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The Alternative: Chapters 1-5
Author's note: These five chapters have proved to be EXTREMELY difficult to write, and I hope my work has paid off. The real reason I'm posting this on TeenInk, however, is that I believe my work hasn't paid off, and I need to know if it has. This is only the first five chapters of the book, so obviously it will feel a little incomplete, but that's all I've written so far; I'm too unsure about it to continue. Here are the main questions about my writing I'd like you guys to answer: Is it all too much? Is the writing trying too hard to be wistful and emotional? Should I tone it down a bit? Are you guys invested in everything that's going on? Do you think the story is engaging or just boring? If you could read this and give me some feedback, that would be much appreciated! I REALLY want to keep working on this story, and it's really difficult to do so without knowing what other people think about it...
Someone was at the door.
It had been ten years since Sam had heard the saccharine ringing of the doorbell. No one had visited him in that time, and he had not expected that to change even after he was dead and buried. He had no friends, no acquaintances. He rarely went outside, and lived in seclusion, away from the world—away from his persecutors. Day by day, all he did was gaze lifelessly at the peeling wallpaper of his squalid “house” and drown himself in his regrets, waiting for his time to come. It would not be long now. He anticipated it with a puzzling mix of relief and…something else. Something he could not name….
But that wasn’t important now. This was a monumental event.
Someone was at the door.
Sam reluctantly stood up from his appalling excuse for a couch and sauntered to the door like a drunkard. The sandalwood floorboards, turned a dull taupe by several years of uncleaned dirt and dust, squeaked noisily under Sam’s feet as he walked with a painful slouch, as if he were carrying a great stone pillar on his back. Before opening the door to whoever was cruel enough to pay him a visit, he shot a vacant glance at the long, rectangular looking glass on the wall. In the mirror, he saw the same thing he had seen since he had run away from Summerfall; his abhorrent face laughed at him, his sagging skin danced with his despair, his rotten teeth smiled at his eternal sadness. Only his eyes, his pale green eyes, found no merriment in his misery. Whenever he looked into his eyes, all he saw was disappointment.
Sam was unsure what kept him from escaping. Life had become a prison. It was not worth it anymore. There were trees all around his house. There were several long, sturdy branches. There was a rope up in the attic. He felt he had every reason to escape and yet…he didn’t. What kept him from relieving himself? What poisoned his mind that had kept him alive this long? Perhaps it was fear; Sam had done too many horrible things in his life to have any doubt where death would take him. Perhaps it was optimism, hope for change; Sam did not hesitate to scoff at this.
Sam’s mind drifted, and he hesitated.
…Perhaps…perhaps it was…
The doorbell rang again. Whoever had come to see him was growing impatient. Rebuking himself for letting his mind wander so far into the forbidden depths of his past, Sam reached for the doorknob and yanked on it. The door flew open with a sudden, startled squeal, and Sam faced his visitor.
A cold wind blew, carrying change with it. Sam felt it in the air. Someone was at the door, and with him was change. Something was going to change. Everything was going to change. He felt it.
Something seemed off about the man. He was dressed normally enough, albeit professionally. He wore a black pinstripe suit with a purple tie, which insulted Sam slightly as he was clad only in a cheap plaid shirt and faded denim jeans, the only clothes he had been able to afford. A black fedora cast a dark shadow over the man’s face, which, from what Sam could tell, was unusually slim and wrinkled with laugh lines. It was the face of a snake.
Sam took a small step back upon seeing the man. The weather was an echo of Sam’s life: dark and inclement. Wind fought its way to the flimsy front door of Sam’s house, and the man took one calm step forward.
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Who the hell are you?”
The man responded only with a smile.
“I asked you a question.”
“Would you be Mr. Summerton?”
Sam fell silent. He hated that name. It was his name. He loathed it, but he could not hide from it. “…Yes.”
“My name is Findlay Parish. And I have the answer to all your problems.”
That unnerving smile again. Sam frowned.
“No, thanks,” he growled. “I know what the answer to all my problems is, and it’s not anything you could sell me.”
“You’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, have you not? This is…quite unfortunate.”
Sam froze, his face filled with shock. Gingerly, he touched the small lump protruding from his sternum. He had never seen this man before in his life. He had no friends, no acquaintances. He rarely went outside, and lived in seclusion, away from the world. No one knew about his illness. He had been diagnosed with it a year ago. The doctors had brushed him aside, recognizing his life for the worthless endeavor it was. No one had cared. No one had known. But now, Sam stood face to face with the one man who did know…somehow. And it scared him deeply.
Parish quietly took another step forward and walked past Sam, who was still standing in the doorway, dumbfounded. He continued speaking right where he had left off.
“…And at the ripe age of only twenty-seven. This is very…very unfortunate. How could this happen to you, Mr. Summerton, when you had your whole life ahead of you?”
Sam chuckled grimly. “Do you think my life was ever worth anything anyway?”
“‘Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile’,” Parish proclaimed. “Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of his generation or any generation since, said that. Please, Mr. Summerton, would you close the door?”
Sam reached for the door and slammed it shut. The wind’s distant howling abruptly ended. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You still want to live…don’t you?”
Sam eyed Parish suspiciously. “I have nothing to live for.”
“You have so much to live for. You just don’t think about it.”
Sam could not believe this man’s stupidity. Had he not taken a moment to observe his surroundings? The majority of the items in Sam’s house had not been bought, and the things that had been acquired through decent means of trade were acquired through bargaining, pleading, coercing, begging, entreating, imploring—not money. The paltry amount of money Sam did have was painted black with blood. Sam did not have his own personal savings stored in a bank account for safekeeping. He had committed atrocities to sustain himself, and it had been worthless in the end. Worthless. All these horrible things had happened to sustain his worthless, worthless life. He had not lived his life for others. He had not lived it for anything. His mind flew to Peach—
No. Do not think about that. Do not think about that….
Sam was silent. His wild eyes glared at the corner of the room, unseeing. Parish stared at him, puzzled. Struggling to control his fickle, feeble emotions, Sam took a deep, trembling breath.
“I have nothing to live for,” Sam repeated.
Parish grinned and shook his head. “You lie to yourself.”
“I have nothing to live for,” Sam repeated firmly. “When will you understand? I have not done a single thing to help another human being my entire life. I…I’m evil. I never lived for the good of others; I hurt and betrayed people to help myself, to feed my own desires. You know nothing about my life. I have nothing to live for.”
Silence. Only the groaning of the walls and the creaking of the floorboards could be heard as Sam put his face in his hands, on the verge of tears, his emotions shattering yet again. Parish just stood there, staring at him with a phantasmal grin that somehow spoke volumes about him while simultaneously hiding so much more. Sam knew that trusting Parish would likely be the wrong path. He did not know anything about this mysterious man, and what Parish said next was nothing short of shocking.
“So you have nothing to live for, eh?”
A brief, eternal pause.
“…What about sweet, little Clarissa Blackbourne?”
Sam’s head moved like a bird’s. His heart careened upward into his throat. Sam whirled around to face Parish, the air plucked from his lungs. He found himself back in Summerfall. He saw Blackbourne Manor. He saw the elegant three-story Victorian-era mansion hiding under the vivacious, verdant canopies of gargantuan oaks and sprawling maples; he saw the beams of sunlight filtering through the leaves, spraying the ground below with their luminous colors; he saw the wide cobblestone road, lined with dogwoods blooming infinite shades of white and pink, stretching up to the house’s exquisite front porch, which surrounded the entire estate; he saw the girl, sitting on the wooden porch steps, her beautiful diamond face hidden in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers, staining her dress—
“Yes. Sweet, sweet Claire. I know you remember her. And she remembers you. Yes…she remembers you all too well….”
Sam gritted his teeth. Anger gnawed at his brain.
“Ah, yes, she remembers you very well, Mr. Summerton. She thinks of you every day.”
“Her poor broken heart—”
“Oh, I don’t think she can bear it much longer—”
Sam flew across the room faster than he ever knew possible. The choleric chaos within his mind forced an enraged shout of fury out of his mouth, and he clenched his fists, ready to strike Parish down. He had done many terrible things. It would not matter. He prepared to strike.
Parish effortlessly put his hands up to Sam’s chest and gently shoved him away. Sam did not even stumble; he only took a step back and felt his indignation recede to the depths of his brain as if it had never been there in the first place. Everything had returned to normal in the blink of an eye. This was not normal.
Sam was, once again, dumbstruck. “How…?”
“What if I told you that you could save her?”
Sam froze. Then he smiled a cold, rancorous smile. “You’re joking. That’s all you’ve been doing ever since you invited yourself into my house. Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Because I’m not joking. I am here to help you. You are a lonely, angry man…but that can all change. I can offer you that change.”
For the first time in an eternity, Sam howled laughter. It was a frigid, unnatural sound, and he did not like it. Parish’s ghostly, omniscient smile remained.
“My life is rotten!” Sam shouted wildly, his anomalous smile fading into oblivion. “My life is rotten to its core! Nothing can change it! That’s the joke! That’s the joke, isn’t it? And, Mr. Parish, it is hilarious!”
“Mr. Summerton, please sit down.”
Sam collapsed down on the couch, which expressed its disapproval in a mousy squeak. Parish walked in front of Sam and slowly reached into his suit pocket. The smile was still plastered on his face.
“You can’t do anything to help me.” Sam was still fiercely skeptical, his life too sour for him to believe it could be saved. “And I don’t want you to help me either.” He paused, knowing he had just uttered a lie.
Parish knew as well. “And Claire?”
“Don’t mention her. Please…don’t….”
“You won’t have to dread her name anymore, Sam.”
Parish drew something from his pocket and concealed it within his fist. A sudden curiosity commanded Sam, and his arm slowly stretched out for the hidden object. Parish’s grin widened, and then he retracted his closed fist. Sam withdrew his hand as well, studying Parish’s fist with ambivalent wonder.
“I don’t understand,” Sam mumbled as if in a dream.
“You don’t have to. All you have to do is recognize your life’s true worth. Now…I am going to ask you to think of Claire.”
“Don’t tell me this a joke.”
“It is not a joke, just as your life is not one. You tell yourself that, and you lie to yourself. You think her heart cannot be mended, but it can. You think your wrongdoings cannot be forgiven, but they can. You think your life cannot mean anything, but it can. You tell yourself that you will welcome death. That is not the truth. In reality, you would give anything to have one, just one more chance at life.”
“I…I don’t know….”
Sam felt his arm reach out.
“Yes…yes, you do. The knowledge is within you. Forgiveness is within you. Courage is within you. Death will not save you. God wants you to redeem yourself. You will not go to Hell for what you have done, for I assure you…there is an alternative. An alternative to death, an alternative to Hell….”
Sam’s palm opened up, and Parish placed something in it.
“I give you the Alternative.”
Parish closed Sam’s fist and gently lowered his arm. Sam was incredulous, unbelieving, unthinking. This all seemed…right. Sam brought his hand up to his eyes and opened it. In his hand was a tiny circular receptacle containing…something. He did not know, but he was beginning to believe now that this was no joke. The receptacle was black, decorated with crystals and jewels of all kinds, sapphires, rubies, peridots—things that were not easy to acquire. In the center of the receptacle’s outer layer, the gemstones coalesced to create a colorful collage depicting a hummingbird at flight. The prospect of redemption was whispering in his ear.
The Alternative, in all its strange, unearthly glory.
“The hummingbird represents the enjoyment of life, joviality, happiness….This is your solution, Sam. The answer to all your problems. This will give your life worth.”
Sam looked at Parish dubiously, still not truly believing. “I…I don’t know what….What does this even do, anyway?”
Sam opened the jeweled receptacle. Visions flashed before his eyes. Peach. Sandy. Jimmy. Claire. A vial containing a clear liquid shined before him. He stared at it. He heard the distant purring of a hummingbird’s wings.
“Eternal life. Once you have drunk from the vial, you will never die. You can try to hang yourself, or drown yourself, or put a bullet through your cerebrum, but it will never work; the Alternative will keep you alive. You will live forever. You will be immortal.”
Sam was stunned. “This is…impossible….”
“Only if you tell yourself those lies.”
“…This is a joke….You can’t possibly be serious!”
“This is no joke.”
“Impossible! That’s what this is!”
“Mr. Summerton…nothing is impossible.”
“You can’t just say that and expect me to believe you. I won’t know unless I drink from the vial, and whether or not I do that…is my choice.”
“…So you will choose not to redeem yourself?”
Sam did not answer.
“You will wait in this house, you will wither and die…and you will go to Hell?”
Parish folded his arms, his smile long departed. Sam looked into the man’s face and found an echo of what he always saw in his own eyes in the looking glass: disappointment. It was not a joke. It was real, genuine disappointment, and it reached Sam’s very soul. Sam looked down at the vial and watched the clear liquid undulate within it. He was lost in Summerfall. He felt the grass shudder beneath his back as he lay behind Blackbourne Manor with Claire; he felt the warm rays of sunlight on his skin; he felt Claire’s smooth, fragile hand in his, trusting…loving. He didn’t know what to do.
Parish’s funereal tone of voice jerked Sam from his fantasy. The man’s face was worn with grief, and, with a somber adjustment of his fedora, he began to walk slowly to the door.
“You have told me that you don’t need help,” Parish moaned. “If you will believe the lies you have told yourself…so be it. I have a busy schedule. I must help those who actually want helping.” Parish turned away. “Good day, Mr. Summerton.”
As the mysterious man strode towards the door, Sam gazed down at the open receptacle, down at the vial within. He did not think it was possible. Something as outlandish and spectacular as this simply could not be possible. It was a joke. It had to be, and yet…he found no reason that an ordinary man would go to such extreme lengths to augment his already burdensome woe. Perhaps it was a joke, and Parish was just a devilish man, entertaining himself by destroying the hopes of the hopeless. Perhaps it was real, and this could change Sam’s life forever. Perhaps…
A violent gust of wind hammered into Sam’s body, tossing his auburn hair and tugging at his dirty plaid shirt. Parish stood in the doorway, his dark silhouette casting a spectral shadow upon the floorboards.
“You have the Alternative in the palm of your hand. The choice is still yours, Sam. I hope you will choose life.”
The door slammed shut, and the hush seeped in.
Parish puzzled Sam. Why would he come here of all places to give Sam of all people a second chance? Why did Sam deserve it? There had to be more to this. As long as the truth was hidden from Sam, he felt he would just sit here without purpose, staring at a vial whose purpose was just as unclear. However…what if there was a purpose, and Sam was merely overlooking it? And purpose or not, did it really matter…?
Parish’s words echoed within Sam’s mind:
“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Sam thought of Claire. He saw her pale blonde hair blowing in the wind as she ran through the forest, her arms spread out like an eagle, her imagination gone to places unknown…
Claire had always been a strange girl, but that had not made breaking her heart any less horrible. Parish had known that, much to Sam’s disbelief. It scared him that a man he had never met before had such disturbing insight into his past, his faults, his crimes—everything. Parish had known about Claire, and he may have even known about Sandy, or Jimmy, or Snowport, or Peach…
“This is insane,” Sam muttered aloud, his eyes locked on the vial. What did the vial contain? Would it bring immortality? Would it bring apocalypse? How could Sam know?
“You will wait in this house, you will wither and die….”
Sam looked up from the vial and glanced around the living room. The bare walls and the dusty floorboards mocked him with their abominable poverty, and he immediately looked back down at the vial. He did not want to die in this place. When he looked down at the Alternative, his eyes beheld no mockery; only hope. Hope for the hopeless. Redemption.
“If you will believe the lies you have told yourself….”
This was no joke. This was no lie. Sam knew now. The Alternative was real. He didn’t know how it could be…but he didn’t know how it could not be either.
“You have the Alternative in the palm of your hand.”
The vial beckoned to Sam. He plucked it from the receptacle and held it in front of his face. Was this really the answer to all his problems? He had forgotten about the rope in the attic. Death seemed like an alien idea, an idea only the wildest imagination could conjure. Eternal life was reality. It was right in front of his face.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
Sam stood in front of Blackbourne Manor. He heard his footsteps on the cobblestone walkway; he saw the mansion in front of him. The sun’s heavenly light sieved through the tree branches, splashing the ground below, whispering of second chances. Sam’s eyes fell to the garden in front of the porch, where, rejoicing in the returning light of spring, there lay beautiful, resplendent rows of wildflowers, zinnias, hydrangeas, and violets; Claire loved violets. He ascended the porch steps. No squeaks escaped from under his feet.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
He uncapped the vial.
There he stood on the veranda, staring at the front door in breathless anticipation. Each step he took, the sound of the hummingbird’s wings grew louder.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
The door loomed in front of him.
He raised his hand.
He raised the vial.
“I hope you will choose life.”
Sam heard himself knock on the door. He heard footsteps coming from inside the house, hurrying to answer.
Claire was coming.
“To life,” Sam uttered.
The hummingbird’s wings fell silent.
The door swung open, and Nathaniel Blackbourne beheld his visitor. It was midday; the chittering of robins and sparrows could be heard close by, and the world seemed to sigh blissfully as a gentle breeze sifted through the fledgling leaves above. Savannah was in the kitchen, her stiff, robotic hands fixing lunch. The buoyant light that streamed in through the windows betrayed the heartache that had plagued Blackbourne Manor ever since—
There the man stood on the veranda, staring at him in breathless anticipation. He seemed familiar. Nathaniel studied the man at his doorstep, his mouth opening slightly, a nagging sense of recollection flooding his brain. The man was tall, clad in a dark green plaid shirt and debonair denim jeans. Short, neatly trimmed auburn hair rested atop his head, just above a bright, handsome face that emanated familiarity. The young man suddenly turned away in embarrassment, his pale green eyes shifting nervously. An audible gulp escaped his esophagus. Worry was suffocating him. Remembrance was suffocating Nathaniel.
Sam looked up and grimaced. A precipitous silence hung between the two.
“It can’t be you….”
Sam looked at Nathaniel as if he were looking over the edge of a cliff. Nathaniel looked at Sam as if he were looking over the edge of a knife. A cloud seemed to drift in front of the sun, shutting out all light, drowning Sam in Nathaniel’s vengeful shadow. He took a step back.
“Dear God. It is you.”
Every fiber in Sam’s body commanded him to leave. He began to tremble as if he were caught in the middle of a ferocious blizzard. He could not take this. Guilt. Regret. Loathing. Claire—
“You son of a bi.tch.”
Nathaniel tried to slam the door shut, only to feel Sam’s hand catch the door in mid-swing. In a rush of anger, Nathaniel lunged forward and sent Sam stumbling backward onto the porch. The floorboards squealed beneath his feet.
“You stupid, cold-hearted, worthless son of a bi.tch!”
Savannah turned from the kitchen, her mouth agape.
Sam was shocked. “No…Mr. Blackbourne, wait!”
The door closed with an earth-shattering bang just as Sam flew to approach it once more. A desperate reach for the doorknob was preceded by the harsh clicking of a lock. It was useless. He shook the knob like a madman. He pounded on the door like a rabid hound. Nothing worked.
“Mr. Blackbourne, please!”
No one answered.
No one came to meet him. He heard a tense conversation coming from further inside. Nathaniel was enraged. Savannah was astonished. Sam was unwelcome.
He did not leave. He stood in front of the door, renegade optimism gluing him to the spot. He clung to a false hope that Claire’s parents would allow him entry. He clung like a beggar to a coin. He clung like a fish to a hook. He clung until he saw Nathaniel’s murderous gaze in one of the distant windows, and then he let go. Unconsciously he put a hand up to his sternum, half expecting that deadly protuberance to return; for in that moment, the Alternative became a forgotten fantasy, a myth, a lie. Death was reality, and it was something Nathaniel wished upon Sam passionately. Nathaniel knew it was impossible to hide. Sam knew he didn’t care.
Quickly and wordlessly, Sam retreated from the veranda, resentment stirring within him. He descended the porch steps and stopped on the genesis of the cobblestone walkway. All was quiet within Blackbourne Manor. When he looked back at the window, all he saw were indolent chiffon drapes rippling and swaying behind the glass. Sam stood there perpetually, fighting the insatiable urge to scream.
