The Smile Has Left Your Eyes

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Chapter Eight

Aspen

I stopped picking at my wrists, my sleeves now stained with blood. My arms went slack as I continued to walk away from my house, my eyes not once leaving the night sky. The stars twinkled—they were dazzling. Even though they weren’t living things, they looked to be filled with emotion. The vivid colors reminded me of nothing but joy. Happiness. A feeling I couldn’t seem to recall.

And I didn’t want to. I wanted this emptiness I felt, this never-ending despair, to take me. To pull me down to the very depths of the sea and drown me. Drag me down to a place where I would never get up, and eventually, wouldn’t need to.

My dried tears made the skin around my eyes feel strained and tight.

Well… I’d lasted over five years.

I’d reached my limit.

I’d endured enough—this had gone on long enough.

There was no reason for me to keep going, and now I just wanted it all to stop. I just needed it all to end…

What was I even living for? Because of hope? What bullshit. What was I hoping for? That baseball would carry me out of all my issues? That a sport would somehow rescue me?

And Rafe… what was I trying to get out of him? What was I hoping for? That he’d magically accept me? Dare I say, even fall in love with me?

How unrealistic… I should’ve woken up from that dream a long time ago.

It had been stupid of me to believe that one day everything would be okay. That my life would suddenly become perfect… that I could miraculously become happy.

Reality wasn’t that kind.

I continued to walk. Where I was going, I didn’t know. I just kept on, the black hole in my heart forcing my legs to get me as far from hell as they could.

I had no sense of time, and with no phone on me, no way to tell.

My mind, normally a chaotic mess of self-pity, was now empty. It wasn’t my first time experiencing something like this; whether it was mental peace or overwhelming numbness, I couldn’t be sure. But I was okay with it. My mind didn’t hurt, and that was okay.

Cars rushed past me on the street, my hair flying around in every direction. The sharp wind was somehow pleasant. Tranquil. The loose sleeves of my shirt flapped around, grazing the raw scars, but I welcomed the pain. It was just another distraction.

A car’s horn knocked me out of my daze. I slowly turned my head around to see my mom’s car.

Oh.

She parked it on the side of the road and dashed out. She opened the door to the back seat and pulled out a thick jacket, rushing over to me and throwing it on my shoulders. “It’s cold out here, so first, put that on.”

I stayed silent as I watched her go back to the car to grab more things. I didn’t move to put the jacket on and it fell to the ground; I was still, with a glazed over expression on my face. Why bother faking it anymore? I had nothing to hide; there was no longer a reason to pretend to smile.

She yanked two bags out of her car, both landing on the sidewalk next to her. “I was able to grab your baseball bag, and I put some clothes in another. I wasn’t able to get your backpack. I’m sorry.” She went into the passenger side and pulled out my phone, wallet, and a charger out of the side of the door. She walked up to me and grabbed my icy hands, bringing them up and placing my items in them. “I’m sorry,” she whispered with tears pricking her eyes. “I tried to convince your father, but he won’t change his mind. He doesn’t know I’m here… but I wanted you to know that I can help you. I can still get you to my friend’s camp. He doesn’t have to know.”

My nose was red and the undersides of my eyes were bright pink.

“Mom…” I croaked, pulling her hands up higher. “Look into my eyes.” My words were breathless, barely audible.

Her gaze slowly drifted to mine. She sucked in a breath when she looked into the dull, grey eyes that reflected a mere fragment of who her son used to be. “Can’t you see it?”

“I—”

“I’m gay,” I continued before she could finish. “It’s not something that can be changed. It’s not something that needs to be fixed. I didn’t choose to be like this…” I dropped her hands and looked away. I wouldn’t cry anymore. What was the point? “I wanted to be normal. You have no idea how much I wished I could be like everyone else. I tried, I did. But it isn’t something that can be controlled. You made your choice… you choose to not accept me for who I am, and I knew you would. I knew that when you found out, this would happen. Although I’m not surprised, I can’t deny that it hurts. But what can I do? I’m eighteen, right? I’m an adult. Even though I’m still in high school, technically you and dad don’t have an obligation to look after me. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but it’s fine—It’s okay

“So,” my voice quivered, “it’s time to let me go… Dad said it, right? That I’m not his son anymore. I’m not your child and you’re not my mom. I’m just some random kid on the street.” I put on a small, genuine smile. I could finally speak my mind. I was, in a way, free. “Please don’t try to change me anymore. I’ve been pretending for so long—I’m tired, mom. I tried my best. I did my time. So let me go.

