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     By the spring before our senior year, Blake Vinsant was on the brink of more things than he could set his blinking blue eyes on. Success. Freedom. Insanity. Solace. Destruction found him at my doorstep in the middle of a night to surpass all others.
     “It’s the second time,” He mumbled, extending a soiled college admissions exam prep book out towards me. Its pages were soaked with a noxious, unknown substance, absorbing with it every syllable daring to cross its path. “It’s the second time this week I’ve found it in the trash and now it’s completely ruined.”
     I yawned, rubbing indifference from my eyes as I stole a glance at the clock. 3:25 a.m. By some mysterious force, my car keys managed to appear in my hand as I jostled him down the driveway.
     “Alright, come on. I’ve got a plan.”
     I turned the key in the ignition and awaited an inevitable outcome. I’d known Blake since we allied for survival in elementary school and no amount of years would ever break that bond. We’d never be friends in the traditional sense but when I needed someone to play watchdog as I slept in class after a long shift the night before, Blake was there. Likewise, when he needed a break from his dad, I was there with a full tank of gas and half an hour of sleep.
     Rough families weren’t exactly a rarity in our part of town but Blake certainly was. Every obstacle was an ocean not a puddle and he had an inclination to drown in them. When he showed up with the book that night, I just figured things were as normal. Give him half an hour above the water as I drove around the city and he could get out whatever he needed to say and maybe we would be back in time for me to sneak in without getting caught. However, when the first couple of minutes passed in silence it became clear breathing would be the least of our problems.
     “I’m working so hard.” He whispered suddenly with his face turned towards the window. “I waited fifteen days for Ms. Reed to get that book shipped in because I couldn’t afford to buy one and another three to convince her to let me take it home.”
     “If it’s money you’re worried about, I can- “
     “And now I look at this book and I don’t understand. How one book could be the reason I might not get to do what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”
     “There are plenty of other factors colleges look at, Blake.”
     “They just don’t tell you.”
     I turned the phrase over in my mind rapidly, pulling on its syllables like I pulled the wheel to round the next corner in an attempt to decipher any meaning. Nothing came of either action.
     He blinked his blue eyes at the window as if I were ignorant for not immediately grasping what he was trying to say.
     “They just don’t tell you when you’re younger that if you don’t follow the path they think you should go down you might not be able to do what you want to do later. I thought I was doing well in school, I stayed out of trouble, I did what I could in sports, and yet it’s still not enough to please them.”
     “Blake, I know you,” I resisted the powerful urge to slap him. “You stop at nothing to push forward and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that whatever you want to do you’re gonna be able to do it regardless of how you get there.”
     The freckle-faced boy lowered himself farther into his hoodie, nearly disappearing beneath a jungle of dark hair.
     “And if I do it, if I work towards my goal and achieve what I want to do-get out of dodge and leave my dad and the rest of this town behind, will it even have been worth it or did I waste my time?” He asked in total seriousness. “Am I wasting my time, Alex?”
     “Worth it?” I clicked my tongue, pressing down a little harder on the gas pedal. “Isn’t this something you’re supposed to feel when we’re older and all gathered around groaning about how fast time passes?”
     “I see that book and I feel every bit of it and,” He stammered, trapping his fingers in the curls upon his head in a familiar sign of panic. “And I feel like a part of my life has been stolen from me. Like I missed a meeting no one invited me to and now suddenly I’m just supposed to know that what I’m doing is right.”
     “Do you think anyone truly knows that what they’re doing is right? Why do you think you have to figure it out now? Why do you have to act like the next moment will be your last?" I snapped, giving in to the worst of my frustration. I immediately regretted it but I couldn’t help but cave. I wasn’t equipped to handle everything he pushed towards me. I wasn’t equipped to teach the boy I kept from drowning how to swim a marathon.
     “Because what if it is? I see death everywhere I look,” He turned his head down now to face the hands fidgeting restlessly in his lap. “I see some of these kids on the street and think maybe it’ll be ten years from now. I see my father’s gun on the wall and sometimes I think it could be tomorrow.”
     I took a deep breath of air into my lungs as I stared at the dark sky drifting hazily above the road. Consistency. Dead or not, the sky drifted on. It was satisfying enough for me but when I didn’t offer up a response, Blake pressed further.
