Author's Note: I wrote this for my AP English class, we had to turn it into the Raleigh Fine Arts Society Literary Contest. This is one of the reasons I've taken so long to update Pixie Sticks, hope you like it. (: (This is the mostly unedited version, though I doubt there will be any major changes.)

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GUILTY CONSCIENCE

Snow was blanketing the world in a soft, cold, unwanted embrace. It had fallen from the sky the night before, lying down upon the ground in triumph, boasting to the people of my town about winter to come. That winter there were many blizzards with only several days of rest before each new bout of the storms.

I was not too old then, merely 19 years of age. The snow was a new sight to me—I had only moved into this region of the country months before. When Radley asked if I wanted to join him and his friend out in the snow that day, I naturally said yes, not knowing the dangers of snow and ice.

We quickly moved into the forest that was behind Radley's apartment. Radley and I were both the same age, but Radley's cousin, Walker, was only 15. Walker possessed little strength or endurance, he struggled to keep up with both Radley and I. Walker was a good deal shorter than both of us, his legs not long enough to match our stride. He fell behind and ran to catch up with us, lulling back into a normal pace until he was once again behind us. Radley told him to keep up—we were both getting irritated. Walker's struggles were taking me out of my amazement at the wonderland that was the snow covered forest. Neither Walker nor Radley knew the forest well, the landmarks uncertain, and both were unsure of the presence of any rivers or lakes.

It mattered not, though. Not to us anyway, instead we played about in the forest, throwing snowballs at each other and the likes. Walker was slow, and so Radley and I managed to hit him many times with the snowballs, as we easily dodged the ones that he slung at us.

We soon grew tired of this nonsense and moved over to a nearby rock. The snow's coldness seeped through to my body as I sat there talking to Radley. Walker was sitting opposite of us—he could not seem to manage to butt into the conversation, no matter how hard he tried. Every time Walker spoke he only had a few words out before Radley and I continued talking about college, girls, work and whatnot. Each time Walker tried to grab our attention he grew more desperate, and we grew louder as we spoke over him. Radley and I ran out of things to say finally, and Walker was not as dull of a boy as I thought he was—he knew this was his chance to get our attention.

"I bet you I could get to the top of that old tree before you," Walker said, pointing off at some gnarled tree, his attention directed on me. It would have been easy for me to say no, but it would have also been easy for me to win this bet.

I smirked, and folded my arms across my chest, watching him as I asked, "Oh, really?"

"Yeah!" Walker called out, earning a soft snicker from Radley, though I doubt he noticed this, "Bet you ten bucks." I was never one to decline money.

The rules were placed down, I even said that I'd give him a ten second head start—I was so sure I would win.

Radley looked at his watch and after a moment he told Walker to go, and Walker shot off, but something was amiss. He reached the clearing just as I was about to start, but as his feet hit the ground once more he began sliding. I didn't ask what was wrong, and Walker figured the ice would be thick enough to support him. He continued on just as I was taking off.

A loud crack echoed through the empty forest.

I skidded to a halt as I watched Walker disappear from view. I heard Radley's shouting in the background, but instinct took over. I had never dealt with someone falling through thin ice, I had seen it in a movie once or twice, but there was no way I could have been prepared for this.

Adrenaline entered my bloodstream and I took off running, faster than I had ever gone in my life. I slid onto the ice, stopping just short of the hole Walker made when falling through the ice. I could not see him though. I almost panicked, Radley was in the background, running after me, he was in hysterics. It was up to me to get Walker out of the ice.

I shoved the snow off the ice, quickly as possible, ignoring the numbness in my fingers. I saw him finally. The ice was much thicker where Walker was, but the adrenaline rush was still there. I broke through the ice somehow and pulled Walker out.

The shivering boy clung to me, his teeth chattering as he sobbed. Hysteria still had its clutches on Radley. I pulled Radley's wet clothes off—he seemed to not care or even notice—and dressed him up in my warmer outer layers. I carried him back to Radley's apartment quickly.

Walker came down with the flu or something along those lines, but otherwise he was in fine condition. Whatever the sickness was, it delayed his visits, but only for a week.

When the week was up, I happened to be walking back from class to my apartment. He stood in front of the complex, looking particularly giddy. He had my clothes in hand.

"Cal!" he cried out happily when I came into his line of vision. I tried not to groan, and even managed to put on a feeble smile, even as he ran into me, giving me a bear hug in the middle of the sidewalk.

I shifted uneasily, gently pushing him off of myself, saying slowly, awkwardly, "Er, hi, Walker." I shifted my laptop bag on my back and tried to edge toward the door, but he followed.

"I brought you your clothes back," Walker said, holding them up.

I nodded, replying, "Oh, thanks." He handed them over, but somehow he managed to weasel his way into coming into my apartment.

