[ STORY STATUS: COMPLETED ]
By the time my stepmother woke up on the morning of July 7th and realized that not only I, but also her boyfriend’s motorcycle was gone, I was clear on the other side of the city. She usually rose earlier, hardly past five A.M. even on the weekends, but on this particular morning, I’d finally beaten her. No matter how she searched our apartment high and low, she had no chance of finding me.
Looking back on that morning, I’m actually not sure why I stole my stepmother’s boyfriend’s motorcycle and left the house so early in the morning. The events leading up to that fateful ride stay locked in a vault in the back of my mind, and I’ve never been able to unlock them (not that I want to). To me, all that matters happened after that.
By the position of the sun in the sky, I can guess that it was about six A.M. when I came circling back to the downtown area of the city. Even at such an early hour, the sun was already beating down on my spine and burning a hole through the back of my helmet. Every movement I made brought about the horribly uncomfortable feeling of my sweat-stained shirt clinging to my back and moving with me like a second skin. Despite the city’s size, no one seemed to be awake at this time, as if everyone collectively decided that Saturdays didn’t begin until noon. The only sound that broke through the eery silence was that of the motorcycle’s engine.
I roared through the narrow streets with no particular goal in mind, other than to go—if at all possible—even faster than I already was. Despite the fact that I was still clearly anchored to the ground, my mind was entirely somewhere else, straining to move fast enough to outrun everything in my past. I was completely convinced that if I was faster, just a tiny bit faster, I could leave everything behind.
Even now, I’m not positive how I felt her when I was going at that speed. As I passed by a small storefront on the side of the road, I felt an indescribable presence radiating on my right side—like a warmth in the air. Under any other circumstances, I would have ignored the feeling, but in the two years since my father’s death, I’d come to recognize the feeling as proof that he was with me.
So, when I felt this warmth, I had no choice but to look.
When I turned, though, I didn’t find my father; rather, I found a pretty brunette girl standing in the doorway of a shop, pushing unruly bangs out of her eyes as she stared at me. Her gaze startled me; it gave me the sudden, nonsensical feeling that she was looking straight into my soul. Even more shocking was the fact that I believed that I could see into her soul as well. There was nothing but her and me, plus ten pavement spinning by at seventy miles an hour between us.
Because of my sudden infatuation with the stranger, I didn’t see the child that stepped out into the road until it was too late. By the time I noticed, all I could do was jerk to the left and squeal sideways toward my victim. For an unspeakable moment, all I could hear was the sound of rubber tires sliding across the pavement, and the sound of glass shattering.
The motorcycle skittered onto its side, leaving me to embrace the full impact of the crash on my own. I stopped a few feet away from the child, but the bike was only an inch or two away from crushing him before it came to rest. The damn kid was left untouched and completely unharmed in the street.
I wasn’t. I never got the chance to see what happened to him, because the moment I hit the ground, my head split open and I could do nothing but bleed to death on the pavement.
But I know one thing: if the strange girl didn’t see my soul in my stare, she certainly saw it in my bloody, embattled body as I died—out in the open, for the entire world to see.
[ JULY 21 ]
I left the apartment early on the morning of July 21st, heading toward the town center by foot. Despite it being just over four miles from the apartment to the local high school, neither I nor Candace had any mode of transportation (and I would have never accepted it if she had). So every morning, I woke early and walked the full distance on my own.
This particular morning, I began the walk late, with the back of my skull pulsing against the new stitches in my skin. According to witnesses, when the accident happened, the helmet that I’d been wearing had split open completely, like a cracked watermelon. According to the doctors, my head had done the same. Realistically speaking, the doctors assured me that I shouldn’t have survived. Practically impossible, they said.
I touched the stitches lining the back of my skull though my hat.
My headphones, despite being relatively light, were bearing down along the top of my head, and I could feel the pressure along the new opening in my head. Even with my hat to break the contact, I still felt it every time I stepped, as if the back of my skull were going to burst open all over again.
My headphones, however, were one of the few things that I had entirely to my own name. So, despite the weight and the way the bass pounded against my wound, I kept them on, cranking up the volume until I could blast the pain into oblivion. Depending on how loud I played my music, I could do many different things to the world around me, but I usually took it in three intervals.
The first put the world on mute.
The second rattled my bones and pounded the world until it shook.
The third blurred the edges of my vision, sucked the feeling from my body, and shattered the world around me until there was nothing but unrelated faces and strangers.
I settled for the first one, as the pulsing in the back of my skull was already enough to blur the edges of my vision on its own.