     “I just don’t see how you do it.
     “Do what?”
     “Lie directly to my face.”
     My head shot towards him now, eyes positioned firmly on the blue orbs darting away from my gaze. He repositioned himself in the seat in a defensive position and his eyebrows furrowed down. He refused to look at me.
     “Act like everything is fine and nothing ever affects you,” He retailed as his nervous demeanor hardened into one of desperation and anger. “Like you never think about these things. You showed up for fourth period on the day of your sister’s funeral and you’re gonna tell me you don’t think about death? You’ve gotta be scared too so why don’t you act like it?”
     A bolt of lightning cracked down directly in front of us on the road and as the car skidded to a stop, I saw her face in the white light enveloping the pavement. For the briefest moment, I saw myself signing into school that day. I was still removing my black tie as I slung the backpack over my shoulder and pushed past the receptionist. The funeral ended up being longer than planned and I was cutting it short on timing to make it to my chemistry exam. I remembered looking down at the pass in my shaking hands and being so proud. Proud no one could tell I’d been crying as I shoved my way into the classroom. Proud my life could continue as what I pretended was normal.
     The pass still rested in the slip of the sun visor above my head and I thought for a second I was going to be sick. I gulped down another breath of air without looking towards him and pulled the wheel suddenly to the right, steering us in the path up to the mountains with a new plan in motion.
     I didn’t want to answer him because responding would mean acknowledging my part in a story I only observed from afar. There was a reason I wasn’t buying college admissions exam preparatory books and it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford them. I worked hard to achieve the score I received the first time around but if it wasn’t good enough, so be it. I couldn’t comprehend the relentlessness and drive Blake applied to everything in his life. I worked to survive while he worked to live and our paths grew significantly more apart by the day.
     “I block it out and don’t feel anything and you? You feel everything all the time in full force,” I laughed bitterly, shaking my head in disbelief as the words cut through my ribcage. “I can’t imagine being you.” I grew silent afterwards because that part was true and I think we both knew it.
     Together we rode in stillness for a while as the pitch-black sky faded into the gray hues of the mountaintops and nothing but oblivion stretched out its long, welcoming fingers towards us. Blake pulled the hood of his jacket from his head and sat up straighter in his seat as if to peer into the night for any signs of something at all. Our breathing mismatched with the subtle hum of the engine as it slowly pushed forward and I felt something had to be said.
     “Death didn’t look at my sister’s college admissions exam score.” I spoke quietly, breaking the silence. “Death didn’t ask which extracurricular was most meaningful to her and why, or how many days she missed school.”
     “Death didn’t ask my mom if she was ready or if she felt she had done enough in her life.” He murmured in agreement and I could almost see the tears from that day rolling down his speckled face.
     He frantically rubbed his eyes. I gripped the wheel tighter. We didn’t speak as I pulled into the clearing atop the small mountaintop with a patch of open ground and parked the car. He raised his eyebrows at me as I shut off the engine but I pretended not to notice.
     “Give me your lighter.”
     “Just trust me.”
     Reluctantly he tugged the small container of fluid out of his pocket and placed it in the palm of my hand. I got out of the car taking it with me along with the college admissions exam book and the small slip of paper from the visor. He followed into the middle of the barren clearing where I placed the book on the ground with the piece of paper on top of it, lighting a small flame at the end of the book cover.
     His eyes widened for a moment as he realized what the pass was, jerking his eyes up to mine with grave uncertainty. I shoved my hands in my pockets and directed my attention back down to the steady flame.
     “Yes, I’m sure,” I answered to the question he wouldn’t dare to ask. “I’ll explain to Ms. Reed about the book and give her whatever money she needs. Neither one of these things is of use to us anymore.”
     He tried to protest but I could see relief flood his face as the contents of the ruined book vanished beneath the flames. I couldn’t tell what he saw on mine but I knew I felt it too. Fear mixed with relief and just a little bit of hope, burning steadily in the background of a night sky that appeared awfully similar to oblivion.
     Tomorrow remained uncertain and the meaning of life unknown but I breathed in the fresh air and smoke that did not smell of the familiar stale scent of my bedroom. I heard the sounds of the city waking up beneath us that did not sound like a metronome to my suffering. I saw the blue eyes of a relentless boy that did not appear anything but alive. And it was enough.

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