Chapter 38: Shot in the Dark
“They came out of nowhere,” Troy says into the video camera as he continues to make his lame and very over exaggerated - bordering on one big fat lie - video diary, “I wasn’t prepared. I couldn’t defend myself and now here am I...stuck in the wilderness...cold and alone-”
“We’re all standing right here with you,” Bells protests with a roll of her eyes at hearing her brother’s stupidity. She mindlessly carries on with her attempts on his request to braid his short hair and make him look ‘sassy’.
Troy ignores her and continues on filming himself despite Bells being caught in the background, “I’m starving and have no food. I’ve currently been without food and shelter for approximately sixty years, give or take. The sun is beating down on my face, the sweat and blood are-”
“You just said it was cold,” Jezel interrupts him this time.
“Dripping down, drawing in the cannibals of the mountain range to come and devour me and play instruments with my bones...as if the damn alien invasion wasn’t enough to tackle at the time,” Troy goes on, ignoring his sister and supposed wife’s gasps of horror. “I can’t quite be sure when it was Bigfoot and Yeti attacked and took me down-”
“How can they both live in the same region?” Dylan questions, logical about everything as always. “The one thrives in icy and snowy climates while the other lives in the woods.”
“But I’m a survivor,” Troy nods adamantly into the camera, tuning Dylan out, “in fact, I should be on ‘Survivor’. I’d make an alliance with myself and betray all of my useless allies...but that’s beside the point, I’m getting ahead of myself here. I guess what I’m trying to say is,” he puts on a serious expression, ”kids, stay in school.”
“The relevance?” Benley shakes his head, used to this kind of thing taking place by now, especially seeing as it’s coming from none other than Troy Bensten himself. “If anything, you should be saying ‘don’t do drugs’,” Ben mocks dryly.
“I’m still hoping to be rescued one of these days,” Troy sighs into the camera as if this is all truly a burden to him, as if he’s lost all hope, “but if there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, one thing that I can take from this experience of complete abandonment,” he pauses dramatically, building up anticipation, along with irritation from the rest of us who are temporarily invisible to him until he needs something again, “is that I will see you all in five year’s time. Be on the look out for a green hood. You have all failed me. Troy Queen out!”
He places his hand in front of his face as if to vanish into thin air before pressing a button and ending his pointless clip.
“No one is going to believe any of that,” Mia points out the facts based on Troy sprouting nonsense.
“My followers and true friends will,” he states confidently before immediately posting the video on Twitter for his ‘true friends’ - consisting of four, one of them being an organization - to see.
His entire face suddenly drops, “I just lost a follower!” he exclaims in shock before his blue-green eyes light up with fire, ”Max!” he yells before marching his way to the bonfire where the guys are all busy ‘roughing it’, as Grey would say.
It’s hilarious to see the guys’ stares of envy as us girls (Benley, Dylan, Ryan, Simo and Troy included in the mix) use their tents and luxuries to our will. We’re all laughing and having a good time (at least before Troy ruined it) while the guys are all grouching about the hard, cold ground among several other things they’re not happy with.
Landon is still convinced we cheated. He won’t accept that he lost to us. Max is taking it worse - I mean he just unfollowed Troy, his best friend, and now he’s busy making fun of Troy’s beautiful braids and Simo’s painted nails - all pink and sparkly.
“Go back to your side, you’re pissing everyone off,” Grey suggests to Troy, pointing back up the hill to where all us girls are.
Troy’s not having it, “My fight isn’t with you, BroGrey,” he concludes in a firm manner, shifting his focus back to Max, Max paying no heed to him other than to taunt him mercilessly.
My attention is lost on them when I spot Jay grinning at something Leban just said, his eyes lighting up in amusement. It’s enough to knock me off my feet.
He and Kyle threw the game for us. They don’t deserve the chilly and harsh environment. The other jerks do, but they certainly don’t.
“Plotting again?” Nancy jokes upon noticing my gaze, following my stares directed at Jay and the legend, Goku.
“I’d never,” I place a hand over my heart, feigning innocence.
“Yeah right,” Emma scoffs, sending me a small smile before heading to her tent, the pregnancy really wearing her down. Then again, she doesn’t let it stop her from participating in the fun. She’s a real sport and I’d expect nothing less from her.
“So the Bequeela force has really diminished with time, huh?” Bells asks me with a peppy grin, making conversation.
“It would seem so,” I pout, unhappy with the result of our teamwork. We’re not in sync anymore and it’s understandable, she’s married now. I’m not her first priority anymore, and for some reason, I’m okay with that.
“You’re still my sister,” Bells teases, elbowing me in the side playfully. “I’ll always love you, Aqueels,” she assures me, sensing my frustration.
