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I just want to get this out of the way from the beginning: I probably all made this up. Maybe it’s some twisted defense mechanism that I’ve developed, or maybe it’s just to make this all the more interesting. So if you finish reading this and say, “This never happened,” then you’re probably right. I commend you for having the gumption to perceive that this is not entirely grounded in reality (In case you can’t tell, I’m clapping for you right now). Anyway, time for introductions.
Name: Colt Cunningham
Age: Somewhere in the mid to late teens. I’ve kind of lost track at this point. Really, does it matter?
Occupation: High school student. Too lazy to get a job.
Physical Description: A handsome white male with dark hair, because judging from books, television, movies, and video games, that’s the best kind of protagonist there is (in case you can’t tell, I’m patronizing modern media for having repetitive, aboriginal characters).
And yes, Colt is my real name. No, it’s not short for anything. No, I am not an Indianapolis Colts fan, considering I live in the gorgeous shithole of a town known as Greensville, Maine, which isn’t anywhere remotely close to Indianapolis. Yes, I am aware that my first name is the name of a professional NFL football team and my last name is the name of a former professional NFL quarterback. Of course, if you’re particularly gifted in the field of mental aptitude, then you might find it prudent to point this out to me- which, by the way, is ever so helpful, since not a single other person on the planet has ever pointed that out to me before.
You’ll have to forgive my cynicism. It just flows out of me like vomit out of a drunken teenager’s mouth (which occurs more often than you’d think around here). Here, I made a graph for you to help you gauge just how cynical I can get and when it is most likely to occur.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s get to the story.
“Jesus Christ, Ricky, slow down!” I ground my teeth as I gripped the armrests of the seat tightly, as if that would somehow coerce the indigo Honda CRV to come to a halt after it nearly spun out on the last turn. Ricky glanced over at me with a dumb grin on his face, his amber eyes twinkling madly with some sort of vehicular high.
“What, you afraid of a little speed?” I resisted the urge to seize him by his stupid baby blue collared shirt and shake him until his eyeballs spun in their sockets. I’m half joking.
“If it gets us killed, then yes. We’d all be better off if I was driving,” I responded.
“Well, maybe if someone hadn’t failed their driving test last week…” This insightful comment was made by the eternally chipper Holly, who had to lean forward from the backseat, giggling, her coffee curls bouncing as she did.
“Yeah, whatever,” I muttered, glancing out into the cold fog that had accumulated throughout the morning, which had decided to rest lethargically on the winding roads that adorned the outskirts of Greensville. I really hate the fog. It rolls in far too often almost year round, and it doesn’t leave until long after it has overstayed its welcome. It settles on all the dimly lit streets and straightaways in the town, which doesn’t matter too much considering the chances of seeing another vehicle driving towards Greensville is about as likely as a T-Rex to reform and eat only veggies for the rest of its life. The fog is an oppressive blanket that smothers me and subdues me into a state of perpetual melancholia. And yes, I know I’m being melodramatic.
Suddenly, the car lurched forward as Ricky throttled the accelerator, and the sudden shift in momentum caused me to lean back in my seat.
“Dude. Slow. Down.” I was scowling at Ricky hard enough that it felt like my eyes might start sparking.
“Yeah, like, c’mon, Ricky, seriously, you’re like, going way too fast,” trilled Sophie. She looked like a stereotypical dumb blonde, and she spoke like one too, but she also had a 4.0 GPA. Who would’ve thought. Ricky gripped the steering wheel with a fervor, locked his eyes straight ahead and retorted,
“Who cares, no one’s on the road anyway. I’m just trying to have some fun, you two should try it some time.” He still has that same goddamn idiotic grin on his face. It’s something that I’ve become accustomed to viewing over the decade that I have known Ricky and let’s just say it’s never really grown on me.