I stopped halfway up the long concrete staircase that led to the main doors of the local high school. Sliding down toward the ground, I leaned against the place where the stairs met the side of the building, and did my best to avoid the gazes of my various classmates. It had been two weeks since I’d been to school, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that every living soul had heard about my accident by now. I would receive pitiful glances, for sure—all I could do was try to keep my distance as best I could as I rested on the cold steps, unable to muster the stamina to finish the climb in one go.
I was just beginning to consider taking a nap before class started when a girl moved into my line of sight, squatting down directly in front of me. She placed her hands on her knees, balancing on her toes as she looked me directly in the eyes, smiling. I stared at her incredulously, only taking off my headphones when her lips began moving, but I couldn’t make out any sound.
“You go to this school?” she asked, watching me intently. “How is your head?”
“You’re the one with the motorcycle, right? I guess you’re alright if you’re here?” she continued.
I couldn’t help glaring at her, in her nosy curiosity. Was she making fun of me?
Without warning, she leaned forward and placed her hands on my knees, smiling despite my shocked distain. “Feel better, then.”
I stared in disgusted fascination as she stood and retreated up the stairs without so much of a glance backward. For a few immeasurable moments, I waited there on the steps, tinny notes of my music leaking from my headphones, which now rested around my neck. The back of my head was pulsing worse than it had been before the stranger brought it up, and now the thought of standing and going to class was even less appealing.
When the bell rang through the campus, I rolled my head backward, leaning against the wall behind me.
The stairs weren’t getting any shorter.
Of course, they were all staring at me.
I felt eyes on me the moment the bell sounded through the halls, and the teacher ended the lesson for the day. Even though I’d anticipated being the center of attention (at least until something more interesting came along), I still felt as if I’d been put up on display like a slab of meat. Expectation never seemed to dull the impact of something that I’d hoped to avoid.
No one spoke, though, as par usual. They didn’t need to, with the way their eyes were boring holes through my skull.
I collected my things and slipped my headphones around my neck, standing from my seat and ignoring the glances thrown my way as I left the classroom. Voices erupted the moment I reached the hallway, and if any of them were foolish enough to believe that I couldn’t hear, then they deserved to be clobbered over the head.
Or perhaps thrown off of a motorcycle.
After I’d escaped the classroom, I started down the maze of hallways, heading toward the nurse’s office, where one of my many doctors had promised to prepare a place for me to rest. While I wasn’t one to accept any stranger’s help or advice, I was all in favor of skipping class (and all the judgmental glances) and taking a nap in the nurse’s office.
At the office, the door was already open, and the nurse was absorbed in something on a glowing computer screen at her desk. I entered the room slowly, knocking the back of my fist against the doorframe and making her jump.
She stood quickly, brushing her hands off on her skirt and smiling. “You startled me. What can I do for you?”
I took in the room around me, taking a few leisurely steps into the office and peeking around her at the metal-framed bed against the back wall.
“Are you Aiden Toh?” she asked, watching me with slight discomfort as I avoided her eyes.
When I didn’t answer and only looked slowly toward her, raising an eyebrow, she quickly nodded and gestured toward the bed with a clipboard.
“Right. I’ve prepared a place for you to stay, if you need. You can come here at any time at all during these next few weeks. Your doctor informed me to make sure that you get enough rest and have a place to relax if needed. So…”
She slowly trailed off, looking back toward me. I passed her without a second glance, dropping my backpack next to the bed and pulling my headphones up and over my ears. I watched her go awkwardly back to her desk on the other side of a wall that divided the room in half and sighed outwardly, rubbing the back of my neck with my palm. A woman like that was far too young to be a nurse, even if just for a high school; and suddenly I didn’t have any plans to return to the office again to ‘rest’.
Once she had disappeared behind the other side of the wall, I laid down slowly on the stiff bed and brought my phone from my pocket, finding the first playlist on the screen and pressing play. There in the nurse’s office, music began to flood through my headphones, and I breathed out slowly, clasping my hands on my stomach and letting my eyes close, even if just for a few moments.
A few moments of peace were better than none.
I woke with a stranger’s hand on my bicep, shaking me as if I’d suddenly slipped into a coma. After a few moments of only wishing to be left alone, I finally conceded and opened my eyes, instinctually brushing the hand off of my arm. I blinked a few times to urge the world into focus, trying to make sense of the figure kneeling in front of me. It took a few seconds before I recognized the face of the stranger—the girl who had spoken to me earlier in the morning.
The one who had witnessed my accident.
It was hard to be positive if it was her—the girl that I’d locked eyes with moments before I’d tumbled off of the motorcycle—what with the fuzziness that surrounded the event in my memory. Still, something in her eyes felt more familiar than a bystander, like we’d met before I crashed.