Nathaniel Blackbourne had never liked Sam. Sam had never liked Nathaniel. The old man’s hatred for Sam had not stemmed from the incident—the reason Sam had run away from Summerfall (although the incident had certainly made it stronger). Instead, it had always been there, provoked by some thoughtless distrust, some nameless discrimination against the boy who loved his daughter. However, it was no mere discrimination anymore; it had evolved into something stronger, something much more dangerous.
Sam heard the click of a lock once again. He turned away from the window to see Savannah now standing in the front doorway, her eyes filled with a bemusing mix of contrition and contempt. She looked happier to see Sam than her husband had been, although that certainly did not mean she was happy to see him. The damage had been done, and even if her face did not show it, she was angry.
“Mrs. Blackbourne.” Sam hurried up the porch steps once more and approached the front door, addressing Savannah with as much politeness as he could muster. “Hello.”
“What are you doing here, Sam?” The woman’s voice stung.
Sam paused before answering. “I…I wanted—”
“Claire’s not here,” Savannah claimed intuitively.
“…Where is she, then?”
“Apologizing won’t do any good, you know.” Savannah’s tone was dour and unwelcoming. It reminded Sam of the mournful sight of lifeless trees in the dead of winter. “What you did to her….She hasn’t forgotten. She remembers you all too well.”
Parish’s words. Sam looked down at his feet apprehensively.
“Do you have any idea about the gravity of your decision that you made ten years ago?” Her voice was becoming more agitated, more angry, more vindictive—an echo of her husband. “Do you have any idea how much pain your selfish actions have put my family through? You betrayed her, Sam. You betrayed her right after she was—”
“Shut up!” Sam cried, his voice threatening to shatter. “Please, just stop talking….”
Savannah’s face remained cold and wrathful. She waited for Sam to compose himself before continuing. “Sam…I know you feel guilty about all this. And I’ll be honest….In the ten years you have been gone, I have been praying you would not come back. I guess you could say it was for my sake…but it was also for yours. Part of me didn’t want to see the man who broke my daughter’s heart for a lecherous…streetwalker!”
Sam flew into defense. “Look, Sandy is not a—”
“Sam, let me finish!” Savannah’s outburst immediately silenced Sam, who eyed her with reluctant compliance. She resumed. “I kept telling myself I never wanted to see you again for that reason. You are adulterous and treacherous, and you broke Claire’s heart for a wh.ore. Apparently it wasn’t enough that she showed signs of…a…an illness.” Sam winced in agony. “You just had to make it worse…for all of us.”
A complicated amalgamation of emotions took over Sam at that moment. He had always tried to forget about Claire…about her condition. His woebegone eyes locked onto some unseen point in the distance, far away from the woman. He could not look at her. Her harsh, draconian wisdom made him seethe with anger.
Savannah inhaled and exhaled desolately before speaking again. “But…it wasn’t just hatred. I mean…I hated you, and for that reason, I never wanted you to come back, but…I sympathized with you as well. I knew that if you decided to come back…you would not find forgiveness. There is nothing for you here. Please, Sam…I don’t like you. But I don’t want you to go to Claire thinking she’ll reconcile with you and have your heart be broken just as hers was. She’s been through a lot, Sam. Nathaniel has been through a lot. I have been through a lot. You’ll find no forgiveness here. Just turn around…and go back the way you came.”
Savannah had expected her words to have an effect. Had Sam listened, they surely would have, but Sam, headstrong and doubtful, had heard only stringent blather. He would not be swayed. He would not accept the fact that he had traveled this far to a place he had hoped never to see again only to see his efforts become fruitless. He would find Claire, and he would apologize. It didn’t matter that he had betrayed her. It didn’t matter that her parents advised against it. Sam thought of Peach—
No. She will not meet the same fate.
“I’m sorry,” Sam enunciated angrily. “But I have to see Claire.”
“I have to see Claire.”
Savannah’s entire body seemed to sink in defeat. She drove a frail, bony hand through her platinum hair and refused to meet Sam’s gaze. Her eyes were that of a forlorn phantom.
“Will you tell me where she is?”
She did not respond.
“Mrs. Blackbourne…please. You have to understand. I have only good intentions. I want to make everything right again.”
Savannah sighed heavily. “Sam…that’s what worries me.” She stopped for a moment. Finally, she looked up and met Sam’s eyes with her own. Sam saw her irises, painted a melancholy aquamarine. Claire’s eyes.
A grin played onto her aged, broken lips. “You remember the woods, don’t you, Sam?”
The woods were easy to get lost in. That was why the boys loved them.
Almost every evening, the children would escape their hostile households (much to the indifference of Sam’s careless parents, while Jimmy’s would always throw a fit) and get lost in the forest, having only the dying candlelight of the sunset and their own crudely drawn, wholly inaccurate “maps” showing them the way back to civilization. Sam and Jimmy would romp around the forest for hours on end climbing the highest tree branches, somersaulting down the steepest hills, enjoying the time they spent away from the world, away from their persecutors. This was the only time they could ever be free, the only time they could let their effervescent imaginations control their destinies. This was the only time they could ever be truly happy.
Occasionally they would risk being caught by Mr. Blackbourne, whose venomous attitude always exploded whenever he caught rambunctious youths in the sprawling woodland behind his mansion, but his presence was always apparent thanks to his heavy, lumbering footsteps and his valetudinarian wheezing. Evading his patrol was always quiet, effortless, and often entertaining. The boys never worried about him.
The sun had just begun its vermillion descent on a placid autumn afternoon when Sam and Jimmy snuck over to Blackbourne Manor, their footsteps nearly soundless on the cobblestone walkway. They ducked once they reached the porch; Sam crawled to a nearby window and peered inside. The old man was in another room, his back to the glass. He was sitting in a luxurious corduroy armchair, intently watching the sprightly mundanity of a news broadcast on a grainy television screen. His wife was nowhere to be seen.
The veranda surrounded the entire house. Sam and Jimmy hurried around to the other side and found another wooden staircase leading downward to a stepping stone walkway overtaken by greenery. Beyond that was a splendidly steep hill, and at the bottom of this hill stood in unrivaled glory a mammoth oak tree that was without a doubt the largest tree in Summerfall, its labyrinthine, serpentine branches transforming into stunning watercolors of fulvous beauty that bore a remarkable resemblance to fire. Sam and Jimmy called it the Gatekeeper, the mythical guardian of the woodland, the product of their restless imaginations. Just beyond its massive trunk, the forest lay, waiting.
This night in the forest was no different than all the others. The boys traveled deep into the wondrous twilight, giving names to the inky shadows cast by the sunset, and the fading golden lights within the leaves. They played tag and hide-and-seek in the darkening wilderness; they conducted contests to see who could climb the highest in the tallest tree; they turned their backs on their schoolboy selves, obedient and submissive, and embraced their freedom; it was here that they were at their apotheosis. It was here that they were happy.
After the last pinpricks of light had disappeared under the horizon and the forest had all but vanished in a shroud of shadow, Sam and Jimmy found a sturdy trunk and sat under it, their reserves of youthful energy now depleted. They would listen to the creatures of the night, the soprano chirping of crickets and the sonorous croaking of frogs, and they would watch the evanescent radiance of fireflies in the distance, the cares and worries of their everyday lives nonexistent. The night’s enchanting wonder was all they knew. In this moment, they wished it could be all they would ever know.
Jimmy stared upward, above the tree branches, at the iridescent glitter of the stars, at the undiscovered universes littered throughout the blackness, at the worlds within worlds within worlds. “Hey, Sam?”
“Do you remember how to get back?”
Sam said this nonchalantly. Jimmy understood. The night always instilled within him a subtle sense of foreboding, but he was a timid boy; this was normal. Admiring Sam’s stolid disposition, Jimmy merely adjusted his metal-rimmed glasses and was once again entranced by the shimmering night sky. He sighed in fascination. There was nothing to fear.
“Look out! It’s Mr. Blackbourne!”
Jimmy scrambled upward in a galvanic frenzy only to trip over his own feet. He landed in a wild heap on the forest floor, shouting in terror-stricken surprise. Then he stopped. He could hear Sam’s giggling nearby.
Sam’s giddy guffawing prevented him from answering immediately. When he did finally respond, he had to answer between mutinous chuckles.
“I…I knew you were scared of him! I just knew it!”
Jimmy blinked sheepishly. “N-no, I’m not….”
Sam’s laughter abated and he yawned, boredom replacing his comedic glee. “It’s okay, Jimmy. I can’t think of a reason you would have to not be scared of that crazy geezer.”
Jimmy hoisted himself up from the dirt and reclaimed his position beside Sam. He vigorously punched his friend in the shoulder before sitting back down.
“I said I’m not scared of him,” Jimmy remarked. “I was just afraid we would get caught out here. Mr. Blackbourne hates it when he finds kids snooping around in the forest.”
Sam turned to face his companion, a playful gleam of treachery flickering in his eyes. “Yes…yes, he does…but to what extent that it what cause him to—”
“No! Not another one of your stories!”
In the past, when the boys had made their daily escapades to the forest as the sun fell below the horizon, Sam had always told Jimmy stories. They were scary stories, spine-chilling stories, stories of ghosts, ghouls, beasts, killers. None of them were true. Many of them, if not all of them, had been about Mr. Blackbourne. Whether it was the tale of the skeletons discovered in the man’s bedroom closet; or the tale of the strange disappearances of children who came to his house on Halloween expecting truffles and lollipops; or the tale of the Gnasher, the most horrifying one of all, detailing a gruesome torture device concealed in the man’s basement that is better left untold; many of these stories revolved around the fictional barbarism of Mr. Blackbourne. Jimmy hated them.
Sam snickered mischievously. “Come on, don’t be a—”
“I don’t want to hear it, Sam!”
Jimmy folded his arms and shifted his caustic gaze to the dirt beside him. Sam gave him a stubborn look of disappointment, which he soon shrugged away with juvenile insouciance.
“Suit yourself.” He sighed. “I guess we’ll just sit here…alone in the darkness…with nothing to talk about…bored out of our minds. Yep. Sounds like fun.”
Jimmy was still sulking like an angry toddler in the timeout chair. “We can still talk. In fact, I want to talk. I just don’t want to hear another one of your dumb stories.”
“You act like we have other things to talk about.”
Jimmy was quiet for a moment, and Sam noticed that his blue eyes had softened. His petulant bitterness was gone. In its place was something that was alien to Sam: sadness. He turned away from his friend, debating whether or not to console him or dismiss his despondency as more of the same. He could not hide it in his face, and therefore he had to turn away; he was uninterested.
“You’re right,” Jimmy murmured. “We don’t have anything else to talk about.” He shifted uncomfortably on the ground and took a deep breath. “So…let’s hear it. What brilliant stories do you have to tell me about Mr. Blackbourne?”
Sam rolled his eyes and shot an unmannerly glower in his friend’s direction. “All right, Jimmy, what happened this time? Did your parents snap at you again, or something?”
Jimmy nodded slowly. “I don’t understand, Sam. It’s like they wish I had never been born. I mean, I know they really do love me, but…it’s times like this where I just can’t tell….”
Sam shook his head. “Jimmy, get a grip. My parents yell at me all the time. Do you see me crying about it?” No response came from Jimmy. None was needed. “Your parents are just strict; mine are….Well, mine are way worse. That’s why we came to the woods tonight, and that’s why we come to the woods every night: to forget about our stupid, selfish, crazy parents.” Sam paused before letting cant spray from his mouth once more. “Stop being such a baby. You’re afraid of all those authoritative adults in your life. Why can’t you be more like me?”
Jimmy gaped at Sam, his lips quivering and his face racked with pain. “…Like you…?”
“Yeah. Like me. Whenever I see you, you’re always depressed. You always cower in fear whenever there’s an adult around. You need to stand up for yourself. Get a grip and live your life, you know?”
Jimmy’s reply was delayed and nearly inaudible. “Sure.”
“You don’t understand, Jimmy. You’re lucky to have a friend like me.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” The sarcasm was palpable.
Sam’s brain groped for something else to say, something that would clarify his message, something that would actually speak to Jimmy. Nothing came to mind. He glanced over at his friend, whose eyes had shifted once again to the sparkling night sky. Sam stared forward, an expression of awe materializing on his face as he scrutinized the ebony limbo of the night, its sovereignty only broken by the occasional starbursts of fireflies. For a brief moment of otherworldly equanimity, the woods acquired their own place in time, exclusive to the tall, slender trees and their patrons, Sam and Jimmy. The darkness seemed to twist and swirl around them; the fireflies’ sporadic explosions of light in the distance seemed to take on their own form of existence, and Sam and Jimmy’s imaginations soared in that moment. This was why they came each night. The forest offered things that no farcical cartoon or plastic toy could give, things that only one’s own mind could invoke. The forest was freedom.
Sam and Jimmy stayed in the forest for several more minutes, their minds oblivious to the punishments their parents would have in store for them later—or, possibly, that was only the case for Sam. Jimmy, although he denied its obviousness, was the more sensitive, more perceptive individual. He thought about his problems. He dwelled upon them.
As Jimmy rested his head against the tree trunk, his mind trapped on the border of restlessness and rest, Sam continued to look off into the distance, his pupils transfixed on the fireflies and their fervid luminosity. Why couldn’t life be like this? Why couldn’t children be free to live by their own rules, away from controlling, domineering parents? Why did life offer so much and give so little? Why…?
A ring of light played at the corner of Sam’s vision. The boy jumped in surprise, ready to bolt away from Mr. Blackbourne’s kid-clobbering clutches, but he found there was nothing to fear. He looked off into the trees and found that it was just a firefly…a very large, very bright firefly…that had not yet extinguished. The light was still there, and it was getting closer. Sam came to his senses. The light was shining in the boys’ direction. Perhaps they did have something to fear.
“That’s not a firefly,” Sam mumbled bluntly. He immediately grabbed his best friend’s arm and sharply pulled him to his feet.
“H-hey…Sam, what’s wrong with you?!”
Sam said nothing. He only extended his forefinger in the direction of the approaching light. Jimmy’s eyes widened in fear.
“I don’t know. Hide.”
Sam and Jimmy both cowered behind the tree just as the shadows began to melt away into the surrounding wilderness. Sam found himself peeking through the space between a steeply rising branch and the trunk, trying to identify the invader of their solitude. As the light grew closer, Sam began to hear footsteps. Light footsteps. A child’s footsteps.
Sam looked to Jimmy, who mouthed, “Mr. Blackbourne?”
Sam mouthed back, “I don’t think so.” Relief could be seen on Jimmy’s face, but it was only temporary. They still had no idea who this was.
The crack of a twig.
Sam immediately turned to look back through the space and carefully examined the figure. They were close enough now that he could see their features, and his eyes narrowed slightly in confusion. It was not anyone he knew. It was not anyone Jimmy knew. It was not anyone either of them had seen before.
It was a girl. She was carrying a lantern and wearing a delicate white frock emblazoned with blossoming flowers. Her pale, muted skin bore a resemblance to that of a ghost, but Sam was unafraid, for this was undoubtedly a gentle spirit. Jimmy slowly stood up behind Sam and looked over his shoulder, one foot planted far behind him in case a quick escape was in order. The girl’s face remained hidden behind the nebulous glow of the lantern, her flaxen hair flowing out far past her shoulders. Sam looked on, spellbound.
The girl stopped. Sam was baffled for a moment, until Jimmy whispered the words both the boys had dreaded hearing.
“She sees us.”
Sam rose out from behind the tree, making his presence known. Jimmy turned to run, but, knowing that his friend would stay put, remained hidden behind the tree, and waited.
Nothing happened for the longest time. Sam had been rendered mute, his voice purloined by his curiosity. What was this lone girl doing in the middle of the woods at night?
She lowered her lantern, and Sam saw the face—the gorgeous, diamond face—that he would pursue until the end of his days.
Another light appeared further back, and the girl whirled around in fright. Sam recognized the cold, flinty voice instantly.
“Crap, it’s Mr. Blackbourne!”
“Run!” Jimmy exclaimed.
Jimmy started to run deeper into the forest, but found himself stopping dead in his tracks. Sam plowed straight into him soon after. Both the boys fell to the ground clumsily.
“Jimmy, what the heck are you doing!”
“We have to go that way!” Jimmy pointed towards Blackbourne Manor, towards the mysterious girl, towards the nearing flashlight of Mr. Blackbourne.
“That’s the way out of the forest!”
Sam turned to find Mr. Blackbourne’s towering silhouette drawing steadily closer, rising over the smooth contour that the girl had traveled across to find the boys. He was coming.
“Wait a minute….” Sam trailed off.
The footsteps were growing louder. The beam of light was growing brighter, larger, closer. Jimmy was paralyzed. Sam tugged on his friend’s arm once more and they hid, burying themselves in the obscure pall of sundown. The old man came over the hill just as the two boys disappeared from view.
The girl merely stood there. She did nothing.
“What is she doing?” Sam hissed in Jimmy’s ear.
Jimmy did not respond. He was petrified.
Sam quickly rose to observe what was happening, careful to maintain his camouflage. The girl was not doing anything. Her back was to the tree, looking blankly at Mr. Blackbourne, whose face looked just as severe as it always was—whether he was watching television, eating, sleeping, working…or scolding those unlucky enough to be caught wandering the woods at night. Sam could not bear to be impotent while this helpless girl awaited a chastising, at the hands of Mr. Blackbourne no less. But he remained hidden in the darkness, watching on in terror.
Mr. Blackbourne took his final steps. He was only ten feet away from the girl. Nine. Seven. Five. He stopped.
Jimmy covered his mouth, muffling his respiration. Sam continued to look on, bracing himself for the worst.
It didn’t come.
“Claire, what are you doing out here?”
The girl resisted a glance back at the tree, back at the boys. She blinked diffidently. “I like the woods, Daddy.”
Mr. Blackbourne sighed, and the tension in Sam’s body receded. “Claire, it’s dark out and it’s almost midnight. Come on, I think it’s time to go back to the house.”
There was no friction between them, and both Sam and Jimmy knew why. It made sense to Jimmy, but Sam refused to accept it. Uncertainty had always surrounded Mr. Blackbourne’s ancient life, and, being the foolish young boy that he was, Sam had always regarded it with superstition. Because of this, he would never accept that Mr. Blackbourne was anything more than a roguish hermit. He would never accept that he had a daughter.
Sam watched peevishly as Claire and Mr. Blackbourne began their trip back home. He and Jimmy were only able to hear fragments of the following conversation as they departed.
“So, baby, how was school? I didn’t even get the chance to ask you because you just immediately went into the woods the moment you got home.”
“It was fine….The sunset really is beautiful here.”
The pair slowly faded away in the distance, their voices resonating through the trees, the glow of her lantern and his flashlight mingling with the blackness to give the forest ahead a persistent gray luster, a luster that Sam and Jimmy followed back to Blackbourne Manor. They were a safe distance behind the old man and his daughter. They could now speak.
They did not say a word until the Gatekeeper was in view. Beyond its wide trunk and winding branches, the mansion was visible, and the figures of Mr. Blackbourne and his daughter could be seen climbing up the hill and onto its palatial veranda.
The boys stopped for a moment as they reached the forest’s exit, standing just behind the Gatekeeper’s great bole. The expression on Sam’s face showed his complete confusion; one of his principal notions about Nathaniel Blackbourne had just been violated. His adamance had been challenged. For the moment, he preferred not to think about that; his mind flew to the girl.
“Have you ever seen her before?”
Sam looked at Jimmy. “The girl?”
“Yeah. She looked a little familiar to me.”
“No, I’ve never seen her before. I don’t think she goes to our school, because I don’t remember anyone like her in the hallway.”
“Well, it’s not like you have photographic memory, or something.”
“Trust me, Jimmy…I would have remembered her if I had seen her.”
Jimmy was quiet for a moment. Then he continued speaking. “I see her sometimes during lunch…and she sits in my science class. She’s always alone. She doesn’t seem to mind, though.” Another pause. “I think about sitting with her sometimes, but I always chicken out.” After one more brief lapse, Jimmy repeated glumly: “I always chicken out.”
In the lull that followed, both Sam and Jimmy looked wistfully up the hill at Blackbourne Manor. Two people could be seen in an upstairs window, one a stout older man, the other a fragile little girl. The man gently kissed her forehead as she somnolently settled herself under her bedsheets. He left her bedside, and the light perished.
“Wow,” Jimmy breathed. “I didn’t think he even understood what a kid was. Turns out he had a kid of his own all along.”
“He doesn’t understand.”
