in her voice was a little off-putting. So far she had been anything but bubbly, this was a complete 180. I pushed it to the back of my mind. She basically saved my life earlier, the least I could do was be polite.
I shook her hand, giving her a slight smile, “I'm Tricia.”
“I'm Jason,” he interjected, smiling wider.
It looked like someone was smitten. I hoped this wouldn't end too badly.
Our conversation was interrupted by the waitress, a woman who could have been anywhere from 40 to 60, with fried, bleached blonde hair, and an aura of exhaustion.
“What can I get you?” she asked, pulling out a small notepad and pen from the front pocket of her slightly dingy white apron. Her uniform was faded in a way that matched her exhaustion.
She was a lifer, and the knowledge just made me even more depressed. I would have to insist on an earlier meeting at a nicer restaurant next time. Not that there would be a next time, hopefully.
Amy ordered a cup of coffee, while Jason and I both went for the burgers again. Jason could probably live on grease, and lately it had become my thing too.
The waitress left to refill the coffees of the other three customers, and our table fell into an awkward silence. I could tell Amy was sizing me up, dismissing Jason, who would start joking around any minute now. He couldn't stand silences longer than a minute or two.
“So,” I said, staring right back at her as she sized me up, “you know something about what's happening to me.”
It was more of a statement than a question. She obviously knew exactly what was going on, and had been following me around since the beginning. I had finally placed her. I could remember seeing her hair disappear around the corner when I woke up in that dirty alley.
We lapsed into silence again, as the waitress brought our drinks. Amy poured sugar into her coffee and stirred it around a few times before answering me.
“I know some specifics about your little ailment.”
I looked over at Jason, who raised his eyebrows at me, but stayed silence, sucking soda through his straw.
“You mean, the stomach thing?”
It would explain how she knew to leave the meat for me. But if she had been there in that alley, I was definitely not going to trust her until she gave me good reason. I could have been dead, and she obviously didn't call anyone for help.
“The hunger,” she replied, taking a sip of her coffee.
Calling it The Hunger with capital letters made me feel like I'd wandered into some cheesy B movie about vampires or something. In my head I tended to give it a feeling rather than a name. I could feel it at that very moment, getting louder and louder, drowning out the people around me more and more. Where the hell was our food?
Amy was staring again, a contemplative look in her eyes.
“You're feeling it right now,” she said, stirring her coffee again.
I rubbed my face and looked over at Jason. He was frowning and watching me. Wonderful. Now he would start treating me like a porcelain doll who could shatter at any moment. Just what I needed. The one thing I could count on to keep me from having a meltdown was Jason being Jason. Bringing him had been a mistake. Too late now.
The waitress arrived at our table, food in hands, and dropped the plates down in front of us. I could have kissed her. She wandered back to the kitchen without a word. I pulled my burger apart while they both watched, Amy with a smirk, and Jason with a frown. I turned to look at him, staring him down until he looked away. He got the message and grabbed the red plastic bottle of ketchup, concentrating on his food.
“You're on a strict no veggie diet now,” Amy said, still watching me.
I shrugged and dug into the patty, reveling in the greasy meat. We sat in silence again, focusing on our food while Amy slowly drained her coffee. The waitress came by once to refill it on her rounds of the tables. The old men by the kitchen left with a clamor, but no new customers came in. We practically had the place to ourselves.
“So why did you want to meet me?” I asked after I had abated the so-called Hunger for a few more hours.
I spoke in a hushed tone, not wanting to disturb the quiet. Amy wasn't quite so reserved.
“I can help you,” she replied in her normal tone of voice.
“Help me how?”
“What's your deal?” Jason interrupted, and I flinched because I had forgotten about him sitting next to me while I had been lost in my thoughts.
Amy looked at him, the smirk fixed firmly, and not looking to go away anytime soon. “What do you mean, sport?”
I snorted at the endearment. Her smirk grew bigger, which just irritated me. She might be saving my life, but that didn't mean I had to like her.
Jason seemed equally as annoyed by the little nickname. “I mean, what's your deal? Why are you meeting with Trish? Do you know everything that's going on with her?”
“I do,” she replied, and the stirring finally stopped.
She sat back in the booth and looked down her nose at me. “I know someone who went through the same thing you're going through right now.”
“How did that work out?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Not well,” she replied. “He's, well, I guess you could say he's alive. But he's done some things that probably made him wish he wasn't.”
“Like what?” I asked, my dread overshadowed by my curiosity.
