Collision Course, Page 2S. C. Stephens
The First Day of the Rest of My Life
Three months after that fateful night, when September came round, my external wounds had healed but my insides were still a mess. My mom told me repeatedly that I could enroll in another school; that I didn't have to go back to the memories awaiting me there. The memories and the gossip.
The town we lived in was a small one and the crash and the subsequent deaths had been "page one" news every day since then. Speculation on my mental state as I was driving away from that party was the number one thing discussed. The freakish rainstorm that had momentarily drowned the county that night was irrelevant to the townies. They'd almost instantly proclaimed me a "drunk", claiming I'd all but murdered my friends myself, near-purposely plunging the car over the cliff.
Even though no physical evidence supported that theory, and even though I'd been tested at the hospital and cleared of any mind altering substances, there were few in the town who actually believed that. Luckily for me, I guess, my mother was a part of that tiny crowd. I suppose she was predisposed to believe the best of me though.
As the threat of school loomed closer and I was struck with thoughts of leaving the safety of my home, where I'd been recovering in body, if not in soul, I started having panic attacks that doubled me over and left me unable to fully breathe. That was when my mom offered to drive me fifteen minutes away to the next closest high school, just so I wouldn't have to tolerate the scrutiny.
I almost took her up on it, especially when I ran into Darren's younger brother one day on one of the rare occasions that I left my property. Darren's brother Josh was one year younger than us, just starting his junior year. He and Darren had been close and he'd idolized his big brother. He'd often hung out with us and had almost gone with us that tragic night. In fact, he would have been in the back seat with Darren and Sammy if he hadn't been grounded for sneaking out of the house the night before.
He hadn't said much to me when I ran into him on the sidewalk outside of the only movie theater in town. He'd been exiting from a show with his girlfriend when his dark eyes had locked onto mine. They'd immediately narrowed in anger and, since hot-headedness ran in that family, he'd walked right up to me and slugged me. I could have taken him, he was even shorter and scrawnier than his brother, but I had no desire to fight him. I sort of agreed with his anger. I sort of hated me too.
His girlfriend had dragged him away from me when he looked like he wanted to start wailing on me. Reluctantly, he let her pull him away, but he screamed vile things at me the entire time he left. "You fucking bastard! You should have died! You fucking drunk! I hate you! I fucking hate you!" He went on and on with stuff like that until he was finally out of earshot.
Like I said, that was almost enough to convince me that a change of stomping grounds was in order. But I couldn't. I couldn't do that to my mom. She already worked two jobs to make sure she and I had enough to eat and a place to stay. I couldn't burden her further by making her go thirty minutes out of her way, twice a day, every day, to drop me off and pick me up from school. And driving myself wasn't an option. I didn't drive anymore. . . ever.
It was just the two of us after my dad left her when I was three. I have no idea where he went or if he even thought about us. Truly, I didn't think much about him and Mom never really talked about him. Really, it was only when father and son events popped up that I was even reminded that children were supposed to have a mother and a father. Mom and I did just fine, and that felt one hundred percent normal to me.
So with a heavy heart, I told her no, told her that I'd endure the ridicule and curious stares and go back to Sheridan High to finish my senior year of school. One more year and then I could leave this town to start college somewhere far away from the flood of memories. One more year. I could give my mom that.
"Luc, the bus will be here in a couple minutes. " My mom turned to face me in the kitchen, her green-brown eyes narrowed in concern for her only child. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you, honey?"
My mom had been a beautiful woman in her youth, but her life had been a hard one and she was a little run down from it. Her face was always a little haggard looking, her eyes always a little tired, her cheeks always a little sunken, her pale skin always a little ashen and her 'too early for only being forty-five' gray-streaked, light brown hair, always looked a little lifeless in the hasty ponytail she always pulled it back into. And this morning, she looked even more worn.
The catastrophe hadn't been easy for her either. She adored all of them: Darren was a second son, Sammy an adopted daughter and Lil - I think mom was already picturing picking out baby clothes for the grandchild Lil would most certainly give her. But none of those aches compared to the ache of almost losing her own child, of being that close. That scare had left permanent worry lines deep in her features.
I kissed a streak of gray on her scalp. "Yes, Mom. I'm sure. This will be bad enough without my mommy dropping me off. "
She sighed sadly and clasped my large hand in her small ones. The gaze in her eyes held a look that I'd seen all too often in the past few weeks. She was drinking me in, absorbing me, in case she didn't ever see me again. I always let her do this. No matter how long she needed to do it.
Her eyes started on my hair, brown and wavy and longer on the top than she approved of, then she skipped down to my jaw line, smooth for the first time in weeks, since I'd actually shaved this morning. She glossed over my other features and settled on my eyes, an exact duplicate of her hazel shade.
