Chapter 1: Fragile Ground
By: Allora Atwater

I never liked the moon. Nights were supposed to be dark and unforgiving, an expressionless canvas. You weren't supposed to find redemption in the light. The stars were okay sometimes, dotted dimly here and there. With stars it's much easier to forget your pain. It's different with the moon. It's bright and dominating in the aimless heavens above; you can't look away from it. No matter how hard you try to avert your gaze, there's always this part of you that wants to turn your attention back to that illuminating orb in the velvet sky. That's what gives you hope. Supposedly, hope is a good thing, I guess in the way faith supposedly restores your soul. I might have listened to that, if I believed in God. But in Devonshire, hope gets you nowhere; it deludes you, leads you on and lets you down harder than you fell before. I never liked the moon. I still don't.

For some reason it effulged more radiantly that night than it had any other. I tried not to look at it, because looking at it would mean reflecting, and reflecting would somehow drive me to tears. I didn't like crying either, probably a trait my father pounded into my mindset early on. It was hard to win with my father; he was an unyielding man, and a force to be reckoned with if you fell short of anything less than perfection. He wasn't a bad man, I tried to tell myself, over and over until the words lost their logic. He was just hard to please. Difficult, my mother would call him. Thick-skulled.

Thick-skulled. It sounded foolish in my own head. I was what, sixteen, seventeen at the time? I was just beginning to see life for what it was, or at least what it should've been. Along with age, I was granted a vast awareness of reality, one which I continuously tried to shut out of my consciousness. I knew the truth, but I shut my eyes and shook my head against it. When you're a teenager, you have the ability to wash away all that you aren't ready to accept. Of course, that's what separates children from adults, fantasy from reason, but all the same, the option is there. For a time, I entertained those kinds of thoughts; childhood imaginings for a better world, a better life. I thought I could change fate.

I was wrong. Fate can change you, but you can't change fate. It's admirable to try, but ultimately it's fruitless. And in Devonshire, fate has a firm hold on all of us. Whatever is in the cards is what we're getting.

"Laine," my father's voice always made me cringe internally. It was fierce, and he bit off every syllable with contempt. "Why don't you tell me what this is."
It wasn't a question, it was a demand. Father didn't know how to form inquieries; to him, a question mark at the end of a sentence was just a squiggly line above a period. But it had the same effect on me, and I would answer him promptly and accurately. There was no room for wisecracks or beating around the bush.
"What's what?" I asked evenly, folding my hands behind my back. My eyes were hard and guarded, betraying none of the building tension. I watched patiently as Father got up from his seat, slowly, deliberately, callused fingers digging into the arms of the chair, twisting the fabric in a merciless fashion. I swallowed the lump in my throat as he approached, trying not to fidget.
"This, Laine." he repeated, indicating a flowerpot that had been knocked onto the floor. The soil was ground into the cream-colored carpet, undoubtably a chore to clean up. A large crack separated the clay, and the blossoms lay crushed beneath the weight of their oppressors. I scratched the back of my neck, not knowing how to explain the situation.

"That?" I kept my voice level. "Must've been the cat... you know how she likes to climb up on the window sills."
I could feel his anger boiling, but he did a good job of holding it back. This only made me more fretful; that would mean the explosion would be twice as horrific. "I'll clean it up." I added, moving away from him. His hand shot out to hold me in my place, a grip on my shoulder so harsh, I ground my teeth together to keep from wincing.
"You better." he snarled. "And you better find a new place to keep that damn feline of yours. Next time I see it, I'm gonna feed the little rat to the neighbor's dog, you understand me boy?"
"Yes sir." I nodded, my nose offended by the smell of alcohol. Apparently my old man had taken to the bottle again that night. Where was Mother? I wondered distantly. Probably up in her room crying like she always did when Father had a little too much vodka. If I wasn't brought up to loathe the sobs of torment, I'd probably join her. It took a lot to stay firm against my father's raging temper, and even more to withstand his cruel gaze.
"You and your goddamn cat," he went off on a tangent, prodding me against the wall. "No respect for my house. I work hard to maintain this place for you. And what do you do? You treat it like trash, you take everything for granted!"

That was where it started to get violent. He backhanded me roughly, his heavy wedding band catching my bottom lip. I stood my ground, fighting back an onslaught of bitterness as I remained rigid. Neither words nor actions could ease his anger at this point. The best thing to do was wait it out and do everything to keep from shedding a tear.
"Just like your mother." he spat, giving me another shove for good measure. "The both of you just think you can play me for a fool. Do I look like a goddamn fool to you?" There was no answer he would let me give, even if it was the one he wanted to hear. I kept my mouth shut, afraid of how my voice would sound. His fingers curled into a ball and he flung his fist at me clumsily. The move was careless and could easily have been avoided, but doing so wouldn't gain me the upperhand. I braced myself as his fist connected with my jaw, a heinous crack accompanying the searing pain. My muscles twitched, begging to be put to good use.
"Are you listening to me boy? You hear a damn word that's comin' outta my mouth?"
Another punch, aimed for my left temple. A knee in the stomach. Another. My arms tingled with rage, desperately craving to fight back. Every joint in my body flexed with the urge to release the liquid strength inside. I stood still.

