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Chapter 1: Assumption
“Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be as by what we want to conceal.”
“I told you to never play around with this stuff; are you insane?” The words were furious and hushed, so they came out hissed through gritted teeth. A book of matches were waved threateningly in the boys face. Undaunted, he pushed it back and flung stray gold strands out of his face. Blue-green eyes stared back through a mask of annoyance. He pushed past the older man and huffed.
“It’s my room.”
A hand was reached out to stop the blonde boy, but it was shoved away as the teen spun around. Green eyes met blue. The older man was stunned.
“You’re my parent by name, but you’re not my father.” Without waiting for a response, he stalked his way out.
Hesitantly, Henry yelled after him.
“Hey! Vens…!” He ended in a sigh as the front door slammed, signaling the end of the fight he’d just lost.
Henry turned the match book over in his hand absently. He knew what would happen next. He would hide all the matches and lighters in the house, and Vens would find them within two days. He was so tired of this, but thinking of his wife strengthened his resolve.
Shaking off the dark thoughts and memories, he left the room that smelled so powerfully of smoke. The scent, he knew, would never leave him; it would follow him for the rest of his days. He’d hoped that the change from Centerstead to Fairfield would’ve helped Vens cope, but the normally moody teen seemed worse than ever.
A minute of stillness passed, leaving Henry wondering how and when this would all blow over. He heaved a sigh and left the room feeling ten years older. Maybe a fresh start would cure Vens. Maybe he’d open up and they could live in relative comfort.
Henry barked out a laugh. Yeah. And maybe he’d win the lottery and move into the Playboy Mansion.
Vens couldn’t stop the sarcastic voice in his head from blurting out critical obscenities. Fairfield was just another “middle-of-nowhere” kind of town, and Henry decided to move here after the accident. On one hand, Vens hated the claustrophobic feel of the small town, but another voice in his head reminded him that his mother would’ve adored Fairfield. It reminded him so much of her.
Just thinking about his mother made Vens’ stomach flip and turn sickeningly. Looking around at the scenery provided a welcome distraction. It was the middle of September, so the air was crisp. Leaves were just beginning to turn colors for the season and flake off into the breeze. Meanwhile, homeowners packed into their compact cars for another busy day at work. Occasionally, he’d see a shiny sports car zip by on the old, worn out road, but it was mostly minivans and sedans.
A few blocks ahead lay the only school in the town, Fairfield High School. Suddenly, Vens felt weary and unsettled. He dragged his already worn sneakers on the dirt-encrusted pavement, hoping to put off the inevitable. The pack on his shoulders felt double its weight.
The morning sun glared down harshly causing a thin layer of sweat to accumulate on the young boy‘s exposed skin. Wind was nearly nonexistent in Fairfield. One look at the mere twelve buildings the made up the school had Vens in a even fouler mood.
Fairfield High was one of the sorriest schools Vens had ever seen. The paint had begun to flake off in specks of dirty beige, and trees were almost entirely devoid of life. A tauntingly slight breeze zipped past to play between the remaining leaves on the trees before it became invisible once more. It looked as though the grass hadn’t been watered in decades, it was coming off in patches and crunched heavily under Vens’ shoes.
Even students weaving between buildings had a certain dull look about them. Unlike teens from Centerstead, Vens noticed that everyone had nearly the same style: plain colors with little variety. This place sure as hell wasn’t scoring any aesthetics points with him.
Already, Vens knew that he’d stick out from the Fairfield crowd. Not once on his slow trek to the head office did he see another fair-haired student like himself. In fact, most of the boys he saw sported short crew cuts in the more common brunette color. Their flat colored clothing contrasted deeply from his darker attire. Even his cargo pants seemed to stand out, although it looked to fit the assumed color scheme.
The inside of the office building held a dozen filing cabinets and three sleepy-looking secretaries. It was an entire ten minutes wait for the impatient teen as the bored woman pulled up his information on the dinosaur of a computer. At the end of the ordeal, Vens all but snatched his pass out of the workers hands and wordlessly left for his first class.
In the last, mercifully short half hour class, Vens had been seated at the front of the room and made to stand and introduce himself formally to his classmates. The sadistic S-O-B teacher, Mr. Trefor left him awkwardly rambling for a full minute before finally allowing him to sit. As revenge, Vens would make that math class hell for the poor, unsuspecting instructor. Yes, he would quit after a few days under the regime, like the others who‘d fallen victim to his schemes.
At the end of class as Vens was exiting the cramped, dull classroom along with the other bored-to-death teenagers, the young blonde forced himself to hold in a frustrated sigh. He’d survived his first class, but like he’d predicted, he’d been labeled as an outsider. There was no getting around the simple fact. Still, in all honesty, Vens knew he wasn’t like the other kids his age. He didn’t even want to fit in with them. He wasn’t like-
“Happy birthday!” A group of voices chorused happily from across the hall.