She smoothed out my black t-shirt and reached behind her to hand me my letterman's jacket. Her eyes drifted over the large letters of our last name - West - the only thing my father had given me really. She nodded slightly as she watched me slip the jacket on. Her sad eyes traveled back up to mine and a sad smile to match it played on her lips. "Have a good day, Luc. "
I swallowed and nodded back at her, attempting a smile of reassurance but I'm sure failing miserably. "Thanks, Mom. " I kissed her head again and headed out the front door.
My mother watched me as I stood outside in the light drizzle of the morning rain. I saw her hand pulling back the flimsy lace curtain in the kitchen and saw the shadow of her face as she watched over me, protecting me with her vision and I'm sure multiple silent prayers. I turned back to watch the road.
As the raindrops picked up strength, my eyes lingered on one spot of the pavement, where a small puddle was starting to form in a dip in the sidewalk. I watched that puddle, mesmerized. Drops plunged heavily into the small circle of water, splashing the edges out further with each steady drip. Within moments there was a half inch of depth in that puddle. In my mind, the puddle suddenly became a huge lake on the surface of the now vast sidewalk. In my mind, cars flew over that lake, none of them having an issue with the depth of the water as their tires broke waves into the surface. Then, suddenly, I was driving Darren's Geo across that lake, and almost the instant the tires hit that water, I started losing control. I also started having trouble breathing.
A horn was blaring at me. Still lost in my vision, I imagined my hand on the wheel, holding down the horn as I attempted to right the floundering car. Someone was yelling. . . or were they screaming? Always so much screaming. I felt myself hunch over, my breath even weaker. A touch on my shoulder startled me. I looked over to my mother's worried face, droplets of rain running down her cheeks, like tears. Still confused, I wondered what she was doing crying in Darren's car.
"Are you okay, Lucas?" she asked as she touched my face.
"Is he getting in or not?"
A harsh voice snapped me completely back to reality. I looked up at a surly bus driver staring at me grumpily and I realized he'd been laying on the horn and yelling at me while I'd been. . . confused. I glanced over the windows of the bus and noticed more than a few students laughing at me. Great.
"I'm fine, Mom," I muttered as I gave her a quick hug and slunk into the bus
Everyone was staring at me as the doors closed and the bus started pulling away. The spectacle on the sidewalk wasn't the only reason why either. It wasn't just that an upperclassman was on the bus and not driving himself to school. It wasn't just that I took the first empty seat and didn't acknowledge any of them. It was because they all knew who I was, even the freshman. I was famous. . . for the worst possible reason.
Sheridan was a small town in Oregon and Sheridan High was even smaller. The entire high school consisted of about three hundred people, and that was a high estimate. A lot of the people had known and liked my friends. Everyone on the bus knew my story. Everyone on the bus had an opinion on my story. Some were quiet about it. . . others, not so much.
From behind where I sat in the front row, I clearly heard, "Yeah, I heard he pounded a dozen beers and could barely see straight, let alone drive. " I clenched my jaw as the crystal clear words hit me; they weren't even trying to hide the fact that they were talking about me. In an equally loud voice, someone beside the first person answered with, "Oh yeah, I heard Darren tried to take the keys away, but he threatened to knock him out cold if he did. "
I fisted my hands and closed my eyes as tears started to fill them. They were so wrong. . . they all had everything so wrong. But nothing I said was going to change their opinion, of me or the night in question. I gritted my teeth and pictured Darren in the seat beside me, turning around and blowing up at them in my defense, like I knew he would have. I pictured Sammy sitting beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder to try and calm him down, and even though a part of me didn't want to, even though it hurt like hell, I pictured Lillian placing her warm hand in mine, squeezing it tight and whispering how much she adored me, urging my fist to relax.
The babbling behind me didn't stop however, and those tears in my eyes were threatening to spill down my cheeks. I pushed away the painful image of my friends and the vicious words behind me. To block out everything, I started humming in my head. I could do this. I could give my mom one year and then I'd leave this nightmare. . . physically at least.
I managed to ignore the humdrum that way for the rest of the bus ride. It couldn't have been more than a ten minute ride, but it felt like hours. When the bus pulled in front of the school and I glanced over at the two girls sitting in the front seat across from me, I realized my mental humming had switched to actual humming and they were regarding me like I was even more of a mental case. I sighed and then shut up.
The hydraulics of the bus screeched as it lurked to a stop and the door immediately squeaked open. I flew out of my seat and out that door, wanting to be away from the bad-mouthers behind me before I did something really stupid. A few feet away from the bus, I stopped and stared.
