Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Five

Chapter Five -

Running a hand through my hair, I nurse a cup of coffee as mom hacks from her chair in the living room. The sound makes me roll my eyes as I chug the last drop of my coffee. I can see mom’s reflection in the TV and notice that she’s stitching. She used to make those all the time right after her accident. Since she couldn’t get out and exercise the doctor told her that it would keep her hands active. When I stand over her, I notice the blue birds and pink flowers that she’s stitching this time on a pillow case

“So,” mom says, looking up at me from her stitching as she pushes her glasses up her nose. They magnify her eyes making her look even older. “What are your plans for the day? I know you ain’t staying here up my ass all day.”

“Thought you’d want me up your ass all day, ma.” My lips curve into a smirk as she glares at me. Mom has bad memories of me staying home all day. As a teenager, mom hated grounding me more than I hated it. I knew the right buttons to press to annoy her. Probably still knew them but unlike the teen I was back then, I know how important my mother is to me now.

“Fine,” I say holding my hands up in mock surrender. “I’ll find something to do. Even if it is with those rascals I called friends at one time.” Mom just rolls her eyes returning to her stitching. I watch to ask her some questions but it’s too soon. She’d immediately be suspicious of my return. Though she already was, I could always see it in her eyes. Mom was gullible when it came to everyone but me or my father. She stopped listening to our excuses years ago. Sometimes I wish she would have stopped listening to my dad before he got sent away.

I lean and kiss the top of her hand, squeezing her shoulder. Standing upright, I head over to the phone in the kitchen. Despite the years away, I know Clyde’s number like the back of my hand. Thankfully it’s after noon, he should be awake. Probably hung over, but I know the cure of Clyde’s kind of hangover. He’s the only person that I can think of that will tell me what I need to know. Obviously Alisha and Nate have put me on their shit list.

Grabbing the phone, I quickly dial Clyde’s number hoping I don’t wake him. Waking a hungover Clyde is never a good thing, let me leave it at that. I think he once broke his expensive cell phone against the wall when Nathan called and he was hungover.

“Ash? Thought I’d hear from you today.” Clyde’s voice is thick with sleep. ”After the chaos last night with Ali, Nate, and Penny, thought I’d be hearing from you.”

“Yeah,” I chuckle dryly, “you’re the only person that will talk to me right now. How about we meet at the mall? Isn’t the cure for a hangover, the best nachos on town which happen to be at the mall.”

Clyde laughs. “Damn, man. You haven’t forgotten.” Clyde pauses and I hear him cough for a minute. “I just need a shower. Got up an hour ago. You know me, coffee and cereal first. I can meet you at the mall.”

“Thanks, man. I owe you one.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I know what you want to know. It’s not pretty, Ashford. You might come out of this wanting nothing more than to leave again. Anyway, I’ll see you soon.”

I put the phone back on the hook as mom stood from the chair. She looks at me before moving in my direction. “Do I need to expect a phone call from anyone while you’re gone?”

I know what she’s asking. It reminds me of the questions she asked my father when I was too young to understand. I pause because I’m not actually sure if anyone will call. I’ve been gone long enough for them to know that I’ve jumped bail. The bail bondsman is the one who will probably hire a bounty hunter. Though my employers might use the bail bondsman against me. I never told those people where I was from, at least not the truth. Yet I know who cunning those people can be. How long will it be before the police here are notified? Not sure if it’s the same sheriff, Malloy, but if it is, he’ll just show up at the house. He won’t even call because he knows my mother can’t withhold her temper toward me.

“If someone calls, take a message,” I sarcastically reply. It’s the best answer I have at the moment.

She rolls her eyes, reaching behind me toward the phone. I want to ask who she’s calling, but I have my suspicions. Her pills are probably gone already and she’s looking for another fix. It started as way to get pain pills since she was always in pain from the slipped disc in her spine, then the nerve endings were giving fits, but now, I’m pretty sure she’s addicted to the high.