"Son of a bitch." he hissed in my ear, cuffing me with a feral force. When I could no longer feel his presence, I slid down the wall and hunched over lamely, the blood welling up under my tongue and trickling down the corners of my mouth. I surpressed a cough so as not to stain the carpet any more. Frustration was eating at me as I fought to regain some semblance of composure, anything to help me up the stairs and into my room. I reached out for the chair beside me, planting my palm firmly on the arm and hefting myself up. The wave of nausea that usually accompanied a good bruising hit me as I swayed unsteadily on my feet. I staggered to the banister and held on with all my might, forcing myself up the stairs. It was a challenge for me, like it was every time. My vision was blurry, the images not making any sense whatsoever. But I knew the route like the back of my hand. I could manage. Next time you decide to knock me around dad, I thought ruefully, at least wait till up already up the stairs.

It was quite a time until I found myself pressed against the cold glass of my bedroom window. How long had I been watching the sky? I didn't recall, but it wasn't exactly important. The windowsill did little to support my long limbs; my knees were drawn to my chest, my feet pressed against the other side of the wall. My arms were folded across my stomach, careful of a purplish laceration on my abdomen. I was numb at the moment, but a wrong move might have sent me into another spasm of pain.

Father rarely remembered our brawls, and I did nothing to encourage the reminiscence. I used old rags to wipe away the blood, and ice to ease the swell of the bruises. I had faint scar from my temple to my cheekbone, but I convinced myself I got it from falling off my bike as a child. Normally I woke up with some soreness, but I kept a bottle of aspirin beneath my bed for that. Not that Father would ever give me the money to squander off on painkillers and personal hygiene products. I stole what I needed and scrounged up what money I could get my hands on in order to make ends meet. You wouldn't expect it at the sight of me. Sure, I looked like a punk but as far as things went in Devonshire, I seemed like a decent kid. Respectful, independent. Street-smart. Tough as nails and still tongue-in-cheek.

Maybe there was a place where I wouldn't have had to smuggle everything. Where I could've asked my Father for an allowance without the fear of getting struck down. Where I could get a decent job. But things in Devonshire were a lot different, and at the time, I was only beginning to see that. It was then, at the peak of my adolescence, that I craved to know the world outside of Devonshire.
"Think you could take her?" I asked, scratching behind Jezebel's ears. I was still propped up against the window, despite the fresh day, and Sully was sitting cross-legged on my floor, pointedly looking away from the bloodied rags of last night's arguement. The cat in my lap purred contentedly, tilting her head into my palm. I stroked her soft fur, calming myself. I didn't have any cigarettes to ease my nerves at the moment, and I didn't feel like asking Sully for one. I was already pleading with him to adopt my cat.

Sully Howerdel had been my best friend for as long as I could remember. He knew about my rocky relationship with my father. It wasn't a huge conspiracy, but it was something we all tried to keep under wraps. Sully shifted in his position, snapping his fingers to beckon Jezebel. She yawned luxiuriously and hopped over to my friend, curling up in his lap obediently. She spared me a half-lidded glance as he rubbed beneath her chin. I didn't want to part with her, but I knew my father would hold true to his word and find some inhumane way to dispose of her.

"Your old man wanna get rid of her?" Sully asked knowingly. He patted Jezebel's head, much to her annoyance.
"How'd you guess?"
"I just know. Judging from that split lip you got there, I'd figure he was ready to get rid of somethin'."
"Yeah." I replied absently, touching my bottom lip in remembrance. "D'ya think you could do this for me? I don't wanna toss her over the fence and let old Kieran's pugs tear the shit out of her."
"Sure." Sully replied, lifting his sleeve to scratch his shoulder. "When's your dad gonna get back tonight?"
I stared outside, squinting at the sun. Summers were particularly brutal in Devonshire.
"Don't know. Probably not till late."

Sully cocked his head, locks of his dark blond hair spilling across his forehead. There was something about he and I that was different from the rest of the people in Devonshire. I always had this nagging hunch about that, but up until I reached adulthood, I'd never really taken it to heart. We looked different. Not just our clothes or the way we wore our hair, but out physical features were a lot more defined. Walking around town, you'd see an awful lot of plain-looking individuals with nothing distinctive about them. I wasn't too concerned with myself at the time, but I knew there was something that set Sully aside from everyone else. I just couldn't pinpoint what it was.