Sheridan High. Not exactly an impressive Ivy League school, but it was intimidating the hell out of me anyway. As we lived in what would be considered by most a "rural" area, the school wasn't overly large or overly fancy. It mainly consisted of a boring two-story rectangular building that someone in the architectural world had tried to fancy up with a façade of brick outlining the double doors of the entryway and underscoring every window.
It wasn't the most put together work though and on occasion those bricks would chip apart or even come loose and pop off all together. In fact, the third brick from the left, on the bottom fourth window, was frequently used as a spot to store your stash, since that brick was completely removable but still seemed perfectly intact unless you touched it. The brick underneath it had eroded into a concave shape creating a perfect little hole. Darren had nabbed a few bags of pot out of there once, probably from some upperclassman that had needed a quick hiding place. It was a pretty discreet spot; I have no idea how he'd found out about it.
Aside from that oddity, the rest of the building was horridly plain. The building next to it was equally austere. It was a squatty square with faded gray paint and windows large enough for three people to crawl out of at the same time, if they had the desire to, which, I had a feeling I frequently would this year. It was the room we were all shepherded into to eat the food the school district was considering a nutritious lunch. It was also the room where Lil and I had kissed for the first time - I mean really kissed; not the playful, momentary lip on lip action that she loved to give me sporadically throughout the day, even before we were a couple. No, the let's get down to business and connect on a molecular level kiss. A kiss that had left me breathless and wanting more, and had probably started the whole process of falling for her.
I was jostled from behind and snapped out of my painful memories by students meandering through the campus on their way to another year of dreary school life. The rain had stopped on the short ride over, but a dampness clung to the air and I shivered in my jacket. I started walking with the herd, keeping my head down, watching the grass poking up through cracks in the pavement. I adjusted my backpack on my shoulder and thrust my hands in my jeans pockets, for a moment feeling invisible in the school that I was sure wasn't excited to see me. That thought was confirmed when from behind me I heard:
I don't know why, but I instinctively turned to look. I probably shouldn't have, but then again, this was probably going to happen if I looked or not. A rock the size of my thumb whizzed through the air and smacked me right in the temple. Focusing so hard on not focusing on anything, I hadn't been fast enough to avoid it, and man, it stung. I brought a hand to my head and felt the blood next to my eye. Great.
"Learn some reflexes, alchy," Josh sneered at me, standing a few feet away with an assortment of laughing friends around his age. He was wearing a slightly too big letterman's jacket that matched mine, and I briefly wondered if he'd finally made the varsity team for football this year; Darren had been helping him for his tryout before the wreck, so we could all be on the team together.
Pulling my eyes from his clothes, I moved up to his face. His dark eyes danced as he waited for me to get angry and attack him. He'd probably love that. I knew he blamed me for his brother. I knew he hated me because he assumed, like everyone else, that I'd been wasted. I turned and walked away. As I was turning, I watched his lean body start to quiver with anger. He was itching for it. . . bad.
"Coward!" he yelled behind me and I shut my eyes, ignoring him. One more year.
I ducked into the main building and immediately turned right. Weaving my way through the loitering crowds that had noticed the incident outside and had definitely noticed me now, I tried my best to ignore the hiss of whispers as I walked past various people that I had gone to school with for years. Even still, I caught pieces as I hurried along.
"Did you hear . . . chugging beers. . . Lillian tried to stop. . . puking as he got in. . . never should have. . . always drunk. . . loser. . . "
I made myself ignore the stares and the buzzing current of talk that followed me up the hall, and forcefully shoved the door into the restroom open. Feeling my breath start to weaken, I hunched over the sink and rested my head against the cool surface of the mirror. I worked on calming the breath that I could feel getting fainter and fainter.
It was like these people I'd grown up with, suddenly didn't know me at all. I was never the one who got wasted and threw up everywhere. Anyone who'd ever partied with me, at least before that night, would have confirmed that to you in a heartbeat. I was the one that held back, that "reluctantly" drank and usually stopped at two. It just wasn't my thing. It was Darren's. He was the one that loved getting buzzed and usually tried to pull me along for his ride. I generally didn't follow him though. In fact, I'd only been "drunk" once in my life. . . and it had been a bad enough experience that I'd never felt the need to duplicate it.
But these people. . . You'd think I was the poster child for substance abuse.
I looked up when my lungs felt clearer. The face looking back at me in the mirror was almost unrecognizable to me. Not because of the small cut right at the edge of my eyebrow that was leaving a trail o
f blood nearly down to my cheek. No, the face was foreign because it looked. . . older; like a summer of grief and guilt and anger and. . . everything else, had aged me at least a decade.
I splashed some cold water on my face, cringing as it entered my torn skin, and gently wiped away the blood and the trace amount of dirt on me. Looking back up at my dripping face, I ran a hand down it and choked back the sudden, overwhelming feeling of absolute despair that had snuck up on me.
