All the rage, p.27
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       All the Rage, p.27

           T. M. Frazier
 
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  delaying the shock waves from breaching the diner.

  A loud bang. The sickening screech of metal twisting, accordioning in on itself like a can being crushed underfoot. Every head in the diner swivels to look outside, just as a crack of lightning lights up the world in an eerie blue-white flash that lasts but a second.

  A bright red car with a black racing stripe down the middle. It’s on it’s roof, skittering down the road with a horrible scraping sound. It hit something, hard. What did it hit? Not a tree. There aren’t any trees on this stretch of highway, save for a few dying lemon trees that somebody planted out the front of Dana’s Grill years ago and left to try and survive in the blistering hot summers and fatally cold winters that make up our little spot in Northern Nevada.

  Whispers begin to flow through the diner before the car has even skittered to a stop on the tarmac. An accident? Somebody call nine-one-one. What’s going on?

  I drop the change onto the table, missing the guy’s large, oil-stained hand completely. Coins roll in ten different directions, and the guy glares at me, clearly unimpressed.

  I’m not paying attention to him, though. I’m staring at what I think I just saw, what I definitely heard, waiting for another crack of lightning to show me I was imagining things.

  “Hey, you okay?” One of the truckers asks me. He’s wearing one of those baseball caps, the peak so low I can barely see the whites of his eyes as they reflect my horrified expression.

  My mouth is dry. It wasn’t his car. I just spoke to him.

  “My boyfriend drives a Mustang,” I say slowly. An odd taste fills my mouth, and it’s a moment before I realise I’ve bitten the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood.

  “Oh, hell,” the trucker says, putting a hand on my shoulder as a set of headlights roll through the rain on the highway, stopping in front of the wrecked car. I know that car. I’ve driven that car more times than I could count. Candy Apple red, with a black racing stripe. I’ve held it’s parts in my hands, their oily black lifeblood smeared over my skin, and watched as Leo put it back together over several years.

  It’s not him.

  We lived in a small town, and when it wasn’t football season, there was very little to do except sneak away to have sex, and having a car made that so much easier. Hence our rebuilding of the old Shelby Mustang that Leo’s father had somehow acquired but never gotten to fixing. That car was going to take us to our new place, after we finished school. It was going to take us to Vegas so we could get married, the weekend he turned eighteen. It was going to take our first baby home from the hospital in ten years when we were settled and ready to start a family. We might’ve been young, and stupid, but Leo Bentley and I already knew where life was taking us. Life was a candy apple red Shelby Mustang, and it was going places. Places that weren’t Gun Creek.

  I snap out of my inertia as the headlights of the Sheriff’s car stopped in front of the red car up ahead. Tearing my apron off, I drop it on the ground, sprinting for the front doors.

  “Cass?” A voice comes in from my right. Hands fall upon my arms, a face leaning down into mine that I know but can’t place, even though I see it every day.

  “Cassie!” the face yells, and suddenly, two green eyes spring into focus.

  “Leo,” I say to the face.

  Those eyes scrunch up in confusion. “Cassie, what’s going on?”

  I need for him to let go of me. I needed to get to the red car up on the highway to tell myself it isn’t Leo. That it’s anyone except Leo.

  “The car!” I yell, shaking myself free of green eyes’ grip. “It’s a Mustang. Let go of me!”

  Bobby Chalmers. That’s his name. The quarterback of Gun Creek High’s football team. The little kid who pulled a chunk of my hair out in kindergarten. He’s seventeen now, like me. His eyes go wide as he lets me go, and then I’m smacking my shoulder against the heavy double doors at the entrance to Dana’s, leaping off the front steps and almost breaking my neck as I land on icy asphalt. My teeth start chattering almost immediately. It’s below freezing tonight, and the rain is turning yesterday’s snow drifts into pale, grey sludge.

  My Sketchers sink into the sleet, and I fall over a couple of times. I’m getting closer. The wind whips my hair around my face, matted blonde strands sticking to my lips and teeth as I keep running and falling. Running and falling and getting back up.

  Almost there.

  “Cassie!” A voice yells from the diner. I don’t even look back. I can’t. I have to get to the car and tell everyone it isn’t Leo inside. “Get the hell away from there!”

  I’m almost at the car when flames start to spread inside.

  “No!” I yell, the wind buffeting any noise that might have come out of my mouth, literally making me choke on my own words as cold air slams into my lungs. I cough, water streaming from my eyes, tiny icicles already forming on my eyelashes.

  I’m thirty feet from the car when I see the blue football jersey being devoured by flames.

  And I know, without a doubt, that the boy I’ve wanted to marry since I was twelve years old, is trapped, upside down, bleeding and unconscious, in a car that is on fire.

  “Cassie!” I hear a voice to my left, barely audible over the wind. The voice sounds familiar. Damon King is the town sheriff. He’s also my mother’s new husband. He’s a nice guy. They’ve been married for a couple months, now. He’ll help, I think, my teeth chattering so hard I think they’ll smash. He’ll get Leo out.

  He doesn’t. He runs down the embankment on the other side of the road and disappears.

  What the hell?