Knowing what my future held could at least help me avoid it.
She took a sip of her coffee, dragging out the answer. “Let's just say you need to eat on a regular basis and it will hold off worse...problems for awhile.”
I rubbed my hand over my face. That was not a reassuring answer.
“So what did you really want to meet me here for?” I asked, mimicking her as I leaned back in my own booth.
Her pauses to stare at me were starting to get old. She looked at my face for too long of a moment before replying. “I can help you.”
“What's in it for you?” Jason asked, pulling her attention to a laser-focus on his face.
“Helping you helps me,” she shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest.
The waitress chose that moment to come over and refill her coffee. She dropped two new sodas on our side of the table and wandered off again, to help the obviously drunk couple that had just come in and taken a booth in the opposite corner. I was glad that she would be occupied for a while and leave us to our muttered conversation. I was even more glad that after the initial greeting, Amy had brought her voice down to our level. No use making the natives restless with crazy conversation.
“What do you need from me?” I asked, after the waitress was definitely out of earshot.
“Well, sweetheart, I need you to start participating in your own cure.”
She was back to the coffee stirring. I didn't think she was doing it to get on my nerves, but combined with the endearments, it was like torture. Jason leaned forward, about to say something, but I interrupted him.
“Why didn't you call the cops?” I blurted out, a little too loudly.
They both looked startled, and I quickly glanced around the restaurant to make sure I hadn't accidentally grabbed some unwanted attention. I hadn't, and I had surprised Amy, so score one for team Tricia.
“Was she there?” Jason asked, catching on quickly.
I nodded. “I remember her hair.”
“I'm sitting right here,” she muttered, her arms crossing over her chest again, in irritation, the stirring forgotten.
“So why didn't you?” Jason repeated my question, looking her full in the face.
She glared at me, “and tell them what? That there was a zombie in the alley, then hope that they couldn't trace anything back to me?”
“I'm not a zombie,” I growled at her, a little more emphatically than I originally intended.
“Yeah, well,” she shrugged, “if you start wanting to eat my brain, let me know first.”
I rolled my eyes, though a small part of me was concerned that maybe that wasn't so much a joke, as her past experience playing a role.
“So what do you need me to do?”
She leaned forward, looking relieved to be getting down to business.
“I need you to go see a guy in Wyoming. He says he might have a cure, but I have to stay here and follow a lead.”
“What?” Jason exclaimed, “she's in high school, she can't just up and go halfway across the country.”
“School's almost out,” I replied.
Amy was staring again, but this time I knew it was because she had my number. Jason didn't know about Marci, and Jason definitely didn't know how horrible it felt about six hours after I ate. He couldn't understand, but something Amy had seen had made it so that she understood me almost too well. She knew she had me, Jason's opinion be damned.
I nodded, and Jason looked at me like I was crazy to even consider listening to her. Which, if it were any other day, I probably would be.
“You don't have a car, Trish,” he said, appealing to my rational side, which these days was getting more and more shut out. “What, are you gonna hitchhike?”
“So come with me,” I replied, turning to look at him, revealing a little bit of my desperation in my expression.
He looked uncertain, but I knew it would take a lot more to convince him. Oh well, if I couldn't manage, I would just find a way on my own. I was in it, now, for better or worse.
Amy said she would contact me sometime later, which made me groan internally, thinking of another sleepless night, and Jason continued to watch me with a wary look in his eyes as he drove us back to my apartment. He cut his engine out front, one spot down from his usual, my dad's car taking up the overnight spot. I had almost forgotten about my dad. He'd be passed out by now, so I could push him to the back of my mind for another night at least.
“How do you know we can trust her?” he finally asked, gripping the steering wheel so hard, his knuckles were turning white.
“We don't,” I replied, willing him to understand, “but I don't have another option, Jason. You don't know what it's like.”
“So explain it to me. Explain what we've gotten ourselves into, and I'll find a way to get us out.”
I almost started to cry. Maybe the hunger was making me emotional.
“There's not 'we' here, Jase. There's 'me', and I'm in huge trouble. So far, this mystery woman has been the only one who had the slightest clue what to do. I have to follow her lead, I have to find a cure.”
I lifted up my shirt and showed him the crisscrossed stitches that still sat there, looking exactly the same as when he had sewn them into my stomach.
“This is crazy, and I have to fix it.”
He looked at the stitches, then turned back to staring out the windshield. “Fine, but we'll talk about waiting, and I'm going with you.”