Vens smiled wryly as the energetic teens jostled an ordinary looking boy playfully. Frosting was flung from person to person in celebration of the apparently highly praised student. Everyone passing through the hall sported grins as they watched the public celebration.
Vens couldn’t understand it. How could they do something so overtly showy? Where was their sense of decency? Even as he thought it, a glob of vanilla icing fell in an arc to land in his light gold hair. The sarcastic smile dropped from his face as he reached a hand up into his hair. At least the birthday boy had the decency to come over and apologize.
Scowling, Vens couldn’t help but notice how much he looked like the poster boy of high school popularity: Stylish and crisp clothes accented by the right stance and posture. He also had an overconfident attitude bordering on cockiness, and when he spoke, it was with a certain fine-tuned eloquence. It was probably due to years of being idolized by everyone around him from the day he could walk. Hell, it probably started the day he was born. People like him were the worst.
“Hey, I’m sorry about my friends.” He gave the signature crooked grin of the clichéd high school elite. “Sometimes they just don’t know when to quit.” A paper towel appeared from no where and was offered.
“No, it’s fine.” It wasn’t.
“Really, I’m sorry.” His smile sobered up a bit. “I’m Brad.” Mentally, Vens was gagging on the ordinary nature of the name. “You’re Van?”
“Vens.” He corrected harshly. Already sick to his stomach with the conversation, the light haired teen mutter a quick, “I have to go” before turning on his heel and marching away from the curious glances aim toward him. Forget the rest of his classes; all he needed to know was where the nearest arcade was, and school and homework wouldn’t teach him that.
The bell sounded for the next period, but Vens had no intentions of joining another one of those classes today. Those people, those ignorant kids had no real perspective on anything. They knew nothing of anything outside of their tiny plastic world. Vens checked for any teachers before heading toward the back of the building and continuing his internal rant.
Damn. The foliage surrounding the back of the school was too dense to walk through. Vens cursed the country town for the umpteenth time that day.
“Try the fence behind building five.”
Looking around, the source turned out to be another ditching case. Vens had missed him at first, where he was sitting behind the corner of the building. As an afterthought, it was pretty obvious that that was probably why he was there in the first place.
Apparently, Vens’ confusion was obvious on his face because a moment later, the teen went on to explain.
“You’re getting out of class, right? There’s a break in the fence behind five.” Black bangs were shoved aside, offering a better view of the new face. “You’re the new kid.” It wasn’t a question, but it was getting pretty damn annoying hearing that. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“Shouldn’t you?” It was shot back without hesitation or thought.
The truant teen laughed lightly, amused. Standing, he was actually taller than Vens.
“Good point,” He grinned, “I’m Dustin by the way.”
“Vens.” Hesitantly, he offered a hand.
The new face didn’t seem that bad. Dustin was definitely not like those pop-worshipping dimwits. His shirt, a tribute to the legendary rock group, White Stripes, was proof of that. Aside from that, his dark eyes held a certain glimmer of knowledge and perspective that few people possessed.
Vens made an amused sound in the back of his throat and smirked.
“Thanks for the tip.” And he was gone.
Chapter 2: Brother
“I am not covetous for gold, but if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.”
The bell trilled, announcing the end of another day of school and releasing the students from their educational prison. While other students in his class relaxed and had fun with their friends, a certain student by the name of Daniel Casperson continued his studies. After all, a gifted student like him hadn’t been moved up a grade to take breaks and slack off. There were notes to be taken, essays to be written, and hundreds of online practice problems to be done. That didn’t even include soccer practice from five to eight.
As soon as the bell had rung, Danny had begun his slow trek home, lost among the waves of students eager to escape. Home was a mere twenty minute walk from the high school; the alternative would be to ask his older brother for a ride. A sigh slid past his lips. That would be the day. Instead of taking the five minute drive from his brother, he chose to wait for the light change patiently at the beginning of the crosswalk.
“You’re pretty high-wound.”
Dan jumped, finally noticing the person beside him. Blonde hair and green eyes. It was the latest addition, the recent transfer student. When he registered the boy’s words, he frowned. He stared for a long time at the teen next to him, a person who was obviously wise beyond his years.
“How would you know?” Dan looked away quickly, certain that he knew better. “You’re just guessing.”
Vens smiled knowingly to himself, still not looking at Dan.
The green orbs were trained straight ahead, focused on the traffic signal yet seeing past it. His question was simple, but the meaning behind it was less obvious.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Lids folded close and he shrugged. “You should know the truth by now.” Vens fixed his gaze on the cocoa orbs resting in Dan’s face. Somehow, the intensity was too much. The young Casperson brother had to look away or face the terrifying truths locked away behind the green glass windows.