I still remember when we were nine years old, climbing trees in my backyard and my mom walks out onto the back porch to see Ricky balancing on an unsteady branch that could barely support his weight. My mother practically shrieked, Don’t you jump off that branch, Ricky Thompson, don’t you do it. And he looked her directly in her eye with that same stupid goddamn grin on his face and that moronic twinkle in his eye and he jumped, landing with all the aplomb of an Olympic goddamn diver. So seeing that expression pop onto Ricky’s face didn’t exactly improve my good mood.
“Actually, getting killed in a goddamn car wreck is the epitome of fun. Thanks for the advice; I’m so inspired by your words of wisdom. Now slow down!” Ricky glances over at me with that idiotic grin on his face and salutes.
“You got it, Captain.” He slams on the brakes as hard as he can and all four of us are thrown forward in our seats. When the vehicle finally lurches to a stop, we’re in the middle of an intersection and I’m panting heavily from a mixture of fear and rage.
“You stupid motherf-” my voice is drowned out by the blaring horn of a truck approaching from the right far too fast to stop, and it’s close enough that I can see the driver’s eyes widen in shock as he comes to the inevitable conclusion that he’s going to hit us, and he tries to turn the wheel, throwing his whole weight behind it, but it’s too late, too late, too late, and there’s the horrible noise of metal rending metal and the world is upside down and it’s black, black and roaring, until after what seems like an eternity, it all stops. It all just stops.
No weight. I’m floating, floating somewhere between a world of voices and screaming and sirens and a thin membrane that separates my consciousness from whatever ethereal realm is buried inside of it. I feel…light. Carefree. I realize that I am dying. It’s not the worst feeling. It’s like floating on your back in a pool, but you don’t have to worry about sinking. I’m just floating, and I’m happy in a sad sort of way, just floating there in the calm, aquamarine waters of the pool. But then something cold wraps around my foot, it’s trying to yank me out of the pool but I don’t want to leave yet, and I struggle and thrash until suddenly I plunge beneath the surface of the water, snapping through faster than the blink of an eye, and I’m standing.
I’m standing in an empty pool. The sun is shining brightly, I can smell it’s summer by the air. The concrete is rough beneath my bare feet, and I realize that I’m wearing a bright orange flowered bathing suit. I feel like I’m forgetting something, like I didn’t do my trig homework or I have somewhere I have to be. I hear laughing in the distance, and somewhat shakily step out of the pool and walk along the cobblestones and towards the white picket fencing that encompasses the pool area. As I push open the gate, it squeaks in protest, and I gaze to the left into a spacious backyard with rippling green grass where about two dozen teenagers, all clad in bathing suits and bikinis, are playing volleyball or tossing a Frisbee or just standing in circles and talking.
“Oh, you made it!” Holly came bouncing up to me, a look of genuine joy on her face. “Welcome to Tocasome. Come on, I’ll show you around.” I just stared at her.
“Toe-kuh-so-may.” I repeated, and continued to ogle at her like she was insane. Which she probably is.
“Uh, yeah, that’s here, dummy. God, you are so dense.” She giggled, then grabbed my wrist. “Come on, let’s go meet everyone.”
Once I saw Jared, I knew I was dead.
Holly went around, introducing me to people I already knew and laughing the entire time while doing it. I just kind of stood there with what I assume would be a glassy expression as Holly dragged me around. Each time I met someone new, she would bounce up and down and get way too excited for just introducing someone to a group of people. Especially considering I knew everyone there. Sophie, Roger, Austin, Liza, Andy, and even Ricky was there.
“This is Liza,” said Holly. “This is Sophie, this is Daniel.” She giggled, and covered her mouth like she was embarrassed. She repeated this process until I was finally done getting to know everyone there. Then Holly pulled me away from the crowd, sighed, and said dreamily, “Isn’t Tocasome just perfect?” I looked her dead in the eye and cleared my throat. “Holly, can I ask you a question?”
She giggled and did a little pirouette. “Of course you can, silly.”
“Are you f*ng crazy?”