“You guys were extremely close. I remember, from the outskirts of school anyway, how you guys did everything together,” Mia offers us a faint smile, genuinely being nice as she tries to interact with us. Right now, she’s not exactly in my good books.
I arch an eyebrow at her and decide to forgive her for the time being, “You were always that quiet but super smart girl that got placed beside the idiots, hence Laiken, in order to encourage and help all of them pull up their grades.”
Bells, blunt as ever, asks what I’d been wondering all along, “Did you have a thing for Laiken in high school?”
Mia shakes her head adamantly, “No. My first crush was Jay, actually. He sat next to me in mathematics for a while. Whenever I got stuck, he’d help me. Other than that, he never really paid me much attention.”
“Then why are you causing conflict between Zac and Laiken if you aren’t remotely interested in Laiken?” Bells asks with her hands placed on her hips, displeased with what Mia is currently doing.
“I didn’t mean to,” Mia sighs in confession. “In high school, Laiken was a real ass. He would always mock me and call me a nerd. Now after all this time, I find out that he doesn’t even remember me. I mean, at least remember the girl you tormented. Then again, there were plenty. You’d know, Aqueela, you were one of them.”
I nod as I think back on those days, “Yeah, Laiken was a horrible person, kind of still is, but who am I to judge? I’m no better.”
Mia rolls her eyes at me as if I’m going too easy on him. She continues to defend her actions, “Blatantly ignoring people while they’re talking to you is humiliating, especially when his pals laugh at your expense. It’s a form of emotional abuse and it got to me. His lack of response really got to me. He even refused to acknowledge my existence, wouldn’t even return a simple ‘hi’. He’d do it for the laughs others got out of it. I was hurt.”
“And so when you saw that he was taking an interest in you, five years later, you decided to get even by not only toying with his emotions but with your boyfriend’s too?” Bells guesses the rest, having watched enough sappy romances to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
I can tell by her expression that she thinks Mia’s excuse is downright lousy, pathetic. She tends to be a little self-righteous at times.
“I’m not dating Zac yet, but yeah, that’s the gist of it.” She bites her bottom lip in shame before nodding, “It was a mistake. I see that now. I hurt Zac and I never intended to. He won’t even look at me now, forget talk to me. I broke his trust.”
“I’ll talk to him,” I say willfully, ignoring Bell’s fleeting stare of confusion, “he should understand. I will make him. Trust me, he’s no saint, Mia. He’s broken the trust of many others too.”
I pause, thinking of terms and conditions, ”But, you have to first apologize to him and explain it all. You need to set things straight with Laiken too. Only then will I stand in for you on your behalf.”
“Thank you, Aqueela,” she smiles as if relieved, as if a weight has been lifted off of her shoulders. “Jay was right about you. You are like no one else I’ve ever met. You’re the missing link,” she winks playfully before seeking Zac out.
“Still don’t like her,” Bells says flatly as soon as she’s out of earshot.
“Me neither, girl,” Ryan adds in, appearing out of nowhere. I was wondering where he’s been hiding the entire time - I figured his tent.
“You pop out from nowhere now?” Bells questions, having jumped in surprise upon hearing him.
He grins cheekily, as always, before flashing her a devilish smirk, “What you talking ’bout, Sunshine? I’m everywhere.”
I scoff at him teasingly, “You say it like it’s a good thing.”
I sneak to the dying bonfire much later that night when I see that everyone is sleeping. I make my move, searching for Jay, only to find that he’s the last of them still awake. I should have expected it. His mind is always running with incomprehensible thoughts that prevent him from sleep. It’s been evident these last few days, at least to me, that he’s hesitant about leaving.
My eyes land on him only to see him poking the fire with a stick in hand, seemingly in deep thought as he stares at the hot, fiery flames whispering up and away with the cool winds of the night. I smile thoughtfully at the sight, my heart skipping a beat as raw tingles fill my chest.
I’d rather he stay forever.
My smile falters and vanishes when the reality of the situation strikes a nerve within me. With his brows drawn together in apprehension, a frown evading his features and the dark shadows of the lit fire bouncing off of his sharp jawline, I come to accept that he meant it when he said he’d rather not go. If he had a choice, I’m convinced he really would stay forever.
I waste no time and shuffle over to him as quietly as I can. While keeping my gaze trained on him, distracted, I stupidly trip over the log.
“Uh-oh,” I gulp softly to myself before losing my balance. I feel myself roll right over the log before I ultimately end up crashing down right below him with a thud.
Well...this is embarrassing.
Jay jolts slightly when hearing the noise before glancing down, only to see me lying flat on my back before him.
A boyish smile instantly flutters over his lips when realizing that it’s me. A low chuckle escapes him when he sees me cringe in utter humiliation.
