Near and Far
Page 25

 Nicole Williams

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“Damn. How did you get so smart?” I stood up feeling like the epiphany dump had put me in need of some fresh air.
Alex hopped down from the counter. “Making a bunch of mistakes.”
“If that’s the measure of a person’s smartness, I should be a regular Einstein and a half.”
“Okay, well I lived and I learned.”
My brows came together. “Are you implying I haven’t?”
Alex paused on her way down the hallway, probably heading for Sid’s office. “We’ll see.” She gave me a small smile before—yep—rounding into Sid’s office and closing the door.
I was going to need that fresh air for more than one reason.
Grabbing the trash with one hand, I carried the old doughnuts in my other and break-necked for the back door. It was still raining, but at least it’d slowed to a drizzle. Between the events of the past twenty-four hours, the rain, and sheer exhaustion, I couldn’t go another step. The dumpster wasn’t even ten feet away, but it might as well have been ten miles. I was spent.
Setting down the garbage bag, I leaned into the brick wall and tried to calm my mind. Confusion had set in, and it was moving fast, its contagion spreading. Even standing became too much. After dropping to the ground, I buried my head between my knees and focused on breathing. For no solid reason I could point to, my world felt like it was crumbling, piece by piece. Either I needed to get a concentrated dose of Midol injected in my ass or get a solid eight hours of sleep and wake up feeling normal. Or normal for me, at least.
“Where have you been all week?”
As yet another sign that I was a mess, I barely even flinched when that strange voice hollered at me. I rubbed my eyes before looking up. No tears, but they’d been close. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me to see the homeless woman from last week coming toward me, but it did. I’d almost convinced myself she and what she’d said had all been a hallucination.
“Girlie? Did you hear me?”
“Spring break. I was in Montana.” My voice was robotic, and my movements felt the same.
“Doing what?” The woman stopped in front of me. The expectation in her eyes told me what she was looking and hoping for. I held out the box of doughnuts. She snatched the box out of my hands, backed into the wall, and was one doughnut in before I’d worked up a reply.
“Seeing my boyfriend. Seeing his family and friends, too.” A heavy dose of home sickness stabbed at me. I loved my life in Seattle, but I never longed for it or ached for it like I did Willow Springs.
“How was it?” she asked around a jelly doughnut.
I didn’t know why I was sitting there having a semi-personal conversation with a homeless person who had scared the crap out of me, but I needed to talk to someone. Thankfully, she seemed to be firmly back in her rocker.
“Great. I had an amazing week.”
She finished the rest of the jelly doughnut before asking her next question. “Then why are you in an alley all alone looking like you’re about to start crying?”
I literally couldn’t escape perceptive people. Not even in a garbage-ridden alley on the scary side of Seattle. “I’m confused.”
“Confused about what?”
I swallowed. “So many things.”
“Things about your boyfriend?”
“Maybe . . . Yes.” I sighed and scuffed the tip of my boot against the asphalt. “I don’t know.” Those three words summed up my current state of mind. It seemed, after nineteen years of life, I didn’t know shit. I felt like I’d known some yesterday, but today was a whole other story. I didn’t know why I was so upset or why that anxiety had settled over me, and I really didn’t know why I was having a conversation with a stranger. One who ate a box of doughnuts for dinner.
“Excuse me for saying, Girlie,” she started, her eyes boring into mine, “but love doesn’t seem like it should be so confusing. It doesn’t seem like it should be so hard.”
“Why not?” I wasn’t agreeing or disagreeing; the verdict was still out.
“Because it’s love,” she said with a shrug. “It should come easy.”
I sat there a while longer, reeling over what she’d just said. Part of me knew that was true. Another part of me screamed it was a lie. Should love be easy? Or should it be hard? Should it even be either?
In twenty-four hours, my mind had become a giant mass of confusion.
Chapter Thirteen
THE NIGHTMARES WERE coming every night, and what was worse than their frequency was that Rowen has somehow made her way into them. That’s a world and a part of my life I didn’t want her anywhere close to. I’d protect her from it at all costs.
I’d bolted awake last night after a repeat dream. I was in the basement again, chained to the pipe, more animal than boy, but I wasn’t alone. I heard another chain clinking against a pipe across the room. When I saw her, there was no denying it was a young Rowen. She was crying, curled up into a ball, and trembling. No matter how many times I called out to her, or how loud, she didn’t hear me. She didn’t know I was chained on the opposite side of the room from her. Then the basement door opened, and I heard familiar shoes coming down the stairs. When the shoes stopped on the basement floor, they paused. When they started moving again, they weren’t coming my way. They were going toward Rowen. I fought against my restraint so savagely, the leather around my neck rubbed the skin raw. Drops of blood dotted the floor when I heard the first scream come from the other side of the room.
And then, mercifully, I was ripped awake.