  “Leo!” I scream, my words lost on the wind. It’s cold and my throat hurts and I don’t know what to do. Instinct tells me to run away from the car, but love is stronger. Love is foolish, as it pulls me to the car like a moth to a flame – ha, a flame, a fucking bonfire now, strangely comforting as it’s worth takes the edge off my frozen state. Something about the flames snaps me out of my dream-like fog. I look around and see nobody. Nobody wants to risk coming too close to the flames in case the car blows up, and I can’t say I blame them. But me? They’d have to drag me away from here, because I’ll burn sooner than leave Leo to perish.

  I survey the car. I have one small thing going for me – the fire is raging much harder on the passenger side of the car. I can see Leo’s arm being licked by the flames, but so far his body and face are out of their path.

  I go around to Leo’s side of the car and get on my belly, gasping at the icy water on the road as it seeps through my clothes. The car is upside down, and I have to crawl through the window and across Leo to undo his belt. It means I have to put my hand in the flames. I start coughing almost as soon as my head’s in the car window. I can’t bear to look too closely at Leo, not yet. If he dies…. I can’t even think like that.

  I’m operating on adrenaline, high on smoke fumes and about to pass out when a hand locks around my ankle and pulls. “Cassie!” Damon yells. “Get back!”

  I kick my mother’s husband square in the face, as hard as I can, and resume my rescue operation.

  LeoLeoLeo. Please don’t die. Don’t fucking die on me, not here, not like this. I need you. I don’t work without you. Leo!

  I have no idea how, but somehow, I manage to pull a two-hundred-pound linebacker out of a burning car and away from the wreckage before the fuel tank explodes and showers the road in pieces of burning metal. I pull Leo into my lap, surveying the damage, slapping his unburnt cheek. “Hey,” I say, quietly at first, then a louder, more insistent yell. “Hey!”

  He doesn’t wake up. The ambulance arrives. Then another. Damon is back, his face ashen, a streak of blood painting his left nostril down to his lip, probably from me kicking him.

  “I don’t need an ambulance,” I say to him, as the paramedics prise my fingers away from Leo and get him on a stretcher.

  He says somethingI don’t quite catch, something like “Other”, pointing down the embankment where a second team of par
amedics is taking a stretcher, and thats when I understand. My vision narrows to two pinprick tunnels, and all I can see is my stepfather’s bright blue eyes and the fire as I decipher his words. He wasn’t saying “Other”.

  He was saying mother.

  My mother was in the other car. The one that nobody saw slide off the embankment and into the muddy ditch that flanks the road.

  I watch in horror as they rush her past me. She looks dead. Her lips are blue and the paramedics are yelling at each other. One of her legs is hanging off the stretcher at a strange right-angle and there’s blood coming out of her mouth and nose.

  People are talking to me. I guess they’re asking which ambulance I want to travel in. As if in slow-motion, I look between the two vehicles with their flashing lights and bright red sides. The two people I love most in the world.

  I open my mouth to speak. Close it again. I can’t hear anymore. Everything is a staccato hiss, everything is the sound of the rain as it hits the asphalt I’m standing on. The world tilts suddenly as my legs disappear beneath me, I hear a loud thwack as my head hits the ground, and then nothing.

  * * *

  Later, in the sterile white of the hospital hallway, I start to hear things again. Two rooms, side by side, where teams of doctors work on the two people I love most in the world.

  I start to hear things I do not want to hear.

  My mother is in a coma.

  She is almost certainly going to die.

  My boyfriend is awake.

  He has burns on his arm and a concussion.

  My boyfriend is handcuffed to the stretcher he’s sitting up on.

  Leo. The guy I was going to marry.

  This is all his fault.

  He spots me in the hallway. “I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes glassy and red.

  I look at my own arm, bandaged from the burns, and wish I’d left him in his car while the flames took over.

  “It should have been you,” I say, my hand burning with pain from where the flames licked at me. “It should have been fucking you.”

  * * *

  That day had been so normal, so boring in contrast to the horror of that night.

  It’s my fault, I would say to myself, over and over. As I held my mom’s hand in the ICU, her face already starting to hollow with death. She was still hanging on, and they’d said any brain swelling needed to go down before an accurate prognosis could be given, but she was already gone. I know it now, picking that memory out of my own brain, folding it over, tearing off the waxy film of denial and hope that was marring my view at the time. I don’t have that now, and I can tell you that my mother, God rest her soul, exited her body at the moment Leo’s car ploughed into hers.

  I fought with Leo before he drove off in his car. I don’t even remember what it was about now. It was something trivial, for sure. So trivial I can’t even remember.

  So he drank a six-pack of Bud, climbed into his truck, and smashed that truck into my mother’s tiny little Honda Civic, the one my stepfather bought her to get to work at the hospital because it was more fuel-efficient than the old fuel-guzzler Volvo she’d been driving around in for years.

  If she’d crashed in the Volvo, she probably would have walked away without a scratch.

  The cost of convenience, I suppose.

  So now the Volvo sits in the garage and rusts, and my mother lies in her hospital bed and does the very same thing. And somewhere, where I have no idea, I’m sure Leo is rusting away as well.