I might as well roll with this...no turning back now.
“Hi there,” I wave up at him from my sprawled out position on the dirty ground.
“Hey,” he replies back with a sincere playfulness to his tone. “Need a hand, or were you just dropping in?” he offers jokingly with a subtle grin of amusement.
I shake my head, recovering, and sit up to face him directly, “I think I’m good. I might survive.”
He shakes his head at me, his bubblegum blue eyes filled with mischief, as he takes the initiative upon himself to openly mock me, “Still such a klutz,” he scoffs teasingly, sending me an affectionate wink.
I dust myself off, not bothering to deny it, before taking a seat beside him on the uncomfortable log.
“Can’t sleep huh?” I prod, breaking the peace and quiet atmosphere - it doesn’t go down well with me.
He visibly tenses for a split second before shrugging, averting his eyes back to the fire, “I’m not tired.”
I read him like a book, aware that it goes beyond whether he feels tired or not.
“Jay,” I drawl out carefully, “what’s going on?”
“Just contemplating,” he replies back, indifferent to my concern. He changes topics, not exactly being discreet about it, “What brings you here in any case? Why subject yourself to this weather? Don’t you have a tent to sleep in?” he asks, puzzled, arching a brow at me.
“I do,” I nod fervently at him, reaching out and impulsively taking his cold hand into mine, “and so do you.”
He scratches the back of his head before glancing down at our intertwined hands, then only meeting my determined gaze with one of confusion, “What?”
I subconsciously smile when he doesn’t pull his hand away before elaborating, “You’re going to freeze out here. If you go to your tent, the guys will be mad at you, but they’ll never know if you’re rooming with me. You won’t have to die of the cold.”
Jay stares at me blankly for a second longer as if he cannot fathom what I’m saying. “Are you serious?” he eventually asks with unshakable doubt, lost.
I bite my bottom lip and nod with resolute, “Absolutely!”
He fixates all his attention on me, his cast gaze unwavering and uncompromising, as he tests out the waters, “Are you worried about me, again?” Before I can answer, he’s speaking still, “You don’t ever have to stress about me, Aqueela. I’m fine. I promise you, I’m fine.”
“I know that,” I assure him with confidence. “Maybe I just want your company. Maybe I just want to talk to you,” I hint, hoping he’d be smart enough to catch on. “Did that never occur to you?” I boldly question.
He shakes his head defiantly, a crooked grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, signifying that he gets where I’m going with this. “No,” he answers in his own time, “it didn’t actually.”
"Well, it should have! It’s fairly obvious seeing as I’m here with you right now,” I persist with immovable stubbornness, refusing to be swayed.
A billion dollar smirk slowly filters across his lips as he blinks down at me cockily, going out on a courageous limb and asking the inevitable, “Are you flirting with me, Aqueela?”
He’s backed me up into a corner. It’s catch 22.
I decide to take the route of truth and answer honestly, “I have no idea.”
He laughs lightly and I find myself trapped in the sound, “I am going to go ahead and say that you were,” he concludes on his own terms.
I feign a gasp and deny it, “Was not!”
“Lawson,” he directs his piercing gaze onto me, stifling a grin in the process, “you totally were. You were hitting on me just now,” he jokes, kidding around in the hopes of seeing me squirm. He’ll have to up his game if that is to ever happen.
I decide to humor him, “How so?”
He starts off in sarcasm, putting up a pretense of arrogance, “Let’s see,” he begins a countdown on his fingers, keeping his other hand locked in mine, “one, you invited me back to your tent. Two, you want to spend time with me. Three, you admitted to enjoying my company. Four, you’re following me around. Five-”
“Five, as in five years later and you’re still so full of yourself,” I cut him off with a joke of my own.
He stops talking and merely smiles as we fall into a suffocating yet oddly comfortable silence.
I stare up at him longingly, embracing his smile and returning it with the same amount of devotion and sentiment.
His smile vanishes behind a frown and I realize that he’s thinking again.
With his eyes still on me, he opens his mouth to say something, but ends up finding himself speechless, “I mean...you...” he falters off in a wistful sigh, pressing his lips together and shaking his head as if he just can’t put it into words.
He shrugs helplessly before expressing himself through his actions instead, bringing the back of my hand up to his lips to place a tender kiss against my knuckles.
As a result, my mind stops functioning altogether. Granted, it stopped a long time ago, but nevertheless, he still manages to leave an impact on my soul.
Zac rolls over onto his back to glower up at us accusingly, “If you guys are going to make out now, at least have the decency to take it to the tent.”
We never made it back to the tent.
Instead, we stayed up talking until the crack of dawn where we both eventually passed out under the glittering stars, the crackling of the dying fire being the last sound to be heard.