“You have to decide for yourself what’s truth. How do you want to live your life?” The finality of the blonde’s words set in, letting Daniel know that the conversation was over. Still, he refused to shift his eyes from the cracks on the sidewalk.
By the time he looked up, Vens had disappeared. The blonde had vanished, leaving Dan wondering if he had even been there at all. Now unsettled and frustrated, he quickly made his way to his suburban home.
Most people would agree that perfection was impossible, but everyone who knew Shane Casperson agreed that he’d achieved it. This was a young man who excelled in everything he attempted. Well-liked by his peers, and handsome in a classic sense, he was everything Daniel wasn‘t, and everything he wanted to be. Shane was stronger, faster, and smarter than Daniel could ever hope to be.
It was painfully clear who his mother preferred.
Up in his room, he flung his bag against the wall, knowing his mother wouldn’t wake up until later. Years ago, she had decorated his room, arranging and decorating for weeks until it finally looked like a page from a magazine. Now, as immature as it seemed, he still clung to the alien concept of tidiness simply because it reminded him that she cared for him at one point. She hasn’t shown it in a while.
Falling into bed, he spent a good while just staring up at the perfect white ceiling. Despite the pressing deadlines on his homework, the turmoil in his heart brought a confusion that refused to be tamed, let alone pushed aside so easily to finish the insignificant assignments. Dan was still troubled by the short conversation he’d had with the transfer student or with his own mind.
The few simple words uttered and his entire mind was undone. Several minutes passed by in complete silence, with his mother sleeping and Shane at a track meet. Groaning, Daniel realized that only a few hours remained until soccer practice, when he’d have to run plays with his team as their captain. He was certain the coach hated his guts.
He retrieved his messenger bag from where it fell against the wall. The laptop on his desk was powered up and ready so he set to work, mindlessly answering question after question. His tapping on the keys became rhythmic and hypnotizing. Dan switched between subjects many times, because he knew how bad his temper could be when he was upset. Most of the dents in the wall were made by objects chucked around in fits of frustration.
Every so often, Dan would let his eyes wander towards the clock hanging near the door. While doing the majority of the workload piled upon him by merciless faculty, he was also calculating his time left at home. After a while, he glanced up again. Four twenty-eight. Sighing, he pushed away from the mahogany desk. Scowling in anticipation of the worst, Danny slung a duffel bag of gear onto a shoulder and grudgingly made his way to the staircase leading to the second floor. He took a fortifying breath before entering the door at the end of the hall.
“Isabella.” He called, flicking the light on as he entered. Coming up here made him sick. Dust hung visibly in the air and the entire room smelled of Febreze and ammonia.
The graying woman Daniel was forced to call mother lay sleeping in a neatly made bed. Even while sleeping, she kept her room picturesque. The idea made the blood boil in his veins, so the doorway was as far as he got. Daniel scowled softly before turning the light off and shutting the door rather loudly. God, he hated that room.
He hated that woman.
“Pick up your feet, Casperson! You’ll never get the ball like that!” The portly coach called out attempts on Danny’s nerves; potshots designed to bring out the worst in him.
The team of seventeen had been running for hours, practicing plays. Everyone was dead tired and dragging, yet the coach only seemed to notice how much Dan was slacking. Pasty and red-faced, Hatchner was out on the sidelines, overseeing the plays yet his main concern was making sure that Daniel knew how inadequate he truly was. So far, he’d insulted everything from his stamina to his haircut.
“You’re nothing like your brother. He was my star player!”
That comment struck a nerve.
All around him, he could feel his team fall silent. Of course, they all thought the same but were too afraid of his temper to say anything. Despite himself, Dan felt heat rush into his face. For a split second, everyone was stilled. Even the coach, perhaps sensing he’d gone too far, was silent. Beneath Dan’s skin he felt blood become boiling hot. Common sense shut down, and tunnel vision took over.
When he did move again, Dan sprinted over to the ball lying over ten yards away. He could feel everyone’s surprise, and fear. Just as he felt like his lungs might explode, he reached his mark. He kicked and felt his foot connect perfectly to the black-and-white sphere sending it sailing far above the goal. Gasping and sweating more than ever, Daniel watched the soccer ball fly. Everyone else on the field was equally entranced, staring after it in an amazed silence.
Satisfied with their reaction, he took his leave, scooping up his duffel on the edge of the track. He knew leaving now, an entire half hour before the end of practice, was inexcusable and there would be hell to pay later, but he was finding it hard to care. He was having trouble caring about anything. It could have been the adrenaline, but Daniel felt good, strong.
As he walked, he felt their eyes; sizing him up, comparing him even now to the impossible standards set by his brother. The muscles in his legs were constricting and expanding slowly from the strain and Daniel could only imagine how badly he’d be hurting in the morning. Even now, he was struggling for breath. The last time he’d overexerted himself like this, his walk was more crooked than a zigzag. It had taken the young man an entire week to recover. Still, Daniel was riding on adrenaline and couldn’t care less. He’d shown them all what he was capable of, and felt nothing but pride. They saw him for the first time. Danny Casperson, not just Shane’s little brother.