Even if only for a few moments.
Her lips began to move, and it took a few seconds for me to realize that with my headphones blaring music in my ears, I couldn’t make out a word. I quickly slipped the headset down onto my neck, staring at the girl incredulously, equal parts shaken from the sudden recognition and irritated by her second appearance on a day when I really didn’t want to see anyone.
“Motorcycle Boy,” she announced as soon as I could hear her properly. She said it as if it were a proclamation—as if she’d named me herself, even.
I glared sharply at her.
“You were asleep here?” she asked, looking around her, where we were positioned part-way up the main staircase.
She was right. After finding out the sort of situation in the nurse’s office, I’d opted instead to find a nice, shaded place in the front of the school to relax when the pain in my head kindly informed me that no, I would not be participating in class today. Falling asleep had been purely accidental, but as I watched a weak stream of people pass by us on the stairs, I knew that I’d been out for longer than I’d expected.
“Class is over. You should go home and find a bed,” the girl continued, pulling my attention back toward her. “It’s no good to be sleeping in places like this.”
I didn’t reply, nor did I thank her. She was filling a strange role in my life suddenly, I wasn’t sure what direction she thought it was going in. I was almost positive she was wrong, though.
She looked over her shoulder. “Anyway. Feel better.”
And with that, she rose to her feet and tossed a smile my way, waving as she headed down the stairs and further away from me. I watched her all the way to the second flight of stairs, where she suddenly disappeared from view.
Brown eyes. Brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail. A uniform that didn’t fit her quite right. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about her or her sudden entrance into my life.
I leaned back against the wall, running my hands through my hair.
So why was she continuously popping up everywhere?
It took me longer than normal to make my way back to the apartment, but when I arrived, she was seated on the couch with her work spread across the coffee table, as if she was waiting for me.
Candace looked immediately toward me, smiling forcefully. “Aiden! You’re late today. I hope everything was alright at school.”
I entered the apartment slowly, kicking my shoes off toward the wall. “You can go ahead and stop acting interested now. Neither one of us is buying it.”
She seemed to deflate slightly before almost instantly perking up and reaching toward the coffee table, where she held out something steaming in a mug. “I made something coffee, since I know you’re always tired after school, especially if you don’t get your caffeine in the morning…”
I passed by without a word, heading straight down the hallway that led to my bedroom and leaving Candace to trail behind me.
“Aiden, please have some. It’ll help you feel better.”
I stopped abruptly in my tracks, twisting toward her quickly enough to startle her and nearly spill the drink.
“Don’t concern yourself with how I’m feeling,” I said quickly, watching her wither. Before she could formulate a response, I yanked at the handle of bedroom and slipped inside, slamming it before she could get any fantastic ideas of following me.
Inside the confines of my bedroom, I tossed my backpack aside and slumped into the rolling chair in front of my desk. My laptop waited on the tabletop—one of my few remaining gifts from my father—already opened, but dark without use. As soon as I touched the keypad, a spiraling list of different musical projects appeared, unraveling down the page. In the most recent years, I hadn’t composed music as much as I used too. Every song was the same, anyway.
Angry and distant—which conveniently seemed to have become style, in music and in daily life.
None of it was worth listening to, so I quickly closed the page.
It was cleaner that way.
[ JULY 25 ]
When Candace called for the fourth time, I let her go straight to voicemail—for the fourth time. She had been calling periodically—once every few hours—since I left the apartment early in the morning, without a word of warning or when I’d be back.
But it was only eight at night, and I was still wandering the short aisles of a local ‘stop-and-shop’, searching for something to fill my empty stomach and something else to stop the pulsing in my skull. I knew without a doubt in my mind that Candace would have food prepared when I decided to make my way back to the apartment, but I wasn’t interested in whatever she had to prepare. Besides, food always tasted better when eaten alone.
I had just picked up a container of instant noodles and was eyeing the price label when voices rose from the other end of the small shop. After peeking between the aisles, I immediately understood why I’d recognized one of the voices—it belonged to a nosy brunette with a school blazer and a messy ponytail. The cashier took a canned juice and granola bar that she had evidently brought to him, and I ducked back down the hall, hoping to escape her notice as she finished whatever she was doing.
I scowled at the noodles, overhearing the girl as the cashier continued to ring her things.
For a moment, there was a silence, and then a shuffling of bills. Finally, she said, “Excuse me? I think you forgot my change.”
The cashier scoffed, pushing the register shut with a crash. He lowered his voice slightly, but not enough to keep me from hearing. “Listen. Times are tough, missy. Give your change to someone who needs it.”