  CHAPTER THREE

  Thanksgiving Eve, 2015

  NOW

  It’s snowing.

  Thanksgiving Eve 2015; I open my eyes and cringe at the harsh white light that comes in through the window. People think snow equals cold, but when the sun reflects off white snow at the right angle, it can burn your skin to cinders.

  There is something burning me. Not the bright reflection of snow.

  A pair of blue eyes, a matching smirk.

  Damon. My stepfather. Shit.

  I suck in a breath and sit up with a start; my head spinning. I’m wearing an oversized tshirt that smells faintly like the guy who’s been fucking me in secrecy for almost a year; and in front of me, my stepfather’s eyebrows rise in disapproval.

  “Oh,” he says, equal parts amusement and disdain. “You’re finally awake, party animal.”

  I rub my eye with the heel of my palm. I feel smashed, worn, like I’ve been run over. My entire body feels achy and dull, my head stuffed full of wool, and somewhere at the edges of my memory I remember swallowing pills, the taste of their bitter residue still faint on my tongue. Jesus. My wrists ache, faint bruises ringing them. I hold my right hand in my left, counting the five fingertip-shaped bruises that punctuate my pale skin. Four on one side, one on the other. Four fingers and a thumb. I wonder how I’d explain them. If anyone will ask. Most likely, nobody except Damon would even notice the way my skin has been marked as large, hot hands held me tightly down.

  Damon clears his throat pointedly. I forget my wrist and looked back to see he’s fully dressed for work, the gold star affixed to his sheriff’s uniform glinting in the light. He’s clean-shaven and smelling like pine needles and mint, his cologne drifting over to me from where he stands in my bedroom doorway.

  “What time is it?” I ask. My voice comes out low, hoarse. Did I drink last night? The taste of stale whiskey lingers in my mouth, confirming my suspicions, and I have to stifle the overwhelming urge to scrape my tongue with a corner of the bed sheets. Just picturing the bottle of Jack makes my stomach twist. Don’t puke. Do-not-puke. If I threw up in front of Damon, he’d probably make me lick it up as punishment.

  “Almost eight.”

  Almost eight? Shit! I lift the covers to get out of bed; my underwear’s gone. Double shit. I freeze, setting the blanket back over my thighs and trying to act casually. The very last thing I need is for Damon to see that I’m naked from the waist down. I see him glance at my lap, what looks like suspicion sparking in his blue eyes. He takes a step towards the bed, and for one horrific split second I imagine he is going to rip the blankets off me and see what I am – or rather, what I’m not – wearing.

  Fate decides to intervene, though. Thank you, universe. I hear the crackle of a radio, and Deputy Chris McCallister’s voice sounds in the kitchen downstairs. Damon hears it too, freezing mid-step.

  We continue to stare-off, his blue eyes pitted against mine, and the radio crackles to life again. The voice more urgent. Sheriff King, do you copy?

  Saved by the proverbial. Thank you, Chris.

  “Downstairs in five, Cass,” Damon says with an air of reluctance, giving my lap one final glance before he turns and leaves. A moment later, I’m out of bed and pulling fresh panties over my bare legs, my skin rising in gooseflesh to greet the frigid air. Gun Creek is the coldest place in Nevada, and it only gets colder after Thanksgiving. Soon, the pass forms ice and it’ll be dangerous to drive on, just like it does every year.

  Just like it did last year.

  Coffee. I need coffee.

  I locate my pajama bottoms, stuffed down into the bottom of my blankets, as if they were kicked off in a hurry. Kicked or pulled, its all the same. I’m sore down there, and although I can’t remember the act itself, I’ve got a fairly good idea about what went down. It was quiet, but it definitely wasn’t gentle.

  I traipse downstairs, the tight feeling in my chest expanding with every step. Running late is a cardinal sin, according to my stepfather. Everything must be perfect. Everything must be on time. All the time.

  The staircase stops at the entrance to our kitchen. We’ve got one of the bigger – and older – houses in Gun Creek, one of the original Gold mining ranchers. Every window is large, square, and framing a picture of mountains and empty tundra and snow.

  It’s beautiful to look out there if you’re in a good mood. If you’re not, it’s utterly desolate, miles of blank space waiting to swallow up your soul.

  I’m feeling pretty fucking sa
lty right now. Huh. Salty. That’s not a Cassie word. That’s a word he would use.

  I’m losing a little bit more of myself, every single day. Soon I’ll look like me, but I’ll be full of other people’s words and thoughts and desires.

  “Hey, daydreamer,” Damon snaps, breaking my thoughts. He’s sipping coffee from an old Mickey Mouse mug my dad bought for me when I was eleven and we went to Disneyland. Something stabs me in the gut. I wish he wouldn’t touch that mug. That’s my fucking mug.

  “I made you cereal. Eat it.” He pulls a chair and points to it. “We’ve got ten minutes. Sit.” I do as I’m told, acting every inch the sullen stepdaughter. He tells me all the time that I need to curb my attitude, but my attitude is just about the last piece of me that’s still hanging on. After the accident, after Leo went to jail and mom went to the nursing home, I had a lot more…. Salt. I was feisty. I threw tantrums. It only made things worse. So much
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