That was enough of a payoff for him.
Before he could dwell on it anymore, Daniel was home. Autopilot had taken over, guiding him home. Dazedly, Dan dragged himself to his bedroom and into the shower. Beneath the hot water, his thoughts seemed to melt and fade away. Nothing else on his mind, he dressed quickly and seated himself at the wooden desk. A button press brought the old, dinosaur of a television to life, already on the local news channel. The white noise helped block out any unwelcome thoughts.
Hours passed, bringing Danny closer and closer to sleep. He’d been scrawling all over dozens of sheets of paper, continuing the studies he’d abandoned earlier. If he weren’t so tired, he’d be able to recite the dozens of math theorems and postulates that he’d studied today, or any line from “Othello”, Acts I and II. If only he weren’t so tired.
Like many other past nights, Daniel was falling asleep studying by his desk. He barely even registered the story on TV about a fire in Centerstead, the most interesting gossip in this small community since the robbery a few months ago. Instead, he was yawning so much, water blurred his vision, obscuring numbers and letters alike. Bitter thoughts came flooding back, freed by the exhaustion of his mind and body.
Even scarier than remembering the exact conversation verbatim with the transfer student was the way it was making him feel. The thoughts it triggered terrified Dan. Partly because of its nature, and partly because he felt the stinging truth of it.
He couldn’t keep taking the backseat of his own life, letting everyone else decide what’s best for him. Daniel was alive. Is this how he really wanted to live? In the shadow of a legacy that he could never live up to? A deep pain in his chest let him know the answer. Now the only thing left to do is make a change.
That was the lingering thought before sleep took him.
Chapter 3: Chatter
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
In the end, the very end, there was hardly a difference. At lease, that’s what Dustin had decided. What made a person great had little to do with what they did while they were alive. Whether they were worth remembering depended on who was there to remember them when they did something worth remembering. And Dustin was alone.
Even here at work, he was just a waiter, a busboy. A nameless face there to take orders and clean tables. The empty, compassionless smile on his pale lips was worn solely for the sake of the customers. It meant nothing to him and he couldn’t pretend otherwise. When there was no one there, like now, it fell from his face to be replaced with a sad, blank stare. Still, he did what he was asked to do without a single complaint. For example, tonight Dustin was focused completely on cleaning up so he could lock up for the night.
“Thanks so much for your help, Dayton.”
Dustin jumped, eyes widening for a moment. He thought the restaurant had been empty, forgetting about the owner.
“It’s no trouble really.” he replied while looking to the door behind the counter. He visibly relaxed, seeing the familiar face. The shop owner, Mrs. Regasa. His fake smile found its way back to his face.
Time had hunched her back, making her appear even shorter than her already petite four feet. Although she was holding steadily to her perfect health, there was no denying that age was taking its toll slowly. The deep set lines in her face and silvery hair showed her age clearly. And she could never perfectly remember his name.
Still, Dustin couldn’t wish for a better boss.
“I wish I could pay you more, but business just isn’t what it used to be.” A package hung by her side. Leftovers from tonight’s dinner rush, Dustin guessed.
“It’s enough that I can help.” he offered with an meaningless smile and finished wiping down the last table. As he was taking the rag into the back, he offered an automatic, “I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.”
“Wait,” she hurried forward before he could leave, “Take this.” She heaved the package up for him to grab. “It’s the least I can give you.” her sincere smile nearly broke his heart. Well, if he had one left to break.
It wasn’t the money that kept him here overtime, and taking anything from this poor woman just felt wrong to him. A free meal every night is the only thing he ever accepted from his employer. He even rerouted his paychecks back to her. She never said anything, but surely she must have noticed by now. He didn’t need the money anyway.
After saying goodnight and locking the front doors, Dustin was on his way. The crisp air stung at his face, quickly turning his cheeks rosy and making him pull the jacket tighter around his shoulders. Temperatures fell fast around Fairfield though it was only the end of summer. Even the silver chain that hung loosely from his neck felt like ice against his skim. Still, despite the cold, Dustin wasn’t going home.
Or rather, the place he was forced to call home. And the people he was forced to call family.
Just as he thought it, a high chirping sounded from his pocket. Dustin produced a slim phone, ringing to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth. Frowning softly, he flipped it open.
“Dusty? Where are you?” Worry strained every word from the woman’s mouth. “You’re not still working are you?”
“I’m fine, Aunty.” What little emotion he had on his face melted. “Just doing a little more work before closing.” He could care less whether she knew he was lying. She probably could tell anyway. He could almost picture her biting her lip in worry. All fake.
