There was a grinding pain in the back of his head, eyes not wanting to open as he heard the muffled sound of voices around him, something touching his arms and chest as he tried to regain consciousness. Lids finally parting, the dark corner of the lobby was filled with the shadows of hunched over figures, uniforms coming into focus with bandages and words being repeated to him, a hand brushing against his face until he turned his eyes up towards a circle of light flickering on and off.
"Alright, he's awake. Get him on the stretcher."
He blinked, feeling gravity shift as he was lifted up and placed on another flat surface to be rushed out the door. Turning his head to the left, he recognized the lockers he was being carried past. He couldn't see much but the clothing of so many people moving around him, no single body still long enough for him to catch a good look of any face. An ache collecting behind his eyes, he felt as his teeth gritted together, racing heart almost as distracting as his flipping stomach. He could see red smeared all over the white floor of the lobby, backpacks and papers strewn everywhere, glass around trophy cases shattered and reflecting the pale light of an overcast morning sky let in by the doors he was carried through.
Dark cement blanketed the earth beneath grey clouds, fighting to keep his eyes open until the familiar, dark uniform of a police officer that passed him struck a chord. He gasped, the air harsh in his lungs as his elbows dug down, his effort to lift himself up stopped by another hand touching his arms.
"Hey, don't worry, you're on your way to a hospital," he heard a voice call to him, head lifting again to try to find the speaker among a group of unrecognizable faces, each with eyes glued to him.
"What happened?" he could barely say, heated blood pounding in his temples.
"Don't worry, you're on your way out, kid," he heard, again turning his head away when he couldn't focus on anything in front of him.
"You'll be alright."
Like a blow to his face he saw a pile of hair topping the cement, blonde dirtied with red that lie face down, the sleeves of a black jacket bunched up around his arms that were cast out, motionless in front of him. Thin arms were covered in scars, blood spattered nearly to his elbows, the trigger of a gun still held by his curved finger. Casings and shells were sprinkled all around him, the wall immediately behind him painted in red and lined with the cracks of incoming bullets.
His eyes went wide, breath seizing in his chest. His fingers dug into the surface beneath him, jaw clenching, teeth biting into his tongue to keep him from screaming as he was carried away, eyes now caught up in watching the passing branches of the trees that lined this pathway he'd walked thousands of times, yellow and red leaves almost black as they tried to stand out against the bright grey that hung in the sky.
He couldn't help but grin then, rather than burst into tears.
If you fear something enough you can make it happen.
He opened his mouth, a small sound escaping his throat before his eyes began to water and boil over with tears, lids squeezing shut as again a paramedic rested a hand on his chest.
"Almost, buddy. You're gonna be fine. What's your name?"
A sound had been echoing in his ears for some time. It'd been the thing to spark some activity in his brain again, to make him open his eyes and figure out what it was. Very slowly he began to blink, irises drifting back and forth until the picture became clearer. White walls were around him, uninterrupted beeping that fell into the pattern of a heartbeat finally making sense as his vision focused on a slouched figure sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, a white bandage wrapped around it's right leg. The fluorescent bulbs above him had absorbed into the walls, reflecting the brightness so well it was almost impossible to miss the shades of faded clothing bunched up in the corner. It looked as if it was putting all its weight onto its bent elbow, a closed hand entwined in the strands of hair that drew lines from its temple, eyes shifted downwards to the tiled floor until it heard the muffled words that started to pry themselves from his mouth.
When his vision had finally focused, he was having trouble believing what he saw.
His eyes now cast on him, he watched a crooked smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
The beeping began to speed up, a knot in his stomach and a lump in throat becoming increasingly sore with the passing seconds. His teeth were on the verge of chattering, nerves that felt like they'd been split for the last time coming alive in the waves of fear that were tensing the muscles in his body, the indescribable desire to flee turning to cramps that wracked his core.
Carson sat quietly, eyes pinned to his until the stare was broken by the sound of sliding rings of metal.
Suddenly the wall he'd thought was beside him showed itself to be a curtain, flimsy as a tarp as it folded upon itself, pulling back to the real wall behind him. A man in a white coat appearing in the space the curtain had been, a picture and a name on the piece of paper pinned to his jacket. They met eyes immediately, a smile spreading over this stranger's face.
"Good, you're up. I've got somebody you'll be happy to see."