It turns out that I would never find out if Holly was f*ing crazy or not, because that’s when I noticed the boy standing by the edge of the woods. Unlike everyone else, he was wearing a black suit and tie and wasn’t engaging in conversation with anyone else. In fact, he wasn’t even facing anyone else. He just regarded the growth of trees and foliage at the edge of the lawn as a scientist in the field would observe a band of gorillas. Ignoring Holly tugging at my shirt and dancing around me, I slowly approached the boy, a feeling of trepidation flitting through me.
“Hello?” I felt like I shouldn’t be here. The world seemed to bend around me, my words sounding garbled. The distance to the boy, which couldn’t have been more than 20 feet, felt like miles. Something was nagging at me, growing more and more ferocious as I got closer. Shaking, I placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder to spin him around, and in a blinding crimson flash it all came back to me.
I was in a car. It got hit. I’m…
“Dead?” The boy turned around. “Yeah, join the club.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jared.”
Jared is my best friend. He and I have been buddies since we were eight years old, and we would spend hours at a time climbing trees, exploring, and just messing around. When we got older, we would go hiking in the woods or at parks. It was nice to get away from all the raving insanity of society for even a couple hours. We’d just walk, climb, and talk about school, sports, girls, TV, whatever.
Oh, and also he killed himself. I might have forgotten to mention that.
So to recap: My dead best friend is looking at me like we’ve never met, and a clinically insane girl who literally hasn’t stopped giggling for the last ten minutes is bouncing around me, and I’m in a backyard full of people who seem to be stuck in some weird paradox where everyone is perfectly content with just playing volleyball and Frisbee for the rest of their lives. And I’m also probably dead. So I think it’s safe to assume this is a little bit out of my comfort zone.
Which might explain why I collapsed onto my knees into the vibrant grass, tasting fertilizer and disbelief, because Jared, Jared was standing here in front of me, alive, and something has to be wrong with my lungs because I can’t seem to breathe and I’m overjoyed and devastated and horribly, horribly afraid all at the same time.
“Um, I’m Jared, it’s nice to meet you.” He waved his hand in front of my face, speaking slowly as one would to a child. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as he looked down at me, where I was half-choking on my own breath.
“Are you okay?” he asked, now looking seriously concerned. He grasped my forearm and pulled me off my knees, and my labored, panicked breathing gradually subsided to its regular pattern.
It was a Monday when I found out that Jared had killed himself. He hadn’t been in school. I assumed he was sick. I walked through the front door of the house and saw my mom with tears in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. She just shook her head and led me to the kitchen table. She took my hand, squeezed it in a death grip, and whispered, “Jared’s dead.” And the tears just came pouring down her cheeks, and it didn’t feel real, and she just held me there as I seized in shock, not even feeling the wound on my heart since by body was so numb with grief.
It didn’t truly become real until I saw his dog. Jared had this yellow Labrador named Lucy that was the sweetest goddamn thing in the world. We offered to take care of her for a while Jared’s family was grieving. People who believe that dogs have less emotional capacity than humans are a bunch of goddamn idiots, because the look on that dog’s face killed me. Her forehead was scrunched up with dozens of worry lines, and she just looked at me with her enormous brown eyes, laid her head in my lap, and cried.
I did the same.
I woke up. That surprised me, since I don’t remember falling asleep. Then my head started throbbing to the point where I thought it might actually explode. I pressed my hands against my temples, until finally the throbbing subsided, although my head still pulsed in bouts of dull pain every couple of seconds. I observed my surroundings. The room is doused in shadows, the bed is soft, the air is soft. There’s a nightstand adjacent to the bed with a lamp, and I switch it on, sending the darkness scurrying to the corners of the room. There’s a scarred wooden chair resting next to the nightstand, and boxes and boxes of Kleenex are stacked around the room. There’s several long, thin objects on the nightstand. They look like nylon strings from a harp, or a lute, or some instrument, except these strings are bent and malformed.
“You’re awake.” Startled, I look up. Jared is standing in the doorway, looking puzzled.