“Right,” Benley expresses his concern as he stares up at the monstrous tower of rocks ahead of us, “it’s official, I am going to die today.”
“Just chill, Sweetie,” AJ places a hand on his shoulder as if to comfort him. “If you die,” she turns it around, changing tactics, “then I’ll write you an awesome eulogy.”
Benley scowls at her in turn, “You’re so insensitive.”
“Babe,” she grins up at him with all her pearly whites, “you so love it.”
“What if I fall?” Benley gulps nervously, with true hesitance.
“Then I’ll catch you,” she jokes, thoroughly enjoying his reactions to her aimless teasing.
I swallow at the thought of falling. I force myself to peek up at the intimidating mountain of rocks towering over me. I’m usually game for anything, but the fear of heights is still set somewhere deep inside of me. I’m not as terrified as I used to be, but the anxiety and agitation are still there.
I absentmindedly take a step back, and unfortunately for me, he notices.
“You scared, Lawson?” Grey asks with his usual condescending nature intact. “Need someone to hold your hand?”
“You offering, man?” Jay teases him, unfazed by our usual bickering.
I cross my arms over my chest, refusing to be deterred by Grey’s taunting. I stand my ground against him. “No,” I lie. I would silently appreciate it if someone were to hold my hand all the way up to the top. “I’m not scared of anything. I have Lawson blood running in my veins.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Grey feigns a shudder, mocking me.
I smile up at him before blatantly insulting him, “So in case your puny mind is still trying to digest what I said, I am declining your pathetic offer. It would just make it more difficult for me to climb if you, a giant gigantic baby, were to hold my hand all the way up. It would be downright embarrassing.”
I can do anything I set my mind to. Giving up before even trying is not in my vocabulary. One way or another, I am doing this, even if it means catching a lift to the top with a passing jet. Yup, I’m going to put all my hopes into that last one.
“Yeah,” Grey nods, “for me.”
I roll my eyes at him, “You’re infuriating,” I huff, letting him have this one. He’s earned it.
Realizing that he’s won, he grins silently to himself, satisfied with the outcome yet still not grasping the concept. “That I am,” he says quietly, unbelieving.
“Why you let him have it just like that, Lawson? That was way too easy,” Landon shakes his head at me in disapproval. “I may not always voice it, but I’m always ‘Team Aqueela’.”
Grey shoots his friend a glare whilst I grin giddily at the news.
“What?” Landon, uncaring, shrugs at him. “I like siding with the winning team,” he explains his motives.
Grey flips him off before walking away to go and talk to Nancy instead.
Landon shrugs a second time before fist bumping me in pride. “Now that’s more like it,” he grins, pleased. “I see why you do it, it’s a lot of fun.”
“Right?” I nod in agreement.
“I draw the line here,” Emma speaks up, voicing her concern. “I literally cannot participate in this one,” she motions to her growing belly. “Besides, I am currently experiencing morning sickness. I have to sit this one out. I can’t climb in this condition.”
“Me neither,” Benley suddenly says, “I too am going through morning sickness. I have it right now.”
Xavier places his arm around his wife before grinning at Ben’s lame excuse, “You expecting a girl or boy?”
“What?” Benley raises his eyebrows in bewilderment.
He has no idea...
“A transgender,” AJ answers in ease, sly smile hiding behind her innocent, baby blue eyes.
Xavier chuckles and pats LeyLey on his back as he juts out a thumb in AJ’s direction, “You grabbed a good one, mate.”
“I know,” Benley confirms, still confuzzled as to what’s happening.
Emma offers Ben a friendly smile, “No worries, you and I can watch the others together.”
BoyBand turns to his fiancee for affirmation, using his adorable puppy eyes on her as if trying to hypnotize her to his will.
AJ nods at him in reassurance. When she turns back around to face us, I don’t miss her devious grin spreading across her lips as she gets into gear, carrying herself with a badass persona that no one, not even Zac, can match. She outdoes him.
“I really don’t feel like participating either,” Ryan sighs loudly, but then sees his girlfriend’s deadly gaze and quickly opts back in, “but I guess I can handle it.”
“You damn right you can,” Nancy insists, refusing to give him freedom of choice.
“Check me out,” Gland calls for attention, bouncing his pecs with an infinite amount of self-pride, “I can make them dance!”
“I have to learn how to do that,” Laiken jokes, subtly mocking Gland seeing as they have a distinct and vital ‘hate-hate’ relationship. “Teach me your ways, Master,” he bites back a grin, rather brave if you ask me.
“You have no potential, ‘WhiteBoy’. You’re too small. No bulk on ya. I got muscles bulging in my neck even,” Gland glares daggers at him, seething with hatred, not over his grudge. “I’m not gonna even try explain that to ya. Ya won’t get it.”
