I got ready in record time, wanting to have a minute to go through the mail before Jase pulled up and started giving me the hurt looks that were inevitable at this point. I made my way down the street to the collective mailboxes, grabbing the key from beside the front door on the way. I opened our small box and reached inside. I don't know what I had been expecting, but what I found was a small box covered in duct tape. I locked the mailbox closed and took my package back inside, to open in privacy. I put the key back on its hook my the door and dropped down into a kitchen chair, studying the box. It was, at one time, a cigar box, but now it was covered in duct tape and had “Tricia” written in large black block letters on the lid. I got up to grab some scissors and returned to study it a bit more. I finally had to admit that I was curious enough to continue down this rabbit hole. I cut around the lid with the scissors, finally managing to pry it open. There was a piece of paper inside, sitting on top of a manila envelope. I opened the paper and scanned it, snorting when I realized it had the same information she had given me last night written in her neat cursive. She definitely trusted me about as much as I trusted her. I put the letter aside and paused to listen for my Dad's snoring. He would have to get up for work in a few minutes, but for now he was safely snoring away. I felt a brief surge of affection for my Dad, whom I hadn't even laid eyes on since this started. I would have to find some way to explain my upcoming trip to him without making him think I was running away.
I shook those thoughts from my head and ripped open the envelope, dropping its contents onto the table. There were two plastic cards and one piece of folded up paper. The first card was a South Dakota driver's license with my picture on it beside the name “Patricia Weiss” and a birthdate that would make me barely 22. I had never been to South Dakota, much less seen a South Dakota driver's license, but this one looked damn official. If all else failed, I could at least drink myself into oblivion. Or, more likely, until I threw up, since I had only had one beer in my life, at a party that Jason forced me to go to the year before, and I had hated the taste.
I pushed that aside and looked at the second card. It was a library card for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It looked like I was to officially be a South Dakotan for my little jaunt into Wyoming. I had no idea why she made me a fake library card, but it definitely added to the official air she was creating. Although, a credit card would have been more appreciated.
Once I unfolded the piece of paper, I saw that it was a map of Lander, with a red X over what I was guessing was the general location of Mr. Lansing's address. That was almost as helpful as a fake id. It would save me the time of looking it up on the internet, at least, and if this guy really was some kind of off-grid survivalist, it may have saved me a few more hours than I expected.
I heard Jason's car peel to a stop outside the front door, and quickly gathered everything up into the box and shoved the box into my worn messenger bag, closing the flap over it. Time to convince my copilot to come along.
“Hey you,” I said as I jumped into the passenger seat, with a little more gusto than I was actually feeling.
He had been considerate enough to turn down the music for me. I couldn't help but think he must have been more concerned for me than he was letting on.
“Hey,” he replied, flashing a grin and peeling out as I buckled my seatbelt.
The drive to school was strained, as he left the music turned down and I spent the entire ride trying to think of a way to get him to agree to my Wyoming excursion. I would have to play it right, or it would explode in my face. I had never been one for manipulating people, I tended more toward avoiding them, but it looked like I would be getting a crash course, starting with someone who possibly knew me better than I knew myself. The trick would be to convince him of how necessary it was without freaking him out too much. I didn't doubt that he was still considering going to the police somewhere in the back of his mind. That was the last thing I needed now, especially since Marci was probably already filed as a missing persons. I knew there was some rule about waiting 48 hours, or at least that's what TV had taught me, but that didn't mean the rumors wouldn't already be circulating. And if they did a search of the grounds around the school, they might very well find her body if Amy hadn't taken it somewhere else.
I was wondering what exactly Amy had done with the body when we pulled into a space at the back of the lot, dirt flying up from under the wheels and making a dust cloud around us. It was now or never. I had to get this in before he got distracted with rumors of Marci.
“Hey Jase,” I started, stopping him from getting out of the car.
He turned and looked at me expectantly.
“I need to talk to you about Amy.”
He frowned, “I really don't like her.”
I almost laughed at that one. A complete turnaround from practically drooling in her lap when he first met her. I felt a flash of triumph that I chose to ignore. I didn't own my friend, it just seemed like it sometimes. Of course, with one flash of his puppy dog face, he could talk me into almost anything. Mutual ownership, then.
“She found a way to help me. Well, possibly help me,” I added, with a shrug.
If this didn't work, I certainly hoped she had a plan B hidden up her sleeve.
“Yeah,” he replied, eyes guarded, “she gave you something less vague than last night's little chat, I take it?”
It wasn't really a question. He seemed a little put off, probably from being out of the loop when I had been relying on him so much before.
“She found a guy who might have some solutions to my problem,” I replied, absently rubbing my stitches.
I really needed to find a way to fix those. I didn't really want to spend the rest of my life sporting barely held together holes in my stomach. Or eating brains. If I ever got to that stage, I'd decapitate myself.