“What happened?” My throat felt dry, my body weak, like I had just ran a marathon. Jared walked over to the bed and sat down in the chair.
“You passed out. I brought you in here. You’ve been out for a while.” As he said this, he gazed wistfully at the strings on the nightstand, reaching out with his hand as if to stroke them. I looked at him, then around the room, then back to him. My brain felt addled and lost, but finally, I managed to ask,
“Jared…what is this?”
He looks at me, then around the room, then back at me. “This is what I left behind,” he replies, his voice a murmur. He gets up, walks towards the doorway, and looks back at me with the most anguished goddamn smile in the world. “Broken heartstrings and Kleenex.”
I slipped out of bed, still weak, and tried to hobble fast enough to catch up to Jared.
“Jared- wait!” As I walked out of the bedroom into the hall (which was painted a sunset red), I found a figure impeding my progress.
“Where you goin’, Colt?” asked Austin. He had a shaved head and was built like a grizzly bear on steroids. He had this lopsided smile on his face that he kept switching from one side of his face to the other, so that every couple of seconds, the one side of his mouth twitched upward as the other sagged downwards. I got so caught up in following his lips go left to right, left to right, that it took me a few seconds to regain my voice.
“I’m trying to find someone, so if you don’t mind…” I responded, gesturing for him to move to the side so I could pass. It was a very narrow hallway and Austin wasn’t a very narrow person. “Ooh, I can help you!” Austin exclaimed. “Who are you trying to find?” I ground my teeth in frustration. A spurt of rage shot through me, like magma spiking out of a volcano.
“You can help me by getting out of my goddamn way,” I growled. Whoops, bad idea. In retrospect, it wasn’t very prudent to say that to a 6’4”, 225 pound linebacker on the Varsity football team whose motives I can’t even begin to comprehend. Austin’s eyes went real wide, and he started shaking from head to toe. Instinctively, I started backing up. “Um, sorry, I didn’t mean-” I was interrupted by Austin bursting into tears and fleeing down the hall into another room, where he slammed the door shut and locked it. The hallway was silent.
“Okay then.” I looked down at my hands, puzzled, as if to ask them, Did you do that? That’s when I noticed what I was wearing. A hospital gown. A goddamn hospital gown.
As I continued walking down the hallway, looking for Jared, I passed by several doors. I tried a dozen of them, but they were all locked, and I soon gave up. I could hear people talking in the rooms, but it sounded muted and almost indiscernible. I caught glimpses of conversations. This is what I heard.
“Days…or a few years.”
Something about what I heard really bothered me, but I just kept on walking. And walking. How long have I been walking? I looked behind me. I couldn’t see the end of the hallway; it was just doors, doors, and doors set against the sunset red wall. It was the same visage ahead of me, too. My head throbbed with pain.
What the hell is going on? What is going on? As I traveled listlessly through the infinite hallway, my brain finally seemed to shake off some of the fuzziness that had been embedded within it ever since I arrived in Tocasome. Am I dead? I thought. I mean, if I were dead, I wouldn’t be thinking right now…Is this the afterlife? To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. I was expecting things like free ice cream and the ability to fly. Can I fly? I haven’t tried.
I jumped up and down, flapping my arms like a chicken flaps its wings. It didn’t work. I kept walking until my head drooped against my chest and I flopped from side to side lazily in a trancelike state.
Something tapped me on the shoulder. Alarmed, I spun around. It was Jared.
“Colt! Thank God. I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” he exclaimed.
“Dude, seriously?” I asked.
“There’s no time. You’ve got to come with me now! Come on!” Angrily, I grabbed his shoulder before he could run off again. “No! You’re going to tell me what the hell is going on. Right now.” He pried my hand off of his shoulder and whispered,
“Not here. Now let’s go.” He tried one of the doors, but it was locked.
“Yeah, I’ve tr-” Jared threw his whole weight against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He growled in frustration. “That’s it.” He walked up to another door, yanked it open, and went inside. Before I could follow him, he slammed the door shut.