Laiken frowns and gestures down himself with arrogance dripping in his tone, “It’s called definition, dumbass.”
“What did ya jus say to meh?” Gland asks through clenched teeth before Laiken’s sprinting and Gland’s chasing him down.
Gland even stops to make a detour and threaten B-Dawg for no reason whatsoever before he’s off on his way again.
“Oog dance also!” Oog jitters about, thinking he’s making his pecs dance as well when really he’s just jiggling on the spot like jello.
I giggle at the sight, but stop abruptly when I see Max stretching out his limbs, a serious expression on his face. I dare ask him, “What are you doing?”
“We’re,” he motions to Troy bouncing up and down like a runner would normally do before a race, “warming up, what the hell does it look like?” he returns the question with a significant amount of attitude, apparently still in his competitive phase of life.
Troy shakes it out, “I’m amped up and pumped in for this! I’m ready for action, ready for anything! Nothing can stop me!” He starts bobbing up and down again before landing wrong, twisting his foot, and collapsing to the floor in pain, “Ouch ouch ouch! Sprained ankle! Sprained ankle! Man down! Man down!”
I’m no longer able to contain my laughter at seeing the contradiction take place right before my very eyes, “So much for handling anything,” I remark, entertained.
Max falls to the floor to help his partner up, “You’re okay, dude. You’re okay.”
Max makes an attempt to take a look at the bruised area but Troy pushes him away.
“Don’t touch it, you fool! It’s agony!” Troy yells at him, sliding away on the dirty floor as he backs off from Max. He places his arms out in front of him before using three movements to drag himself along the ground, “I’m burning up man! I need life force and I need it now!” he says in a groggy and desperate tone to symbolize the urgency of the matter.
“It’s Click Clack Slide!” Mia yelps at the sight of him crawling on the floor, turning to make a run for it. She ends up slamming into Zac’s torso instead.
Zac smirks down at her with his dark alluring eyes of his, “I’ll protect you,” he offers. He then makes out as if he’s going to trample over Troy and squash his head under the heel of his shoe, much to Troy’s horror and gaping mouth.
Mia smiles and blows Zac a kiss. He pretends to catch it before really leaning down to kiss her. It’s evident that the two lovebirds have mended their relationship since last night. It means I only have to talk to him about Laiken.
“What on earth do you think you are doing?!” Bells asks Max, hands on hips as she glowers up at him in irritation, being forced to stand still.
It’s then that I see Max balancing on one foot, his other foot resting on her shoulder as he stretches out his leg.
“Babe, sssh, I need this,” he shushes her, not at first answering her. She glares at him flatly. He caves under her staring and explains himself, “I need a new partner to help me warm up and you made the cut.”
I watch him suck in a deep breath before stretching his arms out above his head as he commands his wife to be still, “Now stop talking and let me focus.”
He’s forgotten about Troy. He’s already replaced him. He’s just plain ruthless.
“How flexible are you?” Grey asks Max, stunned at what he’s currently seeing.
"Very,” Bells smirks and wags her eyebrows suggestively, Max thriving in the spotlight as he pops the collar of his shirt in pride.
“Nope, no, no, no, I’m out,” Grey shakes his head at Jay profusely as if trying to ridden himself of the image in his head, “I tried bonding with these people, but it’s just not possible. I’m tapping out. I tap out. Just no. No, no, no!”
“Suite yourself,” Bells shrugs after him. “No harm done,” she grins to herself, not seeing anything wrong with what she just said.
Even I call a foul on that one...
“Let me take a look,” Nancy drops to her knees to assist a disabled Troy.
“No touchy!” Troy complains as if it really is that excruciating.
“Let her help you, Troy, for goodness sake! Let her take care of you!“Jezel erupts out of nowhere as if she’s had just about enough of Troy and his ‘Troyness’.
Troy immediately shuts up and allows Nancy to do her thing and fix him up (as fixable as he may be), dropping his head in submission as he obeys his wife.
“You sure you’re going to do this, Simo? You sure you up for it? You certain that you’re going to go through with it?” Sarah asks him politely, clearly concerned that the rope might snap or something. She’s hoping to talk him out of it in case of an accident occurring - say the harness breaking and him plummeting down to his formidable death.
“Simo sure, as sure as Simo can be,” he nods confidently, battling to fit his big head in the helmet, not catching on to Sarah’s hint.
His weight, a real issue, could prevent him from surviving this, but Sarah will never say it directly, thus, she will never be able to persuade Simo out of it.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s okay to back out.” She points to Benley, unintentionally embarrassing him as he glances down at the floor in shame, “Take him for instance, no one thinks any less of him.”