Before he could even ask, his mother stepped up behind the man, her eyes lighting up as she spoke.
He didn't have to hear the growl in his stomach to feel the way it'd begun to flip. His eyes went back to Carson.
The doctor's voice broke their brief conversation.
"So, good news. You're free to go, whenever you're ready to. We took care of your wounds, no reason to keep you overnight. Very lucky man," he said with a smile.
He then turned to Carson.
"You too, bud. Only needed stitches to fix both of you up."
He felt the nausea that was rising in the back of his throat, already tasting it on the back of his tongue.
"Yeah, lucky as hell."
The doctor said a few more things, his heart beating so loudly in his head that he barely heard any words, watching the man passing what looked like a chart and a receipt to his mother before leaving. She placed it down on the bed by his feet, stepping forward to take his head in his hands, lips pressing against his forehead before she sighed.
"I don't think you know how happy I am to see you."
"I do. Thank you."
She smiled back before turning towards Carson.
"Thank you for staying with him, he's lucky to have a friend like you."
"I'd never abandon a friend in a time of need. I'm pretty sure this qualifies as one."
She laughed. "Yeah, absolutely. Can we give you a ride anywhere?"
"Left here, then it's the house at the end of the block."
He looked down to the floor, swaying with the car as it curved to the left, breaking as wheels rolled close to the curb. Carson unbuckled himself, his hand gripping the door handle as he turned his head towards her.
"Thank you again for the ride, Mrs. Morrow. I really appreciate it, taking the bus home would've been a nightmare. All that 5pm traffic."
She looked into the rear view mirror as she stopped the car, eyes catching his as she grinned and he opened the door. "Oh, definitely. Try to have a good night, alright?"
Getting out of the car, he turned to the seat across from his, looking the boy in the eye.
"You too, Jeremy."
He looked over at his mom.
"Would you mind if I stayed for a little bit?"
"As long as it's alright with you?" she asked Carson.
Carson hadn't broken his stare.
"Sure. Hop out."
The clasp of his seatbelt released, opening and closing the door before standing at Carson's side, leaning towards the window to hear his mother say to call her when he needed a lift. The two watched as the car slowly rolled away, disappearing to the right at the end of the street.
By the time he had the nerve to look at Carson again, he wasn't surprised to see he still hadn't backed down, the thoughts that passed through his head playing out so obviously over his eyes that still lurched forward, as if he was trying to see through him.
When minutes of silence had passed, like he'd always done, Carson cleared his throat and motioned his elbow to the left.
"Let's go, my parents are probably home but it's all good, they don't typically bother me when I have somebody over," he said, turning towards his driveway.
He stopped. "Yeah?"
"What are you thinking?"
He looked him in the eye again, a few seconds to gather his words before shoving his hands into his pockets, sighing as he looked up.
"I'm thinking you don't realize how lucky you are."
"But you're in some deep shit, so maybe you're not really."
"Then… you know?"
Carson grinned, nearly laughing.
"Yeah, I know. I was there. I don't think anyone else does, though."
Every wave of paranoia throughout his entire life seemed to be paying off just for this moment, possibly the last moment he'd ever have to run and finish what he'd started. Trees and brush began to race through his head, fences and ditches to sleep near looking much friendlier than the houses he stood in front of, wondering exactly how long he could live on the run before police would find him, or worse, someone else who had nothing. Possibly he'd starve, maybe catch something as the fall would dip into colder temperatures, the idea of nature finishing him off seeming more fitting than any bullshit he could've pulled himself.
When Carson didn't speak for awhile, he felt he should.
"Do you hate me?" he asked.
Carson shook his head.
"No, Jeremy. I just don't understand… a lot of things, I guess. Maybe why you shot me. Maybe why you were shooting at anybody at all."
He hadn't expected to live this long. He'd never expected to hear those words, to hear this story told from someone who was there, much less one of the only people he'd had neutral ground with. Tyrants had more dignity than he did at that moment, the countless dead at their own hands and any criminal via state execution more worthy of walking this earth he'd spent so much time trying to get the fuck out of. There was never a thought that he would live through this, standing with a victim in front of his house.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you," he said quietly, clammy hands balled into fists in the coats of his pockets.
Carson laughed again.
"Who are you kidding?"
The sound of passing cars down the street was carried in the rush of wind.
"Well, at least you didn't kill me," he said.