“Jared, open the door!” I pounded on the door, but to no avail. Then I heard a scream from inside, then a crash, and then a sound like wood splintering. Total silence.
The lock of the door clicked. Slowly, I pushed the door open. Jared was standing in the middle of the room. The walls were made out of wood, but there was a jagged, gaping hole on one side that led outside. Lying face down on the floor in a pool of liquid next to the hole was a person. Austin. Almost as if someone thrown him into the wall hard enough to break through.
“Jared, what did you…” He looked at me, wiping his hands on his pants as if to rid them of something undesirable. “We don’t have much time. Let’s go.” He disappeared through the hole. Feeling disturbed, I stepped over Austin’s unconscious body- hopefully just unconscious- and followed him.
We jogged for minutes. The landscape was illuminated by the full moon: green hills, shallow trenches, and a forest in the distance, all blanketed by fog. Finally, Jared slowed down next to a tree.
“Climb. And hurry.” Wooden boards had been sloppily nailed into the trunk to create a makeshift ladder. I began climbing, with Jared close behind. After climbing for a minute, I realized that I’ve been climbing a tree for a minute. How tall is the tree? What am I climbing to? I stopped.
“Jared, where are we going?” I asked. I really didn’t want to look down. Or up.
“What are you talking about? Get in the treehouse already.” Reluctantly, I looked up. There was one more rung for me to climb, and above that was a wooden platform with a trapdoor. I looked down.
We weren’t any more than 10 feet off the ground. The tree had at most a dozen rungs.
I climbed through the trapdoor into the treehouse. There was a small table against the wall, where a cluster of candles had been lit, revealing a bare, undecorated interior. Jared climbed in after me and sat down against the wall. I sat across from him on the opposite side.
“Now: what the hell is going on?” He sighed, still catching his breath from the jog.
“Sorry about that. This is the one spot where they can’t hear us.”
“Where who can’t hear us?” I asked. This was starting to get weird. OK, this has been weird from the beginning. It’s starting to get even weirder.
“Them. Everyone down there. They’re crazy, Colt. Every last one of them. But we’re going to get out of here. We’re going to escape.”
“What exactly are we escaping from? And why? And how? And what the hell happened with Austin? Look, Jared, I know that they’re all a bunch of loons, but you’re going to need to tell me what the hell is going on.” Jared sighed, gazing into the wavering candlelight.
“Do you ever feel like you’re in a prison, Colt?” said Jared. “Like you are just living this structured, confined life with no way out, no choices?” His eyes met mine. “I mean, you go to school. Sure, you could choose to ditch class, or tell the teacher that he’s shitty at his job, or refuse to pay for food from the cafeteria. But you won’t. Because there is no logical reason, no benefits for someone to ditch class if they get in trouble for it later, or yell at a teacher, or refuse to pay for their lunch. So you go to school every day, behave yourself, and repeat the process over and over. I mean, did you take difficult classes because you wanted to? Or because you had to if you want to go to a good college? Do you believe in God because you choose to believe in God, or did your parents just raise you to believe in God? We don’t have a lot of choices in life, Colt. I’ve been imprisoned my entire life.” I stared into his eyes, really stared, and saw this gleam, this sense of misplaced justice and certainty. “I’ve been imprisoned in this CRAZY F*ING CAGE!” His face twisted, his eyebrows gnashed together, his nostrils flaring, and his hand lashed out, knocking the candles off of the table. Fire leapt onto the wooden planks of the treehouse, igniting instantly. I was too shocked to move, too shocked to avoid the flames licking towards me, too shocked to produce even the weakest of sounds as Jared lashed out at the wall of the treehouse with the heel of his shoe. He kicked at the walls again and again until finally, with a roar, he rammed his shoulder against the blazing wood and smashed completely through the wall, leaving behind nothing but a terrible, deafening silence.
