Chapter One -
THREE YEARS LATERMy hand clutches the doorknob, afraid to turn it. The blood rushing through my ears drowns out the nerves grumbling in my stomach. My hand begins to shake around the knob. I know what I’ll find on the other side of the door. I should open it, take in the disaster that awaits, yet I can’t. It’s my own fault for getting into this mess in the first place. Getting caught up with bad people seems to be a habit of mine. Swearing under my breath, I squeeze my eyes shut and twist the knob. The door squeals open the same time as my eyes.
My voice falls into my stomach at the sight of my living room. Six months ago I finally had the money to pay a deposit on an apartment long term. Before that, I had been living in my truck moving from job to job, city to city. It was a cowardly thing to do, running from my past and the mistakes I made years ago. Yet it had been my life, something I made. For years since I left that sorry excuse for a hometown, I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t get caught up with the wrong people. Instead, when I finally hit near rock bottom I caved. The sight of my apartment is my just rewards.
I’ll never get that deposit back.
The entire front rooms are pitch black, the only available light coming from the street lights. The living room had never been fully furnished, but the small love seat and sofa were stripped. The cushions of each chair slashed, the cotton spilling into the floor. It’s a miracle the windows aren’t busted but the blinds are broken. The windows were my first clue they had been in the apartment in the time it had taken me to get bail. My 40" flat screen lay toppled over on the floor, the picture fuzzy and busted. My ears can pick up the slight buzzing of the TV screen. Even a few floorboards are busted, pointing toward the wall or the ceiling. I know the entire apartment looks the same, I don’t need to check every room.
I pull the door close behind me, not caring enough to deadbolt it. Glancing at the back of the door, however, tells me I couldn’t deadbolt it even if I wanted. The chain for the lock is broken and the locks are bent. No wonder it was so easy for me to get in without my key. Shaking my head, I use the street lights as a guide toward my bedroom. Thankfully I don’t see the state of the kitchen, which probably resembles that of the living room. Thankfully the light in the bedroom still works. The bedroom is in a state similar to the rest of the house. Except there’s a message written across the wall in dark ink.
You owe us.
My heart sinks in my chest. Shaking my head, I ignore it walking toward the closet. They rummaged through every drawer, every nook and cranny in the house and still never found my hidden stash. The moment I started to work for those people, I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. After the promise I made myself, I knew I couldn’t work for them forever. When I knew that I knew that I needed to save some of the money for a rainy day. This was my rainy day. Living with a mother that was on disability and extremely gullible, I became an expert on hiding things. Hiding money was one of my specialties. Opening the pea size closet, I pulled on the string enveloping the room in more light. They even destroyed my closet, as well as some of my clothes. They must have gotten tired afterward because they didn’t search any harder.
Lowering to my knees, I moved aside the boxes that were beaten and torn. Underneath the boxes was a loose floorboard I made sure was loose when I moved in. I moved it around each week from floorboards and places in the walls. Working with bad people, I had to become a little bad myself. The best part about the board I pulled loose, it would only come loose if it a certain way. Grabbing the flathead screwdriver in the toolbox, which they didn’t steal, I hit the end against the crack between the boards. It immediately pops open and I breathe a sigh of relief. Sitting in a ziploc bag was my hideaway stash that I had saved for a rainy day such as today. Picking it up, I slide it open and pull out the stacks of money counting it out. Once the amount passes through my thoughts, I nearly cry out in relief. They really didn’t find it. Ten thousand dollars. After less than a year of work, I have managed to save just about ten thousand dollars. It couldn’t come at a better time.
Tossing the money back into the bag, I push to my feet. Grabbing the little clothes I own, I pull out my familiar dark blue duffle bag. That single duffle bag has lasted me five years. Over the years I have been gone it is the only thing that has kept my belongings safe. Moving toward my dresser, I toss what isn’t torn toward the bed and duffle bag. It’s toward the past drawer on my dresser that I come across it. It’s almost even more torture to find that piece of my past sitting innocently in a drawer. I pull out the pieces of paper my eyes once again following the curves of the letters.
She hasn’t left my thoughts. Even after the horrible thing I did to her. I don’t deserve her. I knew the moment she entered my life that cold February day that I would bring nothing but darkness into her life. I lived up to that knowledge tenfold. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that I haven’t wished there was something I could do to make up for that single mistake. When I look up and glance at the duffle bag, I begin to wonder. Skipping bail is going to be a hard thing to do as it is. I can only outrun the cops for so long, but outrunning them isn’t what I’m doing. I’m outrunning people even worst than the cops. I knew the moment they granted bail, that I’m a dead man walking. It’s only a matter of time before they catch up to me. Staying here is nothing more than suicide. Maybe if I can outrun them long enough for the cops to catch me, I might survive. Yet, surviving isn’t the thing on my mind at the moment.
Forgiveness. I have never been able to tell her how I felt. That I was just a stupid teenager that didn’t understand at the time how little those people cared about me. I’m still guilty of caring too much about how people think of me, but that has to change. There’s only one person who’s opinion of me matters. My lips curl up. It’s been almost four years since I last saw her running out of that auditorium with tears streaming down her cheeks. She’ll be graduating this year.