“I’m gonna shower. Then I’ll head out. Don’t wait up.” I disappear down the hall, hoping to drown out her conversation.

~*~

The only mall within distance of our small town is actually out of town. It's fifteen minutes outside of town in their nearest larger city. It has three floors, food court, and a movie theater inside. Almost every other weekend, I can remember stalking out the theater with Nate, tossing popcorn on unsuspecting people. At time it was fun but the older I got, the more childish it had all become. I parked near the entrance for the food court hating the fact that I’d probably have to take the escalator. Whoever thought of that contraption should have to ride on it five times a day.

The thought of moving stairs made my stomach whirl. Cutting the engine, I pat the pack of cigarettes in my back pocket. Since seeing Brooke last night, I nearly smoked half the pack. It’s near empty now and my heart falls into my stomach. The mall doesn’t allow smoking inside, always had to go outside every hour to smoke with Nathan on the bench near the JC Penny entrance. We always hated that store and loved the disgusted looks of well off smelling like smoke when they entered the store. Counting out about four sticks left, I sigh. Just because I have the money to buy a carton, I know I shouldn’t spend it all.

Shoving the pack back into my jeans, I lock up the truck before heading inside. Just like every other Saturday, the place is full. Voices echo off the walls carrying throughout the building. My ears begin to ring as I walk through, squeezing past large crowds just standing around. I spot teenagers, young, probably middle school just standing around talking. Reminds me so much of my middle school years when I fell in with the wrong crowds. Maybe if my father had been around I wouldn’t have felt the need for the wrong crowd.

Surprisingly enough, I find Clyde wear I suspected to find him. Whenever he’s in this place there’s only one store, he frequents, a sport supply store. With his parent’s money, he constantly goes out to do different sports but they all deal with outside. He’s currently looking at the rock climbing equipment with squinting eyes.

“Really?” I laugh, my hands falling on his shoulders. “Rocking climbing? Since when have you been interested in heights?”

He rolls his eyes as he looks at me. I notice the shades that cover his eyes, probably more hungover than he’d like to admit. Stores like this are notorious for being bad for hangovers.

“Probably around the same time I got into camping. Kinda needed some kind of outlet when all my friends deserted me.” Clyde shrugs, placing the metal piece back on the wall. “So far, I’ve only been to the rock climbing indoors place on the outside of town. Trying to work up to doing the real thing. Anyway, ready for some food juicy gossip?”

I roll my eyes at him this time. Clyde loves how much this is getting to me. He’s childish like that, still hasn’t changed, but his adventurousness is new. I can see the sparkle in his eyes when we leave the store and the rock climbing equipment behind. It’s refreshing that Clyde has found something for himself. He always mostly the follower in our group. If Nate and I did something, he did too. Hell, the end of the year party wasn’t even his idea to begin with. It was more of Nathan’s idea than anyone. Nate took notice of Clyde’s parents always being gone and after the first successful party Clyde threw, Nathan was right there to encourage the end of the year party.

In the food court, a few people wave at Clyde and he smirks at them. A couple of women stride through, short skirts, tank tops, and wink at Clyde. They don’t even spare me a single glance, all it is thrown at Clyde.

“Since when did you become the lady’s man?” I ask as we stand in line.

“Oh, those girls?” Clyde nods toward the girls in the skirts who are leaving the food court. I just nod, giving him a ‘what do you think’ look. He chuckles with a shrug. “I met them at the indoor rock climbing. You’d be surprised by the hot women that attend that place. Most aren’t even interested in doing the real thing, they just use it for exercise.”

My lips twist. Should have known that Clyde had other motives for joining something so dangerous. We both order food, Clyde with his nachos and orange soda, me with a juicy cheese burger and soda. We sit together with my back facing the rest of the mall, my entire attention on Clyde. He has peppers all over his nachos as he slurps on the bendy straw in his glass. He looks toward my straw, and I merely nod watching the happy smile on his face as he unwraps it and drops it into his glass.