“I do!” Landon chips in with a cunning grin, earning a subtle jab in the ribs from his girlfriend as a result of his reply. He’s really not helping at all and he knows it.
“No,” Simo shakes his head at Sarah, “Simo do this. Simo do fine. Simo big boy. Simo climb good, real good.”
“Okay,” Sarah answers wearily, unconvinced.
It’s obvious that she will not be partnering up with him. She’s too worried that the brake might fail should he fall.
I notice Blubber glance at Benley and Emma as if wishing to be on the sidelines too, but when seeing Susie eagerly gearing up, he decides otherwise and reaches for his own gear instead. I mentally ‘aww’ as I take in the picture before me.
“You ready?” Jay asks, pulling me from my thoughts with just the familiar sound of his voice.
I shake my head timidly, “Not yet.”
“Say no more,” he replies back before taking it upon himself to carefully help me get strapped in as he, himself, puts on his harness. I take it that he’ll be one of the lead climbers.
“You can be my partner,” he insists as he clips himself to me, setting it all up as if he’s done this before. “If you lose grip, just shout ‘falling’ and I will brake for you as fast as I can.”
I scrunch up my face in horror at hearing his words. I shouldn’t trust him, I really shouldn’t, considering he always lets me fall. If I am to fall, this time, I will legitimately die. Then again, it’s Jay. You either love him or you hate him. I fall under the former.
“Not that it will happen,” he reassures me with a light chuckle. “But if it does,” he pauses with a twinkle to his eye, “which it won’t,” he quickly adds, “I’ve come prepared.” He gestures to the many quickdraws he has needed for him to clip to the bolts drilled into the rock as a safety precaution. “Don’t worry too much, there should be belayers as well,” he reminds me.
“Thank you, Jay,” I smile up at him in gratitude.
I’ll definitely feel safer with him as my lead. Now that he’s here, the tension is wearing off and I’m starting to ease up and actually look forward to this climb. He doesn’t have the slightest clue of what he does to me. He never lets me stumble.
There are a million thoughts racing through my mind. I want to say so much more to him, but the words keep getting caught at the back of my throat. I’m unable to voice what happens to be imprinted on my heart.
He takes my hands into his, focused, as he gently starts taping my fingers in a specific way, meant for skin protection. Once he’s done, he reaches for one of the smaller helmets and places it on my head. He fastens the strap before grinning down at me, swallowing back his laughter at the sight of me all geared up and ready.
“All done,” he finalizes, softly knocking on the edge of my helmet with his knuckles.
Before I can say anything, our instructor arrives on site. “Alright,” he claps his hands with a passionate sparkle to his eye as he gathers us all together, “is everybody geared up? Sidle up and pick a partner, or you can go on your own if experienced. I suggest you partner up if a novice.”
“Hey, you again, buddy,” Landon chuckles at the poor guy’s misfortune.
The instructor’s head whips up and his eyes widen a fraction when he sees that it’s our dysfunctional group again. He swears beneath his breath and mutters when his eyes zero in on Grey, Lan and me, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He tries to make a U-turn and leave but is stopped by Jam:
“PB!” Jam exclaims in excitement. “You’re back, dude You can totally be my partner! PB&J are back!”
PB sighs in sarcasm as if he has no other choice but to rock with it, “I’m thrilled!” He shakes his head, “Now let’s get this over with.”
“Yes please!” Benley adds as if anxious out of his mind as he continues to bite his nails in worry.
“You’re not even doing it,” Grey reminds him with a glare.
He lets out a shaky breath in turn and lifts up his trembling hand to signify his apparent fear, “I’m still petrified.”
I watch in fascination as Jay expertly ascends upward. He uses his strong arms to pull himself up, reaching for his next handhold with no difficulties. His technique is flawless. He’s definitely done this before. There’s no way that he’s a first-timer.
He grins at me when catching my gaze, “Hang on tight.”
I grow antsy when he stops and fumbles with a quickdraw for a split second before unclipping it from his harness loop and clipping it into one of the bolts.
I decide to get a move on and continue climbing when he pulls up the rope in an attempt to gather all the slack.
“He gets that we’re not racing this time, right?” Jay asks Grey when seeing Landon rush to the top, going as far as pushing and shoving the others out of his way, including PB. Dylan, among others, are evidently not impressed by his brutality.
Fortunately, Landon’s used to making enemies.
“He never does anything with me anymore,” Sarah jokes, but I can tell that it upsets her. In her world, winning is everything to him. If she only knew that he’s about to do something with her that she’ll never forget - marry her.
“If it’s a race, I’m beating him this time,” Xavier hurriedly climbs passed us, trying to catch up with Landon who is making the rounds by the second.
Grey shakes his head as he continues to climb up with cautiousness, “Those two.”