Jimmy turned to Sam, surprise parting his lips. “What do you mean? He has a daughter that he clearly cares about.”
“Just because he has a daughter doesn’t mean he understands her,” Sam explained. “No parent truly understands their kids.” In response to Jimmy’s repulsion, Sam continued: “Jimmy, come on. Do you think your parents understand you? Kids need to be free. We don’t need parents to watch over us. Hell, my parents hardly watch over me anyway.”
Jimmy looked at Sam with farouche defiance. “Look, I know my parents yell at me a lot, but I know they still love me.”
Sam smiled a stilted smile. “Jimmy…if there were, say, a famine…and you had this massive supply of food stored in your house for your entire family…you would be the first thing they would eat. It’s not meant to disgust you or anything; it’s the truth.”
“Sam, that doesn’t even make any sense!”
“It makes perfect sense.”
“No, it doesn’t!”
“Jimmy, more people means more mouths to feed. You understand now?”
Jimmy understood the concept; what he did not understand was his friend’s unnecessarily drastic philosophy. “Sam…why do you think like that? Is it because of your parents and….”
The boy trailed off when he saw Sam’s expression suddenly turn several shades darker. He gritted his teeth and shot Jimmy a vicious stare that was enough to silence the shy boy for weeks. The serenity of the night was broken by a soundless cacophony of emotions, and Jimmy slunk into the shadow of the Gatekeeper’s trunk. Sam’s eyes did not stray from his friend.
A long, unbearable pause. Such discord hung between the two boys at this moment that one would wonder if their friendship had been irrevocably destroyed—if they could ever do anything together again. Of course, they could, and this was only another of countless discrepancies; this happened every time Sam was forced to deal with the reality of his parents, the parents he had always had, but at the same time, had never seen before. It always took a toll on Sam whenever he pondered it; it was even worse when Jimmy mentioned it.
Jimmy nodded submissively, like a schoolboy. “Sorry.”
Sam nodded back, clemency circulating in his myrtle green irises, replacing the acidity that had previously resided within them. “It’s all right.” He shifted his gaze forward and began to scale the hill. “Just remember that’s a…touchy subject.”
“I don’t see how I could forget,” Jimmy proclaimed with relief, following Sam up the hill. “I still have faith in my parents, though. I know they’re mean sometimes…but I know they love me. Maybe they just don’t have time to truly show it.”
“Maybe your parents love you, too.”
A long, heavy sigh escaped Sam’s mouth. He was incredibly annoyed. “You know, I really hope you’re not being an optimist, because optimists all have one thing in common: they’re all dumber than cows.”
“And pessimists are dumber than sloths.”
Sam whirled around to face Jimmy. “What?”
Jimmy nodded. “Yep. You know, you might think it’s really cool that sloths can hang from trees and everything, but they’re so stupid they sometimes fall to their deaths because they grab onto their own arm thinking it’s a branch.”
Sam chuckled at this morbidly funny thought. “Okay, Mr. Know-It-All.”
“So much for being dumber than a cow, huh?”
Their parents’ acrimony nothing more than a distant ordeal buried in the back of their brains, the boys climbed to the top of the hill and made their way around the veranda back to the cobblestone walkway, and from there traveled away from Blackbourne Manor, away from the woods. Before leaving, Sam turned to see the mansion one last time, yearning etched all across his face. Some of the forest’s majesty had rooted itself within his brain, suffusing his thoughts, his mind, his imagination….
He thought only about the girl.
When he slipped into his bed after arriving home, the girl’s face pervaded throughout his dreams. He saw her everywhere. He saw her in Jimmy’s science class; he saw her at lunch; he saw her walking in the woods; and everywhere she went, it was always the same: she was alone, forsaken, friendless, and did not care in the least. She seemed content. This maddened Sam, for he could not bear to see her alone. This was not some insane obsession—
This was love.
Sam smiled in the dark of his bedroom. “Claire,” he intoned. He imagined the forest during the height of spring, with flowers and lavender trees flourishing, their dazzling colors demanding attention, and the leaflets of birches and aspens swelling like plumes of cumulus about to burst. None of those things mattered; the girl had stolen their majesty. He saw her basking in the sun, her electric eyes watching the tree branches sway in the wind. He saw her smile as her hair twirled around her, and he saw her close her eyes in benediction.
He saw her diamond face.
Love. This was love.
“Claire….That’s a nice name.”
The day had grown old and worn. The sky’s cerulean rapture had now given way to a sea of massicot and scarlet, and the sun was slowly deliquescing to become nothing more than a thin line of light on the edge of the world. Sam hurried through the woods, his eyes wide with fear and his breathing heavy with anxiety. Claire was nowhere to be seen.
“Claire!” he shouted once more, to no avail. His voice echoed through the forest, unnoticed, unheard.
Upon arrival at the Gatekeeper’s trunk earlier in the day, he had assumed that finding Claire would be an easy task, that he would simply discover her basking in the sun just as he had countless times before as a child, after long, stressful school days and just before quiet, graceful evenings. Hours had passed, and still no Claire. If she had not been at Blackbourne Manor, and her presence still escaped him in the forest…there were not very many more possibilities as to where she could be. Sam’s hopes were thinning. Something was wrong. Where could she be?
Sam fought for balance as he stumbled down a long, traitorous hillside. Each time he looked at the leaves of the trees, their emerald chloroplasts grew exponentially dimmer. The shadows of the trees lengthened until they appeared to be endless lines of darkness stretching far away into yet more darkness, and as Sam hastily looked down at his own stomping, sprinting feet, even they seemed to be slowly sinking in a vast field of darkness. He had to find Claire.
Deeper he went into the darkness, and deeper the darkness went into him. The virescent brise-soleils that hung above him transformed from innocent tree branches into long, thorn-like claws capable of lacerating upon touch. The shadows of the forest appeared to rise from the ground, becoming odious servants of turpitude, minions of Old Scratch, monsters, fiends, demons. Sam quickened his pace. Tree stumps in the distance took the shape of gravestones. Hanging tree limbs took the shape of hangings. Bright pink cherry trees just beginning to blossom took the shape of viscera just beginning to burst in all their gory glory. Night in the forest was not a dream tonight; it was a nightmare. Sam glanced anxiously at the crimson sky. He had to find Claire.
The crickets began their treble chirping, which Sam found hard not to mistake for the shrill screaming of banshees; and the baritone utterances of frogs were transformed by Sam’s screaming nerves into the orotund moaning of a wraith. Darkness hung overhead. Night had arrived. He had to find Claire.
“Claire!” Sam yelled desperately, futilely. “Claire!”
His empty shouting resounded in the quiet of the nightfall. No one answered him.
He had to find Claire.
Sam had little doubt at this point that something was very wrong. An uneasy feeling abided within him; he expected the unmistakable fetor of expiry to enter his nostrils any moment. He was scared, irrationally thinking of all the worst possible things that could happen, irrationally believing that only the worst possible things could happen. Whenever he looked upward at the firmament, he did not see the blood-red beauty of the sunset; he only saw blood. Sam ran through the trees, searching, fretting, fearing endlessly. He had to find her. He had to find her. He had to find her.
“Claire…” Sam cried. “Claire, where are you? Claire!”
This was his last chance. The Alternative could not be for nothing. Sam had to find her. He had to find Claire. It would not be long now. Sam galumphed along on the verge of tears, Savannah’s nightmarishly plausible words echoing in his mind:
“She hasn’t forgotten….She remembers you all too well….”
“You’ll find no forgiveness here….”
A splash. Sam’s pant leg was suddenly peppered with moisture. He looked up to find that he stood at the edge of small creek that wound through the trees deliriously, engulfed in muck on both sides. While the ground before had been hardened and compact, the terrain here was soft and pulpy, comprised of watery clods of earth and loam. Here the ground was like damp argil, easily molded into different shapes regardless of the pressure asserted. Sam looked forward, and his fears simultaneously disappeared and multiplied as his eyes fell upon the footprints.
She was close. He had to find her.
Sam was torn between absolute euphoria and disquieted dread. His thoughts were screaming oxymorons and the antitheses of antitheses. He raced across the creek and over yet another sharp embankment only to have his rapid footfalls ended abruptly by what he saw when he reached the top of the hill. A smile appeared briefly on Sam’s face before quickly being snatched away by dark expectancies; he did not know what to think, let alone what to expect. But there she was. His happiness returned; it would remain as long as she was in his life. Time lost its relevancy. Fortune lost its credibility. The world lost its majesty, for she had stolen it for herself. This was where the Alternative had led Sam. This was the future it had sculpted for him. This was the event that Sam had dreamed of ever since he had left Summerfall, and in its wake, he would prosper with his one true love. He would not have to dread her name again. The sounds of the setting sun left his ears; he could only hear the sound of the hummingbird’s wings.
She was sitting atop a lofty tree branch, watching as the woods began their vanishing act, disappearing slowly within the arriving shade of night. She wore a dainty sark and a skirt, both of which were dyed a bright robin’s egg blue and decorated with a unique argyle pattern. Her leather boots had been kicked off her feet; they now lay in a slipshod manner on the forest floor below.
Something was wrong.
She did not turn; she did not hear. No matter; Sam would call her, and she would turn, and he would see her beautiful face once again. An exultant smile conquered Sam’s face; he was overtaken by joy, blinded by it. He watched as a mild gust of wind took her hair and danced with it, and within the ringlets of gold he beheld the foxtrot, the twist, the waltz, and he too felt like dancing. But something was wrong.
“Claire! Over here!”
She did not turn. Her feet were trembling. Sam began to move forward, walking briskly in the direction of the tree. She did not hear his footsteps. Something was wrong.
He was getting closer. He could have sworn he heard sobbing.
Something was wrong.
“Claire! It’s me! Sam!”
Something was very wrong. She began to lift herself from the branch.
She turned. It was as fast as lightning and as sudden as the burst of a firecracker. It was now that Sam could see her face…her gorgeous, diamond face. It was now that he could see the scintillating rings of malachite that were her eyes. It was now that he could see her peaked cheeks, stippled with freckles. It was now that he could see the tears…and the noose.
“…Oh, God, no—” His mind flew to Peach.
As Sam bolted to the tree’s base, Claire clasped the branch at the last moment and wrapped her leg around it. She lunged for the knot in the rope, clawed it with her fingers, tore it with her teeth, all while babbling incoherently between horrible, broken sobs. Sam scrambled up the tree trunk, only to find himself falling back onto the forest floor. She was slipping.
Sam struggled madly to his feet, screaming the girl’s name over and over again in absolute horror. She fumbled with the knot. She fought to loosen it, but it only tightened as she slipped. It was all in vain. She could not breathe. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. Slipping, slipping—
Claire fell. Sam screamed. Quickly, she wrapped both her legs around the branch, fighting to stay up. Sam circled below, helplessly horrified. Tightening. She dug her fingers into the knot once more. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. She felt her tears flowing into her hair; she felt nausea rising in her throat. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. She attacked the knot, only to feel it tighten. She could not breathe. He attacked the tree, only to fall to the ground once more. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. Loosening. Slipping. Tightening. Loosening. Loosening. Slipping, slipping, slipping—
She let go. Shocked, Sam clambered to his feet and dove to catch her. She landed into his arms and the rope uncoiled into a straight, undeviating line; the knot was gone, and therefore, the noose as well. Sam and Claire tumbled to the ground, their feverish panic now moribund. She took several titanic gulps of air, choking, gasping. He lay there in the dirt beneath her, his consternation fluttering, dying, disintegrating. The shadows of prescient angst lifted, and the languishing sunlight was allowed to shower the forest with its cerise brilliance one last time before descending into blackness. All was well. Sam looked at Claire, who, still quivering with trepidation, slowly raised her head to return his gaze. She was crying. Sam was crying as well, but his tears were not tears of sadness; they were tears of happiness. Claire was safe. The Alternative’s magic was at work. Claire was safe, and that was the only thing in the world that mattered to Sam.
“Claire….” He smiled at her cheerfully and lifted his hand to her face, drying her tears. “It’s okay….It’s okay….”
She did not stop crying. The rope dangled carelessly above them, the lethality of the noose unraveled and defunct, forgotten by Sam. The noose was no longer his reality. His past was not reality; death was not reality; Peach’s horrible fate was certainly no longer a reality; Claire was his reality. Her diamond face was all he saw, and it pained him to see her cry.
“Claire, it’s okay…” Sam cooed, taking her face in his hands. “It’s okay….You can stop crying now….It’s me. It’s me…Sam.” Her weeping did not weaken in the slightest. At the sound of his name, it seemed to intensify. “It’s me….It’s me….It’s okay….It’s…okay….”
Sam pulled her head close and brought his lips to hers, and there they lay on the forest floor, beneath the darkening sky, beneath the sighing trees, beneath the swinging rope—
Claire jerked suddenly and ripped herself away from Sam. She hastened to her feet and walked away swiftly and solemnly, not making any efforts to control her dogged, despairing tears. Sam sat up in complete surprise and watched as she staggered to the tree from which she had fallen from and crumbled against its trunk, sobs escaping her body in ragged screams. Her weak form shuddered violently as waterfalls leaked through her eyelids. Her arms encircled the tree trunk, embracing it as they had once embraced someone else. Sam was speechless. His eyes were locked on her, begging, entreating, imploring. Now was the time for him to say the reverent, repugnant words he had waited to say for ten years. He held his breath. The ochre gleaming the disappearing sun forced the words out of his mouth.
Whatever the girl might have said in response was warped and distorted by her unceasing tears. Sam looked at her sorrowfully, ruefully, on the verge of tears himself. It took a Herculean effort for him to bring himself to continue.
“Claire…I know I hurt you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t…I….I wasn’t thinking back then. I didn’t know what I was doing. I…” He paused, and then he let the rest pour out of him like vomit. “I never wanted to hurt you. I gave in to some blind desire and I didn’t consider the consequences, and I stupidly turned my back on you for…for a wh.ore.” Sam fell silent. Claire’s crying began to lessen and she looked at him empathetically; her eyes, however, were still nearly devoid of all trust.
“Was it…me?” she stuttered timidly.
Sam opened his mouth in objection, but no words came out. He felt tears surging within him.
“Was it my…illness?”
“Claire, please don’t—”
Her lips quavered and her eyes filled to the brim with woeful agony. “It was…wasn’t it?”
Sam sprang to his feet and went over to Claire, who looked away, concealing her face within her hands. His patience was thinning. He wanted what the Alternative had offered. He wanted to be happy. He wanted her to be happy.
Gently, he caressed her beautifully bedraggled hair and bowed his head, blinking back his own turbulent emotions. He held her close, parted his lips, and told her the mendacious truth.
“No,” came his stricken susurrus. “Claire, whatever compelled me to do what I did did not have anything to do with you. It was my fault. It was my arrogance, my stupidity…and I’m sorry. This is why I came back. I had to apologize. I had to. I….” A sudden twinge of self-loathing held his continuation, but he pushed onward, his voice cracking with every word. “I….I’m not the kid you knew ten years ago. I came back because of you, Claire. You…were my only hope….”
“I’m no one’s hope,” Claire cried. “No one hopes for me. You didn’t come back for me…. I understand.”
“No, Claire, that’s not true—”
Claire whirled around to face him, her eyes burning with fury. “It’s obvious, Sam!” she shouted. Her hoarse voice stabbed Sam with a blade of baleful pusillanimity. He took a startled step back, heeding her voice’s inexplicable transformation from a quiet whimper to a loud, booming fortissimo. She was beyond sadness. She was angry. “No one cares about me! You don’t care about me!” The tears came back again, dripping from her chin, staining her skirt. “You shouldn’t have come back! I never wanted you to come back, because as long as you’re here, I am reminded that no one will ever love a hideous, demented psychopath like me!…And I…that…you…waste…l-love….”
Her words dissolved into wailing. She collapsed onto the dirt, her sentiments in shambles. The rope beckoned to her.
Sam closed his eyes and hung his head in anguish. A single droplet emerged and fell inconsequentially to the ground below. Disbelief slashed at his heart. He wished he could understand what she was feeling. “You don’t mean that.”
“Claire…you don’t mean that. You know you don’t.”
She did not answer. Her grieving face was as enigmatic as it had always been.
“You do not mean that,” Sam repeated, insisted, commanded.
Claire’s expression remained contorted by dejection. “Sam….My parents don’t even care about me….”
He saw his past. A man and a woman sitting in the dining room. Smoke. Laughter. Cruel, mocking laughter. Obscenities. Profanities. Anger. Yelling. Pain. Torture. Snowport. The rope. Peach—
Sam cringed. This was not what the Alternative had offered.
“Claire. Listen to me. Please, just trust me. I am not lying to you. I love you. I truly, sincerely love you. Nothing will change that—not Sandy, not you, not your parents—nothing. You are the reason I came back. I wanted to be with you. I needed to be with you. In the ten years that I was gone, I aspired to nothing, lived for nothing. I am not a good man…not remotely, and just up until recently I thought that meant I had to wither and die in silence. But now…I see exactly what I have to live for. It’s you, Claire. I came back for you…because I know you have the same problem. You don’t know what you have to live for. You don’t know how you could possibly find a purpose in the world. You think everyone hates you because you have schizophrenia, because you’re different from everybody else…but that couldn’t be further from the truth.” Sam spoke strongly, passionately. He now had Claire’s undivided attention. The skepticism still showed in her face, but now it was accompanied by some sort of indecisive intrigue. She sniffled. The tears had subsided. Sam continued. “You have a purpose, Claire. And…that’s why I came back. I figured out my purpose. I need to live my life for the ones I love. I will, from this point forward, live my life for you, Claire. I can’t imagine life without you.” Sam took a deep, fervent breath, knelt down beside the girl, and spoke from the core of his core, from the crux of his being, from the very center of his heart.
“I love you.”
The words hung in the air. Claire looked on, her face painted an impossible mixture of harsh cynicism and tender endearment. Sam held his breath once more, fearing her response, fearing her doubt. The sky was deepening, taking on a cavernous quinacridone hue, and the sun was now just a single tiny speck in the distance, casting a lonely beam of light into the trees as a final farewell. Claire did not speak for the longest time. Her Delphic countenance bedeviled Sam, but he smothered his exasperation and looked at her fondly, charitably. He waited for her response.
“Sam…c-can we please…go back to the house…?”
Sadness was all Claire had felt for ten years. Sam nodded, a warmhearted beam prevailing in spite of his vexation. He wanted to see her happy.
“Yeah. It’s getting late. We should go back.” His tormented eyes fell on the rope, and he stared at it as if he expected it to tie itself back into that deadly loop and throw itself around Claire’s neck a second time. He frowned. “I don’t think we should tell your parents what happened. They’ll worry.”
Tears ran down her face again. She merely nodded.
Sam took Claire’s hand and helped her to her feet. She retrieved her leather boots and they proceeded to begin the trek back to the house. She was dazed. Everything had happened so fast; her flight from the manor, Sam’s return after ten long years of suffering, her close brush with death and now her terrifying ordeal with life….It frightened her. As she stumbled drunkenly, dizzy and confused, Sam put his arm around her shoulder and helped her as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other in the absence of self-reliance. The tears still flowed freely on her cheeks, but her bawling had deteriorated into what was now inaudible mourning. The rope swung like a pendulum behind them, watching them leave, waiting patiently.
As they journeyed back to Blackbourne Manor, all suggestions of the day disappeared from the world, and the sky reached the point in its glorious cycle where it morphed into a breathtaking vista of the Milky Way, glittered with extrasolar pixels of light and flooded with the faint tinge of lapis lazuli. There the universe lay within a crystal of tanzanite, a harmonious canvas of constellations and solar systems billions of miles away. Sam stared upward at the majesty of space as he walked, awe-struck. Claire stared at the ground. Neither spoke at length, in spite of Sam’s meager attempts.
“I’m so glad winter’s over,” he said once, his eyes never leaving the splendor of the night sky. Then he had said somewhat sadly: “...There never were clear nights like these in winter. You know…nights where you could see all the stars and the galaxies and…all of creation just laid out in front of you. It was just…” His voice trailed away, marking the death of their discussion. It remained a mystery as to whether Claire had even heard him.