“I need that money, though,” the girl continued.
I cursed to myself under my breath, slightly crushing the styrofoam cup of noodles in my hand as I stood, heading reluctantly toward the front of the store.
The cashier leaned across the counter, eyeing her. “I’m not in a good mood. You should think about taking your juice and leaving.”
I appeared behind the strange girl silently, leaning one hand on the counter and watching the man jump in surprise.
“Tell me…” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Are you a betting man?”
The cashier stared at me for a few seconds, as if trying to decipher the true meaning of my question. Finally, he crossed his arms over his chest.
For a moment, I only watched as he began to sweat, then pointed up at the corner near the ceiling, where a security camera was mounted.
“Do you think that camera is working properly?” I asked, watching him for any response.
He glanced up at the camera and slowly back to me. “Probably.”
“So would I. That’s a good bet to go with. And if you’ll allow it, we can both just say that we won—that is, unless you want me to take this to whoever is in charge here and ask them to prove whether it’s working properly.”
The man glared daggers at me, then up toward where the camera was mounted in the corner. I stood back away from the counter, shaking the noodles in my cup and eyeing him curiously. Finally, he broke my gaze and dug into his jeans pocket, producing six crumbled dollar bills that he slapped on the counter. He began to turn and head toward the back room, but I dropped my cup on the countertop, regaining his attention.
“You can keep this. I don’t think I’m hungry anymore,” I said simply, watching the cashier in my peripheral. He stopped in his steps for only a moment before continuing to the back room, locking the door and leaving us on our own.
Once he disappeared, I sighed, sliding my hands into my pockets and heading toward the exit of the shop. I’d only taken a few steps when the girl snatched the crumpled pile of money off of the counter and met me at the door, standing between me and the exit.
“Motorcycle Boy,” she said, staring at me, wide-eyed. “Thank you.”
I nodded dismissively, avoiding her eyes as I tried to side-step her to the exit. Instead of letting me pass, though, she stepped with me, blocking the doorway completely.
“What’s your name?”
I sighed, looking everywhere but at her, before finally meeting her eyes. “Aiden. Aiden Toe.”
She smiled, looking my directly in the eyes as if it had no effect on her whatsoever. I inevitably turned elsewhere.
“Aiden,” she repeated. “Let me walk you home. I’ll buy you something to eat, since you weren’t able to get anything in there.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” I asked, raising a tired eyebrow at her. “I’m not hungry.”
I attempted to slip past her again, but for the second time, she somehow managed to position herself in my way.
“Fine. Then I’ll just walk you home—”
“No,” I interrupted abruptly. She blinked in surprise, so I looked toward the floor, shaking my head. “I’ll walk alone.”
Before she could regather her wits, I pushed my way through the exit, bumping her shoulder and forcing her back a step. For a moment, I considering stopping to make sure that I hadn’t hurt her by some stretch of the imagination.
But the sun was going down, and this crazy stranger wanted to walk me home.
So I kept walking.
“I’m Ava, by the way!” she called toward my back, from the doorway of the park-and-shop.
I kept walking.
I woke to a rapping at my bedroom door, where a voice drifted through the cracks from the other side. For as long as I could allow myself, I didn’t move, other than to open my eyes and mentally trace designs in the ceiling. When the voice sprang to life again in the hallway, I rolled onto my side and faced away from the door, glaring at the wall.
Finally, Candace pushed the door open and entered quietly, letting the door shut with a soft click. She made her way slowly to my bed, where she sat on the other side, behind my back, and gently touched my shoulder. The moment her fingers brushed me, I turned abruptly toward her and slapped her hand away from me. For a moment, she coiled back, but as soon as she recovered her wits and opened her mouth, I rolled back onto my side, preemptively rejecting whatever she planned to say.
“You were home late last night. Where were you?” she asked.
I yawned, lying silently with my back to her.
“I waited up for you, but I must have fallen asleep.”
Yes, she did wait up for me. When I arrived home the night before, roughly twenty minutes past midnight, she was asleep on the couch, one hand holding her head up while the other clutched her phone. Naturally, I’d left her there to sleep without waking her.
“You should have woken me, you know. I was worried.”
I sighed inwardly, staring at the wall and waiting impatiently for her to disappear.
For a few seconds, she was silent, only shifting slightly on my bed.
“I made coffee. I know it’s easiest to wake up in the morning with a nice, strong cup, right?” she added, smiling from my peripheral.
She tapped her foot lightly on the carpet, waiting for a response, before continuing.
“Please have some. It’s good to get something in your stomach early like this.”