“Okay,” he replied, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “So, where is this guy, exactly?”
Jason's frown grew deeper. “So you want to take a summer vacation to Lander, Wyoming.”
I grimaced. And now for the hard part.
“Actually, I was thinking more like leaving today.”
Or like two days ago.
He was already shaking his head. “Trish, you agreed to talk about this. We have school.”
“Fuck school, Jason!” I practically shouted at him, “you have no idea what this is like! I need to get help, and if this guy might be it, then I need your help to get to him.”
He looked as surprised as I felt at my sudden outburst. I had been trying to play it calm, but I had to get Jason to understand. My priorities had all been shot to hell. It used to go “school, work, getting out of this damn town”, now it looked more like “get rid of the hunger, get rid of the scars, try not to eat my friends' dead bodies”. School had fallen off the radar in a major way.
“Jesus Trish,” he finally said, his voice breaking. “What's happened to you?”
“I woke up dead.”
He just stared at me as the voices of the other students faded away into the school. Finally, I let out a big sigh, breaking the tension.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, rubbing a hand over my face, exhausted.
It seemed like, no matter how much sleep I got, these days I was just burnt out. I couldn't think about anything right now beyond getting to Wyoming and finding some answers. I needed to remind myself that if I did find a fix, I still needed to have my life waiting for me on the other side. The job would be all shot to hell, but they'd probably take me back with a little begging for the next school year. The summer was full of teenagers looking for jobs, but during the school year it became slim pickings, and before the past few days I had been their most reliable employee. Of course, part of the life I wanted waiting for me was still having Jason around as a friend. We might go our separate ways after next year, but until then I needed him around to keep me sane. It wasn't working so well at the moment, but when I wasn't some sort of undead zombie, it worked quite nicely.
“Look, Jase, I can't really explain it to you. Just this once, I need you to believe me. I need you with me on this trip, and I absolutely need to leave as soon as possible.”
Jason was watching me, the surprise gone, his expression guarded.
“Okay,” he finally said, and I immediately relaxed back into my seat. “Okay, I'll do this with you. But I still don't understand why we can't wait until school's over.”
I gave him a look that made him raise his hands in defeat.
“Let's go back to my house,” I replied, accepting his frustration and choosing to leave it at that for now, “we should come up with a story for our parents and the school.”
“Oh, my parents are just gonna love this,” he said as he started the engine.
I heard the first bell ring in the distance right before he turned the radio up and backed quickly out of the parking spot. I had thought that was the hard part, but now I was starting to think the hard part hadn't even begun. What were we going to tell our parents? I didn't want to use Kim's death as a way to get out of school, but it might have just turned into our best option.
It took almost twice as long to get back to my apartment, due mostly to Jason's suddenly cautious driving. If I were a pettier person, or didn't know him as well as I did, I might think he was deliberately trying to take his time because I wanted to hurry. But I did know Jason, and I knew that despite the blaring indie rock, he was probably in his own head right now, planning ways for us to get out of town with minimal collateral damage. Once he decided on a course of action, he always went in head first. And, despite his protests over the years, he loved his family fiercely and would try his hardest to keep them from worrying.
I was so lost in thought about what Jason was thinking, that when we screeched to a stop outside my front door, it was jarring. My dad's old Ford sat in front of us, accusingly. It was time to face the music, and we didn't even have a plan. Maybe I would get lucky and he would still be asleep. We could sneak right past him, and I could leave town without him being the wiser. It was a nice fantasy. In actual real life, where I somehow still managed to be turned into a freaking zombie, I knew that the guilt would destroy me if I just up and left.
“There's still time to change your mind,” Jason said as the engine shut off and the car fell silent.
He managed to keep the hopefulness he was undoubtedly feeling out of his voice, so I kept myself from reacting badly. Instead, I squared my shoulders and took a deep breath. Time to do this.
“Let's go,” I said, forcing myself to leave the safety of the Camry.
I opened the door slowly, and it creaked at a level straight out of a horror movie. Somehow, I doubted I'd get around to fixing that anytime soon. Jason entered right behind me, running into me when I stopped abruptly. The TV was on, but my Dad was nowhere to be seen. I looked back at Jason and tilted my head toward the bedroom. After closing the door more quietly than I opened it, I followed him quickly to my bedroom. I could hear the shower running down the hall. That would give us a few minutes to think of a halfway plausible cover story.
I shut us in my bedroom, flopping down on the bed as Jason paced back and forth in front of the window. I was trying to think of a story, but all I kept thinking about was Marci and Kim and how I hoped it wasn't a trend of people dying around me.
“So, I know you don't want to use the Kim thing as a cover,” Jason finally said, stopping his pacing and sitting cross legged on the bed in front of me, “but I'm thinking maybe we use it for my parents. Like tell them you were really close and you wanted to get away for a while or something.”