"You wanna go somewhere?" he suggested, lifting Jezebel by her underarms and nuzzling her nose. She responded with a less than amiable nibble.
"Like where?" I finally got up from the windowsill, stretching my arms high above my head. I rubbed my ribs a little as they cracked in protest. I guess I'd been stuck in the same position for too long.
"I dunno." he replied, following my lead and standing up. "We should go down to the market. I'm in the mood for a little five-finger-discounting."
He was referring to shoplifting. I mentally counted off the things I needed and decided that a quick trip to the drugstore couldn't hurt.
"Sure. Just make sure you pick up Jezebel before my dad gets home. You know he'd grab her by the tail and throw her clear into oncoming traffic if he sees she's knocked over another flowerpot."

We snickered at the image, although the reality of the situation was not so humorous. Often that was how Sully and I got by; making a joke of every truth that had not yet touched us. I reached into my closet and pulled out a baggy black sweatshirt, the one I frequented when doing a little "bargain shopping". The lady that owned the store knew me, and when I turned seventeen, she promised me a job. Then I wouldn't need to steal from her. I didn't feel guilt for the things I had taken, because my young mind could justify my every action, but I certainly didn't like to shoplift from Mrs. Whitfield. She was a nice woman who made an honest living. I just hoped that, in the event she ever learned of my unlawful habits, she would understand my need to resort to thievery.

"Let me say goodbye to my mother, and then we'll go."
"Sure." Sully replied cheerfully. "Meetcha outside mama's boy."
Maybe I was a mama's boy. At heart, I really did love my mother. I just harbored no respect for her. I couldn't see how any upstanding woman could be as weak and submissive as she. But she gave me life, and whether or not that was a blessing I couldn't decide.

"Mother," I called, walking downstairs after Sully. I was awarded with the customary silence I had come to expect. Sully didn't question the lack of a response, and instead reached for the door knob. I watched uneasily as he took a pause to regard the bloodstain on the wall. "Mother?" my voice was as tentative as my footsteps. I went to the kitchen, peering around the corner. Sure enough, there was my mother, sitting at the breakfast table and staring vacantly into her coffee cup.

"Mother," I started again, hesitantly. She snapped out of her trance and greeted me with a warm smile.
"Laine." she replied, pushing her chair back and throwing her arms around me. "It's so nice to see you Laine. You look well." she pulled away and pinched my cheek in a motherly fashion. "Going out to impress some girls?"
"That's it," I responded absently, figuring it best to just humor my mother. "Me and Sully won't be gone for too long. You gonna be okay here all by yourself?"
She nodded enthusiastically, almost like a child. If I had a heart, she'd have broken it a thousand times.
"Yes Laine, I'm going shopping today. Your father gave me some money to buy us all some nice summer clothes. And then I'm going to go grocery shopping. Would you like me to pick anything up for you Laine?"
"No mother," I replied softly. She reached out to touch the bruise on my cheekbone.
"Oh Laine what happened here?" she questioned, worry crinkling the corners of her eyes. "Did you fall down the stairs?"
"Actually, I slipped in my room and caught my face on the side of the bed." I lied. Deep down, I'm sure she knew the truth, but my mother wasn't the most stable woman there ever was. I guessed my father's cruelty hit her harder emotionally than it hit me physically. She shook her head at me and made a sort of 'tsk tsk' noise with her tongue. "That's why you need to clean your room more often Laine. You know, when you get out of high school and start living on your own, you won't have a mother to fold your laundry and cook your meals for you. Unless you settle down with a very tolerant girl, you'll be fending for yourself an awful lot."
"I know mother." I replied with a smile. Mother always liked the way I smiled. She said it was quirky, couldn't decide which way it wanted to lean, and my lips twitched right before I broke out into a wide grin. My canines were slightly crooked too, and I had the tiniest chip on one of my front teeth. It got me out of worlds of trouble, so I suppose it was something I grew to like about myself.

I gave my mother a light, noncommittal embrace before I left. I didn't like to be close to people; father taught me not to harbor any endearments, much less express them in affectionate ways. My mother was detatched and broken from years of being hurt by my father. The least I could do was contribute to her fantasy world where life was what you made it. She took the fall for a lot of my shortcomings, and I loved her for that.

"About time." Sully remarked as I fumbled to lock the door behind me. He was leaned against a pillar on my front porch, finishing up a cigarette and stomping it out with his shoe.
"I really need to quit." he sighed, shoving his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt. The sun hit us ten times harder with our dark clothes on, and I wondered idly why I was wearing such bulk in the first place. If it were anyone else, we would've looked suspicious. People in Devonshire don't walk around wearing jeans and sweatshirts during the dog days of summer. Then again, people in Devonshire don't look like we do.