After a being met by only silence once again, she sighed, rising from my bed and carefully setting a tray with a cup of coffee and single slice of toast on my desk. From this angle, she could finally see my face, but I still refused to pay her any eye contact. She looked to the window for a moment, as if all the answers she sought would fly in and present themselves to her on a silver platter; but, when none did, she resigned, retreating to the bedroom door and resting a hand against the doorframe.
“Try not to sleep for too long,” she said quietly, before slowly closing the door and disappearing into the hallway.
As soon as she was gone, I rolled onto my back, staring duly at the ceiling for a few moments before forcing myself to sit up. I tossed the blankets to the side as I slipped out of bed, my toes curling as they made contact with the cold wooden floor. At my desk, I stopped and lifted the coffee toward the light coming in from the window, inspecting it quickly. After only a brief glance, I sighed, pulling the window of my second-floor apartment open and pouring the coffee out of the mug and onto the lawn below. Once I’d finished, I swiped the toast off of the tray, watching it fall down into the trashcan below the desk.
I touched the back of my head, which was beginning to pulse from the sudden movement, and slowly moved back toward my bed.
The sun was high in the sky when I finally made it to the top of the hill. Of all the places in the world, my father had insisted on being buried at the highest point in the world that was still close to the people he loved. There weren’t many options he left us, especially when Candace insisted that we bury him as close as possible.
So, he was on a hill. But the hill was in a cemetery.
He hated cemeteries—like I did.
At the very top of the hill, he was easy to find—directly in front of a massive oak that cast a permanent shade over the grass. I brushed the back of my hand over my forehead as I kneeled slowly in front of the single headstone, breathing heavily. In the peak of the afternoon during these summer months, the walk to his grave became far longer. The sweat collecting on my forehead and in my shirt told of the time and effort it took to come all the way up the hill.
I rubbed the palms of my hands on my pants, shaking my head.
“You couldn’t be in a worse place. Do you have any idea how hot it is, hiking up here?” I asked. “It’s next to torture. But you’d be lonely without me.”
I sighed, laying down in the grass next to the headstone and resting my head on my arms. I breathed out slowly, closing my eyes and trying hard to feel my father’s presence next to me. Some days, I could truly feel it—like a warmth radiating from the empty space around the headstone. On hot days like this, though, it was sometimes hard to tell at all.
“I don’t have anything for you to listen to. I haven’t written anything lately. You can listen to my old stuff, if you want. But I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I turned my head to face him, squinting in the brightness of midday. After a few seconds, I sat up and dug into my pocket, retrieving my phone and scrolling through the pages of old music. I took the headphones from around my neck and set them on top of the headstone, selecting the first track to catch my eye on the phone. Once I’d finished, I laid back down, closing my eyes.
The air around me was warm, nearly stifling—though I couldn’t decide whether it was my father or only the weather. Whichever way it was, the sticky air was lying like a blanket on top of my, threatening to suffocate me.
I laughed bitterly to myself, opening my eyes and squinting at the sun through the leaves.
“I don’t even know why I keep coming back here. I don’t owe you anything.”
Pressing my hand to the back of my head, where the wound in my skull was screaming against my skin, I slowly sat up.
“What did you ever do for me? All you did was leave.”
Even after two years, the wound of my father’s death still felt fresher than the one on my head. It wasn’t slow in coming, or expected in any stretch; it came far too early. He was shot to death after being caught in the cross-fire of a troubled young man whom he had been trying to help just days before. He was hit by a stray bullet that was meant for someone else, and died in the street shortly after midnight on my sixteenth birthday.
He died after calling me three times shortly before.
And I didn’t answer the phone.
The shooting was hardly three blocks from our apartment complex, and when I heard it, I ran from the doorstep to the scene of the shooting without a second breath. By the time I arrived, the culprit had already disappeared, and my father had bled half to death on the sidewalk. Without a phone or any other means of communication, I had nothing to do to help him (if I did, it wouldn’t have been able to save him). So instead of running for panicking, I sat on the sidewalk of a residential block and held my father until he became died in my arms.
He left me just like that—without even saying goodbye.
With the sun beating down between the leaves of the great oak tree above me, I pushed myself to my feet, taking the headphones from the headstone and stashing them around my neck again. I looked away from him, holding the back of my head as it began to throb like a second heartbeat.
“I don’t have time for people who leave. I don’t owe you any of my time.”
The weather was still sweltering, and sweat was still fresh on the back of my neck as I began the trek back down the hill again. Surely my father wouldn’t have a problem with me leaving.
He didn’t have a problem with leaving me.