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The night is quiet and heavy.
A few cars rumble past me as I reach a dingy motel at the edge of town. I pay in cash and sign my name hurriedly, climbing up the stairs and throwing my bag onto the dusty bed.
Heading to the bathroom. A splash of cold water. A gaunt face and bags under my eyes stare emptily back at me.
I lay down on the itchy, moth bitten blankets, tense under the cracked ceiling shaped almost like constellations above me. Marcus’ scared eyes and frozen expression. Lucas’ wide smile and laugh, echoing on and on. The eyes of the crowd in court. Everything spins endlessly until I’m pulled into an uneasy slumber, where people keep screaming for help and I can’t hold onto any of them at all.
The next morning I jolt awake, entire body sore. I sling my bag over my shoulders anyways, heading down to the local park. The sun beams down from above; dogs bark happily and families throw frisbees around on the grass.
I ignore them and head directly to a worn down picnic table beneath a towering willow tree. A small stream curves by it; I steady my shaking hands as I approach.
A face looks up as I near and I stop next to the table.
Binny. Joseph’s younger sister.
A dozen emotions cross her face – surprise, fear, defensiveness.
“Don’t worry,” I say, my chest so heavy I wonder how I’m able to stay standing. “I’m not here to do anything.”
“Like what you did to my brother?” Binny retorts automatically, placing her sandwich down and turning to face me.
“You were ten.” I almost say something along the lines of, you were so young and you still have no idea why I did it and how much he deserved it and how irredeemable he is to me still but it’s not like you would understand that, but I say none of it. “Where’s Joseph, Binny?”
Binny stiffens and she wipes her hands on her jeans. She steadies herself and meets my gaze. “He isn’t around anymore. He got sent to boarding school around a month after you left.”
I nod slowly and I down in front of her. I study her face for a moment. She looks almost exactly like her brother. The hazel eyes, the myriad of freckles, the high cheekbones, the thin eyebrows and sharp chin.
“Are you looking to beat him up again?” Binny asks.
“Shut up,” I snap, unable to control myself. “He deserved what he got.”
Binny arches an eyebrow, and there’s genuine confusion in her gaze.
“Why? He’s a nice guy. He’s smart.”
“Nothing.” I turn away and gets up. This is accomplishing nothing. Binny didn’t do anything. It was her brother. And I’m not going to be the one who tells her the truth. I can’t bring myself to be the one who tells her the truth. “It’s nothing. Sorry for bothering you. Take care of yourself. Don’t get into trouble.”
“I won’t.” She replies, softer this time.
I shoot one more glance back at her; she’s picked up the sandwich again and is finishing it without another word. I shake my head and I walk away, feeling heavier than I did moments ago, if that’s even possible.
The heavy wooden door is too familiar; the careful etching of the numbers 5608, the chip in it where Lucas once accidentally hit it with a field hockey puck, the intricate bronze knob. I shuffle past the unkempt grassy yard, far messier than before, and pause at the doorstep.
My hands hang by my side, frozen, and I can only stare at the numbers, head spinning and body numb.
There’s a clang of dishes from the kitchen window and I jolt to a start, reaching to the ring the doorbell.
The sound of tap water turns off.
My heart thuds furiously in my throat and I take several deep, shuddering breaths.
The door creaks open and a lined, weary face peers out at me.
“Isaac?” she asks cautiously.
My vision begins to blur and I nod. Almost simultaneously, we both step forward and embrace each other in a hug.
“Come in,” she steps aside and I walk into the house of my former best friend.
The living room is messy, and there are stacks of take out food boxes by the kitchen counter. Dust and grime cakes some of the higher up shelves, as if she simply can’t reach up and clean them anymore.
A faded picture of Lucas and his mother still hangs on the fridge. I blink several times, something beginning to grow in my chest, threatening to choke me on the spot.
Lucas’ mother places two tea cups on the dinner table and I look away from the fridge.
“I didn’t expect you,” she begins softly.
I nod, sipping at the hot tea to avoid speaking for several seconds.
“How are you?” I ask.
Her hands are shaking and she places her own cup back down. It clatters slightly again.
“I’m doing alright, Isaac,” she says, but her eyes are glazed and distant. “My husband is working harder than ever. Disappears for almost twelve hours a day.”
I hang my head a little, studying the dinner table and the old scratches and coffee stains on it.
“I’m sorry,” I finally say. “I wish I can do something.”
She reaches out and takes my hand. “I know, Isaac. I wish I can do something for you too.”
I heave my backpack onto my lap and unzip a back pocket, retrieving a single photo. I hold it out to her.
“Before we left, you gave me his old photos. But I think you might want this.”
She turns it over and it’s a photo of the front lawn of the house we’re in. Lucas’ mother and father are sitting together on the porch, laughing, as the sun is setting over the roof.
“I think he took this when you weren’t looking,” I say softly.
Her hand is trembling and she holds it close to her chest for a moment.
“Thank you Isaac,” she replies, her eyes growing red. “We’ll be okay, right?”
I hand her a tissue on the table and she wipes her eyes.
“I don’t know,” I say, honestly. “I hope so.”
I take a deep breath and the words stumble out of me before I can help it.
“I’m really sorry. It’s my fault, what happened. I could have done something.” My voice is choking and my body is a million miles away from me. “I’m so, so sorry Mrs. Campbell.”
She reaches out and quickly takes my hand. “Isaac.”
I look up and meet her gaze, which is steadier now than before.
“It wasn’t your fault,” her voice trembles but she continues. “I know you loved him very much. You were his best friend, too. I don’t blame you for anything that happened. But I miss him very much.”
“I miss him too.”
She continues meeting my gaze and I look at her, and between us there’s an understanding, an empathy between us, that neither of us can find with anyone else.
The afternoon is quiet and heavy.
The path down to the river, its curling roots, beaten down dirt, and flanks of bushes, is almost exactly the same as before. My palms are sweaty as I come to a stop at the top of the rise, staring down the sloping hill towards the river below, a clump of freshly picked, pink and yellow and purple flowers, clutched in my hands.
A wave of nausea hits me and my chest tightens, my breath catching and stopping. I take several steps backwards until the water is no longer in sight, but its relentless roaring still fills the air, violent and relentless. No longer a nightmare now, no longer a deafening noise that overtakes me on street corners and in the middle of the night.
I try to steady myself, leaning against the coarse bark of a tree next to me.
My head spins until I stumble and I trip backwards onto the ground. I sit there hugging my legs, staring past the bushes and down the path. There’s an entire history, stories, all meeting right there. The weight on my back presses down on my shoulders, entwining around my lungs, and I close my eyes, exhaling slowly.
I have to see it again. I can’t never see this place again. I get up unsteadily to my feet, making my way down the path towards the rocks.
“I’m sorry.” I breathe out into the breeze. “I never said it, not here. But I’m so sorry.”
There is no reply but the cold rush of wind through the leaves.
The river continues crashing and roaring before me, an indifferent monster of a body.
I crawl closer and perch at the edges of the rock, a long washed away crime scene, and stare down into its murky depths. I will for an answer, for a sign, for anything at all. I wait for the tears but they won’t come. I wait for the anger but it won’t come.
My heart is in my throat and I kneel on the rock like a prayer, gripping the edge with my fingers curled so tightly against it the stone scrapes at my skin. The mist of the water sprays at my face as the river roars by.
I gently place the flowers I picked on the edge, arranging them in a neat line on the rocks.
The emptiness in my chest opens wider and wider until it threatens to swallow me whole, drown me in its nothingness.
“You were my best friend,” I say softly. “And I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for you.”
The water only rushes on and on and on.
“I hope you are resting easy now, Lucas.”