There’s a calendar that hangs just above my dresser. If I’m correct graduation is in two days. It will take me about a day to drive back there. My hometown is the first place the cops will find me. Hopefully I can see Brooke again and convince her to forgive me before they find me. If by some chance the others catch me first, I’ll lead them away.
Making the rash decision, I stuff the money and clothes into the duffle bag. The apartment is trashed as if demo is about to take place and one look at my watch, I know I don’t have much time. Raul, the bondsman, will probably kill me for jumping, but he doesn’t know who I’m working with. If he knew, if anyone knew, they never would have granted me bail. One last look at the apartment from the door, I bid the life I’ve lived here goodbye. Thankfully my truck is always hidden in a neighbor’s joint garage that he didn’t mind I use. He’s been away with work for the last couple of months and I’ve stashed my truck here every night. Tossing my duffle bag into the passenger seat, I shut the door and start the engine.
Brooke, here I come.
The moment my truck passes the town like, flashes of memory spark across my vision. I can still remember the kids that tagged the back of the Welcome sign with spray paint. I squint as I pass and notice the blue paint on the back has since faded with the years. Thankfully as I drive through town, not a single person recognizes the faded blue scared pick up truck. When I left, I rode an old motorcycle that I fixed up with help of an older neighbor.
Though I seemed out grow that bike shortly after leaving. I traded that bike for this truck which has kept me dry from many rains and cushioned my sleep when I had nowhere else to go. Unconsciously, I drive past the high school where the best and worst memories of my life are held. I find a place in the parking lot and sit for what seems like hours but is only minutes. The banner across the front of the building tells me all I need to know.
The sign brings up terrible memories. Graduation was meant to be a grand experience. It was the exact opposite for me. By graduation, my relationship with Alisha was contentious at the best of times and I dealt with Nate and Clyde on the worst days. My mother was so badly addicted to pills that she was driving across small towns to get another fix as I walked across the stage. My mother is the only person, besides Brooke, that I’ve felt guilt for leaving. She couldn’t even handle paying the bills and her pill habit at the same time. Yet, I had to get out, find my own way because I was almost to the point of joining her, just to get away.
Graduation must be tomorrow if the sign is already on display. If the sky is clear tomorrow, they’ll have the graduation on the football field otherwise it will be inside in the auditorium. I pray suddenly for clear skies. The last thing Brooke needs on her graduation day are memories of the past. The auditorium would hold horrible memories that should not tarnish her good day. Shaking my head, I start the truck again, leaving the parking lot.
The drive to my mother’s house, my childhood home, is the same as it was years ago. The only differences of the neighborhood is how much each house has fallen apart in the years I’ve been gone. The houses on either side of mother’s house are empty turning into decrypted crack houses. The house on the left side still has the busted upper window where my friends and I threw a baseball through. Though when I look at my mother’s house, I see the shingles on the roof are loose and the yellow paint is fading and falling off. The front windows are covered by thick dark curtains. The concrete driveway is cracked and showing signs of age, but I park over it finally noticing that mother’s tiny red car is missing.
I suspect she’s gone for another refill on her habit. Some of the bills have probably been sacrificed in order for her to have her pills. I cut the engine and stare at the broken screen door that barely hangs by its hinges. The screen on the door has been split either by the wind or a knife, though I suspect a knife. Even before I left houses in this neighborhood were notorious for break ins. Sighing, I squeeze my eyes shut feeling the pain behind my eyelids. I’ve caught a couple hours of sleep, since I left, in the truck on the side of the road. My entire body aches as if I’ve finally come down from the adrenaline. It was the only thing keeping me going and now that I’m here, it’s beginning to wear off.
When my eyes open, I quickly grab the duffel bag and shuffle out of the truck. I don’t even spend five minutes to stare at the dried up, dead flowers underneath the front windows. Mom always hides the hide-a-key above the front door after a would be robber found the fake rock in her flower pot. The moment I open the door, the smell assaults me. Mom hasn’t been a cleaner since her work accident when I was younger. Flipping on the light as I enter, the smell almost overwhelms me. There must be bad food in the fridge or the toilet has backed up again. I shut and lock the door behind me and glance in the living room. The shelf between the recliner and loveseat is overflowing with magazines.
A brochure sits beside the remote and makes me roll my eyes. Yet another get rich quick scheme. There’s also another advertisement for a growing business looking for investors. I pick it up and rip it in half knowing how much my mother will hate me for it. With her pill habit, mom has become rather gullible. She lost so much money even before I left believing in people’s businesses and these get-rich-quick schemes. Tossing the torn pieces into the trash, I head down the hall ignoring the smells and the state of the house.
My bedroom hasn’t changed much. The ratty thin mattress still sits in the farthest corner from the door. There are no curtains over the window, just a set of white blinds. There’s only a white sheet over the mattress as well. I toss the duffle bag to the floor and kick the door shut behind me. I pull off my shoes and fall backward on the bed, my knees bent as I prop my feet on the bottom railing. The ceiling is peeling over my head, yet I can’t even see the shade of white in my vision. Just as I remember during high school, I would lie here and think of her. The last time I saw Brooke smile again comes to mind.
I’m here, Brooke.