He knew what she really thought.
“Don’t stay out too late, alright? You know your Uncle and I don’t like it when you work late. What about school?”
“It’s nothing to worry about. I’d hate to be a bother to you both.” The last part was an unfair attack on his part, but it felt good to finally say it. Before his Aunt could even begin stammering a reply, he snapped the phone closed and jammed it back into his pocket.
A sigh flew past his lips as he ran a hand through his long hair. It felt like just about ten at night. If he were lucky, his uncle might drink himself into a stupor before midnight. That would be the only safe time to sneak in. After all, he recalled vividly what had happened when he was caught last time.
So off he went, his only thought to get as far away from home as possible. The pack slung across his back was the only thing Dustin really needed. All of the notebooks he wrote in and a few choice selections from his personal library were held in the dark navy pack. Aside from the few precious books, there were a few bottles of water and a fresh change of clothes. After he stayed out the first few times, he learned to always carry supplies so he wouldn’t need to go back to that hellhole. Tonight, he didn’t need to go back.
He never wanted to.
Antoinette’s Park. A sad, rundown park on the outskirts of Fairfield’s resident district. It was way past its prime as proven by the broken swings and rusted slide.
Dustin’s slow pace crunched through dying grass, past the children’s broken playground. The bag slung so carefully over a shoulder was heavy with a comforting weight. He shrugged it higher up.
His eyes alighted on the degrading equipment and creeping vines and asked himself for the thousandth time why he kept coming here. He couldn’t find an answer.
The stars above couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know, yet he found himself looking to them for answers anyway.
A sigh escaped in a cloud. Who knows? Who cared? It was just an old abandoned park in a middle-of-nowhere town. Still, something here resonated with him. He could sympathize. He walked onward. His goal was in sight.
There was a single hill that stood alone and overlooked the entire park. A perfect view. Nicknamed “Stargazer’s Perch”, people used to crowd here to watch the distant lights. That was before.
Where Dustin lay now, no one else has even seen in years. Nature was slowly reclaiming her ground, proof that mankind had receded. If it were possible for a place to die, Antoinette was in her final death throes.
Dustin collapsed at the peak of the hill, some twenty feet above the ground, and flung the hair out of his eyes. From up here, he could see everything in the park, from the worn wooden entrance right to the tree line where the forest began. Everything was in his sight, and somehow that calmed his aching chest.
A moment of calm washed over him, breaking through the barriers he’d put up. Alone, he allowed himself to smile, if only to himself.
Dustin felt a mild dryness in his throat and licked his lips thoughtfully. Without thought, he pulled a lukewarm water from his pack and took a few gulps. Still, he couldn’t shake the unusual feeling settled over him, constricting and suffocating. Although Dustin had no prior experience, he would guess that this is what prey must feel like.
Paranoid, he looked around, half expecting to see a pair of glowing eyes watching from behind a bush. He imagined a gray wolf, lips pulled back in a silent snarl. Suspiciously, he eyed the tree line wearily. He could almost feel someone there, even though he couldn’t see them.
Minutes passed with Dustin sitting tense, ready to run. His eyes began to ache from the strain. He wanted to look away, to be ignorant to whatever was there, but he couldn’t. He was an observer. Ignorance wouldn’t define him.
His vigilance was rewarded. Small bright flames licked their way to the edge of trees. The image of a fierce blaze flashed behind the teen’s eyes and for a moment, Dustin feared being caught in a ring of fire. Eyes wide, he sat paralyzed by the fear.
In that moment, the light disappeared, extinguished by an invisible force though in his mind, it still glowed with a furious intensity. Nervously, he took another gulp of water.
A chirping sound accompanied by harsh vibrations in his pocket meant that his Aunt had recovered enough to redial. Dustin silenced the ringing. For the moment, he was breathing deeply through his teeth, one of his nervous ticks.
A half smile spread across his lips when he realized how hypocritical he was being. “How can I say that I‘m not afraid to die?”
If his mother were here, she’d be laughing at him. Only she could possibly laugh at her son, close to insanity. The smile fell from his face.
Sighing, Dustin dug around the bottom of his pack until his fingers closed around a bottle. Did the pills help? No.
But it eased the pain for a while. That was enough.
Just as he was gulping down a sip of water, a flash of white caught his attention. At the forest’s edge, two figures emerged. One was the pale haired transfer, the gold of his hair glowing slightly in the slight moonlight. The other looked to be his father, though you wouldn’t guess by the way Vens was holding himself. Although they were still a considerable distance away, the tense silence between them was obvious.
Dustin had to remind himself to stay neutral. People didn’t care what an outcast like him had to say. He was an observer anyway. Between school and work, all Dustin even wanted to do was be alone. Although his teachers all agreed that he was a failure, when he was away from the madhouse of school, he tried. On a few occasions, he’d seen a few of his teachers while he was working or reading. He’d always greeted them politely, with a smile and they’d scuttle away, noses in the air.