“Jared!” I tried to scream, to do something, but I couldn’t. I was inhaling too much smoke, I couldn’t breathe. The fire danced around me, edging closer until it encompassed me completely. I was choking, choking on the smoke and my own breath. “Jar-” I crumpled onto the floor, not with the emphasis of an oak tree toppling to the ground, but with all the tenderness and grace of a child falling to sleep.
“We’re losing him!” The voice, though distant, sounded urgent. I should see what’s happening, I thought, but even that thought required tremendous effort, and my conscious drifted silently away. Everything became a flat, empty gray, an endless expanse that I meandered mindlessly through. It wasn’t just silent. Sound didn’t exist. I floated for what felt like a long time, and then something clicked, something shifted.
“And how does that make you feel?” I looked up. I was lying down on a chair, the kind you’d find in a therapist’s workspace. I was wearing a goddamn hospital gown again. A figure was seated across from me, legs crossed, examining me with a mixture of curiosity and concern. It was Sophie. She was wearing a burgundy business jacket, a burgundy pair of designer glasses, and was holding a clipboard and a pen, her hand poised to scribble something down.
“Mr. Cunningham? How does that make you feel?” The shades were drawn, bathing the room in indigo shadows.
“What…” I was too confused, too misplaced, to respond. The last thing I remember was Jared going completely insane and jumping out of a flaming treehouse.
“And how does that make you feel, Colt? About Jared?” Sophie looked at me.
“I…I’m not sure. I mean…he’s pretty much always been there. In my life.” Even my sentences were broken. “Jared was acting completely normal, talking, and then the next thing I knew, he was…” I could barely speak past the lump in my throat, like a paperweight crushing my windpipe. “He was gone.” Sophie scrawled a note on her clipboard, nodding her head as if coming to a sudden revelation.
“Good, good…I think that’s enough for today. I’ll see you the same time next week.” She spoke in a clipped, professional manner, completely unlike her usual voice, which was dotted with words such as seriously and like. Sophie stood up, marched stiffly to the door, and opened it; sunshine streamed into the room in shafts of harsh white light. Still feeling slightly dazed, I stumbled out of the room and into the brightness of the sunlit outdoors. I was met by a vacant, dilapidated parking lot with weeds sprouting through cracks in the pavement and debris clustered in disorderly piles around me. There was an abandoned highway on my left that was cluttered with assorted trash, everything from candy wrappers to splintered wood. Saplings sprouted out of the ground in clusters in the auburn field on my right. I looked around for any sort of landmark or sign of civilization. There wasn’t even a gas station in sight. With a sigh, I turned around to see if Sophie could help me out, or at least give me directions.
There was no building. No building, no Sophie, and not even a doorway. Just a gentle breeze and emptiness.
I plodded along the highway, no longer feeling lost or muddled, but angry. Angry at Ricky for killing me (probably). Angry at Jared for leaving without saying goodbye. Angry at myself for somehow getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. And here I was, walking down the goddamn road, lost, abandoned, and fairly certain that I’m going insane. The sky was a dull shade of gray, with a biting wind whisking through the air. Suddenly, I heard an engine in the distance. I looked behind me. A blue car was barreling down the highway, rapidly approaching, until it skidded to a halt alongside me. The window rolled down.
“Hey, Colt!” Ricky winked at me from the driver’s seat. “How about we go for a ride?” Two figures were in the backseat; it was difficult to see who was in the car, but it wasn’t difficult to guess: Holly and Sophie. I glanced at Ricky’s stupid goddamn face, then at the highway, then back at his stupid goddamn face.
“I’ll take my chances, thanks.”
The car sped off into the distance, and with a sigh, I kept walking. I did not want to go down that road again, both literally and figuratively. Another engine in the distance. I turned around as a car pulled up alongside me.
“Hey, Colt!” Ricky winked at me from the driver’s seat. “How about we go for a ride?” It was the same car, the same scenario from a minute ago. I scowled. It didn’t seem I’d be able to escape a joyride down the highway with Ricky. I opened the door, hopped in the shotgun seat, and smiled.