Silence hung in the air for several painful seconds.
"Are you going to turn me in?"
Carson gave him a long stare.
"No," he eventually said. "I told him I wouldn't."
The sound of an opening door stalled the conversation, Carson's name called out and drawing them up the driveway.
He sat now on the bed, a fifteen minute cry over the morning he wanted no memory of incessantly tugging at the root of his barely functioning brain, the tears that surely spilled out still to this second like a crack to his head as he sighed, the palms of his hands together in his lap as he watched Carson shut and lock his bedroom door.
He rolled his eyes, a handful of steps forward before he sat down in his chair mid-sentence, bones held locked as one set of arms pressed into the others, his fists curled around the thin metal bars that made ovals over the straight sheet and four legs beneath him.
"Yeah, sorry about that. She tends to get a little overdramatic."
"It's okay. Nothing I've never seen before."
He nodded, eyes briefly scanning around his room before looking back to Jeremy.
"Do you smoke?"
Carson grinned. "The good kind of smoke."
He couldn't help but grin back.
"I've been known to, on the occasion."
"Oh, good," he said, wasting no time in standing up to pin a blanket over his door and toss a thick sweater over the small gap between the wooden door and carpeted ground. Before sitting down again he opened his window and switched on a small fan he had on his desk, digging around in his closet to return with a glasses case and a can of Oust.
"I don't know about you, man…" he muttered, opening the glasses gas and fingers digging into a plastic bag, "but it's been a FUCKED up day."
He closed his eyes.
He listened as a plastic bag was ruffled through, the sound of a lighter being struck, smoke audible, inhaled and exhaled.
He felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Rip it, son."
Ten minutes passed.
He was still in his computer chair, lounged back, arms resting comfortably in his lap.
Jeremy was still, hunched over on the bed, raising his eyes to look at Carson.
"What did you mean earlier?"
"Something about you won't turn me in."
His eyes drifted sideways.
"Oh, yeah. Sam."
"What about him?"
He straightened his back, leaning forward slightly as he stretched his arms upward, the casualty in the following statement making him feel like he was the normal one in the room.
"He asked me not to."
There was a blank slate where the memory of this should've been.
He waited for anything to show, even the slightest echo, and there was still nothing.
Carson scratched at the side of his face, a few words out of his mouth before he looked back to Jeremy.
"When you were on the ground. He thought you were dead, he said if you wake up to get you out of here, if there's anybody he could trust around here it was probably me. Then he got up and walked out."
Empty space and clouds.
Complete silence, not a single fucking clue this had ever happened until Carson had spoken.
The way he tapped out sometimes truly pulled at him, troubled him worse than anything he'd stayed up all night thinking about many times over.
He was shaking his head, nearly speechless, chin now resting on his bent arm, the bones of his joints digging into one another, kneecap to elbow for the millionth time.
"I don't remember any of this…"
All he really could remember was a sharp ringing in his ears… the same ringing that still seemed to come from the walls, the sound of so many voices all at once, little pieces of metal rolling across a wood floor.
"I'm not surprised. You were out cold."
Sighing again, he held his head in his hands, neck continuing to turn back and forth.
Of all the days to space out you couldn't have picked a worse one.
His stomach was groaning.
"And then Sam walked out?"
"Yeah," he said quietly.
Bile was nothing at this point.
"Didn't get too far, did he?"
When he looked up to meet Carson's eyes, he for once saw the uneasiness spread across his face, the kid finally nervous to answer a question.
"No…" he said quietly, unsure of what exactly to say.
"Yeah. I saw him outside, too."
He didn't want to know what Carson's reaction would be, so he looked down. But at this point, he should've known it wouldn't be what he was expecting.
Jeremy laughed, the smile that cracked across his face flipping downwards in the corners of his mouth as a lump formed in his throat.
"You might be the only one."
"Then I'll be the only one. It's fucked up to see your best friend dead in any context."
"Yep. Very fucking dead."
Carson sighed now.
"Not for much longer, though. I never really knew that much about him… guess we're all about to find out everything, though."
Thoughts were passing out of his head like water, some breeze that flowed through two open windows.
"Heh… guess you're right."
"How long have you guys known each other?"
He didn't have to think about the question.
"Five years," he said.
Carson again nodded his head, quiet for a moment before looking back at Jeremy.
"Since eighth grade, then?"