Nothing could change the way they thought of him. Dustin was always going to be the failure that everybody gave up on.
So Dustin left it alone. Sometimes it was better to be ignored. Vens and his father could work it out, and it looked like whatever light that had sparked within the woods was gone now. There was no reason to be concerned, and Dustin was getting hungry.
Eager fingers dove into the tentative knot in the bag’s handles and brought forth the take out container filled with the night’s leftovers.
Stars filled Dustin’s vision as he leaned back on his hands, tilting his head toward the dark blanket overhead. For a moment, he was at ease, perfectly content and at peace. It felt like he could almost forget the reaper hanging above his head.
As the feeling of internal peace left, Dustin slipped back into reality. Without any thought, he knew that the two strangers were still present. With a wry smile, he crunched on a spring roll. Bland. He forced himself to swallow. The soup in a takeout bowl was still warm and tasted strongly of autumn. Dustin ate all of it, despite the vegetables.
Below, at the base of the hill, Vens could be seen with a deep scowl. His father could be heard, furiously ranting about danger and suspicion. He seemed overly protective of something that seemed like an empty load. Still, it wasn’t Dustin’s place to judge.
As the minutes passed in near silence, their one-sided conversation wound down. Vens‘ father had slowed down, and lowered his voice immensely. As the tense silence returned, he walked away with a slight limp, barely noticeable in the dark. Vens hung around with a scowl for a minute longer and followed at a crawling pace.
It could have been any other night that the two outsiders visited the forlorn park, but it had to be the one night that Dustin was actually there. As the teen turned his head back to watch the blonde leave, the sharp ringing of Beethoven wailed loudly in the silence. In one motion, he drew it out and flipped it open. But it was too late. Vens, who had still been skulking around had heard the tone and looked up at the peak. Dustin met his suspicious stare with a blank one.
“Dustin Blake.” he answered simply.
“When are you coming home?” Blunt. Sour. It was his uncle.
“I’m over at a friends house.” His eyes flickered to
“Next time let me know.” Click.
A right ray of sunshine, wasn’t he?
Vens had paused, listening, intently focused on the darker boy. Reluctantly, Dustin met his eyes. A long moment passed in silence. Eventually Vens left, leaving Dustin alone again.
Then again, he was always alone.
Chapter 4: Dawn
“Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse. Whoever makes the fewest people uneasy is the best bred in the room.”
The lunchroom was abuzz with the meaningless chatter of school, making Vens’ headache worsen. The dull pounding did nothing to ease the feeling of dread in his chest. He gave up on trying to force down the tasteless mush in front of him and put his head on the cafeteria table.
“Still alive, huh?”
Dustin slid into the seat across him, making Vens raise his head. He leaned on a fist and eyed the other boy wearily.
“Yeah, I’m hanging in there.” he responded slowly, voice slightly scratchy from a restless night. “I’ll live,” he added dryly.
Dustin crunched a bite off an apple in hand and smiled.
“Sleep well?” He blinked innocently and smiled, sickly sweet. Behind the façade, Vens saw a certain dark intelligence in his eyes, burning like a black flame. So he wasn’t hallucinating last night at the park. But if that was true, then did Dustin see what he’d done? Suddenly, the air in the cafeteria became icy. He forced himself to unclench the fist under the table.
“Fine.” He replied, in what he hoped was a normal voice. “What about you.”
Dustin shrugged and took another bite, speaking while chewing. “I’ve slept better.”
Vens was doubtful of that, but decided that if Dustin knew something he shouldn’t, then he wouldn’t show it. Fine. So be it. Vens had his own secret knowledge.
“Hey, do you have a pencil?”
Vens looked up, confused. “What?”
“I read somewhere that if you ask someone that doesn’t like you to borrow a pencil, psychologically, it’ll make them like you more.” He explained with a crooked smile. “I figured I’d test it out.”
Vens rolled his eyes, but pulled a spare pencil out.
“Personally, I hate when people ask for pencils; they never return them.” He couldn’t help but smirk, though, and that left no room for any argument on his part.
“Well, I’ll be going then,” Dustin gave a mock salute with the borrowed pencil. He gave a sly wink, “Careful with those nasty burning habits there, Fairfax.”
Vens stared with wide eyes as he turned and left, and continued staring even after he’d pushed past the dual doors guarding the entrance. How stupid was he? Mentioning something so dangerous in such a public place! If anyone were to find out…there would be hell to pay.
“So that’s one order of orange chicken, one order of spring rolls, one side of noodles, two sides of fried rice, and two medium sodas.”
Vens nodded his assent, and the cashier punched out a receipt. This is where Dustin worked? A shabby, mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant? Not bad. Maybe this is where he’s been going during school.