“Sure, Ricky. What could possibly go wrong?”
We zoomed down the highway, the world seeming to bend around us.
“Ricky, slow down.” I really didn’t want to go through this again.
“What, you afraid of a little speed?” he taunted, that gleam in his eye.
“If it gets us killed, then yes, I am afraid.” I wanted to strangle him. I really did. Maybe I should just kill him…I mean, he did kill me… I looked out the window, where mountains of fog had accumulated along the road, obstructing my view of the surrounding landscape.
“Well, maybe if someone hadn’t failed their driving test last week…” Holly. I didn’t even bother looking back. She giggled, like her comment had been the funniest thing she’d heard all week. Then she kept laughing and laughing, cackling madly as Ricky accelerated, hurtling down the street like a madman, and Holly’s howls of laughter coupled with the hum of the engine sent jagged spikes of pain through my brain, until my head felt like it might combust from the throbbing jolts of agony. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Will you SHUT UP?” I looked behind me, because I hadn’t said it. It wasn’t Holly, and it wasn’t Ricky, and it wasn’t Sophie. Sophie wasn’t even there. Where she should’ve been was…
“Seriously. That laugh is creeping me out.” Jared glared at Ricky. “And can you slow the f*** down?”
Okay. So Jared was in the car now. That’s completely normal. It makes perfect sense. I’m also wondering what the hell is going on- although that isn’t anything out of the ordinary in Tocasome, I guess.
“Jared- how did you get here?” Ricky and Holly had lapsed into some sort of trance, staring straight ahead with blank expressions on their faces.
“Ricky picked me up off the highway. Tried to walk away but he just kept coming back. What about you?”
“Same, but…” I couldn’t continue. The last time I saw Jared, he had went totally crazy. And here he was, acting like nothing had happened. “Jared, why did you burn down the treehouse?”
“What? What the hell are you talking about, Colt? That was you!”
“Dude, no, you went crazy and lit it on fire, then you jumped out! What do you mean it was me?” I was seriously getting freaked out by this.
Jared looked at me with what at first I thought was sadness, but then I realized was pity. “That was you, Colt. You burned down the treehouse and went crazy. You threw Austin into the wall. You walked into the bedroom and started talking to yourself. Colt- I’m not real. I’m dead. You’ve done all of these things.”
“No, I…” I felt like someone had ripped a curtain from my mind, and what was on stage was something ugly, something that scared me. “I couldn’t have…” But even my own words sounded weak to myself. I had thrown Austin hard enough into a wall to put a hole through it, I had burned down the treehouse and jumped out of it, and I had spent my entire time with Jared just talking to myself. My entire body was shaking.
“Then how are you here now?” I could barely force the sentence past my lips.
“It’s all in your head. I’m not here, Colt. I’m dead.” Jared had that sad look on his face again, like he knew that one day this moment would happen, and despite his knowledge, he still couldn’t bear to see it. “Why can’t you accept that?”
“Because I don’t want to!” I shouted, my breathing heavy, like a cornered wolf. “I don’t want to forget you, or let you go, because everyone else has! All I have left of you are memories, these tiny, stupid goddamn memories, and that is all. So I am not moving on, I am not letting you go, because I do not want to forget you.” Jared just looked at me with that same look and sighed. “I wish it were that easy. But you’re going to destroy yourself if you keep on burdening yourself with me. You don’t have to forget me- you just can’t let me drag you down anymore. Ever since I died, you have let yourself go. You can’t live the rest of your life in agony because I died, Colt. But just because I’m dead doesn’t mean that you can’t be alive.” Jared looked me dead in my eye. “It’s time for you to come back.”
The car sped up, Ricky throttling the accelerator, still staring ahead, expressionless. Jared sighed. “It’s almost time to go.” I was breathing fast now, almost hyperventilating, barely able to force a word past my lips.