Tears stained her cheeks, but my eyes were crystal clear. “Thanks for… this.” I gestured toward the bag resting near my feet. “But this is,” I took a deep breath, “this is it.

“W-wait, Aspen! It-it doesn’t have to be—”

“I hope we never see each other again. With every bone in my body, I never want to see any of you again.” I stepped past her, grabbing the bags and putting them over my shoulders.

My mom grabbed my arm with a sudden shout. “Wait! Take this!” She fished a wad of cash out of her wallet.

I didn’t want to take it, but she gripped my hand, placing the money in it and folding my fingers over the green paper.

I clenched my jaw and turned back around, leaving her to stand in the cold by herself, watching my back as I faded into the distance. I planned on never looking back.

I studied the money. Three hundred dollars. Am I supposed to consider this an early graduation gift? I crumpled the cash into a ball and shoved it into my pocket.

What should I do now? Where should I go? A motel, maybe? If I could find one that was dirt-cheap, it could work.

I hoped that I’d randomly come across somewhere I could crash, and after several hours, I finally did. The motel was only one story, with three sides surrounding a large parking lot in the middle. A loud bell dinged as I walked into the main lobby, which was a small room near the entrance to the parking lot. At the desk was a scraggly guy with an unkempt grey-and-brown beard. His potbelly was covered by a blue flannel too small for his figure.

I hobbled up to him, waiting for him to notice I was there. When he finally looked up from his newspaper, I spoke, “Can I have a room, please.”

“One person?” he asked in a raspy voice.

“Yeah.”

“The rate’s sixteen ninety-nine a night. How many nights you plan on stayin’?”

I opened my mouth to answer him, but in truth, I didn’t know. I’d stay as long as I could with what money I had, but I needed to account for food, too.

The man sighed at my nonexistent response. “You can pay day-to-day. Your stay’ll last twenty-four hours, so by this time tomorrow, if you haven’t paid for another night, we’ll kick you out.”

I nodded, pulling the money out and shoving the change into my wallet.

“Your key.” He handed me a small, rusty piece of scrap metal that vaguely resembled a key. “Room sixteen.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.

I headed toward my room, pleasantly surprised at the low rates. Well, low for California at least. I understood why the second I got to the tiny bedroom that had next to no walking space and a bathroom that could barely fit a sink, toilet, and small shower. The faded green wallpaper peeled off the cracked walls, revealing tufts of mold. The bed had a large, orange comforter on top that consisted of itchy and probably unwashed fabric. Underneath was a single white sheet with a large yellow stain near the bottom. A short desk placed under a mirror across from the bottom of the bed left only a foot’s space between the two pieces of furniture, and the absence of windows left the single light in the middle of the ceiling to cascade the room in a dim, yellowish-orange hue.

I shrugged my stuff onto the ground and sat on the edge of the dirty bed, reaching for one of my bags and inspecting what my mom had placed inside of it: one sweatshirt, two long-sleeved shirts, a T-shirt, two pairs of pants, one pair of shorts, and some socks and underwear. I took the plain black sweatshirt and shrugged it on, pulling the hood over my head. I threw all the blankets off the bed and grabbed the T-shirt I knew I wouldn’t be wearing and shoved the pillow inside of it to create a clean, makeshift pillowcase.

I extended my body onto the firm mattress, rolling onto my left side with my back facing the door, curling into a ball.

Did this count as escaping? Because I finally got out? I didn’t think getting kicked out was necessarily an escape, but it had a similar feeling.

But what was I supposed to do now? Wait several more months for September to approach so I could move into Rowland’s dorm? I had the money my mom had given me plus an extra forty bucks already in my wallet. I had a credit card, but knowing my dad, he’d probably already cut it off. No matter, I didn’t even have enough to last me a month.

God, I wish I’d been born straight… but what was so wrong about liking men? What did I do that was so wrong?

I’d done nothing to deserve this.

If my parents were only going to love me conditionally, why did they even have me? I didn’t want to be here in the first place. I didn’t choose to be born. I didn’t ask for any of this.

I pulled my sleeves over my hands, placing them near my face and ignoring how much my ribs hurt. What I would’ve given for some pain killers, and I wasn’t talking about ibuprofen or Tylenol. I wanted—needed—something that would make it all stop hurting. Everything. All at once.

I stared blankly at the patterned wallpaper the entire night, my eyes burning a bright red from my lack of sleep. I didn’t know how the time passed, but I knew it was morning by the small bits of sunlight peeking in through the cracks of the door. Hunger and thirst wracked my stomach and throat, but I didn’t want to move. No, I couldn’t move. It didn’t really matter, though. Nothing did.