"Are you gonna cry?"
A soft voice made me spin around and there sitting on the floor at the far end of the room next to the stalls was. . . a girl. She must be new this year since I'd never seen her before, and in a school this size, you ran into everyone at least once. She had jet black hair pulled into almost childlike pigtails and was calmly picking at a thread of fabric in her ripped jeans. Her eyes, an odd gray color (odd in relation to her super dark hair), regarded mine with a look that was somewhere between amused and concerned. She jerked her thumb towards the door, a silver ring on it flashing in the lights. "I could leave if you want?"
Surprise at seeing a girl in the men's room, who obviously had been here awhile, lightened my mood. I twisted my lips like I'd been nowhere near breaking down, which of course I had been. "No, I'm not going to. . . cry. Guys don't do that. " I emphasized 'guys' just in case she wasn't aware she was lurking in the men's room, although the urinals really couldn't have been fooling her.
She raised one edge of her lip. "Right. . . " Cocking her head she pointed to where I'd been injured, a slight red welt was still with me. "What happened, West?"
I opened my mouth to tell her 'nothing' when what she'd called me registered in my brain. I cocked my head right back at her. "How did you know my name?"
She started laughing and the sound echoed around the tiled room, filling it with a certain merry-like music. She didn't answer me, only shook her head lightly, like I was the cutest, most oblivious thing she'd ever seen. That's when it hit me and I'm sure I must have turned bright red as stupidity flowed right through me. Yeah, my name wasn't exactly hard to decipher when it was sprawled in four inch high letters across my back. Thanks to this damn jacket that every member of the football team wore, as a symbol of unity, or something, everyone within a block of me knew my name. I mentally decided I wasn't ever wearing it again.
"Right. . . the jacket. "
She laughed a little more as she gazed at me. I noticed her smile was a pleasant one; it seemed to brighten her face under the blackness of that hair. "So. . . " she tried again, "the war wound?" She pointed again at my face.
I looked away and muttered, "Nothing. "
I glanced at her still on the floor and thought she looked about to challenge my answer; pretty bold of her since I didn't know her from Adam. A slight smile came to my lips and I relaxed my stance, only then realizing I was even tense. Her objection died as she noticed me relax as well. Here was one person in the school who wasn't looking at me critically, who wasn't judging me, didn't hate me. Here was one person. . . who didn't know. I frowned. At least, not yet.
She frowned when she saw my expression change and looked about to question me again, but I beat her to it. "Why are you in here?" My hand swung around to indicate the room.
She shrugged and slid up the wall to stand. Her ripped jeans were matched with a long-sleeve shirt and she played absentmindedly with the almost too long sleeves, like she'd stretched out the fabric from her unconscious habit. She shivered a bit and I noticed she didn't have a jacket. "Seemed as good a place as any to hide out. " She shrugged again.
I looked around the room with my eyes. "Interesting choice," I muttered, as I took in the graffiti on the stalls, the water marks on the ceiling, and the telltale signs along the edge of the floor around the urinals that clearly indicated 'men peed here'.
She laughed again at my look. "It was quiet here. No girls at least. " A look crossed her features when she said that that I couldn't quite place. It quickly left her as her calm look returned. "My name is Sawyer. . . if you were ever going to ask. "
"Oh. . . right, hi. " I fumbled around for words while the oddity of her name struck me. I wanted to ask, but didn't want to be rude.
She sighed, interpreting my odd look, and I realized everyone must ask her. "Yes, as is Tom and Huck. My parents are big Twain fans. I suppose it could have been worse. " She shook her head with annoyance clear in her features. The look made her even cuter and I smiled softly at her reaction to her own name.
She sighed again and reached down to grab a faded, olive-colored book bag that didn't look to be holding much of anything. "Well, nice chatting with you, West. See ya around this. . . whopper of a school. "
She opened the door into the much quieter hallway and before she completely disappeared, I called out, "It's Lucas. . . " She vanished so fast, I had no idea if she heard me or not.
I sighed forlornly. The next time I saw her. . . she would know. Someone in this school would feel it was their duty to warn the new girl about the possible psychopath roaming the halls. A bitter note rang through me unexpectedly. As if they were all perfect, as if none of them had ever gotten behind the wheel when they shouldn't have - which isn't even what happened to me. Hypocrites. I sighed again. It had been nice to have someone look me in the eye when they spoke to me and that laugh. . . I hadn't heard a genuine one in ages. Probably since that night.
I wiped the remaining water droplets off my face and then, with a long steadying breath, I opened the door - right as the bell rang. Damn, now on top of everything else. . . I was late.