Every day after that he came over sometimes, bringing little gifts, but I managed to blow him off most of the time. Pushing him away was my main goal, but each time he tried to get closer and closer. This went on for a month, and every time I was rid of him I called up Radley and we laughed about it on the phone, making fun of him—it was how I dealt with Walker's sudden unwanted presence in my life. It was not the happiest of situations, but it was tolerable.

I never knew his intentions until February came around. Valentines Day was my least favorite holiday—it's not that I could not find a girl to be my 'valentine,' I just did not like the institution of the day itself. It was strange this year though, a few days before the 14th Walker approached me.

I had just gone shopping and he eagerly helped me carry the groceries to the apartment. I could not just kick him out after that though, it would have been terribly uncivil. Instead, I thanked him awkwardly and moved over to the living room, turning on the TV. I sat down on the couch slowly, ignoring how uncomfortably close Walker sat next to me.

"Cal," he said softly, one commercial break. When my eyes connected with his wide eyes a soft blush came on his face, he faltered for a moment. His hand slowly moved toward mine, gently resting on top. I wanted to pull away, but somehow I could not possibly budge. He took a deep breath, and leaned forward, his lips brushing up against mine for a moment. I could not react, my mind had shut down, I had no idea what was going on. He broke kiss, and the silence, saying softly, "Cal? Would you...be my valentine?"

My eyes widened and I began stuttering, but finally managed to spit out, "I-I'll be right back." I rushed out of the room and into my bedroom, my fingers hastily dialing Radley's number. The ringing only seemed to make my heart race even faster. "Radley?" I asked, trying to take deep breaths.

"Yeah?" he asked, sounding slightly amused at my near hysteric greeting. I had a hand over my heart as I sank onto the bed, calming down just with hearing his voice. I sighed and told him slowly what just happened, whispering in case Walker was listening in at the door. His reaction was not what I had expected. What I had expected was some remark in disgust of Walker's actions, but that was not what I received. Radley burst out laughing, and somehow I managed to laugh along with him. Once Radley had calmed down enough to talk, he said, laughing in between words, "Oh god! I knew it. I knew he was gay. I told you!" His—our—laughter was renewed for another minute.

I bit my lip and looked at the door though, and asked seriously, "What should I do, Rad?" He was silent for a moment, and then he told me his plan. It seemed like a good plan, one that would rid me of Walker's presence in my life.

I exited my bedroom a few minutes after I had entered and sat down on the couch next to Walker. He was sitting on the far end now, his knees pulled up to his chest as he watched me timidly with those wide eyes.

"Sure, why not," I mumbled to him, picking up the remote once more. I turned toward the TV, going back to flipping through the channels.

Walker probably had a miniature heart attack from hearing my words. He squealed and lunged over at me, giving me another bear hug.

"Really?" he asked, not noticing my uneasiness as I nodded slowly.

The days seemed to pass too quickly for my liking and suddenly the 14th was upon me. I had told Walker that I would rather not go out in public, but in a way that did not seem too harsh so that he would not call the whole thing off. I had no classes that day, and as soon as his school let out he came over to my apartment.

I opened the door, avoiding eye contact as he stepped in. He gave me a hug, which I did not return. He was not abashed by my unreceptive attitude, probably used to it by now. He set his backpack down by my tiny coat closet, much like he always did. There was a nervous air about him as he shifted his position, fidgeting with his shirt.

I hesitated and grabbed his wrist—avoiding the hand at all costs—gently, yet firmly, guiding him into my living room. I stole glances at him as we walked; he was biting his lip and looking at the floor.

"Sit," I ordered, releasing his wrist as I motioned toward my shabby couch. He sunk down on the couch, looking up at me with those wide eyes in expectation. I turned away, pacing about for a moment, ordering myself to take deep breaths. I paced for a minute or so, keenly aware of his eyes upon my restless body.

Since I could not manage to speak, Walker slowly asked, "Cal? Is something wrong?" He made a motion as if to stand up but I cut to the chase, pushing him roughly back down onto the couch as I glared at him. His eyes now held a quality of fear in them as he sat there, watching me silently, motionlessly.

"Walker," I said, finally able to say the words I was somehow dreading to speak, "I don't like you." I said them slowly, clearly so as to get it through to him. "I never liked you," I continued as I saw his eyes go dull and glossy, "You're clingy, which has only made me hate you even more." There was no grimace or wail; his eyes just fell to the floor. "Yes, I hate you," I said, once I had started speaking I could not stop, "And Walker, I'm not gay. Why the hell would you think I'd want to be your valentine?" No response. "I don't want to see you ever again, Walker," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. The next words I spoke I am truly ashamed of, they haunt me now, but I can never take back what I said, and that was simply this: "I never should have saved you from the lake."