“So,” he says, picking up a chip, “what do you want to know first?”

I look down at my fries, grabbing the packet of mustard. “What’s happened with Brooke since I left?”

Clyde sighs. “Should have known you wanted to start there. You know you didn’t have any of us fooled about why you left. Alisha always wanted to see things from her point of view. She never could see that you actually cared more about that girl. Nate brought that up to me before the prank.”

I avoid his gaze, dipping my fries in the mustard. In order to continue avoiding his words, I take a bite out of my burger. When I do meet his gaze, Clyde looks triumphet. “Nice to see that hasn’t changed.” His lips curve into a smirk as he slurps his drink.

Rolling my eyes, I wipe my mouth, glaring at him for a moment before breaking my stare. “I saw Penny with Brooke last night, Clyde. What the hell is going on? I thought after Alisha was gone, it would stop.”

Clyde gives a sarcastic dry laugh. “If you really thought that, you didn’t know the extent of Alisha’s pull over that high school.” Clyde shakes his head, looking down at his food. “The prank wasn’t even the worst part, Ash. It was just the beginning.” He meets my gaze again, I can see the pain in his eyes. I thought I was the only one that felt responsible for what happened to Brooke. Guess not.

“Every year, since our prank, every graduating class as tried to up it. That meant going after Brooke once again. It’s only gotten worst each year. Brooke became an easy target for anyone looking to climb the social ladder.” My eyes are wide as I feel my appetite slowly vanishing. “I think it was last year that was the worst. I only heard about it at the end of the year party, everyone was talking about it. This guy, his name was Justin, went out with Brooke, they dated and everything.” Clyde paused to give me a moment. I hated to think about Brooke with anyone, but when I left I thought she’d get with someone that would treasure her. “They slept together, he was her first it turned out.” Clyde swallows, dropping his gaze. “Justin broke up with her, three days after they slept together. As part of another prank, he only went out with her to see how easy she was. That was once again broadcasted to the entire school.”

My fingers ball into a fist. I want to find this Justin and kick his ass. I’ve never felt hatred as I do for this faceless boy.

“She also lost her mother the beginning of her sophmore year. It was all over town, since her father used to be part of the police force.” Clyde continues which pulls my gaze up. Clyde shrugs. “Suicide. Brooke found her on the living room floor, gunshot wound to the side of her head. They assumed she pressed to the side of her head. According to what I heard, her mother was suffering from depression, worst than usual. Her parents were fighting a lot after her father left the force, got another job.”

I shake my head, tears welling in the back of my eyes. After all the pain I put her through, she had to lose her mother like that.

“That’s awful. Makes me feel even worst.” I shake my head, disgusted with myself. I can barely stomach the bite of the burger as it swishes in my mouth.

“That’s what you seem to forget about, Ash,” Clyde suddenly says, his gaze narrows at me. “You weren’t the only one that agreed to that prank. We all did, and we all face the blame for what we did that day.”

“You don’t get it, Clyde.” I shake my head, completely disgusted with the entire situation. “I could have broken things off with Alisha the moment she brought up the prank, but I didn’t. I went along with it.”

Clyde gives another sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, you could have done that. She would have gotten Nathan to do it instead. It was bound to happen, whether you were involved or not. Alisha knew what she was doing. She faces the concequences of her actions on a daily bases.”

I raise an eyebrow. Clyde smirks. “Remember she always said she’d get out of this town at the first chance?”

Now that I recall it, she did say that a lot. She always said our town was nothing but a small town for low lifes and people that didn’t care about their future.

“The college she applied found out about the prank. Actions unbecoming of a potential student. She was only able to get into the nearest community college. She failed the last semester, according to Nate, and she’s taking classes during the summer. She also lost any chance of a scholarship which is why she works part time in a job off campus and on campus.” Clyde shrugs crunching a chip between his teeth.

Somehow even though Alisha has suffered for her actions, it doesn’t make it right. “What about Nathan?”

