Before: The Barbecue (Heather)
After Matty’s accident, Heather lost her motivation for running. The whole thing was too funny. She shouldn’t make fun of him like that in front of Kate, but it was so entertaining. He made such an easy target, with his cute, bumbling sincerity. So unlike most of the guys she’d met in the short months she’d been here. Still chuckling, she went back into her house and into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
“That was quick.” Her mom’s elbows were buried in the sink, her light hair tied back with a bandana.
“Matty Cutler from next door tried to jog with us, but his stomach disagreed,” she giggled.
“Oh my, what happened?”
Heather sat down and recounted the story to her mom, who laughed in all the right places. It had been hard, moving to this new town away from all her friends, and in the past months, she’d found herself closer to her mom. It was nice to have someone to talk to without the pressures of high school popularity. Parents had their advantages.
Her dad came in from the garage, wiping his hands on a cloth rag strewn over his shoulder. “Anyone ready for a barbecue? Sharon, did you remember to buy steak?”
“As if I could forget something important like the steak. On barbecue day. Imagine.” Her mom theatrically rolled her eyes and winked at Heather.
Her dad loved a good barbecue and extended invitations to everyone on the street. This was the third one this summer. Martin Keene believed in neighborhood solidarity and didn’t miss an opportunity to remind everyone how the world was falling to shit, and how events like this were the glue that kept everyone together.
“You’re back early.” He frowned, and Heather’s shoulders slumped. Here it comes.
“Matty Cutler from next door got sick.”
“So that means you get a day off?”
She bit her lip while her mom rushed to her defense.
“She already did ten miles this weekend, Martin.”
“Yeah, I bet Jordan said the same thing before he made the Bulls.” His voice took on a mocking falsetto. “I already practiced, why bother shooting more baskets?”
Heather ground her teeth. “I’m was the captain of two teams at school, dad. I think I’m doing okay, given I’ve only been here the single semester.”
“Exactly. You’re doing okay. Not great. Weren’t you going for the cross-country team when you leave for college? And you think you’ll make it? Other kids are out there hauling ass, not sitting inside, hen-clucking with their moms.”
“God, Martin, leave her alone,” her mom said.
“It’s for her own good. Kids today are lazy as shit and need someone to stay on them. You know I’m doing this for you, right sweetie?”
Heather ground her teeth and slammed her drink on the table. She said, “I guess I’ll just go do twenty miles then.”
The sarcasm sailed well over her dad’s head, and he patted her on the arm. “Atta girl.”
She squeezed her hands together into fists with enough force to cause her knuckles to crack.
“I’ll check on the Cutlers next door, see if they’re ready for tonight,” her dad continued, oblivious. “That Paul Cutler is a flake, you can’t rely on him to do anything.”
“Oh, stop. He’s a nice man.” Heather’s mom turned back to the sink.
“He’s a complete pussy. He doesn’t keep a lawn, Sharon. That’s the only measure of a man that matters. Do you know last week he asked for his burger well done? I mean, come on. What’s next, drinking cranberry juice instead of beer?”
Heather sighed and let her dad blather on. Whatever bizarre metric he used as a barometer for masculinity, it seemed to change every time he opened his mouth. Sometimes, she didn’t understand how her mom could stomach him. Regardless, sitting here sighing wouldn’t get the run out of the way any faster. Grudgingly, she admitted her dad might have been right. The lazy part of her was using the puke-incident to slack off, and half-assing it didn’t get her any closer to the finish line. She swallowed the rest of her drink and walked to the front door to lace her shoes back up.
The Matty incident had been funny, though. A blind person couldn’t miss why he wanted to jog with them. He needed an excuse to be around Kate. He had a thing for her, and everyone at school knew it. Kate liked him too and told Heather she wished he’d do something. He’d been dithering for almost the entire year.
Matty’s timidity made zero sense to Heather. You want something, you go for it. Waiting for other people was for suckers. No one would hand you anything, you had to go for it yourself. If nothing else, her dad had driven that into her.
Outside, she tried to put her irritation behind her and concentrate on the run. Twenty miles. She usually did ten, but this would show him she wasn’t slacking.
The weather was cooperating, at least. At this time of the year, it should have been muggy and hot, but the wind coming over the trees that surrounded the houses raised goosebumps on her skin. The sky was an odd shade of purple with the sun peeking from behind the clouds. Instead of her usual route, she made the snap decision to run through the forest surrounding the neighborhood, instead of up to the main street.
Even among the trees, something felt off. The noises she expected were silent as if the animals had retreated into hiding. A typical run would see squirrels cross her path or jays scold her from the safety of branches, high above, but the only noise was her breath and the slap-slap-slap of her shoes against the hard-packed dirt path.
The forest trail took her on a circuitous path around the neighborhood before she emerged a few miles away from her house. She checked her watch, which told her she’d done eight miles. And she had decided on twenty? Her breath already caught, and a minor stitch had settled into her side. Still, it was better than the alternative of a disappointed sneer from her father and ineffective protests from her mom.
Squaring her shoulders, she kept running.
By the time she got home, it was past noon, and her shirt clung to her body, sticky with sweat. Her vision swam, and it took most of her energy to put one foot in front of the other. Neither of her parents was around to see her victory, making the whole thing seem somewhat pointless. She peeled off her clothes as she took the stairs one spaghetti leg at a time before collapsing onto her bed in an exhausted heap. She should be used to this; her dad was never around and didn’t give a shit about her. Why else would he move her to a new town in her final year of high school?
Half an hour later, her phone buzzed with a message from Liz. Moving had been tough, and it was a lucky thing her parents picked this house with cool neighbors. As early as the first day, when the moving trucks unloaded her life, she and Liz shared shy glances from across their driveways. Girls could be tough to make friends with, but Liz was straightforward and honest. Within days, they were inseparable, often spending most of their time in the treehouse in the center of the street. Kate would join from time to time, but mostly, it was the two of them.
Liz didn’t seem to be in the mood for much texting. She only sent Heather two words and then stopped responding. She had typed treehouse. It was tough to read someone’s tone or mood over something as impersonal as a text, but the message gave Heather a bad feeling.
Something was wrong.