“Do you think they would buy that?” I asked, turning on my side and propping my head up on my arm to look at him.
“Well, they wouldn't buy it if I said it was about me, since I'm pretty sure I've never mentioned Kim to them.”
“But they have heard about it?”
“Oh yeah,” Jason replied, “they heard about the cops at school and everything. I think they've been talking to some other parents.”
I sighed. He had said what I was thinking, even though I really didn't want to do it. Karma would have to wait for a time when it wasn't an emergency.
“Okay,” I said, rolling back over to lie on my back, arm thrown across my eyes. “So what about my Dad?”
“I have an idea,” was all Jason managed to get out before there was a light knock at the door.
The shower sounds had shut off, but I hadn't noticed. The only way it could have been worse timing would have been if he didn't have an idea at all, I guessed.
“Trish?” my Dad's voice came from behind the door.
“Come in, Dad,” I said loudly, giving Jason a last desperate look.
I hoped his idea was better than knocking my dad out and making a run for it. At least I had the fake id, if worse came to worst.
“Hey, hon,” he said as he opened the door to peer in.
He raised his eyebrows at seeing Jason sitting next to me, but less in an “let me go get my shotgun” way and more just out of surprise. His greying hair was darker than usual, still wet from the shower, and he was wearing his uniform for work already, “JIM” proclaimed in bright red letters on the blue work shirt.
“Hi Mr. B,” Jason said, his expression one of exaggerated sadness.
I guess he already had the story worked out in his head. He wasn't the best actor, but he could lie to authority with the best of them.
“Hi Dad,” I said, trying to look sad as well.
I hoped the sad face didn't look too panicked.
My Dad looked at us for a moment longer. “Shouldn't you be in school?”
Well, it looked like he knew we were still in school. He was paying a little bit more attention these days. Just my luck.
“Yeah, about that,” I looked to Jason for help before I started sputtering.
If there was one thing I was horrible at, it was lying to my Dad. No matter how absent he was, I never felt like he didn't trust me or care about me. Jason really needed to pick up the slack. Luckily, my ESP seemed to be working that day.
“Mr. B, um, I was sort of hoping we could talk to you.”
My Dad looked at the clock by my bed, considering.
“Well, I have a few minutes,” he said, coming fully into the room to stand before us.
I sat up and gave him a small smile, scooting back to the headboard and waiting to hear what my best friend had come up with in that crazy head of his.
“So it's like this,” he said, running a hand through his unruly hair and frowning, “my Aunt Edith, who is really the only extended family member I can stand, is really sick and my mom says she only has a few days left, maybe a few weeks at the most. My parents can't take off of work right now, and they have to look after my sister, but I really wanted to go see her before-” he cut off dramatically and took a deep breath, “anyway, I really don't think I can do it alone, and I was hoping you'd maybe allow Trish to come with me. To keep me company, maybe be a shoulder to cry on if I need it, that kind of thing.”
He took another deep breath and flashed the puppy dog face at my Dad, whose expression had changed from curiosity to sympathy. I mentally sent Jason a high five and kept the frown on my face, waiting for my Dad's answer.
“What about school? And your job?” he asked, looking back at me.
I shrugged. “School's pretty much over, I finished finals last week, and work already said I could have some personal time. I called them this morning as soon as Jase told me about Edie.”
Jason coughed, probably at the impromptu nickname for his imaginary aunt, but quickly regained his composure.
My Dad looked between us once before shrugging. “Sure. As long as you think it's okay. You've always been so responsible.”
“And it's finally paying off,” I thought to myself as I gave my Dad a small smile.
He cleared his throat and glanced at the clock again. “Well, call me when you get there and let me know you're okay. I have to get to work.”
“Sure Mr. B. And thank you,” Jason said, waving to my Dad as he shut the door behind himself.
Jason fell forward on the bed and I clapped him on the back.
His muffled voice came from where his face was pressed against the comforter, “Do you think he'll call my parents to confirm or give condolences or something?”
“He doesn't even have their number,” I replied.
Jason snorted. And it was once again clear why he was my friend. Hopefully, talking to his parents would go just as smoothly. But first, a breather.
The front door slammed shut and I jumped up off the bed.
“Come on, I'm starving,” I said, grabbing Jason's hands and pulling him upright, “let's go grab some breakfast before hitting your house.”
“I think after that amazing job, you should buy,” he replied.
“In your dreams.”
He laughed and kept hold of my hand, leading me out the door. The apartment was empty, my Dad's slam of the door indicating that we really had succeeded in keeping him from being suspicious. The kitchen was clean, just as it had been when we walked through minutes before.
“I guess he didn't have his usual breakfast,” I mumbled, noting the lack of empty cans on the counter, “unless he took it with him.”