Silence never seemed as loud as it did just then as I stood there, glaring at the broken Walker. He slowly rose, not even looking at me; tears were now starting to drip down from his eyes. No words were spoken, they needn't be. He left the apartment without further ado, his arms crossed over his chest as he walked. He did not pick up his backpack, I found out later. I did not follow him, but I did strain to hear the front door latch. He shut the door softly, but I still heard the reassuring click and let out a sigh of relief.

I collapsed upon my couch, as if this whole endeavor had drained the last of my strength, and pulled out my cell phone.

My fingers automatically dialed Radley's phone number, when he answered he simply said, "Hey, Cal."

"Hey, Radley," I said brightly—I thought the happiest part of my life was to come, after all, "I did it."

He seemed to perk up at my words, and asked enthusiastically, "Really? What did he do?" I related the whole scene back to him, leaving out the last sentence; it slipped my mind at that point in time. "Awesome," Radley said, once he heard the whole story, "Sounds like he won't bother you again."

"Hey, Rad," I said as I glanced at the clock, "I gotta go. I'm going on a date with that girl in our chem. class tonight."

He laughed, and replied, "Tell me how it goes, man."

"Yeah," I replied, moving toward my bedroom already, to change, "See ya tomorrow."

"Bye."

I hung up the phone and set it on the bed, not picking it up before I left for my date with the nameless girl.

The date did not go that well, the girl was expecting a relationship and I was expecting... well, let's just say, something else. I dropped her off at her dorm around 10 and was back to my apartment about 15 minutes later. As I was undressing later that night I saw my phone—there were twenty missed calls, all of which from Radley, but no voicemail.

I sighed, as if were a burden to call him back, and asked in an irritated fashion once he answered, "Why'd you call so many times?"

"Are you sitting down?" was the frazzled reply.

I rolled my eyes, sure I knew that that was supposed to mean he had something very shocking to tell me, but I doubted it was really that important.

I replied curtly, "Yes." I heard him take a deep breath, as if to prepare himself for what he was about to tell me.

"I think our plan worked too well," he said, softly.

I snickered softly as I lay down on the bed, still not believing the situation to be serious as I asked mockingly, "What? Is he writing sad songs about me?"

"He can't," Radley replied, a tinge of anger in his voice, "He's dead."

I sat bolt upright, my eyes widening, my mouth hanging open.

I lost my voice for a moment, but then finally was able to ask meekly, "Dead?" Nausea was slowly getting its cruel grip upon my stomach.

"Yeah," Radley whispered, "He… he committed suicide, Cal."

One of my hands placed itself over my mouth as I trembled there, feeling incredibly small on that large bed of mine.

"I-I gotta go," I managed to squeak out, hanging up the phone quickly and throwing it across the room, trying to get the evil object away from me as quickly as possible. I sat there all night, in a state between hyperventilation and nausea.

The next morning I skipped classes and headed over to Radley's apartment as soon as possible. When he answered the door, he too looked like he had had no sleep the night before. I stayed at his house for the week that followed; we went to the wake together, and then the next day we went to the funeral together, but he sat in a different section than me during the funeral service—he was a pallbearer. I listened to the sobbing about me during the service, not to any words that were spoken. I only raised my eyes once—to watch Radley and the other men and boys carry the casket out to the hearse.

During the procession from the funeral to Walker's grave Radley drove, his jaw clenched and his knuckles turned whiter and whiter with every passing moment. Watching Radley was all I could do to keep my mind off of my situation. We could not stay driving for forever, though, and we arrived at the graveyard.

After the coffin was lowered into the ground and men were working on covering up the hole once more Walker's mother approached me. Radley was nearby, watching her and me.

"Are you Cal?" she asked softly, makeup smeared down her now dry cheeks. I nodded, unable to talk to this woman. She smiled weakly at me and put a hand on my shoulder, "You kept him happy for so long." She shook her head, wiping a new tear from the corner of her eye, gathering her wits. "He… he left you a note," she pulled an envelope out from her purse, "I didn't read it." I numbly took the note, still mute, but she did not want my words. Instead she just patted my shoulder and left to go speak softly with others.

I turned toward Radley, still holding the unopened letter. His eyes watched me sadly.

"It's our fault, isn't it?" he asked me softly.

I shook my head, scooting closer, whispering back, "It's not your fault. It's mine."

He looked at me fiercely, the sadness leaving those eyes. His arms wrapped around me tightly, pulling me into a firm, comforting embrace. I rested my head on Radley's shoulder as I clung to him.

"Don't you dare say that again," he warned me, an edge in his voice.

I could not help it though, I mumbled, "But it is my—" He was probably just trying to shut me up, and it did work, though his method was startling, but my reaction was probably even more shocking. Simply put: he kissed me, and I gave in, returning the kiss.

There was a silence after that kiss; I was both uneasy and strangely comfortable in Radley's arms.

Radley murmured whimsically, "We'll get through this." I forced myself to smile back at him.