They hiked back to Blackbourne Manor, and time lost its relevancy once again. For Sam, the walk through the woods lasted mere seconds; his sheer joy at being reunited with the girl with the diamond face propelled him into the future. As long as he could see her beauty, Sam would be happy. As for Claire, the walk lasted hours. Days. Weeks. Each step was a tribulation, a journey into temporal quicksand, a look back at her worst nightmares: the past, the present, and the future. Time was her nightmare. Reality was her nightmare. She had only vague ideas of what had caused this nightmare; Sam, Sandy, her parents, her condition…. She only had vague ideas. But whenever she thought about it, cogitated over it, dwelled upon it…she would always come to the same inconclusive conclusion. She would always come to the same duplicitous truth. She was her own nightmare, and as long as this nightmare existed, time would idle, time would lag, and time would stop. She was her own nightmare. Her salvation was the rope. It beckoned to her. She could hear its calls from deep in the forest, its enticing voice muttering in her ear. She could feel its wanton ogling from afar. She resisted it for now.
At one indiscernible point in time after immutable passage through the trees, the Gatekeeper’s enormous trunk finally became visible. Beyond it was Blackbourne Manor. Sam wondered where the time had gone. Claire wondered why it had stayed to harass her. Sam looked off into the distance and saw the unmistakable glimmering of fireflies in the dark. He smiled. He was reminded of the deep love he had for this marvelous forest. It was one of the few memories he had that he enthusiastically embraced. Claire kept her eyes fixated on the ground as they approached the Gatekeeper, trying to rid her brain of the past.
“Claire…is it okay if I ask you something?”
She shot a vacillating look at Sam. Her only response came in the form of a doubtful grunt. Sam could not tell what she was feeling. He could only tell that she was beautiful.
Sam had been straining over something to say. As they drew ever closer to the mansion where they would part for the night, the pressure became increasingly weighty on Sam’s shoulders. He had to say something meaningful to her, or else this night would lose all meaning. He had saved her life for now. He wanted her life to stay saved. He wanted her face to remain beautiful.
“…Are you happy that I’m back?” The inquiry resonated throughout the woods. Sam choked silently on his qualms. The distant sounds of the night filled the brief pause that followed his voice and preceded his devout continuation. “Because I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to be able to see your face again. I’m happy that I got a second chance at life. I’m happy that I got the chance to apologize…because I certainly didn’t deserve it.”
Claire did not answer. Her blank expression betrayed the maelstrom within her. It was all but invisible to Sam.
He took a deep breath. “You heard me say it back there. I’m not a good person. Not remotely. I…I broke your heart, and after I ran away, it all went downhill from there.” He stole a glimpse at Claire, expecting to see sympathy. No emotions showed themselves. Sam kept speaking. “I thought about a lot of things while I was gone. I thought about a lot of people. I thought about Jimmy, and I thought about Sandy…but I thought about you most of all.” He cast her a look of sincere love. She cast him a look of insincere happiness. “I know you don’t believe me….I know it’s hard for you. You have every reason not to believe me. You were so devoted to me and I betrayed that devotion. But I came back after all this time because of you, Claire. I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I wanted my life to be worth something, and…now that I’m back, now that I can stay with you…it is. You give my life worth, Claire. I had to come back for you. I had to.”
Sam and Claire stopped beside the Gatekeeper’s trunk, just at the base of the hill that led to Blackbourne Manor. Galaxies hung above them, dazzling swarms of stars and astral dwarves, celestial watercolors of vibrant blues and vivid violets. Claire loved violets. She looked up at the magnificent empyrean painting with deceitful disinterest. She then looked at Sam.
“I have every reason not to believe you,” she parroted.
“Yes,” Sam replied. “But you can believe me. You can trust me.” He relinquished his voice and contemplated the steady, subtle transformation of her face. She showed no reaction at first. She just stood there, looking at Sam with insecure indifference. Sam looked back, his heart convulsing against his sternum, his face still broadcasting unwearying hope. He hoped she would accept him. He hoped she would accept them. Treacherous optimism consumed him from the inside out, blurring the truth about this accursed love, blurring the truth about his life, blurring the truth about Claire even as her emotionless facade turned to glass and her true feelings were revealed. Her entire appearance was renewed with pain. Pain tightened her lips. Pain fractured her eyes. Pain devoured her heart. And it was all blurred to Sam.
“Claire…you can trust me.”
The door swung open. Claire stepped into the bedroom. All the reasons she had not to believe Sam lay under the blankets. Lust. Sandy. Tightening. Liaison. Amour. Tightening. Pleasure. Fornication. Tightening. Tightening.
Claire turned away and started up the hill, abandoning Sam at the base of the Gatekeeper’s trunk before he could even begin to comprehend her devastation. It was all blurred to him.
She did not look back. Irremediable, Sam followed her.
The pair transpired from under the Gatekeeper’s colossal branches and climbed up the hill to Blackbourne Manor without delay. Claire stared bitterly off into the distance, her eyes roseate from weeping. Her feelings remained lost to Sam.
Sam looked up at the mansion at the top of the hill. Most of the windows were dark, with the exception of nearly all the windows on the ground floor, which blazed with light. He could see Savannah’s thin form moving quickly through the house. She had been watching the tree line nervously when she had seen Sam and Claire exit the forest; she was now standing out on the veranda, leaning against the mahogany balustrade, her eyes refusing to stray from the approaching couple. Seeing a reflection of Nathaniel’s icy severity, Sam looked away from her.
They reached the porch steps. Sam, his pace slowed to a languid meander, watched sourly as Claire advanced toward her mother. He followed closely behind. Savannah took a step forward, eyeing Sam suspiciously. She said nothing to him. Her eyes fell on Claire, whose face was still a storm of emotions.
“Oh, Claire…” Savannah reached out and wrapped her arms around her daughter’s willowy shoulders. Claire did not hug her back. She just stared, the trails of her tears still glistening on her cheeks. Savannah continued to console her, having some vague intuition of what she had endured. “Baby, it’s okay. It’s okay, baby….” She glanced at Sam, who looked back at her calmly and without expression. Perhaps it was because he was calm; this was unlikely. Perhaps it was because he did not know what to feel in this moment. He did not know what Claire truly thought about him. He did not know what Savannah truly thought about him. He did not yet know if the Alternative had truly worked, and therefore, he had no idea what to feel.
Without warning, Claire forced her mother away from her and hurried into the mansion. She did not look back at Sam. She did not turn her diamond face. Sam heard himself swallow his unhappiness as he watched her recede from view within the house, and in that moment, he felt as if he would never see her again. He felt as if this had been the last goodbye. Neither he nor Claire had said goodbye.
Savannah was not surprised by Claire’s fleet departure as Sam had been. She had expected this. She had expected the heartbreak. Words were lost to both of them, but for different reasons. Sam did not know what to say. Savannah did not know how she could say what had to be said.
Sam kept his eyes trained on the window, imagining Claire running back through the mansion, out onto the veranda, and leaping joyfully into his arms. He imagined the hug, the sweet embrace. He imagined the kiss, the taste of love. Fantasies. Hopeless, impossible fantasies.
Both the unyielding young man and the all-knowing old woman stood there, facing each other listlessly, allowing the crickets to sing their elegy for Sam and Claire, and any second chance either of them may have grasped for one brief, cherished moment. The evening had gone, and with it, the hopeful light of the sunset. All that was left was darkness, and the shadowy lights cast by the lamenting mansion. Love had passed on. Savannah was standing before its grave.
His consciousness returned, if only for the moment. His eyes shifted to Savannah, who had her head bowed and her tears barely restrained. Her stony temperament had eroded, revealing the mantle, the core, the sadness. It was the sadness she had hidden for ten years. It was the sadness Claire had felt for ten years. It was the sadness Sam had hoped he would never see again.
“Her neck was red.”
A jolt of realization hit him. He looked at Savannah, his face an acute illustration of shock. He opened his mouth to reply, but only a thunderous quietude slipped through his lips.
Savannah shook her head. “…You shouldn’t have come back.”
She turned away from him for the last time.
The park lay undisturbed in the center of the town and contained lush scenery akin to that found around Blackbourne Manor. It was now, after his departure from the mansion, that Sam came here. Whether it was late at night or early in the morning he could not tell. All he could tell was that it was dark.
For an amount of time Sam could not have cared less about, he wandered the green. The place was nothing more than a series of winding stone footpaths navigating their course through swarms of chestnuts and alders and Spanish moss trees, whose branches sprayed outward in what resembled electric clusters of arteries and veins, pulsating in rhythm with the heartbeat of the occasional lamplight, bleeding green, leafy blood. There were several benches scattered on either edge of the walkway in no particular pattern whatsoever, and every so often a single birdbath could be spotted on the pastures in the distance, seeming to fade into the dark like a ghost into the hereafter. A place of leisure during the day, the statuesque stillness this park took on at night made Sam feel as if he were taking a stroll through a graveyard. He had yet to know if a graveyard was where he truly belonged.
This day had lasted far longer than it should have for Sam. He had arrived back in Summerfall in the morning and had abandoned his shoddy clunker, a 1982 Cadillac Cimarron in extremis, on the outskirts of town. From that point on, the trip to Blackbourne Manor had been remarkably sound—perhaps even happy—as Sam had journeyed forward, propelled by the preeminent image of Claire’s flawless diamond face and her fantastical undying love. Throughout the morning, his thoughts had not been his; they had been the thoughts of children envisioning their lives as Seussian fairy tales, believing that the futures they had sculpted for themselves within their minds were the one and only truth. The bleak realities that had normally dominated his gray matter were driven out by obtuse excitement, and in their place the girl had enlivened his jollity. The sound of the hummingbird’s wings had given him hope.
Time had passed since then. Night had fallen.
Sam remembered the park quite well. He and Jimmy had come here fairly often as children before they had discovered the forest behind Blackbourne Manor, and the peace this park had bequeathed to them was both peculiar and infinitely welcome in the midst of their parents’ antipathy. Walking along these tortuous trails for the first time in a decade, the feelings that came to Sam were much like those he had experienced when returning to the woods earlier in the day. He felt as if he were visiting an old friend.
Sam stopped in his tracks and looked around the park, his eyes overflowing with nostalgia. Jimmy had been his one unwavering friend throughout his childhood. There had been others—most notably Sandy and Claire—but Claire’s schizophrenia had driven Sam away and spelled disaster for their relationship, and Sam had not been able to trust Sandy from the very beginning. Jimmy had been his only true friend, someone he could always come to for help, and it would be graciously given no matter what. He had been able to trust Jimmy from the day they first met to the day he ran away from Summerfall. He had not placed confidence of such stature onto anyone else throughout his days of youth—not even Claire. Jimmy had been his only true friend.
He wondered where Jimmy was now. Surely he had moved on; surely he had left this town and its hardships. He imagined his friend all grown up, dancing with a beautiful young lady on the hardwood floor of a boisterous nightclub, and later accompanying that same beautiful young lady to the opulent accommodations in which they would reside for the rest of their lives. He imagined Jimmy and that beautiful young lady walking along a picturesque coastline with two clamorous kids in tow, and later sitting on the same coastline in plastic beach chairs, watching the citrusy shape of the sun descend into the sea, allowing the moon to take its place as the keeper of the light. He imagined Jimmy and that beautiful young lady, her hand in his, trusting…loving. Sam wished nothing but the best for his friend, wherever he was. He hoped Jimmy had wished the same for him.
A bend in the road led Sam to yet another bench in the company of a lamppost, both seeming to cower underneath the long, straggly vines of a large willow tree. His feet ached from the endless walking this day had brought, and his mind reeled from the endless sorrow it had failed to prevent. He needed a rest. He needed a long, uninterrupted rest. If the Alternative could not offer the latter, he could at least rely on the bench in front of him to provide the former.
Sam quietly sat down on the bench and buried his hands in his face, the gravity of his situation becoming quite clear. He had accepted the Alternative and had come back to Summerfall for one reason and one reason only: Claire. He had come back to apologize. He had come back to fall in love with her diamond face all over again. It could not end like this. Perhaps she still loved him. Perhaps she was just hiding it. Maybe she would forgive him, and all would be well again, and he would be able to hold her hand just as he had before everything changed…
…or maybe not. Perhaps she did not love him. Perhaps everything she said to him was true, and she had not wanted him to come back at all. What if Sam’s return had changed nothing? What if it had only made things worse? What if Sam would return to the woods tomorrow only to find—
Perhaps it was best to remain an optimist. Dumber than a cow.
The night dragged on and on, never lightening, never lifting, and Sam did not leave the bench. He had nowhere to go. Jimmy had presumably decamped, and Claire was still in shock (to say the least) from Sam’s unexpected homecoming. He would not go to his old house under any circumstances whatsoever; that place held within its walls more hostility than Nathaniel Blackbourne could ever hope to summon in Sam’s presence. For now, Sam would simply wait for the sun. There was nothing else he could do.
The park was completely silent. No crickets chirped and no bullfrogs croaked. Not a single sound broke the strange tranquility of the park for the longest time. Sam did not move a muscle. His eyes were firmly shut. He was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to sleep. Slowly, he relaxed himself and sank down in the bench, finally succumbing to the toll of the day. His eyes stayed closed as he settled himself, leaning his head on the armrest, spreading his legs out across the concrete walkway, letting his arm hang limply over the side of the bench, inches from the ground. He slackened his entire body and let his arm droop, let it swing, swing, swing…swinging…swinging…almost like—
No. Don’t think about that. Just sleep. Sleep. Sleep….
A sound. Sam raised his head and opened his eyes. It had come from far away and was something he had heard many times before, and so did not startle Sam as much as it utterly annoyed him. He wanted nothing more than to sleep. His gall forced him to listen from a distance, and sure enough, he heard the sound again, as it was, much like the night, slow and constant.
He retracted his legs, sat up straight and turned over to the right, peering in the direction the sound had come from. The gleam of far-off lamplight revealed a figure—a girl—ambling along the pathway, her steps always lagging to catch up with one another, her eyes never leaving the concrete. As she continued along the walk, Sam could see the sadness besetting her movement, and he noticed her slim, lissome frame—not unlike Claire’s. This was not Claire. That he knew. He also knew that whatever had made this young woman so crestfallen, he did not care in the slightest. He returned to his position of sopor and waited for the woman to pass him by and leave him be.
As he expected, the woman’s light tread steadily grew louder as she rounded a bend in the road and approached the bench. Sam nestled his head on the armrest once again and tuned out the sounds of the lady’s footsteps, eager for the good night’s sleep he knew would never come. For even as he let his consciousness slip away from him, his conscience still encumbered him with the conundrum of Claire; he itched to forget the very idea of her ill feeling toward him, and each time it seemed it would dissolve from his mind, her diamond face would reappear to taunt him once more, to remind him that there had indeed been truth to her biting remarks. And then, he would attack reality, bombarding the abstraction of her antagonism with his own fictitious truths, just as he had done many times before. The cycle repeated itself. He forced himself to remember and he forced himself to forget provisionally. The cycle repeated itself. Loosening. Tightening. Loosening. Tightening—
Sam opened his eyes. The footsteps had stopped.
He had barely noticed the deceleration of the woman’s footfalls until they had been right in front of him. That had been just before they came to their end, and now the woman was standing beside him. He did not look up at her, and only kept his eyes cracked open enough to see a sliver of pavement and a single tennis shoe the color of salmon. He could almost feel her eyes scanning his body. Too exhausted to question why she had stopped, Sam merely lay there on the bench like a discarded rag doll and waited for her to move on. It would happen eventually. All the sensible people moved on. Jimmy had moved on. Claire had moved on, for the most part. Sam had not, and here he would lie until he did.
Then a thought struck him. This was not a normal feeling that hovered through the air. The silence remained, although the tension infecting this area of the park gave it an unwelcome quality of caprice, and Sam felt strangely uneasy. This was no ordinary passerby. Something was wrong. Slowly—very slowly—Sam doffed the illusion of sleep and looked up at the girl, and it all became very, very clear to him. His jaw hung in surprise. He sat up straight, and never broke eye contact with this woman. He knew her. She was not Claire. She had not moved on.
“…Sam? Is it really you?”
She was dressed casually, wearing a bright red chemise underneath a cocoa-colored leather jacket, as well as the previously mentioned tennis shoes. Sam looked at her face, which, although it still possessed a prepossessing appeal, was noticeably marked with a decade of strain and stress. Her hazel eyes were muddied with megrims. Her lean cheekbones were blemished with the stains of bygone tears. Her shoulder-length, nut-brown tresses were thrown about in a thousand different states of turmoil. She was still rather beautiful, but it was the same sad beauty Sam had seen in Claire. It was the beauty that pained the eye. It was the beauty that haunted the mind. For many different reasons, it hurt Sam deeply to look at her.
Sandy was the first one to break the pause. She continued with a forced smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
Sam nodded blankly. “Yep. A long time.” He hesitated. He noticed how calm she appeared in stark contrast to the bewilderment Claire and her parents had expressed upon Sam’s return. “You’re not surprised that I’m back? You’re not…surprised at all?”
Sandy shook her head and frowned. “Nope.”
Taking in a deep breath of air, Sandy continued. “So…Sam…what have you been up to?” She shrugged; Sam could tell she was struggling to find the right words. “I mean…you’ve been gone for about ten years. What’ve you been doing for all this time?”
His mind flew to Peach.
“…All the wrong things.”
She looked timidly down at her feet. “Sore subject?”
Sam nodded, glaring at the ground. “What are you doing here, Sandy?”
The girl did not answer immediately. Sadness sealed her lips and held her reply. Sadness was the puppetmaster, pulling at the strings, controlling this miserable marionette, using its destructive talents to dictate her every action and forge her every whim. It deranged Sam to see such unimpeded emotions every place he went, for he knew he had to accept responsibility for all the sadness, all the guilt, all the heartbreak—everything. Sandy, however, had been to blame as well. Her role in the incident had been every bit as catastrophic as Sam’s had been, and neither of them had forgotten. Both had tried, and both had failed.
Sandy shifted nervously, her sadness intensifying. “What am I doing here…?” she responded, almost as if she were asking herself the question. “I always come here. I like how it’s empty and quiet and peaceful…and I can just take a walk and think to myself. It just puts me at ease.”
Sam shook his head and stared daggers at the girl. He had not moved on. “Sandy, in the time I’ve been gone, I have tried thinking things over to myself many, many times, and, needless to say, it does not put me at ease. Quite the opposite, actually.”
Sandy did not retaliate. She merely blinked, and shifted her eyes back toward the concrete. For a brief flash of a moment, Sam looked at her and saw a reflection of himself in the looking glass just before Parish’s visit.
“Sam…is it okay if I sit next to you?”
No answer came from Sam. He only sat there, and continued to sit there even as Sandy took her place beside him without consent. The silence returned. Sam appreciated it; as long as no sound assaulted his eardrums, he could close his eyes and freely believe that he was alone in the park, that no one from his past would come to disturb his peace. Of course, that could not have been further from the truth, and he knew.
“I have to tell you something,” Sandy suddenly blurted out. Sam could tell from the awkward way the words had escaped her lips that she had not intended on saying something so soon. She had been restraining herself, but the words had come nonetheless. Sam had known they would come eventually. He had been dreading them.
Sam sighed and hung his head. “Don’t say it…. Abortion?”
At the sound of Sam’s comment, a small simper actually materialized on Sandy’s face, but it was only as temporary as the twinkling of the fireflies. “No,” she said, abstaining from any eye contact with Sam. “…Actually, the pregnancy test…. It didn’t even come back positive, so…yeah.”
Sam frowned. “I find that a little hard to believe.”
“Nope, I’m telling you the truth.” She looked at Sam for a brief second only to quickly avert her eyes once again. “No baby. It’s all…okay.” The last word had to be ripped from her lips. Before Sam could question her further, she brushed the topic aside. “You came back because of Claire, didn’t you?” Sam and Sandy inexplicably locked onto each other’s eyes in a moment of manifest tension, and she fumbled to compensate for her curtness. “I mean…I knew you would come back to apologize, so…. Yeah, don’t worry…I’m not gonna ask you how that went.” A black scowl from Sam showed Sandy that she had wandered dangerously far into forbidden territory and plucked a pitiful peep of a “sorry” from her mouth. Her face burned red so profoundly and intensely that touching it could easily have singed one’s fingers. The same could very well be said for Sam’s anger.