Max, AJ, Susie, and Blubber seem to think that it’s a race as well.
PB merely groans and makes way for all of them to pass him, now used to our tendencies in not following rules.
“Tell me about it,” Sarah laughs, passing a smile Grey’s way, one that he actually returns. It knocks me so off guard that I almost let go.
“Watch it!” Ryan scowls at Landon when being shoved aside mercilessly.
Landon reacts and tugs him backward, ripping him right off of the rocks so that he drops a few meters before he’s just dangling helplessly in midair. Ryan somehow loses his grip on his iPad in the process, being forced to watch his precious tech drop to the ground and shatter to pieces.
Nancy sees her boyfriend’s face and winces as if she has an idea of what’s coming next, “Uh-oh.”
Then something incredible happens, Ryan’s blue eyes begin to burn with vengeance as he somehow manages to transform into a vampire - before any of us know it, in the blink of an eye, he’s back on the rocks, speeding his way to the top.
I didn’t know he had it in him. He recovered from his drop so easily. It truly seems like he fears nothing.
Landon took away what was most important to him and now he’s determined to do the same to Landon. He’s going to take the joy of winning away from Landon. He smarter than he looks after all. This is going to be a disaster.
“What is happening?” I ask Nancy, surprised by the bizarre sight of Ryan actually putting effort into something other than gaming.
My fingers are now aching. This is physically demanding and I’m starting to psyche myself out.
“He’s mad, that’s what’s happening,” Nancy answers, the only person alive (other than Sarah) that has seen this aggro side to him.
I get it now. I finally get it. Sarah has a thing for temperamental guys.
“I hope Lan throws him off again,” Sarah remarks, making her disdain for Ryan known to all of us, Nancy included.
“It actually looks like he’s passing him,” Grey replies in turn as he stares on ahead at the unwinding scene before him. “He’s going damn fast. Lan can’t seem to keep up. I guess Brewer isn’t just some geek after all. There’s more to him than that.”
Sarah frowns, unhappy with the update. She really can’t stand Ry.
Nancy just shrugs apologetically at her.
Jay releases one hand off of the wall and purposely floats on backward, shielding his eyes from the sun as he stares up, trying to get a better visual as to what is going on. He turns to Nance with a grin, “Your boyfriend is like a rock spider.”
“Ryan Brewer is thee famous ‘Spider-Man’!” I retort with exhilaration, the adrenaline getting to me.
“That does sound like my boyfriend,” Nancy smiles fondly, ignoring Grey’s quiet scoff of contempt.
“He’s at the top,” Jay informs us, astounded by what he’s seeing. “He just beat Lan at his own game,” he tells us, deliberately swinging himself back and forth before grabbing hold of the rock again, pulling himself back toward it with his newfound grip, unintentionally flexing his biceps.
My hand involuntarily slips off the sloped rock when losing concentration, exhaustion taking over.
“There goes Aqueela! Dead!” I hear Benley shout from somewhere at the bottom as he peeks up at us through the gaps between his fingers whilst still covering his eyes as if he cannot bare the sight, afraid to watch this play out.
My heart gallops and I automatically close my eyes, awaiting the predestined drop still to come.
“I got you,” I hear his voice, a silent promise in his words, as I feel him latch onto my arm with a vice-like grasp.
I open my eyes to see him glancing down at me with conviction as he summons more strength and hurls me back up, tugging me back toward the rock, back to safety.
All I can do in turn is stare up at him breathlessly, relieved that he didn’t let go.
He’d noticed almost immediately and had instinctively grabbed hold of my forearm. He had reacted so swiftly, catching me before I even got the chance to careen backward and descend through the air with a mega drop.
I knew there was a reason I trusted him.
“Okay,” I destroy the peace, “I’d like to get down now,” I whine, now very much afraid, my heart still racing a mile.
Grey openly laughs at me for good measure. It’s clear, after very little reflection, that he was hoping I’d hurtle down and fall like Ryan had. “Want to hold my hand now?” he asks through his snickering as Jay manages to finally free his arm from my painful and powerful grip.
“Jay,” I plead with him, seeking his help, “I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can,” he assures me with sheer determination, having way too much faith in me.
“I can’t,” I doubt myself, choosing to not spare him and instead argue for the sake of my life.
“When a horse bucks and you get thrown off, what do you do?” Jay asks me, angling his head so that he can see me, his gaze cast downward. “You get right back on that saddle and keep going,” he answers for me.
I protest, “But-”
“Just keep your eyes on me and keep climbing,” he rudely cuts me off. “If you don’t finish now, you never will. Don’t stop, just keep going. I am right here,” he replies, pushing me to keep on at it, not allowing me to give up on myself.
“Be in control of your fear, don’t let it control you,” Sarah nods, giving me a boost of encouragement as she gestures for me to keep climbing.