We sauntered though the alley a few blocks from my house and jay walked our way to the shopping center. Devonshire was a fairly large community, and I had lived there all my life. It was natural for Sully and I to think of clever shortcuts to get where we needed to go, whether or not our destination even needed a shortcut. The city wasn't trashy, nor was it homey either. It was your typical suburban industry with a little commercial pizazz thrown in and a cookie-cutter residential mold. I craved something more wild and eclectic, but I guess that was my thriving conviviality coming into play. Devonshire strived for unity, but all it succeeded in doing was forcing its inhabitants to conform without assimilating. There was a sense of sameness as well as segregation. Sully and I liked to consider ourselves the nonconformists of the horde. We were the ones who did as we pleased and dressed however we felt. Two aspiring young rebels who thought of nothing but diferentiating themselves from the crowd. During the prime of life, when you felt you had to break away from everyone and just be yourself, Sully and I took it to the extreme and tried to be as different as possible. It wasn't so much as being ourselves as it was trying to break the mold, and that was who we were.

Maybe that was why my father held such a deep set resentment for me. Because I didn't have to live up to anyone's standards but my own, and his too, if I valued my life. I wished I could move in with Sully. At least he had a somewhat normal family. A father who didn't beat him. A mother who had her wits straight.

We walked in the entrance and the cold air greeted us with a welcomed rush. Sully and I parted ways without so much as a word. It was our agreement that when engaging in illegal activities, we were not to associate until we were a good distance from the scene of the crime. If one of us went down, there was no point in dragging the other with us. I could name a few people who would break down in sobs and confess everyone they'd ever known who'd ever done anything illegal. It was pointless. You still got punished, no matter who you pinned the blame on. Might as well spare yourself some pride and protect the ones you care about instead.

I started towards the pharmaceuticals, keeping an open eye for painkillers. There were about a million and six to choose from, so I picked the best they had. If you're gonna steal, I reasoned, at least do it whole heartedly. I casually pretended to browse through the shelves, waiting for the pharmacist at the counter to turn around. The moment he left to fill a prescription, I "accidentally" knocked over two boxes of aspirin. I bent down, slyly sticking one in my sweatshirt and putting the other back on the shelf.

I went around the store picking up a few odds and ends in the same fashion. I'd pretend to look around with interest, nonchalantly stuffing my pockets. I only took what I needed, no more, no less, making sure to keep a straight face and an upbeat demeanor. Most of the usual shoppers recognized me as "the nice boy who helped me load groceries into my car". I built up a decent reputation for myself. I figured that would either charm everyone to their wits' end, meaning they wouldn't suspect anything of me, or if they did figure it out, it would shock the hell out of them. Either way, it was better than being a walking timebomb target.

I wondered distractedly where Sully had gone off to. I'd passed by him several times throughout the store without so much as a second glance. It didn't make too big of a difference to me. I knew Sully could handle himself just fine, without cause for concern. I counted out the wadded up dollar bills in my pocket and tried to decide on something cheap and simple to buy. I couldn't very well spend an hour at the store and not purchase anything. It would look a little too suspicious for anyone that might have been watching me closely.

It was midday, only about 12 or so, meaning all the housewives were flocking around the latest Soap Opera Digest. Summers were incredibly boring in Devonshire. The city planners didn't make it a point to add any places of interest or recreation, so you either had a job or you bummed around town looking for something to do. Most things required money, which I didn't have. To get money, you needed a job, and to get a job you needed to be at least seventeen. Which at the time, I was only two months shy of. Consequentially, that two month mark also marked the start of my 3rd year in secondary school, and by then I'd be too swamped with school work to handle a job.

I grabbed a bag of gummi worms, the cheapest and most appealing item I could find down that aisle, and made my way to the nearest cashier. I tried to alternate as much as possible, so the clerks wouldn't get too accustomed to seeing me around. Don't want to attract any attention. I dropped my bag on the conveyor belt and busied myself with the latest gossip magazine. If it weren't bad enough to have absolutely nothing to do over a three month period, I was starting to become a busybody too. I forced myself to put the tabloid down.
"Will this be... all for you?" an amused voice asked me. I turned around to answer, but the words died on my lips.

I will always remember the first time I laid eyes on her. I was attracted to her for the same reasons I chose Sully for a best friend; she had that look about her. Something that separated her from all the familiar faces in Devonshire, that made you look twice and want to keep looking until your eyes fell out of their sockets. She was fairly tall and thin, with these chocolate doe eyes and perfect heart-shaped face. A few light freckles dotted the bridge of her nose, and her chestnut colored hair fell in waves below her set shoulders. There was something that drew me in more than anything, and it was in her eyes. That glimmer, that unquestionable innocence. She had the gleam of hope in her eyes, something you didn't see too often in Devonshire. Something you could only see when you looked at the moon. I didn't like the moon. But I liked her. I liked her a lot.