“…Please don’t talk about Claire,” he growled, his voice disseminating nascent mayhem. “Look, I know you haven’t seen me in forever and I know you have a ton of questions to ask me…but today hasn’t exactly been a good day for me. You’re right; I did come back for Claire and I did come back to apologize, because…I just had to make something right.” His voice had softened into a vague imitation of Savannah’s from earlier: distant and doleful. “I went over to Blackbourne Manor, and as you can see…it didn’t work out the way I had hoped it would. Can we just leave it at that?”
Sandy nodded slowly. “Yeah…I know how you feel.”
“No,” Sam snarled, his temper flaring uncontrollably. “You don’t know how I feel. You will never know how I feel. You have no idea what I’ve had to go through in the past ten years because of what you dragged me into. You have no idea how much pain I’ve had to endure because of what we did to her. And now…I come back after all these years, thinking I’ll get to have a second chance with her…and now I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if she still loves me or not.” A long, longing sigh drifted from his mouth. “You don’t know how I feel, Sandy. Stop pretending you do.”
Once again struggling to control himself, Sam turned away from the girl, whose face was devoid of any expression, showing no visible reaction to his asperity, hiding the hurt she felt. It was now that here, in the everlasting night of the park, Sam and Sandy sat together on the bench, saying nothing, bonded through disbanding. Together they sat in toilsome tolerance, in dizzy dissension, in infinite states of apartheid. Together they sat in a bond forged through bitterness, in a bond forged through bad blood, in a bond forged through the broken bonds they each had suffered over the years. Together they sat in a bond forged through betrayal. Together they sat in a bond forged through blindness. Together they sat, the bond between them forged through the fact that neither one of them had moved on, that neither one of them would move on. Sam would never move on from Claire, and Sandy would never move on from him.
As if against her will, Sandy slowly stood up from the bench, her vision filled with the familiar fog of tears, her mind smitten with the nightmares of time and reality. Sam did not look at her. She did not look at him. He was right. She did not know how he felt.
“Alright,” Sandy replied, whirling around to face Sam one last time. “I’ll just…get out of your hair for now. I…I didn’t know you…. I mean, I didn’t know about…. I’m sorry.” She paused. “Sam, before I go—”
“Calm down, you’re not going yet,” Sam remarked apathetically, and he turned to look at her, his anger absconding. “You can stay for a little longer. I…I’m sorry I snapped at you, Sandy. Really.”
Not an ounce of sincerity could be found within his voice, but Sandy nonetheless welcomed the time she could spend with him, and immediately reclaimed her seat beside him. She was not particularly eager to resume the conversation; she was merely relieved it had not ended yet.
“It’s okay,” she responded, brushing her brunette locks of hair from her eyes. “It’s not like I didn’t deserve it.”
“You didn’t deserve it. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re right.” She looked Sam straight in the eye, her sadness hidden for the moment. “I dragged you into that bedroom ten years ago, and it was because of me we got caught.” No argument came from Sam; he only stared off into the distance, his eyebrows dipping inward, his expression one of emotionless venom. After waiting for the answer that would never come, Sandy continued speaking. “I know Claire’s parents think I’m a wh.ore, and I know you probably think I am, too. But I’ve had a lot of time to…to think about what I’ve done, and I’ve…moved on.” She winced. “Again, you’re right. Whatever I’ve been through, I know it couldn’t possibly compare to your pain. I’m sorry.”
Sam turned to face Sandy, the faintest hint of compassion tainting his stoic demeanor. It was impossible to deny; Sam had always had feelings for this girl, and, even as he felt content to blame her for his misfortunes, he had always held her in deep regard. Not uncommonly, this affection warred with aversion, and wisdom warred with will, and Sam would always find himself at a crossroads. It was for this reason that Sam had never been able to trust Sandy. He had never been able to tell if she was disingenuous or genuine. He still did not truly know, and neither did she.
“Sandy, you don’t have to apologize—”
“But it’s my fault.” Sandy slumped against the bench, her spirits sinking, her eyelids drooping. “You ran away because Claire found you and me together. You ran away because you loved her, and I destroyed her love for you.” She turned away. “It’s all my fault, Sam. And you know it.”
“It was both our faults—”
“Please don’t say that just because you feel guilty.”
“Sandy, is this all because I got mad at you? Look, I’m sorry, okay? I just…I…” He turned away from her, his eyes laden with frost. With a deep breath, his voice recommenced, softer while not losing a shred of its spleen. “Can we just stop talking about this? Please…?”
After another short-lived pause, Sandy nodded. “I was kind of hoping you’d say that. I don’t like to…you know…dwell on the past.”
“You have no idea.”
“I know. You…kind of established that.”
Sam frowned, suppressing an outburst. “Yeah. I know. Please stop talking.”
She obeyed, and yet again the absence of conversation reigned for a short period of time in which a rare moment of peace made itself known and was greeted with unspoken, unmitigated gratitude. Neither Sam nor Sandy said a word in fear of spoiling it. They sat together in separation, allowing the noiselessness of the night to shed its blessings upon them, and, for the smallest smidgen of a moment, both of them were at ease. Of course, it did not last; like love, all good things must come to an end.
He groaned slightly, and turned to face her, making sure to impart strong irritability. “What?”
“You’re staying here…right?”
Sam stared at her tiredly. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.”
“I know, it’s just…. I was wondering—”
“I’m not staying with you if that’s what you’re asking.”
“No——!” Sandy insisted abruptly, stopping for a moment to gain control of her speech. When she spoke again, the words came slowly and cautiously, flowing from her mouth only a touch faster than cold molasses. “No…Sam, you and I both know that’s a really bad idea. I was just…. I was wondering if you even had a place to stay.”
“Look, I can take care of myself, all right? I don’t need your help. It would probably just make things worse anyway.” He watched as the puppetmaster’s power over her became painfully prevalent yet again, and she sank further in the bench, her eyelids falling, her face darkening. Comprehensible feelings were lost to him. He could not accept her pain, no matter how much she deserved it, no matter how extremely different she was from Claire. But he knew he had to accept it. She was not what the Alternative had offered. She was not Claire. She was Sandy. She was the Wh.ore of Summerfall. She was the girl that had coveted coitus from the beginning. She was the girl that had ceaselessly vied for lovemaking, and not love. She was Sandy—not Claire. How could Sam accept that?
“…All right, then.”
Sam had been unaware that the girl had risen up from the bench until those three words came from her mouth, and he found himself tilting his head upward in order to meet her gloomy gaze. Before he could even think, the inevitable question loosed itself from his lips:
Sandy nodded with a shattered smile. “I have to go. I mean, you said I can’t help you, so…I don’t really have a reason to stay here, do I?” The corners of her mouth fell just as quickly as they had lifted, as did her eyelids and her spirits in the same sad way as before. “I’ve never really had a reason to stay here. Like I said…I just come here because it’s empty and quiet and peaceful. I come here so I can just take a walk and think to myself.” She frowned. “You’re right, though. It doesn’t put me at ease.”
“Then why do you come here at all?”
Sandy bit her lip and directed her eyes away from Sam’s, once again staring at the ground as if its insentient presence would offer her comfort. Her answer was as faint as a whisper, as distant as the voice of the wind.
“…I’ve been waiting for someone.”
Sam shook his head slowly with dissatisfaction. She had not moved on.
“I know, I know,” she interrupted. “You came back for Claire. Don’t worry…I don’t blame you.” She turned away from him, her copper curls obscuring her weeping features, signaling the farewell. “Bye, Sam.”
He said nothing. He did not say goodbye. He only watched with a wavering heart as she slowly and hesitantly peeled her feet from the concrete one by one and started on her way, and he knew that leaving this park was the last thing she wanted to do. Deep within him, locked away in some impenetrable atrioventricular reliquary, was the forgotten truth that it pained him to see her go, that he too wanted their conversation to last just a mere minute longer if anything. But he resisted the urge to call to her as she left, fearing what it would spell, fearing she was still the Sandy he had known when he had run away. He knew that she was not what the Alternative had offered. He knew that she was not Claire. She did not deserve love, for she would likely abuse it. She did not deserve understanding, for she would likely rebuff it. She did not deserve Sam, for she would likely use him for her own personal passions. He knew all of this, and he knew he had to accept it. But he couldn’t, and he had to strain to hide a sudden surge of relief as he looked up from the pavement and saw Sandy approaching him once more. It was not particularly difficult; his inexplicable happiness was also inexplicably stillborn.
A blundering “What?” was all he could manage.
“I…just wanted to suggest something,” Sandy answered tentatively, stopping just in front of the bench where Sam still sat. “You know…a place to stay?”
Sam did not answer right away. He wanted to choose his words carefully, and doing so required a moment of thinking. And think he did, to some extent, for he was puzzled by the paradoxical principle of proximity that reigned in his mind: the further away Sandy was from him, the more he wanted her company, but bringing her closer would only render the previous statement obsolete. As she would come nearer, Sam would think of Claire, and Jimmy, and Savannah, and Peach—and there would be tightening. Horrible, horrible tightening. This was why it was imperative for Sam to think. His mind was a maze, impossible to navigate, and this girl standing before him only made it more impassable. He had to think to find the way.
When Sandy was a figure far off in the distance, she was something of a dream for Sam, but to bring her close would transform her into nothing more than a malevolent mnemonic, and would force Sam to futilely retrace his steps, pushing him deeper into the maze. He had to think to find the way. He had to think to find the right words: the words that would make Sandy leave. But this was dangerous for him; his mind was a maze. Would the right words truly lead him to the end? If so…then how would it end? How did he want it to end? What about Claire?
Sam finally spoke.
“Sandy…you really don’t have to help me. I know you want to, but…I can take care of myself. I really do appreciate what you’re trying to do for me. The thing is…” He paused briefly before continuing, once again searching for the right words to use. “…I’m perfectly fine.”
Sandy stared at him, somewhat befuddled. Then her eyes narrowed and her brow wrinkled with dismay. Sam knew what her response would be before she had even thought of it herself.
“Sam,” she began. “You’re not perfectly fine. You can try to hide it all you want, but you can’t just disregard the whole situation and claim that you don’t need help because that could not be more untrue.”
Sam frowned; any attempt at disagreement would have been in vain, and would have been a cruel, crooked lie. He closed his eyes and sighed in defeat; it was not worth it to argue anymore, had it ever been.
“All right, what’s your suggestion, then?” he muttered abruptly, giving her yet another cold stare of annoyance. “Come on…let’s hear it. You’ve made it quite clear that you’re not going to leave without telling me, so…go ahead. Tell me.”
She did not tell him. In fact, the only thing Sam’s demand was able to elicit was yet more dither, as was shown through the sudden shrinking of the girl’s frame and the newborn neurosis in her eyes. She was nervous—afraid of what her simple “suggestion” would entail. In the previous instant, a revelation had apparently occurred to her; perhaps now she did not want to suggest anything anymore. She was afraid. Again Sam could see the puppetmaster pulling at the strings. He watched as Sandy closed her eyes, as if sight only strengthened her sadness; he watched as subliminal suffering forced her to take a small step back away from him, and he knew that something was wrong. There was still something he didn’t know—something she knew he would not want to know.
“Never mind,” Sandy exclaimed, validating Sam’s fears. She took another step back. “It’s probably best I don’t tell you—”
“Wait.” Sam stood up from the bench. His curiosity was piqued, as was a growing sensation of unease. “What don’t you want to tell me?”
Sandy shook her head, once again displaying agonizing indecision with every grain of her being. “Sam…I thought it was a good idea, but I really don’t think you’ll want to hear it. You’ve got enough on your plate as it is. I…I don’t want to make things worse for you.” Slowly, she began to turn away. “Trust me. I don’t think you want to hear this.”
“Sandy, what is this about?”
Sam’s assurgent tone of voice stipulated an immediate answer, and so, Sandy provided just that. She still did not tell him what he demanded, however, for she knew Sam wished nothing but the best for his only true friend. She knew that once the words left her mouth, he would not want to hear. She knew he could not move on.
“Sam…I’m sorry. I don’t want to tell you. You won’t like it.”
“What do you mean I won’t like it?”
“You just…. I don’t think you’ll want to hear it. That’s all.”
“Sandy, you were going to suggest a place for me to stay! I don’t understand why I wouldn’t want to hear that.” When no reply came from the girl, Sam continued speaking. “Look, I want to hear this. If it’s going to help me, then I might as well. I don’t know how it could be so…I don’t know…painful to take in anyway.” He shrugged and took a small step forward. “Come on, Sandy. If you’re just trying to help…then why don’t you tell me?”
Sandy did not meet Sam’s eyes. She kept her head bowed, and leaned slightly in the direction of departure, away from Sam, apparently hoping for some divine digression that would free her from saying what had to be said. None came. The interlude raged on, and it was clear now that Sam would not leave until Sandy’s suggestion had been appropriately heeded. He would not like it. She knew that, and had she known that just moments before, she could have avoided this situation. But she had not known, and now she had to tell him the truth, whether she wanted to or not.
Just as the first seeds of impatience began to take root within Sam, the girl turned to face him with eyes more predominantly pensive than ever, and it appeared she would speak. But before saying anything, Sandy attempted to reassure herself one last time; perhaps it was good to tell Sam this tragic truth. Perhaps it would do no harm in the end. Perhaps it was strangely, wholly justifiable that such attempts at self-reassurance as Sandy’s gushed with irony. After all, it would have been impossible for Sam not to find out sometime in the future. He could not expect to shield himself from this, just as he could not hope to escape from all the world’s misfortunes. Joy, love, the very idea of actually moving on—all these were mere delusions. And these delusions, like all other supposedly good things, were created for the sole purpose of meeting their unavoidable end. Sandy knew this. Sam was just about to find out.
“I was thinking you could stay with Jimmy,” Sandy finally answered.
Sam froze. His jaw dropped slightly, and his eyes widened with realization. “…Jimmy?” The previous vision of his friend with that beautiful young lady began anew, but this time, it was not bursting with the peaceful felicity of dreams fulfilled and ambitions achieved as it had been earlier; it was a monochrome portrait of a life once longed for, a life that couldn’t be lived, now fading away rapidly and unforgivingly before Sam’s very eyes into permanent nothingness. Jimmy had been his only true friend.
Sandy nodded. “See…I told you you wouldn’t like it.” She took a deep breath and stepped back once more. “It seemed like a good idea to suggest it to you…but it wasn’t.”
“…He still lives here? After everything that happened?”
Once again, Sandy nodded gravely. “Yep. He still lives in the same house and everything….You shouldn’t have any trouble finding him.” She paused and shifted her saddened gaze to her feet, unable to look at Sam in the midst of reality. “I’ll spare you the details…but I will tell you he has been through a lot over the past ten years. I haven’t visited him or anything, but…you know, it’s one of those things where…everybody knows.” After a short period of silence, an alien smile materialized on the girl’s face—a smile that was most certainly not happy, but was made all the more so when juxtaposed with Sam’s grim expression of shattered wishes. Instinctively, she tried to calm him. “Sam…I’m sure Jimmy will be happy to see you. I honestly think that it would help him immensely if you went to stay at his house, because he really needs a friend right now. He’s just going through a lot of trouble, and…”
Sandy’s voice trailed off. Her soft smile evaporated into thin air, leaving behind no traces to suggest it had ever been. Her stare was now fixated on Sam, who looked as if he would keel over and lose consciousness any second. His eyes looked on into the distance in sightless terror; his lips remained parted as if they were physically frozen in place; and his face was nothing less than the very definition of trauma. Quietly, he backed away from Sandy, unaware that he was even moving, and found himself falling back onto the bench upon which he had sat when he had at least been able to dream for his only true friend—when he had been able to wish Jimmy the best, and wholeheartedly believe that he had found just that in spite of hardships, in spite of Summerfall, in spite of time and reality’s cruel autocracy. He could no longer believe that anymore. Jimmy was still here. He had not moved on.
And now, Sam’s mind dangled from a thread that grew ever closer to snapping, a thread that had been substantially weakened first by Claire’s wickedly understandable distrust, and now by his friend’s alleged misery. It seemed it would never end. Everywhere Sam went, there was always something to remind him that Summerfall was infested with grief. Reality never relented; it pushed onward eternally, never stopping between its consuming of souls, moving forward like the great wall of rain characteristic of the deadliest typhoons, devouring anything that lay in its path. It never stopped. It never weakened. It only consumed.
It was at this moment that Sam felt smaller than ever. He found himself at the mercy of the ever-present question that had drifted in his mind ever since he had left Blackbourne Manor:
“…Is this because of me?” he asked no one in particular before turning to Sandy. “Is this…because of what we did?”
Sandy did not hesitate to answer, and for the first time in ten years, her voice oozed uncompromising certainty.
“No,” she said sternly. “This is not our fault, Sam. Don’t tell yourself that. The things Jimmy has been through….They don’t even have anything to do with us.” She paused for a moment and turned away from Sam again. Her voice was significantly quieter upon her resumption. “Like I said before, I’m not going to tell you exactly what he’s been through because now is not the time. You need a break more than anything else right now.”
Sam nodded in agreement. A rest was what he needed. A long, uninterrupted rest. But, unfortunately, that was not what the Alternative had offered. The Alternative had offered redemption. Enjoyment of life. Hope for the hopeless. In this instant, Sam knew that the only other time he had felt this irreversibly hopeless had been his despairing introspection just days earlier, when he had been cloistered in filth, lost and lovelorn, dying of carcinoma. The Alternative had been his saving grace. He hoped its magic would come to save him now.
“This isn’t our fault, Sam,” Sandy repeated, once more seeking to reassure herself. “We had nothing to do with whatever happened to Jimmy over the past ten years.”
Sam cast a look of arctic discontent in Sandy’s direction, which was more than enough to silence her treasonous optimism for the time being. “Sandy,” he started, “if it wasn’t our fault, who else is there to blame? Claire was….” His voice diminished as if it had been caught and carried away by a faint breath of wind, making way for yet another break in the conversation. His eyes fell, and his features darkened, and the last of his hopes began to flutter in a sort of last stand against actuality. He could not move on.
“Claire was just as close to Jimmy as she was to me,” he continued, “and when we…when I betrayed her—I don’t know if she ever spoke to anybody after that…not even Jimmy. That’s all I thought about while I was away from Summerfall. I knew that…with her schizophrenia and everything…she would never be able to find a job or a house or anything as long as she remembered me…and what I did.”
Sam shrugged sadly, and he recognized the damp blear filling his vision, the audible fractures in his voice, the corners of his lips being forced downward by imminent outpouring; these were things that he knew terribly well indeed. “…Jimmy always liked Claire. He always sat with her at lunch…and talked to her after school…and helped her out when I was being an asshole…. Who knows how much he was hurt…by my actions…?”
Sandy shook her head, becoming increasingly nervous in the presence of Sam’s deteriorating sanity. “S-Sam, you’re being…really, really hard on yourself here, and I think—”
“NO!” he barked, without turning his head in the girl’s direction. His eyes stayed locked upon the darkness in the distance, glowing with all the optimism of a fatalist, burning with guilt, and regret, and loathing, and all the most dangerous emotions found in the world. “I…I’m not being hard on myself. I deserve all of this. You just don’t understand….”
Sandy could not take her eyes off of Sam; she was too shocked to divert her attention from him. Never in her life had she seen him behave this way. “Sam, can’t you hear yourself? What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that…you know nothing about my life.”
His mind flew to Peach. A 1982 Cadillac Cimarron.
“Y-you don’t know the things I’ve done in the past ten years, Sandy. You don’t know…just how many people I’ve hurt! You don’t know what I’ve done…. You…you don’t know anything!”
“…L-look, Sam, I’m just trying to help—”
Sam bolted upright so aggressively that Sandy was forced to back away and prepare an escape. Her body became paralyzed with tension, trapped in terrible anticipation, waiting for the final culmination. Had either of them listened, they would have been able to hear the shrill laughter of the puppetmaster echoing throughout the park. Sam turned to face the girl. The thread was about to snap. Reality was about to consume its next victim. The Alternative was failing.
“Sam, please stop—”
“No! You stop! You stop trying to tell me everything’s okay, because nothing is okay right now! I am responsible for everything that has happened to everyone here! Whether it’s Claire or Jimmy or you, I am responsible for all of it! And you will never understand that!”