The ringing of my phone forced me to roll onto my other side for the first time in hours. My shoulder ached from the movement after bearing my weight all night. Glancing at the caller ID, I picked it up and put it on speaker.

“Aspen?” Coach Gale’s voice echoed through the line.

“Hey, Coach.” I tried to make my voice sound as normal as possible.

“Where’ve you been? You’ve missed practice twice now, and I heard you aren’t at school today, either.” He sounded worried.

“Sorry. I meant to call you earlier. I didn’t go to practice ’cause I have a fever.” The lie flew out of my mouth with ease.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m getting better,” I replied, struggling to add emotion to my voice.

“That’s good. Uhm…” The man suddenly sounded serious. “Since you missed practice, I can’t start you in the game Saturday.”

I sighed. “I don’t think my fever will break by tomorrow, anyway. I’ll probably miss the game.”

“Really?” he huffed. “Winning will be tough tomorrow, especially since Rafe won’t be there either.”

“Yeah, good luck…” I trailed off.

“You’ll be back to school by Monday, right?” he asked with a hopeful tone.

“I’m not sure. I’ll go if I’m feeling better.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll let you get some rest. Feel better.”

“Thanks, Coach.” He hung up with my reply.

I wondered if Rafe knew. If Isa had told him, too. How would he react? Maybe he’d shun me, ignore me as if I’d never been there in the first place. It probably wouldn’t be hard for him to do; we weren’t talking to each other right now, anyway.

He’d broken up with Amelia and said those things about me. I hadn’t gotten the chance to ask him yet, and I knew I shouldn’t be hopeful, but I needed to know. I needed to tie up this one last loose end. I needed closure.

Skipping baseball felt natural for the time being. I wasn’t exactly enjoying the sport at this point. It was a means to spend time with Rafe and a prospect for a chance to get out. There had been an ongoing debate in my head: Should I wait to kill myself and see how things would pan out in the future, or end it now and spare myself the pain? I constantly wavered between the two options, and whenever I made up my mind, the decision never seemed to stick.

My stomach growled and I pushed myself up into a sitting position, the pain in my ribs a hundred times worse than yesterday. I stood cautiously and limped to the bathroom. After taking a leak, I found myself staring into the mirror. Wow, I looked like total shit, and even though I was faking a fever, it appeared that I might not have been lying, after all. Gone was my normally gold-tinted skin tone; I was inhumanely pale, clearly sick, with colorless lips and dark circles under my eyes, revealing exactly how I felt on the inside. Light stubble ghosted my jaw and the area under my nose, but I had no razor to shave it. If I bought one, I’d take it apart and try to kill myself before I got a chance to say goodbye to Rafe, and he deserved at least that much.

I lifted my sweatshirt and long-sleeve past my pecs, inspecting the bruises. Unsurprisingly, my entire front side was covered in revolting blue-and-purple bruises. The darkest parts were concentrated near my hips and the lower part of my rib cage, which was where Alex’s heel and the balls of his feet had been when he was standing on me. The entire area was a dark color that faded into various shades of green near my sides, with lines of purple flowing into lighter colors. For some reason, it reminded me of the black spiderwebs that coated Cranks’ skin in The Maze Runner. It was gnarly and made me look as if I was on my deathbed—which I was, in a way.

I dropped my shirt and pulled down the fabric near my neck. The bruises from Alex strangling me were also darker, but rather than blues and purples, they were a deep pink with splotches of light purple here and there. The scratches just above those marks weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. If I was lucky, they wouldn’t scar and would fade in another week.

I tottered out of the bathroom and grabbed my phone, wallet, and key. When I stepped out the door to go to the lobby, sunlight blinded me and I immediately broke out into a heavy sweat from the heat.

I opened the front door and was met with the familiar chiming of bells. I looked to the side and noticed a door on the opposite side of the room.

“Is that a convenience store?” I asked the same man that had been working last night.

“Yeah. If you want anything, bring it here. I’ll ring you up.”

With a single nod, I ducked into the store. The size resembled that of a large office cubicle with enough space for only the bare necessities. I grabbed a toothbrush, a bottle of water, and a cup of ramen. When I came across the razors, I froze, my vision unfocusing. I could—I could use it just to shave. Beards were itchy. I could use it without… I could. I took it off the shelf and held it in my hands along with the other items, exiting the room just smaller than the lobby and dumping the items onto the front desk.

“And another night, too,” I added as I gave the man a little over thirty dollars.

He glanced up at my face and bluntly said, “You okay, kid? You look like shit.”

“Thanks,” I grumbled, snatching my stuff off the counter. “I feel like shit.”

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