There were usually at least one or two empty, misshapen beer cans on the counter after he ran out the door. Breakfast of champions. Maybe he was toning down the drinking. His life getting better just as mine spiraled downhill. Perfect.
“Whatever,” Jason said, one hand still holding mine, the other holding our bags, retrieved from where we had dropped them in the bedroom. “I was promised breakfast.”
“Far be it for me to get in the way of a teenage boy and his pancakes.”
He pulled me out the front door after making sure my Dad's truck was gone, giving me just enough time to lock it behind me, then dragging me to the car.
“Jesus, Jase, I can walk,” I grumbled, pulling my hand from his to open the passenger side door.
“I know,” he said, smiling as he ran around the front of the car to open his own door, “but now that we're in it, I don't want you to lose your nerve.”
“This is different,” I said to him over the hood.
He shrugged and got in, and I followed suit. I could use some pancakes, myself. Or just a big hunk of whatever kind of meat was available at this hour.
Jason and I both agreed that hitting up J.C.'s again would destroy us, and since we actually had other options now that the sun was up, we decided to go to a cafe a few miles away that served pancakes as big as my head. He ordered a big stack, and I went for the steak and eggs, minus the eggs. The waiter gave me a weird look at steak for breakfast, but they were the ones that put it on the menu, so I ignored him. He decided discretion was the better part of getting a tip, and headed off to put in our order while we got comfortable in our booth. We were the only people in the place below the age of 60, and I prayed internally that no cops would come in looking for donuts and answers as to why two high school kids weren't at their high school.
“So we got your Dad covered,” Jason began, after our waiter dropped off our drinks.
I decided to go for a large coffee, hoping the caffeine would jolt me out of some of my exhaustion, and Jason went for a huge glass of orange juice. I thanked a few gods, because a hyper Jason was not something I could deal with this early.
I shrugged and took of drink of my black coffee. Bitter and hot, just the way I needed it.
“So we have some time to come up with something for my parents. Something better than a sick Aunt Edie, because you know my mom would send your dad some flowers or something.”
I snorted at this. She would send flowers, and probably show up at my apartment to see how my dad was holding up. Caring parents were awesome, but every once in a while they screwed up your plans to lie to them and skip town.
“I'm thinking the Kim angle is our best bet,” he said, stirring his OJ around with a straw.
I sighed. “Yeah, I guess. Your mom still might call my dad, though.”
“We'll just have to blow up that bridge when we come to it,” he said, giving me a small smile.
Our orders showed up quicker than I expected, maybe due to my ordering the steak as close to breathing as they could make it, and we both dug in, falling into silence, concentrating on our food.
Jason swallowed a big bite of syrup covered pancake, “so we tell my mom that you were good friends with Kim, and it hit you kinda hard.”
“But I don't want to go to counseling.”
“Right, you just need to get away for a bit, take a breather. Luckily, school's basically over, and I was planning on doing some kind of summer road trip anyway.”
I looked up at him, wiping my mouth off after having devoured my steak, “you were planning to abandon me for the summer?” I asked, with a pout.
He rolled his eyes at me, “oh please, you know I'd come back as soon as possible to harass you at the bookstore. It's my favorite past-time.”
“Next to harassing your sister.”
We grinned at each other, sharing a nice moment of levity in the middle of our extended crisis.
I pushed my plate toward the center of the table and sipped the coffee. “Okay, so, I need to take a trip, and I want you to come with me as moral support. You think she'll buy it?”
Jason shrugged, “you seem tired and bummed out enough. She won't know why, so we'll just play it up.”
Great, my best friend saw me as a mopey brooder. Oh well, I guess I kind of was. At least he could still stand to be around me. Insistently, even.
As Jason finished his pancakes, I pulled a piece of notebook paper out of my spiral. I found my black pen and wrote a short note, signed with my Dad's signature at the bottom.
“Done and done,” I said, holding it up for his approval.
“Family emergency. Vague, yet urgent. I like it.”
I nodded, folding it in half and sticking back in my bag. I had been writing my own notes for years. I think if my Dad had actually written an excuse to get me out of school at this point, they would believe that one was the forgery. The trick is to use it sparingly. I could get my Dad to make the occasional phone call for my sick days, but anything more than that and I pulled out the note. I was also pretty sure they didn't pay the administrative secretary enough to really care, as long as it wasn't an obvious fake.
“I'll get my mom to call so we don't both show up with notes and make them suspicious.”
The waiter returned with the check, which Jason grabbed before I could even reach for it. He sucked down the last of his juice and headed up to the front to pay. I gathered my bag, also finishing my coffee, and joined him. I'd have to remember to accost the next waiter so that we'd be even. And if we were going to do this trip, I'd be using my savings to pay for everything. There was no use risking Jason's life and his bank account. I joined him as he finished ringing up the bill, and we walked out into the sunshine to hopefully successfully lie our way out of town.