“Sir?” The cashier repeated. He must have zoned out. “Thirteen fifty-four?”
“Sorry, right.” He pulled out a twenty and left the change. The chair near the register was worn, but soft, despite the hard casing. Opposite the entrance, a large fish tank spanned the entire wall. It contained all sorts of colorful, exotic fish, with decorative fins and shiny scales. Vens sat entranced for a minute, watching the domesticated creatures swim back and forth. How did they feel when they left their homeland? All their family and mates must be missing them.
“What’s up, Fairfax?”
“Dinner.” Vens replied dryly, gesturing to the take out in the dark boy’s hand. “Steven wanted Chinese tonight so I recommended this place.”
“You must’ve explored a lot the other day.” Dustin commented in an amused tone. “Then again, it is a pretty small town, Fairfield. Maybe you only needed a day to see everything.”
“It’s smaller than what I’m used to.” Vens admitted with a shrug. He accepted the paper bag of food. “Centerstead was my home for seventeen years; I can’t say I don’t miss it.”
“Well of course you do.” Dustin replied in a harsh voice. Vens looked up to see a strange shadow cross his face, leaving him icy and detached. His hands, one with a rag, rested on his thin hips.
“Hey…” Vens watched him carefully; did he just touch a nerve? “Are you alright?”
Dustin ignored him. “Have you ever seen a mother cat?”
The blonde said nothing; whatever he said, he had a feeling that this guy wouldn’t even hear it.
“It would do anything to protect it’s kittens. That’s only natural; they’re her children and she loves them.” His eyes flashed morosely. “I once saw the exact opposite happen.”
“I had a cat when I was only a few years old. Her name was Rosa, a responsibility thrown at me by my bastard father.” The bitterness was clear in his voice. “He got her from a breeder, but she was pregnant when she came to me. I think she knew, and she was miserable about it.”
Vens could only listen, transfixed by the tale unfolding.
“Every night, she would go outside, trying to kill her unborn child. Have you ever seen anything like that? It’s sickening.” A heavy sigh slid from his lips. “She failed in her attempts, and a child was born.”
“What happened to it?” Vens was hesitant to ask, but Dustin looked like he might not continue.
“Hey, Dus, quit chatting and get back to work,” The girl behind the register nagged and chewed noisily on her gum. Thankful for the interruption, Dustin turned with a distracted nod.
“What happened to it?” Vens repeated, half-following him to the back room.
Dustin shrugged without facing him. “I turned out just fine.”
Oh god. What had he done? Maybe it was just a dream, something he only wished he’d done. It was just the hype of the fire. It must have been. It broke out near the science lab, so there must’ve been some kind of chemical in the smoke that messed with his head. Daniel wasn’t someone who’d do something like that. Yeah, he hated his brother, it was a normal sibling thing. But he would never wish him dead.
Some sleep, that’s what he needed. When he wakes up, everything will be alright; normal, boring. Something like this…it just wasn’t possible. A dream, right? Yeah, and when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll go down the hall to his brother’s room and prove to himself that everything’s fine.
When Daniel woke up again, it wasn’t even close to morning. It was sometime past midnight, with his cell phone near his head, ringing incessantly. He groaned lightly and picked up.
“Sir, this is Doctor Luis Barteu.” All business. Something was definitely wrong, and Danny could tell. His stomach dropped and he sat up in the dark. “Can you confirm your relationship with a Shane Casperson?”
Danny glanced at a digital clock in the corner; one in the morning. “Yeah, he’s my brother. Is something wrong? Did something happen to him?” He fought to keep his voice even, clinging to the hope that something else - anything else - was wrong.
“There’s been an accident.” There was a shuffling of papers as the doctor consulted his chart. “It appears that he took a terrible fall at school, and nearly died. EMT’s rushed him to the hospital. We’d like you to come down and sign a few waiver forms for him, he told us about your mother’s condition.”
“Right.” Danny choked out, sweating lightly in the chilled air. “How is he?”
“A bit muddled at the moment, he keeps insisting that he was pushed down the stairs, but won’t tell who he suspects. When the ambulance arrived, there was no one there and your brother was unconscious.”
Danny stopped breathing. It had really happened. Worse still, his brother knew.
“Yeah, I’m here.” He swallowed hard and smiled nervously. “I’ll be there in a little bit.”
As the doctor rattled off directions, Danny scribbled distractedly, wishing more than anything that his brother would forget. Go into a coma. Become a mute. Anything. This would ruin him if his brother told anyone. As he hung up and pulled on clothes hurriedly, there were darker thoughts in the back of his mind; thoughts of what he could do to ensure silence.
With a final glance at the clock (one thirty now) he grabbed a coat and the keys to the silver Volvo parked in the driveway.