“But, no, it doesn’t stop there, either! You have no idea how many people I hurt while I was gone from Summerfall! You have no idea how I feel because of it! I spent the past ten years using other people to get a second chance, and now, I have it right in my fingers, and…and I will still never have it! All those people I hurt, and for what?!”
“But, hey, that doesn’t matter—I don’t deserve a second chance anyway! I don’t deserve it because I hurt and betrayed people to help myself—to feed my own desires!”
He paused, and began shaking his head angrily. His voice was quieter upon its continuation, but it did not lose a shred of its excruciating force. That was something that would stay indefinitely.
“You tell me it’s not my fault, Sandy…but the truth is…if there is anything I learned after I ran away from this town…it’s that everything is entirely my fault.”
“All of this is my fault…and because of that…I—”
He stopped. The past was becoming too much to bear. He could not stop thinking about Claire…and Jimmy…
“I…have nothing…to live fo—”
Sam collapsed back onto the bench. He shot his hands up to his face and fought to quell the tears. He felt his hands become stained with the familiar dew as he wiped his palms across his eyes innumerable times, attempting to stifle the puling before it began. He succeeded, for the most part. When he had at last finished the repression, the only things that remained were two outlines of wetness fragmentarily encircling his eyes, and he was careful to ensure that not even the faintest hint of a sniffle escaped from him. He knew, however, that despite this newly formed exterior of calm, the upheaval within him was impossible to hide. He had already displayed its ferocity. Sandy would never forget it.
“Sandy…” Sam whispered. “I’m sorry…I didn’t…I—”
“I should go,” Sandy replied.
Sam looked up at the girl. “What?”
“I…I don’t think I should stick around here when you’re like this. I’d rather let you be on your own for a little bit.” She looked away. “…And I think I should be on my own for a little bit, too….”
For the smallest fraction of a second, Sam felt an overwhelming desire to disagree with her and beg for her prolonged company, and he wanted to exchange his true feelings with her until the sun came up and a glorious new day began; but this deceptive desire only lasted for a fraction of a second, and once this brief delusion had passed, Sam knew he had to say goodbye. She was not what the Alternative had offered. She was not Claire. Claire was the one who deserved love and understanding after everything she had been through; Sandy was not. She had to leave now; there was no other choice.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “You’re right. We both need some time alone. You should go…. I’m sorry.”
He turned his head to see Sandy’s reaction, expecting to find endorsement in her eyes. When his gaze fell upon her, however, he saw, to his increasing discomposure, the same thing he had seen earlier in the day at the end of his search for Claire. He remembered looking up at the girl sitting on the tree branch, and he remembered her turning her head, and he remembered seeing her gorgeous diamond face splashed with tears; this was what he saw in Sandy at this moment. It appeared she had been hoping for an objection from him, for when Sam looked at her, her emotions were unmistakably, unflinchingly clear: she felt betrayed.
Fortunately for Sam, her expression quickly changed to one of halfhearted acceptance, for she knew that their parting had to come sometime, and, regardless of whether or not she wanted it to come, it was not her decision to make. It was time’s. It was reality’s. It was the puppetmaster’s. Neither Sam nor Sandy could have vouched for the elongation of their reunion, because their feelings were too vague, too impossible to understand, too unchangeably blurred by the aforementioned overlords to allow them to spend any more of this night together. It was time to move on; it did not matter if they would or if they even could. Either way, it was time.
Sandy let out a heavy sigh, and proceeded to speak, refusing to relieve Sam of her lethal scrutiny. “Don’t apologize,” she said. “I think it’s for the best that we…part ways for the time being. I mean…” She grinned slightly, showing some of the long-hidden frivolity she had been known for in the past, before everything changed. “…after that little outburst of yours—”
“Sandy, I’m sorry, I just lost my temper—”
“Sam, don’t worry. It’s fine.” She smiled compassionately, and, to his own surprise, Sam shot a flicker of a smile back at her. Of course, it was nothing more than a flicker, and it had long since disappeared by the time Sandy continued speaking. “I know you’ve been through a lot. I have, too.” Her smile faded. “That’s why…we both need some time alone right now. I don’t think that spending any more time together is going to put either of us at ease. It…will probably just make things worse.” She paused. “Are you…gonna go to Jimmy’s house and ask him if you can stay there?”
Sam pondered the question; it did not take him long to reach a decision. He shook his head. “Not tonight.” There was no need to explain his reasoning.
Sandy nodded. “I understand.” Then, a frown appeared on her face. “Where are you gonna spend the night, then? I know my place is out of the question, but—”
“I’ll just stay here tonight.”
“…Are you sure?”
“I certainly don’t mind sleeping on a park bench. I…actually did that quite often…while I was away.” He forced a tormented smile. It was quickly replaced with an expression of merciless honesty; he did not like to dwell on the past. He maintained his eye contact with Sandy, who looked at him with the sincerest of condolences painted within her swampy irises. However, there was something else as well…something noticeably less charitable: suspicion. Sandy did not know what exactly Sam had done in the past ten years; even Sam was still struggling to believe such crimes had been performed by his hands, and therefore, he would not tell Sandy of anything regarding Snowport, or a 1982 Cadillac Cimarron, or Peach—and he would accordingly attempt to make himself forget all of those dreadful memories as he done so many times before. But he knew that Sandy was suspicious, and she was not one to disregard even the tiniest hints of suspicion. Although she did not readily show it in Sam’s midst, she possessed a quality of bold tenacity that would, sooner or later, extract the desired information from him; for even as she studied him with condolences in her eyes, she knew he was hiding something that she (and anyone else, for that matter) could not possibly condone.
Sam knew that she was suspicious. He knew that she wanted to find out more about the people that he had hurt and betrayed in the recent years. But he would not tell her, nor would he tell Claire, or Jimmy, or anyone else. He would not tell anyone about Snowport. He would not tell anyone about the car. He would not tell anyone about Peach…for much like the tale of the Gnasher, these were stories that were best left untold.
“…Sam…are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be fine, Sandy. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got everything under control.” The lie left a bitter aftertaste.
Sandy nodded and smiled weakly. It was unclear whether she trusted his words or not, but it was evident that neither certainty nor uncertainty would defer her forthcoming going.
However, it was only evident. It was not certain. There was no certainty. She was worried about Sam, and the more she worried, the longer she stayed, and the longer she stayed, the more Sam was forced to reflect upon the past…and every time Sam reflected upon the past—
She had to leave. Now.
“All right,” she said quietly. Her face still exhibited the myriad doubts that swarmed her conscience. “…I…hope you’re telling me the truth, Sam. I know you keep on telling me that you’ll be okay, but…” She paused. “I don’t believe you.”
Those four words lingered long after the girl’s voice had left. A statement of such unyielding gravity said so unexpectedly could induce nothing but shock. A statement of such suddenness did well to prohibit any preparation for its arrival, and therefore, it had been horribly, inadvertently effective to Sam. He felt accumulating anxiety turn his body to stone. He felt a surge of guilt, regret, and loathing enter his mind to wreak havoc once more.
He felt the grass shudder beneath his back as he lay behind Blackbourne Manor with Claire; he felt the warm rays of sunlight on his skin; he felt Claire’s smooth, fragile hand in his, trusting…loving.
He felt it all slip away. He felt her hand turn to dust, and he felt the ground crumble, and he felt the air rushing past him as he was thrust downward into the earth, through the crust, through the mantle, through the core, and straight into the fiery mouth of Hell—
Claire did not believe him either.
Sam turned away from the girl and buried his face in his hands again. “Sandy…please go. I don’t want to talk anymore…. Just go.”
She looked on, staying where she was. Her doubts had been confirmed. She had every reason to be worried about Sam, just as she had every reason not to believe him.
“No,” she insisted, becoming ever more concerned. “I can’t leave yet. Sam, you can’t deny it anymore. You need help. You need it really badly. You can’t expect me to just leave you like this, can you?!”
“I know. Please leave.”
“Look, I’m not going to leave as long as I know that you—”
“I said leave!” Sam exclaimed, turning his head angrily to face her; he almost immediately looked away, suppressing the reoccurring storm within him. He was cradling his forehead in his hands, battling the demons that rioted within his mind, when he spoke again. “Sandy…you have to go. I’m sorry, but…you have to. You said it yourself, remember? We both have to be alone for a while.” He sighed, and faced the girl once more, his pale green eyes appearing deeper and more chasmal than they had ever been before. “I’m not trying to…you know…”
“Drive me away?” she interrupted. “Is that what you were gonna say? Because as far as I can tell, that’s exactly what you’re trying to do.”
Sandy’s eyebrows plunged in an unpalatable glare of such unmerciful unpleasantness that Sam could not possibly look at it. The girl’s eyes no longer offered sympathy. The fact that a friend in need was essentially shooing her away sparked more emotional unrest than could ever be summoned through those decidedly unchristian christenings she had suffered over the years: “wh.ore”, “sl.ut”, “bi.tch”—just three of a great many. She wanted to help Sam, and the fact that he condemned anything of the sort made her feel like nothing more than one of the prior labels. It made her feel worthless.
But at the same time, she was afraid to help him. She could not tell if taking action would only cause more problems for both her and Sam. She could not foresee the consequences of her stay here, and because of that, she was forced to question whether her actions would do any good whatsoever—whether staying here would help anything at all. Sam was right: both of them needed some time alone. It hurt Sandy to leave her friend in such a dire mental state, but as long as he insisted she go…she would go. Something told her that this was not the first time Sam had been in this sort of situation; strangely, the thought was comforting to her. It asserted that he would soon move on from this night. It asserted that, perhaps, he would find solace in silence. Perhaps the cruelty of this night was only temporary. Perhaps…all would be right in the end.
Perhaps. Such a curious word.
Finally, Sandy shook her head.
“You know what, Sam?” She looked at him, and said with a purposeful nod: “Screw it. I’ll leave you alone. I hope that you’ll feel better in the morning, and…I wish you the best of luck with Claire.” Slowly, with the slightest flourish of a pivot, she turned away from the object of her many hopes and fears, and suddenly the long, winding stone path lay in front of her. She froze. Thousands of speeches hung at the tip of her tongue, but she chose to avoid delay; she would only say what had to be said. With the tiniest rotation of her frame, she was once again looking into Sam’s unfathomable green eyes.
“I’m sorry if I’m bothering you,” she continued. “I was just…happy to see that you came back. I know there’s really nothing to be happy about, but….” She turned her head back in the direction of escape. “I don’t know. I was just…happy to see you…even if you weren’t happy to see me.”
Sam watched as she took her first step down the path. Once again there came the fleeting urge—but he made no effort to pursue her. Unlike before, her increasing distance did not bestow upon her any dreamlike qualities. She was still a harbinger of memories. She had to leave.
But the urge, although fleeting, was strong—too strong—and Sam found himself collapsing under its weight, betraying his devotion to the girl with the diamond face, bending to past desires, speaking the name of uncertainty for one last time:
She turned. It was as fast as lightning and as sudden as the burst of a firecracker. And Sam was unprepared.
“I…” he stammered. “I a-am happy to see you, and…” He avoided her eyes. He could not move on. “…I’m sorry.”
The girl did not move. She was torn between two futures, and she would not move an inch in either direction until she had said the last word.
“It’s not your fault, Sam,” she replied. “Don’t blame yourself. Take it from me—it will only make things worse.” Her body shifted, a subtle gesture of approaching withdrawal. “I’m going to ask you again…. Are you absolutely sure you’ll be okay on your own? If you know you won’t…don’t hesitate to tell me.”
“…I’ll be all right.”
Sandy nodded. “Okay. Be sure to visit Jimmy. Not tonight, of course—but maybe…tomorrow?”
“…Yeah. Tomorrow.” He attempted a smile of false hope.
Sandy reflected a delicate smile back at Sam, only hers was different; hers was sincerely hopeful. Her smile threatened to make Sam feel hopeful as well. Her smile was genuine. Not forced, not false—genuine.
“Everything will be okay in the end, Sam,” she assured him. “I’m absolutely positive that everything will turn out all right, because…well, I’m sure the fact that you came back here will speak volumes to Claire and Jimmy, and it certainly speaks volumes to me because it shows that—”
“It shows what?” Sam interrupted, once again bowing to the overlords. “That I’m a mess? That my life is…worthless?”
Sandy shook her head. “It shows that you care.”
Sam stopped. He looked up at the girl, his heart lurching, his eyes begging, entreating, imploring. He had not received such an accolade in his entire life; he knew well enough that he did not deserve anything of the sort. But it had come regardless.
“Sandy…do you really think…?”
“I think that Claire knows you still have feelings for her, and…I truly do believe that she will forgive you. Going off of what you told me earlier, she apparently said otherwise, but…she’s just lying to herself if she says she didn’t want you to come back. She still loves you, Sam. She’s just…startled, that’s all. Don’t worry. She’ll come around.”
Sam waited to respond. He was still tragically uncertain. “…What if you’re wrong? What if she doesn’t love me anymore?” He looked away from her. “What if…I can’t fix the damage? …Then what?”
The girl faltered. Again Sam recognized her struggle for words—the wrinkling of her forehead, the dropping of her eyelids, the drooping of her brown eyes as they became adrift in thought. This familiar struggle had occurred many times during this conversation in the park; he hoped this would be the last time. He did like Sandy somewhat…but she would only make the pain worse as long as she stayed here. Her coming words would have to be the last.
And, at long last, her words came.
“You don’t need to prepare for that, Sam. I know that no matter what she says, she still loves you with all her heart. You two are just…meant for each other.” She frowned. “But…if you really want to know what you would have to do if she didn’t love you…I don’t really have any easy answers for that question. The best answer I can give you is that in a situation like that, you could just accept it, and…move on.” She halted, then shook her head as if she were abandoning the topic. “But that’s not important. Like I said…you don’t have to worry about that because she does still love you. I’m sure of it.”
Sam nodded and allowed himself to smile. The authenticity of the smile was debatable, but Sandy’s words of reassurance had actually succeeded for the most part, and Sam was grateful for that. Hope, as ill-founded as it may have been, was a very expensive luxury indeed.
“Thank you, Sandy,” he said quietly. “I feel better now. I really do.”
Sandy beamed back at him. “I’m glad you do.” She took a step away from Sam. “Please don’t forget to visit Jimmy…and make sure to not give up on your love for Claire…and remember…there’s always tomorrow.” She stole a glimpse at the darkness above before shooting one final expression of anticipation at the man on the bench. “Bye, Sam.”
She turned around and started on her way. Sam did not watch her leave. He only listened to the gradual decrescendo of her footsteps, focusing his attention during occasional lapses in continuity, until he could not hear anything save his own breathing. He was forced to persevere through his own conflicting aspirations as she left, but it was nothing he had not endured before, and, in only a matter of minutes, his mind was relaxed, the air was clear, and he was alone. The girl was gone.
This had been the first time Sam had seen the girl since he had run away from Summerfall. The last time he had seen her, it had been beneath quilted cotton bedspreads, with the soft, hazy light of a table lamp filtering through the stitching, outlining each of their bare forms with a sultry sheen of gold. The last time he had seen her, she had been cherishing every second she spent siphoning Sam’s love for her own pleasure. She had been lost in her own personal summer, pledging to make this her life, vowing to never live any other way. Sam had been, too.
And then the door swung open, and Claire stepped into the bedroom.
And suddenly Sam was glad Sandy had disappeared into the night, for the more he thought about the old tryst, the less he trusted her. There was no way to confirm her true loyalties—whether she chose to bend to love or to lust. Even as she appeared to have changed substantially since the last meeting, Sam knew that change of any kind was not particularly difficult to imitate. All one had to do was lie, and in the past, Sandy had proven to be, more than anything—more than a siren, or a streetwalker, or a wh.ore or a sl.ut or a bi.tch—a liar. Yes, as of now, she appeared to have changed. Whether she could actually be trusted was a different matter entirely. Perhaps she had truly changed; perhaps it was all just a fabrication. Nothing was certain.
But either way, she was not the reason Sam had come back to Summerfall. His loyalties lay elsewhere, and he had to remind himself of that; he was in love with the girl with the diamond face. He was in love with sweet, sweet Claire, and there was no one—absolutely no one—who deserved love more than her. She had been through far too much for far too long. She needed someone to hold her hand. She needed someone to confide in. Sandy had been right: Claire had to still love Sam because she needed him more than she ever had before in this moment, and vice versa; the two were meant for each other. They loved each other. They had always loved each other, and as long as Sam still drew breath, nothing—nothing, he insisted—would change that. Not Sandy, not Nathaniel, not Savannah—
Sam looked up from the concrete and gazed down the path, eyes locked on the hidden horizon, lost in the murky wisps of light cast by periodic lampposts, where he imagined Sandy striding along the walkway as it eternally weaved its way through the trees, growing ever further from the one person whose arrival she had so anxiously awaited. He was still unsure about her, but whether she had lied to him or not, her words had rung true nonetheless. And therefore, Sam would not give up. He would go back to Blackbourne Manor. He would profess his love to Claire.
Not tomorrow, however; not that early, Sam thought with a painful grimace. In a quite unwelcome instant of recollection, Sam thought back to his most recent meeting with the girl, back to the incident with the noose, the tears streaming down her face, the slipping, the tightening—
Startled. She was startled, that was all. She needed time to think about everything that had happened, and everything she had endured…and when the time finally came to turn away from the troubles of the past, then dead fantasies would be resurrected, and a sweet embrace would be shared, and a kiss would be treasured…and Sam’s life would finally have worth.
But that time would have to wait if it were ever to come. Sam knew that if he returned to Blackbourne Manor at the first hint of sunlight, he would not find forgiveness. Forgiveness, much like the introductory buds of spring that had existed on the tree branches not weeks before, took time to sprout and grow into its full glory. It was a difficult decision to forgive someone, and the nights Sam had spent cavorting with Sandy in the past would do well to remind Claire just how difficult this particular decision was, as would the ten years she had spent as a miserable misanthrope, living alone amongst the walls and the woods upon her parents’ property, grieving for her own lovelorn existence.
Sam knew that it would be a very hard decision for her, but that was also one of the reasons that she would ultimately choose to forgive him; she needed him now more than ever, and he was willing now more than ever to turn his back on the delusive pleasures of infidelity in favor of his true purpose. Claire needed Sam. She would not turn her back on him because of scruples regarding the past; the past was over and done with. What mattered now was the future, and Sam was certain that neither he nor Claire could imagine a future without each other. For once, he had no misgivings about being an optimist; he had every reason to believe that Claire still loved him. He had every reason to believe that a second chance was still very much within his grasp. He had every reason to believe that one fine, sunny morning, he would go back to Blackbourne Manor, and would find—at the end of the metaphysical cobblestone walkway; beneath the flitting flowers of the dogwood trees; beneath the lavish curtains of leaves that hung from the inextricable branches of oaks and maples and cottonwoods; just beside the garden of wildflowers, zinnias, hydrangeas, and violets—Claire. He had every reason to believe that on that one fine, sunny morning, the Alternative would work its glorious magic, and Claire would fall in love with him all over again, just as she had in their wonderful days of youth.
The image sent chills of fulfillment down Sam’s spine. It was so impossibly vivid in his mind; it felt too real to be real. But it was what he wanted. There was nothing he wanted more lovingly, more passionately, more desperately than Claire’s love.
And he would have to wait for it.
“She needs time to think,” Sam whispered to himself; he spun the phrase around on his tongue several more times, repeating it until he was satisfied with its vast number of implications, changing its sound with the simplest variations each repetition, yet never stripping it of its vaguely pathological tone. “She needs time to think…. She needs time to think…. That’s all she needs…. She’ll come around…. She just needs time to think.”
He turned his head upward to look at the sky. He studied the nocturnal heavens, noting the weakening gloss of navy, the adoption of dreary monochrome, the stars’ likeness to microscopic candles, slowly but surely succumbing to a breeze. The night had grown old and weary. Tomorrow was coming.
“I love you, Claire,” Sam breathed.
He looked back down at the pavement. He would not go back to Blackbourne Manor tomorrow; such a risk could simply not be taken so soon. He was going to go somewhere else, as much as he feared confronting this place…this person. He was going to visit an old friend.