“Jared- I’m not ready. I’m not ready to go.” Tears welled in my eyes, and my vision blurred, the entire world a single glimmer of light surrounded by dark, indistinct smudges. Jared smiled sadly, his visage one of acceptance. “That doesn’t matter. You still have a life to live, even if you don’t recognize that yet. Don’t be afraid of life, and don’t be afraid to die. Be afraid of not living your life to its fullest. Now get the hell out of here.”
I looked at Jared, then at the road, then back to Jared. “I-” A truck horn blared, and the world turned black.
I’m in a swimming pool, floating on my back. It’s peaceful here, calm, and I’m happy. There aren’t any burdens, nothing to drag me down. I’m free. Then something wraps around my foot. At first, I recoil at its touch, but then I allow it. It’s warm, welcoming, and I’m being hauled out of the pool, gently, until a persistent but steady beep, beep fills the air. And then I’m out of the pool, but for some reason, everything outside of the pool is soft and comforting and feels exactly like a bed. Muffled sobbing fills the room, reverberating off the bleached white walls. White walls? My eyes are open. Open. I look around the room, which is filled with harsh white light that reflects off the white walls onto the white bed sheets that I’m covered in. A heartbeat monitor stands on my right, emerald spikes pulsing across the screen every second before fading into nothingness. On my left, a woman is sitting in a chair with her head in her lap, crying, and I realize that she is squeezing my hand. I squeeze back, and suddenly she looks up, tear-stained eyes wide, and throws her arms around me and doesn’t let go.
“Colt, oh Colt,” my mother bawls, and even though I can barely breathe because her embrace is so tight, I respond with equal enthusiasm. Finally, she releases me, her eyes sparkling, all the worry and stress melting from her face in an instant. “Doctor, doctor!” The door bursts open a second later, and a man in a white overcoat rushes into the room, his face a mask of apprehension. He takes one look at me, wipes his hand across his brow, and says,
A nurse came into the room, fussed over me, and the doctor (who identified himself with a smile as Dr. Greenberg) asked me a lot of questions like, “How are you feeling?” and “What’s your name?” I answered all the questions, complied to their checkup, and then I must’ve passed out at some point after that, because I woke up in the same room a couple of hours later. My mom were still in the room, her eyes painted with tears.
“How long was I out for?” I asked.
“A couple of hours,” my mom responded. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, getting of my bed and leaning against the counter for support. “I meant the coma.”
“13 days,” she whispered, and her body tensed up, as if just the thought of me in a coma was painful. I was a little shocked by that, because it honestly felt longer. I know that sounds odd because I had zero concept of time while I was in the coma, but I expected it to be a much larger span of time. The door swung open, and Dr. Greenberg walked in. “Colt! Just the man I wanted to see! How are you feeling?”
“Fine, I’m feeling fine. A little weak, though.”
“That’s to be expected. I have some good news, Colt. If you’d like, you can go home tonight. You’re vitals are strong, and I see no reason to keep you here any longer than we have to.” My mom glanced at me, then to Dr. Greenberg. “Are you sure, doctor?”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Cunningham. Colt is just fine. Now Colt, if you want to stay here, for the night, that’s quite alright.” I looked around the room, from my mom to the doctor to the machinery along the wall. “Let’s go home.” I started walking to the door, when Dr. Greenberg stepped in front of me. “Colt…you may want to change into your regular clothes first.” I looked at what I was wearing. A hospital gown. Slowly, I smiled. “You know, doctor…that’s a pretty goddamn good idea.”
I walked out of the hospital with my mother, the cool night air kissing my face. I breathed it in, all of it, and felt a twinge of sadness mixed with hope. “Are you sure you’re okay, sweetie?” My mom looked over me as if to find some sign of illness. I gazed out past the parking lot, past the empty road, all the way to the lines of trees on the horizon. There was something missing from my life, but I am still here. I’m here now, in this moment, alive, breathing, living. It isn’t perfect, but for the first time in a long, long time, I feel hopeful.
“Yeah. I think I’m going to be okay.”