Chapter 5: Edgy
“I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in various degrees of hatred, paranoia, and abandonment. However much of that gets heaped upon you doesn’t matter - it’s only a matter of how much you can take and what it does to you.”
All around the emergency room, there was a continuous buzz of urgency. It’s only to be expected at Mercy Hospital, the only sanatorium for at least a hundred miles. They were understaffed, and anyone brave enough to work here was overworked. Some of the locals nicknamed it Hell’s Mercy, for obvious reasons.
Danny fought traffic in the tight parking lot for over half an hour before pulling into a stall on the far end. The overbearing feeling of unease intensified with each step he took. It felt like he was walking to his own execution.
The emergency room, which connected to the Intensive Care Unit, was full to bursting. Danny entered and was immediately brushed off by the head nurse, who was on the phone. She nodded distractedly and rattled off a short description of a patient. Scribbling furiously, she smoothed her hair and greeted him with an exhausted, “Yes?”
“Shane Casperson?” Danny was unsure of himself, like he was signing his own death certificate. Any minute now, he could be sent to jail. He’d watched enough crime dramas to know that anything could be used as proof.
“Down the corridor, take a right to the ICU, and he’s on the left.” She clicked some keys on her keyboard and rustled through other files on her desk. She looked up to the person behind Danny, “Yes?”
Throughout the hospital, equal scenes of chaos could be seen: doctors rushing between rooms while skimming through clipboards, and nurses wheeling bloody and bandaged patients into and out of the ICU. Danny barely kept his scarce dinner down when the smell of fresh blood and antiseptics hit him.
“Nurse, more morphine.” The doctor read the clipboard attached to a bed. The patient, Shane, lay unconscious and slightly bloodied. As the doctor was turning away, Danny walked up to the bed.
“Oh my god.” He couldn’t help himself from gasping out.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor assured him with a dismissive wave, “He’s being moved into a room tomorrow, his condition’s stabilized.”
A nurse rushed through with a fresh bag of morphine and quickly replaced it before moving on down the line. The doctor walked away, sipping a lukewarm Styrofoam cup of coffee. Didn’t anyone care that it was his brother right there?
“Daniel?” A soothing voice interrupted the chaos around him. “I’m going to have to ask you to sign some paperwork.”
“Right.” Numbly, he allowed himself to be steered to the waiting area in the adjacent lobby. As the nurse busied herself with the forms, he stared blankly at the television mounted in the corner. A cookie cutter newscaster spoke to the camera about some kind of emergency. Most would see this as a horrible evening. Danny just thought it was a bad draw. Life was a cruel dealer.
As the image on the screen changed, Danny jumped. On screen now was an image from the high school down the road. So that part was real as well? He’d hoped the fire was imagined, or a product of his own fevered mind. As it seems, lady luck was playing with his mind and slipping cards out of her sleeves. Jeez, why did he have to go to school yesterday?
“Casperson?” He looked up, “You’re brother’s awake. I’ll escort you to his room. He’s been asking for you.”
Danny’s heart jumped. He knew; that had to be it. Why else would he want to see him right now?
The room was perfectly white, complete with a vase of a bright collection of flowers. When the nurse shut the door behind him, it felt as if the room were vacuum-sealed. Danny had ridiculous trouble taking a single breath, and refused to take another step into the room.
At the window, his brother had pulled up a chair and was staring out at the grounds. In the fluorescent glow of the hospital light, Shane, who was dressed in a pure white, looked like some sort of broken angel. Even the honey colored hair that adorned his crown looked so much like a halo.
“So you finally made it.” Shane turned his head to the right, staring at his younger brother from his peripheral vision. He took his time, weighing his words carefully. Danny wished he’d just hurry up and get to the point, even though his stomach twisted sickeningly.
Shane got up and stretched thoughtfully, still staring into the darkness from the window. His reflection was distorted and Danny couldn’t tell what kind of expression his older brother wore. Anger? Concern? Worry? Scariest of all, disappointment?
“Why’d you ask for me?” He asked when the silence got to be too much to bear.
“As if you don’t know.” Those words made the air heavier.
“What are you talking about?” Danny asked, shuffling nervously where he stood.
“I know what you did.” Shane turned to face his brother with a piercing stare. “I don’t know why, but I know you did it. I know why I’m here.”
Danny turned away from the stare, looking at the vase of flowers on the nightstand. The roses were in bloom. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do.” Shane ran a tired hand through his dirty blonde hair. “Look, I’m not telling anyone. But don’t stand there and lie to me. I know you pushed me. I know it was you.”
Danny closed his eyes tightly and turned away, grabbing the door handle. His knuckles turned white.
“I’m your older brother, Danny. I’m not going to tell anyone what you did.” Because I’m the bigger person. Because I’m a better person than you are.
Danny heard the unspoken words in his tone. He left the room without a word, and the drive home had never seemed so long.