I suck up some guts and reach above my head for the next handhold.
“Yeah Aqueela! You can do it! Atta girl!”
I glance down to see Emma jumping up and down, waving her arms through the air, as if to capture my attention.
“You’ve got the Lawson blood running in your bloodstream, forget ‘Spider-Man’, you can do anything!” She shoots me a thumbs up, accompanied by a supportive smile, as she claps her hands for me.
I’m not like Emma, I actually experience fear, though I do appreciate her support.
I pull myself up before slowly reaching for the next handhold.
“Go Squirt!” Troy cheers, applauding for me from his position on the floor as he cradles his sprained ankle to his chest.
“She alive?” I hear Benley ask before he uncovers his eyes and flashes me a fearful yet hopeful grin, still not convinced that I’ll make it.
Without giving it much thought, I manage to pull myself back up to Jay and Grey.
“I knew you could do it,” Jay smiles at me, his hand brushing the edge of my fingers as if to convey his belief in me.
“Yeah well,” Grey starts pessimistic, “hate to break it to you guys, but we still have a long way to go.” He smirks my way as if happy with his assumption, “My prediction, you not making it to the top.”
“My prediction,” I glare at him fiercely, “you not making it to the top either.”
Grey realizes what’s coming and makes a vain attempt to escape my clutches.
It’s then that I face my fear and let go of the rock, yanking Grey off with me, as we both plummet through the air like sinking stones.
“Falling!” I shout to our belayer in warning.
Jay and Nancy must brake for us because we’re both suddenly jerked to the side violently before we’re just bouncing up and down through the air with pounding hearts, our bodies dangling impotently above the ground.
Once he’s consoled himself, he turns to glower at me, folding his arms across his chest in what is supposed to be a threatening manner, “I wish your rope snapped.”
“Aww, I love you too, Ferrot.”
“My triceps are are sore,” Jay complains, touching under his arm, as he walks back with me to our campsite.
“Mine too,” I say, glancing down at the scratches marking my hands. I’m now more grateful for that tape Jay gave me beforehand.
“You did good today,” Jay tells me, carelessly swinging his arm over my shoulder as he draws me near to his side. He glances down at me with a happy-go-lucky grin, “I am really proud of you. You have no idea.”
“I’m proud of myself too,” I confess jokingly, “you have no idea,” I laugh as I snuggle up to his side, enjoying the moment for however long it may last.
Lightning streaks across the sky before we hear the distant sound of thunder.
“We better move,” Jay advises as he stares up at the black sky in apprehension.
I soak up in his warmth when the dark clouds above give way for the rain to pour down from the sky - literally out of the blue, in this case, out of the gray.
We make a run for it, heading for the nearest tent between us - his.
He kneels down and quickly zips it open before motioning to me to go inside first, holding the flap up for me like the gentleman he is, “Go inside, Aqueela. Your tent is way too far.”
I pass him a thankful smile and do as he says, embracing in the warmth and shelter that his tent provides during the storm.
He joins me inside, zipping the tent closed after him.
Tired with the day’s events, I lean against him as if it’s natural, laying my head on his shoulder as I reminisce back on how we once were.
“I really don’t want you to go, Jay.”
The words of a whisper are out before I can stop them.
I feel his muscles go rigid, an indication that he heard me, before he forces himself to relax. He composes himself, saying nothing, before silently rummaging through his backpack as if in search of something. He takes out a bag of chips and hands it to me as if it is supposed to solve everything.
“I got snacks,” he sends me a tight smile in an effort to drop the unavoidable subject. It’s crystal clear that he doesn’t want to speak about it anymore.
A ghost of a smile traces my features when I realize that he’s using my weakness against me. I shake my head at him and hand the bag of chips back to him.
“You’re rejecting food?” Jay asks with a carefree grin and a raised eyebrow. He sees my face. His smile slowly falters when it clicks that he’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, that I am dead serious.
I remain in place and watch him throw the chip bag aside as if he couldn’t care less.
He analyzes me for a second longer before a thought occurs to him. He reaches up and takes off the silver chain that had been hanging around his neck. He takes my nearest hand and places the cool chain in the palm of my open hand. He closes my hand over the gift, my fingers curling around the cross pendant tightly, as he sends me a faint yet assuring smile.
I begin to shake my head, “You never take this off. I can’t just-”
“You hang onto that,” he says firmly, his mind made up.
I nod and place the chain around my neck as I’m left to wonder. An unsettling silence floods over us until there’s nothing left to be heard except for the soft yet bitter pitter-patter of the rain beating down against the tent.
I clasp the cross to my chest with purpose. It’s a shot in the dark, but I’m really hoping to give this back to him some day.