Clyde shakes his head. “Nate never had plans to leave town. He was gone for like six months, a year after you left, but he came back and been back ever since. Think he was visiting some family hoping they’d take him but they refused. He lives with his dad now, mom left a year ago. I think he’s been trading odd jobs around town.”

I sigh as we both elapse into silence. I have to admit that Clyde was right before, maybe thanking him was premature. Part of me wishes I didn’t know about Brooke. She’s suffered so much and it seems at least half rests on my shoulders.

“When did Alisha and Nathan get together?” I ask around a bite of my burger and fries.

Clyde tilts his head. “Right before he left for six months, they tried something, but once again it was Alisha breaking things off. After he came back, he found out about Alisha’s college situation. They flirted constantly and as far as I know, they slept together while drunk at a party. Wasn’t my party though. Nate told me Alisha wasn’t ready for a relationship at the time so it was just friends with benefits. It’s only recently that she agreed to actually try a real relationship. Nate thinks she finally wanted that after seeing him with a girl over holiday break. Jealousy has never been something Alisha was particularily good at dealing with.”

We both share a dry laugh about that one. Even I knew back then the number one thing that pissed Alisha off was when I flirted with other girls. Should have been my first clue when she found out about Brooke what she was going to do. Alisha was an acting before thinking kind of person back then not thinking about the consequences of her actions. I turn the conversation wanting away from this moment.

“What about you, Clyde?” I wipe my hands off on a napkin as I finish my food.

“Not much to say really. Unlike Alisha and Nathan, I understood why you left. You couldn’t watch the fallout of what we did. After you left, though, our friendship wasn’t the same, still isn’t. I only ever see Alisha and Nathan at parties or when Nate needs something. You were always the person he went to talk, but I’ve suddenly become that person for him. Not that I mind, of course. I think I’m the one that put distance between me and them. It took the whole the college thing to Alisha before she started to realize that maybe the prank wasn’t a good idea. I never good about it and got an excuse to get away from them after you left. In some ways, you were the rational one. The other two really couldn’t function much without you.”

“They’ve done well for themselves in my absence.” I shrug, leaning back in the chair. Immediately the front legs lift off the floor.

“Took a long time for that to happen. They were lost without you for a while. Think it’s why Nate left, he had to find himself before he could really be with Alisha.” Suddenly a familiar monotone ringing rises. Clyde sighs, leans back in his chair and pulls out an iPhone from his pocket. He rolls his eyes at the screen before placing it at his ear. Clyde always has the latest technology thanks to his parents. He’s barely on the phone five minutes before he hangs up.

“That's the cleaners for the house. Looks like something has come up. I gotta get back.” Clyde stands up, takes his trash to the can before returning. “Hope I explained everything that you wanted to know. Maybe we’ll hang out again soon. Have missed you, buddy.”

In this moment, I wish I had been closer to Clyde in high school. Maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. Back then I treasured my relationship with Nathan above everyone else. We were once close because we hung out since elementary.

“Absolutely. Listen, I’m sorry for the shit back then that we got you into. It was a really shitty thing to do to you back then. Wish we could have been closer.”

Clyde waves me off. “Not me. You weren’t exactly the best role model back then. We’re a bit older now, more mature. Think we can have a better friendship now. Anyway, I’ll see ya later, man. Have a walk around the place, find the changes.” He waves his two fingers over his head before he disappears through the crowds. I shake my head at his behavior. At least I made one good choice in high school, being friends with Clyde. After a few minutes on my own, I toss my garbage before taking Clyde’s advice, walking the mall.

The only things I immediately notice that are different are the advertisements and decorations. I’m walking toward the escalators, my throat tightening when I hear it. I look up toward the other side, the escalator going up toward the second floor instead of down. Even though her face is covered by shades and she complains, I know her immediately. Despite only hearing her voice last night, I know her anywhere. Her blonde hair in a pony tail and the smile that spreads on her lips.

Brooke.

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