Sam lifted his legs from the pathway and settled them at the end of the bench, shifting his body into a horizontal position and relaxing his head on the armrest as he had before the past had interfered. He folded his arms, crossed his legs, and stared at the stars above until drowsiness won him over, and his eyelids extinguished the heavenly bodies. He needed a rest. A long rest. At this point, he did not care if he would return from unconsciousness only to find the familiar redness of the sunset; this day had lasted far, far too long for him, and all he wanted was to sleep. It would provide welcome relief from the horrors of time and reality, and he embraced the first signs of his floating adrift in slumber with a peaceful, nearly imperceptible smile.
But tomorrow was coming. It loomed over its quarry like a peerless thundercloud, waiting until the right moment to merge with the earth and its subjects at the center of a swirling vortex—
No…it was not like that, but rather tomorrow was represented by the sun itself, bringing happiness, joy, the bright white light of forgiveness and love and understanding—
No. Tomorrow was neither the sun nor the storm; it was the fog.
Tomorrow, Sam would visit his only true friend.
Many people found the concept of biking on the frostiest days in January to be moronic and potentially dangerous; Sam found it exhilarating. He found it so exhilarating, in fact, that he felt perfectly content to drag his friends into whatever stunts he had planned for the day, and milk every last drop of entertainment from the foolish feats at the expense of his partners’ safety. More often than not, his friends recognized when to back out of a “shady offer” (as they called Sam’s arrangements) and did so using make-believe schedules of considerable demand.
“Hey, Cam!” Sam yelled into his home phone one cloudless winter morning to Cameron Warner, a fearless classmate who didn’t hold a candle to his obliviously bold friend. Sam’s less-than-respectable parents had run off to the local bar again last night and, as usual, had yet to return; how could the boy not take advantage of this wonderful opportunity?
And how could Cam (or any of Sam’s friends) not decline, knowing that such opportunities were ripe with disaster?
Just like so many times before, Sam spilled his schedule. On this particular day, the boy had planned to travel to Bluff Street, well-known for being abnormally steep and snaky, and ride his bike down its icy slopes, past snowbanks and fallen tree branches and weather-beaten houses; he spoke of this activity as if it were some kind of hyperbolic variation on the Tour de France. Cam spoke of it as if it were another shady offer.
“…Uh…no thanks, Sam,” he said. “I have a…dentist’s appointment to go to, so…I think I’ll pass.” He made sure not to suggest pestering anyone else about it; of course, that did not stop Sam from doing so anyway.
He went down the list—literally. He called a great amount of friends, and each time requested that they join him in his tomfoolery. And each time, he received the same exact answer as before.
“Maybe some other time….” Bradley Douglas murmured.
“I’m very…very busy…so no,” Zachary Morton affirmed.
“God, Sam, I said no!” Neil Ferris shouted. “Seriously, you’re almost thirteen! When are you ever gonna grow up and stop acting like a goddamned little kid?! Jesus…” Sam couldn’t care less about what Neil thought.
“Sam…I’m sorry, but I promised my mom I would do some work around the house today,” Sandra Quick lied.
“Are you sure, Sandy? It’ll be fun!”
“I’m sorry, Sam…but not today. Maybe some other time….”
Call after call resulted in refusal after refusal, and in seemingly no time at all Sam found himself near the bottom of his friend list. He considered looking up the Blackbournes in the phone book, remembering the girl with the diamond face. It had been just last September that Sam had seen her—what was her name? Clarisse…? Clara…?—walking through the woods behind Blackbourne Manor…and he had not forgotten her. On the contrary, he often lay awake in bed at night, plugging his nose to stifle the stench of coffin nails afire, thinking of the girl—her flimsy, almost gossamer form; her pale, virtually angelic skin; her eyes…those coronae of turquoise, filled with all the majesty in the world….
He remembered now: her name was Claire.
Unfortunately, he remembered something else as well: Nathaniel, and the idea to call the girl was promptly killed off.
This brought him to Jimmy Crawford. For whatever reason, he had not exactly maintained strict communication with Jimmy ever since last autumn, when he had accompanied him in the forest on the night they met the girl; he had indeed had a few meetings with him since then, and had attended the boy’s own thirteenth birthday party in November, but aside from those exceptions, neither Sam nor Jimmy had preserved contact with one another over the past few months.
That being said, this was not the reason that Sam hesitated to call his friend; as he reflected on past experiences, he had to remind himself that Jimmy had always proven to be somewhat of a stick-in-the-mud. The idea of bike racing down Bluff Street—in January, no less—would certainly not appeal to him. But Sam called him anyway. And, as he expected, Jimmy was none too pleased to hear the idea.
“You’re insane!” Jimmy remarked on the other end.
“I know,” Sam concurred with a jolly grin.
“It’s Bluff Street!”
“There’s ice! Lots of ice! We’re gonna kill ourselves!”
Jimmy paused, and then said with a disgruntled sigh: “…Fine. It’s not worth it to put up a fight against you. You can come over to my house if you want, and we can head over to Bluff Street as soon as I’m done shoveling the driveway.” Another annoyed sigh. “…I swear, Sam, you will be the death of me.”
“I know. I’ll be right over!”
And right over he was. Having already changed into winter gear (which was strangely light in the midst of such cold temperatures—an olive-green polyester jacket and ragged jeans that Sam had decided could pass for snow pants) Sam raced out into the bright, uncorrupted air of the new year, where the incessant gleaming of the sun and the mounds of ice crystals covering anything even slightly horizontal threatened to permanently impair his vision. Nevertheless, he braved the brilliance and quickly mounted his bicycle and sped down the street toward Jimmy’s house. He wore an intoxicated smile on his face as he shot through town on his two-wheeler; he had grown so happily accustomed to this particular activity that he could have easily mistaken ice for asphalt. He flew down street after street, pedaling like a madman, never stopping at intersections or those omnipresent red octagons, never yielding for the honking of car horns or the screaming of unsatisfied motorists in his no-holds-barred dash through Summerfall. He relished his recklessness; it would have been difficult for him to name anything that made him feel more free.
Other than the woods, of course…but it was winter, and the woods were dead. Sam would come back when the snow went away, when the leaves sprang from their cradles and entered a marvelous new period of rebirth. As long as Claire lived just a short distance away…he would always come back.
Sam’s address—a tiny ranch house bordering on ramshackle that reflected the lives of its owners in all the worst possible ways—was 1227 May Street. May Street was rather isolated from the rest of Summerfall, only dotted with houses instead of lined with them, and, in the wintertime, it did not provide much gratifying scenery aside from trees and rocks and its own enduring length. Just half a mile northward, the drive met with perpendicular Rose Street, upon which Sandy’s house lay a couple miles to the west. Sam turned east. He biked down Rose Street and eventually came across its mingling with Main Street, where a vastly increased population density could be seen. He turned south, not far from Jimmy’s house anymore. He zipped in and out of varying forms of traffic and angered several unsuspecting drivers indiscriminately, and soon made his way onto Faust Road a few miles later. Jimmy lived on Faust Road. And so did Claire.
Although Jimmy and Claire were only neighbors in a very loose sense of the word (they lived a fair distance apart—it would be reasonable to estimate a mile or two), Sam was still rather jealous of his friend who was lucky enough to share a thoroughfare with the girl. But he quickly brushed his envious thoughts aside and forced Claire to the back of his mind; he was not going to think about her in front of Jimmy. Instead, he would think about Bluff Street, and the steepness of the hill, and the speed of the bike, and the wind in his face, and the inextinguishable fun of it all. His smile became brighter than ever, rivaling even the blinding beaming of the winter morning. It was not genuine; he could not help but feel Claire’s presence just down the road, and it was impossible for his smile to be genuine as long as he knew that the girl would have to wait. But it would do for now, and soon enough, it would be genuine, because Sam truly did enjoy the time he spent with Jimmy, even if the boy was a tad unadventurous. If nothing else, Jimmy was his friend, and friends learned to savor one another's company even when certain dreams were running terribly, relentlessly amuck.
Sam had traveled at least half a mile eastward before he finally sighted what appeared to be a driveway branching off into sparkling, frostbitten trees, and he was confident that he had finally arrived at his destination—although it wasn’t easy to tell, as the driveway was buried beneath quite a bit more than a mere dusting of snow. Once he grew closer, however, he was able to see the mailbox that stood just to the side from the pavement, and he saw the familiar four-digit number stenciled on its surface, and he knew that he had arrived at 1587 Faust Road. He coasted the rest of the way, and upon reaching the snow-shrouded driveway apron saw none other than his friend shoveling the powdery pestilence with haste in an attempt to clear the way. Behind Jimmy, the driveway curved to the right and was lost in a cluster of trees. The house lay further down the stretch, hidden from view.
Sam halted himself just in front of the apron. He stayed seated, propping up the bike with the arches of his feet, and watched Jimmy, dressed in dictatorial winter gear, heave heap after heap after heap of snow up from the driveway and into the adjoining turf (or, rather, the area where turf had once been). As the boy worked, hushed, faintly incantatory mumblings escaped his lips, and a riotous loathing for all things born of winter shone through his steely blue eyes. Sam found himself suppressing a sophomoric smile as he watched his friend stab the ground in anger and launch yet more shovelfuls of snow into the turf, vocalizing his hatred between heavy, laborious breaths.
“'Only an inch or two,' they said.... 'Only an inch or two!' No, of course, it's gotta be like ten fricking inches—”
"Having fun there?" Sam chuckled.
Jimmy paused for a moment and turned to face Sam, frozen in a hunched position that preceded yet more shoveling. “You're welcome to finish the job for me if you want,” the boy hissed, gesturing to the thinning snowbank that lay between the two.
Sam eyed what was left to be done and quickly shook his head. “No, thanks...I think I'll leave this in your very capable hands.” He stayed on the bike and shot another boyish grin at his friend, who merely grunted and returned to his work in response. Sam continued, this time more matter-of-factly: “Come on, Jimmy, it's not that much. You'll be done in no time!”
“Says the person who hasn't been shoveling this since seven in the morning.”
Sam considered this; it would have been rather stupid not to. Then, he shrugged, and consideration became moot.
“That’s not my fault," Sam retorted. "You're out here by choice. You could've easily persuaded your mom or your dad to do this for you, you know.”
“Sam, come on! I wouldn't do that! That's just rude!” Jimmy turned away and hoisted up another shovelful of snow. “But let me guess…you don’t care about that at all, do you?”
“Of course not!” Sam snickered. He paused to observe Jimmy’s progress, and it was clear to him that the boy would finish his work very soon, possibly in a matter of minutes. Still, he asked him when he planned on being done, much to Jimmy’s dismay, as the question could have very easily been answered with a bit of prior judgment.
“I’m almost done,” Jimmy sighed. “Just don’t bother me, Sam, and things will go much faster. I’m really not in the mood to be pestered right now….”
“Whatever,” Sam muttered. For the next few moments, he stayed on his bicycle and watched silently as Jimmy continued to shovel the remaining mounds of snow, and listened to the occasional passing car or gust of wind, both of which would breathe a momentary burst of life into the frozen landscape, seizing individual particles of snow from the ground and carrying them great distances in a collective wave of icy dust. After these few moments of quiet, however, Sam could not contain his charging thoughts any longer. The quiet made him restless. He had to say something—crack a joke, poke fun at Jimmy, persecute parents—just something to lift this strange, awkward silence.
“I’m bored,” was the first thing that came, whether Sam had allowed it or not.
“I said I’m almost done!” Jimmy exclaimed, hauling more snow off to the side. By now all that was left was a mere strip of white, and it was quickly turned into the familiar gray of concrete as Jimmy cleared away the last of the snow with temper-fueled ease. Instantly afterward he whirled around to face his friend. “I told you not to pester me, Sam! Was that too much to ask?!”
Sam, taken aback by Jimmy’s outburst, shrunk atop his bike seat. “Jimmy, calm down! You’ve got a shovel in your hand! Jeez…all I said was ‘I’m bored!’ It’s not like I was rushing you or anything…”
“Yeah. Sure.” Jimmy lifted the shovel up from the ground and held it with the handle nestled on his shoulder. He turned away from Sam to behold the product of his hard work, and was indescribably grateful to see that where there had once been snow and only snow there was now no obstruction to speak of. The only snow left on the driveway was a thin film of fine-grained particles appearing as nothing more than a soft, harmless veil of glitter.
“Whatever,” he said with a relieved smile. “I’m just glad to finally be done with that.” He raised his glove to wipe half-frozen beads of sweat from his forehead. “I hate this driveway. It’s such a pain to shovel in the winter, ‘cause it’s just so long, and it curves, and…Sam?”
Sam looked up. “What?”
“You’re not listening to me. What a surprise.”
“…Sorry.” Sam paused. Then, suddenly, he began jumping up and down on the seat of his bicycle in a frenzy of excitement, infected with some kind of newborn energy that could only be aroused by the promise of a new day. “Jimmy! Jimmy! Bluff! Street! Bluff! Street! Get! Your! Bike! Now! So! We! Can—”
“All right, Sam!” Jimmy shouted. “I know! I know. I know you wanna go to Bluff Street, and I know you’re excited about the bike racing, and the ice, and us killing ourselves, and everything…”
“Hey, come on! It’s a pretty fun way to die, isn’t it?”
Jimmy could not help but stare at Sam, puzzled once again by his overtly happy-go-lucky behavior. Never before had he met someone as drastically daft as Sam Summerton, and he had lost count of the number of times he had been discombobulated by the boy’s daredevil deportment. But, at the same time, he was rather entertained by it, and he twinkled at his mercilessly merry friend, remembering the reasons he had befriended him in the first place, the same reasons he sometimes misunderstood him.
“Yeah,” Jimmy giggled. “I guess you could say that.”
“Exactly! So go get your bike! We don’t have all day!”
“All right, all right, I’m going, I’m going…”
Sam watched as Jimmy rounded the bend and disappeared behind the trees, only to come back less than a minute later with the shovel shed and the bike brought forward. And so, they went. After leaving from Jimmy’s house, the boys traveled west down Faust Road until they reached its intersection with Motley Drive, upon which they turned south and sped just a few miles more before reaching their destination. The entire trek was a maniacally fast-paced sprint that Jimmy had inherently expected, yet had been hilariously underprepared for all the same, and by the time the boys had finally arrived at the notoriously dangerous drive, Sam had approximated the amount of times Jimmy had fallen to be exactly thirty-nine. Needless to say, this was thirty-nine more falls than Sam had experienced.
Jimmy cried out in pain as he fell off his bike and crashed onto the ice for what was indeed the thirty-ninth time, landing on his shoulder just beside Sam, who stopped his own bicycle and stood above his friend with a proud smirk on his face. Jimmy’s bike skidded to a stop next to his feet, and there he lay, facing upward, slightly confused, for quite a long time. Although he had suffered no significant injury, Jimmy was, thanks to this and the other thirty-eight mishaps that had come before, dizzy, sore, and unwilling to get back up and suffer the consequences of his clumsiness any further. He knew, however, that Sam would insist he do just that.
“I must say you’re quite graceful on that bike, Jimmy,” Sam chirped cheerfully. “Am I gonna have to wait for you to get up again or do you need me to help you?”
“Actually, Sam, I think I’m perfectly fine down here,” Jimmy answered, actually managing to bring forth a smile. “…You know…I was just thinking…. Wouldn’t it be much safer to…oh, I don’t know…just build a snowman, or have a friendly snowball fight, or—”
“Jimmy, are any of those activities potentially life-threatening?”
“…I don’t think so…?”
“Then we can’t do them!” Sam said this with that same proud smirk he had flashed at Jimmy just before, and Jimmy made sure to respond to this with his idiosyncratic frown of grumpiness. Sam walked his bike forward, still smiling smugly as he continued. “You’ve gotta learn to take risks, Jimmy. You, my young apprentice, have led a life governed by rules and authoritative figures that stop at nothing to restrict you from having any sort of fun whatsoever.” Sam turned to face his friend, and his smile broadened. “That’s where I come in. You’re so used to being smothered by safety that you shy away from things like this. But believe me when I tell you you have no idea what you’re missing out on. You don’t know just how comfortable it is to step out of your comfort zone once in a while, Jimmy, and that’s why I brought you here today. You’re a stick-in-the-mud, you’re a wimp…and I can teach you how to break out of your shell and have fun.”
Jimmy lifted himself into a sitting position and turned to face Sam. “So your idea of fun is—”
“Biking down Bluff Street, yes.”
“And could you please explain to me what’s so fun about suicide? Just look at that hill, Sam!”
Sam turned to look, for they had arrived at their destination and now stood at the intersection of Motley and Bluff, which overlooked the eastern slope that Jimmy spoke of so fearfully. The street was tame as it initially branched off from Motley Drive, but no sooner had it become fairly ordinary than it dove into a sinuous state of insanity, characterized by the alarming angle of the hill and the gratuitous curves that lurked further down, waiting for hapless victims. It snaked its way through houses and trees and yet more obstacles, and every inch of its surface was coated with a sinister sheet of ice that twisted along with the road. The end of the street could actually be seen from the boys’ vantage point, although it was blocked somewhat by towering spruces and oaks that served as the street’s company, and there was almost surely chaos to speak of in the stretch of the street that could not be seen. It was this hidden danger that made Jimmy attribute suicide to what Sam thought to be a simple bike race. It was this hidden danger that Sam wanted to find.
“So you’re telling me this hill looks fun, and not even slightly unsafe?” Jimmy persisted. “You’re not worried at all about possibly getting hurt?”
“I never said it wasn’t unsafe,” Sam pointed out, turning to face his friend. “In fact, I kind of said it was ‘potentially life-threatening’.”
“Well, there you go!” Jimmy pulled himself to his feet and grabbed his bike from where it lay on the ground. “We shouldn’t do this, Sam. I don’t care if you think I’m a wimp for skipping out on this. I care about making the right decision.” He walked over to his friend and jabbed him in the shoulder with his forefinger, gazing at him with the typical pettishness Sam had been worrying about. “And I think this is a pretty stupid decision.”
Sam frowned. “Jimmy, what is your problem? Look, nothing is going to happen. I’ve done stuff like this tons of times, and nothing ever happened to me!” He paused. “If you walk out on me now, I’m still gonna go down this hill either way. You know that, right?”
Jimmy shut his eyes, as if he were imagining the afflictions and contusions that would result from this activity. He shook his head. “Sam, I really don’t think that’s a good idea. You know you’re not invincible, right?”
“Yeah. But that’s not stopping me.” Sam lifted his left foot to the pedal of his bike and readied himself for the rush downhill. He noticed Jimmy was cringing, so he took a moment to give him a sportive shove and another vain grin as if it would provide the boy reassurance. “Come on, Jimmy. This is your last chance. If you wanna actually learn how to have fun, you’d best be getting on your bike.”
Jimmy turned to look down Bluff Street again. Seeing the street transform into a roller coaster of madness just outside the intersection made him exceedingly frightened for both his and Sam’s safety, and he took a step back. “Look, I think I’m gonna sit this one out, Sam. I’m sorry…but it’s just not smart.”
Sam eyed Jimmy warily. “Not smart?”
Jimmy nodded. “It’s these kinds of reckless things, Sam, that have the potential to spell disaster. If you’re not careful, you’re not only gonna hurt yourself, but the people you drag into the antics, too, and I don’t wanna be a part of that. I’m sorry, but I’m not doing this, and I suggest you step out of this, too, ‘cause I don’t want you to get hurt. You just…you don’t know what sort of things are gonna come up because of some stupid decision, Sam. You just…don’t know.”
Sam did not answer. He stared at Jimmy, and Jimmy stared right back at him. Had one been listening very intently, they might have heard the faint whistling of the wind in the distance as Jimmy waited for an answer from his friend, hoping for an agreement, fearing Sam would make the wrong decision. Finally, after a long moment of silence, Sam smiled, and gave a little snigger of amusement.
“You are such a pu.ssy.”
And off he went.
“Sam, wha—?” Jimmy could not finish his sentence before scrambling onto his bicycle and going after his friend; then he heard the chaotic rattling of his bike chain below him and wished he had never made an effort to pursue the boy, for once again he had entered a maniacally fast-paced sprint that was to be expected while in the company of Sam Summerton. This time, however, it was impossible to stop.
“Sam?! Oh, no, sh.it, sh.it, SH.IT SH.IT SH.IT—”
“Jimmy?” Sam shouted from up ahead. “Hey, so you changed your mind after all!”