THE LAST TWO weeks were long. Partly because I hadn’t seen Rowen and partly because I hadn’t slept more than a couple hours a night. What was waiting for me the moment my eyes closed and my brain drifted off made me force myself to stay awake. My first five years of life, I’d done the opposite because any dream world was an improvement.
Rowen and I’d talked every day since she left at the end of spring break, but she seemed different. A bit removed or preoccupied.
Or maybe her seeming removed and preoccupied had nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. I certainly wasn’t the carefree Jesse everyone was used to, although I tried to play the part. Most people accepted the facade, but a few—my mom, Lily, and Josie—saw through it. They’re too perceptive, and part of me was irritated by that. And part of me was grateful because I knew if and when I did need to talk to someone about my reincarnated demons, I’d have someone. Of course Rowen was the person I’d go to first with anything. . . but not that. I didn’t want her in that world. She’s been through so much, and it was my job to protect her from any more darkness.
So, yeah, the last two weeks had been bad, but things were looking up. The next day was Friday, and I had the weekend off to go visit Rowen. I would work through whatever was going on in my head, Rowen would be none the wiser, and everything would be just fine.
It sounded easy enough, but I knew doing it would be the opposite.
The afternoon chores were done, and I was up in my attic bedroom changing into fresh clothes. After Jolene had stumbled in on me three different times while I was changing in the laundry room, Mom and I decided my bedroom might be a better place to change. At least until Jolene learned to knock.
After clasping my belt into place, I grabbed my wallet out of my dirty pants. I was about to slide it into my back pocket when I paused. For months, I couldn’t go longer than an hour without checking to make sure it was still there. Then I’d gone months without checking. I couldn’t even recall the last time I’d checked to make sure it was still tucked into the last card slot of my wallet. I had a sudden urge to check. That unsettled me. A lot. The frantic feeling jolting through me was foreign, yet familiar. I’d lived that frantic feeling in a past life. I didn’t want to live, or even revisit, it in this life.
I inhaled as I opened my wallet. Slipping my little finger into the last slot, I slid it along the bottom. My throat went dry. I slid my finger back again, making sure I hadn’t missed it. Surely it was still in there. After sliding my finger back and forth a couple dozen times, I emptied the entire contents of my wallet. Maybe it had fallen into a different slot. My driver’s license, a few dollar bills, and a photo of Rowen fell to the floor. My wallet dropped beside the mess a moment later.
Hitching my hands on my hips, I scanned my room. It wasn’t meticulous, but it was clean by guy standards. Something that small could be anywhere though: buried in the floor planks, hidden between the sheets of my bed, hiding beneath my boots in the closet. It could have been anywhere, but I didn’t unleash a full-fledged search and rescue because I knew it wasn’t there. I could feel it. Or I suppose what was more true was that I couldn’t feel it.
The connection between myself and an inanimate object making itself known again terrified me more than any of my nightmares. Unlike the nightmares, that was real. That was happening. I was feeling a familiar pang of obsession, my heart racing as I grew more frantic, feeling an actual connection to something I didn’t want to feel a connection to.
If ever a person could regress so quickly, it was me. Weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed it, but there I was living it.
I didn’t know how long I stood in my room, inhaling and exhaling, trying to fight back the feelings crashing over me like waves, one right after the other. But I failed. Nothing could pull me off the runaway train I was on, at least not yet.
The next night, though . . . the next night, I’d be with Rowen. If anything or anyone could get my mind off of it and give me some clarity, it would be her. I’d be okay. Tomorrow, things would be so much better.
Having no other assurances to give myself, I put my wallet back together, slid it into my back pocket, and left my room. I had an hour before dinner, and I was going to use it to clear my head. In Rowen’s absence, the best substitute was saddling up Sunny and tearing through a few miles of countryside.
I was just shoving through the front door when Dad called me into his office.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?” I hovered inside the office doorway, trying to sound and look like carefree Jesse Walker.
“I was just talking to your mom, and she mentioned you were planning on heading to Seattle for the weekend.” Dad slid off his hat and dropped it on the desk. “Is that right?”
I nodded. “That’s right. I figured I’d leave as soon as we finished up tomorrow afternoon.” Just thinking about spending the next night with Rowen beside me calmed me. Not all the way, but enough so I felt like I could breathe again.
Dad sighed. “I was afraid of that. It’s probably my fault for not coming out and saying it, but, Jess . . . this is calving season. I know it’s early this year thanks to the warm weather, but nonetheless, this is when I need you most, son. It’s go time now through the end of summer, and after fifteen years of this, you know there’s no such thing as days, let alone weekends, off.” Dad’s hard words were softened by his voice and expression, but still . . .
“Wait. What? Are you saying I can’t leave to see Rowen tomorrow?” That’s what it had sounded like, but in my current state, I needed everything spelled out.