I gave into the impulse to reach over and hug him, dropping my shirt back down first. “Thank you, Jase. I mean that. It would be even more crazy without you, and I couldn't bear that.”
“Yeah, well,” he muttered, his ears turning pink at the compliment, but the frown still on his face. “I'll come by at the usual time tomorrow, and we'll try to have a normal school day.”
The image of Marci's bloodstained hair popped into my head. There would never be another normal school day for me. I knew that for certain. That didn't mean I couldn't play along.
“Sure thing,” I replied, grabbing my bag and heading to my front door.
The living room was quiet, and as I passed the kitchen, my dad's snores grew in volume. He was safely in his bed, which was a small miracle, considering how my day had been going. I entered my room and shut the door softly behind me. It was immediately apparent that someone had been there by the slip of paper laying on the middle of my blue comforter. I picked it up and opened it. It was a page of ripped notebook paper, most likely from my spiral notebook that was sitting on my bedside table, next to the phone. Fantastic. It seemed I had reached my limit of privacy and had to put up with Amy sneaking into my room whenever she felt like it. Who else would break in just to leave a letter? I made a mental note to ask her how she picked the locks. If nothing else, it might come in handy on my trip to Wyoming. My scruples were disappearing fast.
The paper was covered in neat cursive handwriting, telling me that she would be contacting me soon with a name and address for the person I was supposed to meet. There was some more in there about how I could trust her and she could help me, but I dismissed that out of hand. Anyone can tell you to trust them, proving it was a much heftier proposition. I sighed and put the note on top of my spiral notebook, which did indeed have a page ripped from it. I was going to have to have a serious conversation with this woman about boundaries. The mysterious savior routine might work on some people, but it was just grating to me. My life tended toward the realistic, and someone showing up out of the blue to help me get out of a sudden impossible situation was definitely too good to be true.
I dropped by bag by the bed and flopped onto my back. I must have been more exhausted than I thought, because the next thing I knew, the phone rang shrilly, waking me from a dreamless sleep. It took me a moment to get oriented, and I fumbled around until I picked up the handset.
“Hello?” I mumbled, coughing once to clear the gravel from my throat.
“Tricia.” she replied.
I waited for her to continue, trying to beat her at her own game.
Finally, a sigh came over the line. “Look, I know this is confusing to you, babe, but you have to believe this will help. I scratch your back, etcetera, etcetera.”
“Sure,” I replied, willing her to drop it and just clue me in on my little mission to dezombify myself.
“Whatever, anyway, I have the info I promised you.”
I grabbed my spiral, dropping her note on the ground, and felt around for a pen.
“Ready,” I said when it was uncapped and waiting.
“You're going to go to a town called Lander. You'll be meeting with a man named Horace Lansing. I've heard through the grapevine that he may have a cure for what's going on with you.”
“Lander...Lansing..got it. Anything else I need to know?”
She hesitated. “Well, I've heard he's into the survivalist gig. You should definitely watch your back.”
“Wonderful,” I replied, rolling my eyes.
Just my luck, the only person who can help me is some kind of gun nut. I wondered if it was too late to just bury my head in the sand and pretend things were normal. The stitches on my stomach and visions of Marci's dead body every time I closed my eyes pretty much answered that question for me.
“Look,” she said, interrupting my morbid thoughts, “I'm gonna leave a package for you in your mailbox. You need to get going on this ASAP, so it'll be there in the morning.”
I didn't bother asking how she was planning to get into my mailbox. Lock-picking discussions could wait until after at least 4 more hours of sleep.
“Are you going to tell me anything about yourself, or should I just assume something awful?” I asked, steering the conversation away from plans of my road trip and toward some answers.
Silence on the other end.
I was just about to give up when her voice came through, softer and more hesitant. “I have a brother.”
She paused. I waited for her to continue, not wanting to push her buttons and make her hang up on me.
“He went through something. When we were both back in Vermillion, he was fine, but he went out on his own for answers and things got out of hand. Try not to make the same mistakes he did.”
The line went dead with a click. Well, she hung up on me, but I did get some useful information out of her. So if I wanted somewhere to start, her name was Amy, she had a brother, and she was possibly from someplace called Vermillion. Wherever the heck that was. I wrote those nuggets of information down in my spiral. They might come in handy later.
I took the time to change into pajamas, and then laid back down on the bed, sleep coming quickly. Hopefully, when I saw my notes in the morning, I wouldn't think I had dreamed it all.