“NO NO NO WAIT WAIT WAIT—”
Jimmy jerked the handlebars side to side as he and Sam streaked through the first of the bloodthirsty bends. It was all he could do not to squeeze the brake levers and send himself hurtling from his bike and onto the unforgiving ice as a casualty of exorbitant momentum. He was unaware of the speed of the pedals, the rounding of the corners, the unbelievable lifespan of this bike race. He could only feel surges of adrenaline controlling his actions, maneuvering the bike this way and that, allowing him to avoid the most legendary of injuries for now. Sam looked over and smiled; he was impressed.
“Wow, Jimmy! I didn’t know you could do this!”
Left, right, up down rightdownleft. A titanic torrent of turns lacking in any sort of pattern or predictability. Speeding. Turning. Speeding. Turning. Stomach lurching. Nerves reeling. Sam cheered and whooped and laughed. Jimmy screamed and wailed and yelped. He owed it solely to his frantic reflexes for maintaining his balance and keeping him up and riding for this long. No doubt they would betray him soon.
The betrayal came at the completion of yet another curve, the last curve. Jimmy was unknowingly gaining on Sam, panic being the only deponent for his wild pedaling and consequential acceleration. A newly-shoveled driveway bore witness to a car engine starting. The brake lights glowed a bright cherry red. Jimmy was fighting to steady his bicycle when he looked up and saw the vehicle coming down the driveway.
Immediately, instinctively, he closed his eyes and squeezed the brake levers with all his might, and the spokes of his bike ceased to spin, and he was sent sliding to the ground with truly formidable speed.
“Oh, no, no, NO—”
Sam turned. “Jimmy, are you—”
Velocity threw Jimmy and his bicycle straight into the rear wheel of the bike ahead, and Sam had long since been catapulted into the air before he realized what exactly was going on.
He hit the ice, arms flailing, legs kicking, still shouting. His hand bent as it impacted with the ground. His foot swiped around to strike Jimmy square in the face, throwing him off to the side as he slid, dislodging at least one or two teeth and roughly one or two million skin cells. Sam’s bike came down on top of Jimmy, the handlebar falling straight upon his kneecap, the back wheel falling upon his foot, trapping it in the spoke. This incomprehensible wreck now saw him being dragged along by his own bicycle, saw Sam being pushed forward at the front. Jimmy prayed for friction to save them, but this section of the street was overtaken by a frozen flood upon which it was impossible to maintain one’s stability, and Sam and Jimmy were helpless as they glided downhill, only becoming more entangled with their bicycles the more they tried to stop themselves—or, rather, the more Jimmy tried to stop himself.
Sam seemed to be paying no attention to their situation; he was reveling in the unmatched recklessness of his latest feat. Jimmy could hear him laughing up ahead, welcoming detriments not only with bravery, but with a sort of bizarre, exceptional glee.
“Whoooo! Holy sh.it!” Sam howled up ahead. He was still laughing. “We can’t stop! WE CAN’T STOP! WOOOO!”
“Sam, wait! Sam?! SAM!”
Jimmy threw his hands about, groping for a tree branch, a traffic sign, a fire hydrant, anything that would stop him and Sam. He thought he had finally grabbed ahold of something when the sound of a roar thrashed against his ears, goring his eardrums, and he bolted up into a rudimentary sitting position, at which point his pupils shrank to the size of ticks, and his scleras became dual oceans of almost boundless white. Just in front of the boys, Bluff Street ran perpendicular with another road traveling north, and just now turning west from this road onto Bluff Street was a monstrous salt truck, blazing yellow, barreling forward, bellowing its loud, percipient bellow of repercussion. Sam cheered and reached out to touch it; Jimmy screamed and braced himself for the worst.
There was the rush of air, the screaming of a carburetor, the terrifying ultimatum of the wheels, the realization of the obligation of death. Sam’s fingers brushed the side of the truck. Jimmy knew he had to stay away, but instinct betrayed him for a second time and he blindly held out his hands to shield himself, and he felt with mortally raw horror the fast approach of the titan. He felt the spinning hubcaps. He felt the vehicle’s lethal mass. He felt his eyes widen with a silent shriek. He felt his mind melt to become a pool of liquified fear, pure and unpolluted by hope or optimism. In this moment, Jimmy felt—within the smallest fraction of a second—the tires: one hundred pounds of rubber and steel cords and dozens more insidious killing instruments, easily capable of flattening any living thing in their way. In this moment, Jimmy felt as the bikes were eaten first; he felt them jostling around in front of him like beheaded chickens who would only take a minute to stop squirming permanently. In this moment, Jimmy feared he was next. He could no longer hear Sam. He could no longer hear the rattling of the bike chain. All he could hear was the truck, and in this moment, Jimmy truly felt he was going to die.
And then it was over. The truck passed, the aura lifted, and pellets of calcium chloride rained down and bounced across the ice in its place. Jimmy felt himself spinning, but he could not tell for a while if he actually was spinning, or if it was just his close encounter with finality that had given him the tornadic sensation. He decided it was both.
Jimmy was sliding across the ice slower now, and he recognized deceleration as soon as he was able to collect his jumbled thoughts and restore order to his mind that had not minutes ago been a slave to the totalitarian rule of terror. Then, at long last, he came to the stop he had been hungering for, and he smiled and chuckled faintly with relief. Never before in his life had he appreciated stasis more than he did in this moment. His head still felt as if it were being tossed around at sea in a hurricane, and he knew that if he made an effort to stand up now he would likely find the acidic remains of scrambled eggs and toast splattered all over his winter clothes. But he had come to a stop at last, and for that, he was inexpressibly grateful.
Three Sams stood above him, eyes wild, hair ruffled, faces alight with jubilation. As if one wasn’t enough, Jimmy thought to himself.
“Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy!” The Sams shouted. “Oh my, God, did you see that?!” Sam’s whimsical laugh had endured through the near-death experience (Jimmy questioned whether Sam had even inferred the gravity of the situation) and he continued to display his comical disregard for all things deviating from fun as he stared west and watched the salt truck climb up Bluff Street and eventually disappear from view.
The Sams came together. The sense of nausea weakened, and Jimmy sat up. He clutched his forehead and grimaced, suddenly overwhelmed by a terrible ringing in his ears that threatened migraines to come.
“Dude, we were right under that truck! We almost died! That was so cool! Man, I’m just freaking out right now, I’m so…I’m so…” Sam ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath, still gazing down Bluff Street in awe. “Holy sh.it, that was intense…”
Sam looked down at Jimmy, and his smile faltered. “Ooh…I think that’s my fault.”
“…What? What’s wrong?”
“…uh, you…your mouth’s kinda bloody, Jimmy. Did I kick you in the face on accident or something? I did feel my foot hit something after…” His smile returned to its full strength, and he snickered. “…after I went flying in the air! Oh, man, that turned out to be so much better than I expected….”
Jimmy brought his index finger up to his mouth and retracted it to find it dappled with the red stuff. As the perilous atmosphere continued to dissipate and sensory input began to flow again, he began to feel the pain that permeated his body, the pain that was felt most keenly in his mouth. It quickly evolved from a mere soreness to a ruthless throbbing as feeling returned to him, and Jimmy cupped his face in his hands in an attempt to smother the terrible sensation. The damage had not stopped at his battered teeth; there was a small cut on his cheek and blood trickled from his lips in a number of spots. His kneecap ached as well, having been dislocated slightly by the handlebar of Sam’s bike, and his foot, still ensnared in the spoke of the same bike, was beginning to fall victim to the same sensory scourge.
He spat the detached matter that was saturated in his mouth out onto the ice and looked up at Sam, who appeared to have fared much better than him. Then his eyes fell upon the boy’s wrist.
Jimmy winced. “Uh…Sam? Is your wrist supposed to be…?”
The smile on Sam’s face succumbed to implications, and he looked at his wrist. From certain angles, it would have looked untouched and unharmed. Both Sam and Jimmy could see, however, that there was the slightest bend in a relatively unacceptable place, and the latter boy could see plainly his friend’s brow wrinkling in pain and bitter concentration.
“Hm,” Sam said without anything resembling distress. “Must be broken. It doesn’t look that bad though.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“…What are you gonna say to your parents?”
Sam looked at Jimmy and frowned. “Jimmy…I think you mean what are we gonna say to our parents.” He pointed at the bikes. They were bikes no longer. They were piles of scrap metal, their tubes broken and twisted into torturous positions, their wheels folded into amateur origami flowers, their pedals and saddles ripped from their respective locations, their spokes plucked apart and bent to resemble crooked blades of dead grass. Miraculously, the spoke that imprisoned Jimmy’s foot was the only part of either bike that was still somewhat intact; everything else had been utterly obliterated by the passing salt truck.
“Holy…” Jimmy did not finish; shock took the words away from him. He attempted to free his foot from the spoke, squirming frenetically as if this were the corpse of something other than a bike. It did not take long to free himself; he jolted his leg upward and the wire trapping his foot snapped in two, and he moved swiftly to his feet with his eyes still locked on the metallic skeletons of the bikes. He had never thought anything of salt trucks. He had always seen them spreading the stuff on icy roads in past winters, and he had appreciated their contributions to safe, assured travel in Summerfall. Now he would never look at these salt trucks the same way again.
Sam studied what was left of the bikes, appearing to be deep in thought. “Well…we’re dead.”
Jimmy did not need to answer, for there was no way he could disagree. He wiped his lips with the palm of his hand, and brought it back in front of his face to find yet more streaks of red. Each individual tooth in his mouth seemed to have a heart of its own, and each heartbeat came with horrible aches anew, to the point where his jaws became numb with discomfort. He sprayed another unpleasant mixture of saliva and plasma onto the ice and wiped his mouth again. He longed to be rid of the sharp flavor of blood.
“I don’t know about you, Jimmy, but I’m not gonna tell my parents about this,” Sam murmured. “I mean, it’s not like they’d care or anything.”
Jimmy looked up at his friend. “Mine will.” His eyes fixated on Sam’s wrist again. “And I’m sure your parents will care about your wrist. I mean…they’re gonna have to pay for the medical expenses for that and everything…” He turned back to look at the wreckage, his expression one of absolute hopelessness. “Man…what the hell are we gonna do?”
“Just roll with it,” Sam said with his usual carefree smile. “You know…this isn’t that big of a deal, Jimmy. This’ll actually blow over pretty quickly, I think.”
“That’s what you think?!” Jimmy cried out, staring at Sam with a deathly scowl. “If that’s what you think, I’ll just have to run over everything that is not going to ‘blow over’ anytime soon.” He began counting the quandaries on his fingers, his noxious gaze becoming stronger with each finger that went up. “First, of course, is our bikes.” He motioned to the mangled remains of the bicycles. “Then there’s me and you. I would not be surprised if you did some serious damage to my jaw with that kick, and you’ve got that broken wrist you should be worried about! And on top of that, our parents are gonna kill us when they figure out what happened! Your parents might not give a sh.it, but the thing is…I respect my parents, Sam! You don’t understand that, but I respect them because they’re the ones who raised me to be honest and responsible and…careful. I let them down, and I don’t think they’ll ever let me forget that. Forget being grounded…. They’re going to chain me up in the basement for a year and I’ll have to eat bugs to stay alive.”
Sam rolled his eyes and began to turn away. “Just give me a break, Jimmy…”
“Okay, that might have been an exaggeration, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is your goddamn fault, Sam!” Jimmy declared. “Why don’t you put yourself in my shoes for a minute? How do you think I’ll ever be able to explain to my parents about this, huh? You need to just…learn empathy, Sam. Seriously! Not everyone is like you. Not everyone is completely careless. You always pick having fun over actually making the right decisions—”
“Is there a problem with that?” Sam interrupted harshly. “No, there’s not. In fact…if I recall correctly, I told you specifically that I was going to go down Bluff Street alone if you didn’t want to. I knew that I could take care of myself in the event of a salt truck almost running me over, and I told you that if you didn’t want to put up with that, you could just walk away. If I had gone alone, neither of us would be in this situation. You would be all cozy by your fireplace, and I would be having loads of fun by myself.” He shook his head. “But you didn’t walk away. You went after me. And while I was happy about that at first, I’m not anymore, because now you’re just bi.tching about the problems that you caused and you’re trying to blame me! It was your goddamn fault, Jimmy! You knew you weren’t up for it and yet you still went with me for whatever reason!” He stopped to take a deep breath, and then continued no less angrily. “Now let me make something clear. I do not care about what’s happened. I thought that whole incident with the salt truck was a lot of fun! I had a great time! Yeah, we cheated death, and I seem to have broken my wrist, but it was awesome all the same! What I’m mad about is your complaints. Don’t whine about the consequences of a decision you had complete control over, Jimmy. You can try to pin the blame on me, but whatever punishment your parents give you, you brought it on yourself. I had nothing to do with it. Okay?”
Jimmy shook his head. His jaw hung in disbelief. “No. That’s not okay at all. Sam, you know you can’t say that. The whole thing was your idea from the start! You’re the one who pressured me into going with you! You’re the reason this happened!” He turned away and reached for the destroyed bikes, grabbing the disfigured chassis of what he believed to be his, and held it in front of Sam’s face. It was a sad thing. Pieces of its structure broke off and tapped along the ground as soon as Jimmy picked it up. “See this, Sam? This is what I’m going to have to explain to my parents! And this…” He pointed at the marks on his face and the blood on his teeth. “…and this.” He moved his finger so that it was pointing at his head.
Sam was confused. “…What, you have a headache?”
“No, Sam,” Jimmy sighed. “I mean…yeah, I do, kind of…. What I mean is that I am going to have to explain to them why I was stupid enough to do this with you. I’m gonna have to explain what exactly was going through my head when I decided to go biking down Bluff Street, and they’ll think that I was goofing off. I was having second thoughts when we stood at the top of that hill, but then when you chose to go on your own…I don’t know. I just went after you. Just like you said.”
“So you’re saying that’s my fault, Jimmy? Is that what you’re trying to say? It’s my fault that you chose to go with me?”
“I’m saying that it’s your fault we went in the first place!”
“Yeah, but you could’ve chose not to go and you didn’t! This is your fault, not mine! Don’t try to blame me!”
“Bullsh.it, Sam! You—”
“Shut the hell up, Jimmy!”
Sam’s hateful tone of voice was quick to silence Jimmy, who still continued to glare at Sam with all the ghastly obscenities he wished he could say manifesting themselves within his rainy blue irises. There was a long, unbearable pause. Such discord hung between the two boys at this moment that one would wonder if their friendship had been irrevocably destroyed—if they could ever do anything together again. Perhaps they could, and this was only another of countless discrepancies. But in this moment, the two boys were the bane of each other’s existence, and they hated each other more than anything else in the world.
Jimmy sighed heavily, and clutched the remains of his bike in his hands with so much force that his knuckles began to turn the color of snow. “You know what, Sam? I’m tired of your sh.it. Have it your way. But I’m still going to tell my parents that this was entirely your fault.”
Sam kept staring at his friend, his eyes cold and frozen over, yet simultaneously blazing with fiery anathemas. “So that’s it?” he said. “You’re just gonna go all ‘Herpa derpa, Mommy, Daddy! Sam tried to get me to do something fun, and it was horrible! He’s mean!’ You’re just gonna go crying to your parents about this, is that right?!”
‘Sam, quit being an as.sh.ole! This was your idea from the start, and we almost got killed! Why can’t you just understand that—”
“Yes, we almost got killed! But wasn’t it at least a little bit fun? Didn’t you get anything out of that, Jimmy? Anything at all?!”
Jimmy looked the boy straight in the eye. “The only thing I got out of that little ‘adventure’ is that hanging out with you is a bad idea.”
Sam went rigid. He opened his mouth to reply, but not a sound came. For an instant, Jimmy could have sworn he saw his friend’s features quiver with pain, and he suddenly regretted having released such a weighty statement; but then Sam’s chilling gaze returned, more unforgivingly bitter than ever, and with it, Jimmy’s anger as well.
“A ‘bad idea’, huh?” Sam said quietly. “Fine. Just go. Get out of here. Go home to your retarded parents and tell them everything!” He paused and hung his head, and Jimmy thought he detected something resembling sorrow in the boy’s actions. “Who needs sh.it friends like you anyway?”
“Sam…” Jimmy started, his anger weakening for a moment, giving way to a sorrow similar to that of the other boy. “Sam, I’m not saying we’re not friends anymore, I’m just…” He trailed off, and then his unquenchable fury rose to power again. He took a deep breath. “Whatever. You’re probably right. Who needs sh.it friends like me who’ve been by your side since you were two years old when you’ve got Cam and Brad and Zach and all those other idiots who will gladly put their lives on the line for the sake of fun?! Who needs sh.it friends like me who care about you and don’t want you to kill yourself in some stupid stunt when you’ve got friends who couldn’t care less about getting flattened by a salt truck?! Who needs sh.it friends like me…when you’ve got them? …Not you, that’s for sure.” He turned away from Sam, and began the long walk home. “See ya later, you jac.ka.ss.”
He started walking to the intersecting street, the one the salt truck had come from. Eventually, it would take him north to Faust Road once again, and then he would be rid of Sam’s naiveté for however long he so desired. But he was not rid of it yet, and he was able to hear quite easily when Sam said behind him, to himself, antagonized and infuriated:
“I should’ve called that girl instead…”
Jimmy stopped. Slowly, he turned to face Sam.
“You’re not talking about Claire, are you?” he asked.
Sam did not answer. Jimmy understood.
“You son of a bi.tch.”
He turned away from him for the last time.
Fourteen years later, it was winter again.
The night, and everything in it, was empty. The full moon was the sole light in the darkness, shining brightly, unobstructed by clouds. The snowflakes glistened a mystical bluish color in response to the orb in the sky. Sparse rolling hills in the distance were the only relief for the obstinate flatness of the landscape. A lone road stretched onward into the gloom. A lone man marched onward into the unknown.
Two tiny dots of light, not unlike fireflies, flickered in the distance, now sharing the moon’s responsibility, growing ever closer to the disgraced wanderer. The man kept walking down the road at an ironically purposeful pace, not seeing the lights down the road until they were close enough that their radiance washed the icy ground around him, and he was able to identify them as the headlights of a truck—a salt truck.
He had just been thinking back to that cold day in January when Jimmy had been thirteen and he had been nearing that age; it had been a rather infamous day in the boys’ friendship, marking the start of a hiatus in their communication that lasted for almost two months. As Sam reflected on it further, he knew that Jimmy had had a very apt reason to be mad; his bike had been destroyed, his face had been pummeled, and, although this did not come to light until later, little pebbles of calcium chloride had somehow lodged themselves within Jimmy’s clothes, and the prolonged exposure to this compound had given Jimmy a horrible case of skin irritation. With these misfortunes—and, of course, Claire—on his mind, the boy refused to speak to Sam for a very long time. Jimmy Crawford was never heard from again until Sam’s birthday party on March 4, which Jimmy came to as a surprise—a sort of ceremony for the burial of the hatchet. At this point, all had been forgiven, and Sam and Jimmy talked and smiled at each other for the first time in what felt like ages, and their friendship was raised from the dead and reinstated as if it had never been killed in the first place. This marvelous new period of rebirth lasted for almost five years, and in this time Sam and Jimmy saw their high school years rush past them like the salt truck that had just blown past Sam in this moment, carrying behind it feathery swirls of snow that vanished with the light. And so, the joy of the boys’ adolescence had vanished as well, smothered by the darker aspects of this period, murdered by a certain human flaw that Sam preferred not to think about. He had been seventeen when it consumed him. It was the reason he was where he was right now, almost ten years later.
Seconds after the salt truck passed by, the area was once again devoured by the darkness, and the only things left to guide Sam were the moonlight and the indigo luminescence of the snow. He kept walking, just as he had done ever since he left Summerfall, never veering from the road, eternally pursuing the horizon. Occasionally he would pass a rare hint of civilization, most commonly abandoned barns or sheds that reminded him of his old house. As the night reached its end after hours of walking, a battle between golden sunrise and navy shadow raged on in the east, and Sam stumbled upon the most glaring hint of all that he was nearing a population. Off to the side from the road stood a single informative sign, green in color, and on the face of this sign Sam read the words: ‘Snowport: 5 Miles’.
Tomorrow was coming. He walked on. It was very cold out, and if he was quick about it, he could make it to Snowport and possibly find a warm place to seek relief from the winter. Preferably a bar, Sam thought; bars had never failed him before.